The Sultan of Oman’s decision to pardon all activists and writers convicted last year for insulting the ruler, IT crimes and taking part in unauthorized protests should be just the first step in addressing the issue of freedom of expression in Oman, said Amnesty International.
Sultan Qaboos issued the pardon on Thursday and ordered that the prisoners be released today. Amnesty International received information that all those held on such charges were released this morning.
“The Sultan’s pardon is a very welcome step and we are delighted that dozens of prisoners of conscience on whose cases we have been campaigning are back at liberty and able to rejoin their families and friends,” said Philip Luther of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme.
“However, individuals peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression should never have been put in prison in the first place, nor tried on charges that criminalize freedom of expression.
“The pardon should act as a spur for the Omani authorities to lift restrictions on freedom of expression by repressive laws.”
Amnesty International considered all those held solely for peacefully exercising their rights to be prisoners of conscience and had been calling for their immediate and unconditional release and for their convictions to be quashed.
Dozens of Omani activists had been sentenced or were standing trial when the Sultan issued the pardon.
The trials began shortly after numerous writers, activists and bloggers were arrested during a crackdown in Oman in late May and early June 2012.
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”.
The trials, some of which reached the Supreme Court, had seen multiple delays. In February 2013 many of the jailed activists went on hunger strike for around a week to 2 weeks in protest at the delay of their hearings at the Supreme Court. It ended after they were informed that their appeals would be heard.
In February and March the Supreme Court upheld sentences against eight people but accepted the appeals of eight others and ordered a retrial. Alongside the 16 cases, the trials of at least 18 other activists were still ongoing when the pardon was issued.
The Omani authorities have a history of operating strict restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Bloggers and journalists were also targeted prior to events in 2012 after criticizing the government, including some who were detained.