Middle East

Bahrain court rejects medics' appeal

Bahraini surgeons Ali al-Ekri (L) and Nada Dhaif (R) attend a demonstration (21 December 2011)
Image caption The case against the Bahraini medics has drawn international condemnation

Bahrain's highest court has upheld the prison sentences given to nine medics for their alleged role in last year's pro-democracy protests, officials say.

The Court of Cassation rejected an appeal against their convictions for weapons possession, incitement and taking part in illegal demonstrations.

Dr Ali al-Ekri was sentenced to five years and the eight others were given between a month and three years.

Nine other medics had their convictions overturned in June and two are hiding.

The case against the medics has drawn international condemnation and has been seen as a test of the government's commitment to reform.

'Political' convictions

It dates back to February and March 2011, when they worked at the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama.

The hospital treated many of those hurt when the security forces crushed protests demanding more democracy and an end to discrimination against the majority Shia Muslim community by the Sunni royal family.

During the unrest, some medics at the Salmaniya Medical Centre spoke out against the crackdown in interviews with foreign media after treating the wounded, or took part in protests after ambulances were fired at.

After King Hamad declared a state of emergency and brought in troops from neighbouring Sunni Gulf states, at least 95 health workers were arrested, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

In September 2011, 20 of them were convicted by the National Safety Court, a military tribunal, of attempting to bring down the government and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Two were tried in absentia.

The medics and human rights groups dismissed the convictions as political and aimed at stifling dissent. Many of the defendants said they had been harassed by the security forces and then tortured in prison, simply for trying to treat people wounded in anti-government protests.

The UN's secretary general also expressed concern about the "harsh sentences" and "serious due process irregularities", and called for their release.

In November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) - a panel of human rights experts asked to look into the unrest - called for civilian retrials for those who had been convicted by military tribunals. It confirmed that medical personnel were tortured in custody.

The medics' cases were then referred to the Criminal Court of Appeal, which in June upheld the convictions of the nine doctors. The court did, however, reduce the sentences imposed by the National Safety Court.

Dr Ekri was sentenced to five years for possession and concealment of "white weaponry" - a term used to describe non-firearms - to serve a terrorist purpose, and for participating in illegal gatherings, while his colleague Dr Ibrahim Damastani was given three years for possession of a "white weapon" and illegal assembly.

The other seven medics were sentenced to between one month and a year for taking part in illegal gatherings, holding public officials hostage, inciting sectarian hatred and destruction of hospital property. Five were immediately released on time served but still appealed.

On Monday, Deputy Attorney General Abdul Rahman al-Sayyed announced that the Court of Cassation had rejected the doctors' appeals.

He said the defendants had "used the security conditions that prevailed at the time, and violated the duties and ethics of their sacred profession, and undermined the security, safety and unity of the Bahraini people".