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Oman: Freedom of expression continues to be targeted

Freedom of expression remains at risk in Oman, where Internet activists and journalists are routinely arrested on charges related to “misuse of social media”. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) call for an end to the censorship of online human rights activities.

On the evening of 03 June 2020, Internet activist Awad Al-Sawafi (photo on the left) appeared before the Special Division of the Omani Police Command in the city of Ibri after he was summoned earlier that day. He was immediately arrested and transferred to the Public Prosecution office on charges of “incitement” and “misuse of social media.” The Special Division is the executive arm of the Internal Security Service (ISS) in Oman.

Ibri, which is a city in Al-Dhahirah Governorate, is located in the west of Oman, and is 279 km away from the capital, Muscat. He was detained at Al-Dhank police station in Al-Dhahirah Governorate.

Al-Sawafi’s detention is linked to a tweet he posted on his Twitter account in which he criticised government agencies that threaten citizens. He started by saying, “Every week a government institution comes to us that threatens this nation, which is overpowered.” He concluded by saying, “Let everyone know without exception, either we live with dignity on this land or not.” His tweet enjoyed wide interactions and support on social media.

On 09 June 2020, the Ibri Court of First Instance held its first session in Al-Sawafi’s trial, when it released him on bail pending the pronouncement of the verdict at the next hearing on 16 June 2020.

Al-Sawafi is a well-known activist and blogger who uses his Twitter account to express his personal views on various public affairs, to support women’s rights to participate in developing the country, and to reject racism. He had previously been sentenced in 2012 to one year in prison in a case of defamation against the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

In another case, on 10 June 2020, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced broadcaster Adel Al-Kasbi (photo in the centre) and former Shura Council member Salem Al-Awfi (photo on the right) to one-year in prison each, after they were convicted on a charge of “using information technology to spread harm to public order.” This charge is related to their peaceful activities on the Internet. They have paid 2000 Omani Rials ($5200 USD) bail to remain free pending their hearing at the Appeal Court.

Al-Kasbi was arrested on 25 February 20202 after posting on his Twitter account the following: “I dreamed that I had become a minister and built a palace in Crimea but it was very, very expensive. The structure only cost me 13 million Omani Rials.” Al-Kasbi is a television and radio presenter, and his account is used to express his views on public affairs and the fight against corruption in the country. Four others who retweeted his tweet, including Salem Al-Awfi, were also arrested. Al-Kasbi was released on bail on 26 February 2020 while Al-Awfi spent a month in detention.

Al-Awfi was arrested for the retweet as well as several other tweets he had posted on his Twitter account, which he boldly uses to express his opinions, criticise tyranny, the lack of proper planning and to promote justice. On 07 July 2019, he published a tweet about his exclusion from being nominated for membership to the Shura Council for the state of Azkali, and on 11 February 2020, he published a tweet saying, “They practice tyranny and criticise it by words so they are far from justice.”

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) call on the authorities in Oman in particular the notorious ISS to immediately halt their systematic campaign aimed at denying public freedoms to writers and other citizens, including freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly. The authorities must fulfill their obligations to provide and protect civil space and not to harass human rights defenders, including writers, journalists and Internet activists.

The authorities in Oman must end the prosecution of Internet activists Awad Al-Sawafi, Adel Al-Kasbi and Salem Al-Awfi and revoke all charges or sentences issued against them.