#Ghaith_spaces: A test case for freedom of belief in Oman
An Omani court has jailed two social media activists for discussing atheism online. On 7 June 2022, the court passed sentence in what has become known as “the #Ghaith_spaces case”, in which a group of young Omani social media activists were arrested between 24 July and 2 August 2021 for taking part in online discussions on freedom of thought and religion, including atheism. Ghaith al-Shibli, Ali al-Ghafri, Maryam al-Nuaimi and Abdullah Hassan were charged with offences including blasphemy and misuse of information technology. All four were released on bail in October 2021 while their trial continued.
On 7 June 2022 the court acquitted Ghaith al-Shibli for lack of responsibility; sentenced Maryam al-Nuaimi to three years in prison and Ali al-Ghafri to five years; and referred Abdullah Hassan’s case to the Specialised Court. The evidence on which the court based these verdicts and sentences falls within the scope of the defendants’ private information, such as online conversations, thus constituting a breach of privacy and personal space.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) saw this case as a real opportunity to test the seriousness of the Oman government’s constant claims to be intellectually open-minded and tolerant of different ways of thinking, when the law in Oman provides direct evidence to the contrary. Article 269 of the Penal Code lays down a punishment of between three and 10 years in prison for anyone whose actions the authorities might characterise as hostile to Islam or denigrating of Islamic values. In a report on the Omani Penal Code after it was revised in 2018, the OCHR showed that Article 269 (a) is consistently used to clamp down on or censor any activity that the authorities happen to characterise as atheistic, and that this usually ends with imprisonment, as in the case of the late Hassan al-Basham.
All of those arrested in this case were active on the internet, and specifically Twitter Spaces, where they regularly held free conversations addressing the subject of atheism and criticising customs and laws that restrict such activity. This was not the first case in which the authorities have arrested and tried activists for posting tweets or opinions on social media. They had already blocked the audio chat app Clubhouse in Oman and arrested, or summoned for questioning, several people because of tweets or opinions expressed in Twitter Spaces, as in the case of Mukhtar al-Hanai.
The OCHR urges the Omani authorities to drop all charges against the detainees Ghaith al-Shibli, Ali al-Ghafri and Maryam al-Nuaimi and immediately halt the trial of Abdullah Hassan; to protect the right to freedom of thought and expression; and to repeal Article 269 of the Omani Penal Code and any other legal text that violates public and individual rights and freedoms.