Convicted Bahrain doctor starts hunger strike

MANAMA, Bahrain — A doctor sentenced on charges of aiding anti-government protests in Bahrain went on a hunger strike Thursday.

Saeed al-Samaheeji was among nine medical professionals sentenced last week to prison terms ranging from one month to five years, a decision that has been condemned by international rights groups and the US.

Nine others were freed, and 15-year sentences were upheld against two doctors who fled Bahrain.

The 58-year-old Samaheeji remains free while he considers appealing his one-year sentence. He said Thursday that he went on a hunger strike to protest "brutal and fabricated charges" and draw international attention to the plight of all the doctors, hoping their sentences would eventually being thrown out.

Authorities say the doctors sided with protesters last year and tried to topple the country's ruling system. The doctors said they were only doing their jobs during the protests and subsequent bloody crackdown.

"We are doctors, not criminals, and we were trying to save lives, and these sentences are political convictions…We are innocent," Samaheeji told reporters.

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 Shias. 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.

Initially, 20 medical personnel were 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 Shia-led protests that began in February 2011. A retrial in civilian court was ordered earlier this year following intense pressure from international rights and medical groups.

Even the most recent court ruling drew complaints from the Americans, who count Bahrain as a close ally since it hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told reporters last week that Washington was "disappointed" by the ruling. He appealed for reconciliation talks in Bahrain but acknowledged that the nation remains deeply divided.

Bahrain's Shias comprise about 70 percent of the island's more than half-million citizens. They 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 Shia 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, and hundreds of other protesters, activists, athletes and Shia professionals have been tried in the court. Among them is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who ended a more than 100-day hunger strike earlier this month to protest his life sentence for anti-state crimes. A retrial has since been ordered for a 21-member group that includes Khawaja.

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