Bahrain medics seek UN probe of prison sentences

By the Associated Press | October 1, 2011 | 6:05 AM EDT

Bahraini anti-government protesters wave flags and chant during a rally of thousands organized by Al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition party, to demand greater freedoms in Quraya, Bahrain, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of some 525,000 people, but claim they face deep-rooted discrimination such as being blocked from key government and security posts. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A group of Bahraini doctors and nurses sentenced to long prison terms for links to anti-government protests appealed on Saturday to the U.N. chief to investigate claims of abuse and judicial violations in their trial by a security court in the Gulf kingdom.

The statements by the medical professionals are part of efforts to appeal their sentences — ranging from five to 15 years — and challenge the wider crackdown by Sunni rulers against protests for greater rights by the Shiite majority.

The sentenced doctors and nurses worked at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Center close to Manama's Pearl Square that 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 one of the statements, which followed questions by the U.N. human rights office and the U.S. State Department about the use of the special security courts for the trial.

The group was convicted Thursday on charges that include attempting to topple the Gulf kingdom 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 appear unwilling to meet protest demands for a fully elected leadership.

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 that include torture and excessive violence. The report is due at the end of this month.

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, which was set up under martial law-style rule that was lifted in June.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Bahraini authorities 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.