By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain jailed 20 doctors on Thursday for between five and 15 years on charges including stealing medicine, stockpiling weapons and occupying a hospital during unrest in the Gulf kingdom this year, state news agency BNA said.
It 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." Another man was handed a life term for his involvement, BNA said.
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.
Along with the charges of stealing medicine and stockpiling arms, the 20 physicians 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," said defense lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi, adding the hearing had lasted no more than ten 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," said a spokesman for Bahrain's International Affairs Authority (IAA).
Ten of them, 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."
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.
Activists among the majority Shi'ite population are staging regular protests which the security forces try to suppress. They are usually inside Shi'ite villages but last week extended to a shopping mall and a traffic jam protest.
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz said the economy was being hit by the strife but praised Wefaq for calling for restraint.
"There is no doubt we have been affected and we have to get over that," he said, adding the Gulf Cooperation Council had begun disbursing funds promised to Bahrain and Oman earlier this year to help contain street protests.
Wefaq boycotted by-elections for parliament seats it vacated last February after security forces killed some protesters when they occupied a central roundabout in Manama.
A Western diplomat said Wefaq's absence from parliament would make it difficult to push for more reforms. He said some Shi'ites had been radicalized by the crackdown under martial law brought in for two months to crush the uprising and this put grassroots pressure on Wefaq to take a tough line.
Analysts say hardliners in government and in the Sunni community do not want to see more concessions.
Shi'ites also want jobs given back to many who were fired for taking part in the February-March unrest.
"If they are going to get themselves out of this, they are going to have to take some concrete steps on reform and change," the diplomat said of the government.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; editing by Philippa Fletcher)