MANAMA, Bahrain -- A prominent Bahraini human rights activist was found guilty Thursday of instigating and participating in several illegal gatherings and sentenced to three years in jail.
The unexpectedly stiff sentence against Nabeel Rajab will raise questions about the Western-backed Sunni monarchy's commitment to reform, and embolden anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating the past 18 months for greater rights in the Gulf island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet.
Rajab, who is already serving a three-month sentence for posting anti-government comments on Twitter, was in court for the verdict. He is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Rajab's attorney Mohammed al-Jishi said each of three cases yielded a year imprisonment, for a total of three years. Al-Jishi said he plans to appeal the ruling.
In a separate case involving comments made on social media site Twitter, a judge delayed issuing a verdict against Rajab's appeal until Aug. 23.
Bahrain has experienced near daily protests since February 2011 following an uprising by the kingdom's Shiite majority seeking greater political rights from the Western-backed Sunni monarchy. At least 50 people have died in the unrest and hundreds have been detained, including prominent rights activists and Shiite opposition leaders.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority. The country's leaders have offered some reforms including restoring jobs for many Shiites pushed out from their posts at the start of the uprising and giving parliament more power.
But the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.
The unrest has put Washington into an awkward position. U.S. officials have called for efforts to reopen political dialogue in Bahrain, but are careful not to press too hard against the nation's leadership and possibly jeopardize its important military ties.
Rights groups criticized the ruling against Rajab and said it raises questions over whether the regime is serious about reforms. They have called for his immediate release.
"It seems Bahrain's rulers are far more comfortable with harsh repression than with the reforms King Hamad keeps promising," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "The government has yet to show that Nabeel Rajab did any more than exercise his right to free expression and peaceful assembly. He should be set free, not sent away from his family to prison."