The decision to make prominent dissidents stateless ratchets the political crisis to a new level, reports Rashid Abul-Samh
Shock and dismay were the reactions of the 31 Bahrainis who were stripped of their citizenship by the Bahraini government on 7 November for allegedly breaching national security and damaging the supreme interests of the country, according to Information Minister Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab.
All are Shia and figures active in the opposition to the ruling Al-Khalifa family. Included in the 31 are two brothers, Jalal and Jawad Fairouz, both of whom are former members of parliament with the Al-Wefaq movement, Said Al-Shihabi, head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, and three Shia clerics, Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.
The Interior Ministry said the revocation of their citizenship was done based on Article 10 of the citizenship law that allows the “re-evaluation of nationality”. All public demonstrations were banned a few days later, further limiting a key method that the opposition had to press its demands.
Bahrain has been in the grip of a long-running battle between the majority Shia population, who are demanding more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family. Around 4,000 Shia were fired for participating in demonstrations last year, and many opposition figures have been jailed after being sentenced to long prison terms in trials that have been deemed unfair.
“The move is part of a broader crackdown on the opposition, led by hardliners who seem to think they can solve the country’s political problems through security means alone,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on the Middle East at Chatham House in London. “It has particularly targeted Shia Bahrainis of Persian ancestry, who face both sectarian and ethnic prejudice.”
Indeed, the information minister told BBC Arabic that all of the 31 belonged to banned political groups, and claimed that all of them were members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a group that was active in Bahrain in the 1980s.
“The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain is a thing of the past. It had links to Iran but the group and those links ceased to exist. The IFLB became the Amal political society in Bahrain. Its supporters were known as Shirazis, but many of those stripped of their citizenship are not ‘Shirazis’, but rather supporters of other Shia political groups in Bahrain,” explained Toby Matthiesen, research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University in England.
The Bahrain Youth Society and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights expressed their grave concern in a joint statement over the move to strip the 31 of their citizenship. “This move is reminiscent of government crackdowns in the 1980s when the past emir, Salman bin Eissa Al-Khalifa, revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens. It is apparent that the action taken by the authorities is intended to punish them for expressing peaceful dissent and thereby intimidate others from exercising their right to freedom of expression,” they said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also deplored the decision to strip the 31 of their nationality, and both groups asked that the Bahraini government reverse its decision.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that at least 10 of the affected have lived outside Bahrain for years, and that only about six of the 31 have other citizenship, meaning that the government decision will leave most of the people involved stateless.
“Bahraini authorities have been increasingly targeting opposition activists and this decision takes it to a new level,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in a statement. “The government should immediately rescind this decision, which denies people a fundamental connection to their own society.”
The government says all 31 have the right to appeal the decision, though few observers believe that any appeal will be successful.
“In the short term, I doubt it,” said Kinninmont. “This has been done unilaterally on supposed security grounds and it’s unlikely the courts would be strong enough to overturn it without a deal being struck with government insiders.”
But Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that some may be successful in reversing the decision. “I would not be surprised to see a reversal of some of these on appeal. It is customary that the regime steps in at a certain moment to lighten the collective punishment. But, the message will stand,” he explained.
“We are studying the case with our lawyer as there has never been another case like this before,” said Jawad Al-Fairouz in a phone interview from London, which both he and his brother Jalal were visiting when the announcement was made that they were among the 31 who had been stripped of their citizenship.
Jawad was previously imprisoned for three months and seven days for his work with the opposition. He is a board member of the Al-Wefaq movement and said that when he was in parliament he regularly questioned government ministers linked to the Al-Khalifa family about corruption allegations. This, he says, made him a target for the government hardliners.
“Our judiciary is not that independent, so we are not that hopeful about it,” said Jawad. “The ones who took this decision should be the ones who have to go to court to support their action judicially, or at least get a ruling to back it,” he added. “We don’t think it is the job of the victim to have to do so.”
Asked if he and his brother were going to apply for political asylum in the UK, Jawad said, “It is one of our options.”
In an earlier interview with the International Business Times the Fairouz brothers said that they had been targeted by the government because of their work within the opposition, and that the ruling had surprised them. “I was so surprised,” said Jalal Al-Fairouz, who is a university lecturer and consultant. “I was never interrogated. No one said I was breaking any laws. All of a sudden I am stateless — and now the country where I was born is kicking me out. So now, where should I go?”
The danger now with the government increasingly unwilling to talk, is the further radicalisation of the opposition, especially of the youth who have been demonstrating in the streets. “There will continue to be protests. We are seeing, however, a turn to more dangerous methods, including greater confrontation,” said Jones.
The US administration of Barack Obama is seen to have taken sides with the Al-Khalifa regime, especially after Saudi Arabia sent in troops last year to bolster the regime, leaving little hope that outside pressure will convince the rulers to share more power with the people. “I don’t see the US or the UK changing their positions in the near future. If the region as a whole changes, or if any of the other Gulf states sees more mass protests and genuine political reform, that could change the equation, but we are far away from this,” said Matthiesen.