Court Twice Ruled in 2 Intellectuals’ Favor
May 4, 2013
Jordan’s claim to be making democratic reforms rings hollow while prosecutors hunt down public figures simply for criticizing the government’s foreign policy. Tolerating political dissent is essential in any rights-respecting democracy.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Beirut) – Jordanian criminal justice authorities should immediately drop their three-year prosecution of two intellectuals and withdraw all charges against them. The charges, which include “disturbing relations with a foreign state” and “inciting racist strife,” relate solely to the two men’s peaceful exercise of their right to free speech.

Prosecutors filed charges against Mwafaq Mahadin, 59, and Sufyan al-Tell, 74, in February 2010. The authorities have continued to pursue their prosecution despite two separate lower court rulings that cleared the defendants of all wrongdoing. The authorities should follow the rulings of the trial court and scrap the law under which the most serious charge was brought, Human Rights Watch said.

Jordan’s claim to be making democratic reforms rings hollow while prosecutors hunt down public figures simply for criticizing the government’s foreign policy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Tolerating political dissent is essential in any rights-respecting democracy.”

Court documents reveal that the only evidence cited by prosecutors against Mahadin and al-Tell through the entire court proceedings comes from satellite TV interviews with the two men in early 2010 in which they expressed their personal views about Jordanian foreign policy, including Jordan’s participation in the Afghanistan conflict.

The case against Mahadin, a well-known journalist and writer, and al-Tell, an environmental activist who represented Jordan for nine years on the Executive Council of the UN’s Environmental Programme, began in February 2010. It was brought after both men were interviewed on television following the December 2009 attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan’s Khost Province that killed a Jordanian intelligence official and seven CIA agents. The two were among a group of 87 Jordanian intellectuals who signed a public statement in early February entitled “It is not our war.”

During the interviews, on Al Jazeera and the Jordanian satellite TV channel Nourmina, both men expressed their personal opinions on US-Jordanian relations and Jordan’s participation alongside the US in the conflict in Afghanistan. Court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch cite a number of comments as incriminating evidence, most of which concerned Jordan's relations with the US.

The 2010 US State Department human rights report cited the prosecution of al-Tell and Mahadin as a violation of freedom of speech and the press.

Since early 2011, Jordanian leaders have repeatedly pledged to move the country toward a rights-respecting democracy, and world leaders have praised Jordan for its reform efforts, but the fact that the authorities can go to such lengths to mount criminal prosecutions against critics for their peaceful political speech shows what a long way Jordan still has to go, Human Rights Watch said.

Al-Tell told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors initiated charges against him and Mahadin after three retired military officers filed complaints against them in the days following the broadcasts. On February 4, 2010, the Office of the Public Prosecutor transferred the case to the State Security Court, which ordered the arrest of both men on February 10. Both were held in Amman’s Juweida prison until February 15 then released on bail.

On April 6, 2010, al-Tell told Human Rights Watch, authorities moved the case back to the civilian courts due to changes to the press and publications law that removed these crimes from the jurisdiction of the State Security Court. On May 9, the Amman Public Prosecutor filed charges under the penal code and press code, including “disturbing relations with a foreign state” and several minor charges: “inciting racist strife,” “broadcasting news that would undermine the prestige of the state,” “encouraging others by speech to overthrow the standing government,” and “vilifying an official body (the army).”

On May 22, the Amman Court of First Instance acquitted both defendants on all counts and held that three of the charges conflicted with constitutional free speech guarantees because they rested on the expression of personal opinions in television interviews. The court ruled penal code article 118.2, which criminalizes “disturbing relations with a foreign state,” unconstitutional. It held that the article contains provisions that directly violate these guarantees, and that al-Tell’s statements regarding Jordan’s military did not meet the standards of criminal defamation as charged by the prosecutor – “vilifying an official body”. The court found that the prosecutor had offered no details to support the charge of “inciting racist strife.”

The Public Prosecutor appealed the judgment. On January 16, 2012, this appellate court rejected the lower court ruling, citing “bad induction and lack of explanation,” and returned the case to that court to “repair” its decision. On October 10, 2012, the Court of Cassation, Jordan’s high court, refused to hear an appeal by the defendants.

On February 18, 2013, Amman’s Court of First Instance again cleared the defendants on all charges, making more explicit the legal reasoning behind its dismissal of each charge. The court said concerning the charge of “disturbing relations with a foreign state,” for example, that the prosecution’s case had not established any deterioration of relations or hostile acts as a result of the defendant’s statements.

Nevertheless, the prosecutor filed a new appeal on March 5, contending that the lower court judgment was “tainted by failures of reasoning and causation.”

Al-Tell told Human Rights Watch that the appellate court is reviewing the second lower court decision, but he does not know when it will issue its decision.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution, as cited by both lower court decisions. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Jordan is a state party, protects the right to freedom of expression, including “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (article 19).

“Despite two separate exonerations, prosecutors have dragged these men through endless hours of court hearings and appeals to punish them for voicing their opinions and possibly to deter other critics from speaking out,” Whitson said. “If Jordan is serious about reform it needs to stop prosecuting people for peacefully saying what they think.”