BAHRAIN APPEARED TO buckle under international pressure today, by ordering a retrial for 20 medical personnel sentenced to prison who were accused of backing anti-government protests and attempting to overthrow the ruling system in the Gulf kingdom.
The decision also moves the trial of the medical personnel to a civilian court and allows the doctors and nurses to remain free pending the new trial.
Rights groups strongly criticised last week’s verdicts by a special security court, which sentenced the doctors and nurses to jail terms ranging from five to 15 years. The verdicts also provoked high-level questions about judicial fairness that included statements from the UN Secretary General and the US State Department.
Bahrain’s ruling Muslim Sunni monarchy has waged sweeping crackdowns against mostly Muslim Shiite protesters calling for greater rights on the strategic Gulf Arab nation, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The country’s leaders have maintained the support of powerful western nations because of the nation’s key military partnerships and close ties with powerful Gulf neighbors, foremost Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to help Bahrain’s monarchy quell the protests earlier this year and blamed the unrest on Shiite-led Iran.
Bahraini authorities have come under increasing criticism for a series of rapid-fire verdicts against suspects accused of aiding protesters and causing violence. More than 80 convictions have been issued since Monday by a security court that was set up during martial law-style rule this spring.
The move to hold a retrial for the medical personnel appears to be a step to ease international complaints and could throw into question the other verdicts by the security court as well as upcoming trials.
A statement by Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said the 20 medical personnel will be retried in a civilian court, but gave no timetable. The group had filed an appeal that was scheduled to be heard by a civilian court later this month, but the new decision appeared to restart the judicial process.
Bahrain’s attorney general, Ali al-Boainain, said in the statement that “the retrial will be conducted before the highest civil court in Bahrain … By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full re-evaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defenses.”
Shiites represent about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being barred from top government and security positions. Bahrain’s Sunni rulers say they are willing to make reforms, although not as far-reaching as the protesters demand such as ending the monarchy’s ability to select the government and set all important state policies.
At least 30 people have died since Bahrain’s protests began in February.
The medical group had appealed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an investigation into their case and claims of abuse while in custody. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said after the verdicts that the UN chief was deeply concerned over the harsh sentences and called for the release of all political detainees.