MANAMA Bahrain has dismissed hundreds of professionals suspected of taking part in pro-democracy protests this year, according to activists who say many have been targeted simply for being Shi'ite.
Bahrain called in Saudi and United Arab Emirates security forces in March to crush the protests which were dominated by the Shi'ite Muslim majority in the Gulf Arab state, unleashing a campaign of arrests in over two months of martial law.
The government says many people working in the state bureaucracy and companies held up work by leaving to join the protests. State media has accused Shi'ite managers in companies such as state oil firm BAPCO of hiring only Shi'ites.
A government official said around 1,200 people had been dismissed in total but several hundred had been reinstated after complaints to the Labour Ministry. He said 23 doctors and 24 nurses would be tried before a military court.
"They abused their profession and prevented some people from entering the Salmaniya hospital," said Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Senior International Counselor at the Information Affairs Authority.
"They cooperated with those protesters to hold political and religious rallies within the hospital grounds and provided misinformation to media outlets."
But one of the Gulf Arab state's five regional medical officers who administer 22 health centers around Bahrain said she was dismissed because she was Shi'ite.
"I received a call from the chief of staff for primary healthcare saying 'thank you for all your efforts and all the good work you did but you're not needed any more'," she said.
"Three of the five in total were dismissed. Two were Shi'ites and one is married to a Shi'ite cleric," she added. She did not want to be named.
Three other women doctors said they had been dismissed from government jobs. One had a private clinic which she said police forced her to close. Another was removed as head of a government health center; she said only two of the 22 health centers are still led by Shi'ites.
The physician said she was now a general practitioner in a government health center but minus her management role.
"I don't mind. At the end of the day I'm a physician. But when they accuse us of being sectarian, it is they who are sectarian. They don't want any Shi'ites working in administration," the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
She said she sometimes helped distribute medicines in a makeshift tent set up at the Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of the protest movement. "In my free time I participated in the medical tent and it never interfered with my work," she said.
DOCTORS A POST-PROTEST TARGET
The government wavered between a tolerant and hardline approach toward the February and March protests.
The health minister was replaced after an attempt by security forces to break the Pearl Roundabout sit-in on February 17 left four dead. He had been accused of preventing ambulances from carrying wounded protesters.
But medics became a target after the protests were crushed on March. 16.
State media has said doctors were storing weapons in the nearby Salmaniya hospital during the protests, using ambulances to transfer weapons and stealing government medicines to run a makeshift health center at the roundabout.
Some were accused of splattering protesters with blood to inflate the numbers of wounded.
Doctors who spoke to Reuters denied the claims. They said some 60 doctors have been dismissed from government hospitals and clinics, and around 19 are still in detention.
They recounted weeks of verbal and physical abuse and forced confessions. None have appeared yet before the military court, although other cases are being heard.
Around a quarter of over 100 staff at the government-owned Bahrain International Circuit which hosts Bahrain's Formula One race have also been dismissed or suspended, an employee said.
All of them were detained and abused, and five remain in detention, including its CFO Jaafar Almansoor, he said.
He said all of them were Shi'ite and many had taken part in or expressed support for the protest movement, but had not taken days off work in order to take part in the protests.
Bahrain was forced during the unrest to cancel its Grand Prix planned for March but a meeting of the sport's governing body on Friday could reinstate the race for later this year.
The government hopes the end of martial law this week and an offer to hold reform talks with the opposition in July will help bring the prestigious competition back.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has suggested the racing body should not award Bahrain a new date in the calendar because of the dismissals.
(Editing by Reed Stevenson)