We write to you in connection with the recent trials of two different, unrelated suspects for the murder of Najih Khayyat. Facts recently disclosed about Jordan’s execution in 2000 of one of the murder suspects, Bilal Musa, provide a compelling new reason for Jordan to abolish the death penalty.
His Excellency Dr. Marouf Bakhit
P.O. Box 80
Amman - Jordan
December 14, 2005
H.E. Dr. Marouf Bakhit,
We write to you in connection with the recent trials of two different, unrelated suspects for the murder of Najih Khayyat. Facts recently disclosed about Jordan’s execution in 2000 of one of the murder suspects, Bilal Musa, provide a compelling new reason for Jordan to abolish the death penalty. The Jordanian justice system has failed dramatically in the murder cases against Musa and Zuhair Khatib, both of whom were tried for the murder of the same person.
In 2000, the Serious Crimes Court ordered Musa’s execution for ten murders he denied committing, including the murder of Najih Khayyat. Meanwhile, the same court tried but in September 2005 ultimately exonerated Zuhair Khatib for the same murder, although he had voluntarily confessed to the crime. On November 8, the government hastily executed Khatib for two other, unrelated murders. Khatib’s execution has made it even more difficult to establish the truth about the discrepancies in the trials for the murder of Khayyat.
These two cases provide a stunning example of why the death penalty must urgently be abolished in Jordan. The inherent fallibility of the criminal justice system assures that even when courts provide full due process of law, innocent persons are sometimes executed. Because an execution is irreversible, such miscarriages of justice can never be corrected. The flaws in the investigations and trials of Mr. Musa and Mr. Khatib indicate that Musa was likely executed for a crime in which his guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The flaws in the investigations and trials of Musa and Khatib cases also provide a compelling example of the shortcomings of the Jordanian judicial system, particularly in its reliance on “confessions” as the sole basis of evidence against defendants. We hope that they will instigate a serious overhaul of the way the justice system treats evidence and investigates allegations of torture.
On April 27, 2000, the judiciary ordered the execution of Bilal Musa for the 1995 murder of Najih Khayyat, among others, notwithstanding Musa’s allegations of a forced confession and his lack of any apparent connection to the victim. Subsequently, on September 26, 2005, the same court exonerated Zuhair Khatib, who had insisted that he was the real culprit. The judges in Musa’s case at the Serious Crimes Court in Amman also convicted him of murdering nine other people over a period of four years, based entirely on his contested confessions. Musa was executed by hanging at Swaqa Prison, just south of Amman on December 7, 2000. The court also convicted his wife Susan Ibrahim on accounts of murder and accomplice to murder but subsequently reduced her sentence to life in prison with hard labor. The court failed to investigate their allegations of torture. Susan Ibrahim died in prison several months after her husband’s execution.
Five years after this high profile case, the same court initially convicted, then exonerated Zuhair Khatib. On May 15, 2005, two of the same judges at the Serious Crimes Court who had tried and sentenced Musa initially sentenced Zuhair Khatib to death for the killing of Khayyat and two others. Khatib had confessed voluntarily to the murder of Khayyat after being arrested for his alleged connection to two other murders, to which he also confessed. When the court realized that Musa had already been executed for the murder of Khayyat, however, it reversed its decision on Khatib’s guilt for that murder, arguing that Musa’s confession corresponded more closely with the facts of the murder, notwithstanding Musa’s claim at the time that police had dictated his confession.
In Musa’s case, the prosecution failed to present any evidence linking Musa to the death of Khayyat or to the other murders, except for one case that Musa never disputed and claimed was in self defense, as described below. The court relied solely on a confession that was obtained as a result of torture, according to the court testimony of a witness.
Musa and Ibrahim became involved in the judicial system following a murder they claimed was in self defense. According to Muhammad Musa, Bilal Musa’s brother, Bilal secretly married Susan Ibrahim ‘Azazi in 1998 against his family’s wishes. They continued to live apart but met regularly at a friend’s flat in Zarqa, 40km north of Amman. On May 26, 1998, Bilal Musa returned to the flat where he had left Ibrahim with his friend, Murawwih Abd Jalil, to find him sexually assaulting his wife. Musa broke into the locked flat and killed his friend in the ensuing struggle.
One month later, Musa and Ibrahim left Jordan for Beni Ghazi, Libya. Musa left a letter for his family explaining his destination and secret marriage, and wrote a letter to the police chief of Zarqa, confessing to the killing of Jalil. In October 1998, Libya extradited Musa and Ibrahim to Jordan, where they were detained at the Criminal Investigation detention center in Amman without the knowledge of their families. Newspapers reported on January 3, 1999 that they had confessed to six murders in addition to that of Jalil while under interrogation. On February 28, 1999, new headlines stated that the couple had confessed to another five murders.
Available evidence indicates that Musa’s and Ibrahim’s claims that their confessions were extracted by torture are credible. First, a witness for the defense, Yusuf Hamdan Abu ‘Ajlan, testified in court that he heard Musa screaming from beatings he received at the Criminal Investigation facility. Second, the prison authorities denied the families of both Musa and Ibrahim visitation rights throughout the entire interrogation from October 1998 to February 1999. In fact, no one besides the authorities knew of their incarceration until the announcement of their confession on January 3, 1999. Human Rights Watch is aware of other cases in Jordan where the authorities have denied visitation rights to prevent allegations of torture. Third, Musa and Ibrahim immediately repudiated their allegedly coerced confessions at their first court hearing on March 8, 1999 and asked for a medical examination, which the court denied. Musa stuck with his confession to the killing in self defense of one of the victims, his erstwhile friend Murawwih Abd Jalil.
The confessions to the multiple murders make little sense, as they do not establish any connection between the accused and the victims or present a credible motive. The alleged murders took place from 1994 to 1998 with no apparent link between the cases (the victims include four men, seven women and one child) other than their status as unsolved murders. The court claimed Musa and Ibrahim robbed their victims, but one victim was found still wearing her jewelry. In two of the murder cases – that of Fatima Jamil Yusif of January 16, 1994, and of Sa’ad Farid Yusif on December 5, 1994 – the defense produced alibi witnesses for Musa, but the prosecution relied exclusively on his confession as evidence.
In contrast, Zuhair Khatib voluntarily and spontaneously confessed to the 1995 murder of Najih Khayyat, one of the men Musa and Ibrahim had been charged with murdering. Khatib presented a motive: Khayyat had agreed to employ Khatib in exchange for sexual favors. After about one week of entering into this agreement, Khayyat had not made good on his promises to employ him, so Khatib said, he went to his house to take revenge and killed Khayyat immediately after he had let him in. Throughout the initial proceedings in the Serious Crimes Court, Khatib stood by his confession against the advice of his lawyer, Issa ‘Atiyya. ‘Atiyya told Human Rights Watch that he tried to get his client certified as mentally disturbed, but that the diagnosis confirmed his mental fitness.
The court relied on a few insignificant discrepancies in the eventual exoneration of Khatib in September 2005. The same details did not stand in the way of the court’s initial conviction of Khatib in May 2005. For example, Khatib’s lawyer stressed that Khatib had said the victim was wearing pyjamas, when in fact he was wearing a day suit, and that the police found a broken chair next to the victim, who apparently died of a blow to the head, while Khatib had claimed to have killed him with a hammer.
Court records show, however, that Musa’s confession also contained some discrepancies. He allegedly confessed to taking his then girl-friend to Khayyat’s house as an accomplice in a robbery. Nevertheless, he allegedly proceeded to engage in homosexual acts with Khayyat in plain view of his girlfriend, before killing and robbing him. The investigation apparently never took forensic samples or asked others in the house to testify about seeing Khatib or Musa and Ibrahim on the day of the murder, or whether they recognized either as regular callers.
Khatib’s case went to the Appeals Court in May 2005, after it emerged that Musa had already been executed for the crime. The Appeals Court sent the case back to the Serious Crimes Court for review.
Khatib withdrew his confession only during the Serious Crimes Court’s review of the verdict on September 26, 2005, claiming he suffered from a mental illness and had only learned of the Khayyat case from the media. A journalist attending the session told Human Rights Watch that the proceeding took only ten minutes, with the court not bothering even to probe Khatib’s sudden reversal. The court summarily reversed its conviction of Khatib only for the murder of Khayyat, stating that his testimony did not match the facts found at the crime scene in a few details.
Human Rights Watch calls on you to open an independent inquiry into the judicial proceedings leading to the execution of Bilal Musa and the conviction of Susan Ibrahim and to the conviction and exoneration of Zuhair Khatib.
We recommend that the inquiry look at whether there was sufficient evidence besides the confessions to rule out alternative explanations of the murder either Musa or Khatib jor none of them allegedly committed and what action the judges took to demand such evidence from the prosecution. Furthermore, we recommend that this inquiry investigate the circumstances under which prosecutors take confessions from suspects, including the location and the suspect’s legal representation.
Jordan should abolish the death penalty. Human Rights Watch opposes the infliction of capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. In addition, the inherent fallibility of the criminal justice system assures that even when full due process of law is respected innocent persons are sometimes executed. Because an execution is irreversible, such miscarriages of justice can never be corrected. Musa’s execution for a crime he likely did not commit is an important example of this.
We look forward to hearing from you about the steps Jordan is taking to abolish the death penalty and prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Cc: H.E. Dr. Abed Al Shakhanbeh, Minister of Justice