Bahrain's highest appeals court on Monday upheld prison terms for 13 prominent activists on charges of plotting to overthrow the monarchy, lawyers said, in a verdict that sparked protests.
Hours after the Court of Cassation's ruling, hundreds gathered in the Shiite village of Malkiya in support of the prisoners, in response to calls for demonstrations by activists on social networking websites.
The rulings were also condemned by the main Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq, and human rights watchdog Amnesty International while France said it "regretted" the verdicts.
"This unjust decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary is more concerned about toeing the government's line than upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Bahrainis," said Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
"In order to maintain any credibility at all the Bahraini authorities must release these 13 people who have been imprisoned simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly," she added in a statement.
Seven of the activists have been jailed for life, including Abdulhadi Khawaja, who last year embarked on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, finally ending his fast in June after 110 days.
Two others sentenced to life are Hassan Mashaima, head of the Shiite opposition Haq movement and Abduljalil al-Singace, a member of the same group.
Protesters in Malkiya hoisted a large banner bearing the pictures of the 13 defendants and chanted: "We demand the release of all prisoners," witnesses said.
"The people want to overthrow the regime," they shouted.
Al-Wefaq issued a statement saying it considers "the verdict political and reflects the absolute absence of an independent judiciary."
"The judiciary is being controlled and used by the regime in the political conflict to punish dissidents, and by this the revolution must continue," it said.
The bloc's head, Sheikh Ali Salman tweeted: "The judgments confirm the need for radical reform" in the government that sentences "dissenting opinion to life imprisonment."
"The revolution continues and the sentences of leaders energise it," wrote Salman on his official account on Twitter.
Witnesses said Bahraini police were heavily deployed around the court during the hearing.
The 13 activists took part in 2011 anti-government protests and were convicted by a military tribunal on charges that included "setting up terror groups to topple the regime".
The defendants were retried in a civil court.
Seven other activists sentenced in absentia to various jail terms on the same charges remain at large.
In September, a lower appeals court upheld life sentences for seven of the activists, all Shiites, including Khawaja, Mashaima and Singace, and jail terms ranging from five to 15 years for the others.
Since February 2011, Bahrain has been shaken by opposition protests that the authorities say are being fuelled by Shiite Iran across the Gulf.
A statement from French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said: "We had hoped for a lenient verdict that might create a climate of reconciliation between all parties."