A civilian court Sunday began the retrial for 20 Bahraini medical personnel whose previous conviction on protest-related charges brought outcry from international rights groups and U.N. officials about crackdowns in the Gulf kingdom.
Officials in Bahrain ordered a new trial earlier this month after sharp international backlash to the verdicts by a special security court, which found the doctors and nurses guilty of backing anti-government protests and attempting to overthrow the ruling monarchy. Their sentences ranged from five to 15 years.
The medical professionals are among hundreds of people arrested after Bahrain's majority Shiites began protests in February seeking greater rights from the ruling Sunni dynasty. At least 35 people have been killed in unrest in the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Prosecutors dropped several lower-level charges in the first civilian court hearing, but the most serious accusations remain. The next session was scheduled for Nov. 28.
One of the defense lawyers, Jalila al-Sayed, said it remains unclear whether the civilian proceedings will allow new witnesses and evidence, and whether the previous convictions have been formally wiped from the books. The doctors and nurses remain free, but are banned from leaving the country.
They worked at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Center close to the capital's Pearl Square, which became the epicenter of Bahrain's uprising that was inspired by other revolts across the Arab world. The authorities saw the hospital's mostly Shiite staff _ some of whom participated in 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.
The sentences earlier this month brought sharp criticism from rights groups and statements of concern from the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. human rights office.