Nine medical professionals accused of aiding Bahrain's anti-government uprising were sentenced Thursday to prison terms ranging from one month to five years, a decision that brought complaints from international rights groups and a senior U.S. envoy.
Nine others were freed, and 15-year sentences were upheld against two doctors who fled Bahrain.
The verdicts came nearly eight months after the 20-member group was sentenced to prison terms of between five and 15 years by a now disbanded security tribunal, set up by the Sunni monarchy as part of crackdowns against Shiite-led protests that began in February 2011. A retrial in civilian court was ordered earlier this year.
The cases against the doctors and nurses were among the most sensitive for Bahrain's leadership as it struggles with near daily clashes and protests by the kingdom's majority Shiites. The state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex was thrust into the forefront of the unrest after security forces stormed a protest encampment in the early weeks of the uprising.
Authorities claim some medical personnel openly sided with the demonstrations and tried to topple Bahrain's ruling system, which has close ties to the West and hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The medical teams deny the charges and accuse state security forces of abuses such as turning wards into makeshift detention sites for suspected protesters. They also alleged they suffered beatings and other torture while in custody.
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told reporters in Bahrain's capital, Manama, that Washington was "disappointed" by the court ruling. He appealed for reconciliation talks in Bahrain but acknowledged that the nation remains deeply divided.
In March, Bahrain's government announced it would pursue charges against only five members of the group. But the judge ignored the statement and moved ahead with the retrial for all.
"This is a black day for doctors and medical professionals," said Rula Al Safar, a nurse who was among those freed.
Dr. Ali al-Ikri, who was sentenced to five years, called the decision "political." Those convicted have four weeks to appeal.
Bahrain's Shiites comprise about 70 percent of the island's more than half-million citizens, but claim they face systematic discrimination and are barred from high-level political and security posts.
The government has offered some concessions, such as boosting the powers of the elected parliament, but Shiite leaders demand the monarchy also give up its tight grip on all key policies and political appointments.
At least 50 people have died in the unrest.
"Today was a moment of truth for the Bahrain regime, one it failed miserably," said Human Rights First monitor Brian Dooley, whose group has closely followed the trial. "The truth from today is that medics are to be jailed for treating the injured and for telling the world about the regime's crackdown."
The rights group Amnesty International described those convicted as "prisoners of conscience."
Donna McKay, executive director for Physicians for Human Rights called the court's decision a "travesty of justice."