(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should restore citizenship to hundreds of nationals whose citizenship they revoked through executive orders or court decisions since 2012, rendering most of them stateless, Human Rights Watch said today.

According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), authorities have, since 2012, revoked the citizenship of at least 738 nationals – 232 in 2018 alone – in a process that lacks adequate legal safeguards. This includes many human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars. The vast majority of Bahraini citizens stripped of citizenship are left effectively stateless, and some have been deported.

“Bahrain seems intent on earning the dubious honor of leading the region in stripping citizenship,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While authorities claim that these acts are linked to national security, they are in fact punishing many people merely for peacefully voicing dissent.”

All known citizenship revocations since January 1, 2018, have been handed down by civil or military courts, BIRD said. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread fair trial violations in both court systems, in particular since the authorities’ crackdown on anti-government protests after 2011. The violations include a lack of access to lawyers, especially during interrogation, and allegedly coerced confessions.

In 108 cases prior to 2018, authorities directly revoked a person’s citizenship through a royal decree or Interior Ministry order, according to BIRD.

Criminal court decisions are subject to appeal. Royal decrees and ministerial orders are subject to two levels of court appeals. But courts have rarely – if ever – overturned a citizenship revocation ordered by the Interior Ministry or royal decree, a human rights activist who asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch.

Between May 15 and 25, 2018, courts ruling in various trials revoked the citizenship of a total of 128 defendants, according to BIRD. Among the recent court orders revoking citizenship, on May 15, a criminal court stripped 115 nationals of their citizenship after a single mass trial, also sentencing them to prison terms for allegedly forming a terrorist group. On May 21, a criminal court revoked the citizenship of nine nationals and sentenced them to various prison terms for terrorism-related charges. Authorities revoked the citizenship of four more nationals in two trials between May 22 and 25.

The government has deported eight people to Iraq since the beginning of 2018, after courts stripped them of Bahraini citizenship.

Bahrain made amendments to the Citizenship Law of 1963 in July 2014. Article 10 permits the Interior Ministry, with cabinet approval, to strip the citizenship of a person who “aids or is involved in the service of a hostile state” or who “causes harm to the interests of the Kingdom or acts in a way that contravenes his duty of loyalty to it.”

In 2015, the Interior Ministry stripped the citizenship of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a prominent Bahraini human rights advocate. He was on a list of 72 persons whose citizenship the Interior Ministry revoked. The group included human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists, whom authorities accused of having “defamed the image of the regime, incited against the regime and spread false news to hinder the rules of the constitution,” and “defamed brotherly countries,” among other allegations. Alwadaei has since 2012 lived in the United Kingdom, where he is seeking asylum.

In 2016, the government revoked  the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, a prominent Shia cleric regarded as the spiritual leader of the now-dissolved main opposition group to the government, Al Wifaq. Authorities kept him under house arrest until July 9, then granted him a temporary passport to travel to the UK for urgent medical procedures.

Bahraini authorities have either jailed or exiled the country’s preeminent human rights defenders after trials that did not meet basic due process standards. The authorities have also resorted to harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, and prosecution of their family members.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality, or of the right to enter his own country. In 1999, the Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, stated that, “'The scope of ‘his own country’ is broader than the concept ‘country of his nationality,’” and that it would apply to people who have been stripped of their nationality in violation of international law.

A United Nations report from 2013 says that, “International law … obliges States to provide for an opportunity for the meaningful review of nationality decisions, including on substantive issues.” The report states that if the citizenship of a national is revoked, “lodging an appeal should suspend the effects of the decision, such that the individual continues to enjoy nationality – and related rights – until such time as the appeal has been settled.”

Article 29 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, states that, “Every person has the right to a nationality, and no citizen shall be deprived of his nationality without a legally valid reason.”

“What Bahraini authorities have done in stripping away hundreds of people’s citizenship clearly violates international norms,” Goldstein said. “Bahrain should promptly do the right thing and restore citizenship to those victims.”