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Bahrain jails 50 Shiites for up to 15 years

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    Bahraini Shiites take part in an anti-government rally in Bani Jamrah, west of Manama on December 10, 2012AFP

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    Shiites rally in Janosan village, west of Manama, on May 18, 2012 to demonstrate against a proposal to unite Bahrain with neighbouring Saudi ArabiaAFP

A Bahraini court handed jail terms of up to 15 years Sunday to 50 Shiites, including a prominent Iraqi cleric, convicted of forming a clandestine opposition group, a judicial source said.

Sixteen defendants were handed 15-year terms, while four were jailed for 10 years and the other 30 for five, the source said.

The defendants, including Iraqi cleric Hadi al-Mudaressi who was tried in absentia, were charged with forming the "February 14 Revolution Youth Coalition", which Bahraini authorities accuse of terrorism.

The group has been the main driving force behind a Shiite-led uprising that began in 2011 to demand more rights for the majority community from the ruling Sunni dynasty.

Several defendants were tried in absentia, including Saeed al-Shahabi, a key London-based opposition figure who faces an earlier life sentence for his role in the 2011 uprising.

Among those sentenced to five years in jail is a woman arrested in April during practice sessions for the Formula One Grand Prix on suspicion of plotting to carry out an attack on the Sakhir circuit, which hosts the world motor sport event.

Police at the time said two women were arrested, saying one of them had concealed a pillow under her clothes as a dry run to test security measures.

The interior ministry in June named 11 suspects who were arrested in the case, in addition to 13 people who live abroad. Authorities said at the time that they were still hunting down others.

The defendants are accused of forming an illegal group opposing the political system and "training elements to commit violence and vandalism," in addition to "attacking security men," according to the charge sheet.

"Terrorism was among the means used," by the group, which also had "contact with a foreign state," it said, apparently referring to Iran.

Earlier this month, Bahraini authorities arrested former MP Khalil Marzooq, a leading figure in Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition bloc, on charges including having links to the February 14 group.

Marzooq was deputy speaker of Bahrain's 40-member parliament before its 18 Wefaq members walked out in February 2011 in protest at violence against demonstrators.

Bahraini Shiites continue to demonstrate in villages outside the capital, mainly in response to calls by the February 14 Coalition, and frequently clash with police.

At least 89 people have been killed since the protests erupted in February 2011, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Bahrain's appeal court cut jail terms handed down against two policemen convicted of torturing to death a Shiite protester from 10 years to two.

Strategically located across the Gulf from Shiite Iran, Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and is an offshore financial and services centre for its oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbours.