Omani authorities should halt a sweeping crackdown on political activists and protesters arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Arrests since the end of May include 22 peaceful protesters and nine online activists and writers amid rising discontent in the Persian Gulf sultanate over its perceived failure to carry out promised reforms.
Most of the arrests followed a statement by Muscat's public prosecutor on June 4, 2012, threatening to take "all appropriate legal measures" against activists who have made "inciting calls ... under the pretext of freedom of expression."
"Omani activists are speaking out about broken promises for government reform," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of listening, Omani authorities are arresting and prosecuting them to silence them."
Most recently, on June 11, police arrested at least 22 protesters at a peaceful sit-in in front of the Special Section of the Omani Police in Muscat. Activists believe that several of the nine online activists arrested between May 31 and June 9 are being held there.
A local activist who was not at the sit-in but who said he received frequent text-message updates from the protesters told Human Rights Watch that late in the afternoon authorities sealed all roads leading to the Special Section building. Then 60 to 70 riot police officers descended in black vans and detained all the protesters.
An activist outside the country told Human Rights Watch that one of the protesters, Sa`id al-Hashemi, phoned her at approximately 6:20 p.m. local time and quickly said, "I have been arrested," before hanging up.
Several of those participating in the sit-in, including al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, Mukhtar al-Hana'i, and Basima al-Rajhi, had signed a public appeal earlier on June 11 demanding the immediate release of the nine activists. The appeal was addressed to the president of Oman's Shura Council, a partially elected body that can propose legislation to Qabus bin Said al-Said, the sultan of Oman; the president of the State Council, a purely consultative body appointed by the sultan; the inspector general of police and customs; and the head of the quasi-official National Committee for Human Rights.
The appeal identifies those detained as Nabhan al-Hanshi, Isma`il al-Meqbali, Khalfan al-Badwawi , Ishaq al-Ighbari, Hassan al-Raqeeshi, Ali al-Hajji, and Ali al-Sa`di, all bloggers; Hamud Sa`ud al-Rashidi, a writer; and Hamad al-Khorousi, a poet. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that they did not know the specific reasons for arrests of the online activists, but that many of them had been actively blogging about the human rights situation in Oman and the government's failure to carry out reforms promised by Sultan Qabus following popular protests in 2011. None of those arrested had made any call for violence, the activists said. Al-Meqbali was charged with "incitement to protest" on June 4, but none of the others have been charged or granted access to lawyers, the activists said.
The June 4 statement by the public prosecutor in Muscat said that, "The public prosecution has recently noticed an increase in the amount of defamatory writings and inciting calls by some people under the pretext of freedom of expression." It also said that, "The rise of rumors and incitement to engage in negative behavior eventually harms the nation, its citizens and the national interests."
The prosecutor's statement went on to affirm "that it will take all appropriate legal measures against all those who commit such acts whether through publishing, reciting, incitement, or assisting their dissemination in any other manner."
The first arrests occurred on May 31, when authorities detained al-Meqbali, along with Habiba al-Hana'i, and Ya`coub al-Khorousi as they were traveling to the Fohoud Oil Field to interview striking oil workers. All three are founding members of the Omani Group for Human Rights, which maintains an active Facebook page and website documenting human rights developments in the sultanate. Al-Hana'i had recently posted a blog entry on the website alleging widespread torture in Omani prisons.
A relative of al-Hana'i told Human Rights Watch that authorities held the three activists for four days without informing them of the charges against them, and denied them access to a lawyer on the pretext that the police had not yet transferred the case to the public prosecutor.
On June 4 the public prosecutor formally charged all three with "inciting to protest," and released al-Hana'i and al-Khorousi on bail. The public prosecution renewed al-Meqbali's detention for an additional seven days while it researched further charges, though none have been announced.
An Omani lawyer who asked not to be identified said that the charge of "incitement to protest" is a state security crime not covered under the regular Penal Code. Authorities have not made public the code enumerating crimes falling under state security and punishments associated with them.
Activists told Human Rights Watch that they believe authorities have increasingly monitored online activities in recent weeks, with one activist alleging that authorities hacked into his email account and deleted all his contacts. Others alleged that authorities hacked the Facebook page of the Omani Group for Human Rights and deleted all the postings.
Omani Basic Law guarantees under article 24 that, "Anyone who is detained or imprisoned is to be told the reasons of his detention immediately, and the individual is to have the right to contact whom they please and inform them of their detention, or seek council as is permitted by law..."
Article 14(2-3) of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Oman has ratified, guarantees that no one shall be deprived of liberty except on such grounds and in such circumstances as are determined by law, and that anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, in a language the person understands, of the reasons and shall be promptly informed of any charges against them, and that the person is entitled to contact family members. Likewise, article 14(5) stipulates that anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed under article 29 of Oman's Basic Law and under international human rights law. Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for "respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals."
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression ... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." While Oman is not a party to the ICCPR, the treaty constitutes an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. Accepted international standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens imminent violence.
"Charging activists with incitement to protest for peacefully expressing their opinions violates international standards that Oman has pledged to uphold," Stork said. "The government should immediately release all the activists and halt this campaign of intimidation."