Oman detains activists over online posts criticizing projects that could destroy Dhofar Plain

Editor's note: This post was written and published by Gulf Centre for Human Rights, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the MENA region.

Omani activists detained and persecuted for voicing their objections to government plans to construct developments in the Dhofar Plain. Image published on GCHR.

Omani security authorities in Dhofar Governorate is cracking down on online activists who oppose the governor's development plans that will change the sultanate's southern region and wipe away parts of its landscape that have survived for centuries.

Poet Salem Ali Al-Maashani and Amer Muslim Bait Saeed were detained on Sunday February 28, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) have learned from reliable sources. The arrests are a result of the Internal Security Service's (ISS) campaign against activists seeking to preserve the traditional way of life in the Dhofar Plain that has existed for hundreds of years.

The Dhofar province is a tourist attraction for its exquisite scenery which includes vast expansions of fertile lands straddling valleys and mountains, as well as a lush coastal plain that hosts Salalah, the provincial capital. Camel herders roam these areas freely, undeterred by urban constructions.

The detained activists rejected the government's plans to transfer control over the Dhofar Plain to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, which will allow the construction of housing complexes in these green spaces.

Internet activist Bait Saeed, who manages a popular YouTube channel under the name “Amr Al-7kli” in which he publishes video clips of beaches and various places in the Dhofar Governorate to promote tourism, was briefly detained for Twitter posts he published.

On 13 February 2021, he posted on his Twitter account:

Weird paradoxes !!
Some citizens get to enjoy camel festivals being organized for them to support and encourage them, and at the same time, and on a different side, festivals are canceled for others who are forced to leave their pastures and are displaced from their homeland. Are all citizens equal in this country? #Transfer_Sahel_Dhofar

He was released on Monday, March 8, after Salalah's Court of First Instance acquitted him.

Reliable local sources stated that Bait Saeed and Al-Maashani were held by the Special Division of the Salalah Police Command, which summoned and arrested them as soon as they presented themselves. The Special Division, which represents the executive arm of the ISS, executes, on its behalf, arrest and detention orders for activists. These same sources confirmed that the Special Division also summoned a number of Twitter activists in the Dhofar Governorate who were forced to sign pledges not to tweet on the issue of transferring authority over the Dhofar Plain.

On his Twitter page, poet Al-Maashani wrote a thread of posts in February criticizing the governor and warning of the implications of transferring the authority over Dhofar Plain. The thread included:

#Transfering_Dhofar_Plain_Authority Dhofar as a whole is against this decision, which is imposed on them without consultation or consideration,
It has also previously stood against similar decisions, not to mention some orders that resulted in clashes between tribes, and with the state at times,
Today, we call on Sultan Haitham, in order to avoid such crises, to #dismiss_governo_of_Dhofar

On 25 February 2021, Al-Maashani published a tweet pointing out “the importance of drawing all components of the society and involving them in this issue to draw up a road map in line with the interest of the homeland and the citizen.” In another tweet posted on 23 February, he called on the authorities to respect freedom of opinion and expression, as stipulated in Articles 18, 29 and 31 of the Basic Law of the State.

In a similar case, environmentalist Dr. Ahmed Issa Qatan was detained on 23 February 2021, on charges of using social media in ways that could disrupt public order. Qatan, who was released on bail on Monday March 8, had also spoken out against the governor's Dhofar plans. According to the Public Prosecution’s office in the city of Salalah, Dhofar's provincial capital, Dr Qatan “used the Internet to publish what would harm the public order by inflaming public opinion, undermining the integrity of the minister and those working with him, accusing them of corruption and favoritism while infringing on their personalities … through the social networking application Twitter.” The pubic prosecutor's referral letter alleged that Qatan had committed “a misdemeanor to use the Internet to publish information that would harm the public order, according to the text of Article 19 of the Omani Cyber Crime Law”.

The Public Prosecution requested the court to confiscate the device used for the tweets in accordance with the provisions of Article 32/A, with the Twitter account used being permanently closed in accordance with the provisions of Article 32/B of the same law.

Article 19 of Oman's Cyber Crime Law states: “Punishment by imprisonment for a period no less than a month and not exceeding three years and a fine of not less than one thousand Omani Rials ($2601) and not exceeding three thousand Omani Rials ($7803), or one of those two penalties, for whomever uses the information network or information technology means in the production, publication, distribution, purchase or Possession of anything that would prejudice religious values ​​or public order.”

Both GCHR and OAHR condemned in the strongest terms the arrest campaign led by the ISS against all environmental defenders in the Dhofar Governorate. The human rights groups called on the ISS to immediately release the three activists, Dr. Ahmed Issa Qatan, poet Salem Ali Al-Maashani and Internet activist Amer Muslim Bait Saeed (Amr Al-Hkli), and put an immediate end to “the policy of silencing other opinions and systematically targeting human rights defenders, including Internet activists.”

The two human rights groups also said that Omani authorities are taking advantage of the current exceptional situation imposed by the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic to pass their plans to transfer authority of the Dhofar Plain at a time when citizens are preoccupied with matters of their health and self-preservation. “The authorities in Oman must respect public freedoms, including freedom of expression and opinion, on and off the Internet,” the human rights groups said.

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