Kuwait’s State Security agency have arrested at least 15 activists from the stateless Bidoon community, including prominent human rights defender Abdulhakim al-Fadhli. The arrests took place between 11 and 14 July following demonstrations in response to the death of Ayed Hamad Moudath. Moudath, 20, committed suicide on 7 July after the government denied him civil documentation, which is needed to access public services, as well as to study and work.
“These arbitrary arrests primarily targeting peaceful protesters, activists and human rights defenders in Kuwait are not only unlawful, but are only set to exacerbate an already tense situation brought to the fore by the young man’s suicide,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research director at Amnesty International.
For over 50 years, the Bidoon (short for bidoon jinsiya, meaning ‘without nationality’ in Arabic), a community of between 88,000 to 106,000 stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, have remained in legal limbo. A special Kuwaiti state department deals with regulatory issues and renews their security cards, yet these do not count as proper proof of identity.
On 12 July, before a sit- in demonstration was scheduled to begin, the authorities surrounded the homes of those who had led previous sit-ins and arrested them, including human rights defender Abdulhakim al-Fadhli. The agents also confiscated al-Fadhli’s and his family’s cellphones and computers. Authorities have previously arrested al-Fadhli several times for his peaceful activities on behalf of the Bidoon community.
Other activists arrested between July 11 and 13 are: Awad al-Onan, Ahmed al-Onan, Abdullah al-Fadhli, Mutaib al-Onan, Muhammed al-Anzi, Yousef al-Osmi, ِNawaf Al-Bader, Hamed Jamil, Jarallah al-Fadhli, Yousif al-Bashig, Ahmed al-Anzi, Abdelhadi al-Fadhli, and Alaa al-Saadoun.
“Kuwaiti authorities should immediately release the detained Bidoon activists, who were peacefully advocating for their fundamental rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kuwaiti government needs to fairly resolve the longstanding issue of stateless people in Kuwait instead of trying to silence them.”
The history of the Bidoons goes back to 1961, the year Kuwait gained independence from Britain. At the time, a number of people living in the region — particularly Bedouins — did not deem it necessary to apply for citizenship. According to Kuwaiti law, they have “undefined citizenship status.” Kuwaiti nationality law has not been reformed since, and many of these “undefined citizens” still have not applied for Kuwaiti nationality. They, along with their offspring, are officially stateless, which has made their lives tremendously difficult.
Despite government reforms announced in 2015, the Bidoon community face severe restrictions on their ability to access documentation, employment, health care, education and state support enjoyed by Kuwaiti citizens. As a result, many live in relative poverty and are relegated to working in the informal sector. In 2018, the minister of education rejected a parliamentary proposal to register children of Bidoon in public schools and Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings.
In an official statement, the Kuwait Society for Human Rights criticises the situation of Kuwait’s Bidoons as “worse than ever before.” It states that the “state department responsible for them has taken arbitrary measures and is exerting pressure on the majority of the Bidoon people.”
The situation of the stateless Bidoon population is exacerbated by Kuwait’s restrictive nationality laws, through which citizenship is usually transmitted through patrilineal descent. As a result, children of Bidoon parents do not have any claim to citizenship, despite being born in Kuwait. Moreover, children born to Kuwaiti mothers and Bidoon fathers are also considered Bidoon, except in cases of divorce or death of the father.
At the World Conference on Statelessness, which took place in the Hague in June 2019, Mohamed Albadry Alenezi, Director of Kuwaiti Bidoon Movements, told IOHR: “In the beginning the government was giving us documents as Kuwaiti, then they withdraw all of these documents and changed us from Kuwaiti to stateless, and then from stateless to illegal residents.”
“I hope this voice reaches to the world that we are looking for international protection. Come and open the file of the Bidoon, because the government itself is changing everything on the ground, till we lose all our rights,” he said.
The situation of the Bidoon in Kuwait is only one manifestation of a regional problem, with 500,000 people believed to be Bidoon across the Gulf region.