(Beirut) – Omani authorities should quash the conviction of an editor at Azamn newspaper who was arrested nearly a year ago, free him immediately, and allow the paper to reopen, Human Rights Watch said today. Charges against the editor and the reason given for shutting down the newspaper were so vague as to be arbitrary. Given that the case criminalized criticism of the judiciary, they also amounted to violations of freedom of expression.

Yusuf al-Haj. 

© 2016 Private

The Omani authorities closed Azamn newspaper on August 9, 2016, after it published an article titled, “Higher Authorities Tie the Hands of Justice,” on July 26 that alleged corruption within the judiciary. The authorities arrested three journalists – Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, the editor-in-chief; Zaher al-Abri, who oversees the newspaper’s local coverage; and Yousef al-Haj, the deputy editor, who remains in custody. The Oman authorities have taken action in recent months against several other journalists and authors who criticized the government.

“The Azamn newspaper case shows the extent of the threat against activists who seek to expose government corruption in Oman,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Oman should allow Azamn to start publishing again, free its deputy editor Yousef al-Haj immediately, and stop trying to silence critics of the government.”

Following the publication of the article, Oman authorities arrested al-Ma’mari on July 28, and al-Abri on August 3. On August 7, Azamn published an interview with Ali bin Salem al-No’mani, the vice president of the Omani Supreme Court, in which al-No’mani supported the allegations in the earlier article concerning officials’ actions that had undermined the judiciary’s independence. Hours later, the Information Ministry announced the immediate closure of Azamn. Oman’s Internal Security Service arrested al-Haj at a barber shop the same day.

In September, the Court of First Instance in Muscat charged al-Ma’mari and al-Haj with “disturbing public order,” “misusing the internet,” “publishing details of a civil case,” and “undermining the prestige of the state,” and al-Abri with using “an information network [the internet] for the dissemination of material that might be prejudicial to public order,” sentencing them to three years in prison and a fine of 3,000 Omani Rials (US$7,800). The court sentenced al-Abri to one year in prison and fined him 1,000 Omani Rials ($2,600).

On December 29, an appeal court acquitted al-Abri and reduced al-Ma’mari’s sentence to six months and al-Haj’s to a year. Al-Ma’mari was released from the Central Prison in Muscat on April 10, 2017, while al-Haj remains in custody.

Oman authorities have targeted Azamn and al-Haj before for their criticism. On September 21, 2011, a Muscat court convicted al-Haj of “defaming” and “insulting the dignity” of the justice minister and his deputy and sentenced him to five months in prison for the charges relating to each of the two officials. The judge also ordered the newspaper shut down for a month. The charges stemmed from an article al-Haj wrote on May 14, 2011, alleging that the justice minister and his deputy refused to grant a salary and grade increase to a longtime civil servant.

Omani authorities have also closed down other publications that have been critical of the government. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reported that on May 3, 2017, Oman’s Internal Security Service (ISS) ordered the website of the local independent magazine Mowaten to be blocked throughout the country. Human Rights Watch reported in February that Omani authorities had barred the family of Mowaten’s editor-in-chief and founder, Mohammad al-Fazari, who currently lives in the United Kingdom, from traveling outside the country.

In February, the Omani Center for Human Rights reported that the management of Muscat’s annual International Book Fair withdrew two books that were critical of the government. One was a compilation of Mowaten articles and the other an anthology by the poet Ahmed al-Raimi titled, “To You No Loyalty.”

On May 23, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced a writer and researcher, Mansour Bin Nasser al-Mahrazi, to three years in prison for his book, “Oman in the Square of Corruption,” which was published in 2016. The court issued the sentence despite the fact that the writer himself removed the book from the Omani book market, according to the Omani Center for Human Rights. On the same day, the court ordered the release of al-Mahrazi after he paid the bail, the human rights group reported.

The authorities restrict digital content and online criticism using article 61 of Oman’s 2002 Telecommunications Act, which penalizes “any person who sends, by means of telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals.” Human Rights Watch has documented the spread of these legal restrictions on the right to free expression, particularly targeting social media, across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in its “140 Characters” report featuring activists who have been prosecuted for views they expressed online.

This spate of arrests and closures of independent media outlets violate international standards of freedom of expression, particularly the right to criticize government officials. The United Nations Human Rights Committee sets a high bar for restricting criticism against government officials and has emphasized that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.”