MANAMA (Reuters) - A Bahrain court reduced sentences on Thursday against nine medics for their role in last year's pro-democracy uprising and acquitted nine, but rights groups said the case was politically-motivated and should have been thrown out over use of torture.
The trial of the 20 medics, who are all Shi'ite Muslims, has drawn international criticism of the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state, home to the U.S. Fifth fleet and a key Gulf partner.
In September a military court sentenced the medics to terms of between 5 and 15 years on charges including occupying a hospital, incitement to topple the monarchy and arms possession.
In revising the sentences, a court on Thursday gave Ali al-Ekry, a senior orthopedic surgeon who worked at the Salmaniya hospital in Manama, a five-year sentence and Ibrahim al-Dimistani three years. Seven others were handed sentences ranging from one month to one year.
"This is an unjust ruling, they are innocent. They should be trying the authorities, not these doctors," said Tewfik Dhaif, 53, uncle of two of the men sentenced on Thursday.
"These are the elite doctors in this country. We have 15 doctors in my family, most of the people they have treated were Al Khalifas," he said, referring to Bahrain's ruling family.
The verdicts follow an earlier trial in military court that gave jail terms of 15 years to two medics. Those defendants are believed to have left the country and their case was then transferred to civilian court for a retrial, though the original verdicts still stood.
The Sunni Al Khalifa family, backed by Saudi-led Gulf troops, crushed the protest movement led by the Shi'ite majority that erupted last year after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
The protests, which ended in a brutal crackdown, including sweeping arrests, demolition of Shi'ite mosques and dismissal of thousands of Shi'ites from their jobs, left the country more divided and riven with sectarian hatred.
The doctors, who were released last year after an outcry over allegations of torture during detention, were not present during the brief court session.
"This is a baseless political verdict. It's a political punishment to keep the loyalists happy by keeping a few of us guilty," Ali al-Ekry told Reuters.
DOCTORS TREATED PROTESTERS
Official and public opinion among many Sunnis was against the doctors, who spoke to TV stations about the conditions of the wounded. They accused them of deliberately worsening patient injuries and causing the deaths of protesters in order to discredit security forces who attacked them.
"In the military trial, they brought weapons to court as evidence. So who made this charge up?" Ekry said.
Court officials said the tribunal had rejected the charge of occupying the Salmaniya hospital and possession of weapons.
They said Ekry and Dimistani were guilty of inciting hatred and calling for the overthrow of Bahrain's rulers, as well as making statements to media from inside the hospital. The others were found guilty of incitement to hatred and making statements.
Critics said the charges were reprisals for treating injured protesters, who were camped at a central square in Manama for a month, after attempts by security forces to disperse them in February and March. The doctors denied the charges.
Thirty-five people died during the uprising, mainly protesters, and hundreds were wounded.
International rights groups criticized Thursday's verdict.
"The truth from today is that medics are to be jailed for treating the injured and for telling the world about the regime's crackdown," said Brian Dooley of U.S.-based Human Rights First.
U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights said all defendants should have been acquitted because of the use of torture to extract confessions.
Widespread and excessive force, including forced confessions under torture, was detailed in a commission led by Sherif Bassiouni, a respected United Nations Human Rights lawyer, which published its findings and recommended measures to stop them.
The Bahrain government says it has taken steps to address the brutality of security forces in dealing with protesters by dismissing those responsible and introducing cameras at police stations to monitor abuses.
Bahrain's Western allies are concerned about the lack of political progress in addressing the grievances that led to the protests in the first place. Renewed attempts at reconciliation have faltered as hardliners on both camps ruled out concessions.
The Shi'ite opposition wants a constitutional monarchy and a more equitable political system that would allow them to have greater representation, ending decades-old discrimination against them in key jobs including the army and security forces.
The Al Khalifas fear the Shi'ites, inspired by regional foe, Iran, want to topple them.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Roger Atwood)