National ID

Could They Really Take Away Your Citizenship?

You might not fit the profile of Osama bin Laden. But if your government suspects you of terrorism or treason, it can confiscate your passport and, in some cases, even strip you of your citizenship. Then it can arrange for a cooperative government to assassinate you.

From the government’s viewpoint, this strategy is very useful. You lose your passport and any diplomatic protections your country extends to its citizens. You must also apply for a visa to re-enter your own country.

And since your government arranges for your killing only after it revokes your citizenship, it’s now acting against an “enemy alien.” That avoids inconvenient due process requirements such as a trial or criminal conviction… much less “innocent until proven guilty.”

The UK is the undisputed champion of this strategy. In just the last seven years, the UK has stripped at least 42 people of their citizenship, including at least five born in Britain. Two have already been killed in US drone strikes, and a third was secretly deported to the US.

One former UK citizen and drone strike victim was Mohamed Sakr. The son of wealthy Egyptian immigrants, he was born in the UK in 1985.

In 2007, Mohamed traveled to Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Upon his return, he was interrogated for hours by UK counter-terrorism officials. Once readmitted to the UK, he came under intense surveillance by the intelligence services and was detained repeatedly by police.

Mohamed’s closest friend in London was Bilal al­Berjawi. They had grown up together in adjacent apartments. Bilal and Mohamed lost their British citizenship weeks apart in 2010 – and both subsequently died in covert US airstrikes.

In September 2010, while he was in Somalia, Mohamed’s parents received a letter from the UK Border Agency informing them the government had revoked his British citizenship. Without British citizenship, Mohamed had no right to return home and no effective way to appeal the government’s decision. Without a passport, he couldn’t leave Somalia.

The official line is that both men were linked to terrorist groups in Somalia. While that’s possible, it is equally plausible they were drawn to the country by personal ties. Bilal’s wife was from Somalia, as was Mohamed’s girlfriend.

Mohamed was the first British-born citizen in centuries to be stripped of his citizenship. His parents insist that despite in principle being entitled to Egyptian citizenship, Mohamed never had anything other than a British passport. They contend the loss of British citizenship rendered their son stateless. Yet an intelligence official quoted in news accounts called Mohamed a “very senior Egyptian.”

Under UK law, the government can revoke a person’s British citizenship without a court hearing. The home secretary has the exclusive power to use this authority and can do so whenever deemed “condusive to the public good.” This process allows all deliberations to occur secretly. To this day, we don’t know what crimes Mohamed supposedly committed. The only clue comes from a letter sent to his family stating he was suspected of being “involved in terrorism-related activity” and for having links to “Islamist extremists,” including his friend Bilal.

In January 2012, Bilal died in a drone missile attack a few hours after calling his wife on a cellphone the day their son was born. His relatives believe that the telephone call helped pinpoint his location.

Mohamed was killed in an airstrike just one month later.

Could It Happen Here?

Let’s face it: From the government’s perspective, being able to revoke the citizenship of an “enemy of the state” is a pretty darn handy power to possess. A century ago, during World War I, the US used this power to strip the citizenship of German immigrants it considered disloyal. But in a 1958 decision, the Supreme Court declared that deprivation of citizenship couldn’t be used as a punishment.

If you were born in the US, the government can’t revoke your citizenship unless you intend to lose it. If you’re a naturalized citizen, you can lose your citizenship only if you obtained it under false pretenses or if you:

  • Refuse to testify before Congress (for 10 years after naturalization)
  • Join a subversive organization (for five years after naturalization)
  • Are dishonorably discharged from the military, if military service is the means by which you acquired citizenship.

For now, at least. A law proposed in 2010 would revoke the citizenship of individuals – including native-born Americans – deemed to be "engaging in, or purposefully or materially supporting, hostilities” against the United States.

This would spare the Uncle Sam the embarrassment of assassinating his own citizens, although this is now established US policy. The Obama administration admits to killing at least four US citizens in drone strikes, including a 16-year-old boy.

In addition, hundreds of dual nationals traveling outside the US have been stripped of their US passports and have no way to re-enter the US. Under the Obama doctrine, they could be targeted for assassination anytime.

It’s hard for most of us to conceive of engaging in “hostilities” against the US government. But consider the definition of “terrorism” under US law:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law
  • Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.

On the surface, these definitions definitely look like what most of us conceive of terrorism. But consider this scenario:

You’re attending a political protest. The crowd gets a little rowdy and smashes the windows of a local bank. A bank teller falls on the glass and is seriously injured or killed. Presto… you and everyone involved in the rally might now be considered terrorists. 

Once the government classifies you as a terrorist, it can seize and ultimately forfeit everything you own, whether or not those assets are connected to terrorism. It can detain you indefinitely, without ever charging you with a crime. And, of course, it can kill you.

Take that, you Occupy Wall Street hoodlums and Tea Party hooligans. If you become "hostile" in your opposition to the ruling party, you just might find yourself involuntarily expatriated and in permanent military detention. Or assassinated.

The global trend is clear. Governments are using passport revocation and the loss of nationality as a weapon against their political enemies. Given this reality, it only makes sense to obtain a second nationality and passport, "just in case."

Mark Nestmann

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