MANAMA (Reuters) - Thousands of Bahraini Shi'ites gathered before a revered cleric on Friday denounced death sentences given to protesters over anti-government rallies crushed last month in the U.S.-allied Gulf kingdom.
The verdict, handed down by a military court a day earlier to four men accused of killing two policemen in violent protests last month, could intensify sectarian tension in the Sunni Muslim-led state that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
"It's not true that they killed them," said a man who identified himself only as Moussa, after praying at the mosque of Sheikh Issa Qassim, as a police helicopter circled overhead. "The government made it up just like a movie."
He was referring to video footage that Bahraini authorities have circulated showing the two policemen smashed by a vehicle that sped through a crowd of protesters, some of whom appeared to then trample and kick the fallen men.
Police kept a tight grip on roads leading to the village where the mosque is located, turning back many vehicles.
The rulings were only the third time in over 30 years that a death sentence had been given to a Bahraini citizen.
They have further divided a country whose Shi'ite majority says it faces systematic discrimination, but whose Sunni leaders warn Shi'ite giant Iran is trying to extend its regional influence by manipulating its co-religionists.
"The sentence was appropriate," said Mohammad al-Ammadi, a Sunni lawmaker, citing what he saw as the extreme brutality of the killings. "This is the first time this happened in Bahrain."
In his sermon, the cleric Sheikh Issa Qassim alluded to the growing rift in the country.
"If you wish to be assailed with problems, to lose all comfort...then allow the spirit of antagonism to take hold and spread in your country," he said.
"This is a fire which may seem manageable at first, but is ultimately beyond control...and its consequences are always grave."
The recent turmoil began with Shi'ite-led political protests in February demanding greater political liberties, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination. A few Shi'ite groups called for the abolition of the monarchy.
Bahraini Shi'ites say the ruling family denies them access to state employment and land, and point to the naturalisation of foreigners from predominantly Sunni countries, some of whom join the security forces, as proof of a policy of sectarian rule.
Bahrain, blaming the protests on regional powers including Iran, declared martial law and called in troops from Sunni-led Gulf neighbours to strengthen its forces as they set about crushing demonstrations last month.
In the aftermath of the protests, hundreds of people have been detained, and at least three have died in custody. Human rights groups say hundreds of people have been sacked from public sector jobs and that Bahraini forces have seized patients and health workers from hospitals that were a site of protests.
The latter assertion figured in a rare, mild rebuke of Bahrain from the United States after the court ruling, which included life sentences for three other men.
"Security measures will not resolve the challenges faced by Bahrain," State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke-Fulton said in an emailed statement.
"We are also extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses and violations of medical neutrality in Bahrain. These actions only exacerbate frictions in Bahraini society."
State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan expressed concern about the legal process. "We are troubled by the speed with which the trial was conducted and the swiftness of the verdict," he told reporters.
"...it's important that legal processes be carried out in a manner that is legitimate, credible and transparent," he added.
Germany urged Bahrain on Friday to rescind the death sentences. "This draconian punishment impedes the process of rapprochement and reconciliation in Bahrain," foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told a news conference.
Bahrain says the court proceedings were fair, that the condemned men may appeal, and that it has taken steps only against public employees who committed crimes during the unrest.
Its prime minister ordered the head of Bahrain's civil service and other senior officials to review procedures for firing state employees, the state news agency said on Saturday.
The men sentenced to death were Ali Abdullah Hassan al-Sankis, Qassim Hassan Matar Ahmad, Saeed Abduljalil Saeed and Isa Abdullah Kadhim Ali. All are 20 or 21 years old.
The island kingdom announced earlier this week that 312 people detained under martial law had been released and about 400 others referred for prosecution.
At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started, all but six of them Shi'ites. The six included two foreigners -- an Indian and a Bangladeshi -- and four policemen.
Additional reporting by Christiaan Hetzner and Brian Rohan in Berlin; writing by Joseph Logan, editing by Jon Boyle