|Rights groups say the medics were given trumped-up charges for treating protesters wounded by security forces|
A civil court in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, has begun a new hearing for a group of 20 medical staff who were convicted of taking part in crimes against the state during anti-government protests that rocked the country last year.
The doctors, nurses and paramedics were handed sentences, ranging from five to 15 years in prison, on September 28, over a raft of charges, including incitement to overthrow the the ruling Al Khalifa family.
But a retrial was initiated on October 23 after prosecutors dropped confessions from the defendants, who had protested that the statements were extracted under torture.
The hearing for the new trial had been adjourned in November.
Most of the staff worked at, or volunteered at, the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama that was stormed by security forces in mid-March after they drove protesters out of nearby Pearl Square.
The workers received the heavy jail terms from the military-run National Safety Court, but are now being tried in a civil court.
They are also being charged with occupying the medical centre and possessing weapons, while denying Sunni Muslims access to the hospital as mainly Shia demonstrators camped in the complex’s car park.
The medical professionals also stand accused of spreading false news, particularly concerning the condition of wounded protesters, the illegal acquisition of medicines and medical facilities, and participating in demonstrations.
In November, independent investigators tasked by Bahrain’s king to probe the unrest were highly critical of the special security court that had tried the medics, along with opposition leaders and activists behind closed doors.
A 500-page report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said the court has issued harsh sentences -including life in prison and death penalties – and “denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees”.
The document also spotlighted abuses at the Salmaniya Medical Centre.
US rights activist denied entry
A top official from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said on Sunday that he was barred from entering Bahrain to attend the trial.
Richard Sollom, deputy director of the US-based organisation, told Al Jazeera that the country’s ministry of human rights and social development had rejected his entry after he arrived at Manama’s airport.
Sollom who has a five-year multiple entry visa told the AFP news agency that security officials said representatives from non-governmental organisations required special permits to enter the country.
“As soon as I arrived at the airport, immigration officials learned that I was representing the PHR, they immediately pulled me aside,” he said.
“They called the ministry of human rights and social development, who told those officials to turn me back and that I was not welcome.”
Sollom said he was told by an immigration officer that “it doesn’t matter if you have a visa. We are under orders to ensure that NGO representatives got special permission”.
Speaking to the AFP, Sollom said he does not believe the situation at the airport to be a matter of miscommunication.
“Unfortunately, I believe the prime minister does not want human rights groups or international journalists to be covering these trials, and to bear witness to the human rights violations that are still occuring in Bahrain.”