By Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI (Reuters) – A prominent Bahraini lawyer was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence on Monday for inciting sectarianism, in a case rights groups say erodes defence lawyers’ freedom of speech.
Abdullah al-Shamlawi, who has represented dozens of political prisoners, including opposition leaders, told Reuters the court overturned a previous sentence of eight months in prison, issued by a criminal court earlier this year.
Shamlawi was charged with “inciting hatred of a religious sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device”, after tweeting critical views on religious practices related to Ashura, a holy festival in the Shi’ite Muslim calendar, court documents showed.
The appeals court sentenced Shamlawi on the charge of inciting religious hatred and dropped charges of misusing a telecommunications device, he said.
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Shamlawi, who has been free on bail pending his appeal, was also banned from practicing law for one month.
Mass trials became commonplace in the kingdom – home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet – after a failed uprising in 2011 led by members of the population’s Shi’ite majority.
Since then, the country has seen sporadic clashes between protesters and security forces, who have been targeted by bomb attacks.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), have called on Bahraini authorities to drop the charges against Shamlawi and other lawyers.
Abdullah Hashim, another defence lawyer, was charged with spreading “fake news” last year, after tweeting about alleged government corruption and other political issues in Bahrain.
The government denies repressing the opposition and says it is protecting national security from groups it calls terrorists backed by Iran.
“That al-Shamlawi was ever brought to trial for these bogus charges demonstrates the judicial harassment faced by Bahraini lawyers who refuse to toe the government line,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of BIRD.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alex Richardson)