(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities have stripped five critics of their citizenship as part of a wider crackdown on people seeking reform. The Kuwaiti government should immediately restore their citizenship and end the practice.

The official Kuwait News Agency announced that citizenship had been withdrawn from the five people on June 21, 2014. A week earlier, Kuwait’s Cabinet called for the relevant authorities to crack down on people carrying out “acts aiming to undermine the country’s security and stability, bringing harm to its institutions.” Ahmed Jabr al-Shammari, owner of media outlets and one of the five, said that none of them have citizenship elsewhere, so the action has left them stateless.

“No government has the right to strip away its people’s citizenship simply because it disapproves of them, their opinions, or their actions,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This is yet another downward step in Kuwait’s assault on the right to free speech.”

Al-Shammari, 50, told Human Rights Watch on August 8 that he was deprived of his Kuwaiti citizenship under parliamentary decree 185 of 2014, which targeted him and the other four individuals. He is the owner of the independent Al-Yom television station and Al-Yom newspaper. At the request of the information minister, courts had ordered both media outlets to shut down temporarily three times in May and June for defying a prosecutor-ordered media blackout about an investigation into an alleged plot by senior officials to overthrow the government.

Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that the parliamentary decree for revoking the five citizenships was based on the Kuwaiti Law of Nationality, 15/1959 and that authorities officially informed him that his citizenship was revoked under article 13(5).

The nationality law says:

It is permissible by a decree upon the request of the interior minister – to revoke the Kuwaiti citizenship from Kuwaitis who obtained their citizenship through the application of provisions from articles 4, 5, 6, or 8 of this law, and in the following cases: …

5- If evidence is available from competent authorities showing that he has promoted principles that will undermine the social or economic system of the country, or belongs to a foreign political party. In this case the court may also revoke the citizenship of those who obtained it from him by dependency.

The other four whose citizenship was revoked are Abdullah al-Barghash, a former leader in the opposition bloc in parliament, and three of his siblings – Sa`d, Nasr, and Nura al-Barghash. On national media outlets, the government justified the decision by accusing them of falsifying records when applying for citizenship, another provision under the nationality law. Human Rights Watch has been unable to reach them for comment.

Al-Shammari fears that the authorities may also use the decree to seek a court order to deprive his four children of their Kuwaiti nationality.

He told Human Rights Watch that the Interior Ministry had ordered him to hand in all of his official identity documents, including his passport and ID card. “I went to bed a Kuwaiti and woke stateless,” he said. “I have no idea what legal status I have now. I cannot travel, drive, move or go to the hospital. And my biggest fear is that my children may get kicked out of university.”

The following day he received official letters revoking the licenses of his media outlets, and advertising and marketing companies that he owns. He estimates that some 700 to 800 employees of these companies will lose their jobs.

Though generally citizenship revocations are not open to judicial review, al-Shammari is hoping to appeal based on a 2010 Supreme Court review of a revocation decision.

“If I really was a threat to the security of Kuwait, why would I not be brought to court, given a charge, convicted and put in jail?” he said. “If the issue is simply with the content on my channel or newspaper, why not follow procedures against either of them? I think the authorities want to send a signal to instill fear into those who express their rights of expression. They are using citizenship as a political tool, not a legal status.”

Kuwait’s Law of Nationality, 15/1959, empowers the government to revoke a person’s citizenship and deport them under certain circumstances, including obtaining citizenship through fraud, being convicted of a crime related to honor or dishonesty within 15 years of obtaining citizenship, being fired from a government job within 10 years of getting citizenship for reasons related to honor or dishonesty, if it is in the best interest of the state or its external security, or if there is evidence that the individual has promoted principles that undermine the wellbeing of the country.

The Kuwaiti law’s provisions conflict directly with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whose article 12 states unequivocally that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” Kuwait has ratified the ICCPR and is bound under international law to fully implement the provisions of the treaty.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the ICCPR, has interpreted its article 12 to mean that no state may ban or exile its citizens on the basis of repressive domestic laws:

The reference to the concept of arbitrariness in this context is intended to emphasize that it applies to all State action, legislative, administrative, and judicial; it guarantees that even interference provided for by law should be in accordance with the provisions, aims and objectives of the Covenant and should be, in any event, reasonable in the particular circumstances. The Committee considers that there are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one’s own country could be reasonable. A State party must not, by stripping a person of nationality or by expelling an individual to a third country, arbitrarily prevent this person from returning to his or her own country.

“Kuwait is rapidly losing its reputation as one of the most rights-respecting of the Gulf states and this latest action by the authorities can only accelerate that process,” Stork said. “The government should think again, restore the citizenship rights it has withdrawn, and drop this malign policy.”

Unofficial translation of June 14, 2014 Cabinet meeting to discuss demonstrations in Kuwait

The cabinet has charged competent authorities to take all necessary measures for the implementation of His Highness’s directions to secure order and stability across Kuwait, and totally eliminate alien practices. This was during the cabinet’s weekly meeting, held at the Saif Palace and headed by Prime Minister, Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Subah.

The cabinet reviewed His Highness’s directions to stand firm in the face of all acts aiming to undermine the country’s security and stability, bringing harm to its institutions, with no compromise or tolerance, taking all necessary measures to eradicate those alien phenomena that run counter to the precepts of our righteous religion and the bona fide values of Kuwaiti society.

And the cabinet, fully realizing its duties as the custodian of the State’s interests, and what this entails in resolute confrontation with anything that might harm the State, its constitution or its stability, has charged the competent authorities, each in its own domain, to take all necessary measures for the implementation of these directions, stressing the following points:

That all concerned parties should emphasize the importance of the application of the law, and the taking of measures to secure order, requiring security agencies to confront lawlessness in all firmness, with no compromise in protecting citizens, private and public properties, and establishing order and security all across the land.

That the Ministry of the Interior is charged with taking all measures necessary to ensure the fulfillment of citizenship requirements according to the provisions of the Kuwaiti Law of Nationality, 15/1959, especially in connection with practices that aim at undermining stability.

That the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is charged with the confrontation of all societies whose objectives lie outside the scope set by the Law of Societies, and their role in raising public awareness through non-political activities, and abstaining from incitement to rioting. Those societies should be made accountable for the practice of politics in violation of the terms of their licenses, and all necessary measures should be taken in this regard.

That all media outlets are charged with their patriotic role in raising awareness, denouncing acts of rioting, and calling for peaceful expression, through the legally available channels.

In this regard, the cabinet lauded the positive, responsible role played by the men of the Ministry of Interior, headed by Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and Acting Minister of Waqfs and Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Muhammad Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, stressing the necessity of continuing this effort in keeping our homeland safe and secure.