What Jason Azzopardi revealed in Parliament last night is a new level of nightmare. And yet, when our eyes flicker open in the cold light of day, we’ll brush off this experience and wash away the unease we feel about what has just happened. Every week a new low is reached for civil rights in this country.
Protest is suppressed. Libel tourism to silence critics is aided and abetted. People are detained on grounds of mental illness without due process. Minorities are profiled and stopped in the streets. And all the time this is happening to ‘others’, allowed to happen because the authority of state action and the cover of legal process mask the vileness of what is going on.
Governments do not need to wear balaclavas to commit crimes. They pass laws, issue official orders and enforce their criminal acts under the pretense of the law. Jason Azzopardi called this episode ‘the ultimate secular crime’. It’s worth pausing to think why that is correct.
Jason Azzopardi said yesterday that a Maltese man of Algerian heritage has been stripped of his citizenship. The facts still need to be confirmed but as I understand them Abderrahmane Fezouine became a Maltese citizen in 1995, almost a quarter of a century ago.
He became eligible to his citizenship through his marriage to a Maltese citizen. In 2002 his marriage was annulled for reasons that do not include fraud or that his was ‘a marriage of convenience’. In other words, when he became eligible for citizenship through marriage he did not pretend to marry in order to acquire citizenship he would not otherwise have had a right to.
In these 24 years Mr Fezouine lived, as far as I could establish in the last few hours, as an honest citizen. He has no criminal record and has offered no legal grounds for anyone to strip him of his citizenship.
Jason Azzopardi in Parliament said Mr Fezouine blew the whistle on a visa scam and the government has stripped him of his citizenship in retaliation. There will be time to verify that enormous allegation.
But I would like to pause for a moment on the significance of stripping someone of their citizenship because when and if what Jason Azzopardi here suggests is confirmed, the enormity of what has happened will be rubbed off like a dream puffed away by the noise of the next atrocity.
Citizenship is not the same as a residence permit. The latter is an exercise of mere tolerance. Someone who is ineligible to move freely is temporarily granted tenancy based on a number of conditions and on the understanding that the permission will be withdrawn if any of the conditions are breached.
Therefore if a non-citizen is permitted to stay they are expected to adhere strictly to local laws. Any breach will not only bring about the appropriate punishment applicable to citizens but will also be followed up by the withdrawal of the residence permit.
Citizenship, on the other hand, is irrevocable. If a Maltese citizen commits a crime, however heinous, we do not exile them or banish them. If a citizen is convicted of murder, say, they go to prison for a long time, their liberties are restricted, but they remain endowed not only with their inalienable human rights that cannot be denied to any human being, but also with very specific privileges that come with being Maltese whatever they have done to bring their own name and the name of their country in disrepute.
One such privilege is the right to live here without being forcefully deported. If you commit a crime you can expect to be locked up even, in very extreme cases, for the rest of your living days. But we have nothing in our laws, that allows us to show our own people to our ports and push them out forever denying them in perpetuity the right to return.
Whether citizenship is acquired by birth or by naturalisation, once someone is a citizen they are always a citizen, no matter what that citizen does. People will refer to the UK’s recent decision to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum a British-born teenager of Bangladeshi heritage who was stripped of her British citizenship because she joined ISIS as a war wife in Syria.
In that case the government applied discretion afforded it by laws that govern national security and the actions of people who effectively take up arms against their country of citizenship.
This will likely start a pointless debate that will distract from the case of the revoked Maltese citizenship of Abderrahmane Bezuin. But I also find the revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship a grotesque abuse of what citizenship is about. If Shamima Begum broke laws, and it appears that she did, then she should have been arrested upon her re-entry, tried for her crimes and punished appropriately.
The UK government in her case has used powers it has to summarily act in order to protect its country from terrorism and warlike action against its people.
What executive powers are alleged to have been used in Mr Fezouine’s case? What Jason Azzopardi is saying is that the government here has used its power to reverse the granting of citizenship after naturalisation through marriage on the grounds that citizenship was acquired under false pretenses. Therefore this is not so much a stripping of citizenship as it is a reversal of its granting in the first place.
The provision in the law makes some practical sense. If a person enters into a marriage of convenience in order to lie and mislead the government in granting them citizenship, than their application is void in the first place and therefore the citizenship ought to never have been granted. Withdrawal by executive action in such cases is justified as after all citizenship was granted by executive action.
But if it was not a marriage of convenience, then by implication the marriage through which citizenship was acquired, was entered into in good faith and therefore the new citizen came into their right to claim and be granted citizenship in good faith as well.
Other marriages are annulled in Malta, not just marriages that involve a spouse that was not born a Maltese citizen. Less so today, since annulments are no longer the only way someone can find a legal means to remarry.
In theory a marriage that has been annulled never really happened but that is a legal fiction which we recognise in the restraint of what we seek to reverse once annulment occurs. We do not, for example, go back to the couple’s tax returns and force them to revise the payments they made during their marriage to pay the difference between a married or single tax rate. We would consider such a thing absurd.
And yet here we are, 17 years after his marriage is annulled, telling Mr Fezouine that since the marriage on which his claim for citizenship was grounded ‘never really happened’ he was never really Maltese the last 24 years.
This is administrative abuse of the first order. We don’t go about telling people they’re not Maltese however much we dislike them.
Never mind for a moment that Jason Azzopardi is alleging that Mr Fezouine is being banished as a political exile, facing administrative retribution for being a whistle-blower in the case of a state-sanctioned crime. We’ll come to the motivations as more facts emerge. We have time yet to be horrified by why they did it.
Let’s pause to be horrified first by what they did. And also to be horrified by why they think they can get away with it: a rampant, pervasive, inalienable racism that allows the population to collectively think that there’s no such thing as a Maltese citizen with Algerian heritage. That someone born in Algeria can never, whatever the law and the paperwork have said for 24 entire years, be truly Maltese. That even though they have been recognised as citizens for a quarter of a century, someone born in North Africa is here on mere tolerance, a grace and favour that can be withdrawn by executive order.
Might as well stick a yellow badge to their jackets and cite them the Nuremberg laws.
Perhaps it is not entirely pointless to point out there’s another reason the government thought they could away with what they’ve done to Mr Fezouine. The commoditisation of citizenship in the passports sales scheme has put a price on the most sacred secular endowment there is: the simple fact of being a citizen. In giving it a monetary value, however large, they have cheapened citizenship to something that can be granted under administrative discretion. That is only the brighter side of a coin the tail of which says that citizenship can also be taken away under administrative discretion.
Citizenship is now in the gift of the government, and in a society poisoned by racial prejudice and a populist adulation of the regime that governs it, that gift is used to further the interests of those empowered to administer it.