By Bill Law Reporter, BBC Crossing Continents Human rights activists in the Gulf state of Bahrain are calling on the government to release 15 protesters jailed in late December. They say the prisoners, who are Shia Muslims, have been subjected to torture and sexual abuse while in jail. Bahrain is unique in all the states of the Arabian Peninsula in that it has a Shia majority, roughly 65% of the population. But the ruling elite is Sunni. Shia Bahrainis say they have been discriminated against for years. In a courtroom in Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, on 24 February, 15 Shia men stood before Judge Mohammed Ali al-Khalifa. They were asked how they pled to charges arising from riots in December of last year. Before entering a plea of not guilty, each man read out a statement alleging systematic torture while in detention. After they spoke, they were denied bail and returned to prison. Torture allegations Abduljalil Alsingace is the media director of the Shia Haq political party. His brother Mohammed was among those arrested. Mr Alsingace told me Mohammed was subjected to severe torture including the falaqa or beating on the soles of the feet. He told me Mohammed was held in solitary confinement in a tiny room, handcuffed and sexually molested. I can categorically deny that any form of torture or sexual abuse took place Shaikh Abdulaziz al-Khalifa Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mohamed has also been forced, he says, to witness the torture and abuse of the other detainees. The Bahrain government strongly rejects the allegations. In a statement given to the BBC, Shaikh Abdulaziz al-Khalifa, a senior government representative in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "I can categorically deny that any form of torture or sexual abuse took place." He called the claims "tired and formulaic" and told me they are "routinely used by well-known anti-government groups to try and discredit the government". Sectarian violence I first visited the Gulf state in July of last year to make a Crossing Continents programme for the BBC about sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia. The evening I arrived I found myself in the midst of a riot in the small Shia fishing village of Malkiya on the outskirts of the capital Manama. In the eerie light of fires from burning piles of garbage and blazing tyres, young men roamed the streets, occasionally hurling stones at a line of balaclava masked riot police. The stench of tear gas hung in the air. When I approached the police line I was brusquely told to clear off. As we left the police fired off another volley of tear gas. Known in the west as a booming business centre, Bahrain is increasingly an upmarket tourist destination with luxury villas built on land reclaimed from the sea. The new oil The royal al-Khalifa family has grown enormously wealthy on oil revenues. But the oil is running out. For the ruling family, land has become the new oil. In this tiny island nation the public, we were told, has access to less than 3% of the coastline. The rest is in private hands and much of it is controlled by the al-Khalifas. Ownership of the coast allows access to reclaimed land from the sea. This is then sold on to the highest bidder to build another business complex or a five-star tourist resort. In Malkiya a cousin of the king seized a beach that had been used by the villagers for generations. It was that action which set off the protests. Shortly after our programme went out, the King made a visit to Malkiya. He ordered his cousin to restore the beach to the villagers. That helped to end unrest there but the violence continued in other Shia villages, fuelled by resentment about growing poverty, poor housing and rampant unemployment. Iran blamed Many among the Sunni elite believe that Shia Iran is behind the unrest. The Shia says those claims are nonsense. They insist they are loyal to Bahrain and the ruling family. In December of last year Bahrain was wracked by almost nightly rioting touched off when a young protester was allegedly beaten to death by members of the Bahraini Special Security Forces. The government responded to the rioting by arresting the 15 Shia activists and charging them with offences ranging from being present at an illegal gathering to the burning of a police vehicle. The activists deny all the charges. The trial of the 15 has now been postponed until 17 March. Story from BBC NEWS: Published: 2008/02/28 12:42:01 GMT © BBC MMVIII