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(Beirut) – Omani authorities immediately should release and expunge the convictions of a group of reform activists jailed solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Twenty-four members of the group who are serving prison terms have been on hunger strike since February 9, 2013, to draw attention to their plight.

Authorities convicted and sentenced a total of 35 activists to between six months and 18 months in prison in 2012 on various charges including “defaming the Sultan,” “illegal gathering,” and violating Oman’s cybercrimes law through their Facebook posts and Twitter comments. None of the charges involve recognizable crimes by international standards, Human Rights Watch said. Several of the 35 managed to avoid arrest and have gone into hiding or fled Oman, and two others remain free pending appeal, according to one of the activists now abroad.

“Omani authorities are trying to suffocate the pro-reform movement by imprisoning these activists with laws that violate international standards, but the activists are refusing to be silent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These men and women should not have to spend one more day in prison for their peaceful calls to reform.”

Nabhan bin Salem al-Hanshi, one of the 35 convicted activists, who fled Oman while at liberty during his trial, told Human Rights Watch that the activists are hoping to draw attention to their plight to persuade Oman’s Supreme Court to hear appeals of their cases, which it has so far refused to do. The activists believe that their trials during the second half of 2012, before Muscat’s Court of First Instance and an appeals court, were marred by interference from Oman’s security services.

The hunger strikers include the well-known activists Sa`id al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, Mukhtar al-Hana’i, and Basima al-Rajhi. Local media have reported that al-Hashemi, who suffers from chronic injuries due to an incident in 2011 in which unknown assailants kidnapped and tortured him, was briefly hospitalized as a result of his hunger strike, and that several others are in declining health.

Malek al-Abri, a member of Oman's elected Shura Council, a body with legislative powers as a result of reforms in 2011, told media agencies on February 19 that the Supreme Court will hear the appeals of the activists and issue its judgment on March 4, though there has been no official announcement from the court.

A delegation from Oman’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), whose members are appointed directly by Sultan Qabus bin Sa`id Al Sa`id, visited the activists on February 19 and urged them to end their hunger strike, the Times of Oman reported. The commission spoke against the activists in June, saying that “[t]here is a difference between freedom of opinion as a right and the practice of this right on the ground….”

Al-Hanshi, who said he is in regular contact with families of the other activists, told Human Rights Watch that the detainees repeatedly have told family members about poor prison conditions, including a lack of cleanliness and inadequate food.

Article 29 of Oman’s Basic Law guarantees freedom of speech, and international human rights law allows content-based restrictions only in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that directly incites violence. Any restrictions must be clearly defined, specific, necessary, and proportionate to the harm, Human Rights Watch said.

Criminal prosecution for peaceful criticism of public officials violates international human rights standards. While officials are also entitled to the protection of laws on defamation, they must 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 and encourages debate about issues of governance and common concern, Human Rights Watch said.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. states in its General Comment 34 that, “[I]n circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the [covenant] upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.”

Another six people serving unrelated sentences stemming from violent protests in 2011 have joined in the hunger strike, bringing the total number of hunger strikers to 30, Human Rights Watch said.

“Regardless of whether the high court agrees to consider these appeals, the government has committed a grave injustice by jailing activists on these unjustified charges,” Stork said.

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