Jordan: Slander Charge Signals Chill

Revise the Penal Code to Guarantee Free Speech

(Amman, December 23, 2004) — Jordan’s charging of a political activist with slander is intended to chill legitimate political debate, Human Rights Watch said today. A judge in Amman charged activist Ali Hattar on Tuesday with violating article 191 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which provides criminal penalties for the “slander” of Jordanian government officials.  

Human Rights Watch said that the government detained Hattar last Sunday after he delivered a lecture entitled, “Why We Boycott America.” The government released Hattar from custody on Monday, and charged him the next day. If found guilty, he faces up to two years imprisonment.  
“Yet again, the Jordanian government is using the vague wording of its penal code to crack down on free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “These charges fly in the face of the government’s pledges to reform the political system and protect basic freedoms for Jordanian citizens.”  
Hattar is a Jordanian engineer and political activist. In his lecture, he criticized the U.S administration’s policies and its support of Israel, and called for boycotting American goods and companies. Hattar is a member of the banned Anti-Normalization Committee, a group opposed to U.S. and Israeli policies. The group organized the lecture at the headquarters of the Professionals Association.  
While the government has pledged to ease restrictions on political freedom as part of its ambitious plans for reform, Human Rights Watch said the government has failed to amend the laws it relies on to restrict freedom of expression. In addition to the article 191 on slander against government officials, the Penal Code attaches a two-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of making statements that are found to “endanger the country's relations with foreign states…, [or] defame heads, presidents or kings of foreign states.”  
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (1995), which are based on international human rights law and standards, provides that “No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials, or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government, agency.”  
Jordanian officials have used criminal defamation laws to censor writers in the past. In May of this year, police officials detained Fahd al-Rimawi, editor of the weekly Al-Majd newspaper, for three days, and charged him with violating Article 118 of the Penal Code for “harming relations with a brotherly country,” in that case, Saudi Arabia.  
“Jordanians should be free to speak out on public issues without threat of government persecution,” said Whitson. “The current laws don’t let them.”  
Human Rights Watch called on the Jordanian government to drop the charges against Hattar immediately. Jordan should also eliminate criminal penalties for defamation, including slander, in cases that do not involve direct and immediate incitement to acts of violence, discrimination or hostility, Human Rights Watch said.