Nine of the 20 doctors and nurses accused of trying to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy in a hotly contested case were found innocent Thursday in civilian court, and five were released for time already served, the state news agency reported.
Four others will stay in jail, with lighter sentences than a military court handed them nine months ago. The 15-year sentences of two doctors who are no longer in Bahrain were upheld.
Despite the sentence reductions and prisoner releases, human rights group condemned the renewed guilty verdicts for 11 of the medical professionals in what they argue is another sign of Bahrain's continued crackdown on dissent. The new trial, ordered in May, had been seen by many as a chance for the court to overturn the earlier sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
The new sentences range from one month to five years, according to media reports. "It is a travesty of justice that the trials continued and that the medics are now sentenced to jail time,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.
The 20 medical professionals from the Salmaniya Medical Complex were accused of openly siding with protesters trying to topple the government last year. Bahrain has been in the throes of fervent protests against its king for more than a year, one of the most enduring Arab Spring revolts. Opposition activists have agitated for greater democracy and more voice for the Shiite minority in the island nation.
The Sunni monarchy has taken some steps toward reform and spurred an investigation into abuses committed during a crackdown on protests last year, but human rights groups say it has not gone far enough, charging that police abuses and political repression have continued.
The September convictions of the medics, many of whom alleged they were tortured while in detention, became another flash point in that debate. Doctors claimed they were being persecuted simply for trying to treat wounded protesters. The verdicts alarmed the U.N. human rights office and the U.S. State Department, which challenged whether the military courts had been fair.
The official Bahrain News Agency countered that none of the medics were being charged for treating protesters, but that their charges were “primarily for their involvement in politicizing their profession, breaching medical ethics and, most serious of which, was their call and involvement in the overthrow of the monarchy.”
"This is a black day for doctors and medical professionals,” Rula Al Safar, a nurse who was among those freed, told the Associated Press.