Middle East

Bahrain retrial for 20 medics jailed over protests

Bahrain police watch as a group of women start a human chain protest in Manama, 4 October 2011
Image caption Demonstrators have been trying to keep Bahrain's protest movement alive

Bahrain has ordered a retrial in a civilian court for 20 medical staff who say they were convicted for treating anti-government protesters.

Last week, a security court sentenced the group to up to 15 years in prison.

Bahrain's attorney general denied the medics had been jailed for treating protesters, instead listing charges including inciting sectarian hatred.

Meanwhile the court jailed 19 more people over their alleged role in Shia-led anti-regime protests.

It sentenced 13 people to five years in prison and six people to one year, over incidents including an attempted attack on a police station.

Among those sentenced was a 16-year-old Iraqi football player, Zulfiqar Naji, the Associated Press reported.

In the past few days, the security court has sentenced almost 80 opposition activists to long prison terms, amid an outcry from human rights groups.

However, the case of the medical staff proved particularly damaging.

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

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

'Re-evaluation of evidence'

In a statement released on Wednesday, Bahrain's attorney general said the department of public prosecution had studied the National Safety Court's judgment on the medics and determined their cases should be retried in the country's highest civilian court.

Dr Ali al-Boainain said the accused would "have the benefit of full re-evaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defences".

"The department of public prosecution seeks to establish the truth and to enforce the law, while protecting the rights of the accused," he was quoted as saying.

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

Dr Boainain said "contrary to allegations that the medics were tried for treating patients", charges included taking over parts of the complex, firearms charges, refusing to treat some patients and inciting sectarian hatred.

"No doctors or other medical personnel may be punished by reason of the fulfilment of their humanitarian duties or their political views," he said.

The trials and sentencing of the medics prompted an international outcry.

The UN's human rights office said the hearings had failed to meet international standards of transparency and due process.

The World Medical Association condemned the sentences as "totally unacceptable" and Amnesty International branded the charges ludicrous.

Strong concern also came from close ally the US - Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet - and the UK.

The security court has also been condemned for using secret evidence.

BBC correspondent Caroline Hawley says Bahrain is now acting to try to contain the damage to its reputation.

Our correspondent says one of the doctors in the group told her that her future had been ruined and she hoped that the truth of her innocence would now come out.

The group will remain in custody pending their retrial.