Freedom of expression remained unduly restricted, including through prosecutions of and sentences against individuals for publishing COVID-19-related information deemed “false” by the government. Oman amended the Foreign Residency Law, removing the requirement for foreign workers to obtain a “no objection certificate” from their current employer to change jobs. Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice. Courts handed down death sentences.
Oman continued its “Omanization” drive to replace expatriates with Omani nationals in the workforce.
In April, Oman acceded to the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance, the UN Convention against Torture, and the ICESCR. However, it rejected the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Committee against Torture to receive individual and interstate complaints. The reservation to Article 8 of the ICESCR impinged on the right of public employees to unionize and strike.
Freedom of expression
The government continued to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression, arresting and sometimes prosecuting journalists and online activists.
On 1 March, shortly after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oman, the new Sultan Haitham bin Tariq issued a decree reaffirming the extraordinary powers of the Internal Security Service (ISS) which has an open-ended mandate “to combat activities harmful to the Sultanate’s security and stability” and has repeatedly been implicated in the arrest of individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Also in March, the government prohibited the circulation of all printed publications as part of measures adopted to contain COVID-19. It announced that several individuals had been prosecuted and sentenced, including publishers and “purveyors of rumours”, for failing to abide by COVID-19 regulations that prohibit “spreading false news” or “inciting” against the positions taken by state health agencies.
In June, the government established the Cyber Defence Centre led by the head of the Internal Security Service. The Centre was afforded sweeping powers including to inspect internet networks, information systems and electronic devices of civil, military and private institutions.
Also in June, the Ibri Court of First Instance sentenced Awad al-Sawafi to a suspended one-year term of imprisonment, a fine and a ban on social media use for one year for criticizing government agencies for “their continuous intimidation of citizens” on Twitter. The Court of Appeals later confirmed the judgement. During the same month, the Court of First Instance in Muscat, the capital, sentenced former Shura Council member Salem al-Awfi and journalist Adel al-Kasbi to one year in prison for online comments about corruption and justice. They were both released on bail. In July, the ISS arrested activist Ghazi al-Awlaqi for comments he made on social media criticizing the authorities for their intimidation of social media users. He was released in September.
On 17 November, the Sultan pardoned 390 prisoners, including four of six prisoners of conscience who had received life sentences after unfair trials of Shuhuh people in 2018 on vague charges related to national security. The same month, police aggressively entered two homes in the town of Khasab, Musandam province, without a warrant and arbitrarily detained several residents for a week.
Migrant workers continued to be tied to their employers through the kafala (sponsorship) system, under which they depend on their employer to enter the country and maintain a legal residency status.
In June, Oman Royal Police passed an amendment – effective from January 2021 – allowing migrant workers to change jobs at the end of their contracts without the permission of their employers. It was unclear whether domestic workers are covered by this amendment. Prior to that, migrant workers who moved jobs without the permission of their employer were banned from entering the country for two years.
The labour system coupled with migrant workers’ insanitary living conditions, including crowded labour accommodation and inequitable access to medical care and health insurance, put migrant workers in an even more vulnerable position and at risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic.1
Discrimination against women continued in law and practice, particularly in matters of divorce, child custody and inheritance. Specific legislation to address gender-based violence remained absent. Oman maintained its reservations on provisions of CEDAW, including Article 9(2) which grants women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children; and Article 16 which grants women equal rights in matters relating to marriage and family relations.
No new death sentences were reported. Three men and one woman were executed.