The UN has condemned an "intensified crackdown" on rights in Bahrain after the country revoked the citizenship of leading Shiite authority Isa Qassim. Supporters have rallied in the cleric's town in protest at the move.
Protesters crowded outside the home of Ayatollah Isa Qassim in the mostly Shiite village of Diraz on Tuesday, angry over a decision to strip the sheikh of his nationality.
The UN human rights office urged authorities to observe the right to peaceful assembly and ensure activists wouldn't face "intimidation or reprisals."
"We urge the Bahraini authorities to seek to de-escalate the situation - instead of taking such damaging steps in quick succession with a serious risk of escalating the situation," Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN rights office, told a briefing in Geneva.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said it had canceled the 79-year-old ayatollah's citizenship because he had been using his influence to promote sectarian divisions in society. The move against Qassim, who is considered the spiritual leader of the kingdom's Shiite Muslims, comes amid a wider crackdown on opposition in the country.
Protests are forbidden in the Western-backed monarchy, where tensions between the Sunni rulers and majority Shiite population have periodically erupted into violence.
UN: No justification
Shamdasani said the UN was concerned by Bahrain's actions and stressed that international law guarantees the right to nationality, which cannot be taken away for "arbitrary" reasons.
"Given that due process was not followed, it cannot be justified," she said, adding that at least 250 Bahrainis had been stripped of their citizenship since 2014.
The annulling of Qassim's citizenship also drew a rebuke from Washington.
"Our concern is further magnified by reports that Sheikh Qassim was unable to respond to the accusations against him... or challenge the decision through a transparent legal process," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Last week, a court ordered that Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, be shut down over allegations of supporting terrorism and undermining the state. Also last week, leading Bahraini human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab was arrested on unspecified charges. His lawyer reported on Twitter that his detention had been extended by eight days on Tuesday.
Deep running divisions
Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since a Shiite uprising in 2011 demanding a greater say in the running of the country. The monarchy crushed the protests with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies who are keen to limit Shiite influence in the region.
The elite Revolutionary Guards from Shiite power Iran on Tuesday said the move against Ayatollah Qassim would spark an "Islamic revolution," warning that Bahrain "will pay the price and it will have no result but the destruction of this bloodthirsty regime."
Bahrain often accuses Iran of inciting violence among its Shiite community and interfering in its affairs - a charge Tehran denies.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia voiced support for its neighbor, saying it stands by Bahrain in "measures taken to preserve the security, stability and safety of its citizens" and to protect "unity and social cohesion."
nm/bk (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)