The Numbers Game of Politics: A Panel on Statelessness (Part 2)

The Story of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Stateless Bahraini

The first part of this series about the panel on statelessness organized by LSESU Amnesty International Society on February 22nd focused on the general discussions held. This part will take a different approach, relating instead the particular story of the third panelist, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei.

I tried my best to stay true to Alwadaei’s voice, without adding any sensationalist language or vulnerable terminology that he did not use himself.


Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei used to be a Bahraini national. As he explains, he’s always been quite active in the political activist circles of his home country. Most particularly, he took on an active role in the “Pearl Roundabout” protests that sprung up around the same time as the Arab Spring. As a result, he was imprisoned by the Bahraini government.

He recounts the events from the night he got arrested. He and other protesters were milling around the roundabout, getting ready to settle in for yet another night sleep-in. The police suddenly showed up and started launching tear gas cannisters into the crowd.

Then they proceeded to round up people, including Alwadaei, and severely beat up many of them. At this point, Alwadaei points to a scar on his forehead, explaining that he got it when several policeman hit him violently in the head – punching him, kicking him…

Many protesters subsequently ended up in prison. For them, that night was only the beginning of the pain. Alwadaei explains that he was tortured at length while detained. He doesn’t go into details but hints that the torture was extensive, and employed many different ways of inflicting pain and psychological harm.

He was eventually released, and managed to travel to the UK to seek asylum. It took him about a month to get refugee status, after which he set up the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London. Yet, this didn’t mean he was safe.

Sometime later, in early 2015, Alwadaei was alerted that Bahrain had just released a list of seventy-two people who were officially no longer Bahraini nationals: effective immediately, they were stripped of their citizenship, thereby rendered stateless. The way that the legal basis for this action was phrased left unclear what room there was for appeal.  On this list was Alwadaei’s name.

He had not been warned, had no knowledge of this fact save for this list that he was told about by a friend. As he explains in an article published in the Guardian on February 9, 2015, there was “no trial, no appeal, no legal process – if your name is on that list, you are no longer a Bahraini.”

He tells us about the other names: they include journalists, students, clerics, doctors, academics, political activists like himself, bloggers, protesters, etc… All people who were punished, he laments, “for calling for democratic values in the state, in Bahrain.”

Now here’s the twist. On that list were also the names of some twenty terrorists. This is a tactic that the Bahraini state seems to make extensive use of to mask its human rights violations. By amalgamating those who pose a security threat to the state with those who are asking for reform, the state is effectively silencing the voice of human rights defenders, and de-legitimizing their claims for social, democratic, change.

Alwadaei then goes on to make a thought-provoking statement: he considers himself “one of the very lucky people.” Let me stress that. Very lucky. As he develops, he is fortunate enough to hold refugee status in the UK, which is not the case for many others, a lot of whom are still in Bahrain today.

Credit: Flickr

In 2015, according to Alwadaei, there have been 208 revocations of Bahraini citizenship performed by the state. These people no longer have access to healthcare, lawful employment, driving licenses… the list goes on. For women with now-stateless husbands, this means they no longer have access to inheritance, and their children will grow up stateless.

Alwadaei goes on to illustrate the legal wormhole that these individuals are now in with a powerful example. Here’s what happens if you look up their name on one of the state’s databases: they are not listed there. They cannot be found. They no longer exist as Bahrainis.

At this point, one of the other panelists, Bronwen Manby, steps in and explains that stripping people of their nationality allows for deportations instead of fair trials. In the case of these Bahraini nationals, it means they are no longer protected under the law: they have no access to legal recourse in case of state punishment as a result of their political – or other – activities.

This, Alwadaei further argues, allows the state to forego any responsibility towards its nationals. By revoking their citizenship, there is no need for any attempt at respecting these people’s civil, political, and even social, economic, and cultural rights. They are no longer part of the social contract, nothing is owed to them. Not even the pretense of respecting their life, liberty, and person. Much less their pursuit of happiness.

In a world where the UNHCR has just launched a campaign to end all statelessness, what progress can we truly hope to achieve when states are using it as a tool for social and political control? What does this say about the future of democracy, the future of human rights? As long as political protesters and human rights defenders are equated with terrorists, can their claims and ills ever be taken seriously? I sure think they can, but we need to work on making that a reality.

So support people like Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei who have gone through what (the majority of) our states – whatever their failures and shortcomings – protect us against. And support the UNHCR because statelessness means that you are left to fend for yourself, and that should never be imposed upon you.


Margot Charles

Credit for Featured Image: Flickr




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