(Beirut) – The Omani government should drop its cases against nine online activists and a demonstrator who were convicted of crimes solely for exercising their rights to free expression. The cases are before the Omani appeals court.
On July 16, 2012, the Muscat Court of First Instance convicted five men and one woman on the charge of “defaming the Sultan” following Facebook and Twitter postings that allegedly criticized Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qabus bin Sa`eed Al Sa`eed. The same court had convicted another four activists on the same charge on July 9.
“Like people throughout the region, Omanis are sick and tired of having no say in the governance of their country,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than listening to legitimate demands and peaceful criticism, Omani authorities are jailing people who speak out.”
The convictions stem from a wave of arrests that began on May 31, when authorities detained at least nine bloggers and writers who criticized the government’s failure to carry out reforms promised in 2011 following nationwide demonstrations. On June 11, the authorities detained at least 22 demonstrators who publicly protested the online activists’ arrests. The verdict in the case against 11 of the protesters is due on July 22.
On July 16, Oman’s official news agency reported that the Muscat Court of First Instance convicted Mohammed al-Badi, Mohammed al-Habsi, Abdullah al-Siyani, Talib al-Abry, Abdullah al-Arimi, and Mona Hardan of “defaming the Sultan” based on article 126 of Oman’s penal code. The court sentenced each of them to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 Riyals (US$2,600). Hardan, al-Abry, and al-Badi were sentenced to six additional months in prison for violating provisions of Oman’s information crimes law. All six have been reportedly released on bail pending appeal, which is scheduled for September 10.
A lawyer representing one of the defendants told Human Rights Watch and CIHRS that all six convictions were the result of Facebook postings and Twitter comments that authorities deemed to be critical of Sultan Qabus, but that he did not know the specific content of the postings. He said that the authorities have not allowed him to meet with his client since his arrest nor to attend any interrogation sessions.
The July 9 convictions, by the same court, were of Hamud al-Rashidi, a demonstrator, for “defaming the Sultan” and Hamad al-Khorousi, Mahmoud al-Rawahi, and Ali al-Meqbali, all online activists, for “defaming the Sultan” as well as violating provisions of Oman’s information crimes law. The sentences ranged from six months to a year in prison. The court released all four on 1,000 Riyals (US$2,600) bail pending appeal, scheduled for September 15.
A local activist who spoke with al-Rashidi after his release said that the court convicted him on the basis of a series of signs he carried in a June demonstration in front of the public prosecutor’s office in Muscat. One of the signs, photographs of which Human Rights Watch and CIHRS have seen, reads, “Ease [the pressure] on us, shepherd of London,” a reference to a recent visit by Sultan Qabus to the United Kingdom for vacation. The court sentenced al-Rashidi to six months in prison.
The local activist told Human Rights Watch and CIHRS that prison authorities held al-Rashidi in solitary confinement during his six-week detention, forced him to wear a hood while taking him to the bathroom, and subjected him to repeated verbal abuse.
A Muscat-based lawyer with knowledge of the case against al-Khorousi, al-Rawahi, and al-Meqbali told Human Rights Watch and CIHRS that the court sentenced them each to one year in prison for poetry critical of the Sultan that they posted to their Facebook pages. One of al-Khorousi’s poems reads, “Qabus sold the country for [a price] cheaper than al-Biri [an Indian cigarette brand].” Al-Rawahi and al-Meqbali’s poetry has been deleted from their Facebook pages.
“Omani laws should be used to protect the free speech rights of Oman’s citizens rather than shield their ruler from criticism,” said Ziad Abdeltawab, deputy director at CIHRS. “These activists never should have been arrested or convicted in the first place.”
Another 11 activists, including al-Rawahi, face charges of “illegal gathering” and “blocking streets” due to their participation in a peaceful sit-in on July 11 outside a Muscat police station protesting the arrests of the online activists. This group includes the prominent human rights activists Sa`id al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, Mukhtar al-Hana’i, and Basima al-Rajhi. Under article 137 of Oman’s Penal Code, which authorities amended in 2011 to increase the sentences, these charges carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine of 200 Riyals (US$520).
One of the activists arrested on June 11 told Human Rights Watch that the sit-in was on the sidewalk at least 15 meters from the street, and that it was the police who blocked all streets leading to the police station.
All except al-Rawahi were released on bail on June 22. The verdict, initially scheduled for July 11, will be announced by the Muscat Court of First Instance on July 22.
These prosecutions follow statements by government authorities threatening to stamp out public protests and criticism in the Sultanate. On June 4, Muscat’s public prosecutor released a statement saying he would take “all appropriate legal measures” against activists who have made “inciting calls … under the pretext of freedom of expression.” He also said that, “The rise of rumors and incitement to engage in negative behavior eventually harms the nation, its citizens, and the national interests.”
On June 20, the quasi-official National Committee for Human Rights released a statement saying that “There is a difference between freedom of opinion as a right and the practice of this right on the ground …” The committee stated that it supports “a freedom of opinion that pursues the public interest and not one that seeks to injure and insult others.”
From February through April of 2011 Omani activists, inspired by popular revolts in other parts of the Arab world, initiated a series of public demonstrations and nonviolent sit-ins throughout the country demanding an end to corruption, economic reforms, and greater respect for human rights. Security forces forcibly stopped the demonstrations in April, but not before Sultan Qabus initiated a series of economic reforms and a structural change to the Omani parliament that allowed the partially elected lower house to draft legislation for the first time.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed under article 29 of Oman’s Basic Law and under international human rights law. International standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security. Restrictions must be clearly defined, specific, necessary, and proportionate to the threat to the interest protected.
Criminal prosecution for peaceful criticism of public officials violates international human rights standards. While officials should be entitled to the protection of laws on defamation, the standards say they should tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder to bring a case for speaking critically of public officials and political figures, Human Rights Watch said. It encourages debate about issues of governance and common concern.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 34 states, “[I]n circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.”
While Oman is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other important international human rights treaties, they constitute authoritative guidelines reflecting international best practice.
“Over a year ago the Sultan announced a series of reforms aimed at promoting democracy and ending corruption in the Sultanate,” Houry said. “Now his government is punishing people for calling him to account.”