More than two dozen Shiite Muslims accused of plotting against Bahrain's Sunni rulers described abuses including beatings and electric shocks at a trial Thursday observed by U.S. envoys in one of Washington's most strategic Gulf allies.
The charges against the 25 detainees _ ranging from rights activists to a blogger and a dentist _ follow months of sweeping crackdowns and unrest that have deeply shaken the tiny island kingdom that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Washington and its allies are seeking ways to ease tensions between the majority Shiites, who claim widespread discrimination, and the ruling Sunni dynasty, which sees itself as under siege and facing possible proxy threats from Shiite heavyweight Iran.
Bahrain has been hit by sporadic unrest for decades as Shiites _ who represent 70 percent of the nation's 530,000 citizens _ press for a greater political voice and opportunities. Reforms in the past decade, including parliamentary elections, have opened more room for Shiites. But they complain the Sunni-directed system still excludes them from any key policymaking roles or top posts in the security forces.
The trial and claims of jailhouse torture are the latest potential flashpoints and come less than a week after highly charged parliamentary elections.
One by one, the defendants came before the judge to recount punishments that included beatings, electric shocks and sleep deprivation during their weeks in prison. Some pulled back clothing to point to apparent bruises and other signs of force.
At least one detainee, Jaffar Al-Hessabi, claimed he was sexually abused but did not give details in the courtroom filled with relatives and diplomatic observers. Nearly all the detainees said they were denied contact with family and legal counsel.
"We must investigate this torture," demanded one of the defense lawyers, Jalila al-Sayed.
The judge, Ibrahim al-Zayed, ordered forensic examinations into at least three claims of abuses and set the next trial session for Nov. 11.
"This is not enough," said the lawyer al-Sayed after the ruling. "We cannot continue until the issue of torture is fully exposed."
Bahraini leaders strongly denied any abuses or attempts to block the detainees from meeting with lawyers.
"Bahrain has zero tolerance for torture," said Nazar Sadeq Al Baharna, minister of state with responsibility for humanitarian affairs.
The group is accused of supporting "terrorist" cells seeking to overthrow the ruling system. The original 23 suspects _ whose names were splashed across state media last month _ were unexpectedly joined by two other defendants, including a prominent blogger.
The level of concern by authorities was evident in the blanket security around the court in Bahrain's capital, Manama, including anti-riot police and helicopter surveillance. Only one family member for each suspect was allowed in the court gallery alongside observers that included U.S. and European envoys, Amnesty International and other rights groups.
The proceedings were covered by Bahrain's state television, but reporting restrictions were placed on other local journalists.
The latest backlash from authorities began in August with the arrest of several prominent Shiite right activists. Shiites responded with street riots and wildcat protests. More than 250 people have been detained and several blogs and other media outlets have been silenced.
The original group of 23 includes prominent rights activist Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, who was taken into custody Aug. 13 as he returned from London with his family. The other alleged coup plotters range from professors, taxi drivers and a dentist _ all facing possible life sentences if convicted.
The other two suspects include a Shiite political figure and blogger Ali Abdulemam, whose case has been taken up by media freedom groups.
In Bahrain's parliamentary elections last week, Shiites held onto their 18 seats in the 40-member chamber but are not expected to gain enough allies for a majority. The second round of voting is Saturday.