Recent court rulings in Oman involving bloggers and human rights activists have received widespread condemnation for suppressing dissent and free speech from press freedom and human rights groups.
An Omani blogger and human rights activist, Mukhtar Mohamed Al-Hinaei, was sentenced on Sunday to one year in prison and fined $2,600 for insulting Sultan Qaboos, the ruling monarch of Oman for 42 years, on his Facebook account, which he claims was hacked.
This was the second sentence handed out to Al-Hinaei as he is already facing a year’s imprisonment and a fine of $520 on charges of attending illegal gatherings and anti-government protests along with 10 others, according to Times of Oman.
Human rights activists Khalfan Al-Badwawi, Khaled Saleh Al-Nawfali, Sultan Al-Sa’adi and Hatem Al-Maliki are also on trial for the same reasons but their hearing was postponed from September 16 to October 14, according to news sources.
Protests spread across Oman in early 2011 but were soon suppressed by the government who rounded up several activists and placed them in jail or detention. Thirty-six Omanis were arrested for anti-government actions in early June, and while some were freed on bail, many others received prison sentences of between six to 18 months and heavy fines.
In response to uprisings across the region, the Omani government has tightened its grip on local media and any kind of dissent by arresting activists or handing out prison sentences.
On September 9, six human rights defenders were sentenced to between a year to18 months in prison, fined $2600 and set bail of $3900 for “offensive writings and violating information technology law,” according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR).
“Criminals have more rights and protection than activists”
Khalid Ibrahim, acting director of GCHR, is in Geneva to address the United Nations Human Rights Council on the current crackdown on human rights activists in Oman.
In an interview with Doha Centre for Media Freedom, he said “many activists were denied access to their families and lawyers and there was no information available for some time as to the grounds for their arrests or their present conditions. In fact criminals in Oman have more rights and protection than activists.”
Commenting on the situation of human rights in Oman, Ibrahim remarked that “human rights NGOs are not allowed to work in Oman and the Omani group for human rights, although it was just a Facebook page, we have seen that the three co-founders ended up in prison.”
DCMF spoke to Turki Al-Balushi, editor-in-chief of Al Balad newspaper, who denounced the court rulings and demanded for a change. “As a journalist I would say that no journalist should be in prison for such reasons and that laws in Oman need to be changed.”
“The government is using press laws against Internet postings which is unfair. We need to define new laws which protect freedom of speech and expression in Oman,” he added.
In a press statement on their website, the GCHR calls on the authorities in Oman to “immediately and unconditionally revoke all the sentences against the human rights defenders and activists” and guarantee that all human rights activists and journalists in Oman can carry out their duties in a fearless manner without harassment.
DCMF’s Director Jan Keulen condemned the court rulings, stating that “journalists should be able to carry out their job freely, without fear of being persecuted. The sentences contribute to a climate of intimidation and self-censorship."
“The Omani authorities must drop all charges and quash all convictions made against individuals solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International, on their website.
Despite all the restrictions, local journalists like Al-Balushi consider cyberspace to be a much safer option in Oman. “We decided to opt for an online newspaper rather than a regular one because a lot of times it is easier to publish something critical online and get away with it. We published several reports on our website about the protests but no one from the internal security showed up to ask questions, but you still need to be careful.”