Oh how I crave my morning cup of coffee at the office. Ramadhan, Day 17. Thirteen more to go! (or perhaps 12?).
Today's post is a mix of serious and no-so-serious. Humor me:
1. Do you realize Salalah Airport road (the busiest walking area for exercise nerds) now has exercise equipment? For all to use? I think it's hilarious and wonderful. Read the Times of Oman piece here. I'd love to know whose idea it was and whether any brave female is going to attempt using the equipment.
2. Movement on building the bridge over Al Rabat highway in Salalah towards Dahariz. Salalah's first bridge! More here. I hope it helps with the traffic problems we have. I remind you of the failed project to install traffic lights at the fountain roundabout in central Salalah. That was embarrassing.
3. I know plenty of people have been analyzing the blogger/arrests/crackdown/freedom of speech situation in Oman over the past couple of months.. and I've written bits and pieces about it before, but I'm still unhappy. I've been following trial and hearing updates and several things are bothering me.
First of all, in early June it was announced that a group of individuals had been arrested for their 'negative online writings' and that others would be prosecuted if they were caught spreading negative writings or rumors online. For a while back there it wasn't clear exactly what constitutes negative writing nor what triggered the announcement. Nevertheless, the online community was up in arms. Lots of bloggers were nervous and a handful even shut down their blogs!
Slowly it became apparent that most of the individuals arrested – poets, bloggers, writers, and a few naïve college students - were convicted of insulting our beloved head of state, a crime otherwise known as lèse majesté. Most of them were sentenced to between six and eighteen months in jail. Naturally, the writings that got them into trouble vanished off the internet before the public could judge whether the punishments were reasonable. Through the grapevine, I managed to read some of what was written including a particularly stupid Facebook status update by a naïve female college student from Salalah who got sentenced to 18 months in prison.
You all know her chain of derogatory insults had me fuming, and despite calls for freedom of speech, I think such insults deserve some form of warning. There is no complete freedom of speech anywhere in the world. In Oman, we're pretty lucky in many ways. However, despite wanting to murder anyone who insults His Majesty I still don't think a young student's rant on Facebook equals 18 months in prison and a fine. It's a little harsh. Another young writer was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine for holding up a poster that may have indirectly referred to His Majesty although no one can ever prove that. The ambiguity involving their arrests and the details of their crimes is unsettling.
Another incident that has caused fury across the Sultanate and Dhofar in particular is the rather unbelievable publication of the detainees' photographs in prison uniform in local newspapers as well as on television. After seeing those photographs make the rounds on social media platforms, I went from being horrified to being angry. You see, Oman has a history of pretending crimes never happen. On the rare occasion that a photograph of a criminal is published, it's usually for a minor crime and the eyes are almost always blotted out. Furthermore, full names are never mentioned. To our horror, clear photographs of the recent detainees were published in addition to full names, year of birth, hometown and place of employment or study. To most Omanis, this was completely unacceptable. Is it even legal? (a much wiser person than I said it is legal)
Looking back, dare I wonder why the identities of the Omanis involved in the UAE spy network not revealed a couple of years ago? Weren't they the real traitors? (the much wiser person than I said you can't question matters of national security) What about all the murderers and rapists and drug dealers? Why aren't their photos plastered across newspaper pages and broadcast on the evening news? Is it just me or is there something fundamentally wrong with this whole situation? Where are the real criminals? If it's legal to reveal the identities of criminals in Oman, then reveal them.
An interesting detail that may have been overlooked is that a prominent member of the Oman National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) requested to be relieved from her duties because she publicly disagreed with the commission's policy on several issues and referred to the statement made by the NHRC on June 19 justifying the arrests as 'the straw that broke the camel's back'. I tip my hat to you, Dina.
Yet another issue that is bothering me is how the government is referring to all detainees as 'instigators'. I'd like to point out that among the detainees were indeed some activists who were arrested on their way to the oil field strikes to interview workers. How can you compare them to creators of offensive online content? On the other hand, international human rights agencies are referring to all the detainees as 'human rights activists' or 'online activists'. Again, not everyone who posts offensive content online and gets arrested for it is an activist. Beware of labeling. I found Saturday's article by Dhofari columnist Awadh Baqweer rather interesting. It's called "Human Rights Organizations with Hidden Agendas". I'm not saying I agree with everything he says, but I think there is some truth in it.
Naturally, human rights agencies are keeping tabs on all Arab Spring countries and their occasionally biased reports make Oman looks like the next Syria when it’s not. Some of the reports on Oman in the past two months have been downright embarrassing. But who is the international media community going to believe? Not us. Oman has worked so hard to build its reputation as a peaceful and stable nation. It’s sad to see that hard work go to waste because the government couldn't handle a group of outspoken individuals. I'm not a fan of offensive writing but I think the heavy handed approach by the government has triggered the opposite effect. Your thoughts?
4. The US State Department's International Human Rights Report is out. Click here for the report on Oman.
5. Linoleum Surfer is back.
6. I'm still not quite sure what to think about this. Oman never fails to baffle me. Dhofar robbers given 90 year sentences?!!!!
7. I was rather amused yesterday when I received two different reports from SABQ (Oman News Agency SMS Breaking News Service). The first message came at 11:38 a.m "Researchers at Loyola Chicago have proven that drinking iced tea can lead to permanent kidney stones". The second set of frantic messages arrived at 5:25 p.m assuring citizens that Omani meat is safe after Saudi banned it after a Foot in Mouth Disease scare. For more on the meat situation, read lazy Linoleum Surfer's post here.
And finally, come to Salalah. The weather in Muscat wasn't meant for humans. It's cool, breezy, green and even occasionally rainy here!