GENEVA — The U.N. human rights office on Friday questioned the fairness of a Bahrain court that sentenced an anti-government protester to death and gave lengthy prison sentences to medical staff who treated the injured during the country's uprising.
Bahrain's military-run National Safety Court reportedly gave defendants and their lawyers little time to prepare, failed to investigate allegations of torture and conducted some trials in just 10 minutes, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
The court sentenced one protester to death for killing a policeman, and gave 20 doctors and nurses prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. At least 33 protesters – among them union leaders and professional athletes – also received sentences of three years or more.
"For such harsh sentences to be handed down to civilians in a military court with serious due process irregularities raises severe concerns," Rupert Colville, told reporters in Geneva.
"We understand – according to our sources that we trust – that defendants have had limited access to lawyers, and in most cases lawyers definitely did not have enough time to prepare their clients' defense properly."
The U.N. human rights office called on the government to ensure that those detained were charged with "a recognizable criminal offense."
Colville said some of the defendants appeared to have been found guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to free speech.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his concerns in a statement from New York.
Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said Friday the U.N. chief is expressing "deep concern" over the harsh sentences and calling for the release of all political detainees. The U.N. chief "reiterates his appeal to the Bahraini authorities at the highest level to ensure the application of due process and respect for international human rights norms," Nesirky said.
Hundreds of activists have been imprisoned since March when Bahrain's rulers imposed martial law to deal with protests by the country's Shiite majority demanding greater rights and freedoms.
The trial of the medical staff has been closely watched by rights groups, which have criticized Bahrain's use of the special court whose military and civilian judges are appointed by the commander of Bahrain's defense force.
The World Health Organization also questioned the prosecution of the medical staff, but refrained from outright criticism of the Bahrain government.
"Health care workers have a moral and ethical obligation to treat the injured regardless of their political affiliation and they should never be punished for doing what is required by this obligation," said WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib.
The U.N. statements echoed concerns expressed Thursday by the U.S. State Department.
Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States, which has stationed the Navy's 5th Fleet in the Gulf nation, was "deeply disturbed" by the sentencing of the medics.
"We understand that the cases can be appealed and transferred to a civilian appellate court," Toner said. "We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, including a fair trial, access to attorneys, and verdicts based on credible evidence conducted in full accordance with Bahraini law and Bahrain's international legal obligations."