MANAMA, Bahrain – Several doctors and nurses who treated injured anti-government protesters during the months of unrest in Bahrain will be tried in a military court on charges of acting against the state, the justice minister said Tuesday.
Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa said the charges against 23 doctors and 24 nurses include participating in attempts to topple the island's Sunni monarchy and taking part in illegal rallies.
The announcement is the latest in the Sunni rulers' relentless pursuit of Shiite opposition supporters after weeks of street marches demanding greater freedoms, equal rights and an elected government in Bahrain.
During the unrest, medical staff repeatedly said they were under professional duty to treat all and strongly rejected claims by authorities that helping anti-government protesters was akin to supporting their cause.
Separately, two former parliament members of the country's main Shiite party Al Wefaq were arrested, according to a senior party leader, Abdul-Jalil Khalil.
Al Wefaq has been the leading political backer of Bahrain's uprising, which was inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers declared martial law on March 15 to crush Shiites demonstrating for greater rights and freedoms. Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, human rights activists and lawyers have been detained since emergency rule was imposed. Dozens of doctors, nurses and other medical staff have also been arrested.
U.S. State Department Mark Toner, however, cautioned that targeting opposition politicians was not necessarily the best way for the government to address the current situation.
"There's no security solution to resolve the challenges that Bahrain faces. We call on Bahrain to respect the detainees' rights to due process," he said, adding that he was unaware of charges being filed against medical professionals.
At a press conference on Tuesday, the justice minister read the charges against the 23 doctors and the 24 nurses, which also include "promoting efforts to bring down the government" and "harming the public by spreading false news."
International rights groups say Bahrain is targeting medical professionals who treated injured demonstrators at the Salmaniya medical center, which was later overrun by the military.
At least 30 people have died since the protests in Bahrain began in mid February. Among the dead are also four opposition supporters who died in custody, including a blogger.
On Thursday, four anti-government protesters were convicted of killing two policemen during the protests and sentenced to death by a military court. Three other demonstrators got life sentences.
The military took over the state-run Salmaniya hospital in March, and doctors and patients said soldiers and police had conducted interrogations and detentions inside the complex.
Physicians for Human Rights said in a report last month that at least 32 health care professionals have been detained since Bahrain declared martial law. The report by the U.S.-based group detailed attacks on physicians, medical staff and patients "with weapons, beatings and tear gas."
Khalil, the Al Wefaq leader, said Tuesday two of its former lawmakers — Matar Matar and Jawad Fairoz — were taken into custody on Monday night. Khalil said he does not know the details of their arrest.
Last month, the tiny island nation's Sunni rulers also ordered Al Wefaq dismantled.
Authorities also accused Bahrain's main opposition newspaper, Al Wasat, of threatening national security. The paper will be forced to shut down next week and three of its former top editors will go on trial May 19.
Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, Washington's main counterweight against Iran's expanding military influence in the oil-rich Gulf.
Al Wefaq is the most influential party in Bahrain's seven-member Shiite opposition. Eighteen members of the party have been elected to the nation's 40-member parliament last year although the legislators resigned from the body in March to protest the government crackdown.
The parliament is Bahrain's only elected body. It holds limited authority since all the country's decisions — including the appointment of government ministers — rest with the king.
The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years.