Citizenship stripping: the ideal of democracy debased and devalued

Bill Law


31 October, 2016

When Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party swept to power in Canada in October 2015, his new government quickly delivered on a promise to dismantle legislation that allowed citizenship stripping for those convicted of terrorism related crimes.  And I say thank god for that. It was in a televised debate during the election campaign that the young and relatively untested Trudeau showed his mettle on this crucial matter. The then Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper had posed the question “why should terrorists and alleged terrorists not lose the right to Canadian citizenship?” Trudeau’s answer was one of those moments that made me proud to be Canadian. To Harper’s question he replied:

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and you devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anybody.” Clearly Justin Trudeau in this (and many other issues) had struck a chord with Canadian voters. In the election that followed, Harper and his Tory government were consigned to the dustbin of history.

And guess what? A Bahraini is a Bahraini is a Bahraini and yes the citizenship of every Bahraini is devalued by the sustained campaign of the regime to strip citizenship from those who have the temerity to disagree, who dare to comment and criticize, who call for peaceful change when such change is urgently required for the betterment of all Bahrainis.

Like Stephen Harper, the former Home Secretary, now Prime Minister Theresa May, is also a keen advocate of stripping citizenship. On her ministerial watch, 33 Britons lost their nationality on the basis that to take it away was “conducive to the public good”, that is they were deemed to be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. In February of 2016, May said she was planning to strip the citizenship of at least three of those convicted in the notorious Rotherham sex abuse case.  Once they have completed their sentences the men will be deported to their native Pakistan.

And I shed no tears for the fate of the Rotherham thugs. But the use of citizenship stripping by western democracies as a punitive measure against both ordinary criminals and those either convicted of or suspected of committing terrorism offenses, legitimate though the threat may be, gives convenient cover to regimes far less concerned about the rule of law. Using the UK and, until Justin Trudeau intervened, Canada as examples of “best practice”, repressive states have stepped up the revocation of citizenship for human rights activists, opposition politicians and religious leaders. The claim is that these actions are all part of a global war against terrorism. Of course it isn’t anything of the sort. Rather it is a systematic campaign to trample the rights of  citizens with impunity, one that has been given a virtual carte blanche by western democracies, a worrying trend indeed.

It is a great irony  that these regimes in forcibly removing citizenship for illegitimate reasons are on the same side of the fence as Daesh whose foreign jihadists are ritually required to burn their passports and renounce their homelands. In both instances, as Justin Trudeau so aptly put it, citizenship is demeaned and degraded.

Take Bahrain, Britain’s island ally in the Gulf, as one example. In November, 2012, a little more than a year after a largely peaceful pro-democracy movement had been brutally suppressed, the Bahraini government issued a list of 31 individuals who had lost their citizenship for “undermining state security.”

Included in the list were two former members of parliament, brothers Jawad and Jalal Fairooz. Jawad Fairooz who now has right of asylum in the UK recalls the shock he felt: “There was no evidence against me, nothing was ever presented in a court of law that proved I was a threat to state security, so on what basis did they strip me of my citizenship?”

At the time, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations argued that the only reason for the revocations was to silence critics of the regime: “We urgently call on the Bahraini authorities to rescind this frightening and chilling decision,” said Amnesty.

But the regime wasn’t listening.  In January, 2015 another 72 names of individuals deprived of citizenship were released.  This time however, human rights defenders, political activists and a third former opposition MP were jumbled together with violent protesters and 22 alleged Daesh or Al Qaeda supporters. In a lengthy charge sheet released by the Ministry of the Interior, all 72 stood accused of “belonging to terrorist groups fighting abroad.” Other alleged offenses included “defaming brotherly countries” and “spying for foreign countries and recruiting a number of persons through social media.” No evidence was presented to justify the charges, now was any effort made to distinguish alleged terrorists from peaceful oppositionists. By the end of 2015, the number of people who had lost the right of citizenship had risen to at least 260 with activists claiming the number to be more than 300. Nearly all were peaceful critics.

One of those on the 2015 list of 72 was a university lecturer Dr Masaud Jahromi. On 7 March 2016, Dr Jahromi was bundled onto a plane and deported to Beirut. He is not a terrorist, not even an activist yet he finds himself stateless. It is a situation Amnesty’s James Lynch calls “shocking – citizens of Bahrain are being rendered stateless and being deprived of the right to reside in their own country.”  Lynch went on to note: “expulsion increasingly appears to be the Bahraini authorities’ weapon of choice when it comes to casting out ‘unwanted’ individuals and silencing dissent.”

Those who have had their nationality revoked must hand in their passports and ID documentation and apply for a residency permit as a foreigner – or leave the country. Individuals who have not been granted a residency permit and have remained have been charged with “illegally residing” in Bahrain and given deportation orders, Amnesty said.

Meanwhile, sweeping amendments to Bahraini law have widened the reasons for which an individual could have his or her nationality revoked. This now includes “anyone whose acts contravene his duty of loyalty to the Kingdom,” a very broad brush indeed.

And throughout the GCC states, such vaguely worded definitions of what constitutes a crime that would warrant the loss of citizenship and expulsion as a stateless individual are now the norm.

In late 2015,  the Abu Dhabi attorney general Ali Mohammed Al Baloushi urged residents to avoid “publishing, preparing, producing, using, broadcasting or transmitting any written or spoken statements, gestures, symbols, drawings, photographs, recordings or writings, in audio, visual or print format, of anything that harms society or public order of the country”.  It would be laughable were it not so evocative of the Stalinist world of George Orwell’s 1984.

And in this world the families of those already imprisoned may arbitrarily have their citizenship stripped away. On 8 March, 2016 in Sharjah, the three adult children of a man imprisoned for ten years in the infamous UAE94 trial – a trial widely condemned by leading human rights organisations as grossly unfair – were informed that their nationality was revoked. No reason was provided.  Their father had lost his citizenship in 2012. And so another line was crossed with impunity by the authorities. Families, too, had become targets .

But perhaps the most audacious line to be crossed thus far has been in Bahrain. In June 2016, the authorities removed the citizenship of Sheik Isa Qassim, an ayatollah and spiritual leader of the majority Shia population. The sheikh stood accused of using his position to “serve foreign interests” and of promoting “sectarianism and violence”, according to a statement from the Ministry of the Interior.

It is the case that Isa Qassim has been a long-time critic of the government and the ruling family and had called frequently for greater civil and political rights for Shia. But that is no good reason for removing his citizenship and threatening to make him stateless.

Indeed, the act of stripping such a senior religious figure of his nationality and effectively putting him under house arrest caused the United  States to say it was “alarmed” at the decision, with a State Department spokesperson noting Washington was “unaware of any credible evidence” to support the removal of citizenship. The State Department added:

 “We remain deeply troubled by the Government of Bahrain’s practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily, the overall precedent that this case could establish, and the risk that individuals may be rendered stateless”

And from Theresa May who was still foreign secretary at the time? Not a word did the minister utter. Unsurprising perhaps but disgraceful nonetheless.

The right to a nationality, which must not be deprived arbitrarily, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Bahrain is a signatory The UAE is not.  Nonetheless, international human rights law prohibits arbitrary deportation and the exiling of persons from their own country.  The Bahraini and the Emirati governments appear blissfully untroubled by such concerns. And though the regimes may have lost the example of Canada, they would appear to still have a very staunch friend in Theresa May and the government of the United Kingdom.

It would be reassuring to think that the world’s oldest democracy, stealing a page from Canada, one of the younger, would simultaneously curb its own practice of citizenship stripping while denouncing the same practice in Bahrain, the UAE and elsewhere. It won’t happen but it should. Everywhere one chooses to look, the ideal of democracy is under siege. Yet at a time when democracy so urgently needs to be defended, it is being further debased by an odious practice. Removing citizens’ nationality, rendering people stateless, wherever it happens, demeans us all.