(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities have announced the third batch of citizenship revocations this year, during a general crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The group of 18 revocations announced on September 29, 2014, which the authorities said was based on a cabinet decision, included one that appeared politically motivated. A total of 33 people have lost their citizenship during 2014, of which three are thought to be for political reasons.

Kuwaiti authorities should immediately stop stripping nationals of their citizenship because they exercise free speech or other legitimate human rights, and reinstate the citizenship of people whose citizenship has been withdrawn on those grounds, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also amend the law concerning revocation of citizenship to ensure that the grounds are narrowly defined, the decision to revoke will be proportionate, and that those affected have the right to an independent review.

“The Kuwaiti authorities seem to think they can use the cover of the nationality law to target their critics and deter dissent,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But Kuwait’s real message of official intimidation has rung out loud and clear.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed activists, journalists, and foreign diplomats, all of whom said the revocations were having a chilling effect.

One described the practice as a “diabolical scheme,” citing dramatic drops in online criticism of the government and in the numbers of protesters at demonstrations, which she believed was linked to the first group of revocations in July. “Last week there was a Gaza protest that normally would amass thousands of people – only a few dozen showed up,” she said.

Kuwait’s Law of Nationality empowers the authorities to strip individuals and their dependents of their Kuwaiti citizenship on several grounds, including if it “involves the higher interests of the state or its foreign security,” or the authorities consider that the individual has “promoted principles that will undermine the social or economic system of the country.” Revocation decisions are not subject to any judicial or administrative appeals process.

However, courts have examined five citizenship revocations since 2010, all involving people born to Kuwaiti fathers, said al-Humaidi Bader al-Subaie, a lawyer who represents Ahmed Jabr al-Shammari, 50, whose citizenship the government revoked on July 21.

Al-Shammari was one of five people whose citizenship was revoked on July 21, in the first batch of revocations this year, but only his case was based on undermining the social or economic system. Al-Shammari had owned the independent Al-Yom television station and Al-Yom newspaper. In May and June, court orders at the behest of Kuwait’s information minister temporarily closed both outlets after they defied a prosecutor-ordered media blackout about an investigation into an alleged plot by senior officials to overthrow the government.

The withdrawal of Al-Shammari’s citizenship left him stateless, and his four children also became stateless under provisions of the law. As a result, he lost his media outlets and other business interests in Kuwait.

The authorities announced the second batch of citizenship revocations, under article 13, on August 14. Those stripped of their nationality included Nabil al-Awadhi, a conservative cleric widely known for his TV talk shows. Under the law, seven of his family members subsequently lost their citizenship. Al-Awadhi had been part of a group of longtime residents called Bidun who were considered stateless, but had become a naturalized citizen in 1998. According to an official cabinet document, he was stripped of his citizenship based both on undermining the country’s social or economic system and on undermining the country’s higher interest or foreign security.

The revocations on September 29 included Saad al-Ajmi, the spokesman for Musalam al-Barrak, a leading opposition politician. Al-Barrak was convicted of insulting the Emir in 2012, and was arrested in June for “insulting the judiciary,” which drew thousands to the streets until he was released several days later.

Al-Ajmi’s citizenship was revoked under article 11 of the nationality law, which allows withdrawing citizenship from anyone naturalized by another country. He told Human Rights Watch that although article 11 was used in his case he is now stateless because he has not been naturalized elsewhere. He said the authorities had not revoked his four children’s citizenship.

Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that a court that he petitioned to seek judicial review of his citizenship revocation in July ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the matter. His lawyer said he planned an appeal to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the country’s legal system presumed innocence and that al-Shammari should have an opportunity to refute the allegations against him.

In December 2013 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon issued an authoritative report setting out criteria for determining the lawfulness of any country’s decision to revoke the citizenship of one of its nationals. The report accepted revocation as legitimate for “rendering of services to a foreign government or military force” or committing acts “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the State.”

The report concluded, however, that revoking a citizen’s nationality for exercising the right to freedom of speech amounts to a violation of human rights guaranteed under international law. International law strictly limits the circumstances in which loss or deprivation of nationality leading to statelessness can be recognized as serving a legitimate purpose. When a country revokes a person’s citizenship, it may be required to provide a right of residence in the country.

The secretary-general’s report makes it clear that all revocation decisions must be subject to administrative or judicial review. Extending the revocation of citizenship to the dependents of a person whose citizenship has been legitimately revoked is described as “problematic” in the UN report, whereas it is explicitly prohibited if such loss or deprivation of nationality would render the dependents stateless.

“Instead of targeting their critics in a back-door way, the Kuwaiti authorities should come clean and stop revoking their citizenships once and for all,” Houry said. “While Kuwait continues to strip people of citizenship for no good reason, its reputation as a tolerant country will continue to nosedive.”