MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Tuesday it would charge a number of medical workers with causing the death of two demonstrators, broadening a crackdown on the opposition in the wake of protests that shook the Gulf island kingdom.
Human rights groups say Sunni-led Bahrain has targeted doctors and medical staff who aided mostly-Shi‘ite protesters during anti-government demonstrations it crushed in March. It brought in troops from Sunni-led Gulf Arab neighbours who feared potential interference from non-Arab Shi‘ite power Iran.
Justice Minister Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa told reporters 47 medical staff would face charges, including about two dozen doctors. Not all would be prosecuted for causing the protesters deaths, but he did not say how many would face such charges.
He said the two protesters died because staff inflicted additional wounds on them or gave unneeded treatments.
“The medical profession was strongly abused during this period,” he said.
The U.S.-based rights group Physicians for Human Rights that sent a fact-finding mission into Bahrain last month rejected the government’s account of events.
“The results of our findings were pointing to a wholly different conclusion,” the group’s Deputy Director Richard Sollom told Reuters.
“These doctors provided medical care for protesters, sometimes life-saving, who were shot at by police. They’re flipping this upside down,” he said.
Bahraini forces stormed the Salmaniyya Medical Centre (SMC), the country’s largest hospital in mid-March as it set about quelling protests led mostly by the country’s Shi‘ite majority.
Officials said at the time the hospital had become “overrun by political and sectarian activity.” Rights groups accused Bahrain of targeting hospitals to detain wounded protesters.
According to Sheikh Khaled, doctors inflicted additional wounds on a protester who arrived at SMC with a wound on his thigh, causing him to bleed to death.
He said other doctors conducted unnecessary surgery on a protester who was shot in the head, adding the doctors in these two cases would be charged with “assault that led to death.”
Other doctors and nurses face charges ranging from inciting hatred against the political system to possession of weapons and embezzlement of public funds.
Bahrain’s interior minister called on Tuesday for closer regional security cooperation among Gulf states.
“We need to take more practical steps to enhance security cooperation (including) bilateral and multilateral cooperation between (Gulf) states and setting up a command for criminal police,” Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa told a meeting of Gulf Arab interior ministers in Abu Dhabi.
At least 13 protesters and four policemen were killed and hundreds injured in clashes during the protests that gripped the country for weeks in February and March.
Bahrain has arrested hundreds since quashing protests, which called for broader political liberties and an end to sectarian discrimination Shi‘ites say they face. A few Shi‘ite opposition groups demanded the abolition of the monarchy.
The government says it only targets those who committed crimes during the unrest. It has said about 400 people detained in the aftermath of the protests will face prosecution.
The United States and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia regard Bahrain’s ruling family as a bulwark against the regional influence of Iran, with which tensions have risen sharply.
Bahrain’s broad crackdown on those involved in the protests has targeted Shi‘ite villages, opposition activists, workers employed at state-owned companies as well as journalists.
Late on Monday, two former parliamentarians from the main Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq were arrested, the group said. The group had resigned from parliament, whose powers are limited, in February to protest at police violence.
Bahrain’s Al Wasat newspaper, seen as the country’s only opposition publication, will stop running as of next week, a source close to the paper told Reuters on Tuesday.
The government suspended the paper last month until three of its editors resigned. It accused the paper of falsifying news about the unrest and the crackdown and said it threatened the security of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
The source told Reuters the last edition of the newspaper would appear on May 9: “It’s for economic reasons, the commercial viability was gone.”
The official Bahrain News Agency said on Tuesday the country’s Lower National Safety Court will render a judgement on May 5 in the case of a man charged with attempting to kill a number of policemen by attacking with his car at a checkpoint.
BNA said the military prosecutor is demanding “the most severe punishment” for the accused, without elaborating.
The court last week sentenced four men to death accused of killing two policemen by running them over with cars.