Up to 50 doctors and nurses who treated anti-government protesters injured during the recent demonstrations in Bahrain were charged yesterday with acts against the state.
In an escalation of the government crackdown on the protests, the medical staff were accused of "promoting efforts to bring down the government" and "harming the public by spreading false news".
Some were also accused of causing the deaths of two demonstrators by "inflicting additional wounds" on them or of giving them "unneeded treatments."
In all 23 doctors and 24 nurses were charged and will be tried in a military court, the Justice Minister Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa said. "The medical profession was strongly abused during this period," he said.
Medical organisations expressed outrage at the legal assault on the profession with health staff seized from their homes and hospitals taken over by the military. Under the Geneva convention people wounded in conflict are guaranteed the right to medical care, regardless of which side they are on.
Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, who led an investigation in the country last month, said: "Our findings suggest the doctors and other staff provided ethical and life-saving care to protesters who were shot at and injured by the security forces. These are trumped up charges. I don't believe the government has the basis for them."
Dr Sollom said he tried to visit Salmaniya Medical Centre (SMC), the country's largest hospital, but had been detained at the entrance. "The hospital is completely militarised with soldiers in masks carrying assault rifles on every floor. This is a wealthy sophisticated country with exquisite health care that has been completely militarised."
The laying of the charges is the latest attempt by the Sunni government to intimidate Shia Muslim opposition supporters. Two former parliamentary members of the country's main Shia Muslim party Al Wefaq, the leading political backer of Bahrain's uprising, were arrested on Monday, according to a senior party leader.
At least 13 protesters and four policemen have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes during the protests since the unrest started in mid-February. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and medical staff have struggled to cope.
A series of emails between a surgeon at the SMC and the British professor who trained him, published by The Independent last month, gave a vivid glimpse of the pressures on staff.
"I am in the hospital exhausted and overwhelmed by the number of young lethally injured casualties. It's genocide to our people and our hospital doctors and nurses are targeted for helping patients by pro-government militia," he wrote on the 15 March.
Bahraini forces stormed the hospital saying it had become "overrun by political and sectarian activity". Human rights groups said it was an act of intimidation and have accused Bahrain of targeting hospitals to detain those wounded during the protests.
The Justice Minister told a press conference yesterday that doctors at SMC had deliberately injured a protester who arrived with a wound on his thigh causing him to bleed to death. In another case they had operated unnecessarily on a protester who was shot in the head. In both cases the doctors would be charged with "assault that led to death", he said.
Other staff face charges ranging from inciting hatred against the political system to possession of weapons and embezzlement of public funds.