Oman: Freedom of assembly and expression violated during recent popular protests

02.06.21

Update: Oman: On 02 June 2021, human rights defender Ibrahim Al-Balushi was released from prison in Oman. Reports confirmed that there are still about six peaceful protesters who remain in detention, but they are expected to be released shortly.

Popular protests have receded in Oman, after they started in the province of Sohar on 23 May 2021, and spread to the provinces of Salalah, Ibri, Sur, Ibra and Rustaq. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) have documented violations related to the rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

The protesters, the majority of whom are young, have demanded the government provide job opportunities, improve the living conditions of citizens, carry out reforms and eradicate corruption. A number of Omani women also demanded that they be granted the right to own  land. Dozens of protesters were arrested, most of whom were later released after being forced to sign a pledge not to participate in any future demonstrations.

On 26 May 2021, human rights defender Ibrahim Al-Balushi was arrested in front of his home, after returning from work before midnight. He has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest due to his participation in the recent peaceful protests.

Reliable local sources told GCHR and OAHR that Al-Balushi started an open hunger strike after being placed in solitary confinement in a prison belonging to the Special Division of the Omani Police Headquarters in Sohar. The Special Division is the executive arm of the Internal Security Service (ISS). He was later transferred to the Central Prison in Sohar. Reports confirmed that he is still on hunger strike.

Al-Balushi took part in the popular protests of 2011, and he was arrested several times, including being imprisoned for 10 months. He was previously arrested in the United Arab Emirates in May 2014 and then released.

GCHR and OAHR received information confirming that the ISS is putting pressure on him to give a public apology for his request from the protesters who gathered in Sohar on 25 May 2021, chanting the slogan, "The people want to reform the system" which means eliminating corruption, as shown in this video.

On 26 May 2021, protesters in Sohar cut off the main street under the Sohar Bridge by placing a truck transporting vehicles in the middle of it. Police personnel then dispersed them using tear gas canisters, as this video clearly shows. Also, due to their massive gathering, the protesters cut off the traffic over the Sohar Bridge itself.

On 27 May 2021, as part of the popular protests, a group of women staged a sit-in in front of the General Directorate of Housing and Urban Planning in the city of Dhofar. They protested the decisions of the Minister of Housing and Planning that sets unfair conditions on the rights of women to obtain land and they raised several slogans including, "It is my right to have a piece of land in my country".

Civil society activist Abdulaziz Al-Balushi appeared in a recorded video while delivering a speech to a group of protesters in Sohar on the evening of 26 May 2021, in which he showed signs of torture on his back that he reported date back to the days of his previous arrest and detention after his participation in the protests of 2011. Al-Balushi also asked the protesters to show steadfastness and not to retreat as they are defending their rights. He was arbitrarily arrested the next day, and detained for one day. Many demanded his release through the following hashtag spread on Twitter: #Freedom_To_Abdulaziz_AlBalushi

On 26 May 2021, civil society activist Alwi Al-Mashour published a tweet, in which he responded to what he described as the Oman News Agency’s defamation of the image of the demonstrators, in which he said, "It is clear by God ... now the media remember to report the news of the demonstrators after it used to ignore them .. Now distorting their image is used to give the green light to break up the demonstrations and turn simple, oppressed and crushed youth in this life into saboteurs and criminals ... I swear by God, they are more keen on the homeland than you .... #No_for the intruders."

Also, Al-Mashour appeared on the same day in a video spread on social media, in which he defended the protesters and called on the government not to use violence against them, and to start a dialogue with them.

Al-Mashour, who resides in Muscat, was subjected to a major smear campaign, and as a result, a solidarity campaign was launched with him on Twitter with the hashtag:

#Alawi_AlMashour_Represents-Me

On the night of 28 May 2021, the security forces arrested all young protesters in the city of Salalah and then released them after several hours of detention. Also, on the same day, the security forces released all detained protesters in the city of Dhofar.

Reports received by GCHR and OAHR confirmed that the ISS forced the detained protesters to sign pledges that violate their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful protest in exchange for their release.

Following the popular protests, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq issued directives to implement a plan to create more than 32,000 job opportunities during this year, including 12,000 job opportunities in the civil service and military.

Once again, GCHR and OAHR declare their absolute solidarity with the Omani citizens who exercised their right to demonstrate and peacefully assemble in order to demand improvement in their living conditions. By forcing them to sign undertakings not to protest, the security forces have violated the civil and human rights guaranteed by the Omani constitution for all citizens.

The Omani government must release human rights defender Ibrahim Al-Balushi and all other detainees who are peaceful protesters, and it must also work to immediately end the policy of silencing and restricting public freedoms, including the freedom to demonstrate peacefully and freedom of the press. The authorities in Oman must respect public freedoms, including freedom of expression and opinion, on and off the Internet. The security forces must fulfill their duties to protect citizens, not to oppress them, while they peacefully demand their civil and human rights.