This week, a court in my home country, Bahrain, reached a verdict in one of the largest mass trials in the nation’s history. Jail terms were handed to 139 people, including 69 life sentences, ostensibly for terrorism-related offences. All but one were stripped of their citizenship.
In 2011, a huge number of Bahrain’s citizens took to the streets to demand democratic change from the al-Khalifa family, who have ruled the country for some 200 years. Since then, it has ramped up repression, outlawing opposition groups, closing the only independent newspaper and restricting freedom of assembly. The United Nations has condemned the widespread use of torture in Bahraini prisons – and has expressed concern about the latest convictions. Anti-terror legislation has been expanded and is used extensively to harass journalists, human rights defenders and anyone who dares contest the legitimacy of the government.
While repression has escalated internally, the UK has sold more than £58m of arms to Bahrain in the last three years
Among the laws introduced were amendments to the 1963 Citizenship Law in 2014, which permit the Ministry of Interior to revoke the citizenship of anyone who “aids or is involved in the service of a hostile state” or who “causes harm to the interests of the kingdom or acts in a way that contravenes his duty of loyalty to it”. The vague wording of the law has allowed the government to target critics with impunity, and denaturalisations have skyrocketed in recent years.
In 2015, after being targeted for my human rights activism, my citizenship was revoked alongside 71 others including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, doctors and religious scholars. In 2018 alone, 304 individuals had their citizenship stripped; Tuesday’s verdict brings the total to 990 since 2012. In a country with an estimated population of around 660,000 Bahraini nationals, this amounts to one in every 700 people.
Denaturalisation can have devastating consequences for its victims, leaving them subject to the whims of a spiteful, autocratic government. Stateless Bahrainis cannot travel outside the country and have difficulty accessing healthcare, social services and education. Their employment will be terminated and they must be sponsored by a guarantor to continue living in Bahrain. Many have been deported to Lebanon or Iraq, hundreds of miles from their loved ones.
Worst of all, however, is the tendency of statelessness to reverberate across generations. In Bahrain, women are not able to pass their citizenship on to their children. This means that if a man has his citizenship revoked, any newborn children will inherit their father’s stateless condition and all the hardships that accompany it.
Although I fled Bahrain in 2012 to escape further torture and persecution, these laws have affected my own family. In November 2017, my wife gave birth to our beautiful daughter in London. Thus far, the Home Office has failed to grant me indefinite leave to remain, meaning that my daughter remains stateless to this day. When I greet her in the morning, my heart breaks as I am reminded of all the families torn apart by the cruelty of the Bahraini regime.
While citizenship in Bahrain may seem an obscure issue, the UK is in fact implicated. Bahrain is one of the UK’s closest allies in the Gulf, with a relationship dating back hundreds of years. While repression has escalated internally, the UK has sold more than £58m of arms to Bahrain in the last three years. Sales peaked in 2017 at more than £27m, the same year the executions resumed in Bahrain.
British involvement in Bahrain goes beyond arms sales. Since 2012 the government has spent several million pounds of taxpayer money on a technical assistance programme aimed at “strengthening the rule of law” and “justice reform” in Bahrain.
However, as this week’s verdicts demonstrate, British assistance has failed to improve Bahrain’s corrupt judicial system. This mass trial was a blatant breach of article 15 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which states, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” British assistance has failed to curb the government’s increasing descent into despotism.
As Bahrain’s dictatorship continues its brutal crackdown at home, next month the UK is expected to invite the King of Bahrain to take his seat beside the Queen at the prestigious Royal Windsor Horse Show. The British government must unequivocally condemn unlawful terrorism convictions and fulfil its obligations to prevent statelessness around the world, instead of rolling out the red carpet for Bahrain’s dictator.
• Sayed Alwadaei is director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird)