Arbitrary Revocation of Nationality in Bahrain: A Tool of Oppression

On 25 May 2021, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights’ researcher Anthony Hu participated in a panel discussing the Bahraini government’s use of arbitrary nationality revocation. Speaking also at the event was Shaymaa AlQahs of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR); Masaud Jahromi and Ibrahim Karimi, victims of nationality revocation; Caia Vlieks of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI); Devin Kenney of Amnesty International; and Yoana Kuzmova of the MENA Statelessness Network (Hawiati). Salam DHR Chairman Jawad Fairooz moderated the event.

AlQahs kicked off the event by giving an overview of Salam DHR, ISI, and Hawiati’s new joint report on statelessness. Namely, that between 2012 to 2019, a total of 985 individuals were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality. After the King reinstated 551 individuals’ citizenship in 2019, the total number now stands at 434. AlQahs pointed out that this use of denaturalization is not consistent with international law and that the terrorism laws that provide the Bahraini government the power to strip nationality has become broader rather than narrower.

Jahromi talked about how police troops surrounded his residence where he and his family lives at 02:00 a.m. without any warrants and that he was tortured physically and psychologically in detention. It was revealed later to him that he was arrested for participating in a protest. In 2015, he found out while having lunch with his family that the government had revoked the nationalities of 72 individuals. When he went to view the names, he was surprised to find out that he was among those individuals. He lost his job and was subsequently deported from Bahrain. Without dual citizenship and only a few choices, Jahromi was deported to Beirut, where he still lives now.

Vlieks emphasized that countries have instrumentalized citizenship by treating it as a privilege. As international law evolved, legal standards and norms have developed to guide how states can revoke nationality, especially when it renders the individual stateless. Furthermore, they ought to comply with due process and fair trial processes. Vlieks pointed out that the burden is on the depriving state that statelessness does not result from an individual’s nationality revocation and under international law, nationality cannot be revoked on political or religious grounds. Vlieks noted that there are several more humanitarian considerations that must take place in these conditions, such as how it relates to cruel punishment or the rights of the child to obtain nationality. Vlieks urges the government of Bahrain to comply with the international safeguards set in place to prevent further statelessness.

Hu stated that citizenship is not a privilege, but a human right. He explained that the Bahraini government has revoked citizenship as a way to silence opposition groups as it takes away their ability to participate in civil society and it invokes fear and disincentivizes activism. At one point in 2018, the government had revoked almost 1000 nationalities, which equates to 1 in every 700 Bahraini citizens. Moreover, the Committee to Protect Journalists had recently stated that this practice was used to suppress freedom of expression and press by targeting journalists and bloggers. As one of the states at the forefront of using this practice, Hu highlighted that Bahrain has an opportunity to set an example for other states that may engage in nationality revocation. He also mentioned that in the process of revocation, there is often no due process or fair trials as the government holds mass trials, uses overly broad terrorism laws to prosecute dissidents, and does not inform defendants of the proceedings against them until after their nationalities are revoked. However, Hu pointed out that international advocacy has been successful in the past, such as when the King reinstituted 551 nationalities in 2019. This is a positive step forward and demonstrates that reform is possible. Nonetheless, these people’s nationalities should not have been revoked in the first place, and there are still over 400 individuals remaining—many of whom are activists and human rights defenders. Hu urged the government to continue reinstating nationalities to those who had theirs arbitrarily revoked and to create initiatives to identify the statistics and profiles of various stateless groups remaining in Bahrain.

Kenney approached the issue from treaty law, which specifically establishes Bahrain’s legal responsibilities. Kenney noted that many United Nations conventions on human rights and statelessness are customary in that states do not need to specifically ratify them for these laws to be binding. An easier approach for international advocacy, then, would be to focus on treaties that the state is violating legal obligations that it itself has ratified. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Bahrain is a signatory, provides more specifically that nationality should not be deprived “arbitrarily” and is integrated in Bahrain’s domestic law. Kenney explains that Bahrain’s use of denaturalization has been arbitrary for two reasons. First, the use of mass trials is a clear violation of international law because it does not establish individual liability for the crimes they are charged with. In the past, Bahrain has held trials in which over 100 individuals’ nationalities were revoked. Secondly, these trials seem to target only Shia defendants. Kenney is currently working on identifying the sects of each individual for several mass trials to demonstrate that they target almost exclusively Shia members of society.

Karimi recalled that his nationality was revoked twice—the first time in 1981. After being tortured for three months, he was deported to Iran without even seeing a judge. He stayed in Iran for 25 years before returning to Bahrain. After being arrested and imprisoned for the 2011 protests, he found out the government had revoked his nationality again through the television and newspapers. At first, the courts refused to give him power of attorney until Amnesty International pressured them to. Karimi notes that this shows that pressure from international and human rights organizations is needed. Karimi had to suffer a lot economically because of nationality revocation, but it was particularly hard on his children and his family.

Kuzmova explained that states try to cover up statelessness within their territory by calling these individuals, among other things, persons whose nationality is under study and those with undetermined nationality. In the MENA region, amendments have provided governments unilateral discretion in revoking nationality, especially post-2011. These revocations usually take place without considering if the individual is a dual citizen, which has severe consequences on the right of their children to a nationality as well. Kuzmova agreed with Vlieks that it is up to the revoking state to consider statelessness in its decisions. The denaturalization policies are one of the issues that Hawiati focuses on, and by bringing together individuals and organizations, Hawiati has been able to highlight voices and experiences as well as a regional action plan for the reduction of statelessness. Kuzmova concluded by urging viewers to use their voice and platforms to remind members of the League of Arab States of their commitments under the 2018 Arab Declaration on Belonging and Legal Identity.


View the full event in English and Arabic.

View the report here.