Human Rights in Oman: Recent Developments and Ongoing Concerns

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The state of human rights in Oman presents a complex picture. The nation has undoubtedly achieved significant progress in terms of economic development and modernization. However, there are still pressing human rights concerns that require our attention.

One of the most alarming issues revolves around the treatment of political prisoners and individuals detained for expressing their beliefs. From their initial arrest to their imprisonment, these individuals often face severe violations of their rights throughout the legal process. The use of torture, both as a means to extract confessions and as a form of punishment, is a particularly grave violation. At the same time, human rights defenders who advocate for freedom of expression in Oman face ongoing harassment and prosecution. The authorities employ vague charges to target activists and critics, both online and offline, creating concerns about violations of free expression. Additionally, access to essential healthcare for detainees, particularly those suffering from chronic illnesses, is a significant concern. The issue of due process and trial procedures in Oman, particularly the treatment of detainees and trial processes, has raised questions about arbitrary arrests, delays in securing legal representation, and fair trial issues.

This comprehensive report aims to provide a holistic understanding of the multifaceted human rights challenges in Oman. It covers issues such as torture, human rights defenders, free expression and assembly, access to medicine, prisoners’ rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, and due process and trials through the narratives of survivors, expert insights, and a thorough examination of the legal framework. The ultimate goal is to shed light on the human rights landscape in Oman and offer recommendations for improvements.

  1. Torture

Oman, a nation located in the Arabian Peninsula, has been under intense scrutiny due to persistent allegations of torture and inhumane treatment within its borders. The period from 2018 to 2023 has witnessed numerous deeply concerning incidents and reports related to torture, revealing a significant human rights crisis within the country.

1.1 Allegations and Findings

1.1.1 Forced Disappearances

Reports of forced disappearances allegedly involving government authorities have come to light, casting a dark shadow over Oman’s human rights landscape. Notably, among these cases is the incident involving businessman and internet activist Hani Al-Sarhani and his associates. These individuals were apprehended for their participation in a peaceful sit-in protest against economic conditions, government inefficiency, and corruption. The subsequent forced disappearance of these individuals has raised serious concerns about the government’s commitment to due process and the rule of law.

1.1.2 Allegations of Torture

Despite explicit prohibitions against torture and inhuman treatment within Oman’s legal framework, allegations of torture persist. Awad Al-Sawafi, an online activist and paralegal, faced a harrowing ordeal that included allegations of torture during his detention in Oman. Following his arrest in June 2020, Al-Sawafi was reportedly subjected to physical and psychological abuse during his initial three months of interrogation. This torture encompassed beatings, electric shocks, and the cruel removal of his fingernails, among other methods. Such practices are not only inhumane but also flagrant violations of international human rights standards. Torture is strictly prohibited under international law, and it is essential to emphasize that these acts of torture can have severe and long-lasting effects on an individual’s physical and mental well-being. Al-Sawafi’s ordeal underscores the urgent need to address and prevent torture in detention settings and to hold those responsible accountable.

1.1.3 Lack of Accountability

The government’s response to allegations of torture and forced disappearances has raised grave concerns about accountability. The forced disappearance of individuals who participated in peaceful protests and the alleged mistreatment of detainees without adequate legal recourse have exposed deficiencies in Oman’s commitment to upholding human rights protections.

1.1.4 Legal Framework

Oman’s legal framework explicitly and unequivocally prohibits torture and inhuman treatment. Nevertheless, the persistence of these allegations raises questions about the effective implementation and enforcement of these laws.

1.1.5 International Obligations

Oman is a signatory to various international treaties and conventions governing human rights, including the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Oman must align its domestic practices with its international obligations and commitments.

  1. Human Rights Defenders

The safeguarding of human rights advocates, particularly those championing freedom of expression, is a paramount concern in Oman, given the numerous allegations and incidents of harassment and prosecution targeting these individuals, which persist as a critical issue.

2.1 Allegations and Findings

2.1.1 Internet Activists on Trial

Recent developments in 2023 have drawn attention to the case of internet activists undergoing retrial in Oman. Ghaith Al-Shibli, an internet activist, established a virtual platform on Twitter known as “Ghaith spaces” for diverse intellectual discussions. This platform attracted participation from internet activists, including Abdullah Al-Muqbali, Ali Al-Ghafri, and Maryam Al-Nuaimi. The authorities’ response to this peaceful online initiative has generated allegations of systematic policies that curtail freedom of expression, both online and offline. Prominent human rights organizations, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Oman Association for Human Rights (OAHR), have fervently advocated for the immediate release of internet activist Ali bin Marhoon Abdullah Al-Ghafri and the annulment of the sentences of him and his associates. These organizations emphasize the paramount importance of ensuring that human rights defenders, including online activists, can carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals or constraints, including judicial harassment.

2.1.2 Challenges to Freedom of Expression

Human rights defenders in Oman, particularly those who criticize the government or express grievances, consistently face harassment and detention. Authorities have been known to employ vague charges, such as “insulting the Sultan” and “undermining the prestige of the state,” to target activists and critics. This includes online activists who raise awareness about human rights abuses. Moreover, allegations have surfaced suggesting that authorities engage in hacking into social media and communication accounts to remove posts promoting human rights.

  1. Freedom of Expression and Assembly

Freedom of expression and assembly in Oman have faced considerable challenges, characterized by legal restrictions, arrests, and curbs on critical reporting and online activities.

3.1 Allegations and Findings

3.1.1 Legal Limitations on Freedom of Expression

The legal framework in Oman significantly restricts freedom of expression. The law imposes constraints on citizens and members of the press, including citizen journalists. Even these limited rights have not been consistently upheld by authorities. Journalists, public figures, and writers have been reported to engage in self-censorship. Legal provisions prohibit criticism of the sultan, “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” In October 2022, a royal decree extended these provisions to include insults against the sultan’s wife and children, carrying a penalty of three to seven years in prison.

3.1.2 Online Activists and Journalists

Online activists and journalists have encountered legal challenges and restrictions on their activities. In 2023, the case involving the trial of four Internet activists in the “Ghaith spaces” incident was marked by charges of “using the Internet and information technology means to produce content that would prejudice religious values and public order” and “inviting people to participate in a meeting to oppose the Islamic religion and defame its foundations.” These charges led to the imprisonment of the activists for three years and the closure of their Twitter accounts.

3.1.3 Government Control and Censorship

The media in Oman operate within the confines of legal restrictions on freedom of expression, including a ban on criticizing the sultan. Although private media outlets exist, they often receive government subsidies, engage in self-censorship, and face consequences for crossing political boundaries. The government holds the authority to shut down media outlets, block websites, revoke licenses, and prosecute journalists for content violations. Allegations of monitoring personal communications and pursuing arrests and detentions in connection with government criticism on social media have further contributed to self-censorship among citizens.

3.1.4 Restrictions on Digital Expression

Oman’s legal framework includes Article 61 of the Telecommunications Act, which grants authorities the power to censor digital content deemed to contravene public order or morals. This provision hinders freedom of expression in the digital realm. Additionally, the government controls the selection of correspondents from foreign press agencies and newspapers, and Omani journalists are obligated to disclose their sources upon government request.

3.1.5 Closure of Media Outlets

The closure of media outlets, both in print and online, has taken place as a response to critical reporting. For instance, the Azamn newspaper was shut down in 2016 and 2017 following its reporting on judicial corruption and government actions against activists.

  1. Access to Medicine

Access to essential medical care and medication is a fundamental human right for all individuals, including those in detention. Access to adequate medicine and medical care for detainees in Oman remains a huge concern.

4.1 Allegations and Findings

4.1.1 Health Conditions of Detainees

Awad Al-Sawafi’s detention in Oman was marred by serious concerns regarding his access to medical care. During his week-long detention, he was held in a small cell in Dhank Governorate without receiving a medical examination or necessary medication. This was despite his suffering from several chronic diseases, one of which was severe.

The lack of medical attention during his detention raised significant issues related to the provision of healthcare to detainees, especially those with pre-existing health conditions. It emphasized the need for proper medical care and attention to be provided to individuals in custody, regardless of their legal situation.

4.1.2 Temporary Easing of VoIP Restrictions

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Omani government implemented temporary and “exceptional” measures to ease restrictions on specific Voice Over IP (VoIP) applications and platforms, including Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. Nevertheless, WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime continued to be blocked, which had a detrimental impact on the ability of both Omanis and migrant workers to communicate with their families and communities abroad, especially during the public health crisis and associated movement restrictions.

  1. Prisoners’ Rights During COVID-19

The global COVID-19 pandemic posed distinctive challenges to prison and detention center conditions worldwide, including the situation of prisoners’ rights during the pandemic in Oman.

5.1 Allegations and Findings

5.1.1 Conditions in Detention Centers

The 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices indicated that there were no reports of prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns in Oman. However, it is important to acknowledge that conditions in detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic have been a subject of global concern.

5.1.2 Concerns About COVID-19 in Prisons

While the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices did not specifically report COVID-19-related issues in detention centers, concerns were raised in the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These concerns encompassed subpar conditions in Samail Central Prison, challenges related to meal and medication supply, and the risk of COVID-19 infections in some prisons. Independent monitoring by international human rights observers remained limited.

  1. Due Process and Trials

Concerns have been raised related to due process and trial procedures in Oman, encompassing allegations of arbitrary arrests, the treatment of detainees, and trial processes.

6.1 Allegations and Findings

6.1.1 Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Oman’s legal framework explicitly prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, granting individuals the right to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court. In general, the government upholds these requirements. However, there have been reports of arbitrary arrests, particularly concerning peaceful activists who engaged in public criticism of the government, contravening the law. Some individuals arrested in these cases encountered delays in securing legal representation.

Awad Al-Sawafi’s arrest and detention give rise to concerns of arbitrary detention within Oman. He was taken from his home without an arrest warrant and transported to an unknown location. His detention, which took place without official charges, appeared to lack a legal basis, as he was not allowed to contact his family and was held in custody for an extended period.

Arbitrary detention is a grave violation of human rights, as it deprives individuals of their liberty without proper legal justification. International law strictly prohibits arbitrary detention, emphasizing that no one should be deprived of their freedom without lawful and objective reasons. Al-Sawafi’s case underscores the imperative of preventing arbitrary detention and ensuring that all individuals are granted their basic rights, including the right to liberty and security of person.

6.1.2 Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Omani law stipulates that police cannot arrest or detain individuals “without an order to this effect from a concerned legal authority,” except when a person is apprehended in the act of committing an offense. Police are mandated to either release the individual or refer the case to the public prosecution within 48 hours. For most offenses, the public prosecution must then either order the individual’s preventive detention or release them within 24 hours, with varying maximum durations for preventive detention based on the nature of the crime. Defendants must be immediately informed of the charges against them. While a functioning bail system generally exists, individuals detained for political reasons have reportedly faced challenges in accessing prompt legal representation. In cases involving foreign citizens, authorities have at times failed to notify the detainee’s local sponsor or embassy. Furthermore, public attorneys are provided to indigent detainees, as required by law.

Al-Sawafi’s case raises serious concerns about due process within Oman’s legal system. His arrest occurred without an arrest warrant, and he was taken from his home to an undisclosed location by members of the Special Division. During his detention, he was not officially charged, denied contact with his family, and faced an extended period of waiting and interrogation.

These actions are in clear contravention of the principles of due process, which are fundamental to ensuring a fair and just legal system. Due process includes the right to be informed of the charges against an individual, the right to legal representation, and the right to a fair trial. Al-Sawafi’s case illustrates the importance of upholding these principles to safeguard individuals’ rights and prevent abuses of power within the justice system.

6.1.3 Denial of Fair Public Trial

Oman’s legal system provides for an independent judiciary, and the government typically upholds judicial independence and impartiality. Both civilian and military courts handle cases, with no reports of judicial officials, prosecutors, or defense attorneys facing intimidation or engaging in corruption. While the law permits public trials, there are instances where the government reserves the right to close sensitive cases to the public. Defendants retain the right to consult with an attorney, but some activists have faced delays in accessing legal representation. In practice, court dates usually allow sufficient time for defense attorneys to prepare. Interpretation and translation services are not consistently provided for non-Arabic speakers. Defendants maintain the right to be present, submit evidence, and confront witnesses at their trials, and there have been no reported systemic uses of forced confessions during trial proceedings. Appeals are generally permitted, but reports suggest that rights may not always be uniformly enforced, especially for non-citizens.

In a case exemplifying concerns over due process and trials in Oman, Maryam Al-Nuaimi was granted a royal pardon and released on April 30, 2023, after being sentenced for a comment made in a WhatsApp group several years ago. Despite the royal pardon, issues arose in the implementation of the order to exempt her from the sentence, raising questions about the efficiency of due process in such matters. The Omani judiciary did not appear to take proactive steps to execute the royal pardon in a timely and transparent manner.

Furthermore, the case of businessman and internet activist Hani bin Ali Al-Sarhani highlights challenges within the Omani legal system. Al-Sarhani was arrested for his participation in a peaceful sit-in and for using his Twitter account to appeal for support for businesspeople and citizens during a difficult period. Notably, immediate arrest orders were issued by the Internal Security Service (ISS) after a video of the sit-in gained widespread attention on social media.

These instances underscore the significance of upholding due process rights and ensuring that trials are fair, transparent, and conducted following established legal procedures.

  1. Recommendations

Based on this report outlining the human rights situation in Oman, and the various violations documented within, it is recommended that the government of Oman takes the following steps:

  • Enforce a Zero-Tolerance Policy Against Torture: The government should commit to a strict zero-tolerance policy against torture and inhumane treatment within detention centers, ensuring compliance with international human rights standards.
  • Establish an Independent Detention Oversight Body: Consider establishing an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring detention facilities to safeguard the humane treatment of detainees. This body should investigate allegations of torture and provide regular, transparent reports.
  • Human Rights Training for Law Enforcement: Conduct comprehensive human rights training for law enforcement personnel, emphasizing the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, and educating them about the consequences of violating these rights.
  • Protect Freedom of Expression: Uphold freedom of expression as a fundamental right, ensuring that human rights defenders, both online and offline, can express their views without fear of harassment, prosecution, or censorship.
  • Review Charges Against Online Activists: Review and reconsider charges against internet activists who face imprisonment for online activities that fall within the bounds of peaceful and lawful freedom of expression.
  • Support Independent Media: Promote the independence of media outlets and guarantee that journalists can work without fear of government censorship or repercussions.
  • Ensure Adequate Medical Care: Ensure that all detainees have access to essential medical care, medication, and regular health examinations, especially those with chronic health conditions. Health attention should be provided irrespective of their legal situation.
  • Reform Telecommunications Act: Consider reforms to the Telecommunications Act to eliminate provisions permitting censorship of digital content and to expand freedom of digital expression.
  • Protect Due Process Rights: Ensure that due process rights are consistently upheld for all individuals in Oman, including the right to be informed of charges, access to legal representation, and a fair trial.

By implementing these recommendations, Oman can work towards improving its human rights situation, demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding the rights and dignity of its citizens, and aligning its practices with its international human rights obligations and commitments.