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Rights activist sentenced to three years in prison in Oman

This article was originally published on hrw.org on 24 March 2015.

An Oman court on March 8, 2015, sentenced a human rights activist to three years in prison for his writings, Human Rights Watch said today. Said Jaddad, 48, a prominent pro-reform blogger, is being held at the detention facility in the southern city of Salalah.

The Muscat court convicted him on charges relating to his peaceful online activities including “undermining the prestige of the state” and inciting “illegal gathering.” The court also fined him 1,000 Omani rials (US$2,600). Jaddad's family paid the fines and posted bail pending an appeal, a source close to the family told Human Rights Watch. However, the court refused to release him citing separate charges before another court for his online activities. Since 2013, authorities have summoned, arrested, or detained Jaddad at least three times in connection with his pro-reform and online activities.

“The evidence indicates that Jaddad is in prison simply for criticizing the Omani government and its policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Oman should release Jaddad immediately and drop the outstanding charges against him.”

The verdict, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, indicates that Muscat's Court of First Instance convicted and sentenced him on three separate but related charges: “undermining the prestige of the state,” with a three-year prison term and a 500 rial fine; inciting “illegal gatherings,” with one year and 200 rials; and “using information networks to disseminate news that would prejudice public order,” three years and 1,000 rials. The court decided to impose the longest of the three sentences instead of combining them and set bail at 2,000 rials ($5,200).

The source said the court convicted Jaddad solely on the basis of his blogging and other online comments, including an open letter to US President Barack Obama in 2013 asking him to support efforts to improve human rights in Oman and other Gulf countries, and his online interactions with international human rights organizations.

The Muscat court, in refusing to release him, cited separate charges before a court in the southern city of Salalah of violating Oman's 2011 Cyber Crimes Law, the source said. At the first session of Jaddad's new trial in Salalah, on March 17, the public prosecutor submitted evidence used against him at his March 8 trial, the source said, together with a Facebook post in which Jaddad compared a 2011 protest in Dhofar, Oman, to recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

In court, Jaddad denied the new charges against him. The judge in the Salalah court refused to release him on bail although, the source said, Jaddad suffers from a heart ailment, high-blood pressure, and digestive problems.

Oman's Press and Publications Law, Telecommunications Act of 2002, and Cyber Crimes Law restrict print and electronic publishing and online content. Article 19 of Cyber Crimes Law penalizes anyone who engages in the “production, publication, distribution, purchase, or possession of information technology that would prejudice the public order or religious values” with a sentence of one month to three years' imprisonment or 1,000 rials ($2,600).

Authorities initially arrested Jaddad in Salalah in December 2014 and held him in pretrial detention for 12 days, then released him on bail. On January 21, 2015, security forces raided his house and arrested him again, without producing the arrest warrant required under Omani law, the source said. Authorities held Jaddad in incommunicado detention for several days, allowing his family to meet him for the first time during his second court trial which took place on February 1. An amendment to Oman's criminal procedure code enacted in 2011 allows security forces to hold a suspect for up to 30 days without charge, in clear violation of international legal standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of harassment and arrests against Jaddad dating back to 2013. Authorities prevented Jaddad from boarding an international flight from Muscat on October 31, 2014. Jaddad told Human Rights Watch at the time that the authorities gave him no reason for the travel ban. He had previously been arrested several times on charges including calling for protests, “heaping discredit” on state officials, and “undermining the status and prestige of the state,” but had not been put on trial.

In September 2014, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Omani authorities expressing concern regarding a documented pattern of harassment, arrests, and detentions of prominent rights activists and government critics, including Jaddad, in violation of international human rights law.

In December Human Rights Watch called on the Omani authorities to immediately release everyone detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and to bring Oman's laws into compliance with international standards. Omani authorities responded to the letter in December, but did not specifically address the reasons behind Jaddad's previous arrests.

“The new case against Jaddad is a fresh example of prosecutions in Oman for the legitimate exercise of free speech and other rights,” Stork said, “The Oman authorities should end their campaign of harassment against Jaddad and other human rights activists.”

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