By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain will go ahead with the prosecution of 20 medics who treated wounded protesters during an uprising last year, despite a statement suggesting most of the cases would be dropped, the justice minister said on Tuesday.
The prosecution of doctors drew international criticism, with rights groups saying the medics were being punished for helping civilians hurt by state forces during anti-government demonstrations.
Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said last week authorities would pursue criminal charges against only five medics, while transferring the other cases to a professional tribunal.
However, the accused were not informed of the public prosecutor's announcement and the trial has continued with the judge declining to explain why no charges were dropped.
"At the end of the day, the last decision will be at the court, the court has to acquit or punish. Until a final judgment, all of them are accused," Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa told a news conference.
Fifteen of the accused would be punished by a professional tribunal once condemned, he said, while the other five would be sentenced by the court.
Rights groups following the trial have speculated about a dispute within the ruling family over the medics' trial which has also been criticized for using military courts to punish civilians.
The ongoing prosecutions are retrials in a civil court after a military court sentenced the 20 doctors and other medical staff in September, to jail terms of up to 15 years on charges including incitement to overthrow the government and attempting to occupy a hospital.
Some of the doctors, who are from the Shi'ite majority, took part in a protest inside the Salmaniya hospital grounds and spoke to television channels from inside the hospital.
"It looks like various people are making decisions in the Bahrain government without an agreed policy. What's happening with the medics smells of incoherence and incompetence," said Brian Dooley of U.S.-based group Human Rights First.
The case is further complicated because public opinion among many Sunnis is against the doctors, who were the focus of loyalist anger on state television last year.
TV hosts, officials and callers accused the doctors of deliberately worsening patient injuries and causing the deaths of protesters in order to discredit security forces who attacked them - accusations that were never pressed in court.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said last month that Bahrain should seek "alternatives to criminal prosecution" in the case.
Bahrain is a key ally to Washington in its conflict with Iran over its nuclear programme, hosting the U.S. navy's Fifth Fleet. But the United States is trying to end continuing violence by pushing the government to talk to the opposition.
Clashes occur daily between riot police and youths in Shi'ite districts. The government describes the youths, who throw petrol bombs at police, as vandals and says opposition groups should do more to rein them in. (This version of the story has been corrected to fix the dateline)
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)