The Jordanian government must abolish provisions in its penal code used solely to silence opposition voices, Human Rights Watch said today. Civilian and military prosecutors this year used outdated laws to file charges against prominent critics of the authorities, further threatening freedom of expression in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said.
This month a civilian prosecutor and then a military prosecutor opened an investigation against Adnan Abu Odeh, a former head of the Royal Court, for allegedly insulting the king (lèse majesté) and stirring sectarian strife and sedition on the basis of remarks he made during a one-hour private interview aired on Al Jazeera satellite television on October 28. The prosecutors dropped these charges on November 5.
“This apparent tactic of initiating and later dropping charges has a chilling effect on regime critics,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “This shows that Jordan has far to go in becoming a country that respects freedom of expression and the rule of law.”
The Jordanian government has made several public commitments to reform laws on which it frequently relied to silence critics or unpopular speech. 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. In June 2006, the government assured Human Rights Watch in a private meeting of its continuing commitment to protect freedom of expression. Despite its assurance, the government has not repealed the controversial articles and continues to prosecute its critics. Human Rights Watch in 2006 has documented five cases, in addition to Abu Odeh’s, in which unjustified charges threatened freedom of expression.
Abu Odeh twice appeared on Al Jazeera’s hour-long program “Private Interview” (Ziyara Khassa) for one-on-one interviews with host Sami Kalib. Following the second interview, aired on October 28, a number of Jordanian citizens, including the mufti (a person who issues legal advisory opinions) of Jerrash in northern Jordan, submitted a complaint to the prosecutor at the Amman court of first instance.
On November 1, the civilian prosecutor summoned Abu Odeh. The next dayhe determined that the remarks could constitute the criminal offenses of “stirring up sectarian strife or sedition among the nation” and lèse majesté under articles 150 and 195 of the penal code respectively. Each offense carries a maximum term of three years in prison.
The civilian prosecutor transferred the case to the military prosecutor at the State Security Court, which has jurisdiction over these articles of the penal code. The military prosecutor on November 2 interrogated Abu Odeh for several hours and decided to open a criminal investigation, but released him on his own recognizance and postponed the investigation for one week.
In charging Abu Odeh, the military prosecutor relied on four passages from the Al Jazeera interview, Abu Odeh told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch believes that there are no plausible interpretations of the four passages or any other remarks Abu Odeh made in the course of the interview that support the charges. The government did not reply to a request by Human Rights Watch to produce any evidence of a link between sectarian strife or sedition and Abu Odeh’s remarks.
“The government conveniently claims that charges against its critics are due to prosecutorial zeal, not a centralized campaign, but that’s no excuse for repeated attacks on free speech,” Whitson said. “It’s the government’s responsibility to amend the laws that are used to attack its critics.”
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (1995), which are based on international human rights law and standards, provide 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 [or] agency.”
The following passages reportedly relate to the charges against Abu Odeh.
Regarding the first charge:
In one passage, Abu Odeh responds to the host’s question about the ratio of Jordanians of Palestinian origin in Jordan by saying: “I think it is 60 percent or more,” while also stating that “the government relies on the figure of 44 percent.”
In another passage, Abu Odeh criticizes the current election law, on the basis that it underrepresents districts with a heavy concentration of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. He says “there is no proportional representation of the people in parliament.” He also criticizes the government’s low employment of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Asked if the employment practices are discriminatory, however, Abu Odeh replies, “No, it is a lack of participation.”
Regarding the second charge:
In one passage, Abu Odeh responds to a question about King Abdullah defending the Palestinian issue by saying, “I don’t know how he defends [the issue], what does ‘defend’ mean? Everybody defends [the issue] with words, from Indonesia to Mauritania and Senegal they defend, and some defend [the issue] better than anyone in this region.”
In the other passage in question, Abu Odeh describes how in 1979, at a cabinet meeting to approve expenditures for Jerusalem, a fellow minister exclaimed “Jerusalem? Screw it!” In the interview, Abu Odeh states he responded to the minister, saying, “nobody comes forth and says ‘Jerusalem? Screw it!’ until your king returns restore [Jerusalem] the same way he [intentionally] lost it.”
To read the full transcript of the Al Jazeera interview with Abu Odeh, please visit: