Oman: Convictions continue to crush free speech

A string of recent court rulings in the Omani capital Muscat are crushing free speech in the Gulf state, Amnesty International said today after another six men were convicted on defamation charges. On 9 September, the six received prison sentences of between one year and 18 months and were fined 1,000 Omani rials each (around US$2,600) for offences including insulting the Sultan, undermining the status of the state, and using the internet to publish defamatory materials.“If these prison sentences are carried out, Amnesty International will consider these six men to be prisoners of conscience and call for their immediate and unconditional release,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.“The Omani authorities must drop all charges and quash all convictions made against individuals solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”The six men sentenced over the weekend – Ishaq al-Aghbari, Ismail al-Muqbali, Ali al-Hajji, Mahmoud al-Jamoudi, Hassan al-Ruqaishi and Nabhan al-Hanashi – are all in their thirties and currently released on bail, pending appeals. They had posted material on the internet commenting on recent developments in Oman, including criticism of actions taken by the authorities resulting in the repression of freedom of expression. At least another three men – Khaled al-Noufali, Sultan al-Sa’adi, and Hatim al-Maliki – are expected to be sentenced on 16 September.These are just the latest in a series of court cases going back several months in which the Omani authorities have ratcheted up their intolerance of freedom of expression. On 8 August, a Muscat court convicted a dozen activists on charges related to their participation in a peaceful protest and for insulting the Sultan. Trials began after a string of arrests of writers, activists and bloggers in late May and early June 2012. Those sentenced are among around 35 Omani activists sentenced or standing trial in relation to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.Protests in Oman in early 2011 – sparked by popular unrest across the Middle East and North Africa – led to a number of political and social reforms, but tight restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly remain in place. Before the latest wave of arrests and trials of activists since May this year, scores were arrested and many brought to trial in 2011.Omani police also violently dispersed protests on a number of occasions, leading to the reported death of at least one man in the town of Sohar.“Criminal or other laws which provide special protection against criticism for public officials are not consistent with respect for freedom of expression,” said Philip Luther. “Public figures of authority should tolerate a greater degree of criticism, not less, than people generally.”