Serving a life sentence in Oman, an inmate transfer treaty could be a Catalan woman's only hope

Fátima Ofkir Reyes was arrested on drug trafficking charges five years ago at age 18 

Rosario Reyes, mother of Fátima Ofkir's, imprisoned in Oman
Rosario Reyes, mother of Fátima Ofkir's, imprisoned in Oman / Gerard Escaich
Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | @cristinatomasw | Barcelona

December 3, 2022 09:49 AM

December 3, 2022 10:30 AM

When Fátima Ofkir Reyes was arrested in Oman on August 3, 2017, she became the youngest Spanish citizen detained abroad. Age 18 at the time, a dozen armed officers raided her hotel room in Muscat where they discovered 7kg of morphine in a suitcase. 

The next day when Rosario Reyes Carballo, her mother, received a call from the Spanish Embassy informing her that her daughter had been charged with drug trafficking, her entire world fell apart.

With Fátima now having served 5 years of a 25-year life sentence, Rosario has spent an equal amount of time with one thought on her mind: freeing Fátima.


How she got there

"I fell into a deep depression after my divorce," Rosario told Catalan News among photos and other reminders of her daughter in her otherwise bare apartment in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, a a working class city that neighbors Barcelona to the south. In debt and overcome with worry, for a timespan of 6 or 7 months she could barely get out of bed. 

"I didn't know how to be there for Fátima as a mother," she confesses, explaining that she was not always aware of where her daughter was or who she was hanging out with. 

Rosario soon learned, however, that Fátima, a talented young softball player, had traveled to the Middle East only days before her arrest. She is convinced her daughter was taken advantage of for being what she describes as a "vulnerable" teen. 

And even though, as her mother and current lawyers claim, she immediately tried to back out of plans to smuggle drugs to Europe and cooperated with Omani authorities, providing them with what she knew about the people who had talked her into the illegal scheme, it was already too late. 

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Spotify

"Psychological nightmare"

Rosario's first step was to hire someone to defend her daughter from on a list of lawyers provided to her by the Spanish Embassy in Muscat. And this, Rosario says, is when her "psychological nightmare" began.   

"We would talk every week and he would feed me lies about my daughter coming home in a year's time," she told Catalan News. "But then he'd ask for €30,000 and then €35,000 and say he couldn't do anything without it," she explained, adding that she later found out "he would never show up in court."

25-year life sentence

Fátima was first sentenced to 8 years behind bars. But when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said passed away in January 2020, his successor, his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, decided to implement harsher penalties for drug trafficking. 

For Fátima this meant that the initial 8 years were turned into a life sentence, which in Oman, as Catalan News was able to confirm with the country's ministry of justice, is at most 25 years

"They don't care if she was tricked into doing it or if she did it for the money or whatever reason, they only care that she's a woman," Rosario said. 

An unlicensed lawyer?

Around this point is when a new Barcelona-based law office came into the picture, pro-bono, that decided to go public with the case. According to them, if these events had happened in Spain, Fátima would have likely not spent any time in prison given the fact that she did not go through with the trafficking coupled with her willingness to cooperate with police. 

They also made the shocking claim that Fátima's first lawyer, the one Rosario had found through the Spanish Embassy, had not been licensed to practice law in Spain during the trial and that it was very improbable he ever had been licensed in Oman. Catalan News was able to confirm that this person, who declined a request to comment, does not currently have a law license in Spain, but was unable to determine whether he had previously had one. 

According to Fátima, he only went to 5 of around 15 hearings, and Rosario was told that her daughter's conviction could still be appealed when it could not. Rosario hopes to sue both the Embassy for providing her with his contact information and the supposed lawyer some day.   

No royal pardon

To make matters worse, Rosario only recently discovered that Fátima is not eligible for a royal pardon. Although the Sultan has been known to pardon prisoners on important Muslim holidays and every November 18, Oman's national day, these have always been for inmates who have already served three quarters of their sentences. Sources close to the case also told Catalan News that the Sultan is yet to pardon a female prisoner

An inmate transfer treaty

Fátima's - and her mother's - only hope now is an inmate transfer treaty between Spain and Oman that would allow her to return home. Fátima would still have to serve the rest of her sentence, but under conditions established by the Spanish legal system, which allows for regular visits and leave permits. 

And while Spain's foreign ministry told Catalan News it "continues to promote the negotiation of an agreement," a congressional source who wished to remain anonymous said that their Omani counterparts had not shown any desire to do so and had not responded to a draft treaty sent to them by Spanish authorities. 

The same source also said that the Spanish government was trying to be as discreet as possible as it fears making certain information public could be counterproductive, and explained that the agreement it seeks is not an ad-hoc one for Fátima alone, but one that would also benefit the Spanish national who talked her into participating in the scheme and who is also imprisoned in the country. 

Another source close to the case told Catalan News it could take up to 15 years for an inmate transfer agreement to become a reality, but Diego Boza, a law professor at the University of Cádiz in southern Spain, believes this may not even happen if there is no additional incentive for Oman, especially as releasing convicted drug traffickers could be viewed unfavorably in the country. 

Attention brought to the case at the European level has thus far failed to secure concrete results, with a handful of Catalan MEPs sending top EU diplomat Josep Borrell a letter two years ago in which they denounced the apparent due process violations as well as the Spanish Embassy for providing Rosario with the first lawyer's contact information. 

Borrell responded by telling them he was aware of the case, but reminded them that "Member States are responsible for the provision of direct consular protection to EU citizens." He did also say, however, that the EU Delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is co-accredited to the Sultanate of Oman, "will continue liaising with the Spanish Embassy in following the case."

Rosario also sent King Felipe of Spain a letter pleading for help following his visit Oman to meet with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said in January 2020, to which the Zarzuela Palace responded by telling her it had been forwarded to Spain's foreign ministry.

In the meantime, Fátima receives monthly visits from the Spanish Embassy, and her mother says she receives 1-minute calls every month in addition to occasional letters. Her lawyers say she is forced to wear a burqa and has to pray five times a day. Both Fatima and Rosario are losing faith and don't know if they can wait another twenty years for her release.  

"I try to be strong, but it's hard," Fátima wrote to her mother in a letter dated November 17, 2022. "What I find most difficult is accepting this place is my home and my family," her letter continues. She tells her mother she has had enough of "false promises" and will be limiting her contact with the outside world. "I'm broken inside. Thank you and all the people who are still there for me and know I'm alive."