MANAMA (Reuters) - The decision to revoke Taimoor Karimi’s Bahraini citizenship was read out on state media late one night while he was fast asleep at his home in the capital Manama. His children woke him up to break the news.
If a final appeal hearing fails next month, he will be stateless, expelled from a country where he says his ethnic Iranian family has lived for generations and donated a public park that bears its name.
A Shi’ite Muslim lawyer who took part in Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests in 2011 and defended prominent activists jailed afterwards, Karimi has fought the order for three years, during which he says he lost his ID, job and bank account.
“I am Bahraini, down from my grandfather to my father,” the 59-year-old told Reuters. “Now, I am out of work, I cannot keep a bank account or travel. What do I do?”.
He was one of the first 31 people whose citizenship was revoked by the Sunni-led government for what it called harm to state security in 2012, more than a year after the uprising, which was quelled with help from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The interior ministry order outlining the penalty did not say what lay behind it. The government says the measure is only used when the threat is “both present and severe” to national security of the Gulf Arab state, which, like Saudi Arabia, is a key U.S. ally.
A government official, who asked not to be named, said such measures are implemented by other states in relation to terrorist threats.
Bahrain, an island state of some 1.35 million people, has long faced opponents on the streets, mainly from its Shi’ite majority demanding more rights. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said in February that 17 policemen had been killed while on duty, including several by bomb attacks.
Activists say the government has increasingly used administrative and legal means against its opponents and has portrayed them and the protests as part of a plot inspired by Shi’ite Iran to bring down Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. The opposition denies any influence from Tehran.
Nedal Al Salman from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said of an estimated 280 people whose citizenship had been revoked since 2012, more than 200 orders were issued in 2015 alone. They include academics, religious leaders, businessmen and former MPs, she said.
Many were ethnic Iranians or Shi’ite Arabs but Sunnis have also been subject to the orders. Several have already been deported, including at least four who were expelled to Lebanon or Iraq since Feb. 21, Bahrain’s al-Wasat newspaper reported on March 16.
It was not immediately possible to obtain a government comment on any numbers involved or on individual cases.
“All citizens affected have the right to appeal against the decision with the Kingdom’s judiciary, and are entitled to legal representation in a transparent appeals procedure that falls in line with international standards of best practice,” said the government official who spoke on condition she was not named.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has criticized the removal of citizenship, which analysts say is one of several ways of controlling the opposition in Bahrain, the strategically-important home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Hundreds of dissidents have fled to Europe or the United States since the February 2011 protests born of the region-wide Arab Spring pro-democracy movement.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates there are more than 3,000 in jail, many for taking part in what the government calls illegal gatherings, attacks on security forces or incitement of hatred of the ruling system.
Karimi had already spent six months in jail for involvement in what authorities called “riots and incitement to hate the ruling system” before the media announcement on his citizenship. He had denied the incitement charges and defended his participation in protests, saying they were licensed.
The interior ministry order revoking his citizenship was published by state news agency BNA. It cited “section C of article 10 of the citizenship law which allows citizenship to be revoked if one caused harm to state security”.
“The interior minister will take the necessary measures to implement that, in light of the kingdom’s commitment to preserve national security and in line with the kingdom’s commitments to ... the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” it said.
Karimi said the justice ministry summoned him a week later and revoked his license to practise law. Authorities summoned him again a month later, he said, and withdrew his passport and the smart ID, which enables him to access public services.
Since he had become a de facto foreigner, Karimi was ordered to find a sponsor who would agree to make his stay in the country legal or leave.
Because he failed to do so, he was tried in court, fined 100 dinars ($265) and ordered expelled, a ruling he has been fighting in a lengthy appeal process. Then a year ago, he said banks froze his accounts. He has since survived on freelance work and assets he had accumulated during 23 years of work as a lawyer.
His final appeal hearing is scheduled for April 17. If it goes against him, Karimi faces imminent expulsion and the prospect of taking his relatives into an uncertain future or leaving them behind.
Editing by William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher