By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights experts called on Bahrain on Thursday to release detained activists, end restrictions on freedom of expression, and end 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 the help of 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 a U.N. panel that 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.
But U.N. panel expert Olivier de Frouville told a briefing: "Since last year there is a new regression, a fresh assault against freedom of expression, against civil society that is critical, and a marginalisation of political opposition parties."
The panel's independent experts voiced concern at an increased use of violence by police during peaceful demonstrations "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.
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.
"We called on (Bahrain) to change its laws, to stop reprisals, also to release immediately and unconditionally anyone held solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights," de Frouville said, adding that they included Rajab.
The panel also denounced the reported targeting of opposition-linked Al-Wasat newspaper, leading to its closure in 2017.
Voicing concern at reports of arbitrary arrests by security forces, including incommunicado detention, it named Khalil al-Marzouq, a former member of parliament for the opposition group al-Wefaq, and Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent activist.
Bahrain should repeal all discriminatory provisions against women in its legislation, it said, and grant them 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)