MANAMA Bahrain jailed 20 doctors on Thursday for between five and 15 years on theft and other charges, the state news agency said, in what critics claimed was reprisal for treating protesters during unrest in the Gulf kingdom this year.
A security court also sentenced a man to death for killing a policeman by driving his car over him several times and joining illegal gatherings for "terrorist goals," the BNA news agency said. Another man was handed a life term for his involvement.
The doctors, who denied the charges, 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.
Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers quashed the protests in March, with the help of troops from fellow Sunni neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained -- mostly Shi'ites -- in the crackdown.
The doctors were charged with stealing medicine, stockpiling weapons and occupying a hospital during the unrest and in addition were jailed for forcibly occupying a hospital, spreading lies and false news, withholding treatment, inciting hatred of Bahrain's rulers and calling for their overthrow.
"We were shocked by the verdicts because we were expecting the doctors would be proved innocent of the crime of occupying the Salmaniya medical complex," defense lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi said, adding the hearing had lasted no more than 10 minutes.
The doctors say the charges were invented by the authorities to punish medical staff for treating people who took part in anti-government protests.
"Those doctors who have been found guilty were charged with abusing the hospital for political purposes. Nobody is above the law," a spokesman for the government's Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said.
Ten of the doctors, including senior physician Ali Al-Ekri, were given 15-year terms, two were sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to five.
"After today's verdict and those issued yesterday we feel pessimism," Alawi said, adding they would appeal against the decision.
On Wednesday a military court upheld life sentences against Shi'ite opposition leaders for organizing protests in a trial described as a "sham" by Amnesty International, which also called the latest proceedings a "travesty of justice."
The British government voiced concern over the sentences.
"These sentences appear disproportionate to the charges brought," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday.
"These are worrying developments that could undermine the Bahraini government's moves toward dialogue and the reform needed for long-term stability in Bahrain."
OPEN FOR DISCUSSION
A senior Bahraini official said the government was still prepared to hold more talks with all opposition parties on political reforms to try to end protests that threaten to hold up the economy and scratch its business-friendly image.
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the IAA, also said Bahrain had begun receiving some of the $10 billion in economic aid promised by fellow Gulf Arab nations.
"Everything is open for discussion except regime change. That doesn't mean it has to be discussed today (but) the king said reforms are not going to stop," he said. "Other issues can be brought to the table -- when and how, I'm not sure."
Bahrain says it will expand parliament's powers of monitoring government ministers, recommendations that came from a national dialogue held after the U.S. ally crushed pro-democracy protests earlier this year.
But Shi'ite opposition groups, headed by the Wefaq party, want the elected chamber to have real legislative power as well as a new prime minister. The current incumbent, an uncle of the king, has occupied the post since 1971.
The conflict dragged in regional powers; Bahrain accused the opposition of pursuing a sectarian agenda backed by non-Arab Shi'ite giant Iran, just across Gulf waters. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama, says the government should talk to Wefaq.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Michael Roddy)