Greatly Expand Categories of Terrorist Acts
May 18, 2014
Jordan’s legitimate security concerns don’t give the government a green light to punish peaceful criticism of foreign rulers as terrorism. Jordan ought to be increasing the space for public criticism and debate rather than limiting it.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director

(Beirut) – King Abdullah II should reject amendments to Jordan’s Anti-Terrorism Law that broaden the definition of terrorism and threaten freedom of expression. The amendments quickly passed Jordan’s lower house of parliament on April 22, 2014, and the upper house on April 30.

The amendments, which would replace four articles in Jordan’s 2006 Anti-Terrorism Law, broaden the definition of terrorism to include such acts as “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state.” That offense is already in Jordan’s penal code and is regularly used to punish peaceful criticism of foreign countries or their rulers. The amendments would also stiffen penalties. The government spokesman, Mohammed al-Momani, stated that the amendments are necessary to help authorities cope with an influx of Jordanian fighters returning from the war in Syria.

“Jordan’s legitimate security concerns don’t give the government a green light to punish peaceful criticism of foreign rulers as terrorism,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Jordan ought to be increasing the space for public criticism and debate rather than limiting it.”

The amendments now need only the king’s approval and publication in the official gazette to become law.

Legislators adopted the 2006 Anti-Terrorism law following hotel bombings in Amman. That law defined terrorism as “any intentional act committed by any means that leads to the death of a person or causes bodily harm or damaging public or private property … with the goal of harming public order and subjecting the peace of society or its security to danger.”

The proposed amendments remove the requirement of a connection to an act of violence, instead including a definition that references acts that “sow discord” or “disturb public order.” Without further defining these vague offenses, the law could be used to prosecute peaceful expression or assembly as terrorism, Human Rights Watch said.

The amendments also add to the list of acts to be considered terrorism, including:

  • Acts that subject the kingdom to danger of hostile acts, disturb its relations with a foreign state, or expose Jordanians to danger of acts of revenge against them or their money;
  • Any information system or network that facilitates terrorist acts, supports or spreads ideas of a group that undertakes an act of terrorism, or subjects Jordanians or their property to danger of hostile acts or acts of revenge;
  • Possessing or handling in any way dangerous materials or weapons or working with them to use them for terrorist acts or unlawfully;
  • Attacking the king or his freedom, the queen, the crown prince, or a guardian of the throne;
  • Any act committed with the intent to provoke an armed rebellion or changing the constitution in an unlawful way; and
  • Forming a gang with the intent to commit thievery or infringe on people or money.

Prosecutors frequently use article 118 of the penal code, which bans “distributing relations with a foreign state,” to limit critical speech about foreign rulers. In September 2013, for example, the State Security Court prosecutor, a military officer, invoked article 118 to charge and jail the editor and publisher of the Jafra News website after the site posted a third-party YouTube video deemed insulting to the brother of Qatar’s ruler. In October, the same prosecutor used the charge to order the arrest and detention of three activists accused of distributing posters carrying the word Raba’a, a reference to a square in Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood protesters were dispersed by security forces on August 14.

Jordanian prosecutors have pursued a four-year prosecution against Sufyan al-Tell, an environmental activist, and Mwafaq Mahadin, a journalist, for criticizing the United States and Jordan’s foreign policy on satellite TV programs. Reuters reported that the authorities regularly usethe same charge to arrest and pursue security-related prosecutions against Jordanians who return to Jordan after fighting with Syrian rebels against the Syrian army.

Amendments to the State Security Court law, promulgated in early 2014, restricted the jurisdiction of the court to crimes related to terrorism, espionage, treason, drugs, or money counterfeiting, and therefore removed the charge “disturbing relations with a foreign state” from the court’s purview. By classifying this act as terrorism, the terrorism law amendments return it to the jurisdiction of the State Security Court.

“Jordanian officials promised that State Security Court reform would put an end to all speech-related prosecutions by that court, but the new terrorism law amendments seem likely to bring them back in through the back door,” Stork said.

The terrorism amendments also toughen penalties. They require the death penalty for any act that causes a death, destroys or damages a building if someone was inside, uses poisonous or other dangerous materials, or for a life-threatening attack against the king, queen, or crown prince. The law stipulates life imprisonment for provoking an armed rebellion and an attack against the king that is not life threatening. All other acts proscribed by the law are punishable by “temporary hard labor,” between three and 20 years in prison.

The new law retains powers granted by the 2006 Anti-Terrorism Law to State Security Court prosecutors – all of whom are military officers – including the power to order surveillance, travel bans, searches, and freeze money belonging to anyone suspected of involvement in a crime of terrorism, all without judicial review. Jordan’s Criminal Procedure Code grants all prosecutors in Jordan the right to detain suspects at their discretion. The law effectively bars bail for all terrorism suspects.

Jordan is the second country in the region to pass new terrorism legislation in 2014, following Saudi Arabia, which recently promulgated a law that contained “harming the reputation of the kingdom” as part of its definition of terrorism. Egypt is considering draft amendments to 17 articles of its penal code that define terrorism to include actions – potentially such as labor strikes or peaceful protests – that could “obstruct” the work of public officials or criminalize any “intimidation” that could “harm national unity,” prevent the application of the country’s constitution or laws, or “damage the economy.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, in a 2009 report, stated: “The definitions of terrorist crimes should be confined exclusively to activities that entail or are directly related to the use of deadly or serious violence against civilians…. The proscription of terrorist organizations, including the application of criminal responsibility of its members, must be made on the basis of factual evidence of activities that are of a genuine terrorist nature as well as of the actual involvement of the individuals concerned.”

The UN General Assembly in 2006 emphasized respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, and recognized that “development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.” As part of that process, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2009 released “Model Legislative Provisions Against Terrorism,” based on contributions from agencies across the UN system.

“Jordan’s responsibilities to safeguard its citizens and their rights are not in conflict,” Stork said. “Jordan does not need to curtail speech in order to stop terrorism.”