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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Oman

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Oman, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3d4.html [accessed 12 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
OMAN

 

The Sultanate of Oman is a monarchy which has been ruled by the Al Bu Sa'id family since the middle of the 18th century. It has no political parties or elected representative institutions. The current sultan is Qaboos Bin Sa'id Al Sa'id who acceded in 1970. Although the Sultan retains firm control over all important policy issues, he has brought tribal leaders and other notables into the Government. Much decisionmaking is by consensus among these leaders according to longstanding tradition. In 1991 the Sultan established a 59-seat Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura, which replaced an older advisory body. Council members are selected from lists of nominees proposed by each of the 59 wilayats (regions). After the country's first national census in 1993, the Sultan expanded the membership of the new Council to 80 seats. The Council has no formal legislative powers, but may question government ministers and recommend changes to new laws on economic and social policy.

The entire security apparatus falls under the authority of the Ministry of Palace Office Affairs which coordinates all intelligence and security policies. The internal security service investigates all matters related to internal security. The Royal Oman Police performs regular police duties, provides security at airports, acts as immigration officials, and maintains a small coast guard. There were no confirmed reports indicating that these agencies were involved in human rights abuses in 1994.

Since 1970, Oman has used its modest oil revenue to make impressive economic progress and improve public access to health care, education and social services. The Government seeks to diversify the economy and stimulate private investment.

The Government continues to restrict or deny important human rights. In 1994 the Government detained 200 people in connection with an alleged plot to destabilize the country. The Government charged 131 of these suspects with sedition and tried them in secret before the State Security Court. The detentions and secret trials raised serious questions about freedom from arbitrary arrest and the right to due process. Other human rights restrictions included infringements on the freedoms of expression and association. The Government does not guarantee full rights for workers and women. As a practical matter, the people do not have the right to change their government.

Nonetheless, the Government took several steps in 1994 to address human rights concerns. It increased the number of seats on the Consultative Council and allowed women to take part in nominations for Council members. In November the Government selected two women to serve on the Council. The Government also joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) and began to draft a new labor law that addresses worker rights.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or extrajudicial killing.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There were no confirmed reports of torture. However, there were unconfirmed reports that security forces physically mistreated an undetermined number of persons arrested for subversion. These reports were not confirmed.

The Government severely restricts access to prisons. However, prison conditions reportedly meet internationally recognized minimum standards.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In general the police obtain warrants prior to making arrests but are not required by law to do so. The authorities must obtain court orders to hold suspects in pretrial detention. Within 24 hours of arrest, the police are required to file charges or ask a magistrate judge to order continued detention. The police do not always follow these procedures, and in one confirmed case in 1994 an individual was detained for more than 72 hours without charge. Judges may order detentions for 14 days to allow investigation and may grant extensions if necessary. There is a system of bail.

The police do not routinely notify a detainee's family or in the case of a foreign worker, the worker's sponsor of the detention. The authorities post a list of persons scheduled for trial near the magistrate court building in Muscat. While there were no reports of incommunicado detention in 1994, the police do not always permit attorneys and family members to visit detainees. Judges occasionally intercede to ensure that security officials allow such visits.

In May, June, and September, security forces detained at least 200 persons, and questioned at least a hundred more, for their alleged membership in a subversive group. The Government later tried 131 of the detainees for conspiracy to subvert national unity and security and the misuse of Islam (see Section 1.e.). The authorities stated that the police obtained the necessary court orders for the detentions and that formal charges were brought as quickly as possible. However, the lack of public information about the cases has raised questions about the possible arbitrary nature of the arrests and detentions--and the fairness of the trials. In December the authorities announced that family members and friends may visit the prisoners, but had earlier denied such visits.

The Government does not practice exile as a form of punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system does not always ensure fair trials based on internationally accepted norms. The judiciary comprises the magistrate courts, which adjudicate misdemeanors and criminal matters; the Islamic, or Shari'a, courts, which adjudicate personal status cases such as divorce and inheritance; the Authority for the Settlement of Commercial Disputes (ASCD); the Labor Welfare Board; and the Real Estate Committee, which hears tenant-landlord disputes. A State Security Court tries cases involving national security. Although it is administratively distinct from the other courts, magistrate court judges have presided over trials in the State Security Court.

The various courts are subordinate to the Sultan and subject to his influence. The Sultan appoints all judges, acts as a court of final appeal, and intercedes in cases of particular interest, especially in national security cases. However, there have been no reported instances in which the Sultan has overturned a decision of the ASCD or the magistrate courts.

The Criminal Code does not specify the rights of the accused. There are no written rules of evidence, or codified procedures for entering cases into the criminal system, or any legal provision for a public trial. Criminal procedures have developed by tradition and precedents in the magistrate courts. In criminal cases, the police provide defendants with the written charges against them, defendants are presumed innocent, and have the right to present evidence and confront witnesses. The prosecution and the defense question witnesses through the judge, who is usually the only person to question witnesses in court.

There are no jury trials: a single judge tries misdemeanors; a panel of three judges tries felonies and security offenses. Magistrate court judges must be citizens. Public prosecutors are senior police officers. They may bring additional charges after defense attorneys have inspected the charge sheet or during trial.

A detainee may hire an attorney but has no explicit right to be represented by counsel. The Government does not pay for the legal representation of indigents. Judges often pronounce the verdict and sentence within 1 day after the completion of a trial. Defendants may appeal jail sentences longer than 3 months and fines over the equivalent of $1,300 to a three-judge panel. Defendants accused of national security offenses and serious felonies do not have the right of appeal. Death sentences, which are rare, require the Sultan's approval.

The Government tried 131 persons for subversion in secret before the State Security Court, which issued verdicts on November 12 (see Section 1.d.). The Court sentenced two defendants to death and the others from 3 to 15 years in prison. The Sultan later commuted the death sentences to prison terms. The defendants did not receive a fair trial by international norms.

There are no known political prisoners. However, the secrecy of the subversion trials prevents any independent assessment of the Government's assertion that the defendants were actual subversives found guilty of plotting to destabilize the country.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The police are not required by law to obtain search warrants. There is a widespread belief that the Government eavesdrops on both oral and written communications, and Omanis are guarded in both areas. Citizens must obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior to marry foreigners.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

There is no legal protection for free speech or press. The law prohibits any criticism of the Sultan in any form or medium. The authorities tolerate criticism of government officials and agencies, but such criticism rarely receives media coverage.

The 1984 Press and Publication Law authorizes the Government to censor all domestic and imported publications. Ministry of Information censors may act against any material regarded as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. However, journalists and writers generally censor themselves to avoid government harassment. Editorials reflect the Government's views, although the authorities tolerate some criticism on foreign issues. The Government discourages in-depth reporting on controversial domestic issues, and seeks to influence privately owned dailies and periodicals by subsidizing their operating costs. In late August, all four daily newspapers reported the arrest of the 200 alleged subversives only once--by publishing the dispatch of the government-owned Oman News Agency without further comment.

On several occasions in 1994, the Government prohibited the entry onto the market of several foreign newspapers. The authorities prevented distribution of the August 6 edition of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, reportedly because it contained some statements regarded as critical of the Majlis Ash-Shura, and of the November 7 edition of the Financial Times, reportedly because it contained an article critical of the Government's economic policy. Customs officials sometimes confiscate video cassette tapes and erase offensive material. The tapes may or may not be returned to their owners.

The Government controls the local radio and television companies. They do not air any politically controversial material. The Government does not allow the establishment of privately owned radio and television companies. However, the availability of satellite dishes has made foreign broadcast information accessible to the public.

The appropriate government authority, such as the Sultan Qaboos University, the police, or the relevant ministry must approve cultural events, including plays, concerts, lectures, and seminars. Most organizations avoid controversial issues for fear the authorities may cancel their events. Academic freedom is restricted, particularly regarding controversial matters, including politics. Professors may be dismissed for going beyond acceptable boundaries.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law does not guarantee freedom of assembly. The Government regards all private associations as illegal unless lawfully registered. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor must approve the establishment of all associations and their by-laws. The Government uses the power to license associations as the power to control the political environment. It does not license groups regarded as a threat to the predominant social or political views of the Sultanate.

All public gatherings require government sponsorship. The authorities do not always enforce this requirement, and unauthorized gatherings take place without government approval. In 1994 the Government increased restrictions on most types of public gatherings (see Section 2.c.).

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion. Most Omanis are Ibadhi or Sunni Muslims, but there is also a minority of Shi'a Muslims. Non-Muslims are free to worship at churches and temples built on land donated by the Sultan. There are many Christian denominations which utilize two plots of donated land on which two Catholic and two Protestant churches have been built. The Government prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims. It also prohibits non-Muslim groups from publishing religious material, although imported printed material may be brought into the country. Members of all religions and sects are free to maintain links with coreligionists abroad and undertake foreign travel for religious purposes.

The 1994 restrictions on most types of public gatherings resulted in a substantial curtailment of non-Muslim religious celebrations. For example, the authorities did not grant permission to the Hindu and Zoroastrian communities to celebrate some of their religious festivals in public.

The police monitor mosque sermons to ensure that the preachers do not discuss political topics and stay within the state-approved orthodoxy of Islam. Security forces reportedly arrested a mosque preacher in the city of Salalah for his alleged association with an unauthorized Islamic group.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not restrict travel within the country except to military areas. While a man may travel abroad freely, a woman must have authorization from her husband, father, or nearest male relative to obtain a passport.

The Government does not have a policy on refugees or a tradition of harboring stateless or undocumented aliens. Tight control over the entry of foreigners into the country has effectively screened out would-be refugees. However, in 1994 the Government offered temporary refuge to several thousand Yemenis displaced by the civil war in Yemen.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Oman is an autocracy in which the Sultan retains the ultimate authority on all important foreign and domestic issues. The country has no formal democratic political institutions, and its citizens do not have the ability peacefully to change their leaders or the political system.

There is no constitution, political parties, or elections. Citizens have indirect access to senior officials through the traditional practice of petitioning their patrons, usually the local governor, or wali, for redress of grievances. Successful redress depends on the effectiveness of the patron's access to appropriate decisionmakers. The Sultan appoints the governors. The Sultan makes an annual 3-week tour of the country, accompanied by his ministers, to listen directly to his subjects' problems.

In 1991 Sultan Qaboos established a Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura. In 1994 he expanded the number of Council seats to 80 from the original 59, a move which allocated two members for districts with a higher population. The Government selected the Council members from several nominees elected in caucuses of prominent persons in each district. In 1994 four women were nominated for Council seats; two of them were selected to serve.

The Council has no formal legislative powers. The Council is not an effective check on the Sultan who issues all laws by decree. However, it serves as a conduit of information between the people and the government ministries. No serving government official is eligible to be a Council member. The Council may question government ministers, review all draft laws on social and economic policy, and recommend legislative changes to the Sultan, who makes the final decision.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government prohibits the establishment of human rights groups. The existing restrictions on the freedom of speech and association do not permit any activity or speech critical of the Government. There were no known requests by international human rights organizations to visit Oman in 1994.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Women

Women face many forms of discrimination. Most women live their lives within the confines of the home. Widespread illiteracy hampers women's ability to own property, participate in the modern sector of the economy, or even inform themselves of their own rights. Government officials frequently deny women land grants or housing loans, and prefer to conduct business with a woman's husband or other male relative. Many educated women face job discrimination because prospective employers fear they might quit to marry or raise families. Government grants for study abroad are limited almost exclusively to males.

Many aspects of Islamic tradition also discriminate against women. Islamic law favors male heirs in adjudicating inheritance claims. Many women are reluctant to take an inheritance dispute to court for fear of alienating the family.

Some educated women have attained positions of authority in government, business, and the media. An estimated 14 percent of all civil servants are women. Two women also serve in the Consultative Council. In both the public and private sectors, women are entitled to liberal maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The bureaucracy, the country's largest employer of women, observes such regulations, as do many private sector employers. Women constitute roughly half of the 3,000 students at the Sultan Qaboos University and are a majority in the colleges of arts, education, science, business, and Islamic studies.

There is no evidence of a pattern of spousal abuse but information is scant and difficult to collect. Doctors do not have a legal responsibility to report either spouse or child abuse cases to the courts. Battered women may file a complaint with the police, but more often seek family intervention to protect them from violent domestic situations. There have been reports that employers or male coworkers have sexually harassed foreign females employed in such positions as domestic servants and hospital nurses. Foreign women employed as domestic servants and garment workers have complained that their employers have withheld their salaries and that government officials have been unresponsive to their grievances.

Children

The Government has made the health, education, and general welfare of children a budgetary priority. There is no pattern of familial or other child abuse. Communities in the interior and in the Dhofar region still practice female genital mutilation. Experts believe that the number of such cases is small and declining annually.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Citizens of East African origin complain that they frequently face job discrimination in both the public and private sectors. Some public institutions reportedly favor hiring members of one or another regional, tribal, or religious group. However, no group is banned from employment.

Religious Minorities

Some members of the Shi'a Muslim minority claim they face discrimination in employment and educational opportunities.

People with Disabilities

The Government has mandated parking spaces and some ramps for wheelchair access in private and government office buildings and shopping centers. Compliance is voluntary. Students in wheelchairs have easy access to Sultan Qaboos University. The Government has established several rehabilitation centers for handicapped children. Handicapped people, including the blind, work in government offices. Free government medical assistance to all citizens includes physical therapy for the handicapped.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

In 1994 the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor drafted a new labor law, and the Consultative Council recommended some changes. Although consensus on the final draft has not yet been reached, government officials said that the new labor code will be consistent with international labor standards. It will reportedly contain a provision for the establishment of worker committees in the workplace and remove the prohibition against strikes. The current law stipulates that "it is absolutely forbidden to provoke a strike for any reason."

Labor unrest is rare. Although strikes are technically illegal, workers sometimes stage job actions. In general, these disputes are settled without police intervention. In 1994 the Government joined the International Labor Organization. The Government received an ILO representative who provided advice on the draft labor law.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The current law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining. It requires that employers of more than 50 workers form a joint labor-management committee as a communication forum between the two groups. The implementation of this provision is uneven, and the effectiveness of these committees is questionable. In general the committees discuss such questions as living conditions at company-provided housing. They are not authorized to discuss wages, hours, or conditions of employment. Such issues are specified in the work contracts signed individually by workers and employers and must be consistent with the guidelines of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

The current law defines conditions of employment for some Omanis and foreign workers. It covers domestic servants and construction workers, but not temporary workers or those with work contracts that expire within 3 months. Foreign workers constitute at least 50 percent of the work force and as much as 80 percent of the modern-sector work force.

Work rules must be approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor and posted conspicuously in the workplace by employers of 10 or more workers. Similarly, any employer with 50 or more workers must establish a grievance procedure. Regardless of the size of the company, any employee, including foreign workers, may file a grievance with the Labor Welfare Board. Sometimes worker representatives file collective grievances, but most grievances are filed by individual workers. Lower paid workers use the procedure regularly. Plaintiffs and defendants in such cases may be represented by legal counsel.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits compulsory labor but foreign workers sometimes find themselves in situations amounting to forced labor. In such cases, employers withhold letters of release, a document releasing the worker from his employment contract, thus allowing him to switch jobs. Without the letter, a foreign worker must continue to work for his current employer or become technically unemployed--which is sufficient grounds for deportation. Many foreign workers are not aware of their right to take such disputes before the Labor Welfare Board. Others are reluctant to file complaints for fear of retribution by unscrupulous employers. In most cases, the Board releases the grievant from service and awards compensation for time worked under compulsion. Employers face no other penalty than to reimburse the worker's back wages.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits children under the age of 13 from working. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor effectively enforces this prohibition. Children between 13 and 16 years of age may be employed but must obtain the Ministry's permission to work overtime, at night, on weekends or holidays, or perform strenuous labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor issues minimum wage guidelines for various categories of workers. The minimum wage for nonprofessional workers was about $156 a month (60 rials). Minimum wage guidelines do not cover domestic servants, farmers, government employees, or workers in small businesses. Many foreigners work in fields exempt from the minimum wage statute. The Government is lax in enforcing minimum wage guidelines for foreign workers employed in menial jobs. However, foreign workers with high skills are frequently paid more than their Omani counterparts.

The minimum wage is sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The compensation for foreign manual laborers and clerks is sufficient to cover living expenses and to permit some savings to be sent home.

The private sector workweek is 40 to 45 hours and includes a rest period from Thursday afternoon through Friday. Government officials have a 35-hour workweek. While the law does not designate the number of days in a workweek, it requires at least one 24-hour rest period per week and mandates overtime pay for hours in excess of 48 per week. Government regulations on hours of employment are not always enforced. Employees who have worked extra hours without compensation may file a complaint before the Labor Welfare Board, but the Board's rulings are not binding.

Every worker has the right to 15 days of annual leave during the first 3 years of employment and 30 days per year thereafter. Employers provide many foreign nationals, including maids, with annual or biannual round-trip tickets to their countries of origin.

All employers are required by law to provide first aid facilities. Work sites with over 100 employees must have a nurse. Employees covered under the Labor Law may recover compensation for injury or illness sustained on the job through employer-provided medical insurance. The health and safety standard codes are enforced by inspectors from the Department of Health and Safety of the Directorate of Labor. As required by law, they make frequent on-site inspections.

The law states that employers must not to place their employees in situations involving dangerous work. However, the law does not specifically grant a worker the right to remove himself from dangerous work without jeopardy to his continued employment.

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