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Protesters arrested following public prosecutor's threat to stop "incitement"

UPDATE: Human rights defenders face charges (CIHRS, 1 July 2012)

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Beirut, June 13, 2012 - Omani authorities should halt a sweeping crackdown on political activists and protesters arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Arrests since the end of May include 22 peaceful protesters and nine online activists and writers amid rising discontent in the Persian Gulf sultanate over its perceived failure to carry out promised reforms.

Most of the arrests followed a statement by Muscat's public prosecutor on June 4, 2012, threatening to take “all appropriate legal measures” against activists who have made “inciting calls … under the pretext of freedom of expression.”

“Omani activists are speaking out about broken promises for government reform,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of listening, Omani authorities are arresting and prosecuting them to silence them.”

Most recently, on June 11, police arrested at least 22 protesters at a peaceful sit-in in front of the Special Section of the Omani Police in Muscat. Activists believe that several of the nine online activists arrested between May 31 and June 9 are being held there.

A local activist who was not at the sit-in but who said he received frequent text-message updates from the protesters told Human Rights Watch that late in the afternoon authorities sealed all roads leading to the Special Section building. Then 60 to 70 riot police officers descended in black vans and detained all the protesters.

An activist outside the country told Human Rights Watch that one of the protesters, Sa`id al-Hashemi, phoned her at approximately 6:20 p.m. local time and quickly said, “I have been arrested,” before hanging up.

Several of those participating in the sit-in, including al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, Mukhtar al-Hana'i, and Basima al-Rajhi, had signed a public appeal earlier on June 11 demanding the immediate release of the nine activists. The appeal was addressed to the president of Oman's Shura Council, a partially elected body that can propose legislation to Qabus bin Said al-Said, the sultan of Oman; the president of the State Council, a purely consultative body appointed by the sultan; the inspector general of police and customs; and the head of the quasi-official National Committee for Human Rights.

The appeal identifies those detained as Nabhan al-Hanshi, Isma`il al-Meqbali, Khalfan al-Badwawi , Ishaq al-Ighbari, Hassan al-Raqeeshi, Ali al-Hajji, and Ali al-Sa`di, all bloggers; Hamud Sa`ud al-Rashidi, a writer; and Hamad al-Khorousi, a poet. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that they did not know the specific reasons for arrests of the online activists, but that many of them had been actively blogging about the human rights situation in Oman and the government's failure to carry out reforms promised by Sultan Qabus following popular protests in 2011. None of those arrested had made any call for violence, the activists said. Al-Meqbali was charged with “incitement to protest” on June 4, but none of the others have been charged or granted access to lawyers, the activists said.

The June 4 statement by the public prosecutor in Muscat said that, “The public prosecution has recently noticed an increase in the amount of defamatory writings and inciting calls by some people under the pretext of freedom of expression.”

It also said that, “The rise of rumors and incitement to engage in negative behavior eventually harms the nation, its citizens and the national interests.”

The prosecutor's statement went on to affirm “that it will take all appropriate legal measures against all those who commit such acts whether through publishing, reciting, incitement, or assisting their dissemination in any other manner.”

The first arrests occurred on May 31, when authorities detained al-Meqbali, along with Habiba al-Hana'i, and Ya`coub al-Khorousi as they were traveling to the Fohoud Oil Field to interview striking oil workers. All three are founding members of the Omani Group for Human Rights, which maintains an active Facebook page and website documenting human rights developments in the sultanate. Al-Hana'i had recently posted a blog entry on the website alleging widespread torture in Omani prisons.

A relative of al-Hana'i told Human Rights Watch that authorities held the three activists for four days without informing them of the charges against them, and denied them access to a lawyer on the pretext that the police had not yet transferred the case to the public prosecutor.

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