An international human rights group on Monday urged Bahrain to end its campaign of arrests of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters during the Gulf kingdom's unrest earlier this year.
Bahrain's security forces have smothered an uprising by the nation's majority Shiites seeking greater freedoms and rights from the Sunni rulers in the tiny but strategically important island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Hundreds of protesters, activists and more than 70 medical professionals have been detained during the four-month crackdown, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Monday. Forty-eight doctors and nurses charged with anti-state crimes are currently on trial in a closed-door security tribunal with military prosecutors.
"The royal family in Bahrain is trying to punish all those people who were very visible and very vocal during protests, and that includes doctors and other medical staff," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director.
The attacks on medics and wounded protesters have been part of "an official policy of retribution against Bahrainis who supported pro-democracy protests," Stork added.
Most of the doctors and nurses in custody and on trial worked in Bahrain's biggest state-run Salmaniya Medical Center, a political hotspot since the beginning of the revolt in which at least 33 people have died.
The mostly Shiite personnel was seen by Sunni authorities as protest sympathizers, although the hospital's staff claim they treated all who need care.
Some doctors working in Salmaniya participated in pro-democracy street marches and there were also moments of open anger against the government among the hospital staff when its wards were flooded with injured protesters _ some wounded by live ammunition.
Hours after marital law was declared on March 17 the army surrounded the hospital, set up military checkpoints and deployed commando-style troops in army green coveralls and black ski masks to patrol the outside walls.
Human Rights Watch said it has documented "serious government abuses" of Bahrain's health professionals, injured protesters and medical facilities since February when the revolt began.
Those include attacks on health care providers, denial of medical access to protesters injured by security forces, the siege of hospitals and health centers across the island and the detention and prosecution of medics and patients with protest-related injuries, the rights group said in its 54-page report.
Last month, Bahraini authorities halted trials of opposition supporters and activists in the military-linked tribunal and moved all protest-related cases to civilian courts as a token concession to the opposition ahead of reconciliation talks between the opposition and the Sunni rulers.
The talks opened July 2 and the country's biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, reluctantly joined amid widespread anger among the majority Shiites who claim they suffer systematic discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty ruling Bahrain.
Al Wefaq pulled out of the U.S.-backed talks on Sunday, claiming that the government disregarded the opposition's efforts to make the dialogue meaningful and not putting their demands for discussion.
In a report by the state-run Bahrain News Agency on Monday, the government expressed regret at Al Wefaq's decision.
"We consider Al Wefaq's contribution to the dialogue as central to its success," the report said, quoting the talks' official spokesman, Isa Abdul Rahman.
Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in Bahrain. The protests _ inspired by the wider Arab uprisings _ have been the gravest challenge to any Gulf ruler in decades.