Viewing cable 05MUSCAT684

05MUSCAT6842005-04-26 02:45:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Muscat
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MUSCAT 000684 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/21/2015 
Classified By: Ambassador Richard L. Baltimore III. 
Reason: 1.4 (b, d). 
¶1. (C) Recent arrests of 30-40 Omanis charged with seeking to 
overthrow the Sultan and impose Ibadhi religious rule under 
an Imam have been the focus of public and press attention in 
Oman since January.  But the trial itself, underway since 
April 18, has surprised the public by its unprecedented 
openness and transparency.  Despite restrictions against 
court attendance by non-Omanis, the print media, 
parliamentarians, tribal shaykhs and family members have been 
permitted to witness the proceedings.  Extensive reporting on 
the testimony has revealed that some of the defendants are 
admitting to the government's charges, while others have 
denied that their involvement in an Ibadhi organization was 
either secret or a threat to the government.  While a retired 
top jurist told Emboffs the defendants have adequate counsel, 
Amnesty International plans to visit Oman in June to assess 
the entire case.  Meanwhile, Omani contacts have expressed 
concerns that the alleged Ibadhi conspiracy may point to 
growing sectarian differences among the Omani public, with 
Ibadhis fearing declining influence and non-Ibadhis decrying 
Ibadhism's preferential status.  End summary. 
Unprecedented Press Coverage 
¶2. (SBU) The April 18-20 trial of 31 Omanis in the State 
Security Court on charges of belonging to an illegal 
organization and seeking the violent overthrow of the 
government has taken place in an atmosphere of unprecedented 
openness and transparency.  While proceedings have been open 
only to Omani citizens, the government has gone beyond the 
most optimistic expectations in allowing extensive media 
coverage of each day's events.  Moreover, members of both 
houses of Oman's proto-parliament representing districts in 
which the suspects resided, relatives, and the defendants' 
local shaykhs, were likewise invited to observe. 
¶3. (SBU) Press coverage in Oman's Arabic and English dailies 
have ranged from substantial to meticulous, particularly in 
the case of English-language Times of Oman.  While the names 
of the accused are being kept out of the formal media to 
protect their reputations, most have previously been 
identified in Internet message boards.  The charges against 
each defendant, and their own explanations of how they became 
involved in a religious organization devoted to the study of 
Imamate rule under the Ibadhi sect of Islam, was covered in 
fair detail.  Ten defendants testified each of the first two 
days, and eleven testified on the third day.  (Note: There is 
no word on the status of another ten or so persons believed 
to be under arrest on similar charges.  End note.)  While 
print media coverage has been extensive, the trial has been 
notably absent from local television news (possibly due to a 
ban on video cameras in court).  Even regional media giant Al 
Jazeera has neglected to report the trial in its broadcasts, 
even though the news is carried on its web site. 
¶4. (C) Internet message board Sablat al-Arab (aka al-Sablah) 
posted information beyond what the papers carried, but 
characterizations of the testimony were generally consistent 
with those in the print media.  All of the defendants 
admitted belonging to an organization to propagate awareness 
in the Ibadhi sect's beliefs at various times since its 
founding in 1982, but several of them denied that the 
organization had violent or political designs.  Others, 
however, confessed to intentions of establishing rule by an 
Ibadhi Imam (as opposed to the current Sultan), of holding 
meetings in secret, and of storing or trading in weapons. 
(Note: It is believed that one of those weapons sold was 
purchased by an Omani religious extremist accused in the 
shootings of two U.K. citizens, from which the subsequent 
arrests stemmed.  End note.)  Some of the defendants charged 
with weapons possession insisted, however, that the arms were 
of small caliber, traditional vintage common to many Omani 
households and were unrelated to their involvement in the 
Ibadhi organization. 
¶5. (SBU) Al-Sablah claimed that defendants testified the 
organization was originally legally established by the Grand 
Mufti, Shaykh Ahmed al-Khalili, and therefore should not be 
deemed suspicious.  Given the fact that two of the Mufti's 
in-laws and several of his staff are among those arrested, 
several participants in the Sablah message board asked why 
the Grand Mufti did not speak out in their defense.  One of 
the accused, a faculty member at Sultan Qaboos University who 
was charged with running a campus chapter, reportedly 
testified that there was nothing secret about his activities 
either, having been granted approval for his organization 
from the Dean of Student Affairs. 
A Fair Process? 
¶6. (C) A former Supreme Court justice now in private 
practice, Dr. Said al-Busaidi (protect), told Emboffs April 
19 that he recused himself from representing any of the 
defendants because half of the members of the judicial panel 
in the trial were former students of his.  Nevertheless, his 
brother is one of the defense attorneys, but would not be 
able to discuss the case with Emboffs until the trial was 
over.  Dr. Said dismissed accusations in the Internet that 
the defendants lacked adequate legal counsel, but 
acknowledged that relatively few lawyers in Oman are 
permitted to practice before the State Security Court, given 
the requirement that the attorneys be Omani nationals 
admitted to the Supreme Court bar.  Asked whether the 
defendants had the right of appeal in the event of their 
conviction, he surmised that the Sultan would be their only 
recourse.  (Note: Although Oman has a Supreme Court, the 
highest judicial body in the country is the Supreme Judicial 
Council.  The head of that Council, Sayyid Hilal bin Hamad 
al-Busaidi, is the immediate past president of the Supreme 
Court, and currently is the President of the State Security 
Court.  At least one current Vice President of the Supreme 
Court is also among the judicial panel trying this case. 
Since Sayyid Hilal obviously could not adjudicate an appeal 
of a case he tried, there effectively is no appellate body 
available in this instance.  Sultan Qaboos is empowered by 
law to reduce sentences or pardon convicts, but he is not 
empowered to overturn a conviction itself.  End note.) 
¶7. (SBU) Dr. Lamri Chirouf, Middle East Researcher for 
Amnesty International (AI) in London, informed PolOff on 
April 19 that AI did not have the resources to send an 
observer to the trial, but noted they were following the case 
from London.  An AI delegation plans to travel to Oman in 
June, at which time they hope to interview many of the 
parties involved.  Amnesty had previously issued an urgent 
appeal calling for the protection from torture of the 
detainees, and met with the Omani ambassador to London to 
seek assurances for a fair trial and humane treatment. 
(Note: While the Internet has contained speculation about 
mistreatment of some of the detainees, the only specific 
allegation we have heard is that one of the defendants 
claimed to have been questioned for 12 hours in a standing 
position, and that his signed confession contained statements 
he never made.  End note.) 
Rising Sectarianism? 
¶8. (C) Given the government's penchant for keeping security 
matters under close wraps, news of the arrests and trial have 
captivated the public's attention.  While opinions remained 
mixed on the guilt or innocence of the defendants, the 
process itself is subject of considerable discussion.  As an 
experienced political observer working for the Majlis 
al-Shura (Consultative Council, the lower house of 
parliament) stated, the government's admission that forces 
may have sought to overthrow it opens the door to public 
debate on what government deficiencies led to such an effort. 
¶9. (C) An Ibadhi contact with close professional and family 
ties to both the Sultan's government and the former Imamate 
regime (deposed in 1954), recently groused to the DCM about 
Ibadhi unhappiness with the economic developments in Oman 
that seem to disproportionately benefit coastal communities. 
(Note: While Ibadhi Muslims can be found throughout Oman, 
they are predominately in the interior, whereas as Sunni and 
Shia tend to reside in the coastal areas.  It is not uncommon 
to this day to hear an Ibadhi refer to the people of the 
interior as "Omanis" with the clear inference that anyone 
else is somewhat less truly an Omani.  End note.)  This 
contact specifically cited the multi-billion dollar 
industrial investments taking place in coastal cities such as 
Sohar and Salalah, and tourism investment that likewise 
focuses on the coast, as bringing little benefit to Ibadhis. 
He also voiced resentment over the economic power of Oman's 
leading commercial families and economic ministers, who are 
overwhelmingly non-Ibadhi. 
¶10. (C) A Sunni contact likewise faulted the government, but 
for opposite reasons.  He says the Sultan's government 
accords preferential status to the country's Ibadhi heritage, 
and that this illegal organization now on trial is a direct 
and logical outcome of those policies.  The Islamic 
curriculum set by the Ministry of Education, he charges (with 
some justification), emphasizes Ibadhi practices.  Even the 
diagrams in textbooks teaching young pupils the "proper" way 
to pray reflect only the Ibadhi method, and auditors from the 
Ministry routinely visit schools to enforce that narrow 
course of study, even when the teacher or students may adhere 
to a different school of Islam.  When the Sultan created the 
modern Shura Council in 1991, he says, the government 
actively marketed the new institution as being a direct 
by-product of the Imamate culture.  A popular book tracing 
that political lineage and propagating the value system of 
Ibadhism as a means of cementing an Omani national identity 
used to be given as gifts by government officials at every 
occasion.  Those teachings were specifically alluded to by 
several of the defendants, who claim they were merely 
supporting the government's own propagation of Ibadhi values. 
 The Sunni contact reasonably asked how the government could 
be surprised that Ibadhis might have advocated the overthrow 
of the Sultan's government when dynastic rule is in utter 
contradiction to 13 centuries of Ibadhi beliefs and 
practices.  (Note: Ibadhism believes in a non-dynastic system 
of leadership wherein the supreme spiritual leader, called 
Imam, is elected by consensus by an informal council of 
senior ulema (religious scholars).  End note.) 
¶11. (C) A prominent Sunni businessman personally acquainted 
with the Sultan's security maven, Minister of the Royal 
Office General Ali bin Majid al-Ma'amari (reftel), recently 
voiced to EconOff his fears of rising sectarianism in the 
Sultanate, which he placed above common concerns over 
education and employment as his biggest worry for the future 
of Oman.  Noting that one of his siblings is married an 
Ibadhi and another to a Shia, this businessman faulted the 
government for its imposing Ibadhi religious practices into 
the educational curriculum, and for emphasizing it at the 
College of Sharia and Law (from which most Omani lawyers and 
judges are graduated).  Both he and Dr. Said (above) felt 
there should be no role for sectarian instruction in Oman's 
legal curriculum, fearing it was producing "extremists" (in 
the businessman's estimation) or "Mullahs" (in Dr. Said's 
parlance).  The Sunni claimed that disputes between Sunnis 
and Shia over a shared mosque in the coastal town of Saham 
(his hometown and that of General Ali Majid) grew so heated 
that Ali Majid ordered the structure razed to end further 
arguments.  (Note: An Ibadhi FSN accompanying EconOff in the 
meeting disagreed with the Sunni's assessment that Ibadhism 
is given preference in Oman's educational and judicial 
systems.  End note.) 
¶12. (C) The trial is set to enter its terminal stage on April 
25 when defense attorneys will present summations of their 
pleadings, after which the judicial panel will retire to 
render its decision.  Whatever the outcome, this process will 
long be remembered for its extraordinary openness, 
particularly as it followed months of rampant rumor-mongering 
in the press and Internet but scant details from the 
government.  Stung by the initial overblown wire reports that 
hundreds of Omanis planning violent acts were arrested, which 
put a serious cramp in Oman's cultivated image as a land of 
tolerance, it remains to be seen if the government's recourse 
to transparency is but a short-term tactic.