The government of Jordan must not roll back on its commitment to fully respect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. Rather than implement the reforms it promised, the government of Prime Minister Ma’ruf al-Bakhit is giving the intelligence agencies, the police and prosecutors free rein to clamp down on legitimate speech.
For example, on June 11, prosecutors from the Court of First Instance in Amman ordered the arrest of four members of parliament after they condoled family members on the death of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. One of the four also allegedly called al-Zarqawi “a martyr and a fighter.”
“Expressing condolences to the family of a dead man, however murderous he might be, is not a crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “And it shouldn’t be grounds for prosecution. Nor should a dubious comment about an alleged terrorist leader, even by a member of parliament, be considered incitement to violence. Going after these people is an unacceptable violation of their basic rights to free speech.”
The four parliamentarians are Muhammad Abu Faris, Ali Abu Sukkar, Ja`far al-Hurani, and Ibrahim al-Mashukhi, all members of the Islamic Action Front. They are charged with violating Article 150 of Jordan’s Penal Code, which bans all writing or speech that is “intended to, or results in, stirring up sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”
The prosecutor from the Court of First Instance subsequently decided that the charges against the men fell outside his jurisdiction, and transferred the case to the jurisdiction of the military prosecutor at the State Security Court. Observers within Jordan told Human Rights Watch that this move had the appearance of evident government intervention.
The men have been detained on remand in Jafr prison, located in the desert 350 km south of Amman. None of the parliamentarians comes from that region or represents local districts. `Azzam Hunaidi, the head of the parliamentary bloc of the Islamic Action Front, told Human Rights Watch that party officials had not been able to visit them in Jafr.
The Jordanian government has previously made several public commitments to reform Article 150 and other articles, on which it had frequently relied to silence critics or unpopular speech. On several occasions in 2005, Human Rights Watch presented the king and the government of Jordan with its critique of Jordanian law that does not comply with international legal guarantees of freedom of expression. In July 2005, senior government officials told Human Rights Watch that Jordan would suspend application of the controversial articles of the Penal Code, including Article 150, until the legislation could be reformed.
However, in 2006 Jordanian authorities continued to apply the offending legislation and continued to engage in practices that censor free speech.
For example, on May 30, Amman’s Court of First Instance found Jihad al-Mu’mani, the editor of al-Shihan weekly, guilty of “offending the religious sentiments of people,” for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons deemed to be insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, and sentenced him to two months in prison in accordance with Article 278 of Jordan’s Penal Code. In a similar case, the court sentenced Hashim al-Khalidi, editor of the weekly al-Mihwar, to two months in prison.
In January 2006, prosecutors charged Jamil Abu Bakr with “belittling the dignity of the state” for publishing articles written by parliamentarians Ali Abu Sukkar and Azzam Hunaidi on the Islamic Action Front’s website. The charges were later dropped.
More recently, the Jordan Times reported that on June 8 the Jordanian authorities interrupted a live interview with al-Zarqawi’s brother-in-law broadcast on the pan-Arab Aljazeera satellite station, and that police had briefly detained the station’s Amman bureau chief, Yasir Abu Hilalah. Jordanian authorities had once before detained Abu Hilalah, in 2002, when he was about to air footage of riots in Ma’n, a town in southern Jordan.
On May 8, intelligence officials detained Fahd al-Rimawi, the editor of the weekly al-Majd, in the General Intelligence Department, and interrogated him about an article he had published. In the article he raised questions about the timing of a government announcement about a discovered arms cache it said Hamas intended to use against Jordanian targets. Al-Rimawi told Human Rights Watch that the intelligence officials did not serve him with a summons or an arrest warrant and forced him to publish a retraction as a condition for his release. Neither the Jordanian Press Association nor the Higher Media Council reacted to the complaint al-Rimawi submitted about his treatment.
“The Jordanian government must be judged for its deeds, not its words,” said Whitson. “Promises to respect the rights of Jordanians mean nothing while the government keeps jailing people who say things it doesn’t like.”
King Abdullah II of Jordan has repeatedly promised to ensure press freedom and protect freedom of expression, including during a presentation to U.S. organizations in Washington, D.C., in March 2005. Jordanian journalists have made several key demands, including the decriminalization of all violations of the law based only on the content of published material, and an amendment of several laws that limit free speech.
The National Agenda, a decennial reform project the king initiated in February 2005, made recommendations in line with journalists’ demands in its report published in late 2005. The new government and some parliamentarians, however, have refused to include these recommendations in a new draft of the Media Law. The new law will replace the restrictive 1998 Press and Publications Law, as amended in 1999, when it comes before Parliament, currently scheduled for July 2006. However, if passed in its current version, it will make little, if any, improvement to the existing law.