By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI (Reuters) - A Bahraini civilian court on Tuesday upheld jail sentences of between five and 25 years against leaders of last year's pro-democracy uprising, a decision that could further ignite unrest in the small Gulf Arab state.
Bahrain's main opposition bloc condemned the ruling: "These are invalid verdicts that are worthless. They are an example of the regime's despotism," Al Wefaq said in a statement.
Opposition activists fear Bahraini authorities want to prolong the case and hold onto the men as bargaining chips in an eventual resolution to the internal conflict. The government says courts in Bahrain are independent.
Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has been in political turmoil since a protest movement dominated by majority Shi'ite Muslims erupted in February 2011 during a wave of revolts against authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
The Sunni Muslim ruling Al Khalifa family put down the uprising with martial law, troops from Saudi Arabia and police from the United Arab Emirates, but unrest has resumed, with almost daily clashes between Shi'ites and police.
The sentences, originally issued by a military court last year against 21 men, seven of them in absentia, include eight life sentences - 25 years in Bahrain. Thirteen men are in jail after one was released. Defence lawyers said Tuesday's ruling could be appealed.
A prosecution official said six of the men were guilty of having "intelligence contact" with Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite ally Hezbollah, seeking to overturn Bahrain's system of government and violating the constitution.
"It is established clearly to us from this verdict that some of the accused had relations, and strived to have relations and intelligence contacts, with a foreign organization, Hezbollah, which works in the interests of Iran," Wael Boualai told a news conference, according to state news agency BNA.
Hezbollah denies any involvement in the protests in Bahrain, but is critical of the government's handling of the unrest.
The convicted men deny all charges, saying they wanted only democratic reform in the Gulf Arab monarchy. Seven were tried in absentia because they had left the country or gone into hiding.
Clashes broke out after the ruling between street protesters and riot police in the Shi'ite village of Malkiya southwest of Manama, a witness said. Details were not immediately available.
The authorities have initiated low-level talks with opposition groups, but said these groups must do more to stop street violence. The opposition says this stance is a ruse to avoid concessions and they are not responsible for clashes.
"Today's court decision is another blow to justice and it shows once more that the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform but seem rather driven by vindictiveness," Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said, calling the verdict "outrageous".
The protest leaders are viewed by some Bahrainis as popular heroes whose release could reinvigorate the democracy movement, which demands parliamentary powers to legislate and form governments. Bahraini Shi'ites say they face discrimination, a charge the government denies.
Jane Kinninmont, of London's Chatham House, said the verdict sent a tough message to protesters as well as Western countries which have urged Manama to compromise with its opponents.
"The authorities may be trying to show their strength ahead of a planned dialogue with political societies," she argued, saying this could backfire if protests and clashes escalated.
"This may also send a message to the international community about the limits of pressure. Strong Saudi backing for Bahrain has made it less interested in what the West has to say."
Though U.S. officials are keen for a release of prisoners to help restore calm, Washington has avoided irritating Manama with public calls over the uprising leaders' case.
European governments called the verdict disappointing and expressed their disappointment.
The men who received life sentences included rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and opposition leader Hassan Mushaimaa, who has advocated turning Bahrain into a republic.
Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the opposition Waad party and the only Sunni among those convicted in the case, is serving a five-year sentence, while blogger Ali Abdulemam was given a 15-year term and is in hiding.
"I am very disappointed. This was a shock to people," said Hussein Jawad, son of Mohammed Jawad, who is serving a 15-year sentence. "If they don't want life or a future for Bahrain, they will keep the verdicts like this."
Prosecutor Boualai said the men had been assured a fair trial, noting that they had a team of 17 defence lawyers and that foreign diplomats attended the reading of the verdicts.
But Mohammed al-Jishi, a defence lawyer, said the 13 men in jail had refused to attend the hearing in protest against the judge, who had closed previous sessions to the public when the men testified that they were abused in detention last year to force confessions used in the military trial.
Some Sunni loyalists, who fear any government compromise with the opposition could allow the rise of Shi'ite Islamists, praised Tuesday's ruling. "God is great, God is great," wrote hardline cleric Mohammed Khalid on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Mette Fraende; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Mark Heinrich)