By Saleh al-Shaibany
MUSCAT (Reuters) - Two Omani journalists have appealed against a court decision sentencing them to prison for publishing an article on alleged corruption in the justice ministry, a reporter at their newspaper said on Thursday.
Wednesday's sentencing has angered rights activists against a backdrop of popular revolts against autocracy, graft and misrule around the Arab world that has seen the fall of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this year.
Azzaman editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Mammari and reporter Yousef al-Haj, 37, were sentenced to five months in jail each for insulting the justice minister and his undersecretary by accusing them of deception and fraud in a recent article.
The newspaper also had to suspend publication for a month.
Another justice ministry employee was also given five months in prison for telling the journalists that a ministry employee had been denied his salary and benefits by the justice minister without valid cause.
"We have appealed against the court's ruling and the hearing will be on October 15," Khalid al-Zidi, a senior reporter at Azzaman, told Reuters.
Oman, a usually tranquil Gulf Arab sultanate, was touched by street protests earlier this year calling mainly for higher wages, fairer access to government jobs and an end to graft.
To placate his people, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a U.S. ally who has ruled the small, non-OPEC oil-producing state for 40 years, has promised a $2.6 billion spending package and creation of 50,000 public sector jobs.
The sultan, who helped broker the release of U.S. prisoners from Iran this week, also pledged to cede some legislative powers to the partially-elected Oman Council, an advisory body. At present, only Qaboos and his cabinet can legislate.
Human rights activists said the jailing of Azzaman's journalists was a blow to freedom of expression and called the court's decision "outrageous."
"It is a sad day for journalism in Oman and a setback to freedom of expression. It is outrageous for reporters to be jailed for informing the public what they believe it was their right (to do)," Omani-based activist Mohammed al-Farae said. "It shows that government ministers cannot be held accountable."
It was not the first time Omani journalists have faced pressure to stay silent. Last year, a blogger was jailed for one month for criticizing a government minister and this year two reporters were suspended and one detained for several days.
"We cannot have journalists living in fear for writing the truth. Politicians must be made accountable for the wrong decisions they take," said a journalist who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
He said Azzaman was being punished for a series of articles over the past year on graft and mismanagement in government.
(Writing By Nour Merza, editing by Andrew Hammond)