On Sunday, 37-year-old Ali Abdulemam was chatting online with friends from Bahrain when he saw a report from the country's state news agency. It said that the Bahraini government had stripped 72 people of their citizenship in order to "preserve security and stability and fight the danger of terrorist threats."
Bahrain has been under increasing pressure from Western governments to clamp down on what appears to be a budding jihadi problem inside the small Gulf country. One-hundred Bahrainis have reportedly joined up with the Islamic State so far — and critics allege that some of the recruits have come from inside Bahrain's state security apparatus.
And so Abdulemam, a prominent Bahraini blogger and activist now based in the UK, wasn't surprised to see the news — but he was surprised to see his own name at No. 49 on the list of alleged terrorists. Abdulemam told VICE News he felt little else when he saw his name; it was only later that it dawned on him that he is now stateless.
The Bahraini government's list includes an odd mélange of alleged offenders: hardened Islamic State ideologues alongside journalists and darlings of assorted Western human rights organizations.
"They've done the good old trick of mixing up their domestic problems with the international war on terror," Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News. Kinninmont says Bahrain may have borrowed a page from Kuwait, which has employed similar tactics in the past — getting credit internationally for "taking action against IS" while avoiding criticism of its shoddy human rights record. "This is also being used in the UAE and Oman…. The monarchies are kind of learning from each other."
The 72 Bahrainis are accused of varied crimes against "the Kingdom's interests," including "spying for foreign countries and recruiting people through social media to engage in terrorist acts," "trying to destabilize the government through incitement and by spreading misinformation," "joining terrorist cells," and "abusing brotherly countries."
That the list includes both Sunni and Shia names is significant. Shia dissidents have often led anti-state protests and attracted the bulk of state reprisals. The inclusion of prominent Sunni individuals is thought to signal that Bahrain is serious about countering threats from the Sunni-led Islamic State. Number 17 on the list, for instance, is Turki al-Binali, known as one of the group's leading ideologues and preachers.
But this is not the first time that Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family has stripped citizens of their nationality since a Shia-led uprising against the Sunni-led state kicked off in the capital Manama in 2011. It is, however, the largest sweep of its kind.
In 2013, Bahrain passed a law allowing the state to denaturalize Bahrainis who commit "terrorist" acts. In 2014, that authority was expanded and applied to individuals who breach their "duty of loyalty" to the kingdom. Human Rights Watch has criticized the vague wording of the 2014 amendments, which "provide a further legal pretext for the arbitrary stripping of citizenship."
This latest move came just days after UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond praised Bahrain for improvements in its human rights record. "It is a country which is traveling in the right direction," Hammond told the House of Commons on January 20. "It is making significant reform."
On a trip to Bahrain last May, Prince Andrew similarly applauded Bahrain. "I believe that what's happening in Bahrain is a source of hope for many people in the world and a source of pride for Bahrainis," he said.
Human Rights Watch's 2015 Annual Report, released last week, paints a different picture. It notes that Bahraini courts continue to convict and imprison peaceful dissenters "on vague terrorism charges," and that authorities use "lethal and apparently disproportionate force" against them.
Abdulemam escaped from Bahrain in 2013 in a shipping container and made his way to Britain, where he claimed refugee status. In Bahrain, Abdulemam had risen to prominence as editor of the pro-democracy Bahrain Online. In 2005, Abdulemam told VICE News, he was arrested on charges like "broadcasting hate speech [and] false news," but was released within two weeks. In September 2010, he says he was arrested again — and tortured.
"They put me in a group that they said was plotting to overthrow the regime," Abdulemam said. "They insulted me, hit me, told me sexual things…. I was blindfolded and handcuffed. They threatened my wife, threatened to use electric shocks on me."
In February 2011, he was released, but two weeks later, Abdulemam says the police raided his home and forced him into hiding. He did not see his wife or three children for two years, until he managed to get out of the country.
Another man on Bahrain's alleged terrorist list is 28-year-old Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. Alwadaei learned from Twitter that his citizenship was revoked. He told VICE News that "about 50" people on the state's list are "pro-democracy opponents to the government," while about 20 "are related to ISIS."
Alwadaei believes that he came to the attention of the Bahraini government last year, when he staged a protest at Britain's Royal Windsor Horse Show, where Queen Elizabeth was hosting Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa as part of a UK-Bahrain trade mission. Alwadaei marched across the parade ground waving a Bahraini flag in an attempt to urge the Queen to break off ties with Bahrain's King. He was quickly grabbed by police and detained for several hours.
Alwadaei staging his protest at the Royal Windsor Horse Show
"I went there because as a victim of torture, and with so many human rights defenders in Bahraini prisons, it was a bit insulting to see [King al-Khalifa] sitting there with the Queen," he said.
Alwadaei arrived in Britain in 2012 and claimed political asylum. A prominent pro-democracy activist, he said he was beaten badly by the Bahraini police at a demonstration in February 2011 that kicked off the country's anti-state uprising. Many were injured, and Alwadaei, who had studied in Britain on a scholarship and spoke fluent English, put himself forward as a spokesman for English-language journalists in Manama.
Over the following year, Alwadaei said, he was detained twice and tortured. Alwadaei says his prison guards were foreigners from Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Today, protests in Bahrain continue to simmer. At least 89 dissidents have been killed so far, and a reported 15,000 have been arrested. In November, the country's main opposition party boycotted national elections. A month later, the country's main opposition leader was arrested.
The crackdown comes at a delicate moment for Bahrain's relations with America and the UK. Last year, the US Navy announced that it would expand its Fifth Fleet presence in the Persian Gulf with a $580 million base expansion in Bahrain. In December, Britain announced a "landmark" deal to build a $22.8 million Royal Navy base at Mina Salman in Bahrain to accommodate Britain's new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carries. The Bahraini government will reportedly foot the bill for the base's construction, which has received some opposition from Labour and Liberal Democratic politicians.
Bahrain is seen as a strategic bulwark against Iran. It is also a partner of the United States and a number of Gulf countries in the air war against the Islamic State, which now controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Earlier this month, prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab told VICE News that Bahrain, in offering to pay for the British naval base, was "paying for silence."
Chatham House's Kinninmont says that Bahrain's clamp down on opposition activists has "only intensified since the base was announced…. The base has probably given the government more confidence."
In a statement to VICE News, a Foreign Office spokesperson said, "The UK government is supporting the government of Bahrain in its reform program, including work to help Bahrain strengthen its human rights and justice sector."
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart