Geneva: Bahrain`s handing down of harsh sentences to 20 doctors followed flawed trials that failed to meet international standards of transparency and due process, the United Nations human rights office said on Friday.
The World Medical Association also condemned as "totally unacceptable" the jail terms imposed by a military court, while the World Health Organization said medical personnel should never be punished for doing their duty of treating all patients.
A security court sentenced 20 doctors to jail on Thursday for between 5 and 15 years on theft and other charges, the state news agency said, in what critics claimed was reprisal for treating injured protesters during unrest in the Gulf kingdom this year.
"For such harsh sentences to be handed down to civilians in a military court with serious due process irregularities raises severe concerns," Rupert Colville, spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told a news briefing.
Defendants had limited access to lawyers and most lawyers did not have enough time to prepare properly, he said.
"We`ve even heard reports of detainees calling their families the day before their hearing asking them to appoint a lawyer," he said.
The hearing itself had taken less than 10 minutes, according to a defense lawyer.
The court -- whose 3 judges are appointed by the military "has also not been investigating torture allegations and has not permitted recordings of the proceedings," Colville said.
The doctors denied the charges, saying they were invented by the authorities to punish medical staff for treating people who took part in anti-government protests. They were among dozens of medical staff arrested during protests led by the Shi`ite majority demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and a greater say in government.
Bahrain`s Sunni Muslim rulers quashed the protests in March, with the help of troops from fellow Sunni neighbors Saudi Arab and the United Arab Emirates. At least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained -- mostly Shi`ites -- in the crackdown.
On Monday, Bahrain sentenced 32 men to 15 years in jail over violent protests and handed the head of a teachers` union a 10-year prison term for calling for the overthrow of the Gulf Arab monarchy.
Colville, referring to the doctors, said: "The charges have varied from illegal gatherings or expressing hatred of the government to what one normally consider actual crimes such as murder and destruction of property. So quite a lot of these charges related to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."
Bahrain`s government had announced that all cases would be referred to civilian courts in October, but it was not clear how appeals by those convicted in military courts would be handled, he said.
"It is a sad day for medicine when physicians are incarcerated for treating patients. Physicians have an ethical duty to care for all patients in situations of conflict irrespective of the political circumstances," World Medical Association President Wonchat Subhachaturas said in a statement.
The body links 8 million physicians in 97 countries.
"In times of conflict, medical neutrality must be respected under the Geneva Conventions," Fadela Chaib, spokeswoman of the WHO, a United Nations agency, said.
"This means that injured people must be allowed to receive treatment regardless of their affiliation, health care workers must be allowed to access them and treat them and medical facilities including transport and personnel must all be protected," she told reporters.