By Kristen Chick
LONDON — The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain is increasingly turning to a particularly draconian tool of repression: stripping dissidents of their citizenship.
Rights activists say authorities have revoked the citizenship of 103 people so far this year, already more than in 2016. All were convicted of terrorism-related crimes in trials that rights activists say lacked due process and transparency.
The pace of citizenship revocations has increased amid an intensifying crackdown on opposition. And activists charge that the silence of the West, particularly the United States and Britain, has emboldened authorities to press ahead with more repressive measures than the kingdom has employed since the response to mass protests in 2011.
“There’s absolutely zero pressure for them to reform or do anything that’s less than repressive,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and one of those deprived of his citizenship. That attitude was clear, he said, when President Trump reassured the king of Bahrain at a meeting in May that there would be no “strain” in their relationship.
“This was an indicator that human rights is absolutely not part of the U.S. interests,” Alwadaei said.
An official at the Bahraini Embassy in Britain said authorities revoke citizenship “in the aim of preserving security and stability while countering threats of terrorism.”
“Revoking citizenship is only done in accordance with the provisions of the law, in cases where the person involved were engaged in activities that has caused damage to the interest of the Kingdom and its national security,” the official said in an email, responding to questions on the condition of anonymity.
Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf that is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has a majority-Shiite population but is governed by a Sunni monarchy. In 2011, thousands of protesters demanding democratic reforms were met with a brutal crackdown and mass arrests. International pressure led to an inquiry that documented allegations of torture and violations by security forces, and recommended reforms.
But that pressure has largely evaporated, and the government has recently taken the crackdown to new lengths, dissolving political groups and the kingdom’s last independent newspaper. Many activists and opposition figures have been jailed, and security forces killed five protesters in a raid on a demonstration in May.
The kingdom has stripped 451 people of their citizenship since 2012, according to a tally kept by the rights institute. Many are activists who are outspoken about democratic reforms and human rights abuses. Last year, authorities withdrew the citizenship of the kingdom’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim. But others say they have done little to draw attention to themselves.
Bahrain is not alone in the practice: other gulf countries, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have done the same.
Bahrain has expelled many of those deprived of their citizenship, creating a growing band of exiles. Those who remain in the kingdom live as stateless people in their own country. Without identity documents, simply driving across an island dotted with police checkpoints can be a dangerous proposition. All lose access to state pensions and state services including health care, as well as the ability to manage their property. They cannot register the births of their children, which means their offspring also cannot get access to state services. Most of those deprived of their citizenship this year are in prison after being convicted under Bahrain’s anti-terrorism law.
“It’s a way of killing your identity, your existence,” said Ali Abdulemam, a blogger and activist whose citizenship was revoked in 2015. He now lives in Britain, where he was granted asylum. “Someone thinks he has the authority to tell me that I don’t belong to my homeland.”
Rights activists say the justice system in Bahrain has lost all semblance of credibility. “The concern that we would have is the justice system in Bahrain has proven itself utterly incapable of providing anybody a fair trial, notably in terrorism cases. So the verdicts that they’re delivering simply cannot be relied upon either way,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Human rights activists acknowledge that violent attacks on police occur but say authorities round up groups of uninvolved people and charge them with committing such acts.
Bahrain has close relationships with the United States and Britain, which also has a naval base in the kingdom. A British Foreign Office spokeswoman said in a statement that the British government had raised with the Bahraini government Britain’s “concerns” about the deprivation of citizenship but defended the relationship between the two.
“The U.K. works closely with Bahrain in a number of areas, and we see our support as the most constructive way to achieve long-lasting and sustainable reform,” the spokeswoman said.
The United States is “concerned” about the citizenship revocations, a State Department official said in a statement. “We have raised this issue with Bahraini officials and continue to strongly urge the government to respect and protect human rights,” the official said.
That’s little comfort to those who have been made stateless. Many of them say one of the most difficult consequences is the effect on their families.
Abdulemam’s wife gave birth to a son in March. Because nationality in Bahrain is passed through the father, the child was stateless from birth. “I feel so bad that this kid is being punished because of no crime he committed. . . . He’s being punished because of his dad,” Abdulemam said. “This is painful on me.”