On 2 April 2018, the Appeals Court in Muscat, Oman upheld the three-year sentence of writer and online activist, Abdullah Habib on charges concerning “state public order”. While the Court suspended two-and-a-half years of his sentence, he has been sent to Samail Central Prison to serve the remaining six months of his term. This recent case against Abdullah Habib demonstrates Omani authorities’ ongoing efforts to suppress free expression and activism the government deems a threat to national security, public order, or the ruling structure.
Omani authorities originally arrested Abdullah Habib on 15 April 2015 and refused to allow him access to a lawyer or contact with his family. While he was released on 4 May 2016, a court sentenced him to three years in prison on 8 November 2016 after finding him guilty of violating Article 19 of the Information Technology Crimes Act. According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Habib was charged with “using the Internet in what would prejudice the state public order” and expressing “contempt of religions”. These charges stem from posts on Facebook in which he advocates for human rights in Oman.
The Omani government frequently targets writers and activists, sentencing them to prison sentences for allegedly endangering state security, insulting the government, or insulting the ruling system. Such is the case of online activist Hassan Al-Basham. Al-Bashem has been long been active on social justice issues, including on humanitarian causes, protesting corruption, participating in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, and defending prisoners of conscience in his online writings. Because of this, security forces arrested him on 17 September 2015. Although officials released him on 23 September, they arrested him again two days later. On 8 February 2016, Oman’s Court of First Instance charged him with using “the Internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” and “insulting the Sultan” – charges based on his online writings. As a result, Al-Bashem was sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine for “insulting the Sultan”. On 13 June 2016, the Court of Appeals upheld his sentence but dropped the fine. While the High Court revoked his sentence and referred his case back to the Court of Appeals, on 19 November 2017, the Court of Appeals upheld Al-Bashem’s initial sentence while ignoring medical reports of deteriorating health conditions submitted by his lawyers.
In another free expression case, Oman’s Internal Security Service summoned internet activist Yousif Sultan Al-Arimi for interrogation on 8 April 2018. Al-Arimi participated in the 2011 Arab Spring protests and has repeatedly used Twitter to voice his opinions and concerns over public affairs. Since his summons, security forces have kept him in detention, prohibiting him from talking with his family or lawyer. Although the charges have not been made public, they likely relate to his Twitter activity.
Not long before Omani security services summoned Al-Arimi for interrogation, authorities interrupted the 23rd Muscat International Book Fair (21 February 2018 – 3 March 2018), and confiscated a number of books, including by authors Suleiman Al-Maamari, Saeed Al-Hashimi, and Nabhan Al-Hanashi. Because many of these books had been published by the government’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the decision to confiscate them appeared arbitrary and random. However, it also fits the authorities’ pattern of targeting activists and writers, reflecting a political climate disinclined to respect free expression.
The government has also passed laws restricting fundamental freedoms. On 15 January 2018, the Omani government passed Royal Decree No. 7/2018, which contains provisions for a new penal code that restricts Omanis’ right to free expression. The articles of the new law are vague and allow for the prosecution and conviction of peaceful activists, human rights defenders, and political opposition members. Article 116 allows for the closure of any organization “aimed at combating the political, economic, social, or security principles of the State”. Article 118 punishes those who edit and distribute publications for organizations targeted under Article 116.
The law also restricts the right of peaceful free assembly. Article 121 punishes participants of any gathering of ten or more individuals that “would have caused a breach of security or public order” while Article 123 punishes anyone who organizes or instigates a gathering of ten or more people. However, there are serious flaws in the law, as Article 121 does not define what constitutes a “breach of security” and Article 123 disregards intention in sentencing, allowing for the imprisonment on national security grounds of people gathering unintentionally. Lastly, Article 125 allows for life imprisonment or the death penalty for “any person who intentionally commits an act which prejudices the independence, unity or territorial integrity of the country” without defining what such an act might be. Fundamentally, the new law grants government authorities wide latitude to punish and intimidate activists for vague crimes against the state.
The overall situation of free expression in Oman is poor, with government officials targeting activists for comments they make on Facebook and Twitter, and authorities harassing public events and venues. The passage of the new law and penal code further restricts Omanis’ right to free expression, while giving authorities more legal tools to target peaceful activists. Oman must arrest this deterioration in free expression by withdrawing Royal Decree 7/2018 and releasing all those currently imprisoned for state security crimes based on their expression.
Brendan McCormick is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB