The Former Bahrainis: Denaturalization as a Political Weapon

2016-02-18    |   


In 2012, the Bahraini government issued an executive decree denaturalizing 31 people, including myself, and the executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain.[1] Ostensibly, the government denaturalized these people because they committed crimes against the kingdom. In reality, they were targeted because of their peaceful opposition activities and use of their right to freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly against a government that has oppressed the majority of its people.

This denaturalization was the first in a series of collective denaturalization operations carried out for political reasons. In 2014, the government denaturalized 12 more people. In 2015, it denaturalized an additional 128 people, such that the number of people stripped of Bahraini citizenship since 2012 now stands at 171.[2] While some of these people have been proven to have links or allegiances to violent extremist groups, including ISIS, the government has used denaturalization as a weapon against its peaceful political opponents inside the country. It has denaturalized and deported many political activists and human rights defenders for offenses related to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Usually, the government uses denaturalization against well-known Shia clerics, leaders of the political opposition, and minors convicted for false confessions.

Denaturalizing these people deprives them of all aspects of the state’s protection. They cannot access many of the social services the state provides, nor can they obtain education or social assistance. Usually, the state also seizes their property. Stateless persons living in Bahrain may also be deported without warning.

The government relies on a series of laws accompanied by a corrupt judicial system to justify its oppressive use of denaturalization, as explained below.

The Legal Basis

In Bahrain, a group of laws grant the government a large amount of leeway to denaturalize citizens. The most important of these laws is the 1963 Bahraini Citizenship Act (hereafter, referred to as “the Citizenship Act”), which establishes a vague foundation for the denaturalization process and allows the government to denaturalize any person who threatens the state’s security interests. This power was consolidated by the Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts law and the amendments made to it in 2012 (hereafter, referred to as “the counterterrorism law”), which provided a loose basis for the government to convict any person of terrorism-related crimes for acts of peaceful opposition. Put together, these two laws provide the Bahraini judicial system with a broad footing for denaturalizing all peaceful opponents.

Following his father’s death in 1999, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, a prince at the time, declared his intent to implement vast political reforms in the country. In the course of his reform program and after discussions with the Shia opposition leaders, Hamad arrived at a new constitution backed overwhelmingly by the supporters of these leaders. However in 2002, Hamad declared himself king and unilaterally issued a different constitution with articles less favorable to Shia citizens. The new Constitution features many new expressions considered very problematic for the Shia opposition, not the least of which are those addressing denaturalization.

Article 17 of the Constitution specifies the conditions under which the government may use denaturalization as a punishment.[3] The article states that “Bahraini citizenship is determined by law, and it may not be removed from whoever possesses it except in the case of high treason and other cases defined by the law”. The protection the article provides is vague as if treason is a clear-cut crime. The government has previously interpreted the charge of treason as it wishes, applying it to peaceful opposition activities. Even graver, the article includes a license to issue laws authorizing denaturalization [in other cases]. Hence, according to the article’s obscure language, any denaturalization is constitutional.[4]

As for the Citizenship Act, it includes provisions pertaining to denaturalization. The most important, as far as we are concerned, allow for the denaturalization of a person who “enters the military service of a foreign state”, “aids or joins the service of a hostile state”, or “causes harm to state security”.[5]

In 2014, the state amended the citizenship act to allow, in a limited manner, for denaturalization to be issued as a sentence in court cases related to terrorism.[6] The issuance of the counterterrorism law had provoked ongoing domestic and international concern that its definition of terrorism is too broad, and may include any illegal action that threatens or causes damage, material or otherwise, to public institutions, public order, people, or national unity. Similarly, the law covers any act that impedes government work. Subsequently, civil society expressed its fear over its applicability to legitimate activities such as peaceful disobedience, which could result in its use to prosecute peaceful protesters and human rights defenders. Put together, this law and the Citizenship Act allows the government to denaturalize people for crimes related to freedom of expression. Making matters worse are the amendments infringing on due process guarantees for accused persons that were made to the counterterrorism law in 2013-2014.

Most importantly, the 2014 amendments included the establishment of a prosecution office for crimes of terrorism and the founding of a pre-trial criminal investigation process pertaining specifically to persons accused of terrorism. This law permits the authorities to detain persons without trial for six months.

Furthermore, the 2013 amendments included special powers for the government that allow it to conflate the nationality law and the counterterrorism law. Article 2 of Law No. 20 of 2013 stipulated that, in addition to imposing other punishments such as life imprisonment or execution, the government may denaturalize any convicted person in accordance with certain provisions of the counterterrorism law.

Since 2011, the government has effectively used this legal system multiple times to imprison, prosecute, and denaturalize peaceful opponents.


When investigating terrorism-related crimes, the hallmarks and meaning of which are obscure, the Ministry of Interior has the power to issue its own arrest warrants. Thereafter, it may detain the accused without judicial oversight for six months until the trial date. Victims have reported that they were tortured during this period in order to obtain false confessions. When the government obtains a confession, the trial proceedings begin and the confession is used to secure a conviction. Upon conviction, the government may sentence the accused to denaturalization. Although this course of action may seem impossible, the government has carried it out in full measure on several occasions.

The government of Bahrain has generally carried out vast denaturalization operations. In almost every case, the government has legitimized the denaturalization operations by stating that their victims harmed state security in one way or another via acts of violence or peaceful disobedience that harmed national unity, and the unity of the kingdom.

In a sign of things to come, the government first began using denaturalization as a political weapon in November 2012, less than two years after the beginning of the uprising in 2011. Invoking the executive authority vested in it by Article 10 of the Citizenship Act, the government announced that it had revoked the rights of 31 Bahraini human rights defenders and political activists. The list included former members of parliament who had resigned because of the government’s attack on protesters in March 2011, senior members of the political opposition, and human rights defenders living in exile. The denaturalization occurred via the courts, which therefore did not adhere to many due process principles. Although the government claimed that many of the victims could appeal the rulings, most were living in exile and would probably be arrested if they tried to return to the country to do so. Subsequently, the government deported ten of the denaturalized persons.[7]

The government later used the denaturalization weapon on August 6, 2014. On that date, a Bahraini court convicted nine victims of forming a terrorist cell and stripped them of their citizenship. Subsequently, the appeals court annulled the ruling on the basis of the principles of retroactive trial. But the initial ruling had launched a series of similar rulings. On September 29, 2014, two months after the initial ruling, a different court convicted nine other people of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced them to denaturalization. The victims were originally tried on the charge of illegal assembly. Two months later, another court imposed the same sentence on three Bahrainis, raising the number of persons denaturalized in 2014 to twelve.

On January 31, 2015, the government issued an executive order instructing the Ministry of Interior to conduct the largest collective denaturalization operation in the history of Bahrain, stripping 72 Bahrainis of their citizenship. The government described the victims as terrorists and known violent political criminals. It said that many of the denaturalized persons had ties to ISIS, but Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain was able to count among them at least 25 journalists, doctors, human rights defenders, and peaceful political activists. Thus, many were made stateless. Amongst them was Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy in the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, whose pregnant wife gave birth a month later. Since the law denies Bahraini women the right to pass nationality on to their children except in very specific circumstances, Alwadaei’s denaturalization also rendered his newborn son stateless.

The government justified the collective denaturalization operations by accusing the victims of a number of illegal activities, including spying for foreign countries, funding terrorist operations, defaming the government, spreading false information about the government, carrying out terrorist acts, forming terrorist groups, training people in weapon use, smuggling weapons, inciting and calling for regime change, belonging to terrorist groups, defaming sister states, and in general behaving in a manner that harms the kingdom’s interests. The government did not provide specific charges for specific victims. On June 11, 2015, the First High Court announced that it had sentenced an additional 61 people to denaturalization after they were convicted in terrorism-related cases. Most of these people were sentenced in absentia and were rendered stateless by the verdict. The court stated that it reached this verdict on the basis of the 2006 counterterrorism law, and found the accused persons guilty on the charges of organizing a terrorist group and smuggling weapons into the kingdom between 2012 and 2013. The two youngest victims were 15 and 16 years old at the time of the alleged crimes.


In many if not all cases of denaturalization, the government is violating international human rights law.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to nationality and that no one may be arbitrarily deprived of nationality.[8] These measures also conflict with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006.

Clearly, the Bahraini government’s denaturalization measures have violated the ban on limiting freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly as defined in this Covenant.

The denaturalization operations that the government has conducted have also incidentally violated the provisions of the Convention against Torture. It stipulates that member states “shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings”.

Many of the denaturalization operations carried out by the Bahraini judicial system are marked by numerous allegations of torture and mistreatment, as mentioned earlier.

Finally, Article 8 of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness prohibits member states from denaturalizing any person who would consequently become stateless. However, Bahrain has thus far not signed the UN agreements pertaining to stateless persons.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, “Bahrain Revokes Citizenship of 31 Dissidents, Including ADHRB’s Director”, November 7, 2012.

[2] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, “Bahrain Strips Citizenship of 56, Including 9 Children, Bringing 2015 Total up to 128”, June 11, 2015,.

[3] Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, “Bahrain Strips Citizenship”, op. cit.

[7] Human Rights Watch, “Bahrain: Citizenship Rights Stripped Away: Authorities Take New Powers to Arbitrarily Revoke Nationality”, August 21, 2014.
[8] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Resolution No. 217 A (III), December 10, 1948.

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