DUBAI - A Bahraini court on Thursday sentenced prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in jail over “unauthorised” protests against the monarchy, drawing US and EU criticism, a lawyer said. “The court has sentenced Nabeel Rajab to three years in jail over three cases of taking part in unauthorised protests,” lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi wrote on his Twitter page. State Dept spokesman Victoria Nuland said the US was “deeply troubled” by the jail sentence, warning that such actions “only serve to further divide Bahraini society.”

And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton called on the Bahraini courts to “reconsider” the sentence. She has “noted with concern the sentencing... for taking part in unauthorised protests in Bahrain,” her spokesperson said.

She said she “expects this sentence ... will be reconsidered in the appeal process, and that the same treatment will be given to all Bahraini citizens who are being tried for charges relating to the exercise of their fundamental freedoms.”

Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has been in custody since June 6 on charges of insulting members of the Sunni community on Twitter, days after he was released on bail after a month behind bars over other charges.

Amnesty International called for Rajab’s immediate release, decribing his sentence as “a dark day for justice in Bahrain.”

The rights watchdog said “this latest verdict marks the end of the facade of reform in Bahrain” and condemned its “blatant ruthless tactics of suppressing dissenting voices”.

Rajab led anti-government protests following a brutal crackdown on Shiite-led demonstrations against the regime in March 2011.

The activist has insisted on demonstrating inside Manama, unlike the main Shiite opposition which now stages protests in villages, after last year’s clampdown on protesters who occupied the capital’s Pearl Square for a month.

The court on Thursday also adjourned to August 23 an appeal hearing over Rajab’s alleged insults to residents of mostly-Sunni Muharaq province, for which he has been sentenced to three months in jail, the lawyer said.

The avid tweeter is also accused of insulting the security forces in postings that he admitted came from his account on the microblogging website.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) also condemned the latest sentence against Rajab.

“Arbitrarily imprisoning human rights defenders will not stop the people from aspiring to freedom and democratic change,” said FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen.

Bahrain, which is ruled by the Al-Khalifa dynasty, has come under strong criticism from international rights organisations over last year’s crackdown on demonstrations that were inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.