Oman: Appeals ruling sends warning message against dissent

A court of appeals in Oman has upheld convictions and prison sentences against five men and a woman in what Amnesty International said is part of an ongoing assault on freedom of expression in the Gulf nation. On 5 December the appeals court in the capital Muscat upheld earlier convictions against the six for insulting the Sultan and using the internet to publish defamatory material – the five men received sentences of a year in prison and a fine of 1,000 riyals (around US$2,600) each, while the woman received a lesser sentence. “This appeals ruling proves that the Omani authorities have no intention of letting up in their ongoing crackdown on free speech,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.“Any dissidents put behind bars simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression would be prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International would call on the Omani authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally and to quash their convictions.”The defendants are all in their twenties and thirties and include schoolteacher Bassam Abu Qasida, private company employee Hilal al-Busa’idi, Arabic schoolteacher Issa al-Mas’udi, student Abdullah al-Abdali, Muhammad al-Kiyumi, and Maymouna al-Badi. Muscat’s court of first instance had originally sentenced the five men on 6 August 2012, and al-Badi on 26 August – her prison sentence was later reduced to 20 days.According to Omani activists, the six are expected to appeal the latest ruling before the country’s Supreme Court. But the politicized nature of the trials so far has left many pessimistic that the convictions could be overturned. Over the next two weeks, the appeals court is also expected to rule in the cases of 14 other activists who were convicted on similar protest-related charges in August. The trials began earlier this year after numerous writers, activists and bloggers were arrested in Oman in late May and early June. So far at least 35 people have been sentenced or are standing trial in relation to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Protests in Oman in early 2011 – that coincided with 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. Scores of protesters 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.Crackdown on activistsThe latest wave of the crackdown began on 31 May 2012, with the arrest of three activists who tried to travel to Fohoud oil field, approximately 250km south-west of Muscat, to document an oil workers’ strike that had started a week earlier. The three – lawyer Yaqoub al-Kharousi and activists Habeeba al-Hina’i and Ismail al-Muqbali from the newly formed Omani Group for Human Rights – were reportedly charged in connection with inciting a protest. Habeeba al-Hina’i and Yaqoub al-Kharousi were released on bail on 4 June, but Ismail al-Muqbali remains in detention. Then in June several dozen more writers and activists were arrested – at least 22 people were detained on 11 June alone after protesting peacefully outside Muscat’s police headquarters, where they were calling for the three arrested on 31 May to be set free.During this time, Oman’s Public Prosecution issued a number of statements threatening to take legal action against anyone who publishes “offensive writing” in the media or online deemed to incite others to action “under the pretext of freedom of expression”. On 10 June a public prosecutor confirmed the arrests in the Times of Oman newspaper, saying “we are keeping a watch on the bloggers who use such platforms”.  And a further official statement on an Oman News Agency website said that publications “provoking sit-ins and strikes…are against values and morals of the Omani society… Such practice prejudices the national security and public interests”.“Statements like this are a clear indication of the official contempt for free speech in Oman,” said Luther. “The Omani authorities must stop this crackdown and live up to their international human rights obligations by protecting and defending everyone’s right to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”