Oman sentences three journalists to prison

New York, September 26, 2016 – An Omani court today sentenced three journalists from the independent newspaper Azamn to prison and ordered the newspaper closed after it published allegations of judicial corruption, according to human rights groups and news reports.

The Muscat Court of First Instance sentenced Azamn Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Maamari and Deputy Editor Yousif al-Haj to three-years in prison, a fine of 3,000 rials (approximately US$ 7,800), and a one-year ban from practicing journalism each on charges of undermining the prestige of the state, misusing the internet, disturbing public order, and publishing documents regarding an ongoing court case, according to the human rights organization the Monitor of Human Rights in Oman (MHRO) and Reuters. Al-Haj was also charged with violating a judge’s order banning publishing information about the Azamn case and defaming Oman’s chief magistrate, Ishaq Bin Ahmed Al Bousaidi.

The court also sentenced Azamn editor Zaher al-Abri to one year in prison and a 1,000 rial (approximately US$ 2,600) fine on the charge of misusing the internet to disturb public order. All three sentences are subject to appeal.

“When a judge can sentence journalists to prison for ‘misusing the internet to disturb public order’ for alleging judicial corruption, it’s clear Oman’s laws need reform,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Research Associate Jason Stern. “We call on the government of Oman to drop criminal proceedings against Azamn‘s journalists, and to allow the paper to continue publishing.”

The court set bail for 50,000 rial (US$ 130,000) for al-Maamari and al-Haj and 5,000 rial (US$ 13,000) for al-Abri, MHRO and Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear whether the journalists had posted bail, or remained imprisoned.

Police arrested the journalists over a period of two weeks in late July and early August after the newspaper published a July 26 article headlined, “Supreme bodies tie the hands of justice,” which accused unnamed officials of influencing Supreme Court Chief Magistrate Al Bousaidi to intervene in judicial proceedings about an inheritance dispute. Al Bousaidi has not issued a public response to the claims.

The newspaper protested a court-imposed order banning the publishing of any news of al-Maamari’s July 28 arrest by publishing a blank space on its front page for several days. Al-Abri was then arrested on August 3. On August 7 and August 9–the day of al-Haj’s arrest–the paper published interviews with the deputy chief magistrate of the Supreme Court, Ali Salem al-Nuamani. Al-Nuamani backed the paper’s allegations of corruption within the judiciary, accusing the chief magistrate and other high-level officials of violating Omani law.

Since al-Maamari’s arrest, CPJ has repeatedly requested comment via phone and email from the Omani judiciary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the Omani Embassy in Washington, and the Ministry of Information. At the time of publication, no one had responded to CPJ’s requests for comment.

On August 24, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders sent a joint letter to Sultan Qaboos bin Said, urging him to intercede to end the prosecution of the Azamn journalists in order to preserve Oman’s reputation as a problem-solver in the region. The Sultan’s office did not respond.