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Oman: activist arrests threaten freedom of expression

A string of arrests of activists, writers, lawyers, and bloggers mainly in the Omani capital Muscat constitutes an attack on freedom of expression and assembly that must be halted, Amnesty International said.

On 11 June alone, the authorities arrested at least 22 people protesting peacefully outside the police headquarters in Muscat, bringing to at least 33 the number of protest-related arrests in recent weeks.

Just a week prior to this on 4 June, Oman’s Public Prosecution issued a statement saying legal action would be taken against anyone who publishes “offensive writing” in the media or online that is deemed to be “inciting” others to action “under the “the pretext of freedom of expression”.

Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, Philip Luther said:

“This constitutes a blatant attempt to stamp out freedom of expression, by effectively criminalising dissenting opinions in Oman.

“Anyone detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly would be a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Protests in Oman in early 2011 – sparked by popular unrest across the Middle East and North Africa – led to a number of political and social reforms, but tight restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly remain in place. Scores were arrested and many brought to trial in 2011 with at least one man reported to have died when police forcibly dispersed protesters in the town of Sohar.

The recent series of protest-related arrests began on 31 May 2012, when the Special Division of Omani Police detained three activists who attempted to travel to Fohoud oil field, some 250 km south-west of Muscat, to document an oil workers’ strike that started a week earlier.

The three detainees – lawyer Yaqoub al-Kharousi and activists Habeeba al-Hina’i and Ismail al-Muqbali from the newly formed Omani Group for Human Rights – were held incommunicado for five days before being allowed to contact their families.

When Habeeba al-Hina’i’s lawyer sought to meet her on 2 June, the Public Prosecutor’s office denied his request on the basis that his client had not been referred to the prosecution.

The three activists reportedly have been charged in connection with inciting a protest, with Habeeba al-Hina’i and Yaqoub al-Kharousi later released on bail on 4 June.

Since then, more activists have been arrested, but the exact number of detainees is unknown.

On 2 June activists Khalfan al-Badwawi and Ishaq al-Aghbari were arrested.

On 8 June alone, around six more activists were arrested, including writer Hamoud al-Rashidi and poet Hamad al-Kharousi.

On 10 June a public prosecutor confirmed the arrests in the Times of Oman stating “we are keeping a watch on the bloggers who use such platforms”.

Then came the arrests on 11 June of at least 22 people – including activists, writers, lawyers, and bloggers – who were held over their protest at the police headquarters calling for the release of those previously arrested and still detained.

Two of those at least 22 detainees were released, but it is not known whether they were charged with a crime.

The remainder are still being held at Sumail Central Prison – 90 km north of Muscat – and have been reportedly charged with inciting or taking part in a protest.

A day after their arrest, they were allowed to call their families and have had been in touch about every four days since.

Among them is prominent female lawyer Basma al-Kiyumi, who was previously arrested on 14 May 2011 during a peaceful protest in front of the Shura Council in Muscat along with 14 others. She was released on bail two days later and charged with participating in an unlawful gathering.

At least one of the men, 35-year-old Saeed al-Hashimi, went on hunger strike in protest against the group’s ongoing detention. He was admitted to Sumail Hospital on 14 June after he was believed to have lost consciousness.

He has since been returned to prison. It is believed he is continuing his hunger strike, and his family has still not been allowed to visit him yet.

Recent reports emerged that the female detainees have begun refusing to drink water.

Philip Luther added:

“By all accounts, those still being held at Sumail Central Prison appear to be there on the basis of charges linked solely to their participation in peaceful protests – they must be released without delay or condition and all charges related to the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and assembly must be quashed.

“Saeed al-Hashimi and all others who need medical treatment must have it provided, and all the activists detained in recent weeks must be granted access to their families and lawyers.”

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