Human Rights Watch recently conducted preliminary investigations into the situation of human rights in Oman, particularly with regard to the rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you of our concerns, based on our investigations to date, and to seek meetings with relevant Omani government ministers and officials to discuss our concerns in detail. We consider such engagement with your government to be critically important in advance of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of human rights in Oman in 2015.
Since the demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 in Oman that resulted in the deaths of at least two demonstrators, the arrest of hundreds of protesters by security and intelligence forces, and the release of imprisoned demonstrators under pardons granted by Sultan Qabus bin Said Al Said, the government’s response to demands for reform has resulted, in some cases, in violations of international human rights standards and norms that Oman is obligated to uphold.
This is so particularly in relation to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in view of new restrictions that the Omani authorities have imposed since 2011 to stifle and punish peaceful criticism of or opposition to the government and its policies, and curtail independent civil society activism in favor of reform.
Human Rights Watch does not have information suggesting that Oman currently holds large numbers of political prisoners but we have documented a pattern of arrests and short-term detentions, and other forms of official harassment of real or suspected government critics. These are facilitated by provisions of Omani law that clearly violate international human rights law and standards, such as those criminalizing “illegal gatherings” that are peaceful and comments deemed “insulting [to]the sultan.” In addition, Human Rights Watch has noted a pattern of harassment of activists post-release that amounts to improper disruption of their livelihoods and professional activities, for example, by denying security clearance required for jobs in state services on account of their peaceful activities.
Freedom of Expression: Articles 29, 30, and 31 of Oman’s Basic Law guarantee freedom of expression and of the press, yet conditions these guarantees on “the conditions and circumstances defined by the Law” and prohibits the publication of anything that “leads to public discord, violates the security of the State or abuses a person’s dignity and his rights” (article 31). By appearing to allow blanket prohibition on these grounds, this goes beyond the restrictions on freedom of expression prohibited under international law, which need to be proportionate, and the least restrictive to address the harm.
Omani authorities appear to mostly use provisions of the penal code to stifle freedom of expression. Penal code article 126 prohibits insulting or defaming the “Sultan’s rights or authority” either publicly or by publication, and imposes a penalty of up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 500 Omani Rials ($1,300). Article 173 similarly bans “publicly or by publication, and by speech or gestures” anything that affronts a public official performing their duties. Violators may be sentenced to up to six months in prison. Truth may not be used as a defense against charged under these criminal defamation laws. .
Oman’s Press and Publications Law, Telecommunications Act of 2002, and Cyber Crimes Law also restrict both publishing and online content. Article 61 of the Telecommunications Act penalizes “any person who sends, by means of telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals” with imprisonment of up to a year and a fine of up to 1,000 Omani Rials ($2600).
Since 2011 Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of prosecutions of “crimes” restricting freedom of expression, including “insulting the Sultan,” and eventual pardons by Sultan Qabus. Numerous activists, journalists and bloggers have told Human Rights Watch that the arrests and prosecutions of dozens of activists have had a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression in Oman.
Below is a summary of several individual cases recently documented by Human Rights Watch that we wish to discuss with Omani government officials:
- On August 30, 2014, Omani police arrested Mohammed al-Fazari, a prominent blogger and government critic, and released him on September 4 without filing charges. They held him incommunicado during this time, allowing one phone call on the day of his arrest. Authorities had sent a written summons to al-Fazari obliging him to appear at the Royal Oman Police headquarters in Muscat’s al-Qurum neighborhood at 9 am on August 30. The reason given for the summons simply states “a personal matter.”
Prior to this latest summons and arrest police had summoned al-Fazari on two occasions. The first time, in October 2013, police held him for over 10 hours and questioned him extensively about his peaceful and legitimate pro-reform activism and activities with Mowatin Magazine. During the second meeting, which took place in a Muscat restaurant in March 2014, police officers politely requested that he cease his activities.
Authorities had previously arrested al-Fazari in June 2012 during a round-up of bloggers and activists and held him in solitary confinement for extended periods before prosecuting him in separate trials on charges of “illegal gathering” and “insulting the Sultan,” prior to his release in March 2013 under a royal pardon.
- On July 13, 2014, authorities arrested blogger and rights activist Noah Saadi, releasing him on August 7. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any charges that the authorities have filed against him in connection with this latest arrest. Officials had previously arrested Saadi on September 13, 2013, apparently because he criticized on his blog the Omani authorities responsible for arresting Dr. Talib al-Maa’mari, a Shura Council member who had participated in anti-pollution protests. Previous to that, authorities detained Saadi in 2011 for his participation in mass protests that took place in Sohar by Omanis demanding jobs and an end to corruption.
- On November 7, 2013, police arrested Khalfan al-Badwawi for comments he posted online criticizing the government. Authorities called al-Badwawi and ordered him to surrender to the police. Al-Badwawi refused the summons but authorities later arrested him. They held him in incommunicado detention for approximately one week and refused to provide any information regarding his whereabouts to his family prior to releasing him. Al-Badwawi, and another activist previously arrested and convicted for his online activities, Nabhan al-Hanshi, eventually fled to the United Kingdom in December 2013.
- On July 29, 2013, Omani authorities arrested pro-reform activist Sultan al-Saadi at a gas station as he was traveling with his family. Fourteen armed men from the Omani Intelligence Service detained al-Saadi, confiscated his laptop and other personal items, and took him to an undisclosed location. They released him on August 20 without charge. Al-Saadi claimed that security forces subjected him to ill-treatment in detention.
Authorities had previously arrested al-Saadi in 2011 on the basis of his participation in pro-reform demonstrations in the northern industrial town of Sohar, and in 2012 on charges of “insulting the Sultan” because of his pro-reform Facebook and Twitter advocacy. Sultan Qabus had included him in his pardon of activists in March 2013.
- In January 2013, Omani authorities arrested human rights activist and blogger Saeed Jaddad, and held him for eight days in solitary confinement on charges that included calling for demonstrations and heaping discredit on state officials, before releasing him on bail. Jaddad has called for political and social reforms in posts on Facebook and on his blog. The authorities rearrested Jaddad on July 3, 2013, at a rural property he owns in the Dhofar region, claiming he was inhabiting the property illegally. Jaddad said he obtained the property through a property swap with the local municipality and had yet to receive proper documentation. When Jaddad refused to vacate the property, authorities arrested him on charges of “resisting the authorities” and held him in detention overnight.
On July 21, 2013, the public prosecution summoned Jaddad on a new charge of “undermining the status and prestige of the state.” Authorities released him on bail but threatened him that he may again be interrogated and brought to trial on these charges.
In light of the foregoing concerns we submit the following questions or requests for further information:
- Since 2011, how many individuals have been arrested for speech-related activities under the Omani Penal Code, the Press and Publications Law, the Telecommunications Act of 2002, or the Cyber Crimes Law? How many of these individuals were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison for these crimes?
- Are there currently any individuals in detention or prison, or with charges pending against them, for speech-related offenses under the Omani Penal Code, the Press and Publications Law, the Telecommunications Act of 2002, or the Cyber Crimes Law? How many of these prisoners are in detention or prison (or with charges pending against them) for “insulting the Sultan” or defaming a government or public official?
- For each detainee or prisoner currently in detention or prison (or with charges pending against them) for speech-related offenses, please provide a) their names, b) the charges under which they have been convicted, c) their sentence, if any, and d) the evidence used to convict them, if any.
- What are the reasons for the most recent detentions of Noah Saadi and Mohammed al-Fazari? Have charges been filed or are charges pending in relation to their most recent arrests?
Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Assembly: Omani authorities require citizens to request government approval for all public gatherings, and regularly arrest citizens at unapproved gatherings. Article 137 of the penal code states that anyone who “participates in a private gathering including at least ten individuals with a view to commit a riot or a breach of public order, shall be sentenced to a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine of 200 Rials (US$520).” Authorities sharply increased the penalties under Article 137 after pro-reform demonstrations spread through the country in 2011.
In May and June 2012, for example, 11 activists faced 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 included human rights activists Said al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, Mukhtar al-Hanai, and Basima al-Rajhi. 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. Sultan Qabus pardoned, and authorities later released, most if not all of the activists.
Below is a summary of several individual cases recently documented by Human Rights Watch that we would like to raise with Omani government officials:
- On August 6, 2014, an appeals court in Muscat convicted Dr. Talib al-Maamari, a former member of Oman’s Shura Council from Liwa, to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 100 Omani Rials for “illegal gathering,” and three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 Omani Rials for calling for demonstrations. The court also sentenced former municipal councillorfrom Liwa, Saqer al-Balushi, to one year of imprisonment and a fine of 300 Omani Rials for “illegal gathering.” Seven other defendants also charged with “illegal gathering” were acquitted by the court. The court allowed al-Balushi to be released on bail pending an appeal with the supreme court, but refused the release on bail of Dr. al-Maamari.
The case stemmed from an August 22, 2013 incident in which activists gathered in Liwa, north of Sohar, to protest pollution from the industrial zone at the port, which they consider a public health risk. Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who had blocked the entrance to the port. On August 24, security forces arrested Dr. al-Maamari who was present at the anti-pollution demonstration. Authorities did not permit al-Maamari to meet with a lawyer until September 10, 2013. On September 9, the public prosecution charged al-Maamari with inciting a crowd and wrongful assembly at a public place. According to the verdict, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the court sentenced al-Maamari to seven years in prison with a fine of 1,000 Rials (US$2,600), and municipal councillor Saqr al-Balushi to four years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 Rials ($1,300) on charges of “illegal gathering” and “blocking traffic.” The sentence was later vacated by the courts and sent for retrial.
In light of the foregoing concerns we submit the following questions or requests for further information:
- Please provide an explanation of the process of acquiring a permit for public gatherings. Which ministry or government agency is in charge of reviewing these permit applications, and what are the laws, regulations and criteria which guide the ministry’s decision regarding whether to accept or deny permits?
- How many requests for permits for public gatherings have been submitted to the government since 2011? Of those submitted, how many were denied or never responded to? What were the reasons for the denials or lack of responses, and were these reasons ever communicated to the applicants?
- Since 2011, how many individuals have been arrested for “illegal gatherings” or “blocking traffic/streets?” How many of these individuals were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison terms on these charges?
- Are there currently any individuals in detention or prison, or with charges pending against them, for “illegal gatherings” or “blocking traffic/streets?” For each of these persons, please provide a) their names, b) the charges under which they have been convicted, c) their sentence, if any, and d) the evidence used to convict them, if any.
- What are the reasons cited by the public prosecution or the court for refusing to grant bail to Dr. Talib al-Maamari?
Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Association: Article 134 of the penal code prohibits the establishment of “associations, parties and organizations which are against the Sultunate’s statutes or social and economic systems,” including setting up branches of any “foreign political party.” No association may receive funding from an international group without government approval, and individuals convicted of doing so for an association may receive up to six months in jail and a fine of 500 Omani Rials (approximately $1,300). Oman’s Ministry of Social Development is responsible registering associations pursuant to the Civil Societies Law, which requires a minimum of 40 members to an organization before its application can be considered and reviewed.
To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, no political parties or independent human rights groups are currently registered to operate in Oman, although several groups have formed on Facebook and other social media sites. The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded and appointed commission composed of members of the private and public sectors, operates as the only officially recognized rights body in Oman.
Below is a summary of recent cases documented by Human Rights Watch that we would like to raise with Omani government officials:
- In September 2014, the authorities closed down the Elixir Cultural Saloon in Sohar, which was run by a group of young men and women. The closure of the club, which conducted book club activities and public debates on current events and sensitive issues, caused a reaction among some youth and community leaders who believed it had been targeted for its peaceful activities. Human Rights Watch is not aware of the reasons given for its closure.
- In May 2012 police detained human rights activists Ismail al-Meqbali, Habiba al-Hanai, and Yacoub al-Khorousi as they travelled to the Fohoud oil field to interview striking oil workers. All three are founding members of the independent but unregistered Omani Group for Human Rights. Authorities denied the detainees access to their families and lawyers for several days, eventually releasing al-Hana’i and al-Khorousi while holding al-Meqbali to investigate potential charges. Authorities transferred al-Maqbali to a secret prison where they held him for one month and charged him with insulting the Sultan, violating the cybercrime law, forming a political party outside Oman, incitement, insulting the flag and attending gatherings by pro-reform activists. A court later convicted him of “insulting the Sultan” and imposed a sentence of 30 months in prison, but he was later pardoned by Sultan Qabus and released.
Al-Meqbali and others formally applied in May 2012 to both the Ministry of Social Development and the National Human Rights Commission to officially register the Omani Group for Human Rights, but received no response from either the Ministry or the Commission. Al-Meqbali and other activists had previously applied to register a pro-reform group, the Reform Association, with the Ministry of Social Development in 2011, also without response.
Since their arrests security forces have summoned both al-Meqbali and al-Khorousi several times, apparently because of their online criticism of government policies. Al-Meqbali claims that he had to give up a home loan secured through his company because of his arrest, although his company later allowed him to return to work.
- In 2011 government authorities warned activist Said al-Hashemi to cease gatherings at a book club he and others had initiated to discuss, among other things, current events and political developments in the country. In December 2013 after al-Hashemi invited Kuwaiti professor and rights activist Dr. Ghanim al-Najjar to attend an event in Muscat as a guest speaker, the authorities sought unsuccessfully to shut down the event which, however, went ahead.
In light of the foregoing concerns we submit the following questions or requests for further information:
- Please provide an explanation of the legal registration process for associations with the Ministry of Social Development. What are the laws, regulations and criteria which guide the ministry’s decision regarding whether to accept or deny applications, and within what, if any, time limits must they respond?
- How many associations are currently registered with the Ministry of Social Development? How many associations’ applications are pending or awaiting ministerial approval? Do any of these associations (either registered or awaiting approval) engage in reform or rights-related activities?
- Since 2011, how many applications have been received by the National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Social Development or other related government agencies for the establishment of associations related to reform or human rights? In each case, what has been the government’s response to these registration requests?
- Are there currently any individuals in detention or in prison, or with charges pending against them, for violating Article 134 of the penal code or other laws related to the establishment of unlawful organizations, associations, or political parties?
- For each detainee or prisoner currently in detention or prison (or with charges pending against them) for violating Article 134 or other related laws or regulations, please provide a) their names, b) the charges under which they have been convicted, c) their sentence, if any, and d) the evidence used to convict them, if any.
- Did the Ministry of Social Development or other government agencies provide reasons to the owners of the Elixir Cultural Saloon regarding its closure, and if so, what are they? If not, why not? What, if any, means of remedy are available to those subject to closure orders issued by the Ministry of Social Development to challenge and overturn such closure orders?
- Did the government ever respond to the 2011 and 2012 applications submitted by rights activists to establish the Reform Association and the Omani Group for Human Rights, and if so, what did their responses say? If not, why not?
Administration of Justice/Due Process Concerns: Additionally, we are concerned with the authorities’ reliance on problematic provisions in Oman’s criminal procedure code that can result in serious violations of a defendant’s due process rights. An example of this is an amendment enacted in 2011 which allows security forces to hold someone in pretrial detention for up to 30 days without charge. Human Rights Watch has documented cases going back to 2011 in which individuals held in pretrial detention for days or weeks, without access to a lawyer or family members, alleged that they were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment. Article 14 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Oman is a party, requires the authorities to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for their arrest, inform them promptly of any charges against them, and promptly take them before a judge and permit contact with family members.
With regard to due process and administration of justice issues, we submit the following questions or requests for further information:
- Since 2011, how many complaints has the Omani government or the National Human Rights Commission received regarding a) torture or other ill-treatment in detention or prison by government officials and b) incommunicado detention or lack of access to a lawyer or family members during pretrial detention?
- For each of these cases, has the Omani government or the National Human Rights Commission investigated the allegations, and if so, what were the results?
- Since 2011, have any government officials been disciplined or prosecuted, regardless of rank or position, in connection with any of the abuses identified in the foregoing paragraphs (including the deaths of at least two protesters during the 2011 protests)? If so, what was the nature of the discipline or punishment?
- Have security and intelligence forces or other government agencies denied or otherwise influenced security clearance assessments, for government jobs or other forms of employment, in relation to any of the individuals identified in the foregoing paragraphs in connection with their arrests, prosecutions, convictions or detention?
Finally, we applaud your government’s recent decision to join the Mine Ban Treaty on August 20, 2014. We note, however, that Oman has yet to become party to key international human rights treaties, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, although we understand that the Omani government is currently discussing ratification. We urge Oman to become party to these international human rights treaties at the earliest opportunity.
We also applaud your government’s decision to invite Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, to Oman in September 2014. As you know, Mr. Kiai’s statement and preliminary findings echo many of the concerns shared with you in this letter. We encourage you to cooperate both with his team and with other rights bodies in the coming months to identify and address the shortcomings in Oman’s laws allowing freedom of expression, assembly and association, or malfeasance by authorities in the implementation of such laws.
We thank you for your attention to these matters and hope to have the opportunity to discuss them with relevant Omani ministers and officials in the near future. We will be in the region and available to meet the week of October 10, 2014, and are looking forward to receiving a response at your earliest opportunity regarding whether such meetings are possible. In particular, we are very interested in meeting with you and the following individuals, and any other officials you deem appropriate:
- HE Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al Busaidi, Secretary General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Chief Justice Dr. Sheikh Is-haq al Busaidi, Chief of the Supreme Court and Deputy Chair of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary;
- HE Lieutenant General Hamd al Shuraiqi, Inspector General of the Royal Oman Police and Customs (ROP);
- HE Dr. Abdul Munim al Hasani, Minister of Information;
- HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Said bin Saif al Kalbani, Minister of Social Development;
- The Venerable Mohammed Abdullah Masoud al Riyami, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission;
HE Khalid bin Hilal al Mawali, Speaker of Ash-Shura Council
We also note that any response we receive to this letter will be reflected in press releases, reports, or other material we publish in the future.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch