When Bahrain Says You’re Not Bahraini Anymore

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

“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 His nationality had just been revoked.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.

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