MUSCAT (Reuters) - An Omani court has freed on bail some activists detained during a peaceful protest earlier this month but will hold four people charged with making "defamatory" comments until the end of proceedings, lawyers said on Thursday.
Oman, a Western-allied, small oil exporter that flanks a major crude shipping route out of the Gulf, has detained more than 30 people in recent weeks over protests that erupted after strikes at petroleum facilities over pay and pension issues.
The walkouts were the biggest Oman has seen since a spate of protests last year against corruption and unemployment inspired triggered by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Oman's sultan - in power for 42 years and the longest-serving Arab head of state since the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year - promised thousands of jobs and unemployment benefits in response to last year's unrest.
But disgruntled Omanis say those measures are not being implemented and have periodically taken to the streets.
Police rounded up at least 22 people outside a Muscat police station two weeks ago during a peaceful protest calling for the release of activists who had criticised the government's response to their demands. Most were charged with demonstrating illegally and disrupting traffic.
Other suspects arrested in their homes were accused of publishing statements insulting public officials.
Defence lawyers said they had asked the court to dismiss the case because the detainees had been questioned without lawyers being present, in violation of Omani law. "The interrogations of the accused were conducted illegally since their lawyers were not allowed at the time," one of six defence lawyer said.
"We have already contested that in the hearing and we are confident charges will be dropped because of that violation," he told Reuters, asking not to be identified because it might harm the defence.
But a police official police at the station where the questioning took place said lawyers had not asked to be present. "Had we received the request, we will have allowed them."
The court decided to free the 11 suspected demonstrators until a ruling is issued on July 11, but kept the four accused of defamation and incitement in jail. It said a ruling in the case of the four will be on July 9.
Oman's public prosecutor warned this month that he would take action against anyone making defamatory statements on social media in the wake of protests where some activists used slogans that derided the government's decisions over lack of jobs and continuing corruption by officials.
Most state revenue comes from oil.
Reporting by Saleh al-Shaibany, writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich