A special security tribunal began trials Monday for 34 doctors and nurses accused of backing Shiite-led protests for greater rights and taking part in alleged anti-state plots at the country's main public hospital.
The mass trial is part of a surge of cases coming before the security court set up by Bahrain's Sunni rulers, who are appealing for talks with opposition groups even while moving ahead with trials that have come under sharp criticism from rights groups.
Shiites comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blocked from top military and government posts. Their protests began in February _ inspired by Arab revolts in Tunisia and Egypt _ but were crushed by harsh measures that included temporary martial law-style rule and military reinforcements from Gulf Arab allies.
During the height of the unrest, security forces surrounded Bahrain's main state-run hospital in a standoff with medical personnel who had complained about the violence against demonstrators. At least 31 people have been killed in the unrest.
Rights groups have raised alarms about the security court proceedings, which have either been held behind closed doors or with only select media and family members allowed to observe.
Some of the medical personnel on trial alleged they were physically abused in custody and signed forced confessions, according to witnesses who were allowed to attend part of the session. The chief judge accepted a request for independent medical exams on the detainees and adjourned the trial until June 20.
The doctors and nurses face a range of charges that include possessing weapons and seeking to overthrow the ruling system in the strategic Gulf kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Last month, Bahrain's justice minister said at least 47 medical personnel _ 23 doctors and 24 nurses _ were charged with anti-state activities. It was not immediately clear why not all were in court Monday.
Rights groups, including Amnesty International, say more than 500 people have been detained in the crackdowns.
The country's Sunni leaders, however, lifted military-run emergency laws June 1 in a bid for talks with Shiite groups and other opposition factions. But Shiite leaders insist that authorities must ease security pressures and protest-linked trials before dialogue can occur.
On Sunday, the security court sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reciting poetry critical of Bahrain's king.