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Activists voicing criticisms on social media face prison in Oman

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 21 February 2016.

Omani courts have sentenced online activists to prison in two separate cases in February 2016 for their social media posts, Human Rights Watch said today. Omani activists said that they are seeing a decline in freedom of expression in Oman.

On February 8, a court of first instance in Sohar, in northern Oman, sentenced Hassan al-Basham, a former diplomat, to three years in prison for insulting God and the country's leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, in a series of Facebook and Twitter posts in which he discussed religious, political, economic, and social topics. On February 17, the Court of Appeal in the southwestern city of Salalah sentenced Sayyid Abdullah al-Daruri, an artist and researcher, to three months in prison for a post he shared on Facebook that emphasized his regional Dhofari affiliation. Dhofar, Oman's largest governorate, has a strong cultural and linguistic heritage, and was the site of a rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Al-Basham's and al-Daruri's sentences are just the latest examples of the ramped-up pressure on activists in Oman,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Omani authorities should stop prosecuting people for peacefully expressing their beliefs and make sure that there's space for peaceful dissent.”

Monitor for Human Rights in Oman, an independent news website monitoring human rights violation in Oman, reported that Omani authorities arrested al-Basham on September 17, 2015, and detained him for six days. The authorities re-arrested al-Basham on September 25, and transferred him to a detention center in Sohar under the Royal Omani Police's Special Branch. The activists said that the prosecution is based solely on al-Basham's peaceful social media activity.

The verdict, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, indicates that the court of first instance sentenced al-Basham on charges of “public blasphemy of God's holiness,” “Insulting the Sultan,” and “using information networks in prejudice against religious values.” The first two charges carry penalties of three years in prison and a fine of 500 Omani Rials (US$1,300), while the third carries a penalty of one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 Omani Rials (US$2,600). The court convicted him on all three charges, imposing the longest of the three sentences and released him on a 50 Omani Rial (US$130) bail, pending appeal.

Omani authorities had detained al-Basham, who played an active role during the popular protests in 2011, twice before. On March 29, 2011, authorities arrested him and detained him for 16 days. The court ultimately acquitted him of charges of “closing the Sohar Roundabout” and "insulting senior state officials,” and ordered his release. In 2013, Omani authorities detained al-Basham again when he attended a celebration marking the release of one of those arrested during the Sohar protests. Al-Basham was released after a few days.

Monitor for Human Rights in Oman's website reported that Omani authorities earlier arrested al-Daruri, a secretary at the court of first instance in Salalah, on October 9, 2014, after he published a post defending the need for “unity between Oman and Dhofar as one nation that would be called the 'United Sultanate'” on his personal Facebook account and transferred him to Internal Security Agency detention in Salalah. On November 5, Omani authorities released al-Daruri and referred his case to the court of first instance in Salalah. On March 18, 2015, the court sentenced al-Daruri to one year in prison on charges of disturbing public order, to six months in prison on charges of sedition, and a fine of 1,000 Omani Rials (US$2,600). On February 17, 2016, the Court of Appeal reduce al-Daruri's sentence to six months in prison.

Since the 2011 popular uprising, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern in which Omani security forces harass activists and prosecute activists and critics on vague charges such as “insulting the Sultan” and “undermining the prestige of the state.” Authorities restrict online criticism and other digital content using article 61 of the 2002 Telecommunications Act, which penalizes “any person who sends, by means of telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals.”

In another case, on November 25, Omani authorities arrested Said Jaddad, a prominent human rights activist in Dhofar and transferred him to Arzat Prison, west of Salalah to serve a one-year prison sentence. Earlier in November, the Court of Appeal in Salalah upheld a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 1,000 Omani Rials (US$2,600) against Jaddad for “inciting to break national unity and spreading discord within society” in relation to a blog post he wrote in October 2014, in which he compared the 2011 protests in Dhofar to the 2014 protests in Hong Kong.

In March 2015, in a separate case, a Muscat court sentenced Jaddad to three years in prison on charges of “undermining the prestige of the state,” incitement to “illegal gathering,” and “using information networks to disseminate news that would prejudice public order” based on his online activities, including a public letter he wrote to United States President Barack Obama asking him to press for human rights improvements in Oman. On September 9, the Appeal Court in Muscat his three years' prison sentence, suspended for three years, and payment of a 2000 Omani Rials fine (US$5,200).

“Courts are basically criminalizing peaceful dissent in Oman,” Stork said. “The Oman authorities should immediately release Jaddad and other activists who are imprisoned solely for exercising their basic rights.”

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