A Bahraini military court sentenced nine men to 20 years in prison for kidnapping a policeman during the Gulf kingdom's antigovernment protests in March, as the regime's crackdown on protesters showed few signs of abating two weeks before martial law is set to be lifted.
One military and two civilian judges handed down the sentence, the state-run Bahrain news agency reported, in a special security court set up under martial law, which was declared March 15.
Among the nine convicted is prominent Shiite activist and cleric Mohammed Habeeb Al Saffaf, one of 23 political prisoners accused of being part of a terrorist cell. He was pardoned for that alleged offense by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in late February.
A government spokesman, describing the incident, said "the policeman was kidnapped on his way to work, he was taken in a car and paraded around Pearl roundabout and then they took him to Salmanyah Hospital where he was held hostage."
Some analysts believed the government's decision to lift the emergency law on June 1 signaled it might soften its crackdown in response to criticism from human-rights groups. But Thursday's move seemed to show the Al Khalifa ruling family was sending a tough message to the opposition ahead the law's end.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is ruled by the minority Sunnis, while the majority Shiites have long campaigned for political reform, better housing and more jobs.
"What this suggests is that there is no room for dissent in the new Bahrain," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Center in Doha. "I think they are trying to get all of this done before the lifting of emergency law and they want to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Shiite opposition that any threat to the regime won't be tolerated."
The sentencing comes a day after three former editors of Al Wasat, Bahrain's main opposition newspaper, who were forced to resign in the aftermath of the unrest, pleaded not guilty to charges of unethical coverage of anti-government demonstrations.
Bahrain's Sunni regime, which has ruled for over 200 years, launched a harsh crackdown soon after inviting a Peninsula Shield force of mainly Saudi troops into the strategic Gulf state in mid-March, rounding up senior opposition figures and activists in dawn raids and arresting doctors, nurses, lawyers and journalists who were deemed to be sympathizers with the protest movement.
Saudi Arabia, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, fears that if a Shiite faction in Bahrain gains ascendancy that could embolden its rival regional power Iran.
In recent weeks the government has stepped up its suppression of the opposition, sentencing four men to death late last month in a military court for killing two policemen during rallies in March, and trying nearly 50 doctors and nurses who treated antigovernment protesters during the unrest. The four given the death penalty are appealing.
Bahrain's biggest opposition party Al Wefaq said despite the imminent lifting of emergency law there are few signs the government is easing its crackdown.
"Despite the announcement of lifting [the state of] national safety there is no change in the attitude to the people," said Khalil Almarzooq, a senior Al Wefaq member. "Lifting the national safety does not mean the checkpoints [around Bahrain's capital Manama] will be removed and the [military] tribunals will stop."