Bahrain appeared to buckle under international pressure Wednesday by ordering a retrial for 20 medical personnel sentenced to prison who were accused of backing anti-government protests and attempting to overthrow the ruling system in the Gulf kingdom.
The decision also moves the trial of the medical personnel to a civilian court and allows the doctors and nurses to remain free pending the new trial.
Rights groups strongly criticized last week's verdicts by a special security court, which sentenced the doctors and nurses to jail terms ranging from five to 15 years. The verdicts also provoked high-level questions about judicial fairness that included statements from the U.N. secretary general and the U.S. State Department.
Bahrain's ruling Muslim Sunni monarchy has waged sweeping crackdowns against mostly Muslim Shiite protesters calling for greater rights on the strategic Gulf Arab nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The country's leaders have maintained support from the West because of the nation's key military partnerships and close ties with powerful Gulf neighbors, foremost Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to help Bahrain's monarchy quell the protests earlier this year and blamed the unrest on Shiite-led Iran.
Bahraini authorities have come under increasing criticism for a series of rapid-fire verdicts against suspects accused of aiding protesters and causing violence. More than 80 convictions have been issued since Monday by a security court that was set up during martial law-style rule this spring.
The move to hold a retrial for the medical personnel appears to be a step to ease international complaints and could throw into question the other verdicts by the security court as well as upcoming trials.
A statement by Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said the 20 medical personnel will be retried in a civilian court, but gave no timetable. The group had filed an appeal that was scheduled to be heard by a civilian court later this month, but the new decision appeared to restart the judicial process.
Bahrain's attorney general, Ali al-Boainain, said in the statement that "the retrial will be conducted before the highest civil court in Bahrain ... By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full re-evaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defenses."
The medical group was convicted Thursday on charges that include attempting to topple the Gulf kingdom's rulers and spreading "fabricated" stories.
The doctors and nurses worked at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Center close to the capital's Pearl Square, which became the epicenter of Bahrain's uprising, inspired by other revolts across the Arab world. The authorities saw the hospital's mostly Shiite staff _ some of whom participated in pro-democracy street marches _ as protest sympathizers, although the medics claimed they treated all who needed care.
Shiites represent about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being barred from top government and security positions. Bahrain's Sunni rulers say they are willing to make reforms, although not as far-reaching as the protesters demand such as ending the monarchy's ability to select the government and set all important state policies.
At least 30 people have died since Bahrain's protests began in February.
The medical group had appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an investigation into their case and claims of abuse while in custody. Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said after the verdicts that the U.N. chief was deeply concerned over the harsh sentences and called for the release of all political detainees.
In Geneva, the spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Friday there are "severe concerns" about the sentences against the doctors and nurses and their opportunities to fight the charges in the security court.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Bahrain to "abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, including a fair trial, access to attorneys, and verdicts based on credible evidence."
It's unclear whether the decision by Bahrain's attorney general will bring retrials for other verdicts made by the security court or halt other cases that are pending. Among them is another group of more than 25 doctors and nurses charged with protest-related offenses.
Earlier Wednesday, the security court sentenced 19 people, including a 16-year-old Iraqi football player, for causing violence during the protests.
The court sentenced 13 people to five years in prison, and six people to one year terms for alleged attacks during the unrest, including trying to set fire to a police station, the Information Affairs Authority said in a statement. The verdicts can be appealed.
The detention of the Iraqi teenager, Zulfiqar Naji, sparked angry demonstrations in Iraq and as far away as Canada by people calling for his release. It also prompted the Iraqi government to make a plea to Bahrain on his behalf. Naji played for a local football club in Bahrain until his arrest.
The player's father, Abdulameer Naji, said in July that his son was taken into custody from their Bahrain home in April on suspicion of participating in protests. The father has since fled to Iraq, but the boy's mother and several of his siblings have remained in Bahrain.