When Bahrain Says You’re Not Bahraini Anymore

Afraid of losing its grip on power, the Sunni regime is using citizenship as a weapon.

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“I was asleep when I found out,” recalls former Bahraini citizen Taimoor Karimi. “My kids came in and woke me up. All they could say was, ‘Dad, we’ve got bad news. You’re on the list.’” His nationality had just been revoked. Karimi is one of 159 people made stateless by the Bahraini government since 2012. On three separate occasions, with no prior warning, the state has published lists of people whose citizenship has been annulled.

“If you lose your citizenship in Bahrain, you may as well be dead,” explains Abnulnabi al-Ekry, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society. “You can’t do anything if you’re stateless. You can’t buy or sell anything; you can’t use state services like health or education. Your private finances are done for. You’re told to leave the country, and if you disobey them, they’ll arrest you for being an illegal immigrant.”

Stateless people no longer possess identity papers and become invisible in the eyes of the law. Without these documents, simple day-to-day tasks become impossible. For instance, a person is unable to work legally or open a bank account. Likewise, without identification, a person cannot register to get married, see a local doctor, or attend a school. Before he lost his citizenship, Karimi was a well-respected lawyer. “After they took my citizenship, they took my law license so I had to close my firm,” he says. “Since then I’ve been jobless, I can’t work, and I have three kids that I’m unable to support. They’ve forced all the banks in Bahrain to close our accounts. We’re suffering a lot.”

The Bahraini government began revoking citizenship shortly after the Arab Spring engulfed large sections of the Middle East, Bahrain included, in 2011. On Feb. 14 of that year, both Shiite and Sunni Bahrainis took to the streets to demand the same rights and political freedoms for the majority Shiite population as for their Sunni compatriots. The regime of the ruling Al-Khalifa family, who are Sunnis, sent in troops to put down the movement. But four years later, demonstrators still protest every night on the streets of the country’s Shiite villages.

“The regime is running out of options. It has tortured people, starved thousands to death, openly killed hundreds of people in the street, and yet Bahrainis are still adamant on achieving change,” says doctor and activist Saeed Al-Shehabi, who was made stateless in 2012. “Revoking citizenship is just yet another tool to scare people and deter them from asking for their rights.” Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First have described cases of torture and unlawful killing committed by the government, and have called for it to end its repression of dissidents.

Most people made stateless in Bahrain are from the Shiite majority, whose members often find themselves protesting systematic discrimination at the hands of the government. Despite making up two-thirds of the population, the Shiites occupy virtually no jobs in the army, the government, the judiciary, or other top positions. Because the Sunni regime is fearful that the Shiites will one day overthrow it, it continues to search for ways to suppress them. Revoking citizenship is one such tactic. (The Bahraini government declined to comment on the policy despite requests addressed to the Bahraini Interior Ministry and other official offices.)

Bahraini officials suspect that Shiite Iran was partly responsible for inciting the protest movement of 2011 by training Shiite opposition activists. But an independent investigation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry — which was primarily set up to investigate whether human rights abuses were committed in Bahrain in February 2011 and afterwards and make recommendations — found no evidence to back this up.

Nevertheless, many Bahrainis who have had their citizenship revoked have either distant Iranian heritage or have travelled to Iran for one reason or another. “Most of the stateless Bahrainis are of Iranian origin,” says Nedal Al Salman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “But they’ve been in Bahrain for over two hundred years and consider themselves as such. That’s longer than the Al Khalifa family.” The government clearly aims to further discredit Shiites by casting them as part of an Iranian fifth column in the country.

Hussain Khairulla Mohammed, a metalworker by trade who is now stateless, had his passport taken away after he returned from a trip to visit his brother in Iran. “I’ve actually had problems with the regime since 2011 when I was one of those giving first aid to people protesting at the Pearl Roundabout,” says Mohammed, referring to a spot in the capital Manama that became a symbolic center of the protest movement. “I was put in jail for four months for that. And I’ve been watched and intimated by the state ever since.”

The first citizenships were revoked in late 2012 when the Interior Ministry issued a statement notifying 31 people that they were no longer Bahrainis under article 10(3) of the Bahraini Citizenship Act. In July 2014, amendments were made to Article 10 that gave the authorities additional power to revoke citizenship. This law was used to make 72 people stateless in January this year, and then a further 56 citizens, including nine minors, on June 15. All 128 of this year’s cases were accused of terrorist-related activity.

“When the Bahraini government publishes these lists of revoked nationalities, they are a mix of innocent people and actual Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists,” says Mohammed Altajer, a Bahraini human rights lawyer who represents many of the country’s stateless people. ”The majority of the people on the list are just regular Shiite academics, human rights activists, lawyers, clerics and business people. But by placing them on a list with actual terrorists, the government hopes to discredit those who have done nothing wrong.”

Professor Masaud Jahromi, who was made stateless earlier this year, says the government’s discrimination against Shiites is creating divides between them and the country’s Sunnis. “In the past, there were no issues between Sunnis and Shias and other minorities living in Bahrain. We used to work together, live together, we intermarried – but unfortunately the government is doing its upmost to end this,” he says. Altjaer agrees that the government’s strong-arm tactics are creating ethnic tensions. “Sunnis and Shiites have always co-existed peacefully here,” he said. “The government is taking this country to a very dark place.”

Brothers Jalal and Jawad Fairooz, both former members of parliament for Al-Wefaq, the opposition party, have lived in exile in Britain since they were made stateless in 2012. The authorities have targeted al-Wefaq, like so many of the opposition groups in Bahrain, for several years. Its present leader, Ali al-Salman, is currently behind bars.

Speaking from his home in North London, Jalal Fairooz says that the Sunni government’s effort to maintain power goes much further than just spreading hate against Shiites and revoking their nationalities. “For the past few years, the government has been giving out Bahraini citizenship to thousands and thousands of Sunnis from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and many more,” Jalal explains. “Their goal is to permanently alter the country’s demographics so that Bahrain goes from a majority-Shiite country to a Sunni one.”

In 2006, Dr. Salah Al Bandar, a former government official, published the 240-page Al-Bandar report, which made a detailed case that discriminating against the Shiite majority is official state policy. The report also confirms that the state hands out Bahraini nationality to Sunnis from different countries as a way to change the demographics of the population.

Altajer, the human rights lawyer, believes the number of Bahraini passports given to Sunnis from various countries in the Gulf, the Middle East, and Asia to be as many as hundreds of thousands. He concedes that it is hard to know the precise number, since the government does not openly discuss it.

“Given the scale of it and the fact there are just 1.3 million people in Bahrain, it won’t take long for it to have a drastic effect, and that risks only making the divisions between Sunnis and Shias here worse,” says Altajer. “Many of these Sunnis end up working for the security services, like the Pakistanis, and are able to get their Bahraini passports within weeks. Bahrain is heading in a very dangerous direction.”

Update (August 25, 2015): This story was updated with links to human rights groups’ claims about abuses in Bahrain to better contextualize Saeed Al-Shehabi’s quote.

Photo credit: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

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