The trial of Omani activist and journalist Mukhtar al-Hanai, for a Twitter post commenting on the outcome of a government corruption case, has been unexpectedly delayed from 8 May to the end of June.
The Public Prosecutor had forwarded a complaint to the Muscat Court of First Instance against al-Hanai because of a tweet he published on 9 March 2022. It was about a case of financial and administrative corruption in an Omani government ministry in which the Muscat Court found eight defendants guilty of embezzlement and falsification of documents. Al-Hanai also mentioned in his tweet that the Omani Ministry of Information had banned the press from saying or publishing anything on the subject. His case was due to be reviewed on 8 May, but the trial has now been postponed, without any explanation, until the end of June.
Under Article 249 of the Omani Penal Code, anyone who publishes news concerning an ongoing investigation, or a prosecution that is due to be tried in secret, without permission from the Public Prosecution or the competent court may be sent to prison for between one month and two years, and/or fined between 100 and 1,000 riyals (US$260-$2,600). However, there had been no warnings, prohibition or restrictions on publishing issued, by either party, either before or after the trial. Bear in mind, too, that Article 80 of the Basic Statute of the State (Oman’s constitution) allows the publication of court rulings once they are final, even where trials have been held in secret. It seems therefore that Mukhtar al-Hanai has not broken any law or done anything calling for interrogation or trial.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights has previously documented the Omani authorities’ efforts to make life difficult for journalists and hamper their work by summoning people for questioning and even sending them to prison or closing down newspapers, as happened in the case of Azamn. And in the latest “World Press Freedom Index” published annually on World Press Freedom Day (3 May) by the campaigning NGO Reporters Without Borders, Oman slipped 30 places in 2022 to 163rd out of 180 countries around the world, its lowest ever ranking.
Mukhtar al-Hanai is an Omani activist who helped to organise the protests that took place in Oman in 2011. He was also imprisoned and found guilty in the notorious “lèse-majesté” and “gathering” cases in 2012, and was subsequently summoned several times for questioning and harassment by the security services. On the most recent occasion, in 2019, he was called in for questioning and held for three days after publishing news of a corruption case for Atheer, the online newspaper he worked for. Atheer’s editor-in-chief Moosa Alfarei was detained for two days as well.
Meanwhile, the Oman Journalists’ Association is due to host the International Federation of Journalists’ 31st World Congress in Muscat from 31 May to 3 June 2022, with at least 300 journalists from around the world expected to attend. It is not known whether the postponement of al-Hanai’s trial has any connection to this event.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights urges the Omani authorities to respect freedom of opinion and expression. It calls for action to amend domestic laws to bring them into line with international laws and agreements, and to provide a safe environment for journalists to do their work. The Centre also calls for the trial of Mukhtar al-Hanai to be stopped and all charges against him to be dropped.