November 21, 2011

The trial of 150 Jordanians on charges of terrorism is the largest of its kind in Jordan’s recent history and shows exactly what is wrong with the State Security Court. The acts in question stem from an April 15 brawl among government supporters, opponents, and police in Zarqa’, an impoverished town northeast of Amman. Only members of the opposition face prosecution. The trial, taking place inside a corridor of Muwaqqar 2, Jordan’s maximum security prison in the desert east of Amman, is seriously flawed. It singles out Islamists on charges of terrorism and casts doubts on the kingdom’s path towards genuine political reform, its commitment to the rule of law, and its stated desire to protect the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

Salafis had held several protests earlier in the year, all peaceful, to press for the release of jailed Salafis and for the application of Islamic law. But after the April 15 demonstration ended, there was a 20-minute episode of violence half a kilometer away. It is unclear who started the violence or why; all Human Rights Watch (HRW) knows is that a number of Salafis, government supporters, and security personnel fought with sticks, stones, knives, and fists. One protester told HRW that a number of protesters came armed with knives and swords because pro-government supporters and police had attacked a group of non-Salafi protesters in Amman on March 25. The Public Security Directorate claimed that more than 80 policemen were injured, while about a dozen Salafis required hospitalization.

The prosecution contended that participation in a demonstration linked to violence— even if some time and distance away from the scene of the fight—was a terrorist offense, and it highlighted prior arrests or particular defendants’ admissions that they indeed belonged to a “jihadi-Salafi” strand of Islam.

What followed was a swift campaign of arrests: 159 in six days, with police looking for 100 more suspects, according to public security officials.  According to the charge sheet obtained by HRW, the military prosecutor of the General Intelligence Department on April 20 filed charges against 230 people for acts of terrorism, disturbance, assault, and unlawful gathering.

None of the detainees were government supporters or members of the security forces.

Security forces detained some simply for being Salafis—or their relatives—rather than basing charges on evidence of violent involvement. One Salafi who had not been at the demonstration said special forces commandos broke into his house at 1 a.m. and arrested him and a non-Salafi relative; the relative said that commandos wearing masks held him and others at an unknown location and beat them for three hours while they were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. Both were released after three weeks. Another said that he was arrested on April 16 shortly after being released from surgery at a hospital and still carrying his medical records, and that guards at Amman’s Criminal Investigation Department rained blows down on him and smashed his head into the walls.

Several others detained also described beatings in police custody or after being transferred to Muwaqqar 2 prison. Yet defense lawyers for the Salafis maintain that there are still no investigations into this ill-treatment by the security forces. Of those arrested, 77 were released for lack of evidence. The 100 still in custody have already spent over five months in solitary confinement. Abd al-Shahada al-Tahawi and Aiman al-Buluwi, considered leaders, remain so still. The State Security Court has repeatedly turned down requests for bail.

The evidence against those being tried, including witness testimony HRW heard in court and reviewed with defense lawyers, gives no indication that those charged were responsible for political violence amounting to terrorism. Police witnesses said they saw all parties (Salafis, government supporters, and police) fighting. They could not substantiate charges of terrorism, let alone identify individual Salafi defendants as aggressors. Nonetheless, the prosecution contended that participation in a demonstration linked to violence— even if some time and distance away from the scene of the fight—was a terrorist offense, and it highlighted prior arrests or particular defendants’ admissions that they indeed belonged to a “jihadi-Salafi” strand of Islam.

The defendants include people like Nidal Ghara’iba. He maintains that he was arrested when a police officer ushered him to safety in a police van after rocks started flying. His experience demonstrates the consequences of unaccountable security forces operating in tandem with compliant courts. Ghara’iba’s brother Salah told HRW that his brother became a Salafi in 2004 after an off-duty police officer overheard a casual remark he made about the king and accused him of insulting the king (lese majeste). Ghara’iba spent months in detention (where he met a number of Salafis) before the court found him not guilty. He was imprisoned again in 2010 and told he would be released if he wrote down his frank opinions of country and king. After doing so, he was instead prosecuted and convicted by the State Security Court—once more for lese majeste, but this time based on the opinions the court asked him to write.

A roundup of usual suspects and rubber-stamping charges are nothing new in Jordan. Even so, this trial differs from other State Security Court trials for speech offenses or for terrorism. Defendants in previous cases faced charges of using or supporting political violence, like the one that concluded in July against ‘Isam Barqawi, a Salafi leader known as Abu Muhammd al-Maqdisi, and three others, for providing financial backing to the Taliban (though they were found not guilty); or a foiled plot to bomb Queen Alia airport in 2006 (the plotters were convicted in 2007). Only one other case involved dozens of defendants on terrorism and related charges, and there, the scale of violence was much different: the State Security Court in 2006 convicted 34 defendants and found a further 74 not guilty for their role in the 2002 riots in Ma’an, which involved several days of clashes between thousands of police officers and local residents and resulted in the death of six people (including two police officers).

Scores of prosecution and defense witnesses have yet to testify in this current case. Once a trial is underway only the State Security Court can end it. But the new Prime Minister ‘Awn al-Khasawna, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, has an opportunity to implement the spirit of constitutional amendments passed on September 30 that restrict the State Security Court’s jurisdiction to cases of high treason, espionage, drug trafficking, and terrorism. He can affirm the principle that no civilians be tried in special courts that are not independent; the State Security Court sits in panels of two military judges appointed by the chief of staff of the armed forces and a civilian judge appointed by the prime minister, who has the right to refer cases to the court. Al-Khasawna can make clear that cases such as this one—in which the evidence presented suggests that, at most, a street brawl took place—should be tried in civilian courts.

* Christoph Wilcke is a senior researcher with the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch *