It’s been over a year since the Bahraini government cancelled the citizenship of of Jalal Farooz and his brother Jawad, both former leaders of the country's opposition party. Last November, on the night of the US presidential elections, the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior announced it had turned 31 opposition leaders into stateless people for the crime of “damaging the security of the state.” On the day Jalal found out he was a legal nonentity without a country to call home he was in London, teaching a course in management studies.
“My wife called me from Bahrain at midnight,” he said. “She’d seen a statement on local TV. Without any prior notice, my citizenship had been revoked.” There was no legal process and no warning. “I was never interrogated, I’ve never been asked to go to a police station, nothing,” said Jalal. “Then my citizenship was revoked. I was in shock.”
Last week, after 13 months of limbo, the brothers were both granted asylum in the UK, which is probably just as well given the repression, torture, and death that has been meted out to dissidents since Bahrainis began demanding reforms in 2011. The Bahraini regime, which is for all intents and purposes an absolute monarchy, responding to the protests with teargas and oppression. A recent report by the UK parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee cited “evidence of very serious human rights abuses by the security services during the events of 2011 and the two years since.” By granting both Jawad and Jalal asylum, the UK has tacitly recognized that the brothers face persecution for their political activities— which makes it all the more weird that it otherwise seems so relaxed about human rights abuses on the tiny Gulf island.
The Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted Bahrain’s strategic location which, together with its growing economy and willingness to host UK military forces, apparently make it “vitally important” to the UK's interests. When Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed a recent conference on national security in Manama, Bahrain's capital, he was gushing about the two nations’ 150-year-old ties. “As you... work to build the long-term stability that Bahrainis deserve, we will be a staunch friend to you: supporting the sustained, comprehensive reform you are seeking, and calling on all sides to play a constructive role in political dialogue,” he told his audience of Bahraini VIPs. It's quite difficult for the opposition to play a "constructive" role in a dialogue when their leaders face intimidation and imprisonment.
I met Jalal and Jawad, both smartly dressed in suits and ties, at a cafe on a London university campus. Both are former members of Parliament with the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, a socially conservative Shiite political party that wants the monarchy to surrender more power to democratically elected leaders. As with most coffee dates, it wasn’t long before we were talking about Bahraini sectarianism.
The country's government, security apparatus, army, and civil service are all dominated by Sunnis, despite most of the population being Shiite. Jawad, who had been part of parliamentary committee looking at land use, told me that Sunni areas are targeted for investment at the expense of the country's Shiites. Then there are the 28 Shiite mosques that were demolished by the government in response to the pro-democracy protests, just in case you weren't convinced that the regime is sectarian. In an attempt to reduce the numerical advantage of the Shiite population, the government has granted citizenship to thousands of foreign Sunnis. These include Bedouins from eastern Syria, Pakistanis, Yemenis and, claims Jawad, 30,000 or so members of the Dosari tribe of eastern Saudi Arabia. “During the elections, they send buses to Saudi Arabia, bring them to Bahrain to vote for the regime’s candidates, then send them back,” Jawad told me. “Some of them are registered to imaginary homes in Bahrain.”
Opposition leaders—including Sunni ones—insist that the 2011 protests in Bahrain were not motivated by sectarianism. When sit-ins started at the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s revolutionary hub and answer to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, both Sunnis and Shiites turned up in droves. “The protesters didn’t ask for Shiite rights, but for democratic rights: a vote for each citizen, an elected government, the separation of powers, security for all, and an end to discrimination,” said Jawad.
The regime responded with a brutal crackdown. A report commissioned by the King himself later found that government forces had used arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, torture, psychological abuse, and “unnecessary and excessive force,” all of which—predictably—resulted in the deaths of civilians. Saudi Arabia sent in 1,000 troops to “protect government installations." The tension between the regime and its critics continues to this day. Bahrain recently bought more tear gas canisters than it has citizens, and Amnesty International has accused the government of torturing children. In response, anti-government forces have been upping the ante, specifically by attempting to blow up police.
At the beginning of the uprising, Jalal divided his time between guiding journalists covering the protests and traveling abroad for lectures. Jawad had a seat in Parliament until February 2011, but resigned in protest when the bloodshed began and put his efforts into organizing demonstrations. In May 2011, he was arrested and, like many others, was beaten with a rubber hose, tortured, and humiliated. He claims the guards insulted him for being Shiite and called him a traitor. “One guard put a pistol to my head as if he was going to fire it," Jawad told me. "He said, ‘I could shoot you now, but I don’t want to spill your disgusting blood.'"
Jawad was released, but he was charged with calling for unauthorized marches and “inciting hatred against the regime.” During a break between court hearings, he visited London and it was while he was there that he found out he was no longer a citizen of Bahrain.
“Since I went into exile my first daughter was married and my first grandson was born. At least now I can go to countries close to home and meet them,” said Jalal. “But I can still see all the atrocities and the unhappy situation of the people of Bahrain. The harsh measures by the regime will keep me from celebrating being granted asylum.”