MANAMA, Bahrain — American officials are concerned about claims of abuses against detainees following Bahrain's crackdowns on Shiite-led protesters demanding sweeping reforms in the kingdom, a top U.S. rights envoy said Wednesday.
The State Department official, Michael Posner, also expressed hopes for proposed talks next month between Bahrain's Sunni rulers and opposition groups.
At least 31 people have died since the unrest began in February – inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the region – yet Washington has made no moves to punish Bahrain's monarchy.
Bahrain's rulers have waged a harsh campaign to crush dissent but also play host to the highly strategic U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet.
"The challenge now is how to initiate dialogue with representatives of all sides and to ensure that this dialogue will address and resolves divisive issues," said Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
Bahraini authorities detained three women activists who staged a sit-in Wednesday at a U.N. office in the capital Manama to call for the release of family members held in custody, according to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
Bahrain and its Gulf Arab allies are deeply concerned over expanding influence by Shiite power Iran and view any gains by Bahrain's Shiite citizens as a possible new foothold for Tehran.
This leaves Washington caught between backing its traditional Gulf partners – led by Saudi Arabia – and expressing support for the greater political openness and rights pushed by the demonstrators in Bahrain.
Shiites comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blackballed from top government or military posts.
The ruling dynasty has come under sharp criticism from international rights groups. The far-reaching crackdowns include hundreds of arrests, purges from workplaces and universities, and accusations of anti-state conspiracies in trials before a special security court.
On Sunday, the court sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reading a poem that was critical of Bahrain's king.
Posner urged Bahraini officials to consider their "international legal obligations" and take "tangible steps to rebuild confidence and trust." He noted concern over reports that "some have been subjected to physical abuse during interrogations."
A judge ordered a probe Tuesday into allegations of torture and forced confessions by a group of doctors and nurses who are accused of aiding protesters and seeking to overthrow the state.
Posner's visit follows meetings in Washington last week between Bahrain's crown prince and President Barack Obama, who welcomed Bahrain's decision to lift martial law-style rule earlier this month.
Bahrain's king has urged for talks with opposition groups to begin July 1. But Bahrain plans to keep indefinitely a 1,500-strong Saudi-led force that was brought in when emergency laws were imposed in March.
"We understand the difficulty of this task, and we also know that no outsider can make it happen," Posner said. "It is for the Bahraini people to forge their own future."
He also warned against the "peril of misinformation and misuse of media" – a possible reference to government campaigns to encourage public loyalty pledges to the leadership.
In a trial earlier Wednesday, the former chief editor of Bahrain's main independent newspaper claimed that apparent plotters in Saudi Arabia planted false news stories about abuses to discredit his paper.
Violence by security forces has been widespread and well documented since demonstrations broke out in February. But the fabricated reports in Al Wasat newspaper were used by authorities to force out staff members and bring serious charges of encouraging unrest.
Mansoor Al-Jamri testified before the criminal court that the false stories came from an Internet address in Saudi Arabia and were written in a way that did not raise suspicions by personnel at Al Wasat, which published the items.
"This was a very sophisticated plot," al-Jamri later told The Associated Press. "They made the stories look authentic and knew to send them at night when we only had one editor on duty."
Al-Jamri claims the paper was the victim of a plot to undermine its role as the main voice for pro-reform advocates. In March, apparent pro-government mobs badly damaged printing facilities at Al Wasat.
Al-Jamri, who was granted bail during the proceedings, also claims that staff members received anonymous threats. His trial is scheduled to resume Sunday.
Bahrain's authorities have meanwhile steadily ramped up media campaigns to support the 200-year-old dynasty and challenge the many reports of heavy-handed tactics against the opposition.
On Tuesday, the official Bahrain News Agency said it planned to file a lawsuit against the British newspaper The Independent for "wrong and defamatory" coverage. It gave no other details about the possible legal action.
In London, The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, called the paper's reporting from Bahrain "fair and accurate."
"We intend to continue to reporting on a story that has huge significance to the Middle East and the world," he said.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Meera Selva in London contributed to this report.