DUBAI/GENEVA Bahrain's parliament has invited the U.N. human rights chief to visit and promised him unrestricted access to prisons and Shi'ite villages, local media said on Wednesday, following his criticism of the kingdom's record.
A senior official at the United Nations human rights office in Geneva welcomed the invitation and said any visit would have to address issues including reports of torture and a crackdown on activists and political parties in the Sunni-ruled state.
Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper said parliament issued an open invitation to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein to visit "amidst claims he issued recently about human rights violations".
"MPs ... asserted that there will be no restrictions on his movements and he will be allowed to visit any place, village or prison," the newspaper said.
In Geneva, Mohammad Alnsour, chief of the Middle East and North Africa section of the U.N. human rights office, told Reuters that a technical mission which he headed in February last year was unable to visit detention centres.
He said Zeid welcomed the invitation, but it would have to tackle human rights and could not be mere "a photo opportunity".
Bahrain's majority Shi'ite Muslims demonstrated in 2011 demanding a bigger share in government. The country has drawn criticism over its response to the protests, including allegations of torture.
Authorities have banned the main Shi'ite Muslim group, launched legal proceedings to ban another secular group, detained activists and revoked the citizenship of the spiritual leader of the country's Shi'ites.
Bahrain says its actions are directed against people who foment violence and sectarian tensions in the kingdom, denying charges by activists that it is targeting dissidents.
Alnsour said the council had many concerns in Bahrain. "Our major concern is we have allegations of torture, ... shrinking of democratic space for political activists and political societies (parties) in the country," he said.
Host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is seen by other Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf states like Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against the influence of their Shi'ite Muslim adversary Iran.
Bahraini Shi'ites say the Sunni Muslim-dominated government discriminates against them, while authorities deny that and say opposition politicians are trying to undermine security.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Dominic Evans)