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Note to Trump: even Putin’s Russia doesn’t punish dissent by seizing citizenship

Putin, Hollande, Merkel And Poroshenko Meet Over Ukraine Peace Plan (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

On June 24, the Russian parliament overwhelmingly passed something called the Yarovaya Law: a “counterterrorism” bill that was, in actuality, a crackdown on freedom of speech. It banned, among other things, praying in public outside of specially designated zones. Yet just before the vote, one key part of the law was quietly removed — too controversial, it seemed, even for Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The provision permitted the Russian government to strip citizenship from Russians for a number of reasons, including joining an “international organization” or engaging in speech the Kremlin determined to be “incitement to hatred.” This was clearly unconstitutional — the Russian constitution, ineffectual as it is usually is, explicitly bans denationalization — and prompted what Human Rights Watch’s Russia director, Tanya Lokshina, described as a “a staggering media outcry.” The Yarovaya bill was ultimately signed into law by Putin without the citizenship clause

Yet today, in America, President-elect Donald Trump is proposing to do the exact same thing — punish people who do things he doesn’t like by stripping them of their citizenship:

This is unconstitutional in the United States, by the way. But Trump probably doesn’t know that and almost certainly doesn’t care. He appears to have heard reports of anti-Trump protestors burning the flag at Hampshire College, and wanted some way to punish them.

In doing so, he called for a new assault on the right to citizenship — one that goes well beyond anything done by its peer democracies and even Russia, into territory currently occupied by crudely authoritarian monarchies like Kuwait and Bahrain.

Trump is extremely unlikely to actually do this once in office. But the fact that America’s president-elect is mentioning it, even in a mere tweet, is chilling.

A brief history of stripping citizenship

Stripping citizenship from dissenters and other purported enemies of the state has a long and sordid history around the world. It can be a subtly vicious punishment. When people are rendered stateless — without citizenship of any country — their existence becomes extremely precarious.

They can’t travel, as that would require a passport. Everything from opening a bank account to getting married becomes extremely difficult, as many countries require you to have citizenship somewhere to qualify for health insurance or file official paperwork.

Stripping citizenship has been, historically, a favored weapon of totalitarian regimes.

“The Soviet Union revoked the citizenship of 1.5 million individuals. The Nazi regime denaturalized forty thousand people and revoked the citizenship of another forty thousand native-born citizens,” Patrick Weil, a visiting professor at Yale Law School, writes in his book The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic.

That’s not to let democracies off the hook. The US government, for example, seized famous anarchist Emma Goldman’s citizenship in 1909, on purely political grounds. But after World War II, the practice began to fall out of favor in democratic states.

In 1948, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights declared that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” In 1967, the US Supreme Court’s Afrin v. Rusk decision ruled that denationalization (stripping citizenship from native-born citizens) was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Today, denationalization is almost unheard of in America and its peer democracies.

“Denationalization,” Weil told me in a phone call, “is extremely rare in democracies.”

Denaturalization, revoking the citizenship of a naturalized citizen, is a more accepted — but only under very specific circumstances. For example, dual citizens who join a terrorist group may lose their citizenship in a number of European countries including Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the United States, you can be naturalized if your application for citizenship is somehow fraudulent (if you, for example, lied about a criminal record).

However, a relatively small number of naturalized citizens lose their citizenship in the advanced world per year. There just aren’t a ton of terrorists or people successfully hiding their criminal past.

The point, then, is that taking away someone’s citizenship is an extremely rare and severe punishment, only considered acceptable under very narrow circumstances — and certainly not as punishment for speech the government doesn’t approve of.

I asked Weil if he could think of any example of a modern democracy using denationalization as a punishment for political dissent. His answer?

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This kind of practice, today, is the sole confine of crudely authoritarian states — a tool for repressing high-profile dissidents.

Bahrain’s Sunni sectarian monarchy stripped citizenship from 50 Shia political activists and journalists in February 2015. The most prominent of these dissidents, Ali Abdulemam, was guilty of nothing more than running a prominent blog critical of the government. He was rendered stateless, though he had been granted political asylum in the UK at the time

Two other Gulf monarchies, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have also used denationalization as a punishment for political dissent. In 2014, for example, Kuwait took citizenship from Ahmed Jabr al-Shemmeri — the owner of an anti-government newspaper and television station — as well as members of his immediate family.

This is the company Donald Trump says he wants America to keep.

This is not just a story about one stray Trump tweet — it’s a story about American institutions

Mural Depicts Donald Trump And Vladimir Putin (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The issue here is not that President Trump will actually be able to reverse decades of policy on denationalization. The legal barriers, according to Weil, are simply too high, and it’s not clear that Trump even wants to.

The issue, instead, is what this signifies.

Trump has a demonstrated pattern, as my colleague Tara Golshan documents, of threatening to sue his critics or calling for them to be thrown in jail. Come January, he’ll be able to do more than just sue people. And if this tweet really is, as it seems, a fit of pique directed at anti-Trump protestors, then it seems like he doesn’t have all that much interest in letting constitutional rights stand in his way.

There’s a meme in the media that Trump’s bizarre Twitter pronouncements are ways of distracting from his policy ideas and personal controversies. I think that’s one step too subtle. Trump says stuff like this because it actually reflects his feelings.

His long pattern of trying to intimidate people away from criticizing him proves that he really does hate public criticisms and wants to make them stop. Twitter is an unadulterated format for hearing the president-elect’s thoughts, which one day could turn into actual policy ideas. Even though stripping citizenship isn’t itself a plausible idea, Trump sincerely thinks it would be a good thing if it were possible. That raises questions about the likelihood of more subtle attacks on dissent.

When Trump vents about undoing decades of legal progress toward protecting rights to citizenship, we shouldn’t dismiss it because it’s on Twitter. We should look to the other countries that have adopted the policies he proposes — and wonder about his vision for America.

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