GENEVA (Reuters) - Bahrain is targeting its Shi'ite Muslim community through arrests and prosecutions of clerics, activists and entertainers, a group of United Nations-appointed independent experts said on Tuesday.
In a statement, the experts urged Bahraini authorities to halt what they said were "arbitrary arrests" based on religion and release those detained for free speech and assembly.
There have been regular clashes between members Bahrain's Shi'ites and security forces since the island's Sunni rulers quashed a Shi'ite-led pro-democracy uprising in 2011 with military help from Saudi Arabia amongst others.
A staunch U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the kingdom blames Shi'ite neighbour Iran for fomenting violence on its turf, an accusation Tehran denies.
In recent months, the authorities have drawn international rebuke for waging their harshest crackdown in years on Shi'ite opposition groups and rights activists.
"The intensified wave of arrests, detentions, summons, interrogations and criminal charges brought against numerous Shi'ite religious clerics and singers, human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents is having a chilling effect on fundamental human rights," the U.N. experts said.
They cited measures including the dissolution of the main opposition al-Wefaq group, the shutting of faith-based organisations and a preaching ban for some Shi'ite holy men.
"A wide range of charges are brought against the Shi'ites including 'illegal gathering', 'inciting hatred against the regime', 'money laundering' and 'acts of terrorism' in relation to their peaceful gatherings and religious congregations and peaceful expression of their beliefs, views and dissenting opinions," the experts said.
They called these "groundless accusations used to hide a deliberate targeting of Shias in the country".
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)