Oman reportedly offered pardons to opposition figures in a bid to foster national unity – but one dissident has suggested otherwise.

It was reported last week that Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq issued pardons for a number of Omani dissidents in exile abroad, as part of a push for national unity.

The move was hailed by dissidents’ families and the broader public as an important step to build civic trust as Muscat aims at adopting reforms to tackle the economic crisis it is mired in.

Among the opposition figures said to be pardoned were Muwaya al Rawahi, Nabhan al Hanshi, Mazaher al Ajmi and Saeed Jadad.

However, after TRT World spoke with Nabhan al Hanshi, a different story emerged.

“It is not true how the media has introduced it. There was no Royal Decree,” he said.

“I refused the pardon after I found my name went viral as one of the people who were pardoned.”

Hanshi is the founder of the Oman Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) and a writer based in London. After several arrests due to his articles and advocacy work, he left Oman in 2012 and shuttled between Beirut and Istanbul before claiming asylum in the UK in 2014.

“Personally, no one contacted me from the government to discuss the pardon, as they know that I would not accept it.”

There has been no official statement from any government channels, so claims of pardons being doled out via royal decree have only come through leaks and anonymous sources.

Turki al Balushi, an Omani journalist and Bloomberg correspondent, was one of the first to reveal the news about an amnesty.

Balushi cited his own sources stating that “a pardon has been issued by the Sultan Haitham bin Tariq in favour of a number of Omanis who have been granted asylum in Britain.”

“They were informed by the Omani embassy in London, as the embassy is currently arranging for their return to the Sultanate,” he added.

According to The Arab Weekly, anonymous sources indicated the role of Oman’s ambassador to the UK, Abdulaziz al Hinai, in conveying Haitham’s desire to facilitate reconciliation with opposition figures.

It then emerged that London-based dissident Jadad published a video announcing allegiance and obedience to the Sultan shortly after receiving notification of the pardon and his return was being arranged.

Jadad had been a critic of the Omani government chronicling numerous human rights violations. He was forced into exile after numerous detentions and threats of imprisonment.

Rahawi, who criticised Omani authorities on his blog and YouTube channel, has long been persecuted for his work. He was recently detained by the UAE on charges of defaming the UAE ruling family and was acquitted in 2016.

Hanshi suggested an alternative account to the reports that mention two of the Omani dissidents that have now returned back – Jadad and Rahawi. He disclosed that Ajmi remained in Europe.

“They [Jadad and Rahawi] contacted the [Oman] embassy by themselves, and the embassy told them that they can go back with no restrictions.”

But in order for that to happen, all anti-government posts and videos they had previously published had to be deleted and warnings attached for those who would use or republish such content.

Their safe passage was only granted on the condition they “keep silent and never criticise the monarch or the government,” Hanshi said.

Suppression of dissent

Oman’s crackdown on dissent intensified after demonstrations erupted in January 2011 as part of the Arab Spring revolts that engulfed the region. The protests were driven by demands for political and economic reforms rather than the overthrow of the ruler at the time – the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Countless journalists, bloggers and other activists were arrested under evasive charges like “defaming the Sultan,” “undermining the prestige of the state,” or violating the country’s cyber laws.

Authorities restricted online dissent by invoking Article 61 of the Telecommunications Act of 2002, according to which “any person who sends, by means of a telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals”.

While Oman’s Basic Law guarantees freedom of expression, it restricts this right based on “the conditions and circumstances defined by the Law,” and prohibits any publication that “leads to public discord, violates the security of the State or abuses a person’s dignity and his rights.”

In January 2018, Oman updated its Penal Code by instituting punishments for criticising the government. Articles 97, 102 and 108 can be used against journalists, with infringement resulting in up to ten years imprisonment.

Article 115 can be used to target anyone who exposes government misconduct; Article 116 attacks freedom of association for civil and human rights organisations; Article 118 broadly restricts freedom of expression and opinion; Article 121 and 123 restrict the right to peaceful assembly.

Alongside the Penal Code, Article 26 of the Omani Press and Publications Law subjects journalists to arrest and detention if they leak information to international media.

The Omani Ministry of Information (OMI) maintains the power to issue licenses to foreign journalists on the basis they adhere to strict guidelines over what information they can disseminate. Omani journalists are required to reveal their sources upon government request and are subject to the OMI’s arbitrary dictates.

A vague legal framework has allowed Oman’s Internal Security Service (ISS) – notorious for suppressing public freedoms – to target a number of activists, academics and journalists that were imprisoned on charges related to free expression.

A Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) report describes how human rights defenders are routinely beaten, placed in solitary confinement and forced to endure various forms of torture.

In the latter years of Qaboos’ reign, the independent website Mowaten and pro-reform newspapers Azamn and Al Balad were forced to close or suspend operations as a result of political pressure.

The latest World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Oman 135 out of 180 countries.

New sultan, same regime?

Since Haitham came to power following the death of Qaboos on January 11, has free expression and human rights taken a different path?

The evidence suggests, not really, no.

Activists expressing discontent and calling for political reforms have regularly been summoned for questioning, such as the members of the Omani Feminists association, who were subsequently forced to suspend their activities on Twitter.

In March, the Muscat International Book Fair was tainted by censorship, with almost 50 titles seized and banned.

On June 3, activist and blogger Awadh al Sawafi was arrested for tweets criticising government agencies. On June 16, the court sentenced Sawafi to a suspended one-year prison sentence and a one-year social media ban for violating the Cyber Crime Law.

Likewise, Shura Council member Salem al Awfi and journalist Adel al Kasbi were sentenced last month to one-year in prison each for “using information technology to spread harm to public order” after calling out corruption on Twitter.

On June 10, Haitham issued a royal decree that established the Cyber Defence Centre, which cedes control to the ISS over Omani internet users, their devices and data.

GCHR and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) have raised concerns over this regulatory system of cybernetic overreach, which they claim severely compromises internet freedom and freedom of expression.

Haitham has also promulgated a law on internal security that legitimises all infringements and human rights violations that took place in the past, and expands the purview of ISS into the realm of national security.

It is these two recent decrees issued by the Sultan – the internal security law and the Cyber Defence Centre –  that has Hanshi skeptical of any overtures being made to dissidents and leads him to question how genuine the government’s reconciliation efforts are.

“The laws in Oman, which constitute violations to human rights, didn’t change,” he said, pointing out that people still struggle to express their views.

For Hanshi, being pardoned suggests that something wrong was committed in the first place – something he rejects.

“Practicing our rights is not a crime, and if the government thinks that such activities are criminal, that means it has no intention to reform.”

Source: TRT World