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A draft law before Jordan’s parliament would close a window of free expression and assembly for the more than 120,000 members of the country’s professional associations, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Jordan’s new prime minister.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern with several provisions of the new draft law, including the requirement that professional associations obtain prior written approval from the Interior Ministry to hold a public gathering or meeting. The law, which was presented to parliament on March 6, would also require associations to limit topics of discussion at any of their professional meetings, councils and committee meetings exclusively to “professional matters.”

“This law is a naked attempt to silence the vocal and often critical public debate that the professional associations foster,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a major step backwards in Jordan’s commitment to human rights, and parliament should reject it at once.”

The new draft law also would create a government-controlled disciplinary structure with the authority to punish and suspend members from the practice of their profession for a variety of vague, ill-defined infractions, including “directing an association out of its professional mandate” or “harming the honor of a profession.”

“This law threatens association members with the loss of their livelihood, should they dare to criticize the government or hold a meeting without government permission,” said Whitson.

The draft law covers 12 professional associations that have more than 120,000 active members. The associations include journalists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, artists as well as other professionals.

The Jordanian government has alleged that the associations are meddling in politics by engaging in activities that are irrelevant to their mandates. The leaders of some professional associations, as well as speakers featured at association events, have been very critical of government policies and have opposed U.S. policies in Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The draft law follows on the heels of the Jordanian government’s crackdown on events held by professional associations. This year alone, the government banned at least four association events of a political nature. In December, a member of the Jordanian Engineers Association, Ali Hattar, presented a lecture at the Professional Associations Complex in Amman calling for the boycott of U.S. goods and companies in protest of U.S. policies in Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. After the lecture, authorities detained Hattar and charged him with slandering Jordanian government officials. At the time, Human Rights Watch called on the government to amend the vague wording in its Penal Code that it has used to crack down on free speech, as in Hattar’s case.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged the government’s concerns regarding the current organization and conduct of the associations, and potential abuses of power by their leadership. In several cases, the professional associations have themselves used disciplinary procedures to punish members for expressing unpopular political views.

In August, the Jordan Engineers Association sanctioned one of its members, Raed Qaqish, who is also a member of parliament, after he appeared on a television show that also hosted an Israeli official. The JEA banned the deputy from attending any official meetings or event organized by the association.

In September 2000, the Jordan Press Association relied on its by-laws, which require members to be employed full-time as journalists, to expel its Secretary General, Nidal Mansour, after he began to work for a new nongovernmental organization promoting freedom of the press.

“Jordanian law requires journalists and others to join these professional associations as a condition to the practice of their profession,” said Whitson. “Instead of tinkering with the freedom of expression of association members and the governance of their associations, the Jordanian parliament should abolish the requirement of mandatory association membership.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed Jordan’s public commitments to protect the freedom of its citizens, including their right to assemble and organize freely. However, Jordan’s draft law on associations calls into question the government’s willingness to fulfill its commitments.

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