Dozens of doctors and nurses who treated injured anti-government protesters during the months of unrest in Bahrain went on trial in a security court on Monday on allegations they participated in efforts to overthrow the Gulf country's monarchy.
The prosecution of 47 health professionals is a sign that Bahrain's Sunni rulers will not end their relentless pursuit of the Shiite-led opposition despite officially lifting emergency rule last week.
The doctors and nurses were arraigned on Monday during a closed hearing in a security court authorized under emergency rule that was imposed in mid-March to crush weeks of demonstrations by Bahrain's Shiite majority, which has campaigned for greater freedoms, equal rights and an elected government. The court has military prosecutors and military and civilian judges.
The medical workers were charged with participating in efforts to topple Bahrain's Sunni monarchy and taking part in illegal rallies. Other charges against the doctors and nurses, most of whom treated injured protesters in the state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex in the capital, Manama, include harming the public by spreading false news and denying medical attention to several Sunni patients.
Only select journalists are allowed to cover the trials in the security court after authorities put a gag order on legal proceedings against suspected opposition supporters. Select family members were allowed to attend Monday's arraignment. Amid tight security in and outside the court, relatives were also given 30 minutes to talk to the defendants after proceedings were adjourned to give lawyers more time to prepare for their clients' defense.
Another hearing in the case is set for June 13.
During the unrest, medical staff in Bahrain repeatedly said they were under professional duty to treat all and strongly rejected claims by authorities that helping anti-government protesters was akin to supporting their cause.
Bahrain's military took over the Salmaniya hospital after martial law was imposed March 15. The government said the complex was used to stage protests and conduct illegal political activities, charging the 47 doctors and nurses in custody with additional offenses, such as assault, embezzlement and possession of weapons.
The doctors and patients in Salmaniya said soldiers and police had conducted interrogations and detentions inside the complex and many injured protesters did not seek treatment there for fear of being arrested.
International rights groups have criticized Bahrain's campaign against medical professionals, saying that authorities have deliberately targeted doctors and nurses who treated hundreds of injured demonstrators at the Salmaniya hospital during a weeks of demonstrations against the 200-year rule of the Al Khalifa family.
At least 31 people have died since the protests _ inspired by revolts around the Middle East _ began in mid-February. Among them were four opposition supporters who died in custody. The U.S., which bases its Navy's 5th Fleet in the country, has called on Bahrain's leaders to try to meet at least some of the protest movement's demands.
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, human rights activists, athletes and Shiite professionals have been detained during two and a half months of a harsh crackdown. Two protesters were sentenced to death.
Emergency rule was lifted on Wednesday and protesters again marched on the capital's Pearl Square on Friday. They were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from Bahraini police as they tried to regain control of the former center of the anti-government protests in Bahrain.