Argument

Bahrain Is Still My Country

I have been imprisoned, tortured, and now made stateless for protesting against the cruel monarchy. I won’t stop. But when will the United States and Britain realize they are backing a thuggish autocracy?

bahrain

On Jan. 31, I was speaking from my home in London with a Bahraini friend in Lebanon about the ongoing crackdown in Bahrain. Suddenly, I received a pop-up message from WhatsApp: “72 Bahraini citizens have had their citizenship revoked.”

“I think my citizenship has been revoked,” I said, opening the link. He was laughing at me as I scrolled down the list, searching for my name. There it was — Number 49. My friend was still laughing. “I think your name is here also,” I said.

The laughing stopped. There he was, too — Number 70.

Now I am stateless, because of a decree issued by the king that stripped dozens of journalists, doctors, and political activists of their citizenship. This means I can’t visit my aging mother, my brothers and sisters, or my friends back in Bahrain. I will have to write “stateless” in the nationality field on any forms I fill out, and the world will look at me as human being missing something — missing a country to recognize him.

This latest step by the Bahraini monarchy is the culmination of a decade-long effort to stifle me and others who oppose its rule. I have been jailed twice, subjected to torture, and fired from my job due to my activism. I was regularly harassed by pro-government thugs, and spent two years of my life in hiding. As if all that is not enough, the authorities have now branded me with the title “stateless.”

My sole crime is that I founded a website called BahrainOnline.org, where people post second-by-second updates of what is happening in Bahrain, and where opposition and human rights organizations publish their statements, as the local newspapers will not allow them to do so. It is a space for every Bahraini to speak his mind about reform, and how to achieve it. Launched as a blog in 1998, and formalized in 2003, the site gathered momentum as its members started planning the 2011 uprising — when it would start, where the demonstrators would gather, and what their demands and slogans would be. At its height, Bahrain Online was receiving more than 100,000 hits per day, and boasted more than 50,000 members.

As a result of my work with the website, I was first arrested in September 2005 and held for two weeks, and then arrested again in September 2010. That second time, I was tortured and threatened with sexual abuse and electric shock. My wife was fired from her work, and I was placed in solitary confinement for two months. I was released at the end of February 2011, just when the uprising started — why, I do not know. The king may have thought that by releasing me and other activists, it would calm the street. But the first thing I did after being released from prison at 3 a.m. was to join the protesters in Manama’s Lulu Square. It was unforgettable moment: I felt the beauty of my country and my people like never before.

Less than three weeks later, my house was raided again, and I had to go into hiding in Bahrain for two years.

This is not the first time that the government of Bahrain has stripped the nationality of its citizens as a way to silence political dissent. In 2012, it revoked the citizenship of 31 people, on the excuse that they “cause[d] damage to state security.” Both the 2012 stripping of citizenship and the one this year largely targeted Shiite activists and opposition members. Most of them are Bahrainis who live outside the country — the government can’t put them in prison, so they use this weapon to punish them instead.

The 2015 decree includes 50 Shiite and 22 Sunni Bahrainis. The Sunnis are almost exclusively jihadis: Many of them — including radical cleric Turki al-Binali — are fighters with the Islamic State. Other members of the Islamic State whose citizenship was stripped posted pictures of themselves trampling or destroying their passports, promising that they will come back to Bahrain by sword, not passport. Number 35 on the list, Salman al-Ashban, posted a YouTube video in May 2014 showing him ripping up his passport.

On the other hand, among the 50 Shiites stripped of their nationality, you will see human rights defenders, journalists, doctors, professors, and former parliamentarians. Mixing Islamic State jihadis with pro-democracy activists is the Bahraini government’s way of misleading the media about the true targets of its crackdown. The monarchy’s clever answer whenever someone asks about this decree? “Oh, they are terrorists.”

My citizenship was revoked six months after the government amended the nationality law, giving itself the power to strip Bahrainis of their citizenship should they fail in their “duty of loyalty” to the state. Ali Salman, the general secretary of the opposition Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, has also been put on trial for threatening the security of the state, which could lead to his nationality being stripped as well.

Instead of starting a real dialogue with its citizens, the government of Bahrain is clearly attempting to silence opposition voices through brute force. This is nothing new: When people first took to the streets in February 2011, the king’s response was to call for help from the Saudi army, which swiftly brought in more than 1,000 troops to suppress the peaceful movement. Since that time, more than 100 people have died in the ensuing crackdown, and around 3,000 are currently imprisoned.

But despite the Bahraini government’s years-long effort to silence, arrest, or kill its critics, it still is firmly supported by some countries that purport to champion democracy. When the Bahraini people rose up, they were sure that President Barack Obama and his administration would support the pro-democracy movement and place pressure on the monarchy to launch real reform — Obama had campaigned under the slogan “Vote for Change,” after all. Of course, that support never came. Britain, where I now am forced to make my home, also has been a staunch apologist for the monarchy: The month before my citizenship was stripped, the British ambassador to Manama said that Bahrain “is making progress and its leadership has shown a willingness to engage with the human rights challenges it faces.”

The British government, sadly, seems all too willing to trade away its democratic principles in exchange for military ties to Manama. In December, Britain announced that it would open a new naval base in Bahrain, at a cost of roughly $23 million. At the same time, a multimillion-dollar deal is in the works that would see London sell Typhoon combat jets and other military equipment to Manama.

With these deals, Bahrain has succeeded in buying the silence of the British government. By turning a blind eye to what is happening in Bahrain, London has shown the double standards of the Western world when it comes to human rights.

For the past several years, U.S. and European politicians have all urged Bahrain to improve its respect for human rights and to end torture, which is still systematic. But harping on human rights issues ignores the real problem facing Bahrain: autocracy. What Bahrain needs is a shift from absolute dictatorship to a democracy where the people choose their own leaders. And I will keep fighting for that change — it is still my country, after all, no matter what the government says.

As I first tweeted when I heard my citizenship had been stripped: “When I woke up today I was Bahraini, and when I wake up tomorrow I will still be Bahraini.”

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

Ali Abdulemam is human rights defender with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and member of BahrainWatch.org.

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