Oman’s Sultan Qaboos briefly silenced human rights critics on July 22, pardoning 14 citizens convicted in connection with demonstrations for economic and political reform in 2011.
This is the Sultan’s second major round of pardons for political activists.
The first round came after a March 17, 2013 Omani appeals court order calling for the release of all detained human rights defenders convicted on charges relating to “illegal gatherings.” Notably, the court order excluded those human rights defenders who have also been imprisoned on charges relating to insulting the Sultan.
Less than a week after the July 22 pardon, Oman’s security forces arrested human rights activist and blogger Sultan Al-Sa’adi at a petrol station on July 29.
This is Al-Sa’adi’s third arrest.
Al-Sa’adi was first arrested in 2011 after the outbreak of demonstrations in the city of Sohar. He was arrested again on June 12 2012, and was subsequently tried and convicted on charges of “insulting the Sultan.”
On March 21, 2013, Al-Sa’adi was pardoned by Sultan Qaboos in connection with the March 17 appeals court ruling.
It is unknown why Al-Sa’adi’s was arrested on July 22, as police failed to produce an arrest warrant and have yet to publicly charge him with any crime.
But the likely causes for Al-Sa’adi’s arrest are not hard to guess. Throughout his two and a half years of “activism-arrest-pardon,” Al-Sa’adi has not stopped writing about human rights violations in Oman.
That Oman’s 2011 uprising never generated the international recognition – or the levels of violence – seen in neighboring countries is in part due to the Omani government’s relatively rapid response to popular demands.
That said, Al-Sa’adi’s case exemplifies the pendulum swing in prosecution of human rights activists in Oman. As the government pardons with one hand and prosecutes with the other, rights activists find themselves in perpetual legal flux, barely out of one trial before being enmeshed in another.
Persistent arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights activists in Oman belie the country’s – and indeed the Sultan’s – grandiose moves to pardon upwards of 200 activists in one day.
A pardon for those convicted of insulting the Sultan is a false sign of progress when it is followed within days by the unwarranted arrest of a human rights blogger.
The Omani Sultan himself put it best when he explained that a pardon is not so much an acknowledgement of unjust conviction, but rather “another opportunity provided by the state to remain loyal.”