The UK Is Stripping 'Terrorist Suspects' of Citizenship -- It's a Dangerous Precedent for the Rest of the World
The British government has turned to a disturbing new tool in its zeal to prosecute the war on terror: stripping the citizenship of those accused of terrorism. Over the past decade, 42 Britons have had their citizenship stripped, according to a count by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The trend, which has overwhelmingly targeted Muslims, puts Britain in the camp of repressive governments like Bahrain, and is taking place on a continent where anti-Muslim sentiment has grown exponentially.
The case of Mahdi Hashi is emblematic. He spends his days languishing in a Manhattan prison, cut off from meaningful human contact. Placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day—a practice deemed torture by the United Nations—the 24-year-old Hashi is awaiting trial on terrorism charges. He went on hunger strike in September 2013 to protest solitary confinement and being cut off from easy contact with his family.
The U.S. government accuses Hashi of being trained by al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia.
Most of his life has been spent in England, where he encountered harassment from British intelligence, which pressured him unsuccessfully to become an informant. Hashi, a British citizen, left the country in 2009 to see his ailing grandmother in Somalia. But in August 2012, Hashi was detained and allegedly tortured by security forces in Djibouti, interrogated by American intelligence agents, and then held for weeks in secret. When he disappeared in the East African country that borders Somalia, his family appealed to the British government. But no help was forthcoming—because Hashi wasn’t a British citizen anymore. After months of nobody knowing where he was, Hashi turned up in an American court in December 2012.
Hashi was stripped of his citizenship by the United Kingdom in the summer of 2012 because, the government says, his continued status as a citizen is “not conducive to the public good.” That’s official British code for being a suspected terrorist. The UK has stripped the citizenship of at least 16 others on national security grounds. There are no judicial hearings and they are given no opportunity to defend themselves. The British government is now trying to expand its power in order to legally make a person stateless.
Most of those left without citizenship in Britain are Muslims. Critics of the policy say it’s one more pernicious example of how Britain, like the U.S., has exploited the war on terror to target Muslim communities.
Hashi’s supporters say the move by British Home Secretary Theresa May effectively left him stateless, marooned with no home country. His supporters say that Somalia did not permit dual citizenship at that time (the laws have since changed), so Hashi gave up his Somali citizenship when he obtained British citizenship after his family moved to the country and successfully applied for asylum. (A spokesman for the Home Secretary said the office does not comment on individual cases.) One immigration lawyer told the BBC that under the law, it is “not necessary for the person to hold another nationality before losing UK citizenship, provided they were deemed eligible to seek a passport from another country.”
Hashi’s predicament is shared by a Vietnam-born British citizen only known as B2 and reportedly eight others. Great Britain revoked B2’s citizenship in 2011 after accusing him of training with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. B2’s lawyers argued that the act violated British law because he was left stateless. But a UK court of appeals decision upheld the citizenship stripping decision, arguing that Vietnamese authorities were incorrect in not recognizing B2’s citizenship, and that Britain could strip him of citizenship. The court ruled that Britain could make a person de facto stateless, but not de jure stateless.
The UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which prohibits making a person stateless. But in a reservation attached to its treaty signing, Britain said it reserved the right to make someone stateless if the person has “conducted himself in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests” to the country. That language, though, has not been applied to any of the people whose citizenship has been revoked. The top British court ruled in October 2013 that the Home Secretary could not strip the citizenship of an Iraqi man accused of terrorism because it would make him stateless—adding to a confusing series of court decisions.
But now, Home Secretary May, the head of the British government department that sets immigration policy, is pushing hard for a change that would allow her to unilaterally strip a person’s citizenship even if it leaves the person stateless. In January, she inserted a clause into immigration legislation that would give her the power to make a person stateless. The clause passed the British legislature’s lower chamber on January 30 by an overwhelming vote of 297 to 34.
“Those who threaten this country's security put us all at risk," Immigration Minister Mark Harper said then. "Citizenship is a privilege, not a right. These proposals will strengthen the home secretary's powers to ensure that very dangerous individuals can be excluded if it is in the public interest to do so."
While the measure, which is backed by the Deputy Prime Minister, is aimed at suspected terrorists, it leaves millions of people at risk of being made stateless unilaterally. The UK has said its increased use of its citizenship stripping powers is in part due to Britons going to fight in the Syrian civil war.
“Stripping your own people of their citizenship is a hallmark of oppressive and desperate regimes. Rendering them stateless is lawless and shortsighted,” Bella Sankey, policy director of the British civil liberties group Liberty, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in December 2013. “Where suspicions exist public safety is best served by criminal investigations, not trampling on due process and trashing our reputation on the global stage.”
Theresa May has been responsible for 37 of the cases. Those targeted by the process are informed by a letter signed by May. There is no judicial process to make the determination—it’s done unilaterally. In most cases, the person is out of the country when informed his citizenship is no longer valid. This makes it harder to appeal the decision. And in cases where national security is invoked, the Special Immigration Appeals Court hears the case, where a lawyer and his client are barred from seeing secret evidence the government points to in justifying the decision to remove citizenship.
The case of Hashi points to the U.S. and UK’s high level of cooperation in prosecuting the war on terror. Hashi was put on the American empire’s conveyor belt, shuffled from U.S. allied-Djibouti to a Manhattan prison after having his rights stripped away from the country he called home. As the Nation’s Aviva Stahl reported, Hashi’s case raises the question of whether the U.S. and Britain are cooperating so that when the UK strips a person of citizenship, the U.S. can more easily target the person.
“Revoking someone’s citizenship obviously removes a number of the obstacles to killing, kidnapping or torturing them, which might otherwise prove inconvenient or embarrassing to supporters of the US-led war on terror,” Katherine Craig, a lawyer with the UK-based Reprieve, told Stahl. Indeed, there are two known cases where the U.S. assassinated Britons who had their citizenship stripped. A British-Lebanese man Bilal al-Berjawi, along with his British-Egyptian friend Mohamed Sakr, were both killed in separate drone strikes in Somalia. The U.S. accused both of fighting with al Shabaab.
Britain’s GCHQ, the equivalent of the National Security Agency, has been accused of passing along signals intelligence to the U.S. for use in targeting people for assassinations by drone. And British citizens locked up in Guantanamo Bay have accused the UK of cooperating with the U.S. on their detention and torture.
The British campaign of revoking citizenship is analogous to Bahrain’s similar campaign. The dictatorship that runs the country has targeted members of the marginalized Shiite community. In November 2012, the Bahraini regime announced that it would strip the citizenship of 31 activists, making some of them stateless.
Last September, another country joined the fray when a Dominican Republic court issued a ruling stripping the citizenship of thousands of migrant workers and their descendants, most of them Haitians. And elsewhere in Europe, the virulently anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders has made similar suggestions. Wilders, currently a member of parliament, has suggested stripping Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands of their citizenship if they commit a crime. He recently created a stir when he told supporters he wanted to ensure there were “fewer Moroccans” in his country.
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Theresa May’s move to expand her citizenship-stripping powers has sparked controversy in Great Britain. A group of lawmakers who are part of the Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a report in early March warning that May’s proposals to strip citizenship even if it made a person stateless could be illegal under international law.