Oman’s Internal Security Service Law
In March 2020 the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, published the Internal Security Service Law by means of Royal Decree No. 4/2020, and authorised the head of the Internal Security Service (ISS) to issue any regulations and bye-laws needed to implement the new Law.
For decades the ISS – Oman’s intelligence service – has been involved in blatant violations of human rights, including enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions, arbitrary arrests and other such abuses. Yet it stands beyond all oversight and accountability, reporting directly to the Sultan. There is no scrutiny or audit of its work or of the actions of its members.
Based on our legal team’s detailed analysis of the ISS Law, the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) would like to raise the following concerns:
Article 5 treats all information about the ISS – its organisation, employees, activities, documentation, bank accounts etc. – as national security secrets. This means that anyone who criticises the ISS’s role in any way may potentially find themselves subject to arbitrary arrest. Article 5 also shields the ISS from any oversight or accountability to the relevant authorities.
Article 6 provides for members of the ISS to exercise police powers of search and arrest.
Article 7 uses terms like ‘state security and crimes of terrorism’, ‘public funds’ and ‘the principles and values of the Sultanate’ without adequately or clearly enough defining them. Internal security forces have been arresting activists and journalists on the basis of exactly this kind of vague terminology since 2011.
Article 8 allows the ISS to spy on individuals’ devices and access their private data. Such surveillance, without any mechanism for oversight and accountability, is a double-edged sword likely to have a damaging impact on individual and public liberties.
Article 9: The security forces’ powers to grant or withhold security clearance has come to be used as a way to enforce compliance and stop people from doing anything, or expressing any opinion, that might be interpreted as anti-government. The need for security clearance frequently holds up job appointments!
Linked to Article 8, and as well as allowing surveillance of individuals’ private data, Article 10 also requires people to hand over information on demand, indemnifies informers, and enables the ISS and its officers to blackmail members of the public with the threat of legal consequences against them if necessary.
The ISS Law is a step backwards in terms of freedom of conscience and expression, contrary to the impression the government is eager to convey, namely that Oman is a state of institutions – which it cannot be without the key ingredients of oversight and accountability! Yet Article 26 explicitly states: “The ISS itself shall be responsible for overseeing and auditing its accounts and administrative and financial affairs, and shall not be subject in this regard to any oversight of any kind from any other agency.”
In June 2020 Haitham bin Tariq issued a further decree, No. 64/2020, announcing the creation of the “Cyber Defence Centre” under the management of the ISS. This confirmed everyone’s worst fears about surveillance over people’s private lives, because the ISS is authorised to import advanced equipment and software to block websites or censor the internet remotely.
Some of Oman’s laws, such as the Anti-Cybercrime Law, the Penal Code and the Press and Publications Law, already contain provisions that fit with this same security approach, by using similarly vague terms like ‘values’, ‘principles’ and ‘public security’.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights urges the Omani government to respect public and individual liberties and rights, and to make a reality of the ‘state of institutions’ by providing specific mechanisms for overseeing the state’s institutions and administrative bodies, particularly the security services.
Do you think increased monitoring in Oman will lead to a decline in public and personal freedoms?