DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has arrested a prominent human rights activist and critic of the country's ruling family, the Interior Ministry and an activist said on Sunday, as the authorities escalated a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since activists mainly from the majority Shi'ite community began protests in February 2011 after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Police arrested Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), on return from Beirut on Saturday evening, Sayed Yousif Almuhafda, a member of the BCHR told Reuters.
"The police arrested him near the plane's door. They said they had an arrest warrant from the public prosecutions office ... He was allowed to call his family after the arrest yesterday but they could not see him," Almuhafda said.
He said Rajab appeared on court on Sunday on previous charges of taking part in and calling for an illegal gathering and march. "We don't know what the new charges are yet," he said by telephone from Manama.
Rajab shot to prominence last year when he became a loud campaigner against the crackdown. With 140,000 followers on Twitter he is one of the most well-known online activists in the Arab world.
Bahrain's Ministry of Interior confirmed Rajab's arrest "for committing a number of crimes punishable by law". It gave no more details.
Authorities are also holding protest leader Zainab al-Khawaja after she tried to protest alone on a major highway. Prosecutors say she insulted women police officers. She became a symbol for protesters after she was dragged from a traffic roundabout in December by women riot police.
Both Rajab and Khawaja, daughter of jailed uprising leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who is on a hunger strike, have been detained briefly on numerous occasions over the past year but this was the first time the authorities held them with apparent intent to press charges.
The International Federation for Human Rights, in which Rajab is deputy secretary general, condemned the arrest.
"The federation demands the immediate and unconditional release of Rajab and other rights defenders, while it appears that these judicial harassments aim to place blacks against human rights activities," the Paris-based group said.
Rajab and Khawaja have been a thorn in the government's side, organizing peaceful protests inside Manama without licenses - in contrast to the leading opposition party Wefaq which obtains Interior Ministry approval.
Their acts of civil disobedience have made them heroes to many Bahraini opposition activists. Western activists, who were eventually deported, joined Rajab for protests in February that marked one year since the protest movement began.
Tension has risen again since April when Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix became a lightning rod for protesters and visiting journalists turned their attention to an uprising that has not gone away.
Analysts predicted that hardliners within the ruling family would show their teeth after the Grand Prix, when Bahrain stopped some journalists entering and deported a team from Britain's Channel Four for entering on tourist visas.
A statement on the state news agency warned clerics against incitement to violence, sectarianism, insulting the judiciary and constitutional institutions and harming the economy - comments apparently directed against leading Shi'ite clerics such as Sheikh Isa Qassim who led a mass protest in March.
"The cabinet instructed ministries to take legal measures if these violations continue, affirming its total rejection of any bargaining over the nation's security and unity," BNA said.
King Hamad enacted constitutional reforms last week that would boost the elected parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets. But the government has not budged on the key demand for a single chamber of parliament with full powers to legislate and form governments.
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alison Williams)