DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s highest court on Monday overturned a nine-year-prison sentence imposed last year on the leader of Bahrain’s banned main opposition party and restored his original sentence of four years in jail, local media and lawyers said.
They said the Court of Cassation cleared Sheikh Ali Salman of the charge of calling for regime change by force. It upheld an initial ruling that had found him guilty of inciting hatred and insulting the interior ministry, according to the Arabic-language al-Wasat newspaper.
“Bahrain’s Court of Cassation has canceled the appeals court’s sentence of nine years in prison, and now it is back to the first sentence of four years,” a lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Salman’s defense lawyers argued prosecutors had presented excerpts of his speeches that were taken out of context as evidence after he was arrested in 2015.
Al-Wasat quoted defense lawyers as saying the ruling was final.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has been on edge since 2011 “Arab Spring” protests led by its Shi’ite majority were put down by the government with the help of fellow Gulf Arab states.
Stepping up a crackdown against the opposition last year, the government banned al-Wefaq and revoked the citizenship of the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, its close ally, believe broad segments of the opposition and Shi’ite militants who have launched deadly attacks on security forces are supported by their arch-rival Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
Also on Monday, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa approved a constitutional amendment allowing military courts to try civilians who attack security forces, state news agency BNA reported.
Bahrain’s top advisory body, the Shura Council, approved the amendment earlier this month on the grounds that it would protect the kingdom from militant attacks, in a case that drew criticism from right groups.
Amnesty International said the move undermined defendants’ rights and would be used to silence to dissent.
“It is part of a broader pattern where the government uses the courts to crack down on all forms of opposition at the expense of human rights,” the organization said in a statement on Monday.
Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, editing by Larry King