Thirteen Charged With Speech Crimes After Violent Police Breakup
Jordan’s response to demonstrations looks more and more repressive. Its security forces violently break up peaceful protests and then continue to beat and insult detainees in custody.
(Beirut) – Police beat close to 30 demonstrators at a police station this week, two of whom fainted from the ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today after interviewing six witnesses to the March 31, 2012 arrests, including two detainees who were later freed. Military prosecutors charged 13 of them with crimes related to their exercise of freedom of speech to criticize the authorities, but no inquiry into ill-treatment has been announced, Human Rights Watch said.
“Jordan’s response to demonstrations looks more and more repressive,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Its security forces violently break up peaceful protests and then continue to beat and insult detainees in custody.”
On the afternoon of March 31, a crowd of demonstrators that the police estimated at 100 but participants said numbered several hundred gathered at the 4th Circle, a busy intersection in Amman, across from the prime minister’s office. They were protesting the continued detention of seven activists from Tafila that were arrested in mid-March at a protest in that southern town and charged with insulting King Abdullah, among other charges.
Gendarmerie and Public Security police forces warned the March 31 demonstrators not to cross “red lines,” six participants at the demonstration told Human Rights Watch. The police warning came after some had begun to chant, “If the people are scorned, the regime will fall,” and, “Oh [King] Abdullah, oh Abdullah, a Jordanian will not be scorned.”
Two of the demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that the group chanting the slogans warning of the government’s downfall did not belong to the main group of protestors.
Shortly after the chants and the police warnings, the security forces violently dispersed the crowd, beating many with truncheons, and arrested about 30 people, the witnesses said. One video posted on YouTube and featuring footage by JordanDays.tv, an online venture providing footage from important events, captures a security official running to attack a demonstrator though there appeared to be no threat to the official.
The police took those arrested in large vans to the Central Amman Police station, beating and insulting them on the way, two of the detainees who were later released told Human Rights Watch. At the entrance, and again inside, policemen continued to kick, punch, and beat with truncheons those arrested, the two men said. The relative of a third demonstrator who went to the Central Amman Police station to look for him told Human Rights Watch that he saw a policeman beating one of the detainees at the entrance.
Inside a communal cell, ‘Imad ‘Ayasra, a middle-aged demonstrator who suffers from advanced rheumatism and can only move slowly, fainted from blows to his shoulder sustained during the arrest and from continued beating once in custody, one person who was with him in the cell told Human Rights Watch. Guards called a doctor only five hours later, the witness said. Two witnesses said that when Abdullah Mahadin, a youth movement leader also arrested that day, refused guards’ orders to strip naked, guards beat him, smacking his head into the wall for about 10 minutes until he, too, fainted.
Authorities transferred 13 of those arrested to Muwaqqar prison and freed the rest. The next day, the 13 were charged at the military-dominated State Security Court with “insulting the king” (lèse majesté), “unlawful gathering,” and “subverting the system of government in the kingdom or inciting to resist it.” These are the same charges leveled against the detained Tafila protesters, and at least the fourth time since 2012 began that reform advocates have been charged with crimes relating to their exercise of freedom of speech to criticize the authorities.
A March 31 Public Security Directorate statement claimed that security forces dispersed the demonstration after repeated warnings because the crowd had blocked traffic, used distasteful language that hurt the feelings of passers-by, left a mark on public morals, and insulted security forces. Four activists present at the demonstration denied to Human Rights Watch that the protest blocked traffic.
“Peacefully opposing one’s system of government or calling for its replacement is protected speech,” Wilcke said. “It is high time Jordan reformed its penal code and abolished all articles criminalizing peaceful speech and assembly.”
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Jordan has a duty to protect citizens’ rights to call peacefully for a change of the system of government, Human Rights Watch said. In 2011, Jordan amended its Law of Public Gatherings by dropping the requirement of prior permission to hold demonstrations. In 2012, however, State Security Court military prosecutors have begun to crack down on demonstrators by using a penal code article criminalizing gatherings of seven people or more who intend to commit a crime. Under the king’s 2011 initiative to revise the constitution, parliamentary proposals to abolish the State Security Court’s jurisdiction over civilians did not garner the necessary support of the elected members of parliament.
Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Dr. ‘Awn al-Khasawna to:
- Ensure that all charges that concern the exercise of freedom of speech, particularly peaceful political discussion, are immediately dropped against the 13 activists arrested at the 4th circle as well as the seven activists arrested in Tafila earlier, and that those charged with these offenses alone are released;
- Set up an independent, impartial, and public inquiry into complaints of ill-treatment at the hands of the Gendarmerie and the Public Security forces, and ensure that any security official implicated in any ill-treatment is held accountable after fair proceedings. Any officer against whom there is credible evidence of having committed torture or ill-treatment should be suspended from duty during the investigation;
- Overhaul the penal code to bring it in line with Jordan’s international human rights obligations, including abolition of articles 149, 150, 157, and 188 to 199, which criminalize peaceful speech and assembly; and
- Abolish the State Security Court.