MANAMA A Bahrain court on Thursday reduced sentences on nine medics for their role in last year's pro-democracy uprising and acquitted nine others, 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 Gulf Arab state, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a U.S. ally.
In September, a military court sentenced the medics to terms of between five and 15 years on charges including occupying a hospital, incitement to topple the monarchy and arms possession.
In revising the sentences, the court gave Ali al-Ekry, a senior orthopedic surgeon at Manama's Salmaniya hospital, a five-year sentence and Ibrahim al-Dimistani three years. Seven others were handed sentences ranging from one month to one year.
A government statement said five of the nine convicted men would be released because of time already served in detention.
"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.
Verdicts of 15 years from the military trial still stand against two defendants because they are believed to have left the country and thus did not take part in the retrial.
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 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.
Official and public opinion among many Sunnis was against the doctors, who spoke to television 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, adding it was his right to express his opinion to media during the protests.
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.
A government statement said the final charges the men were found guilty of related to political activities and not for treating protestors.
DOCTORS TREATED PROTESTERS
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, stretching medical services which were focused mainly on the Salmaniya hospital.
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 torture last year.
Widespread and excessive force, including confessions under torture, was detailed in a commission led by Cherif 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 by dismissing those responsible and introducing cameras at police stations to monitor abuses.
But little progress has been made in addressing the grievances that led to the protests. Attempts at reconciliation have faltered as hardliners in both camps rule 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 jobs including the army and security forces.
The Al Khalifas fear the Shi'ites, inspired by regional foe Iran, want to topple them.
(Writing and additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Angus MacSwan)