The judicial process in Bahrain has resumed for doctors and other medical staff who were sentenced to prison after they treated pro-democracy demonstrators injured during a government crackdown last year. Meanwhile, a civilian court overturned death sentences for two protesters convicted of murdering two policemen during the violence.
A military court in September sentenced 20 health workers to up to 15 years each in prison.
But following a barrage of international criticism, Bahrain’s attorney general overturned the convictions and ordered retrials in a civilian court.
In addition to the charge of occupying the main Salmaniya Hospital, some of the medics are accused of storing weapons, refusing to treat government supporters, stealing medical equipment, and lying to the media. They deny the charges.
Bahrain’s main opposition party al-Wefaq has been one of the most vocal critics of the government’s treatment of the medical workers. Spokesperson Jasim Hussain insists the group is being punished for helping injured protesters.
"The process was wrong from the very beginning," said Hussain. "These people should be set free and compensated, reinstated back in their jobs so they can go about providing services to the people."
Pro-democracy demonstrations began in Bahrain in February following successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The protesters came largely from the kingdom's Shi'ites, who say they are treated like second-class citizens and not given the same benefits as the ruling Sunni minority.
Most of the early protests took place at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama. However, after security forces stormed the area, many protesters relocated to Salmaniya Hospital.
Bahraini authorities say medical staff used Salmaniya as a “control center” for the opposition movement. Government troops were later sent in to occupy the complex.
Since March, authorities in the small Persian Gulf state have been accused of tracking down and punishing anyone who took part in the anti-government rallies.
Rights groups say thousands of opposition supporters have been arrested, and many of those arrested claim they were tortured while in custody. More than 50 people have been killed since protesting began.
According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, thousands of mostly Shi’ite employees have been fired from their jobs in various sectors because of their political views. Those dismissed include a number of medical professionals.
Dr. Fatima Haji, a former employee at Salmaniya who is on trial, was originally sentenced to five years imprisonment. She says she and her colleagues are currently prohibited from working in the medical field, have had their salaries frozen, and are banned from travelling outside the country.
"They are fighting us on a different level," said the doctor. "There are campaigns running in the newspapers and the local TV ruining our reputation, so basically they are hunting us. When I think about it, we are living in hell."
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report published in November stated that “many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse” after being detained.
The commission also stated there was no evidence that the accused medics possessed weapons or refused to treat Sunni patients.
According to Dr. Haji, it remains unclear whether the report will have any impact on the trials. It is also unclear when the court will deliver its final verdicts.
"We know that we are innocent and we didn’t do anything wrong. We asked for our basic rights. The people here in Bahrain are asking for their basic human rights," she said.
The government showed some signs of softening Monday as a civilian court also overturned death sentences for two protesters convicted of murdering two policemen during the violence. Their sentences were originally handed down by a security court set up under emergency law last year.