Freedom of assembly and peaceful protest  

A resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 (A/HRC/RES/24/5) says that “in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and as similarly prescribed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR], no restriction may be placed on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association other than those that are prescribed by law and that are necessary in a democratic society”.

In July 2020, a UN committee of experts published comprehensive legal guidance regarding the right of peaceful assembly and governments’ obligations to uphold it. Committee member Christof Heyns, speaking on behalf of the 18 experts, said:

“It is a fundamental human right for individuals to join a peaceful assembly to express themselves, to celebrate, or to air grievances… Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly, which may take many forms.”

The UN committee was commenting on Article 21 of the ICCPR, which states:

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

However, The Omani government, despite having signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, criminalises any “peaceful assembly” of 10 individuals or more. Since 2011, the Omani Penal Code has been amended to eliminate any peaceful gatherings, with the aim of suppressing any oppositional or even protest activities.

Following the wave of protests that broke out in several Omani cities in February 2011, and before that the teachers’ strike towards the end of 2010, the government decided to take precautionary measures against any peaceful protest activity.

It first of all put a stop to all the peaceful gatherings in Sohar, Salalah, Muscat and Sur by giving the military a green light to intervene and end them all by force. There were unconfirmed reports that the orders to do so came from the late Sultan Qaboos himself.

Then in October 2011 the Omani Penal Code was amended to stop any peaceful gatherings, with the aim of stamping out all peaceful opposition activity or protests. Sultan Qaboos issued Decree No. 96/2011 to amend several articles of the Penal Code, including Article 137, which laid down a penalty for taking part in any peaceful gathering of 10 or more persons of between one month and a year in prison and a fine of up to 200 Omani riyals (US$520).

The Penal Code was further updated in 2018. The old Article 137 was replaced by the new Article 121, which raised the fine for peaceful assembly to 500 riyals (US$1,300).

The only popular gatherings the authorities in Oman allow are demonstrations of loyalty and support for the government or the Sultan, or celebrations of sporting events like a victory for the national football team! Moreover, the May 2021 protests witnessed in several Omani cities such as Sohar, Salalah, Nizwa, Sur, Ibri, and others were met with violence by the authorities, resulting in the arrest of numerous participants.

In August 2022, Omani authorities arrested businessman Hani Al-Sarhani and others for organising a peaceful sit-in attended by no more than 3 individuals, a number below that stipulated by Article 121 of the Omani Penal Code. Despite this, all were subjected to arrest, demonstrating the authorities’ crackdown on any form of peaceful activism or dissent perceived as against the regime or government.

Despite Oman’s accession to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 2020, there has been a lack of initiative from Omani authorities to enhance the status of freedom of opinion and expression, specifically regarding peaceful assembly or demonstration. Individuals in Oman continue to be at risk of arrest if they engage in any form of peaceful gathering, or if they are called in for questioning after advocating for a protest or peaceful assembly. This is due to provisions in the Omani Penal Code that criminalize even the promotion of peaceful demonstrations.

Therefore, the OCHRD urges authorities and legislators in Oman to uphold all facets of freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration, and to strive towards revising domestic legislation and abolishing any laws that contravene international human rights standards.

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