MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain began a civilian trial of 13 protest leaders on Tuesday but adjourned the session because hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and another defendant were too ill to attend, lawyers and witnesses said.
Last week the Gulf Arab state's highest appeals court ordered a re-trial after a military court convicted the men last year of using violence in protests led by majority Shi'ites in an effort to topple the Sunni monarchy.
But the court did not release the protest leaders or cancel their original convictions, despite calls from international rights groups for their unconditional release.
Eight of the 13 who had expressed support for turning Bahrain into a republic are serving life sentences. One man was released last week and seven others are abroad or in hiding.
"The lawyers asked that they be allowed to talk to their clients," said Khawaja's lawyer, Mohammed al-Jishi, after Tuesday' hearing. "I said I had not been able to see Abdulhadi for a month. I can't defend him if I can't talk to him."
Two of the accused were absent, Khawaja and Sheikh Mirza al-Mahroos, who prosecutors said were both in hospital, Jishi said. The judge adjourned the case to May 22 to allow the two men to attend and lawyers to see their clients.
"I don't know how they will bring him (to court)," Jishi said of human rights activist Khawaja, a Bahraini-Danish national who has been on hunger strike for three months.
Western governments and the United Nations secretary-general have called for a quick resolution of his case.
Jishi said the other defendants, who were dressed in normal clothes, had tried to complain of their treatment in detention.
The men are believed to be among hundreds cited in the report of an international rights probe in November as having suffered torture in detention, often to extract confessions.
Jishi said it was hard to hear the men, appearing in public for the first time since September's military appeal, as they spoke from behind a glass screen. The session lasted 30 minutes.
Reuters witnesses said riot police were out in strength around the courthouse in central Manama, where a small group of women staged a brief protest. "We know our leaders, prison doesn't scare them," they chanted.
Bahrain, once a tourism and banking hub, has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests erupted in February 2011 after popular uprisings toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
The U.S. ally, which hosts Washington's Fifth Fleet, cracked down, using martial law and bringing in Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops, but one year later unrest still swirls.
Violence has intensified in recent months with daily clashes between protesters and riot police. Opposition parties have held mass rallies. But security forces have prevented demonstrators from regaining a permanent foothold in central Manama.
The defendants, who include Shi'ite clerics, rights activists, politicians and a blogger, are heroes to the protesters, who have painted their images on walls around the country.
Though the Sunni-dominated government says the protesters had Shi'ite sectarian aims, those on trial include Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of a secular party.
(Reporting by Andrew Hammond in Dubai and Reuters television in Manama; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Alistair Lyon)