For freedom of religion and belief: Repeal Article 269!
Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out the meaning of freedom of religion and belief, and explain the importance of protecting these rights. The preservation and protection of these freedoms are designed to combat discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief and to provide a safe environment for the whole spectrum of society, regardless of their religious or intellectual inclinations.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In Oman, the problem is not just the refusal of a large segment of population to accept any divergence from the prevailing way of thinking, such as atheism or even minority sects, but also the way influential religious figures agitate against intellectual and religious freedom, and the absence of laws protecting freedom of religion and belief.
In fact the law itself violates these freedoms. For example, Article 269 of the revised Omani Penal Code states:
The punishment shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than ten years for anyone who commits one of the following acts:
(a) blaspheming against or insulting the Divinity verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means;
(b) insulting, perverting or desecrating the Holy Quran;
(c) insulting the Islamic religion or any of its rites, or reviling any of the divine religions;
(d) blaspheming against or insulting any of the prophets verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means.
Article 277 of the new Penal Code also states:
The punishment for anyone who openly consumes food or drink or other substances subject to fasting in a public place during daytime in Ramadan shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than ten days and not more than three months.
The Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalili, who is one of the most influential figures in Omani society as well as being a government employee, has launched sharp attacks on secularists, rationalists and atheists in lectures and interviews, seeking to whip up opinion against them, calling their activities “a sickness and hidden disease”, and saying they “want to spread delusion”. He also recently led an online campaign and seminar entitled “Atheism and the fact of the oneness of God”, in which he expressed hostility, and encouraged hate speech, towards groups such as “the atheist communists” and “hateful Crusades” of the past.
In June this year four people were arrested and put on trial over issues of religious freedom and freedom of thought generally. Maryam al-Nuaimi was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the divine religions”. Disturbingly, the evidence used by the authorities to condemn her was a WhatsApp message she had sent several years previously, in a blatant violation of her rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion and thought. In the same case, the court found Ali bin Marhoun al-Ghafri guilty of “the felony of blasphemy and sacrilege”, and handed him a five-year prison sentence as punishment. Two other defendants, Ghaith al-Shibli and Abdullah Hassan, were prosecuted for “the felonies of blasphemy and sacrilege… and misuse of the internet and information technology for incitement and enticement to commit immorality”.
When the court’s verdicts were published, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalili expressed his backing for the sentences passed on the four defendants, even though they had not yet gone to appeal in the Supreme Court and were therefore not final. He railed against atheists, and described anyone supporting religious freedoms as misguided enemies of God and humanity. In a post on his official Twitter account he said:
We thank the judicial institution in our country for the rulings it has issued against the blasphemers, and we ask God Almighty to grant it success always to protect the pure religion and victory for God Almighty. For what remains for mankind if they blaspheme against God, who created and made them and bestowed his blessings on them outwardly and inwardly? We hope such heretics will be prosecuted and tried as required by God’s Sharia, out of zeal for the truth and to uphold religion. As for those misguided people who condemn their punishment and see man’s freedom as giving him free rein, even to blaspheme – along with being enemies of God, they are also enemies of humanity and preachers of anarchy and haplessness, so to Hell with them, to Hell with them.
Article 248 of the Omani Penal Code, incidentally, mandates a prison sentence and a fine as punishment for anyone who criticises the judiciary or casts doubt on its impartiality.
In a report on the Omani Penal Code after its revision in 2018, the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) referred to the fact that Article 269 (a) is always used to clamp down on or censor any activity that the authorities may characterise as atheistic, and that this usually ends with imprisonment, as in the case of the late Hassan al-Basham, and as happened again recently in the #Ghaith_spaces case.
Al-Basham was arrested in 2015, and in 2016 the Court of First Instance in Sohar sentenced him to three years in prison, finding him guilty on charges that included “using the internet in a manner prejudicial to religious values” and “insulting the Sultan”. The Court of Appeal at first upheld the sentence, but in 2017 the Supreme Court overturned its decision and ordered the case to be sent back to the Court of Appeal, taking account of the fact that despite al-Basham’s deteriorating health his defence team’s request for him to have a medical examination had been ignored during the trial. The Court of Appeal nevertheless, on 19 November 2017, once again upheld the initial sentence. The Court of Appeal reportedly did not allow the defence team to present its evidence and medical reports.
Cases of this kind are deeply regrettable, and the way the government uses its power to violate individuals’ personal privacy and persecute those with whom it disagrees is extremely concerning. People must no longer be persecuted and put on trial because of their religious or intellectual beliefs. The OCHR therefore calls for the charges against Maryam al-Nuaimi and Ali al-Ghafri to be quashed, and for Article 269 to be repealed in order to preserve individual rights and freedoms.