Oman’s 3.5 million citizens have little opportunity to change their government or affect its policies. All legislation and regulations are promulgated by royal decree.
Omani authorities generally respected the right to freedom of expression, though public criticism of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id and his family remains off-limits. On several occasions in 2011 authorities arrested journalists who wrote articles supportive of large-scale protests calling for reforms.
Authorities placed restrictions on the freedoms of association and assembly, both in law and in practice, but tolerated spontaneous peaceful sit-ins and informal gatherings from late February to May 2011.
Freedom of Assembly
Beginning in February thousands of Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country to demand jobs, an end to corruption, and the dismissal of senior officials perceived to be corrupt. Though police and security forces initially tolerated the largely peaceful protests, on February 27 they used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against several thousand protesters who attacked and burned a police station in the northern coastal town of Sohar. The clashes led to dozens of injuries, and police shot dead protester Abdullah al-Ghimlasi. On April 1, police and army units fired tear gas and rubber bullets at stone-throwing protesters. Khalifa al-Alawi, 22, was killed by a rubber bullet that struck him in the face.
In a coordinated move on May 13 and 14, riot police assisted by regular army units used tear gas and police batons to disperse peaceful sit-ins in the northern cities of Muscat, the capital, and Sur, as well as in the southern city of Salalah. Following the May 13 dispersal of the Muscat sit-in in front of the Shura council building, authorities arrested at least seven activists who attempted to return to the site the next day. They charged Basma al-Kayoumi with “illegal gathering” and released the others without charge.
Also on May 13, police broke up a sit-in in front of the governor’s office in the southern city of Salalah, detaining several hundred protesters for 24 hours before releasing all but a few. Authorities transferred at least eight demonstrators from Salalah to Sama’il Central Prison, outside Muscat, where they were held for 54 days without charge, including 13 days in solitary confinement. The public prosecutor initially charged at least one of them with “dishonoring the sultan,” though eventually the charges were dropped and all eight released.
On June 28 the Misdemeanor Court of First Instance in Muscat handed down sentences in a group trial ranging from six months to five years imprisonment. Authorities charged 15 demonstrators from Sohar with “shutting down work at a government organization,” “blocking roads,” and “humiliating on-duty civil servants.”
To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, authorities have not investigated or held accountable any officials in connection with the protest-related deaths, injuries, or arbitrary arrests and detentions carried out by Omani security forces during the protests.
Freedom of Expression
Omani authorities generally respected the right to freedom of expression and allowed several independent publications in the capital to operate freely, some of which regularly published articles criticizing official corruption as well as crackdowns on protesters.
Some journalists, however, claimed that officials retaliated against them for their reporting. At 3 a.m. on March 29, security forces raided the home of Ahmed al-Shezawi, head of the press relations department at the government-owned daily al-Shabiba, after he published stories on the Sohar demonstration; he is a relative of one of the protest leaders. Authorities held him for several days before releasing him without charge. One week later the Ministry of Information revoked his journalism license and his newspaper fired him.
On September 21 a lower court in Muscat convicted journalist Yusif al-Haj, a reporter at the independentnewspaper Azzamn, and Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, his editor, of defaming and insulting the Minister of Justice and his deputy in an article alleging that they had improperly intervened in an employment dispute. The judge sentenced al-Haj and al-Ma’mari to five months in prison and ordered the newspaper to close for a month. Al-Haj has been a prominent voice for reform and was an active participant in the Muscat sit-in.
Several pro-reform activists reported threats, intimidation, and physical abuse by unknown assailants and security forces.
On April 8, masked plainclothes men abducted Said al-Hashemi and Bassima al-Rajhi, two activists involved with the Muscat sit-in, and drove them deep into the desert, where they beat them, subjected them to mock executions, and abandoned them. Al-Hashemi said that the men behaved in a manner reflecting they were subject to a clear chain of command, and that the black clothes and boots that several wore were typically associated with security services. He said that the van used to transport him and al-Rajhi into the desert was identical to the well-equipped GMC vans known to be used by security services. At this writing authorities have released no information regarding the investigation they said they had opened into this case.
Human rights activist and blogger Salem Al Towayyah reported receiving emails and chat messages from anonymous sources threatening him with retribution for criticizing government officials and calling for a constitutional monarchy on a March 9 show that aired on al-Hurra television. On April 1 a representative of the Royal Oman Police called a member of Al Towayyah’s family to ask about his activities and threatened to charge him with “inciting” people if he did not discontinue his pro-reform activities.
The Ministry of Interior’s Committee for the Correction of Tribal Names and Titles continued to regulate and arbitrarily change tribal surnames, effectively assimilating members of one tribe into another. Despite numerous court decisions against ministry orders compelling members of the Al Towayyah and al-Khalifin tribes to change their surnames to names of other tribes, ministry officials continued to challenge the names of individuals when they attempted to renew identification documents.
In 2011 the Directorate General of Civil Status, a branch of the Royal Oman Police, continued its policy of restricting names permitted to newborns to those found on a civil registry database and rejecting names not in the database. Any newborn whose name was rejected could not get a birth certificate until the parents submitted an acceptable name. Activists reported that the appeals process was lengthy and unclear.
Article 17 of Oman’s Basic Law officially bans discrimination on the basis of gender, and authorities have made efforts to ensure that women are visibly represented at the highest levels of government and society.
Oman adjudicates family law and personal status matters in religious courts in which judges base rulings on their interpretations of Islamic law. Individuals have no option to seek adjudication pursuant to a civil code. Family law as generally interpreted discriminates against women in matters of divorce, inheritance, child custody, and legal guardianship, granting men privileged status in these matters.
Key International Actors
Oman, as well as Bahrain, received a US$20 billion development grant from wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in 2011, reportedly in order to counter popular uprisings in the two countries.
Oman is one of the few GCC members that maintains friendly relations with Iran. On September 21 Sultan Qaboos helped negotiate the release of two detained American hikers imprisoned in Iran for 26 months.
Both the United States US and United Kingdom provide significant economic and military aid to the sultanate and maintain military bases there.