DUBAI The United Nations condemned on Friday prison sentences of up to 15 years handed down by a Bahrain military court this week to 20 medics who treated protesters during pro-democracy unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
The doctors and nurses, who had been released in June and September on bail after international pressure over the case, said they were waiting for a police order to head back to jail after they were sentenced on Thursday.
They were sentenced to between 5 and 15 years, the state news agency said, in what critics claimed was reprisal for treating injured protesters during demonstrations in the kingdom earlier this year.
Ten of the medics were given 15-year terms, two were sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to five. The whereabouts of two of the 20 are unknown.
The extension of Bahrain's measures to crush the protests to military trials of doctors has attracted heavy international criticism.
"For such harsh sentences to be handed down to civilians in a military court with serious due process irregularities raises severe concerns," Rupert Colville, spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
Defendants had limited access to lawyers and most lawyers did not have enough time to prepare properly, he said: "We've even heard reports of detainees calling their families the day before their hearing asking them to appoint a lawyer."
He noted that the military court has not allowed recordings of the trial proceedings to be made.
The Shi'ite doctors were among dozens of medical staff arrested during protests led by the island's Shi'ite majority demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and a greater say in government, dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa family.
They were found guilty on a range of charges including occupying a hospital, stockpiling weapons, spreading lies and false news, inciting hatred of Bahrain's rulers and calling for their overthrow, and withholding treatment of Sunnis.
The medics can appeal through the military court, and then go to the civilian Court of Cassation. King Hamad bin Isa also has the power to issue an amnesty.
"None of us have been arrested yet. We are all enjoying moments with our families, whether they are last moments or we have more time," said senior physician Ali Al-Ekri, who was released with 12 others earlier this month.
The doctors issued a joint statement accusing the government of staging the trial to stop doctors telling Bahrainis what they witnessed during the protests.
"The message the government is trying to deliver to the people of Bahrain and to the world through our case is that treating wounded protesters is a crime," it said, calling the charges ludicrous.
"And telling the stories of what we witnessed in the media is an even larger crime," the statement added, talking of videotaped confessions they were forced to make during six months of physical and psychological abuse in detention.
None of the medics were present during the sentencing on Thursday. Defense lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi said in normal circumstances the authorities could take several weeks before enforcing such sentences.
Bahrain has set up a commission of international legal experts to investigate claims of abuse during over two months of martial law which is due to present its findings next month.
The World Medical Association said on Friday the sentences were "totally unacceptable." "It is a sad day for medicine when physicians are incarcerated for treating patients," the organization's chief Wonchat Subhachaturas said in a statement.
"The disproportionate nature of the sentences handed down in this case after the court's seven minute hearing is a disgrace and must be overturned."
A U.S. State Department spokesman said on Thursday the convictions were "deeply disturbing" and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague called them "worrying developments."
Bahrain faces almost daily protests by Shi'ites, angry over a crackdown in which thousands lost jobs and government reform plans that fall short of giving the Gulf state's elected parliament full legislative powers.
Hundreds of women gathered in the Shi'ite village of Muqasha on Friday to condemn the verdicts and the leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Issa Qassem warned the authorities in a sermon of going too far.
"People have given a lot for the sake of reform, which would be a clear and satisfactory solution. They didn't do that for the sake of time-wasting dialogues or improving livelihood and releasing prisoners, though that's important," he said. "They did it to be free in their own country and take part in designing its future."
This week a military appeals court upheld life sentences for eight of 21 opposition leaders, rights activists and online activists who are accused of leading the uprising.
The conflict has dragged in regional powers.
Bahrain accused the opposition of pursuing a sectarian agenda backed by non-Arab Shi'ite giant Iran. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama, says the government should talk to Wefaq, the largest opposition party.
Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, an ally of Tehran, also condemned the verdicts.
"Hezbollah renews its condemnation of the crimes carried out by Bahraini authorities," it said in a statement. "It reaffirms its stand by the side of the people of Bahrain and its support for their legitimate demands which put them at the forefront of the Arab peoples struggling for their freedom."
It also condemned recent arrests of women protesters, saying they had been mistreated. Bahrain released on Monday 25 of 45 women seized in a shopping mall protest last week as protesters find new ways to show civil disobedience that have included a traffic jam protest.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Dominic Evans in Beirut; editing by Philippa Fletcher)