The incommunicado detention of a prominent playwright and human rights activist in Oman exposes the country’s weak legal protections and due process provisions, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Omani activist’s family said that they have not heard from him and have been unable to obtain information about his condition and his whereabouts from the police. The police have denied `Abdullah Ryami’s family the opportunity to hire a lawyer for him.
"The Omani authorities should immediately inform `Abdullah Ryami's family of his whereabouts," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They must release him or charge him with a crime, and must respect his rights to an attorney and for his family members to visit him."
Ryami had vocally criticized the Omani government’s arrests, starting in December, and the eventual trial of 31 Omanis of the `Ibadi faith on charges of plotting a coup. At the time, Ryami told Gulf News that "[t]here is no information about the detainees, and even their family members are unaware of their whereabouts." The State Security Court convicted the men on May 2 and sentenced them to prison terms of between one and twenty years on charges that ranged from weapons possession to leading a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
In addition, Ryami publicized what he described as excessive use of force by the Omani police against what witnesses described to Human Rights Watch as a peaceful demonstration protesting the conviction of the 31 `Ibadis. Ryami described how the police trapped demonstrators inside the Sa`id Ibn Taimur Mosque in Muscat and beat those who tried to escape with batons. Mr. Ryami continuously monitored the trial of 24 of the demonstrators before the State Security Court.
In May and June, Ryami also publicized the government’s prosecution of former parliamentarian and journalist, Tayba Ma`wali, whom the government charged with insulting public officials via telephone and internet. Omani officials demanded that Ryami present himself for interrogation two days before the court issued its verdict against Ma`wali on July 13.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman on June 9 pardoned the convicted plotters and amnestied the 24 demonstrators before a verdict was reached in their trial. However, the court sentenced Ma`wali to a year and a half in prison for violating article 61 of the Omani Press Law, among other charges. The provision states that “[e]very person who sends a message via a means of communication that is contrary to the governing system and public morals or that is knowingly untrue … shall be punished by a prison sentence of not more than one year and a fine of not more than 1,000 [Omani] Riyal…” Ma`wali is currently imprisoned. While under investigation, she refused to sign an acknowledgement of her alleged misdeed in exchange for the promise of a pardon.
“Taybah Ma`wali and `Abdullah Ryami are on the frontlines of defending the freedom of assembly and expression as well as the right to a fair trial in Oman,” said Whitson. “It is a bitter irony that the Omani authorities should seek to silence them by using the same outmoded laws, unlawful detentions and closed trials that Ma`wali and Ryami have tried to expose.”
Omani government officials already had informally barred Ryami and Mohamed Harthi, a columnist and poet, from writing for newspapers or producing plays for television following their critique of the Omani democratic reform process during an interview in July 2004 with the Iranian TV station, al-`Alam. In the interview, they criticized Oman’s outmoded press law, among other things.
The Omani penal code allows broadly and vaguely defined charges against national security to be prosecuted before the State Security Court, where defendants enjoy fewer due process rights, such as sufficient time to review the evidence against them, and whose proceedings are frequently closed to the public.