CIVICUS interviews Habiba Al Hinai a human rights defender from Oman who had to leave the country for her own safety. She also elaborates the situation for human rights defenders in the country. She is currently living in Germany with her son after she felt that had become difficult for her to live in her home country due to her human rights activities.
1. What are the restrictions you and other human rights defenders in Oman have faced after being active in the uprising in 2011?
In 2011, and like in many suppressed Arab countries, Oman witnessed wide spread human rights demonstrations that triggered an extremely violent government reaction attempting to suppress such unusual public actions. Demands of Omani demonstrators were not something new to the authorities, especially with rampant corruption, unemployment, poverty, limited education, suppression of press freedom and freedom of expression, ignoring women and children's rights, conducting of false elections and enforced restrictions and monitoring of civic society associations. The protests resulted in the death of two innocent civilians, in addition to tens wounded by rubber bullets and hundreds detained from different parts of the country.
As expected, the government responded with an iron fist to human rights movements such as teachers, doctors and workers strikes by imprisoning demonstration organisers along with many human rights defenders, activists, writers, bloggers and the educated elite. As a result of this oppression, many activists had to run away to other countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia and ask for political asylum, as it has been made impossible for them, facing all kinds of threats of detention and imprisonment, to conduct human rights activities within Oman.
In 2012, I was arrested along with two of my colleagues during our coverage of a strike by more than 4 000 workers in the desert oilfield. In 2016. I had to pay a fine as I was convicted of two charges for “insulting the Omani people” and “disturbing the general order set by the government”. These charges arose over a post I wrote on my Facebook page. Because of this statement, I had to sign a statement written by the top security service stating that I will not continue with my human rights activities or otherwise I would be sent to prison. Our organisation’s website, Facebook account and Twitter account were hacked and I was kicked out of the Facebook group so that I cannot edit it anymore. The account is still running and all that’s being said on the site is that we are very happy and have no human rights complaints anymore. For this reason, it would not be safe to start another website, Facebook or Twitter account without having high levels of digital security as it can be hacked again.
A lot of human rights activists in Oman have been sent to courts and faced long and costly trials over fake accusations. Many have served prison sentences of one to three years in prison for “defaming the Sultan” following Facebook and Twitter posts that criticised Sultan Qabos bin Sa’eed Al Sa’eed. This is part of a punishment method for activists who refuse to stop their work. The security services are using different kinds of tools as punishment, including judicial, religious or social pressure. Sadly many activists end up in prison, unable to work or are banned from travelling. Luckily, I was able to leave Oman before I could have been banned from travelling. The political situation in Oman is dire now since the Sultan is of advanced age and is quite sick, which has led to all the different political factions fighting over who will take over power. Unfortunately, the government is using this time to punish activists through prison sentences and other restrictions.
2. What is the situation in general for civil society in Oman?
The situation is that all independent civil society organisations (CSOs) are banned from carrying out their activities and CSO workers have been threatened to not even work online or even form WhatsApp groups. Making calls on Skype, Signal, Messenger and WhatsApp is also banned. All independent magazines and newspaper have been closed down and reports indicate that three journalists from the Al Zaman newspaper have been sentenced to three years in prison for publishing articles critical of the state. Six activists have fled to the United Kingdom where they have been granted asylum, which is a new phenomenon for us. Many of those human rights defenders who are not in prison right now in Oman are waiting for their cases to be finalised by the courts.
The result of this is fear of doing any human rights work. We don’t know who will rule Oman after the Sultan and many people in Oman are in general very afraid because they don’t know what will happen in the future. Additionally there is a lot of corruption and the unemployment rate is very high. 70% of the population are youth under the age of 30, meaning youth unemployment is very high. Omanis feel that the Sultan cannot solve these problems because of his age and illness and are unsure as to who will rule the country in the future.
The crackdown on civil society has resulted in very little reporting on the human rights situation in Oman and most human rights defenders have completely stopped making posts online. The state security has managed to control and push the society back and to make civil society afraid. This has resulted in nobody recording the human rights violations publicly from inside Oman and only space left is for Omani human rights defenders who are abroad to publicly report about the situation.
3. What specific restrictions have you faced as a woman human rights defender?
In general, the environment for women human rights defenders in Oman is very unhealthy. The government uses its political power and pressures religious entities and our families to pressure us with the aim of breaking us down. Methods used to shame women human rights defenders include defamation and spreading bad news about women activists. This has resulted in many women human rights defenders being silenced.
Almost all the women human rights defenders in Oman stopped their activism because they couldn’t take the pressure. The government has contacted over and over the families of women activists to pressure them to stop their female family member from activism. This and the other restrictions became too much for most women human rights defenders to handle. I worked on women’s rights, children’s rights and other human rights issues in Oman and I was punished for it. Besides the detention and paying a fine, I also underwent interrogations by the security forces and was told by the government that I didn’t have a permit to do any work on women and children’s rights.
In my situation, the government sent my own family members to break me down. The government used them and some of our personal differences to come and detain me when I attended a protest in 2011. This creates terrible cracks in the family and I suffered a lot. Now some of my family members chose to abandon me or don’t talk to me. If they even support me financially, they will face a backlash from the government. The restrictions I faced are still causing me great problems. After I was imprisoned in the middle of the dessert in temperatures that could sometimes reach 50 degrees with my hands ties and with no air conditioning, I have a phobia of indoor spaces and this is still very stressful for me today. Currently I am seeing a psychiatrist in Germany for a treatment.
4. What support is needed from international civil society and international actors?
The international community must be aware of the human rights situation in Oman. Many people and governments around the world don’t think there is an issue with human rights in Oman including the European Union. This has a lot to do with us not being able to report on the situation from Oman. The government in Oman managed to scare us quickly before the international community knew what was happening.
It is important to pressure the embassies of Oman around the world. Just recently, I saw that the Omani embassy in London had invited a big INGO for an event at the embassy. This is a sign of how good the Omani government is at networking and putting on a certain face to the outside world including human rights organisations worldwide. It is important that international human rights organisations do not accept invitations to events by the Omani embassies. If they do attend, they must pressure the government officials while at the events.
The United States of America had previously started a Female Genital Mutilation campaign in Oman but when the US-Iran deal came into place with Oman being a key actor in the deal the US started being friendlier to the Omani government. In the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Oman in March 2015, the United States was very gentle concerning the human rights situation in Oman. But the international community can do a lot through diplomacy. When UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to association and assembly, Maina Kiai, came to Oman, he met with activists. Luckily, international organisations supported Maina Kiai’s critical reports but this report must be collected and used as part of diplomacy at an international level. Unfortunately, the Omani government does very good diplomacy so governments need to be persistent.