WASHINGTON The United States said on Wednesday it was deeply concerned over a decision by Bahrain's top court to uphold jail terms against nine medics convicted for their role in last year's pro-democracy uprising, calling it a setback for reconciliation efforts in the Gulf Arab state.
"We are deeply concerned that the Court of Cassation upheld the rulings against the nine medical professionals who were associated with the protests last year," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
"We're also concerned that these convictions serve to further restrict freedom of expression and hurt the atmosphere that's so necessary in Bahrain for national reconciliation," Nuland said.
Bahrain's Court of Cassation on Monday rejected all appeals presented by the defendants and confirmed the previous rulings of prison terms ranging between one month to five years.
The case has drawn international criticism of the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab kingdom, which has been in turmoil since the protests led by its Shi'ite Muslim majority were crushed by the Sunni rulers.
Bahrain, home base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, accuses regional Shi'ite power Iran of encouraging the unrest and has promised a tough response to violent protests as talks with the opposition have stalled.
"We understand that as of this morning the government has begun taking these people into custody," Nuland said.
"So we've repeatedly voiced concern about this case. We're going to continue to do it both publicly and privately at the highest levels in Bahrain."
In June, the appeals court sentenced Ali al-Ekry, former senior surgeon at the Salmaniya hospital in Manama, to five years in jail and gave eight others prison sentences ranging from one month to three years. It also acquitted nine others.
Two medics previously sentenced to 15 years each did not appeal and they are believed to be in hiding or to have left the country.
The doctors and nurses, who are all Shi'ites, say they were victimized for treating protesters and helping bring world attention to deaths caused by security forces.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Jackie Frank)