Revoking Rights in Oman: The Price of Peaceful Protest – Melanie Gingell

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    Melanie Gingell – a British barrister, human rights activist and a member of the advisory board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

    December – 2017

    Omani refugees in the UK who have fled political persecution in their homeland are now finding themselves effectively stripped of their citizenship and rendered, in practical terms, stateless. As narrowly defined in law, a stateless person is one who is not considered to be a citizen by any state under the operation of its law[1], or in other words, a non-citizen everywhere. The Omani-style revocation of citizenship is a political weapon, and it functions as a means of punishing dissent, and as a warning to other peaceful opposition figures that they too could face such a punishment.[2]

    Statelessness is generally considered to result in a condition of deprivation and vulnerability, arising from the exclusion of stateless persons from the formal mechanisms and structures of the State. They are often left without a legal residence, consular protection, or the right to return to their country of origin. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirms that everyone has a right to a nationality, and further that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality. [3]

    There are millions in the Gulf Region who have had this right violated, although precise figures are hard to come by. The subjects of these violations of the right to a nationality are numerous, and include the political dissident in Bahrain and the UAE, the Bidoon in Kuwait, the child born in Oman to a foreign father, the non-ID Palestinian living in Jordan, and the Faili Kurd of Iraq.

     

    Most of these people have countries with which they strongly identify, countries that they have lived in for all of their lives, countries to which they have close emotional, societal, and psychological ties. The denial of citizenship is therefore one of the harshest punishments, and can condemn the stateless or de facto stateless person to either a life of external exile, or to one of internal limbo, as one who lacks the “right to have rights.”

     

    The arbitrary revocation of citizenship violates a fundamental right, but it is also an act which presents a fundamental challenge to the International Human Rights regime itself, because the state bears the primary responsibility for ensuring individual rights are observed, respected, and contested, where necessary, in domestic courts. For a stateless person, the intermediary body which in the first instance makes rights tangible and justiciable has been taken out of the picture. It is evident therefore that statelessness and its consequences are complex, and cannot be addressed in isolation from international development, political science, children’s rights, the economics of forced migration, and other related disciplines, as well as that of human rights law.

    In the Omani case, many of those who engaged in the organisation of pro-democracy protests in 2011 onwards were subjected, in the first place, to a series of periods of detention and surveillance, but later also to the de facto stripping of their citizenship. They became people with no legal personhood recognised by the state: they had no right to travel, they could not work, they were not eligible for benefits, and their reputations were destroyed through the publishing of their pictures in state media, along with well-coordinated defamatory remarks. These sorts of systematic social, cultural, and political deprivations have resulted in a form of social death. They are not allowed to make a life for themselves within the state, but neither are they allowed to leave it.

    Several of those affected by this political persecution have now, by various means, been able to flee and seek asylum in the UK. Many have been forced to leave as a result of the repercussions of exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, which are severely restricted in Oman.[4] The law provides for limited freedom of speech and of the press, but authorities do not always respect these rights. All public gatherings require official approval in advance and the authorities arrest and prosecute participants in unapproved gatherings. Some private gatherings are also prohibited under article 137 of the penal code, which prescribes a punishment of up to three years in prison and a fine for anyone who “participates in a private gathering including at least 10 individuals with a view to commit a riot or a breach of public order.”

     

    A 2014 report from the UN special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly expresses concern in relation to government attempts to limit assembly and association rights, and states that individuals seeking reform are “afraid to speak their minds, afraid to speak on the telephone, afraid to meet.”[5] In 2016 the authorities closed the independent newspaper Al-Zaman, detaining its managing editor alongside two journalists who had published an article detailing corruption in the Supreme Court.[6]

     

    Since 2011 increasing numbers of writers and activists have been forced to flee the country due to an oppressive pattern of arbitrary detentions, mistreatment in detention, intense programmes of surveillance, and systematic social exclusion. One activist recalls how – only after his refugee status in the UK had been accepted – he discovered that his Omani citizenship rights had been revoked as a consequence of a routine enquiry to the authorities in relation to a family member. Others, such as Hilal Albusaidi, are currently subject to a travel ban. Mohammed Al Fazari, now a refugee, was also subject to a travel ban, but manged to use his brother’s documents in order to leave.

     

    This development is deeply concerning, and marks a retrograde step in Oman’s record on Human Rights. It follows the practice of other Gulf states, and Bahrain in particular, where the revocation of citizenship is routinely used as a punishment and as a means of silencing dissent. It was first used in Bahrain in November 2012, when the Minister of the Interior revoked the nationality of 31 opposition activists, ex-MPs, and members of civil society, many of whom were rendered stateless, and ten of whom were subject to deportation orders. By February 2016, 260 persons had been stripped of their citizenship, and the majority of them were rendered stateless. They cannot now be legally employed or registered in hospitals. They cannot renew their banking information, and they may be at risk of losing government-provided housing. [7]

     

    An early example of such de-legitimisation of dissent occurred in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2011. Seven Emirati activists had their nationality withdrawn after being accused of threatening the security of the state through their activities – a crime which entails denationalization under UAE citizenship law. As the UAE prohibits dual nationality, this has left them all stateless.[8] By 2016, some 200 Emiratis had lost their citizenship, whereas in Kuwait the ruling family deprived 120 people of their nationality between 2014 and 2016, according to Kuwait Watch. The victims include academics, lawyers, economists and even former MPs.

     

    In Oman there is also a problem with statelessness as a result of discrimination against women in nationality laws. In common with other states in the Gulf region, patriarchal assumptions, embedded in society and consequently in the legal system, have served to deprive women, in many cases, of the right to confer citizenship to their children independently. Article 18 of the Omani Nationality Law[9] allows an Omani woman to transmit nationality to her children from a marriage to a foreign man only upon becoming widowed, divorced, or when her husband has been absent or has abandoned them for at least ten consecutive years. Furthermore, their marriage must have obtained approval from the ministry before it took place, and she must have custody of the child.  Omani men, on the contrary, can transmit Omani nationality to their children automatically, regardless of whether they are married to an Omani or non-Omani woman. Children born to an Omani mother and a foreign father may find themselves stateless and forced to leave their country of birth when they reach the age of 18.[10]

     

    It is important to identify these very real problems in Oman, which are so often hidden under the common perception that Oman is a happy desert kingdom, where all is peace and light. John Besant, in his book Oman: The True-life Drama and Intrigue of an Arab State describes Oman as the most charming police state in the world, and the abuses outlined above go some way to justify this description.

     

    The example of the revocation of citizenship in Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait shows how citizenship rights are being weaponised across the Gulf, and used as a means of silencing peaceful critical voices, removing them from the reform discourse. It is deeply concerning that Oman appears to be following suit.

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    [1] United Nations Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons 1954

    [2] Under Article 20 of the Omani Citizenship law citizenship maybe withdrawn if it is proven that a person is a member of a party or organisation that “embraces principles or ideologies that harm Oman’s interests” or “works in favour of a hostile country that acts against the interests of Oman.”

    [3]  United Nations, 1948, The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/, Article 15.

    [4] https://ochroman.org/eng/2016-2/

    [5] https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/083/10/PDF/G1508310.pdf?OpenElement

    [6] *** Please add Monitor refernce

    [7] http://birdbh.org/category/citizenship-revocation/

    [8]https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=418083072021031010123016006029087069023068051019054037097073092071120091089001025007062038051121060056046124030101006117074098028023001062001068078092126109017081084077039079104119119119030003104114081100068120080112080113000121097069099093089079073002&EXT=pdf

    [9] Promulgated by Royal Decree No. 38/2014

    [10] http://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1235