HEALTH -- September 29, 2011 at 2:42 PM ET
Medical Workers in Bahrain Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison
A wounded protestor in Bahrain is taken to the hospital in February. Photo by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images.
Twenty doctors and nurses jailed during the spring revolt against Bahrain's ruling monarchy received sentences of up to 15 years in prison Thursday.
The government of the Persian Gulf kingdom leveled a range of charges against the medical workers, including possession of weapons and taking part in efforts to overthrow the regime. Human rights groups are calling the verdicts "bogus" and say the doctors are being falsely targeted for doing their jobs and treating wounded protestors.
More than 30 people have been killed in clashes between anti-regime demonstrators and security forces in Bahrain since February, according to the Associated Press. Bahrain is a long-time U.S. ally and hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The densely populated archipelago, home to more than 1.2 million people, is also strategically located near Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A hybrid civil and military tribunal handed down the punishments to the accused medical workers, all employees at Salmaniya hospital, which became the center of the emergency response for the injured this spring.
Thirteen medics received sentences of 15 years, two doctors were given 10 year jail terms and the remaining five will serve five years in prison. The group's lawyer said there will be an opportunity to appeal the ruling.
Speaking on the BBC World Service Thursday, Shaikh Abdul-Aziz, senior international counselor at Bahrain's Information Ministry, said the 20 convicted health workers "abused their privilege of working in the medical profession and coordinated with the other protestors who tried to attempt a coup d'état." He said the doctors barricaded themselves in the hospital and "prevented people from seeking treatment on sectarian lines."
Human rights groups harshly criticized both the charges against the health workers and the sentences delivered Thursday. Physicians for Human rights said the verdicts represent an escalation and significant worsening of the human rights situation in Bahrain.
"The sentences handed down today were extremely harsh and based on trials that were deeply flawed," said Hans Hogrefe, chief policy officer for the group. Physicians for Human Rights launched an investigation of the charges against the doctors in April and found no evidence supporting the government's claims that the medical workers abused their powers, and instead concluded the government persecuted medical staff.
"During the events that occurred around the protest, doctors went out of there way to provide medical services to whomever," Hogrefe said. "There was a politically motivated attack on that hospital ... they were caught in the cross-fire and now they are convicted of bogus charges."
Saqer Alkhalifa, media attache at the Bahrain embassy in Washington, D.C., said claims that medical workers were arrested for providing protestors care are false.
"They are not being sentenced because of protesters, protesters are being treated in every hospital in Bahrain," Alkhalifa said. "The case is very simple, they broke the law and they were sentenced."
Among the pieces of evidence the government collected in the case, according to Alkhalifa, were two AK-47s confiscated from inside the hospital.
He also disputed claims that the tribunals don't provide a fair trial, saying they apply the same laws and are monitored by human rights organizations in Bahrain.
Human Rights Watch has also spoken out against the arrests and trials. A report by the group issued in July found that 70 medical workers have been arrested by security forces since the unrest began and more than 150 have been terminated or suspended from their jobs.