New information in a murder case that led to the execution of a suspect in 2000 provides a compelling new reason for Jordan to abolish the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. The Jordanian justice system has failed dramatically in the murder case against Bilal Musa, executing him for murder based on a confession that was likely obtained as a result of torture, but exonerating another man who voluntarily confessed to committing the same crime.
“These two cases exemplify the Jordanian judiciary’s failure to conduct even the most basic inquiry into the facts, even in the most serious cases,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan should urgently follow King Abdullah’s call to abolish the death penalty to prevent tragic cases like this in the future.”
On April 27, 2000, the Serious Crimes Court in Amman ordered the execution of Bilal Musa for the 1995 murder of Najih Khayyat, despite his claim to have been tortured into confessing and the lack of any apparent connection to the victim. But on September 26, 2005, the same court cleared Zuhair Khatib, who insisted that he was the real killer.
The judges also convicted Musa of murdering nine other people over a period of four years, based entirely on his contested confessions. The prosecution failed to present any evidence linking Musa to the death of Khayyat or to the other murders. The court relied solely on a confession that was obtained as a result of torture, according to the court testimony of a witness who testified he had heard Musa screaming from beatings he received while being interrogated.
Musa never disputed an eleventh case, in which he claimed he killed a friend who was sexually assaulting Musa’s wife, Susan Ibrahim. She was a co-defendant in the cases against Musa. The court failed to investigate Musa’s and Ibrahim’s allegations of torture.
On December 7, 2000, Musa was executed by hanging at Swaqa Prison, just south of Amman. The court also convicted his wife, Susan Ibrahim, of murder but reduced her sentence to life in prison with hard labor. Ibrahim died in prison several months after her husband’s execution.
On May 15, 2005, five years after this high profile case had been closed, two of the same judges at the Serious Crimes Court convicted Khatib for the murder of Khayyat and two others. According to court papers, Khatib had voluntarily and spontaneously confessed to the murder of Khayyat, although the police sought him only in connection to two unrelated murders, to which he also confessed. The court accepted his confession and convicted him of all three killings
“The Khayyat case points to the dangers of relying on disputed confessions without further evidence to establish the truth,” Whitson said. “Rigorous scrutiny of evidence and the court’s desire to establish the truth are sadly absent in these cases.”
When the court realized that it had already sentenced Musa to death for the same murder, the case went to the Court of Cassation, which sent it back to the lower court for review.
On September 26, the Serious Crimes Court reversed its decision to convict Khatib for the murder of Khayyat, arguing that Musa’s confession corresponded more closely with the facts of the murder, notwithstanding Musa’s claim that police had dictated his confession. The court’s dismissal of Khatib’s voluntary confession to the murder of Khayyat was apparently based only on their realization that they had already executed a man for the crime.
Three times this court has issued a verdict on who murdered Najih Khayyat. Two of the three judges on the bench ruled in both cases. Confronted with exactly the same facts, the judges once found Khatib “guilty” and once found him “not guilty.” Despite a lack of corroborating evidence and allegations of a confession obtained as a result of torture, they found Musa guilty and had him executed.
“The same judges who initially relied on Musa’s and Khatib’s confessions without significant testing of the evidence should not be called on to review the verdicts,” Whitson said. “There needs to be an independent inquiry.”
Human Rights Watch today published a letter to the Jordanian prime minister urging him to support abolishing the death penalty, to start an independent investigation into these two cases and to overhaul the investigation techniques of Jordanian courts. King Abdullah said this month that he wanted Jordan to be the first country in the region to abolish the death penalty.
“These two cases are a stunning example of the Jordanian judiciary’s failure to conduct even the most basic inquiry into the facts surrounding the most serious crimes with the most serious penalty,” said Whitson. “The police, prosecutors and judges appear to have had little interest in establishing the truth, and every interest in rushing through murder verdicts based on confessions likely extracted under torture.”