Journalists and writer convicted as clampdown on free expression continues


As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Omani authorities are prosecuting three journalists from Azamn newspaper – Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Yousef Al-Haj, and Zaher Al-Abri - as well as writer and cinema critic Abdullah Habib for exercising their legitimate right to free expression. On 7th November, a coalition of human rights organisations – the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) - conducted trial observation of the three reporters' appeal. The observers' report concluded that the whole process had been marked by procedural flaws and the abuse of punitive press laws, and that the hearings had fallen far below international fair trial standards. According to the human rights coalition’s lawyer,

'The defence team faced significant procedural obstacles in the Appeal Court re-trial today, ranging from a refusal by judges to call relevant witnesses of fact, denial of disclosure and a basic failure to place the criminal burden of proof on the Prosecution. This has led to a trial of all three defendants, on a cumulative 14 charges, being completed in just two morning sessions.'

Originally set down for 17th November, the journalists' final verdict was postponed until 12th December. No further updates on this case were available at the time of writing. 

In a separate case, on 8th November, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced film critic and online activist Abdullah Habib to three years in prison and a fine of 2,000 Omani Rials (US$5,200). Bail was set at 1,000 Omani Rials (US$2600) as he was freed while appealing the verdict. He was charged with violating Article 19 of the Information Technology Crimes Act, and more specifically with 'using the Internet in what would prejudice the state public order.' On 15th April, Habib had been summoned by the Omani Internal Security Service (ISS) to appear before the Special Division of the Omani Police General Command in the capital, Muscat. He was not allowed access to his family or lawyer and was only released on 4th May. His arrest and trial were linked to his Facebook posts expressing his views and advocating for human rights in his country.

Ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, scheduled to take place in Manama, Bahrain on 6th and 7th December, Amnesty International expressed grave concerns about the systematic clampdown on the freedom of expression in the six Gulf States, including Oman. Randa Habib, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, stated:

'In recent years across the Gulf we have seen human rights activists, peaceful political opponents and government critics systematically targeted in the name of security. Hundreds have been harassed, unlawfully prosecuted, stripped of their nationality, arbitrarily detained or in some cases imprisoned or even sentenced to death after unfair trials, as part of a concerted effort to intimidate people into silence [...] The use of such ruthless tactics to trample all over the rights of people in the GCC has to end now.'