A Bahraini court has convicted nine medical professionals over their alleged role in the popular protests against the Sunni monarchy. Human rights groups have called for their acquittal, saying the charges are baseless.
A civilian court in Bahrain on Thursday convicted nine medical professionals for their alleged role in the Gulf nation's Shiite-led uprising against the Sunni royal family, while acquitting another nine medics of all charges.
The court sentenced Ali al-Ekry, the senior orthopedic surgeon at Salmaniya Medical Complex, to five years and Ibrahim al-Dimistani to three years in prison. Another seven medical professionals received sentences ranging from one month to a year. The charges included occupying a hospital, incitement to topple the monarchy and arms possession.
The ruling comes nearly eight months after a now disbanded military tribunal had sentenced the 20-member group to heftier prison terms of five to 15 years. A retrial in a civilian court had been ordered earlier in the year.
"This is a baseless political verdict," al-Ekry told the news agency Reuters. "It's a political punishment to keep the loyalists happy by keeping a few of us guilty."
The United States, a key ally of Bahrain's ruling monarchy, condemned the convictions as politically motivated.
"While sentences were reduced, we are deeply disappointed by these convictions and that the Bahraini government did not use alternative means to address these cases," US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner told a press conference in Manama, Bahrain's capital.
"These convictions appear to be based, at least in part, on the defendants' criticisms of government actions and policies," Posner said.
Human rights groups have called for the entire 20-member group to be acquitted of all charges, claiming they were subject to torture during their detention.
"The truth from today is that medics are to be jailed for treating the injured and for telling the world about the regime's crackdown," said Brian Dooley of the US-based Human Rights First.
In February 2011, Bahrain's majority Shiite community launched a popular uprising against the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy. Government troops and reinforcements led by neighboring ally Saudi Arabia launched a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.
The Salmaniya Medical Complex became the site of political tension during clashes in the capital, Manama. Doctors there treated injured protesters, leading to a tense standoff with security forces in the hospital.
Bahrain's Shiites, who make up around 70 percent of the country's population, claim that they face widespread discrimination and political repression by the Sunni-dominated ruling elite. The Al-Khalifa monarchy has made some, limited concessions, such as boosting the powers of parliament, but Shiite leaders are demanding that the monarchy give up its grip on political appointments and key policies.
Bahrain plays an important strategic role in the Persian Gulf and hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
slk/ncy (AP, Reuters)