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Oman: Government must stop confiscating books and arresting online activists

The Muscat International Book Fair, being held from 22 February to 02 March 2020, has prohibited and confiscated over 20 books written by well-known authors – mostly from Oman – directly contradicting a speech given by the Sultan of Oman. The book banning represents an attack on freedom of expression in the country, say the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR).

On 23 February 2020, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq gave a speech saying, “It is a source of pride for us that citizens and residents of the dear land of Oman live by the grace of God under the rule of law and institutions, a state based on the principles of freedom, equality and equal opportunity, based on justice, the dignity, rights, and freedoms of individuals are protected, including freedom of expression guaranteed by the basic laws of the state.”

Despite this, the Muscat International Book Fair has disallowed and confiscated a large number of books written by a number of well-known writers, most of them Omanis. The list of prohibited and confiscated books so far included 21 books as follows:

  1. “Digging up Memory” by Ahmed Al-Zubaidi
  2. “Affiliation, the Omani Prophet Younes” by Ahmed Al-Zubaidi
  3. “Suicide of Obaid Al-Omani” by Ahmed Al-Zubaid
  4. “There is no Journey Except to be a Farewell” by Saeed Sultan Al-Hashemi
  5. “The Life of Obaid Al-Omani” by Saeed Sultan Al-Hashemi and Sulaiman Al-Maamari
  6. “The Basin of Desires” by Mohammed Al-Yahyai
  7. “Who Does not Like Gamal Abdulnasser” by Sulaiman Al-Maamari
  8. “A single cry is not enough” by Hamood Al-Shukaili
  9. “The Gulf in the Time of Cholera” by Zahir Al-Mahrouqi
  10. “Turban of the Military”, a collection of fiction written by Hamood Saud
  11. “And the Tree Fell” by Saeed Sultan Al-Hashemi
  12. “What has the Dungeon left for the Rose?” by Saeed Sultan Al-Hashemi
  13. “Karma the Wolf” by Badria Al-Shehhi
  14. “Winter 79” by Yousef Al-Haj
  15. “Al-Rolla” by Yousef Al-Hajj
  16. “From the Angles of Thought” written by Dr. Saud Al-Zadjali
  17. “Time is up for Correction” by Zahir Al-Mahrouqi
  18. “Song of the Shadow” by Saeed Sultan Al-Hashemi
  19. “Schizophrenia of religions” by Bassam Ali
  20. “The Isolation of the Seer” by Bassam Ali
  21. “Returns of Rebellion” by Yaqoub Al-Khanbashi

Also, “Soual” publishing house also announced on its Twitter account, “Given the many questions asked about the following books, and in appreciation of the rights of authors and readers, the house would like to apologise to everyone for the difficulty in providing them in the Muscat International Book Fair 2020 for reasons that are completely beyond its control.”

Vincent Montagne, the President of French Publishers Association (SNE) and Chairman of the Paris International Book Fair, attended the Muscat International Book Fair, however he did not make any official comment on the serious violations of the civil rights of writers and authors in Oman. Oman had participated as a “special guest” at the Paris Book Fair 2019, which was held from 15-19 March 2019, despite the continued ban on books at the Muscat International Book Fair over the past years. 

In other news, on 25 February 2020, broadcaster Adel Al-Kasbi, was arrested 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 riyals.” 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. He was released on bail on 26 February 2020.

Local reports confirmed the arrest of four other citizens who retweeted his tweet, including former Shura Council member Salem Al-Awfi.

On 09 February 20, a woman human rights defender, who did not provide her name for security reasons, announced through her anonymous Twitter account the suspension of the Omani Feminists Twitter account that she helped set up. She said in a detailed tweet: “We aimed through the account to spread awareness first, then highlight the reality experienced by the Omani woman, who undoubtedly, as we have previously discussed, is advanced compared to all countries in the region; and this was the starting point, as the elevation of the homeland will not be achieved only by our pursuit of perfection through constructive criticism and then calling for rights.”
She added, “We also apologise for our inability to complete the journey of this account due to circumstances beyond our control. But we assure you that the ideas do not die and that the issues are unforgettable and we value the role of the nation’s women in completing the path and striving for the best.”

There is a widespread belief that the reason behind the decision to suspend the Omani Feminists account on Twitter is that the activists have been threatened by the Special Division, the executive arm of the Internal Security Service, due to their defense of women’s rights, including the following tagline: #Omani women demand that permits that restrict the movement of female university students in internal housing be canceled.

GCHR and OAHR call on the authorities in Oman to immediately halt their systematic campaign aimed at withholding public freedoms from 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.

GCHR and OAHR call on the authorities in Oman, including the security forces, to respect and protect the peaceful and legitimate work of women human rights defenders as they pursue their human and civil rights.

GCHR and OAHR also call on the French Publishers Syndicate and the management of the Paris Book Fair to urge the authorities in Oman to immediately stop their systematic campaign against writers and their books, in addition to targeting activists and severely restricting public freedoms.