Bahraini lawyers, activists face lost citizenship
MUHARRAQ, Bahrain (AP) — Off a road guarded by three police checkpoints, Bahraini lawyer Taimoor Karimi wonders about his future in a country that no longer considers him a citizen.
He and 30 other Shiites were stripped of their nationalities this week in the Gulf nation's latest attempt to crush a 21-month-old uprising against the Sunni leadership. Karimi ponders the possible loss of rights and benefits as a stateless outcast.
"I have no place to go, nowhere to go," he told The Associated Press during an interview at his home after learning of Wednesday's decision.
The kingdom revoked the citizenship of Karimi and other Shiite activists and lawyers as battles appear to be escalating on all sides in the Gulf's main Arab Spring flashpoint.
A series of five bomb blasts on Monday killed an Indian and a Bangladeshi worker and authorities claimed the attacks carried the hallmarks of the Iranian-backed Islamic militant group Hezbollah. Just days earlier, authorities banned all protest rallies under a "zero tolerance" policy that brought an unusually harsh rebuke from the U.S., which is normally wary about pushing too hard against Bahrain's leaders who host the strategically important U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The sense of hardening positions in Bahrain has implications far outside the kingdom, which is no bigger in area than New York City.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states are deeply committed to saving Bahrain's Sunni dynasty as a firewall against possible future challenges to the ruling sheiks and monarchs in the region. Washington, meanwhile, faces a difficult balancing act between unease over Bahrain's increasing harsh tactics and the need to preserve critical military and political alliances with the Gulf states as front-line partners against Iran.
The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet is the Pentagon's main naval counterbalance to Iran's expanded military bluster in the Gulf, including threats to close oil shipping lanes and a reported firing at U.S. surveillance drone in international airspace on Nov. 1. Pentagon press secretary George Little said the drone was not hit and returned to base.
In Bahrain, the majority Shiites seek a greater political voice in the country's affairs. Near nonstop unrest since February 2011 has claimed more than 55 lives and brought some changes from the Sunni leadership, including giving more oversight powers to the elected parliament. But authorities also increasingly portray the opposition as traitors and influenced by Shiite giant Iran.
On Friday, security forces set up blockades and fired tear gas in an apparent attempt to disrupt weekly prayers by the country's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, who has often criticized the government's crackdowns.
"The revoking of citizenship from honorable people is aimed at punishing those who have opposition views," he told worshippers who managed to reach his mosque.
The decision to void the citizenship for 31 prominent Shiite figures — including some political activists in self-exile and former opposition lawmakers — was the latest blow against perceived threats to "state security," according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
Officials did not respond to requests for additional details on the allegations. They appeared, however, similar to claims against dozens of opposition leaders who have been sentenced to prison, including several life terms. The group stripped of citizenship, including 30 men and one woman, can appeal, the state news agency added.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was "greatly concerned" by the move.
"We have continually called on the government of Bahrain to create a climate that is conducive to reconciliation, to meaningful dialogue, to reform, to bring peaceful change," she said on Wednesday.
At about the same time, the lawyer Karimi gathered with his family in the old section of Muharraq island, about 10 kilometers (six miles) northeast of the capital, Manama, and under near round-the-clock security watch as are many Shiite districts.
Karimi spent six months in detention after protests broke out last year and claims his missing teeth and marks on his hands are evidence of the alleged torture he suffered behind bars. Among those also losing their citizenship were several neighbors and activists living in self-exile in London.
"There is no due process," said Karimi, 55, a well-known lawyer who was born in Bahrain and studied in Egypt. "It is against human rights ... and an intimidation against the Shiite community in Bahrain."
He said he does not expect to be deported — "No documents, no passport," he shrugged — but to now fall under the category of a stateless resident, known in Arabic as Bidoun and common in some areas of the Middle East. The stateless sometimes go back generations in some countries, but are often denied access to state benefits such as pensions and subsidized health care.
"I am Bahraini and I won't leave my country," he said.
Targeting citizenship has been used elsewhere in the Gulf as rulers try to muzzle opposition emboldened by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that led to the ouster of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
In the United Arab Emirates, at least six activists were stripped of citizenship for criticizing the country's leaders, and at least one person was deported to Thailand under a Comoros Islands passport arranged by UAE authorities.
Bahrain has used the punishment as far back as 1954 when Sunni leader Abdul Rahman al-Baker lost his citizenship because of his political activities. He and two other activists were later deported to St. Helena in the South Atlantic in the same prison where Napoleon Bonaparte was jailed.
In the 1960s and 70s, many dissidents studying outside Bahrain were not allowed to return and their passports were not renewed. And hundreds of Bahrainis with Persian origin were forcibly exiled to Iran in the 1980s after their citizenship was revoked. Many had to wait until political reforms in 2001 to have their citizenship restored.
International rights groups have condemned Bahrain's latest decision, with Amnesty International saying it "appears to have been taken on the basis of the victims' political views."
"We urgently call on the Bahraini authorities to rescind this frightening and chilling decision," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa.