UNITED NATIONS - A group of UN experts Thursday voiced serious concerns about Bahrain’s “campaign of persecution” against those promoting human rights, and called for the prompt release of a prominent human rights defender recently sentenced to three years imprisonment.

 “It is time for the Bahraini authorities to comply with the rights to peaceful assembly and expression and immediately release those arbitrarily detained for exercising their legitimate freedoms,” the experts said in a statement issued by the Office of the UNHCHR. They also called for the immediate release of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who was convicted on three charges of illegal assembly related to his participation in peaceful gatherings in favour of fundamental freedoms and democracy, including a peaceful protest to denounce the detention of fellow defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja. Rajab was recently sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Since February, there have been clashes in Bahrain between security forces and demonstrators seeking human rights, a year after widespread civil protests first emerged in the Gulf country.

 “The sentencing of Nabeel Rajab represents yet another blatant attempt by the Government of Bahrain to silence those legitimately working to promote basic human rights,” said the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.

 “The Bahraini Government must immediately cease its campaign of persecution of human rights defenders in the country,” she added.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, stressed that “the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should not be subject to prior authorization from the authorities.”

He noted that the criminalization of people participating in peaceful assemblies for the sole reason that they did not seek the approval of the authorities to hold such assemblies contradicts international human rights law.

Rajab is also currently serving three months imprisonment for alleged libel through a social networking site. After a series of postponements, a decision by Bahrain’s Higher Appeal Court on that sentence is reportedly due to be announced later today.

 “The continuing repression of free speech in Bahrain runs counter to international law and standards that individuals will not be prosecuted for peaceful political speech,” said the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.

He added, “The authorities must take all measures to guarantee the free expression of all individuals in Bahrain, whether through social media or otherwise.”