GENEVA, July 26 (Reuters) - United Nations human rights experts called on Bahrain on Thursday to end the repression of activists, restrictions on freedom of expression and discrimination against women.
Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim royal family rules over a Shi’ite-majority population, has cracked down on perceived threats since Arab Spring protests in 2011, led mainly by Shi’ites, were quashed with help from Gulf Arab neighbours.
Demonstrators have clashed frequently with security forces, who have been targeted in several bomb attacks.
Bahrain’s delegation, led by deputy foreign minister Abdulla bin Faisal al-Doseri, told the panel his country had adopted policies aimed at combating hate speech, strengthening national unity, and creating an environment for civil society or trade unions to participate. Empowerment of women was a priority.
The U.N. panel, composed of 18 independent experts, upholds compliance with a landmark treaty on civil and political rights. It examined the record of five countries including Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
The experts voiced concern at an increased use of violence by police during peaceful demonstrations in recent years, “including reports indicating six fatal incidents during demonstrations and ten other extrajudicial killings in 2017”.
The kingdom has used its anti-terrorism act extensively “outside the scope of terrorism, including against human rights defenders and political activists”, they said, calling for the law to be narrowed to allow free speech and peaceful protests.
Authorities “should also ensure that the rights to a fair trial and access to justice are respected in all criminal proceedings for terrorism”, the panel said.
It cited cases including that of Nabeel Rajab, a leading figure in pro-democracy protests, who was sentenced to five years in prison in February for criticising Saudi Arabia’s air strikes in Yemen and accusing Bahrain’s prison authorities of torture. He was already serving a two-year sentence.
“The Committee is also concerned about reports that (Bahrain) has targeted the Al-Wasat newspaper, which was said to be the country’s only semi-independent paper, including suspending its print and online publication, leading to its definite closure in 2017,” it said of the opposition-linked paper.
Voicing concern at reports of arbitrary arrests by security forces, including incommunicado detention, it cited the cases of Khalil al-Marzouq, a former member of parliament for the opposition group al-Wefaq, and Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent activist.
Bahrain should make efforts to reduce polygamy and repeal all discriminatory provisions against women in its legislation, it said.
This included ensuring that women have equal rights with men in transmitting their nationality to their children and in divorce, including economic rights.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Bolton