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DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain should suspend prosecution of civilians in military courts and set up an impartial commission to look into allegations of torture during a clampdown on those involved in street protests, a U.S-based rights group said.
Human Rights Watch said Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent rights activist who appeared before a special military-style court on May 8, a month after he was arrested, bore visible signs of ill-treatment and perhaps torture.
"It appears that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja's jailers tortured him during the month they held him in incommunicado detention," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for the New York-based group.
Government officials were not immediately available to comment.
In March, Bahrain, where the Sunni king rules over a Shi'ite majority, crushed weeks of street protests calling for greater political freedoms, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination.
Neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf states sent troops to back its forces, in turn boosting regional tension with nearby Shi'ite rival Iran, which Bahrain accuses of helping instigate the protests.
Since then, Bahrain has targeted demonstrators. Hundreds have been arrested and dozens put on trial in special courts. Others have been fired from government jobs. A state of emergency is due to be lifted on June 1.
Human Rights Watch said Khawaja, who it said was maltreated, was among a group of opposition activists charged with attempting to topple the government "in collaboration with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country."
The government denies there is torture in Bahrain and officials say all such accusations will be investigated.
Human Rights Watch called on Bahrain to allow defendants full access to lawyers, family members and necessary medical care. It said Khawaja's wife and daughter saw him for the first time since his arrest after the court session.
The trial is due to resume on Thursday after being adjourned to allow defence lawyers to meet with clients and in some cases to appoint lawyers.
At least 29 people, all but six of them Shi'ites, have been killed since the protests started in February, inspired by Arab revolts against autocratic rule that toppled the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.
The six non-Shi'ites killed included two foreigners -- an Indian and a Bangladeshi -- and four policemen.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Philippa Fletcher