Bahrain's military court has sentenced 20 doctors, nurses and paramedics who treated protesters injured during pro-democracy rallies earlier in the year to up to 15 years in prison. The defendants say they were tortured during interrogation to extract false confessions.
The harsh sentences, handed down by a military judge, are likely to anger Bahrain's Shia Muslim majority and torpedo hopes of dialogue between them and the reigning Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. The court's action may be a sign that hardliners within the royal family have taken control, since King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has made a number of conciliatory statements which have been followed by intensified repression.
A statement from the official Information Affairs Authority is headed "Bahraini Doctors Sentenced for Plotting Overthrow of Government". It quotes the Military Prosecutor, Colonel Yussef Rashid Flaifel, as saying that 13 medical professionals had been sentenced to 15 years in prison, two to 10 years, and five to five years. It goes on to say that the doctors, in addition to plotting a revolution, "were charged with the possession of weapons and ammunition, forcefully taking over control of Salmaniya hospital and its personnel, stealing medical equipment, and fabricating stories to disturb public security".
There were never more unlikely revolutionaries. They include Rola al-Saffar, the head of Bahrain's nurses' society, and Ali al-Iqri, a distinguished surgeon who was arrested in an operating theatre on 17 March. None of the defendants was in court to hear the sentences read out and the hearing was attended only by their lawyers and relatives. Defendants say that the military judges refuse to listen to allegations that they had been tortured.
The government said the doctors can now appeal to Bahrain's highest civilian court to request that their sentences be quashed.
The medical staff worked in the Salmaniya Medical Complex in the capital, Manama, and treated those injured in fighting between protesters and security forces after pro-democracy rallies started on 14 February. After the government crackdown in mid-March, doctors and nurses were accused of planning an armed insurrection in league with Iran.
Human rights groups described the sentences as "a travesty of justice". Philip Luther, of Amnesty International, said: "These are simply ludicrous charges against civilian professionals who were working to save lives." The detained doctors say they were beaten, hooded and deprived of sleep to force them to say they had deliberately let patients die and had exaggerated injuries by pouring blood over the injured.
In a separate case, the military court passed a death sentence on a man found guilty of killing a policeman by running him over in Sitra district during the demonstrations.
Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wifaq, the main Shia political party, said that the medical professionals sentenced yesterday alleged "they had been tortured". He said he suspected that hardliners within the royal family were using the trials "to send a message to [President] Obama", who last week at the UN called on the Bahraini government to negotiate with al-Wifaq.
He believes that hardliners were reacting to a successful boycott of by-elections last weekend to replace 20 al-Wifaq MPs who had resigned in protest from the parliament. He said the turnout had been only 17 per cent. Mr Salman says any dialogue with the government would have as its aim the freeing of all those jailed since the demonstrations began. It is not clear how many people out of the 1,400 originally detained in Bahrain are still in jail, because the authorities have often refused to provide information about those arrested. Human rights groups believe that 38 people have been killed, four of whom died under torture.
High price of freedom: Those jailed for 15 years
Dr al-Iqri, Dr Asghar, Dr Ahmed, Dr Diwani, Dr al-Saffar, Dr al-Oraibi, Dr Ghassan, Dr Bassim, Al-Wedaie, Dr Nada.
Profiles: Six medics who face years behind bars
Dr Ali al-Iqri
The paediatric orthopaedic surgeon was arrested by armed security forces on 17 March, reportedly while he was performing surgery in the operating theatre of Salmaniya Hospital in Manama. Amnesty International reports that Dr al-Iqri, who trained at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is an activist who organised one of the pro-democracy protests earlier this year. Despite being released on bail last month, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday on charges which include "incitement to overthrow the government by force".
Dr Rola al-Saffar
The head of Bahrain's Nursing Society and Professor at the College of Health Sciences reportedly began a hunger strike last month in protest against ill-treatment and torture in custody. She was detained in March after treating injured protesters at Salmaniya Hospital. She was released on bail at the end of August and was yesterday sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Dr Mahmood Ashghar
The consultant paediatric surgeon was also detained in March for allegedly instigating protests at Manama's Pearl roundabout by making "provocative" speeches at Salmaniya Hospital. He has also been accused of briefing journalists on atrocities allegedly committed by Bahraini security forces against civilians who were being treated at the hospital during February's protests. He has also been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The nurse from Duraz was arrested earlier this year for allegedly treating an injured youth who had participated in the February protests.
Dr Abdulkhaleq al-Oraibi
The rheumatologist was reportedly arrested during a police raid on his house in the early hours of 1 April. The doctor, who had once considered running for a seat in Bahrain's parliament, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. He had criticised authorities who prevented medics from treating wounded protesters in February.
Dr Hassan al-Toblani
The head of Salmaniya Hospital's intensive care unit has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.