OMAN: Case against “Azamn” journalists must be overturned on appeal

Press release

10-November-2016 - OMAN: Case against “Azamn” journalists must be overturned on appeal, says coalition of rights groups, as verdict expected on 17 November

On 7 November 2016, the Omani Appeal Court in Muscat heard the case against three journalists of “Azamn” newspaper, Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Yousef Al-Haj, and Zaher Al-Abri, and judgement will be handed down on 17 November 2016. A coalition of rights groups which monitored the trial called for the sentences to be overturned and the charges to be dropped.

The coalition is composed of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

The coalition’s lawyer who observed the appeal hearing, presided over by Judge Mukhtar Al-Harthi, on 7 November, said: “The defence team faced significant procedural obstacles in the Appeal Court re-trial today, ranging from a refusal by Judges to call relevant witnesses of fact, denial of disclosure and a basic failure to place the criminal burden of proof on the Prosecution. This has led to a trial of all three defendants, on a cumulative 14 charges, being completed in just two morning sessions.”

He noted that the substantive laws under which journalists Al-Maamari and Al-Haj are being prosecuted, including charges of “disturbing public order,” “undermining the prestige of the state” and criminal defamation, are ill-defined, arbitrarily enforced and constitute a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression. They were effectively denied a “public interest” defence.

It is of particular concern that Al-Maamari and Al-Haj were held in solitary confinement in a police intelligence facility for 60 days over the summer with access to their lawyer only after the first trial had begun. Al-Abri, charged under Article 19 of Oman’s Cyber-Crime law, faces a year in jail for two tweets commenting on his colleagues’ detention. Al-Abri was held for 20 days.

“Azamn”, once Oman’s leading independent newspaper, remains closed by Order of the Ministry of Information. The arrests of the journalists and the closure of the newspaper came after a report, published on 26 July 2016, entitled "Supreme bodies tie the hands of justice," which referred to the corruption of senior officials and their interference in judicial decisions.
If the decision of the lower Court is upheld by the Appeal Court on 17 November, Al-Maamari and Al-Haj face three years in jail for publishing articles alleging corruption in the senior judiciary.

On 26 September 2016, the Court of First Instance sentenced Al-Maamari and Al-Haj to three years in prison and Al-Abri to one year, in addition to ordering the permanent closure of the Azamn newspaper on charges related to the publication of a story about judicial corruption [1].
On 10 October 2016, during the first appeal hearing in the “Azamn” case, Judge Al-Harthi reduced the bail for Al-Maamari and Al-Haj from 50,000 OMR (approx. USD$130,000) to 2,000 OMR (approx. USD$5200). The two journalists were then freed. Al-Abri had already been conditionally freed on 22 August [2].

During the first hearing, the court banned the publication and circulation of the details of the hearing in all forms of media.

The Coalition reiterates its call for the authorities in Oman to:

1. Revoke the sentences issued against journalists Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Yousef Al-Haj and Zaher Al-Abri;
2. Revoke the closure order of "Azamn" newspaper by the Ministry of Information; and
3. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders including journalists, writers and online activists in Oman are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

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