Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Where Is Ryami?

An Omani playwright and human rights activist has not been seen since he presented himself last week to the police for interrogation. Abdullah Ryami's family says they have not heard from him and have been unable to get any information on his whereabouts from the police since July 12. The police have also denied the family the opportunity to hire a lawyer for him. An Omani official told AFP that Ryami was called in “in to explain certain issues which he considers important in the field of human rights." The same official stated, "Ryami comes up with statements and commits acts that are in breach of law and regulations. Such statements are also incorrect and contradict the position of Omani citizens.”

The forty year old poet first emerged as a human rights activist after he became active in the defense of 31 Islamists who were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. Those men were later pardoned by Oman's Sultan Qaboos.

The demand for Ryami to report to the authorities came just before a court verdict was due on former parliamentarian and journalist, Tayba Ma'wali, who was charged by the government with insulting public officials via telephone and Internet. AKI reports that Ma'wali was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on July 13 for charges which include violating article 61 of Oman's press law, which stipulates that any person "who sends a message via a means of communication that is contrary to the governing system and public morals or that is knowingly untrue...shall be punished by a prison sentence of not more than one year and a fine of not more than 1,000 (Omani) Riyals." Omani had helped to publicize the case.

Human Rights Watch said today that the incommunicado detention of Ryami exposes Oman’s weak legal protections and due process provisions. The Omani penal code allows broadly and vaguely defined charges against national security to be prosecuted before the State Security Court, where defendants enjoy fewer due process rights, such as sufficient time to review the evidence against them, and whose proceedings are frequently closed to the public.

"The Omani authorities should immediately inform `Abdullah Ryami's family of his whereabouts," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They must release him or charge him with a crime, and must respect his rights to an attorney and for his family members to visit him."

“Taybah Ma`wali and `Abdullah Ryami are on the frontlines of defending the freedom of assembly and expression as well as the right to a fair trial in Oman,” said Whitson. “It is a bitter irony that the Omani authorities should seek to silence them by using the same outmoded laws, unlawful detentions and closed trials that Ma`wali and Ryami have tried to expose.”

Omani government officials already had informally barred Ryami and Mohamed Harthi, a columnist and poet, from writing for newspapers or producing plays for television following their critique of the Omani democratic reform process during an interview in July 2004 with the Iranian TV station, al-`Alam. In the interview, they criticized Oman’s outmoded press law, among other things.

The International Press Institute has written that while Oman may have some reformist tendencies it is reluctant to create an open and free media environment. "The government maintains a firm grip on the state media and journalists are often uncomfortable with expressing views that may be contrary to those holding the reins of power. Journalists and writers who do express themselves freely on everyday matters of political and social life have found themselves ostracized and blacklisted. Such actions are often carried out by word of mouth allowing the government to claim that it is not interfering with the media.” Sources: International Press Association, Human Rights Watch, AKI, AFP, Reuters Alert

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