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Omani blogger targeted, harassed for his criticism of government policies

Omani authorities should stop harassing a blogger and government critic whom they held incommunicado for six days and allow him to resume his peaceful activities, Human Rights Watch said today. Police released Mohammed al-Fazari on September 4, 2014, without filing charges against him, but threatened to prosecute him if he continued his criticism of government policies, a source close to the case told Human Rights Watch.

Sources familiar with al-Fazari's latest arrest told Human Rights Watch that authorities summoned him to appear at the Special Section of the Royal Oman Police headquarters in Muscat's al-Qurum neighborhood at 9 a.m. on August 30, and arrested him upon arrival. They later permitted him to make one phone call to inform his parents that he would remain in police custody for several days, the sources said. The summons, a copy of which Human Rights Watch has seen, stated only that it concerned “a personal matter.” Al-Fazari, 25, is a prominent blogger and editor-in-chief of the Mowatin Magazine news website, which regularly criticizes the Omani government and advocates political reform.

“Mohammed al-Fazari's arrest and detention over several days shows that those who speak out for reform in Oman remain at risk of government harassment and reprisal,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Incommunicado detention is never justifiable, especially if it is retribution for peaceful criticism.”

A source told Human Rights Watch that during al-Fazari's detention, security officials held him in solitary confinement in a cell with a bright light that was never turned off and subjected him to extensive interrogations. The source said that authorities have transferred al-Fazari's file to the public prosecutor and threatened to charge him with disrupting public order and harming Oman's reputation if he did not provide a signed pledge to stop criticizing the government, including through Mowatin Magazine.

Authorities previously arrested al-Fazari during a June 2012 round-up of bloggers and activists, detained him in solitary confinement, and tried him on charges of “illegal gathering” and “insulting the Sultan.” He was freed in March 2013 following a royal pardon.

In June 2014 local activists told Human Rights Watch that police had summoned A-Fazari for questioning twice since his release. In October 2013, they held and questioned him for more than 10 hours about his pro-reform activism and work with Mowatin Magazine. In March 2014, they met him at a Muscat restaurant and asked him politely to stop his pro-reform activities, the activists said.

The activists also told Human Rights Watch in June that Oman's Internal Security Agency held him incommunicado for 28 days following his arrest in June 2012, then transferred him to a facility near Sama'il Central Prison, where he spent another 23 days in solitary confinement. The Muscat Court of First Instance later convicted him, along with others, on a charge of “illegal gathering” for participating in a sit-in outside police headquarters to call for the release of jailed bloggers and activists. The court sentenced him to 18 months in prison, later reduced to six months on appeal. He stood trial separately for “insulting the Sultan,” with prosecutors citing passages from his Facebook and blog posts as evidence, but the trial was not concluded after he was released under the royal pardon.

Oman's criminal procedure law empowers the authorities to detain people suspected of posing a threat to national security for up to 30 days without charge. Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in recent years in which Omani security and intelligence officials detained activists, often incommunicado, for relatively short periods and then released them without charge after they agreed to sign pledges that they would curtail their peaceful activism in relation to government policies.

The Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Oman is a party, guarantees “the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium” (article 32). Article 14 of the charter requires the authorities to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for their arrest, inform them promptly of any charges against them, and promptly take them before a judge and permit contact with family members.

“The burden is now most definitely on the Omani authorities to show that they are not targeting al-Fazari and other dissidents because of their peaceful activities” Stork said.

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