New penal code could threaten civic space in Oman

Association

The Omani government introduced a new penal code on 15th January 2018 raising alarm among civil society. In particular, the overly broad provisions in the code have caused concern that authorities could restrict the work of human rights defenders and curtail the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly. 

The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) recently published their annual documentation of human rights abuses in 2017. Given OCHR's many citations of infringements on civic freedoms, the new penal code is worrisome as it could strengthen the Omani authorities' powers to arbitrarily curtail civic freedoms, creating an even more repressive and closed space for civil society. More information on OCHR's documentation can be seen in the video below:

Regarding the new penal code, CIVICUS Monitor partner, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), asserted that: 

"The new law contains several vaguely-defined articles that could easily be used by the Internal Security Service (ISS), known for its history of human rights violations, to target human rights defenders and Internet activists, and to suffocate public freedoms".

In particular, article 116 of the new penal code is particularly worrisome. It presents the possibility of prison sentences for anyone who "establishes, organises, administers or finances an association, party, body, organisation, centre" which is "aimed at combating the political, economic, social or security principles of the State, or the domination or elimination of one social class over another”. Concerns have been raised that the vague wording of the article leaves significant scope for interpretation, which could be used to target civil society groups and human rights defenders critical of the regime. Similarly, once an association is banned, the code allows for its complete dissolution and the prosecution of anyone affiliated with it. Violations of this article carry a prison sentence of between one to ten years.

Peaceful Assembly

According to GCHR, articles 121 and 123 of the new penal code could further restrict freedom of assembly in Oman. Article 121 states that “anyone who participates in a public gathering of more than ten people which would have caused a breach of security or public order, or whomever remains in the vicinity after an order to disperse by the competent authorities shall be punished by imprisonment for a term of not less than three (3) months and not exceeding one year, and/or a fine of not less than one hundred (100) RO, and not more than five hundred (500) RO”.

Article 123 imposes a custodial sentence of “not less than three (3) months and not more than six (6) months for anyone who called for or instigated the gathering”.

Peaceful assembly rights are already strictly controlled by authorities in Oman. In a recent example in December 2017, the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) reported the arrest of a protester, Imad Al-Farsi, the first Omani citizen to protest outside the U.S. Embassy. According to the report, Al-Farsi was arrested on 7th December 2017, questioned and then released after pledging not to demonstrate again.

Expression

Article 118 of the new penal code could also have a damaging impact on freedom of expression, according to GCHR. It states that anyone who has “obtained or edited editorials or publications containing a favor or promotion of anything provided for in Article 116” shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not less than six (6) months, and not more than three (3) years.

In a separate development, on 19th November 2017 the Court of Appeal in Muscat upheld the three-year sentence for internet activist Hassan Al-Basham. The Court reportedly did not allow the defence team to present its evidence and medical reports.

On 19th December 2017, the OCHR reported that the trial of former media presenter Khaled Al-Rashdi had begun. Al-Rashdi was charged after publishing a post on social media which was critical of Omani institutions (which he did not specifically name). The Muscat Court of First Instance fined Al-Rashdi and sentenced him on 2nd January 2018 to one year in prison under article 19 of the Cyber Crimes Law.