WASHINGTON The United States is very concerned about a Bahraini rights activist the opposition says was beaten by security forces and it called on Bahrain, a U.S. ally, to investigate, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday.
Opposition activists said security officers threw Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to the ground and beat him on the head, neck and back after a protest march on Friday.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry denied those accounts, saying on its Twitter feed that police found Rajab "lying on the ground" and took him to the hospital for treatment.
The Sunni-led island kingdom, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, last year sought to crush anti-government demonstrations mounted by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority. Protest marches have continued in recent months, sometimes turning violent.
"We are very concerned about this case," the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. He said a U.S. Embassy official visited Rajab for an hour on Saturday and the activist had a cut beneath one eye and bruising on his face.
"The facts here are in dispute but we are, and have expressed to the government, our real concern about the case," he added. "What we are urging the government to do is to conduct a full investigation and, if excessive force was used by the police, they need to hold the relevant people accountable."
"We are not opining on the facts of what happened here but we are very concerned about this case," he added. "In general, we are very concerned about the frequent reports of excessive use of force by the police, widespread use of tear gas."
The official said there has been a pattern in recent months of protesters using Molotov cocktails and throwing things at police, though he said there was no indication of violence by protesters during the march in which Rajab was hurt.
Bahrain launched a sweeping crackdown on anti-government protests last year that drew criticism internationally and from a state-sponsored inquiry panel that found that security forces used excessive force against demonstrators.
The events in Bahrain, part of last year's "Arab Spring" of popular uprisings against autocratic rulers in the Middle East, have posed a policy challenge for the United States, which values Bahrain as an ally in countering Iranian influence but which wants to be seen as supporting democracy everywhere.
The United States has said a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain depends in part on its response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which found detainees were systematically abused and in some cases tortured to death.
Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition bloc, al-Wefaq, welcomed the comments by the U.S. official, saying the government needed to be pushed to carry out the panel's recommendations.
"We appreciate this response and the Bahrainis are awaiting actions on the ground," said Wefaq member and former member of parliament Mattar Mattar.
"There is struggle in implementing the recommendations of the BICI and the regime needs to be pressured and monitored to apply it, rather than the international community just believing the regime's fake response, which contradicts the facts on the ground," he added.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Doina Chiacu)