Middle East

Bahrain sentences medics who treated protesters

A court in Bahrain has jailed 20 medics who treated protesters for up to 15 years each, after convicting them of incitement to overthrow the regime.

They treated people injured when a protest movement calling for more rights for the country's Shia majority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom was crushed.

But a spokesman for the government said the group was involved with "hardline protesters" who sought regime change.

The medics had been released on bail after many staged a hunger strike.

In a separate case, the special security court sentenced a protester to death for killing a policeman.

'Surprise' sentence

The Bahraini doctors and nurses were sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison on charges that include possessing unlicensed arms, seizing medical equipment, and provoking sectarian hatred.

All worked in the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Manama, which security forces entered on 16 March after forcefully clearing the nearby Pearl Roundabout of demonstrators.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Mubarak, of Bahrain's information ministry, said protesters had used the hospital as a "co-ordination centre", and that some of the medical staff had helped them.

"They should not have got themselves involved in choosing sides in a tragically dark period in Bahrain's history," he told the BBC.

"There is hard evidence that political rallies were taking place in the grounds of the complex and those seeking treatment were only allowed in on sectarian lines," he added.

Human rights activists say the sentences against the medics come as a surprise.

They had been cautiously hopeful that the medics' release on bail was a sign that the government was softening its approach.

One of the doctors charged, Fatma Haji, said she and her colleagues are currently saying goodbye to their families as they await arrest.

"I know that I am definitely, 100% innocent. Our crime - I'm talking about all the medics - was that we helped innocent, helpless people who were just protesting and got injured," she told the BBC.

'Tortured'

The medics were also accused of refusing to treat injured security officials.

Relatives of some of the medics said in June that they were tortured into making false confessions.

A wave of mostly peaceful protests swept the country in February and March, but they were put down by force by the government, which called in troops from neighbouring Gulf states.

However, skirmishes are reported regularly as protesters try to keep their movement alive.

Bahrain's official news agency, BNA, said the protester sentenced to death, Ali Yusof al-Taweel, had killed a policeman in the Shia area of Sitra, south of Manama.

Earlier, the security court had sentenced two other protesters to death for killing a police officer.

On Wednesday, the court upheld life sentences for eight Shia activists convicted over their alleged role in protests.

It also upheld sentences of up to 15 years on 13 other activists.

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