Bahraini doctors and nurses arrested over the civil protests that rocked the kingdom earlier this year have been denied access to their lawyers, their attorneys and relatives said late on Monday.
All of those charged are from the majority Shi’ite Muslim population and opposition activists say the charges are part of a crackdown against professionals who took part in pro-democracy protests against the Gulf Arab state’s Sunni-led government.
The medical workers face charges ranging from incitement against the government to storing weapons and seizing control of a major hospital during the unrest, part of a series of protests that have swept North African and Gulf states this year.
Bahraini forces quashed demonstrations in March after calling in troops from nearby Sunni Gulf countries to restore order in the non-Opec oil producer that is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Some lawyers told Reuters they had not been granted access to detained defendants before a hearing on Monday in Bahrain’s military court, and argued those in custody should be released until their trial.
A government official said the lawyers would be allowed to see their clients before their next hearing next Monday when their charges will be read.
“They will be guaranteed a meeting with their attorney after the defense has a chance to look over their file and determine the direction of their case for the next hearing,” he said.
All but 10 of the 48 doctors and nurses who have been charged are in detention.
The trial of the medical workers has angered many among the Shi’ite population, as tensions simmer in the tiny island kingdom after an emergency law was revoked on June 1 and sporadic protests broke out.
“You can’t figure out these charges. They are using it to try to hide their mistakes during the crackdown,” a member of the leading Shi’ite group, Wefaq, said.
Some relatives of the detained defendants, who were allowed a visit after the hearing, told Reuters that the detainees had complained to them of torture.
“He said they made him stand for days and they also tied his hands and feet together and beat him while saying humiliating things,” the relative of one detainee told Reuters.
The government has “zero tolerance” for torture and would investigate any allegations immediately, said Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, senior international counselor at Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority.
“We are very disturbed by these allegations and we refute them totally,” he said.
The government has said previously it would investigate any claims of abuse for which there is concrete evidence.
Defendants and relatives said they believed their case would depend on the outcome of a national debate expected in July that was offered by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and accepted by Wefaq and other political groups.
“We all believe the solution is political, that we are a card to use to pressure the opposition for concessions,” one of the defendants, released from custody last month, told Reuters.
The defendants are due to be sentenced at a hearing to be scheduled later this month. It is unclear what punishment they may face, though some defendants said their lawyers expected jail terms of 10 to 20 years.
“If there’s a solution, we expect to be released. If dialogue stalls maybe we will stay in jail,” one defendant said.