By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States called on its ally Bahrain on Saturday to investigate the case of a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who the opposition says was beaten by security forces.
Opposition activists said several 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 has 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.
Officials from the U.S. embassy in Manama met for about an hour on Saturday with Rajab, who had a cut beneath one eye and bruising on his face, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence in Bahrain between police and demonstrators," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a written statement.
"While the facts surrounding the violence that transpired remain in dispute, we strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to undertake a full investigation (of Rajab's case) to determine if excessive force was employed by police," she added.
Nuland said embassy officials had raise Rajab's case with senior Bahraini officials and urged the government to carry out recommendations made by an independent commission that found Bahrain used excessive force in last year's crackdown.
"In general we urge all demonstrators to refrain from acts of violence and for police and security forces also to avoid excessive use of force," she added.
U.S. 'VERY CONCERNED' ABOUT RAJAB CASE
"We are very concerned about this case," said the senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that if an investigation found the Bahraini police used excessive force against him, those responsible should be punished.
While the official said there has been a pattern in recent months of protesters using Molotov cocktails and throwing things at police, 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 the state-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which found detainees were systematically abused and in some cases tortured to death.
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 the country 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 issued its report on November 23.
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 and Eric Walsh)