October 11, 2011
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id
Sultan, Head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Prime Minister, and
Commander-in-Chief of the Omani Armed Forces
Office of the Sultan
The Royal Palace
PO Box 875
Sultanate of Oman
Via facsimile: +968 24 735 375
Your Majesty Sultan Qaboos:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to bring to your attention reports of an unfair trial of two Omani journalists and a civil servant sentenced to imprisonment on defamation charges. We ask you, in your capacity as head of the Supreme Judicial Council, to instruct the judicial authorities to respect the letter of the law and allow the defendants an opportunity to prove their innocence. This case will be appealed on October 15, and we hope the verdict against the newspaper and the three men will be reversed. We are also alarmed by the October 9 royal decree that amends an article in the Press and Publications Law, further tightening government control over the media, and urge you to consider the negative effect the amendment will have on independent media in Oman.
On September 21, an Omani court sentenced Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Ma’mari and editor Youssef al-Haj of independent newspaper Al-Zaman, and longtime civil servant Haroun al-Mukeebli, to five months’ imprisonment on charges of “defaming” and “insulting the dignity” of the minister of justice and his deputy. The court also ordered Al-Zaman to shut down for one month. The defamation charges stem from a May 14 article written by al-Haj in Al-Zaman alleging that the justice minister and his deputy refused to grant a salary and grade increase to al-Mukeebli. Al-Zaman has been allowed to operate until the appeals court rules on the case, and the defendants have been free on bail.
We are also concerned by highly credible reports that Attorney General Hussein al-Hilali ordered the judge to pass a ruling condemning the newspaper and its editors. One of the sources cited in these stories is the journalists’ lawyer, Ahmed al-Ajami, who also alleged that the justice minister called al-Hilali and told him to make clear to the judge what ruling should be made. Al-Ajami told Al-Zaman that the journalists had not been given a fair trial and said that the prosecutor did not submit a written or oral statement, which is inconsistent with Omani law and internationally recognized fair trial standards.
Oman’s Minister of Justice, a political appointee, also holds the post of deputy head of the Supreme Judicial Council, so it is vital to ensure that this trial be carried out in a transparent and fair manner. The credibility and independence of Oman’s judiciary depend on it.
The October 9 royal decree amending Article 26 of the Press and Publications Law prohibits publishing “anything which may prejudice the safety of the state or its security, all that is related to their bylaws and internal regulations, any information or news or official secret communications, whether the publication was through visual, audio, or print or through the Internet, unless permission is obtained from the respective authority. It is also banned to publish the wordings of agreements and treaties concluded by the government before they are published in the official gazette.” The failure here to unambiguously define “prejudicing the safety of the state” invites maximalist interpretations of the law and allows overzealous prosecutors to abuse it. In addition, the sweeping nature of the amendment and the ambiguity of its meaning create significant concerns about the fairness of future legal proceedings.
We urge your majesty, as the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, to condemn the botched trial of these journalists and ensure they are given an opportunity to prove their innocence. We also urge your majesty to consider the effect the amendment will have on independent media in Oman. Your actions could affirm Oman’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We look forward to your response.