The Enforced Disappearance – Oman
In April 2020 Oman agreed to join the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which defines “enforced disappearance” as
the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
According to the United Nations, enforced disappearance has evolved into a global issue of general concern, transcending specific regions or countries. Moreover, one of its manifestations involves its utilization as a means to exert political pressure on adversaries.
Unfortunately, in Oman, human rights activists frequently encounter persistent harassment from the internal security apparatus (intelligence agency). This harassment takes various forms, including enforced disappearance, wherein the victim is contacted for questioning and subsequently held in an undisclosed location. During this period, the victim is denied access to their legal representative or family members.
The three elements of enforced disappearance that pose a threat to victims are as follows:
- Deprivation of liberty against the will of the person;
- Involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence;
- Refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.
Oman, however, made two reservations regarding the Convention. Firstly, the Government of the Sultanate of Oman does not recognize the competence of the Committee in cases of enforced disappearances provided in Article 33 of the aforementioned Convention. Furthermore, the Government of the Sultanate of Oman does not consider itself bound by the provisions of Article 42, paragraph 1 of the aforementioned Convention, (regarding the Resolution of disputes concerning the Convention’s application).
In the OCHR’s view, Oman’s ratification of the Convention is an essential step towards ending a long history of enforced disappearances by the authorities against domestic opponents and activists.
But will the government actually abide by the Convention’s provisions?
Article 17, paragraph 1 states: “No one shall be held in secret detention.”
Since the days of the previous sultan, Qaboos bin Said, and now under the current sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, the security services have summoned or arrested individuals for questioning and detained them or placed them in isolation cells at unknown locations.
Those called in for questioning are usually summoned to the Internal Security Service (ISS) headquarters in Qurum, in Muscat Governorate, or to other ISS departments in regions outside the capital. Then a black sack is placed over the detainee’s head and upper body and he is taken away to an unknown location.
Article 17, paragraph 2, clause (d) is routinely violated, as detainees are not permitted access to a lawyer or legal representative or to receive visitors. The authorities only allow a detainee to contact his family – very occasionally – in order to force him to tell them he will be away for some time, and they needn’t worry!
When detainees are eventually brought to court or released, they are not allowed to sue or call for accountability for those who deprived them of their liberty and ability to exercise their rights during detention, contrary to Article 18 of the Convention.
The investigators who interrogate the detainees do not reveal their true identities or ranks. The officers who transfer the detainees from their detention room or cell to the interrogation rooms and so on generally wear face coverings, so the detainees cannot identify them.
Cases of enforced disappearance are on the increase, but families often prefer not to talk about it, either in the hope of establishing some channel of communication with the security forces in order to secure their son or daughter’s release, or else for fear of further antagonising the security forces.
The current sultan issued a decree in March 2020 updating the Internal Security Service, the very agency that has already been involved in most, if not all, previous and current cases of enforced disappearance.
Despite Oman’s adherence to the convention, it continues to engage in enforced disappearance against activists. For instance, activist Majid Al-Rahili was abducted in December 2022 from a public location and was subjected to enforced disappearance for several weeks. Similarly, businessman Hani Al-Sarhani received a summons to appear before the Internal Security Services for questioning on August 9, 2023, after which he was held in an undisclosed location.
Do you think that now Oman has signed up to the International Convention it will allow victims of enforced disappearance to bring those responsible to court and hold them to account?