Bahrain doctors and nurses seek UN probe of prison sentences

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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahraini doctors and nurses convicted of links to anti-government protests and sentenced to long prison terms appealed to the U.N. chief Saturday to investigate their claims of abuse and judicial violations in the trial.

The medical professionals — whose sentences range from five to 15 years — are appealing the security court’s ruling and speaking out against the wider crackdown by the Gulf kingdom’s Sunni rulers against protests for greater rights by the Shiite majority.

The trial has been closely watched by rights groups that have criticized Bahrain’s prosecution of civilians at the special security court, which was set up under martial law-style rule that was lifted in June. The U.N. human rights office and the U.S. State Department are among those questioning the use of the court, which has military prosecutors and both civilian and military judges.

The doctors and nurses worked at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Center close to the capital’s Pearl Square, which became the epicenter of Bahrain’s uprising, inspired by other revolts across the Arab world. The authorities saw the hospital’s mostly Shiite staff — some of whom participated in pro-democracy street marches — as protest sympathizers, although the medics claimed they treated all who needed care.

“During the times of unrest in Bahrain, we honored our medical oath to treat the wounded and save lives. And as a result, we are being rewarded with unjust and harsh sentences,” said a statement released by the medics after the court’s ruling.

The group was convicted Thursday on charges that include attempting to topple the Gulf kingdom’s rulers and spreading “fabricated” stories. In a separate trial, the security court sentenced a protester to death for the killing of a police officer during the clashes that began in February.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blocked from high-level political and military posts. Bahrain’s rulers say they are ready to discuss reforms and have proposed changes such as giving parliament approval power over government appointments. But they appear unwilling to meet protest demands for a fully elected leadership.

At a news conference Friday, Bahraini officials claimed the doctors and nurses actively supported opposition protesters, including allegations that ambulances were used to carry weapons and that hospital blood supplies were used to fake or embellish injuries among protesters.

Hundreds of people have been arrested or purged from jobs since the unrest began. More than 30 people have died in clashes on the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“Our sentences were preordained,” said another statement from the doctors and nurses. “The trials we have been going through are nothing but a playing card in a game of politics. … Our only crime was that during the unrest earlier this year we were outspoken witnesses to the bloodshed and the brutal treatment by the security forces.”

The group appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an investigation into their case and claims of abuse while in custody. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said Friday the U.N. chief is expressing “deep concern” over the harsh sentences and calling for the release of all political detainees.

Bahrain’s rulers have previously approved an independent commission to look into the allegations, which include torture and excessive violence. The report is due at the end of this month.

One of the physicians sentenced to 15 years, Dr. Nada Daiif, said she was trying to spend as much time with her two young children before the expected order to report to prison.

“It’s very heartbreaking. I haven’t slept for 72 hours. I’ve been touching my children’s cheeks, playing with their hair. I’m trying to capture as much time as I can with them,” she said at a gathering of some of the defendants.

Daiif expressed little hope in the appeal, which will be made to the country’s highest civilian court.

“The appeal is a procedure and we will go for it. But … we know very well they are using our case as a political card against the opposition,” she said.

In Geneva, the spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Friday there are “severe concerns” about the sentences against the doctors and nurses and their opportunities to fight the charges in the security court.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Bahrain to “abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, including a fair trial, access to attorneys, and verdicts based on credible evidence.”

Last week, Bahrain held special elections to fill 18 parliament seats vacated by Shiite lawmakers to protest the crackdowns. The election will leave the 40-seat chamber fully in pro-government hands.

Voting wrapped up Saturday in districts where there was no majority winner.