(Beirut) – Oman’s security forces routinely harass, detain, and imprison rights defenders, social media users, and others critical of governmental policies, Human Rights Watch said today. Omani authorities should initiate reforms to bring Oman’s laws into compliance with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Researchers documented a pattern of arrests and detentions that violated fundamental political rights, including free speech. Officials relied on laws criminalizing “illegal gatherings” and “insulting” Sultan Qabus bin Said Al Said, the country’s ruler, to convict hundreds of pro-reform demonstrators in 2011 and 2012. Sultan Qabus later pardoned most of those convicted, but security forces continue to harass and detain peaceful activists, relying on overly broad laws that criminalize the peaceful exercise of basic rights.

“The pattern of arrests and interrogations in Oman has clearly had a chilling effect on the ability of Omanis to speak out,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Oman cannot claim to be a rights respecting nation when authorities routinely arrest peaceful dissenters.”

Oman should immediately release everyone detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 13, 2014, Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, issued a statement after his first country visit to Oman in which he noted a “pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms.” He said the authorities should urgently repeal or amend “laws which have a detrimental impact on the exercise of peaceful assembly and association rights.”

In the most recent case, on December 10, security forces arrested Said al-Jaddad, 46, a human rights activist and pro-reform blogger, in the southern city of Salalah without an arrest warrant, a source familiar with al-Jaddad’s case told Human Rights Watch. Al-Jaddad has repeatedly called for political and social reforms in posts on Facebook and on his blog. The source said the officers impounded al-Jaddad’s car and cell phone, and transferred him to an unknown location. At about 11 p.m., security officers, some in civilian clothes, raided al-Jaddad’s home and took away some of his personal belongings. His family has not heard from him since, the source said.

On December 16, al-Jaddad’s family visited the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Dhofar to seek information, but the authorities refused to provide any, the source said. Al-Jaddad’s family is concerned about his well-being because he has a heart condition, high-blood pressure, and digestive problems. On December 12, Kiai, who met al-Jaddad during the September visit, expressed concern regarding al-Jaddad’s arrest.

Authorities had prevented al-Jaddad from boarding an international flight from Muscat on October 31. Al-Jaddad told Human Rights Watch at the time that the authorities gave him no reason for the travel ban. He had previously been arrested several times on charges including calling for protests, “heaping discredit” on state officials, and “undermining the status and prestige of the state,” but had not been put on trial.

Activists, journalists, and bloggers told Human Rights Watch that the continuing harassment has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Oman. Oman’s criminal procedure code, which empowers authorities to detain people for up to 30 days without charge, facilitates the harassment.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the government on September 25, expressing concern and requesting information regarding cases of targeted activists and dissidents, but has had no response.

The Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Oman is a party, guarantees “the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium” (article 32). Article 14 of the charter requires the authorities to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for their arrest, inform them of any charges against them, and promptly take them before a judge and permit contact with family members. Oman has not yet ratified other major international rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Cooperation and engagement with UN rights bodies are steps in the right direction, but they are no substitute for concrete and meaningful rights reform,” Stork said. “Oman should stop arresting its critics and join all relevant international rights treaties as a first step to signaling its commitment to real reform.”

Background on Said al-Jaddad
Authorities had arrested al-Jaddad several times before they prevented him from leaving the country in October 2014. Al-Jaddad told Human Rights Watch that in January 2013, authorities arrested him and held him for eight days in solitary confinement on charges that included calling for demonstrations and “heaping discredit” on state officials, then released him on bail.

On the morning of July 3, 2013, he said, more than 10 police officers appeared at a rural property he owns in the Dhofar region and said they had come to evict him. He said that he had obtained the property through a property swap earlier in 2013 with the local municipality, but that authorities had failed to send him the legal documentation. He said the officers threatened to demolish his home while he was still inside and then detained him overnight for “resisting the authorities.”

At one point they placed him in a 3-by-4-meter cell with more than 15 other prisoners, little ventilation, and poor sanitary conditions, he said; and, they threatened to deny him access to his medications for heart, back problems, and high blood pressure. They released him on bail the next day.

Al-Jaddad told Human Rights Watch that on the night after his release, unidentified men shattered his car windows. On July 14, 2013, police called al-Jaddad’s son and ordered him to bring his father to the local police station in Salalah, refusing to give a reason for the summons. Al-Jaddad said that later that day, people who refused to identify themselves knocked on his door asking for him. He said he believes security officials are closely monitoring his home because he has seen civilian cars with unfamiliar occupants outside. “My kids are all under constant surveillance especially when shopping out and about,” he told Human Rights Watch.

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 told him that he may again be interrogated and brought to trial on these charges. Al-Jaddad told Human Rights Watch that authorities also warned him to “cut all ties with human rights organizations” and refrain from publicly criticizing any political figures.”

Freedom of Expression Concerns
Oman’s Basic Law guarantees freedom of expression, but restricts this right based on “the conditions and circumstances defined by the Law,” and prohibits any publication that “leads to public discord, violates the security of the State or abuses a person’s dignity and his rights” (article 31). Authorizing blanket prohibitions on these vague grounds goes beyond the restrictions on freedom of expression permitted under international law, which need to be proportionate and the least restrictive to address any legitimate security concerns.

Penal code article 126 prohibits publicly insulting or defaming the “Sultan’s rights or authority” and imposes a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 500 Rials (US$1,300). Article 173 bans “publicly or by publication, and by speech or gestures” anything that affronts a public official performing their duties. Violators risk up to six months in prison.

Oman’s Press and Publications Law, Telecommunications Act of 2002, and Cyber Crimes Law also restrict both print and electronic 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 up to a year in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 Rials ($2,600).

The authorities summoned Said al-Daroudi, 46, a writer and online activist, to appear at a police station on October 10, 2014, in the southern city of Salalah, in the Dhofar region, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Security officials reportedly held al-Daroudi in incommunicado detention for a little more than three weeks without access to his family or a lawyer. Omani rights activists told Human Rights Watch that they believe al-Daroudi’s detention is related to an October 7 post on his Facebook page entitled “I’m not Omani….I’m Dhofari.”

An Omani who is familiar with government thinking told Human Rights Watch that authorities may have construed al-Daroudi’s statement as inciting separatism or internal strife, a crime under articles 130 and 143 of Oman’s penal code. Authorities released al-Daroudi on November 2 without charging him.

In September, authorities inexplicably closed down the Elixir Cultural Salon, a book club and forum for public debates on current events and sensitive issues, run by a group of young men and women in Sohar, several Omanis told Human Rights Watch. The sources said the closure of the salon angered some youth and community leaders, who believed it had been targeted for its peaceful activities. In its letter, Human Rights Watch has asked the Omani government for an explanation.

On August 30, security forces arrested Muhammad al-Fazari, 22, a prominent blogger and editor-in-chief of the Mowatin Magazine news website, which regularly criticizes the government and advocates political reform. Sources familiar with al-Fazari’s arrest told Human Rights Watch that authorities summoned him to appear at the Special Section of the Royal Oman Police headquarters in Muscat’s al-Qurum neighborhood and arrested him when he arrived. They later permitted him to make one phone call to inform his parents that he would remain in police custody for several days, the sources said. The summons, a copy of which Human Rights Watch has seen, stated that it concerned “a personal matter.” Officials released him on September 4 without filing charges.

A source familiar with al-Fazari’s detention said that security officials held him in solitary confinement in a cell with a bright light that was never turned off and interrogated him extensively. The source said that authorities later transferred al-Fazari’s file to the public prosecutor and threatened to charge him with disrupting public order and harming Oman’s reputation if he did not sign a pledge to stop criticizing the government, including through the Mowatin Magazine website. When police released him, they threatened to prosecute him if he continued his criticism of government policies, the source said.

The authorities had first arrested al-Fazari in June 2012 during a round-up of bloggers and activists in Muscat and held him in solitary confinement for extended periods before prosecuting him on charges of “illegal gathering” and “insulting the Sultan.” The other activists told Human Rights Watch that Oman’s Internal Security Agency held al-Fazari incommunicado for 28 days, then transferred him to a facility near Sama’il Central Prison outside of Muscat, where he spent another 23 days in solitary confinement.

The Muscat Court of First Instance later convicted him, along with others, of “illegal gathering” for participating in a sit-in outside police headquarters to call for the release of jailed bloggers and activists. The court sentenced him to 18 months in prison, reduced to 6 months on appeal. He stood trial separately for “insulting the Sultan,” with prosecutors citing passages from his Facebook and blog posts as evidence, but before the trial concluded he was released in March 2013 under the sultan’s pardon.

Local activists told Human Rights Watch that police had summoned al-Fazari in October 2013 and questioned him for more than 10 hours about his pro-reform activism and work with the Mowatin Magazine news website. In March 2014, security officials met him at a Muscat restaurant and asked him to stop his pro-reform activities, the activists said.

On July 13, authorities arrested Noah Saadi, 32, a blogger and rights activist, and detained him until August 7. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, authorities did not file charges against him. Officials had previously arrested Saadi on September 13, 2013, apparently because he criticized the arrest of Talib al-Maamari. Saadi had also been detained in 2011 for his participation in largely peaceful protests in Sohar demanding jobs and an end to corruption.

On July 29, 2013, Omani authorities arrested Sultan al-Saadi, a pro-reform activist, at a gas station as he was traveling with his family, local activists told Human Rights Watch. Fourteen armed men from the Omani security forces 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 said 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 Sohar, and in 2012 on charges of “insulting the Sultan” because of his pro-reform Facebook and Twitter advocacy. Sultan Qabus included him in his pardon of activists in March 2013.

Khalfan al-Badwawi, an activist and blogger, told Human Rights Watch that police arrested him on November 7, 2013, after he refused to respond to a police summons for comments he posted online criticizing the government. He said they held him incommunicado for about a week, during which they refused to provide his family with any information regarding his whereabouts. Al-Badwawi and another activist previously arrested and convicted for his online activities, Nabhan al-Hanshi, fled to the United Kingdom in December 2013.

Freedom of Assembly Concerns
Omani authorities require government approval for all public gatherings, and regularly arrest people attending unapproved gatherings. Article 137 of the penal code states that anyone who “participates in a private gathering including at least 10 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 had sharply increased these penalties after pro-reform demonstrations spread through the country in 2011.

On August 6, 2014, an appeals court in Muscat sentenced Dr. Talib al-Maamari, 43, a former member of Oman’s Shura Council, the consultative assembly, to four years in prison and a fine of 600 Omani Rials (approximately $1,500) for “illegal gathering” over protests against environmental degradation. Al-Maamari’s conviction stemmed from an August 22, 2013 gathering of activists in Liwa, a coastal town north of the industrial city of Sohar, to protest pollution from the port’s industrial zone, which they considered a public health risk. Security forces used force, including water cannons, to disperse the crowds and several protesters were hurt. On August 24, 2013, security forces arrested al-Maamari, who had been at the demonstration.

The court also sentenced a former municipal councilor from Liwa, Saqer al-Balushi, 37, to one year in prison and a fine of 300 Rials ($750) for “illegal gathering” in connection with the same incident. The court acquitted seven other defendants and released al-Balushi on bail pending appeal, but refused to grant similar bail for al-Maamari, his brother, Murad al-Maamari, told Human Rights Watch.

In 2012, 11 activists faced charges of “illegal gathering” and “blocking streets” after they participated in a peaceful sit-in on July 11 outside a Muscat police station protesting 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 July 11, 2012, 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 all of the activists.

Freedom of Association Concerns
In its letter to the government, Human Rights Watch noted serious flaws in Omani law restricting freedom of association. Article 134 of the penal code prohibits the establishment of “associations, parties and organizations that are against the Sultanate’s statutes or social and economic systems,” including setting up branches of any “foreign political party.” As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, no political parties or independent human rights groups are registered to operate in Oman, although a few have attempted to operate.

Several groups have a presence on Facebook and other social media sites. The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded and appointed commission composed of private- and public-sector members, is the only officially recognized human rights body in Oman.

According to article 42 of the Civil Societies Law, no association may receive funding from abroad without government approval, and individuals convicted of doing so risk up to six months in jail and a fine of 500 Rials (approximately $1,300), according to article 54. Oman’s Social Development Ministry is responsible for registering associations under the Civil Societies Law, which requires an organization to have a minimum of 40 members before authorities will consider its application.

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 Omani Group for Human Rights, whose efforts to register with the government have not been successful. Authorities denied the detainees access to their families and lawyers for several days, eventually releasing al-Hanai and al-Khorousi while holding al-Meqbali to investigate potential charges, an informed source told Human Rights Watch.

Al-Meqbali told Human Rights Watch that authorities transferred him to a secret prison where they held him for one month and charged him with insulting Sultan Qabus, violating the cybercrime law, forming a political party outside Oman, incitement, insulting the flag, and attending gatherings by pro-reform activists. A court convicted him of “insulting the Sultan” and imposed a sentence of 30 months in prison, Sultan Qabus later pardoned him.

Al-Meqbali told Human Rights Watch that he and others had formally applied in May 2012 to both the Social Development Ministry 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, he said.

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 said his company put him on temporary leave after his arrest and revoked a home loan secured through his company, although the company later allowed him to return to work.

In 2011, government authorities warned Said al-Hashemi, an activist, 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, a person familiar with the book club told Human Rights Watch. In December 2013 after al-Hashemi invited Kuwaiti political science professor and rights activist Ghanim al-Najjar to attend an event in Muscat as a guest speaker, the authorities threatened to shut down the event, which, however, went ahead.