End Prosecutions for Peaceful Speech
January 27, 2011

King Abdullah rightly recognized the importance of hearing all voices to debates about Jordan's future. Yet prosecutors time and time again initiate criminal proceedings against dissidents.

Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch

(Amman) - Jordan should stop stifling dissent and allow Jordanians to voice their grievances freely, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2011 chapter on Jordan.

The 649-page report, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries worldwide. Throughout 2010, Jordanian authorities prosecuted peaceful dissidents and prohibited peaceful gatherings to protest government policies, Human Rights Watch said. These practices were inconsistent with King Abdullah's November letter designating Samir Rifai as prime minister, in which the king noted that "achieving political development that boosts public participation in the decision-making process is a prerequisite for the success of other social and economic reforms."

"King Abdullah rightly recognized the importance of hearing all voices to debates about Jordan's future," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Yet prosecutors time and time again initiate criminal proceedings against dissidents."

In 2010, prosecutors brought charges for peaceful speech under articles of the penal code that criminalize "stirring up sectarian strife" (article 150) or "insulting the king," government officials, and institutions (article 195).

On February 3, the intelligence forces stormed the house of ‘Imad al-Din al-‘Ash, a 24-year-old computer science student, and arrested him. In solitary confinement at the General Intelligence Department, he confessed to publishing an article on the Faluja Islamic Forums website that referred to the king as "effeminate," an "idol," and "originally and truly English." The article, "Abbreviated Message to the Jordanian Intelligence," written under an alias, also accused Jordanians of Circassian origin, some of whose members form the royal guard, of having "overturned" the country, called soldiers "cowards," and described the November 2005 Amman hotel bombings by al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in which around 60 civilians died as a "fast operation." Relying on the confession, the State Security Court sentenced al-‘Ash to two years in prison. The sentence was upheld on appeal in November.

On July 28, the military prosecutor at the State Security Court detained a 25-year-old university student, Hatim al-Shuli, on charges of stirring up strife and insulting King Abdullah, based on a poem al-Shuli posted on his Facebook page that he was accused of writing. The poem accused the king of abandoning the cause of Palestinian rights. The prosecutor released al-Shuli on bail after more than 40 days in pre-trial detention, but his trial continues.

In August, Jordan passed a new Law of Information System Crimes expressly subjecting all online expression to the provisions of the penal code and other applicable laws.

Restrictions on expression and assembly also characterized the parliamentary elections on November 9. On October 18, Dr. Sa'd al-Wadi al-Manasir, the Zarqa governor, denied permission to Radio Balad to host and broadcast a debate among candidates for Zarqa's first electoral district, providing no reasons for the denial. The station had planned the broadcast under the headline "Unemployment and Environment."

On November 27, the prosecutor at the State Security Court charged Tahir Nassar, who unsuccessfully ran for a parliamentary seat, with "stirring up sectarian strife." In his election manifesto, Nassar had lamented that Jordanians of Palestinian origin have a harder time finding jobs than other Jordanians, and said there is "discrimination between citizens on the basis of the birthplace by which this nation without equality distinguishes itself," adding that, "in Jordan the basis [for obtaining a job] is a birth certificate." The State Security Court's military prosecutor released Nassar on December 20 but referred the case to a civilian court.

Governors also denied permission to groups planning to hold public meetings in the period before the general elections. Under the Law on Public Assemblies of 2008, organizers must obtain permission to hold any public meeting, and provincial governors may deny permission without providing a reason. On September 16, the Youth Office of the Popular Unity Party organized a protest at the prime minister's office to support a boycott of the elections. Police arrested 18 protesters, but later released them without charge.

On October 9, security forces briefly arrested about 35 students visiting a professor at his farm in Ma'daba, south of the capital, Amman, alleging that they were campaigning to support an election boycott called by the Islamic Action Front, an opposition political party.

In an earlier case regarding public assembly, on May 10, prosecutors filed charges of unlawful gathering against Muhammad al-Sunaid and Ahmad al-Luwanisa, leaders of the Committee of Day Laborers at Government Offices. They had gathered with 30 other day laborers outside the offices of the Center for Participation on Behalf of Democracy in Ma'daba, where the agriculture minister was scheduled to give a lecture.

They peacefully protested their recent dismissal by the ministry and then attended the speech, where they called for the minister's removal during the question-and-answer period. The State Security Court convicted al-Sunaid, but not al-Luwanisa, sentencing al-Sunaid to three months in prison.

The rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are protected under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Jordan ratified in 1975. Jordan amended various provisions of its penal code in July, but kept numerous articles criminalizing peaceful speech.

"If Jordan were a free country, criticizing the king and debating or peacefully protesting government policies would not be a crime," Wilcke said.