A boy holding a Bahraini flag gestures to the camera as he participates in a rally held by the Shi'ite opposition party Al Wefaq in Tubli, south of Manama, September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed (BAHRAIN) (HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)

The relatively muted U.S. response to the sentencing this week of doctors, teachers and opposition activists in Bahrain is renewing calls there for the Obama administration to take a stronger line against rights abuses in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom.

Dozens of people detained after huge anti-government protests in February have been tried under emergency law in the
quasi-military National Safety Court, and in recent days were given prison terms ranging from three years to life. A civilian court has ordered the retrial of 20 doctors, but at least 80 more people sentenced for crimes that include organizing illegal gatherings remain in prison.

Ali Alekri, a surgeon sentenced to a 15-year prison term, said he had been convicted only because he had treated injured protesters and because, like most of those involved in the uprising, he is a Shiite Muslim.

“The international community did nothing,” said Alekri, speaking by telephone from Bahrain, where he has been released on bail. “We expect pressure from the Americans, and we do not know why they did not do that. Possibly there is a conflict of interest.”

Alekri said that he had been beaten, that his family had been threatened and that he had been forced to sign a confession while in prison — charges echoed by others.

Bahrain is a key Middle Eastern ally for the United States, and government opponents say that status has led Washington to look the other way amid widespread allegations of torture and illegal detentions. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is anchored in Bahrain.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that the United States was “deeply disturbed” by the sentencing of 20 medical professionals and urged the Bahraini government to commit to transparent judicial proceedings. But officials have stopped short of directly condemning Bahrain’s authorities.

Bahraini officials announced Thursday that the National Safety Court would be discontinued, although similar assurances were made earlier this year without effect. While it is officially a combined civil and military court, doctors said the trials were heavily dominated by the military.

“We respect the views of important ally countries,” government spokesman Abdulaziz al-Khalifa said. He said appeals for all cases would be heard in civilian courts, but insisted that the trials under emergency law were necessary. “Let’s not forget what happened in Bahrain was nothing short of total anarchy that jeopardized the national security of the country,” he said.

In February, thousands of demonstrators massed in daily demonstrations in Manama’s iconic Pearl Square, protesting against corruption, political repression and widely perceived discrimination against the Shiite majority of the population. Security forces, swelled by a Saudi-led force sent from Persian Gulf countries, largely quelled the demonstrations in a crackdown in which about 30 people were killed.

President Obama had strong words on Bahrain when he spoke about the Arab uprisings in May, condemning “mass arrests and brute force.” The statement gave hope to hundreds of prisoners and their families, said Bassim Dhaif, another surgeon who treated protesters and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“We thought there were positive signs in Obama’s speech. He encouraged the government of Bahrain to have real dialogue with the opposition,” he said. “But they are not really active, because the American Navy is stationed in Bahrain.”

Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the administration had been reserved in its criticism since May.

“The U.S. government has plenty to say about human rights in Iran, Syria or Libya but rather loses its voice when it comes to Bahrain,” he said.

There are growing worries that Bahrain has become deeply divided along sectarian lines in the aftermath of the uprising. The divisions are driven in part by discontent among the country’s Shiite majority at perceived discrimination by the government, which is led by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa royal family.

Alekri, the surgeon, said there were areas of the country he could no longer visit because he feared that Sunni people would attack him. He said he has been described as a killer doctor on state television. His daughter has been bullied in school by her Sunni classmates, he added.

The fear goes both ways.

“Among the Sunni community, there is a fear of the protesters vastly disproportionate to the threat they pose,” said Jane Kinninmont of the London-based Chatham House think tank.

She said a state media campaign portraying Shiite protesters as armed and dangerous had widened the gap between the sects.

The unrest in the kingdom of a million subjects has also stirred existing sectarian tensions in neighboring countries. Bahrain’s Gulf Air has suspended all flights to Iraq, which is led by a majority-Shiite government. Relations have worsened between Iran, where the Shiite theocracy has been vocally supportive of the protest movement, and Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leadership, which sent troops to Bahrain to assist the government in quelling the uprising.

Iraqi Shiite groups, both inside and outside the country, have campaigned on behalf of the Bahraini protesters.

Although the monument at Pearl Square in Bahrain’s capital was destroyed by government forces in March, hundreds of protesters still take to the streets every day.

“Many Shia who were not political before have been alienated as they see nonpolitical, professional Shia people being targeted,” Kinninmont said. “The society is now deeply divided.”