Human rights organisations criticise civic space restrictions ahead of UPR review

In a joint submission to the United Nations Universal Period Review (UPR) of Oman slated for January 2021, CIVICUS, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) reported on Oman’s compliance with the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. The report had a particular focus on the restrictions facing human rights defenders, bloggers and online activists since the last UPR examination of Oman in November 2015. Following extensive consultations with civil society and a thorough review of legal sources and human rights documentation, the report found that the government of Oman had failed to implement the recommendations relating to civic space since its last UPR review in 2015. Although the Constitution of Oman guarantees the rights to association, peaceful assembly and expression, restrictive legislation including the Penal Code, the Law on Associations, the 1984 Press and Publications Law and the Communications Act, remain on the statute books and are routinely used to restrict civic space and maintain a hostile environment for civil society activists.

Association

On 13th July 2020, Human Rights Watch published a letter sent to the Oman Human Rights Commission expressing their deep concern at the arrests and convictions of several individuals under a provision of Oman’s 2018 Penal Code that criminalises “imitating the opposite sex.”

This followed a sequence of events where people were arrested and charged under this Penal Code provision. On 27th January 2020, the Royal Oman Police announced on Twitter that they had arrested “a number of men in women’s clothing” in the town of Salalah, in Dhofar Governate. One of the guests had allegedly shared photos from a private birthday party on the instant messaging application Snapchat, which came to the attention of the police. The police, who apparently determined that some partygoers were dressed in clothing not corresponding to their assigned sex, proceeded to arrest four of them.

On 15th February 2020, a court in Salalah convicted the four on charges of immoral conduct, under article 265 of the Penal Code; “imitating the opposite sex,” under article 266(d); producing or distributing material that violates “public ethics,” under article 17 of the Cyber Crime Law of 2011; and “assisting” in the production or distribution of such material, under article 31 of the Cyber Crime Law. The court sentenced each of the four people to three years in prison, a fine of 3,000 Omani riyals (approximately US $7,800), and a month of street cleaning for four hours a day. The court also confiscated one defendant’s mobile phone and suspended his social media accounts as part of the sentence.

In a similar development, in March 2020, the Royal Oman Police released a statement regarding the arrest of “an expat of Asian nationality” in Al Buraimi Park, dressed in women’s clothing during a “women’s only day” at the park.

In their letter, Human Rights Watch said in part:

“Such regressive laws violate the right to freedom of expression and infringe upon transgender people’s rights to privacy, non-discrimination, and freedom of movement.”

Expression

In the UPR submission by CIVICUS, GCHR and OAHR (see above in the introduction), the report highlighted that freedom of expression continues to be severely restricted since Sultan Qaboos died in January 2020 and was replaced by his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq. Despite calls from civil society for reform of the regressive provisions in the Penal Code which restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly, social media activists campaigning on these issues have been met with interrogations and harassment during the first few months of bin Tariq’s reign.

Bloggers, journalists and writers have been targeted with arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment for reporting on human rights violations or for critiquing government policy. For example, on 7th September 2020, internet activist Ghazi Al-Awlaki was released after a period of detention by the Internal Security Service (ISS) in retaliation against his social media activities. He was arrested in July 2020 shortly after posting a critique of the “virtual armies” of many Arab governments on his Facebook page. Contrary to international human rights standards and legislation, Al-Awlaki was not allowed to contact his family or have access to a lawyer following his arrest.

Additionally, as the government continued its crackdown on internet activists, on 10th June 2020, Sultan bin Tariq issued decree No. 64 of 2020 establishing the Cyber Defence Centre. The Cyber Defence Centre grants absolute control for regulating internet services, devices and data to the ISS, which is known for its continuous suppression of public freedoms, including freedom of expression on the Internet.