SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) - Convictions against nine Bahraini doctors accused of playing leading roles in anti-government protests last year have been quashed and sentences against nine others downgraded by an appeals court.
In a contentious ruling that follows widespread international condemnation of the medics' trials, one senior orthopedic surgeon, Ali al-Akri, still faces five years' imprisonment, while another, Ibrahim al-Dimistani, has been sentenced to three years.
Bahraini authorities immediately issued arrest warrants for the nine medics still facing jail time. Two more doctors from an original group of 20 did not appeal against earlier verdicts of 15 years in custody, which were handed down by a military court. They are understood to have fled.
Thursday's verdicts dropped the two most serious charges levelled against the group – that they had possessed arms and occupied the Salmaniya medical clinic in the heart of the Bahrain capital, Manama.
The charges followed an Arab-spring uprising led by the country's Shia majority against its Sunni rulers. After street clashes in February last year, protesters were ousted from their hub at a roundabout in the centre of the capital. They then reconvened in the grounds of the hospital, which was receiving most of the injuries from the demonstrations.
The doctors, some of the most senior in the tiny Gulf kingdom, found themselves at the centre of the revolt that was soon being cast by Bahrain's leaders as an Iranian-backed plot to oust them. Martial law was imposed temporarily and thousands of people arrested. Many faced military trials.
The doctors have insisted they were punished only for treating protesters and were not involved in subversive acts.
The verdicts came after charges against the group were transferred from a military court, which had earlier handed down heavy sentences that had been condemned by the United Nations and international physicians' groups.
A prosecutor in the trial said three months ago that he wanted to drop charges against all but five of the group. However, the trial continued. Bahrain has introduced a reform programme after criticism of its handling of the crackdown and the retrial of the medics had been hailed as a centrepiece of reconciliation efforts.
Tensions continue between Shia citizens and the Sunni-led establishment, with sporadic clashes occurring most weeks, though Bahraini authorities have largely crushed the rebellion with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
The doctors claim they were tortured during detention last year. None was in court for Thursday's verdict and it remains unclear whether those facing jail will surrender themselves.