Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights Record in Oman: Further Restrictions, Persecution After Arab Spring

Omani protesters in Muscat on March 1, 2011 to demand an end to corruption in the Gulf state. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED MAHJOUB (Photo by MOHAMMED MAHJOUB / AFP)

Freedoms and human rights in the Sultanate of Oman differ little from those elsewhere in the Arab world. Arab countries all have restrictions on freedoms and human rights, as well the persecution of human-rights activists and politicians.

International reports documenting and monitoring freedoms and human rights give Arab countries the lowest ranks among countries in their respect for human rights and freedoms. According to the report of the U.S. Freedom House foundation on the development of freedoms around the globe for the year 2015, Arab countries maintained their usual rank as non-free countries, except for Tunisia, which was promoted to the rank of free country, according to the report.

According to the same report, the situation in Oman has not improved over the past ten years, as authorities continued to persecute and arrest human-rights activists and impose restrictions on freedom of expression.

Reporters Without Borders, which advocates press freedom around the globe, rated Oman as the 127th of 180 countries in its 2015 annual report, placing this Gulf country among Arab countries where the press has little or no freedom.

Amnesty International, in its annual report on freedom around the globe for the year 2014-2015, criticized Oman for the new citizenship law issued in August 2014, which is seen as a new weapon used by the government to punish its political opponents by depriving them of Omani citizenship. The new law stipulates that “Omani citizenship shall be withdrawn from any citizen adopting harmful ideas and those convicted of state security charges. The withdrawal of citizenship shall also affect any individual who refuses to abide by the government’s order to stop collaborating with foreign or hostile countries.” The UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain had earlier enacted similar laws.

In addition to reports issued by international organizations, which have always been perceived as Western tools that take no account of the special characteristics of Arab-Islamic culture or local labor standards, regional human-rights organizations are turning critical of the Omani authorities’ practices against opponents and are opposing what they describe as continued human-rights violations. The Arab Organization for Human Rights, for example, has criticized the arrest by Omani security authorities of online user Hasan al-Basham on charges of “libelling the sultan” and “undermining the prestige of the state.”

A report by the Gulf Center for Human Rights accused Omani security authorities of systematically targeting human-rights activism in the country in order to dismantle and quell it through a systematic policy of restrictions on human rights, as well as by persecuting and arresting activists. In this context, the centre’s report noted that security authorities summoned human-rights advocate Ismail Muqbali on 23 August 2015 and held him in isolation. Omani human-rights activist Hilal al-Alawi was arrested on the same day, according to the same report.

The National Committee for Human Rights

The Omani government rejects reports issued by regional and international organizations critical of reported violations of international laws on human rights. On the other hand, the government seeks to improve its human-rights record, both locally and externally. In 2008, Sultan Qaboos issued Decree 124/2008, establishing the National Committee for Human Rights, the first governmental body dealing with human-rights issues in the country. The committee consists of 14 members, 11 of whom represent government agencies and the other three represent NGOs; the committee members are appointed by a decree of the sultan. Judging from the committee’s by-laws and composition, its work is focused on defining the government’s efforts in equality, social justice, workers’ rights, and children’s rights. The committee is also concerned with improving the government’s image in international circles, such as the UN Human Rights Council. The committee’s composition does not, however, qualify it for advocating for all prisoners of opinion and human-rights activists or even for mediating between Omani human-rights activists and the authorities, because the committee lacks impartiality and credibility, at least in the view of human-rights activists.

Oman had been out of the view of international organizations and their periodic reports until 2005, when Arab and international media outlets circulated news of the arrest of a hardline group of prominent Omani figures who plotted to overthrow the government by force. The media also reported persecution and arrests that targeted hundreds of Islamists, as well as trials that lacked the minimum standards of fairness.

However, the fact that no light was shed on human-rights violations in Oman before the year 2005 does not mean that there were no violations. Rather, violations were committed secretly against individuals. Before the arrest of the hardline group, the Ministry of Information in 2004 issued orders prohibiting Omani poets Mohammad al-Harithi and Abdallah al-Riyami from writing for or making appearances in local press and media outlets because they took part in a talk show aired by the Iranian Arabic-language al-Alam Television, in which the two criticized the authorities. After 2005, several shocking reports were published concerning the Omani security authorities’ arrest of many activists and writers for their criticism of what was described as corruption and abuse of power. One of the most infamous arrests was that of Tibah al-Maʾuli, the first woman elected to the Shura Council (parliament); she was sentenced to one and a half years, prompting organizations and activists around the world to launch an international campaign for her release.

However, the authorities remained cautious about restrictions on and persecution of human-rights activists and used such measures only in emergency cases until massive popular protests broke out in February 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring. Omani authorities intensified their security measures and arrests in light of the escalating events and the tense relationship between the people and the government, as well as for reasons relating to public disorder, sabotage of public property, and libelling the sultan. The Omani Observatory for Human Rights has documented many of these practices.

These security measures and arrests, beginning in 2011, have made Oman’s human-rights record little different from those of other countries known for their suppression of critical and opposing views.

However, some voices in Oman, both within and outside the government, believe that the record of human rights and freedoms in Oman remains “clean” compared to those of other Arab countries, because there have been no political prisoners and prisoners of opinion held in prisons for decades. Such positive views were substantiated by the release from Omani prisons in 2011 of leaders of the popular protest movement and by the reinstatement of most of them in the jobs they had held before the outbreak of the protests. The Omani National Committee for Human Rights organizes a series of courses and training programmes specializing in human-rights issues and attracts experts and specialists from outside the country in order to raise the awareness of society regarding the rights that guarantee a decent life for citizens, as well as special rights for some segments of society, according to statements by Ubayd al-Shaqsi, secretary general of the National Committee for Human Rights, speaking to Oman Daily.

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