ADHRB Remains Concerned About Bahrain’s Arbitrary Deprivation of Citizenship

22 April 2019 – On Saturday 20 April, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa AlKhalifa issued an order reinstating the citizenship of 551 individuals previously stripped of their Bahraini citizenship through criminal convictions. Since 2012, the Bahraini government has denationalized 990 people, meaning that the status of 439 persons born with Bahraini citizenship remains unknown. This order does not apply to those individuals who have had their citizenship revoked by royal decree or ministerial order, only to those who have been denationalized through a court order. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) recognizes the reinstatement of citizenship for 551 people, but we strongly condemn the arbitrary nature of the order and we call upon the Bahraini government to immediately reinstate the citizenship of all those who have been denationalized and to compensate them for their loss of attending privileges.

Article 17 of Bahrain’s Constitution establishes that citizenship in Bahrain “shall be defined by the law, and no person enjoying citizenship by origin may be deprived of it except in cases of high treason and in other conditions specified by the law.” Article 4 of the Citizenship Act of 1963 established that a person may only be deprived of their citizenship if they enter the military service of a foreign country, help or engage in service of an enemy country, or cause harm to the security of the State. However, in 2014, the government amended the Citizenship Act, changing “causes harm to the security of the State” to include revocation of citizenship if a person “causes damage to the interests of the Kingdom and if he committed a disloyal action against the Kingdom.” This would include a conviction for terrorist acts falling under Law 58 of 2006.

Revocation of citizenship can be conducted through an administrative process – by a decision of the Ministry of Interior (MoI), either on its own initiative or through an order by the King subsequently ratified by the parliament – or through court proceedings. Both criminal court decisions and decisions by royal decree are subject to appeal and the king can restore an individual’s nationality. If the deprivation is judicial, then the individual can appeal through the typical legal process – the sentence and judgment are appealed to the High Court or Court of Cassation together. If the revocation is administrative, then the individual must appeal through the Ministry which instituted the order stripping citizenship.

The use of counter-terror legislation as grounds for the revocation of citizenship is especially concerning in Bahrain, where the laws governing counter-terrorism are vague and overly broad. In some cases they essentially criminalize constitutionally- and internationally-protected rights of free expression and assembly. Additionally, amendments to the counter-terror law in 2013 and 2014 further restricted these rights and circumvented guarantees of due process. They banned peaceful assembly in Manama, increased the penalties for terror offenses, and extended pre-trial detention periods for terror suspects.  The 2013 amendment specifically enables courts to revoke the citizenship of individuals convicted of terror crimes, while its 2014 counterpart introduced a separate terror prosecution office, which allows suspects to be held for six months without trial. These provisions have resulted in a trend of mass trials in which hundreds of Bahrainis have been convicted and denationalized following trials which fail to meet international standards.

In May 2018, the High Criminal Court convicted and denationalized 115 individuals in the case of the “Zulfiqar Brigades,” a trial which caused United Nations experts to express “grave concern” at allegations of torture, coerced confessions, enforced disappearances, and fair trial rights violations against these individuals. Despite these concerns, on 16 April 2019, the Fourth High Criminal Court convicted 139 defendants and denationalized all but one in the case of the “Bahraini Hezbollah.” In response, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement expressing her concerns about this case, commenting “Deprivation of nationality must not be arbitrary . . . Arbitrary deprivation of nationality places the individuals concerned and their family members in a situation of increased vulnerability to human rights violations.” It is unclear whether defendants in either the Zulfiqar Brigades or Bahraini Hezbollah case are among those whose nationalities have been restored. It is further unclear whether any criminal convictions will be impacted by this decision.

These legislative steps are the culmination of centralization of power in the hands of Bahrain’s ruling family. This process has led to the sidelining of the lower house of parliament, dissolution of opposition political societies, jailing of opposition political activists, and widespread suppression of dissent. It has also included the weaponization of citizenship whereby the attending rights and privileges of being a Bahraini citizen can be revoked with the stroke of a pen by the king, a minister, or the judiciary, which is closely tied to the government and ruling family.

Since 2012, the Bahraini government has revoked the citizenship of 990 Bahrainis, some of whom were denationalized by royal or ministerial decree. These individuals did not receive a trial, could not present evidence in their defense, and have limited opportunities to appeal the decision. This arbitrary use of power is based upon deeply flawed legislation. It is also the product of an unjust system that over 100,000 Bahrainis protested when they took to the streets on 14 February 2011. They called for greater accountability, fidelity to the rule of law, and respect for human rights. They also requested an end to impunity for crimes and abuses committed by the government the creation of institutions that support and bolster the rule of law. Despite the peaceful demonstrations, the government violently crushed the demonstrations, declaring martial law, killing dozens of protesters, and later passing restrictive legislation normalizing aspects of martial law. Despite the abuses committed by the security forces, almost none have been held accountable for their actions, with some instead promoted, like Mubarak bin Huwail.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “The king’s decision to reinstate the citizenship of 551 individuals previously denationalized demonstrates the importance of continued advocacy addressing the widespread and systematic human rights violations in Bahrain. However, we are deeply concerned over the arbitrary nature of the decision. These individuals were denationalized on spurious grounds following convictions in unfair mass trials. That the king can give them back their citizenship with a stroke of his pen only serves to demonstrate the extra-legal nature of the process. The singular ability of the king or a minister to revoke a Bahraini’s citizenship with a stroke of the pen and restore it with a stroke of the pen directly contradicts what tens of thousands of Bahrainis protested for and called for in 2011 – accountability, rule of law, and respect for international human rights standards.”

Bahrain’s use of counter-terror laws and denationalization are in contravention of a number of international legal principles, including the right to nationality, as enshrined in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Individuals who are denationalized in Bahrain fall under the same legal status as “foreigners” in Bahraini law and are denied the basic rights of citizens. Further, if an individual is stripped of Bahraini nationality and holds no secondary citizenship, that individual would be rendered stateless and at risk for a number of human rights violations, including loss of access to services, loss of the right to travel, and an inability to pass Bahraini citizenship to any subsequent children. Both stateless and “foreign” individuals do not enjoy access to many social services including healthcare and housing, in violation of Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

ADHRB is deeply concerned over the Bahraini government’s ongoing weaponization of citizenship, in particular the king or a minister’s ability to revoke citizenship and strip an individual of their rights and privileges as a Bahraini, and then restore it in an instant. This disregard for the principles of the rule of law contravenes the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of Bahrainis who marched in 2011 for greater respect for human rights, accountability, and an end to the imperial powers of the king and ruling family. While we recognize that 551 people have had their citizenship restored, the government should not have stripped it away in the first place. Furthermore, the status of 439 persons born with Bahraini citizenship remains unknown. ADHRB calls on the Bahraini government to reinstate the citizenship of everyone who has had their citizenship revoked and to compensate them for their loss of citizenship privileges and rights. We further call on the authorities to re-examine the conviction of these individuals in unfair trials based on impermissibly broad and discriminatory laws. We additionally call on the government to release all political prisoners and to hold officials in all ministries accountable for their rights abuses, in particular officials in the Ministry of Interior.