A military court in Manama today sentenced a group of 21 prominent Shia activists who have advocated political reform. The Bahrain News Agency reported that the opposition activists had been charged with “plotting to topple the government” during recent pro-reform protests. Eight received life sentences and the rest received jail sentences of up to 15 years. Seven people were tried in absentia.Amnesty International believes that some of the defendants may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for peacefully expressing their political beliefs and organizing pro-reform rallies early this year. Some of the defendants were reportedly tortured or ill-treated. “These sentences are extremely harsh, and they appear to be politically motivated, since we have not seen any evidence that the activists used or advocated violence,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “Civilians should not have been tried in a military court, and these trials have been patently unfair. In particular, the court failed to adequately investigate allegations that some of the defendants were tortured and made to sign false ‘confessions’ which seem to have been used as evidence against them.” Those sentenced to life imprisonment include prominent opposition activists such as Hassan Mshaima’, ‘Abdelwahab Hussain, Dr. ‘Abdel-Jalil al-Singace and ‘Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. The activists were given very little access to lawyers, and at least two of them, Ebrahim Sherif and ‘Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, were reportedly tortured. ‘Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s daughter, Zaineb al-Khawaja, attended the trial and was forcibly removed from the court when she shouted “God is great” after the sentence was read out. She was arrested and held in a police station for a few hours before being released.An observer from the Danish Embassy attended the trial – ‘Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has Danish citizenship – as well as representatives of the Swedish and US embassies.Lawyers for the activists plan to appeal the verdict at a hearing in the next two weeks.Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn ‘Issa Al Khalifa has promised a “national dialogue” on requests for reform, due to begin next month. “It is hard to see how there can be any meaningful political dialogue in Bahrain while the government remains so intent on locking up its critics, as these sentences have further underlined today,” said Malcolm Smart. “Bahrain’s authorities must end these unfair military trials and release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.”At least 500 people have been detained in Bahrain since pro-reform protests began in February and four have died in suspicious circumstances in detention. Almost 2,000 people have been dismissed or suspended from work.