Arabia Felix* : Tales of two dissidents

Khalfan Al Badwawi, in Wales, and Nabhan Al-Hanshi, in Liverpool, are two young Omani bloggers exiled in the United Kingdom, after enduring prison and torture for being critical of Sultan Qaboos’ regime. Human rights activists, feeling like “slaves”, they tore down a “wall of fear ” and are demanding freedom. (Read more…)

Khalfan and Nabhan, in the United Kingdom, where they apllied for political asylum © All Rights Reserved

Mr. Khalfan Al Badwawi  and Mr. Nabhan Al-Anshi, in the United Kingdom (the country that helped Sultan Qaboos to depose his late father in 1970) where they have applied for political asylum
© All Rights Reserved

Khalfan Al Badwawi

I was born in Muscat of a middle class family, and it was in Muscat that I got my primary education in a government school. Following Omani tradition, my marriage was arranged, in 2007. I have one son and one daughter.

Overall, the education system in Oman does not allow the right to choose what we want study. So, according to our grades in high school we get what is available.

I have a diploma in general nursing from Oman Nursing Institute in Muscat. I graduated in 2003 and, in the same year, I went to work in the Ministry of Health. I resigned in December 2006 when working in an intensive care unit at the Royal Hospital.

I was admitted as paramedic at the Oil Exploration Company after a master degree on health safety. In July 2008, I entered the Sohar Aluminium Smelter serving as an occupational health nurse. From January 2010, I studied Law in Cairo University.

In June 2012, I was fired due to my political activities, then arrested and later on banned from getting any job in the Sultanate.

My family is still in Oman. Since I left, my father has been interrogated three times in order to convince me to go back. Oman is a patriarchal society built by the government, so the family and tribal leaders force people to keep quiet.

Some of my brothers got very good jobs in government departments,in order to be silent and/or to renegade my activities. The official strategy in dealing with cases like mine is to use the carrot first. If this one does not work, then the stick will be used.

I started blogging in 2004. It was on an online forum where I got to use a pseudonym to criticise the government and try to enlighten Omanis about the importance of a deep political change that would make our lives better.

I was also interested in monitoring the human rights violations by the internal security force (ISS) an intelligence force reporting directly to Sultan Qaboos.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters gather on March 7, 2011 for the ninth succesive day in front of the Majlis al Shura in Seeb, near the Omani capital Muscat. Sultan Qaboos of Oman today sacked his economy and interior ministers in a major cabinet reshuffle after weeks of anti-government protests in the strategic Gulf state, state television said. A peaceful sit-in at a roundabout in Sohar entered its ninth day Monday with activists demanding the sacking of Mekki and Sultan among others. © Robin Utrecht | AFP Getty Images

Hundreds of anti-government protesters gather on March 7, 2011 in front of the Majlis al Shura in Seeb, near the Omani capital Muscat. Sultan Qaboos of Oman sacked his economy and interior ministers in a major cabinet reshuffle after weeks of anti-government protests in the strategic Gulf state
© Robin Utrecht | AFP Getty Images

It is my conviction that the “Sultan’s regime” ignores our existence as a people and treats us, indirectly, as slaves. So, the idea of freedom was growing on my mind. I needed to be liberated. In 2011, the wall of fear collapsed. I start to directly criticise Qaboos.

I am not part of any association. I was arrested for the first time on 28th March 2011, when the army attacked a sit-in in Sohar [a former capital of Oman, also credited as the mythical birthplace of Sinbad the Sailor]. I was released seven days later.

On June 6 2012, I was arrested again with a group of 34 others. It was around 07:30 a.m. when I received call from a person identifying himself as a member of the special section at the Royal Oman Police, with headquarters in Muscat. He asked me to report immediately without saying the reasons. “We want talk to you”, that’s the only thing he said.

At 10.00 p.m., same day, I was transferred to the special section. A man in the reception asked me to wait in a room (approximately 3m x 4m) with two blue sofas. All of a sudden, five hooded soldiers wearing black uniforms and carrying machine guns entered the room. They started shouting, ordering me to turn around and face the wall.

First, they tied my hands from behind and then my legs. Afterwards, they put a big black long hood on me, which fully covered my body. Afterwards, they led me to an unknown destination.

It is so difficult to express the emotions about that moment, which filled me with fear and panic. I felt like a black shadow covering my eyes and my mind. When I tried to say something they using electric prod to give me shocks.

I found myself in a small cell (2m x 2m) with a steel door and without a window. The light was very bright. Loud music, patriotic songs glorifying the sultan, was being unstoppably played and repeated. There was a thin mattress with a white pillow engraved with the letters ‘ISS’. I was in the Intelligence Services’ base. My fears increased. The interrogation started on that same day.

March 2011: Oman deploys more troops as anti-government protesters clash with police in the town of Sohar, located northwest of Muscat. © digitaljournal.com

March 2011: Anti-government protesters in the town of Sohar, located in the northwest of Muscat
© digitaljournal.com

I lost the sense of time. When I was taken to the interrogation room they put a black bag fully covering my head. They tied my hands and legs. While questioning me, they brought all the WhatsApp chats, Facebook messages and other information related with my social networks’ activities since February 2012 until the day I was jailed.

The method of interrogation was like ‘good & bad cops’ who changed all the time. I was not allowed to contact my family or to get a lawyer.

After 32 days in solitary confinement, I was taken to the public prosecutor office. He accused me of trying to overthrow the regime. Afterwards, I was transferred to a different cell where I stayed a long time without being interrogated.

I had no human contact. I could touch only the prison guards’ hands from a small window on the bottom of the door when they brought food.

I was released after 98 days of detention. On 12th September 2012, a court detailed my charges for the first time: “Defaming the Sultan, breaking the rules of communications, insulting the State and its reputation and, finally, using the Internet to incite people to demonstrate against the regime.” I was released on bail on that same day, but deprived of my documents (I.D., Passport).

After my release, I found out that I had lost my job on the 20th of June 2012. The company’s justification was a continuous absence from work for seven consecutive days without notifying them. My friends and colleagues told me another story: the intelligence services contacted the boss and forced him to fire me.

Other 11 people were detained with me, equal charges but during different periods. Some of them were banned from work and travel after being released as well.

I also found that the Public Prosecution had published an official statement, on June 13, 2012 announcing the detention of prominent ‘offenders and instigators’. That statement gave us the evidence of a manipulated ploy, meaning that we were publicly considered guilty before he even met us.

Sohar was one of the centres of the 2011 protests, inspired by the popular revolts of the so-called "Arab Spring". © danandjillian3.blogspot

The city of Sohar, ancient capital of Oman, was one of the centres of the 2011 protests, inspired by the popular revolts of the so-called “Arab Spring”
© danandjillian3.blogspot

On the afternoon of 16th March 2013, after meeting a friend in coffee shop, I noticed that there was a car behind us, the same type and colour of other vehicles following many activists arrested on June 2012. Suddenly, five more cars intercepted me on the main street of Muscat. It was like a Hollywood or Indian movie.

In a matter of seconds, several hooded soldiers with machine guns took me out of my car. Two or three of them were dressed in official uniforms. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so frightened I was. They put me in white cars, tied my hands and legs.

With a big black hood covering my body, I was driven to an unknown destination. I thought: ‘Am I being punished only because of a post on Facebook or a tweet?’

I found myself again in solitary confinement, the same situation as in June 2012 (a 2m x 2m cell). On the second day, I was interrogated. ‘You talk too much’, they complained, while asking about my demands. I was not allowed to see a lawyer or to call my family.

Late evening of 20th March 2013, I had an audience with the main assistant to the Public prosecutor. No charges, only a warning that my file would remain open if I did not give up the activities against the government. I was released after signing a document with a pledge in that sense.

"Sultan Qaboos didn't care about any of our political reform claims during the protests, and kept all his powers: Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Finance minister, Foreign Minister... etc. He also gave orders to the security authorities to arrest anyone demanding a new chief of government", Mr. Khalfan says. © danandjillian3.blogspot

“Sultan Qaboos didn’t care about any of our political reform claims during the protests, and kept all his powers: Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Finance minister, Foreign Minister… etc. He also gave orders to the security authorities to arrest anyone demanding a new chief of government”, Mr. Badwawi said
© danandjillian3.blogspot

On 7th November 2013, I was abducted on the street again. I had received a call, in that morning, from an unidentified person asking me to be present at a police station. Uninformed about the reasons, I refused.

Early afternoon, my car was again intercepted, in Muscat, by eight to nine uniformed members of the Internal Security Services. “Why?”, I asked. They replied: “You’d better comply.” They tied my hands tied, covered my head with a small black bag, and took me to an unknown destination.

I was interrogated, for one full day. On the 8th November, late night, they released me without charges or any signed document. I still ignore the reason of this detention. Later on, my father revealed that he went to look for me me at the special section of the police headquarters. They told him that I was not there. They ‘didn’t have a clue’ about my whereabouts.

After leaving prison, I remained under continuous surveillance, always threatened by unidentified members from ISS. On 17th December 2013, after those threats got worse, I decided to leave Oman. Here, the real problem is the absolutist regime of Qaboos, a mixture of tyranny and nepotism.

The economy is a monopoly with nine families who are part of the government and also advisers to the Sultan. There is no free trade regulation, so it is very difficult to start a business. Most of the people are dependent on salaries or subsidies of the welfare state.

Because of that they don’t criticise the government – which controls everything – for fear of being harassed. After 45 years of Qaboos’ absolute powers [since the July 1970’s coup that deposed his father, Said bin Taimour], we face high unemployment rates [15%, according to the most recent estimates]. We need a deep political change. This regime is not the solution.

The Salafi and the Muslim Brotherhood are visible since 1994 when a big group of Muslim Brotherhood was arrested and got released after two years. It’s normal the growing influence of this type of people, when more enlightened activities are banned by the government, and there is no freedom of expression. In the 1990’s, the authorities used to support the publication of Islamist books but other books, non-religious, were available only after the 2000’s.

Oman defines itself as an Islamic State. I am a liberal and a supporter of secularism. In my country the Islamist affairs are part of and controlled by the government. The religious authorities are predominantly Muslim Ibadi  (the religious doctrine of Qaboos).

There are laws to prevent any Ibadi-Sunni rifts but the real thing is that Oman belongs to Ibadis. No Sunnis have access to power. The government says that people pray together in the mosques, but tolerance is not only praying side by side. There is no culture of accepting the others.

Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat: 20% of the population of Oman are youngsters. With a 15% unemployment rate they cannot find jobs - one of the reasons of the anti-governmental protests. © omaniadventures.blogspot

Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat: young people represent 20% of the population of Oman. With a 15% unemployment rate they cannot find jobs – one of the reasons of the anti-governmental protests
© omaniadventures.blogspot

There is no space in Oman for critical or independent views. Everyone have to obey to the government, otherwise they risk to be detained, go to jail and lose all their rights. They will be prevented from having a job or to travel, for instance.

I cannot find a special moment that might explain why I became a dissident. It was a cumulative experience. After 2011, when the wall of fear collapsed, I thought that we shouldn’t give up or allow the government to take all back. In 2011 and also in 2012, the protesters were mainly youngsters. Old people are not in favour of changes, as we can see in most of the Arab countries where the Arab uprising was suppressed.

After the 1970 coup, designed by the British government, there was a big campaign to praise Qaboos internationally. Most Omanis are aware that foreign affairs were run by the UK, and after 1980 by the USA. We never had a democracy. Qaboos owns his throne to Britain.

Nowadays, I am living in Wales, United Kingdom. I have no friends or family members here. I came with my friend Nabhan Al-Hanshi to seek asylum. I am not under any protection and not allowed to work, because my case is not yet decided. I spend most of my days reading books.

Masked Omani protesters jump in front of burning vehicles during a demonstration in Sohar, more than 200 kms (125 miles) northwest of Muscat, on February 27, 2011. Omani police shot dead two demonstrators as the deadly wave of protests rocking the Arab world spread to the normally placid pro-Western sultanate, a security official said. © Karim Sahib |AFP | Getty Images

Masked Omani protesters jump in front of burning vehicles during a demonstration in Sohar, more than 200 kms (125 miles) northwest of Muscat, on February 27, 2011. Omani police shot dead two demonstrators as the deadly wave of protests rocking the Arab world spread to the normally placid pro-Western sultanate, a security official said
© Karim Sahib |AFP | Getty 

Nabhan Al-Hanshi

I am a writer (author of three books: one novel and short stories) and a human rights activist. Born in Jalan, a small town in the southern West of Oman, I am 34, almost 35 years old.  I have a bachelor degree on Information Technology (IT). I was married, and I have a daughter who lives with her mother in our country.

I used to publish political opinions/articles on my blog (beyondfree.me) or my Twitter account (nabhan80). I’ve also written a political book but never managed to sign a contract, because the publisher whom I contacted, in Lebanon, did not want to lose his good relations with the Oman authorities. In 20o2, I found myself without a job after graduation, like other colleagues, and that’s when the protests began. 

In 2011, the Arab Spring encouraged Omanis to tear down the wall of fear – forever. The Green March, of which I was a member, demanded a separation of powers, a new Constitution and many other reforms. Unfortunately nothing happened because Sultan Qaboos didn’t bother to take any serious action. All what he did was to change some ministers and add new laws which help him to control Oman with more power.

The day I was arrested was a funny and creepy at the same time. I was in a coffee shop, called Second Cup, when two agents of the internal security (intelligence service) kidnapped me. They took me to the private section (or “executive section”, the one connecting the intelligence services and the public prosecutor) and, later on, to a secret prison.

I was one of 35 people convicted, sentenced to one year and 6 months in prison, a fine of 1000 Rials (2600 US$) in addition to a bail of 1500 Rials (3900 US$) pending an appeal.

I was arrested because of my articles, tweets and posts underlining the need for a Prime Minister and new Constitution. Qaboos pardoned some political activists in March 2013, but I managed to leave Oman, after one month in jail, in December 2012, before my appeal court sentence.

"I can't accept the exclusive control of the country by the Muslim Ibadis - and I belong to an Ibadi family - while they try to sell the world an image of tolerance", Mr. Al-Hanshi said. (File photo of Sultan Qaboos, in front of a prayer rug, in a Muscat mosque). © mara.om/gallery/photo-albums

“I can’t accept the exclusive control of the country by the Muslim Ibadis – and I belong to an Ibadi family – while they try to sell the world an image of tolerance”, Mr. Al-Hanshi said. (File photo of Sultan Qaboos, in front of a prayer rug, in a Muscat mosque)
© mara.om/gallery/photo-albums

Sultan Qaboos didn’t care about any of our political reform claims during the protests, and kept all his powers: Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Finance minister, Foreign Minister… etc. He also gave orders to the security authorities to arrest anyone demanding a new chief of government.

That is exactly what happened in 2012. I realised then that if I stayed in Oman the prison would be my only home, or my destiny would be something worse than prison.

We don’t need a special reason to act against a tyrannical regime which controls the country and its people. I dream of a healthy and democratic system. Initially, in 2011, protesters of different ages were only demanding political and economic reforms.

Now, I am totally convinced that Qaboos and the [royal] Al Busaid family are part of the problem because they rule as if Oman is their personal property.

I refuse to let Qaboos rule the country with all powers and steal the country’s wealth. On the other hand, I can’t accept the exclusive control of the country by the Muslim Ibadis – and I belong to an Ibadi family – while they try to sell the world an image of tolerance. I reject this dictatorship and religious system. I want freedom, justice and equality for all, whatever their faith.

Since February 2013 that I am the executive manager of the Human Rights Monitor in Oman, an association that investigates abuses perpetrated by the regime. I report them to global human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International or HRW. 

Sultan Qaboos ©Suliman Almosihij

Sultan Qaboos
© Suliman Almosihij

Working from England – yes, it is a paradox that we are requesting asylum in the country that most supports Qaboos -, we have a team on the ground in Oman.

To be honest we are not able to cover all the Omani villages and cities. They collect the information and send it to me and then I check if it is authentic. We need all kinds of assistance, but we can’t accept any conditional support.

My priority is the protection of human rights. I’m more interested in internal than in foreign policy. Anybody looking for peace in a turbulent area cannot support criminal regimes. What is the meaning of peace when human rights are being violated?

What Qaboos did and is still doing will lead my country to the edge of darkness after his death. I do not really care about who will be his successor.

I defend political reforms, a new Constitution and powers’ separation. What will happen next it doesn’t matter me. I know that countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are looking for a chance to influence Oman policy. That will probably happen after Qaboos.

Let me underline: I do not like dictatorships or religious systems. I want a government that will secure freedom, justice and equality for all, whatever the religion. We are going to pay an expensive price if we keep on being silent. I know that it’s not easy, but this is our only way.

* “Arabia Felix” (Latin) means ‘fertile’ but also ‘happy’. It was one of three regions into which the Romans divided the Arabian Peninsula (where Oman is located). The others are Arabia Deserta and Arabia Petraea.

Khalfan Al Badwawi © All Rights Reserved

Mr. Khalfan Al Badwawi
© All Rights Reserved

Nabhan Al-Hanshi © All Rights Reserved

Mr. Nabhan Al-Hanshi
© All Rights Reserved 

Parts of these two interviews were included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on July 25, 2015

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3 thoughts on “Arabia Felix* : Tales of two dissidents

  1. Pingback: “Oman after Qaboos will be more dependent on the UK and the US” | My East-West

  2. Pingback: “Omanis see Iran as the Shi’ite neighbour that will always exist” | My East-West

  3. Pingback: Qaboos: A ponte que ligou Teerão a Washington | My East-West

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