The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is facing fresh scrutiny over its long-standing 'public order' and security training of Omani police, following last month's suppression of protests in the Middle Eastern country.
Thousands have protested there in recent weeks in the largest demonstrations since the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw the police using tear gas and armoured vehicles and the arrest of protestors.
The PSNI, which has had a relationship with Oman’s police force since 2014, confirmed that it provided public order training as recently as February, following an investigation by The Detail and Declassified UK.
Nabhan al-Hanashi, a political exile and chair of the Omani Centre for Human Rights, said that if the PSNI “supports human rights, it shouldn’t be supporting Oman’s police who are oppressing people”.
"In Oman, if you campaign for political reforms it is a crime, if you want to call for a change in the regime, it's a crime. These things are not easy to practice inside Oman," he declared.
Meanwhile, the Director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, Patrick Corrigan, said there are "important questions" about the PSNI's role in Oman, since the Omani authorities are unduly restricting free expression and prosecuting journalists and online activists.
Dolores Kelly of the SDLP, who sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said the actions of Omani security services against the protesters are "deeply concerning" and "entirely disproportionate".
The PSNI’s training operations in Oman are funded by the UK Foreign Office, via Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO), which is a not-for-profit public body owned by Invest NI.
Several PSNI training projects organised by NI-CO have previously led to questions, including ones in Bahrain, Qatar and Libya.
The PSNI/Oman link, which was given the go ahead in 2014 by the then PSNI deputy chief constable, and now Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, following a request by the British Ambassador to Oman for "policing advice and guidance" for the Omani police.
The PSNI has received £900,000 to cover the costs of its work in Oman between March 2014 and March 2017 for projects including protest training and youth justice. PSNI officers have visited Oman, and Omani police have come to Northern Ireland.
The relationship has continued during the pandemic, with PSNI officers delivering a total of eight days' virtual public order and public safety training to the Royal Oman Police between December 2020 and February 2021.
Meanwhile, officials from the Royal Office of Oman - described as "vaguely similar" to MI6 by former UK foreign minister Alan Duncan - visited Northern Ireland on five occasions in a 12-month-period in 2014/2015.
One meeting took place at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast in 2015, between Oman's police chief Hassan al Shraiqi and a Northern Ireland delegation, including Arlene Foster, then the minister responsible for trade and investment.
A NI-CO document relating to the meeting states that “it may be beneficial to look at other aspects of policing where there is NI expertise”, including intelligence gathering. However, it is unknown if this happened.
Oman, a former British colony, is a key UK ally in the Middle East, buying over £3 billion (€3.5 billion) worth of weapons from the UK since 2007, according to research from Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Public order training for Oman police has been supported by the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB) and the North’s Department of Justice (DoJ), as recently as November 2020, say the PSNI.
The NI Department of Justice says it had been told that all upcoming training for Oman will be assessed under UK government human rights guidance, while the Policing Board said it had sought and received assurances.
However, Mr Corrigan said requests for the PSNI to offer training to security forces from countries “with a record of suppressing freedom of assembly and expression” cannot just be rubber-stamped.
Police and security training “should be subject to the same level of regulation as the sale of arms and security equipment” and approval should be refused if it risks “facilitating human rights abuses”, he said.