Bahraini medical professionals learn their fate but victory is not yet complete

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Bahrain during the state's uprising. Credit: Reuters

I have never been among such an eminent group of political dissidents.

A neurosurgeon, a leading eye specialist, the former head of emergency treatment.

The location was equally incongruous. We'd met them in a cafe in one of Bahrain's air conditioned shopping malls. An odd place to learn your fate: freedom or jail over a cappuccino.

The doctors were among a group of twenty medical professionals convicted by a military court of plotting against the state: specifically of taking control of Salmanya Medical Complex in the capital Manama during last year's uprising, of stashing weapons there and of giving aid to the opposition.

The doctors say they were simply doing their jobs; treating the hundreds injured by security forces battling pro-democracy campaigners.

Originally sentenced to up to 15 years, an international outcry forced a re-trial before a civilian judge.

The verdict came today but the accused refused to attend. They feared immediate re-arrest if the convictions were upheld.

So they nibbled cinnamon buns and sipped coffee as they waited nervously for a phone call from the court.

When it came, first confusion, then briefly elation, with the news that nine had been found innocent and the sentences for nine others had been significantly cut.

But then the realisation that this is not complete victory.

Dr Rula Alsaffar, who had her fifteen year jail term over-turned, told me: 'I can never be truly free while my colleagues are facing prison. We have become a family. I appeal to the outside world to help us'.

Medical professionals from the Salmaniya Medical Complex were arrested in March and April 2011 at the beginning of the uprising in Bahrain. Credit: Reuters

Bahrain's authorities say the re-trial is part of a reform programme that is changing the troubled island kingdom for the better.

But it is still routinely accused of human rights abuses, a big embarrassment for Bahrain's allies in the west.

Over coffee and sticky buns it's clear the divisions are as deep as ever.

On trial in Bahrain: not just the doctors but a country's commitment to freedom and justice.