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Medics' trial in Bahrain postponed until next week

From Jenifer Fenton, CNN
Bahraini medics were called on to treat dozens of wounded protesters in the wake of anti-government demonstrations
Bahraini medics were called on to treat dozens of wounded protesters in the wake of anti-government demonstrations
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Detained medics tell relatives of abuse claims, sources say
  • A judge delays the trial to give defendants more time to consult with their lawyers
  • The government says the 47 people will be tried for anti-government activities
  • But rights groups allege the medics are being prosecuted for treating protesters
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(CNN) -- Medical workers accused of trying to overthrow Bahrain's monarchy, among other charges, will get additional time to consult with attorneys before their trial begins, a military court judge ruled Monday.

The judge postponed the trial of the 47 health workers to June 13. It originally was scheduled to begin Monday.

Many of the medics -- 24 doctors and 23 nurses and paramedics -- worked at Salmaniya Medical Complex, which the government says served as a coordination point for protests against the government where staff neglected their duties.

The justice ministry said the accused are charged with crimes that include incitement to overthrow the regime, deadly assault and refusal to help persons in need.

Activists and human rights groups allege that the medical workers are being prosecuted for treating protesters.

During Monday's session, lawyers for the medics challenged the court's legitimacy and asked that workers accused of misdemeanors be released, according to one person who was in court and an opposition figure who spoke with someone who attended the hearing.

The judge denied both motions, the sources said.

The medics were allowed to visit with relatives for about 10 minutes, the sources said.

Some of them told family members that they had been subjected to physical, psychological and verbal abuse, the sources confirmed.

Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

Protests swept the strategically important island kingdom this year as populations across the Arab world rose up against their rulers. The small, predominantly Shiite country, governed by a Sunni royal family, is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

About 30 people have died during protests, according to figures from the government, opposition figures and human rights groups. Opposition and human rights groups say the government has detained more than 1,000 people.

During the protests, security forces stormed the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital in the capital Manama, and beat doctors and demonstrators, according to witnesses.

The hospital "was used as a coordination center by protesters and had been overrun by political and sectarian activity, severely interrupting services and endangering lives," said Houda Noono, Bahrain's ambassador to the United States.

"During this period, patients were refused treatment on the basis of their sect or ethnicity, and emergency calls were neglected," she said. "The hospital grounds were barricaded and Salmaniya was very clearly no longer a neutral, medical establishment. As a result, the action to secure the hospital was both unavoidable and necessary."

Human rights groups have accused the government of widespread attacks on doctors and other medical workers.

"We documented a systematic attack on medical staff in Bahrain including the beatings, torture and disappearances of more than 30 physicians," said Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

"We found doctors were simply providing ethical and life-saving medical care to patients whom Bahraini security forces had shot, detained and tortured," Sollom said.

Physicians for Human Rights, a group that shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to ban landmines, says it sent investigators to the Persian Gulf kingdom and interviewed 45 patients, doctors, nurses and witnesses.

The report details attacks on "physicians, medical staff, patients and unarmed civilians with the use of bird shot, physical beatings, rubber bullets, tear gas and unidentified chemical agents," the group said in an April report.

Its report echoes those released earlier by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders.

Bahraini officials have denied the allegations.