King Abdullah should order an independent investigation into the events surrounding the deaths on April 14 of three prisoners at al-Muwaqqar prison east of Amman, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite ample evidence of misconduct, and potentially criminal acts by prison officials, police authorities told Human Rights Watch that their investigation into the incident will vindicate the prison officials, setting out that they acted correctly.

“The police investigation is an attempt to whitewash the events leading up to the burning to death of three inmates in Jordan,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It has lost all credibility.”

Since the deaths of the three prisoners, the police have placed in solitary confinement many of those detainees in al-Muwaqqar who were eyewitnesses to the events. Security officials have prevented lawyers, family members and human rights investigators from visiting them. Witnesses report that police have intimidated them and have ignored accounts that at least two of the men burned to death had been seriously tortured just prior to the fire, shedding doubt on whether the men had in fact died accidentally. The governmental National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) issued a report on April 16, based on its investigation at al-Muwaqqar on April 15, confirming beatings and ill-treatment at the prison before the fire.

It is not disputed that at around noon on April 14, approximately 28 prisoners in Cell 3 of Section A of the newly-built al-Muwaqqar prison set their foam mattresses alight as a protest to events at the prison. Prisoners occupying neighboring cells joined in the protest, shouting and inflicting harm on themselves with sharp objects. In response, the prison perimeter guards (Darak) entered the prison building to secure the burning cell. What happened next is contested, but ultimately, when the Civil Defense later extinguished the fire in the cell, they found the burned bodies of Firas al-‘Utti, Hazim Ziyada, and Ibrahim al-‘Ulayan.

The police claim that the prisoners had barricaded the doors of the burning cell with beds to prevent the guards from opening them. However, one eyewitness denies this; he described in detail how prisoners were shouting for the Darak and prison guards to open the door of the burning cell, but that they idly stood by for around 10 minutes before opening the doors. Two other eyewitnesses also said that before opening the door, the Darak fired a gas container into the cell. Guards reportedly shot one prisoner in the chest with one or more rubber bullets. When the Darak opened the doors, the eyewitnesses claim that all 28 prisoners left the cell. The NCHR pointed out that the doors of the cell open to the outside, allowing the guards to open the doors regardless of any barricade inside the cells.

Eyewitness accounts

According to two eyewitnesses, the fire was almost extinguished by the time the doors were open to allow the prisoners to exit the cell. One eyewitness said that the Darak viciously beat those who exited, “splitting open their skulls.” The NCHR recorded blood stains in the rooms, corridors, and the exercise yard.

Then, eyewitnesses said, the Darak pushed 18 people back into Cell 3. These 18 include the three whose bodies were found, as well as Majid Khatir, Abed al-Khaffash, Muhammad al-Tabbash, and Faisal al-‘Udwan, whose whereabouts are now unknown. After the cell door had been relocked with the 18 men inside, a second, much bigger fire started and it was that fire which the Civil Defense extinguished when they arrived about 15-20 minutes later, two eyewitnesses said. The NCHR report notes that a fire hose belonging to the prison was in place 4 meters from the burning cell.

One day before the incident, Human Rights Watch met with the director of the Public Security Directorate (PSD), Brig.-Gen. Mazin al-Qadi, who promised that the PSD (which includes the police and the prison service) would be fully transparent in its dealing with Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch also spoke with police officials on April 15, April 20, and May 5. A Human Rights Watch researcher visited the outside of the prison on April 15 and witnessed a large presence of security guards. The officials insisted that there was no wrongdoing by any security forces, including both Darak and prison guards, in connection with the April 14 fire, and that the police investigation would conclude soon.

Families left in the dark

The families of the three dead prisoners and eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that all three who died had complained during visits days before the fire about ill-treatment, in particular by a Captain ‘Amir Qutaish, who they claim insulted and beat them. An eyewitness alleges that on April 13 this officer suspended Firas al-‘Utti and Hazim Ziyada, two of the men later burned in the fire, for four to five hours from a wall with their hands shackled behind their back (the shabah torture position) while beating them. This was in response to the fact that some 100 prisoners had started a hunger strike that day protesting ill-treatment. Families and eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that Qutaish had bad relations with al-‘Utti and Ziyada dating back to a period that the men had spent in a different prison. Al-‘Utti also reportedly tried to warn a visitor to the prison that Qutaish had allegedly made threats against them just five days before the fire. One eyewitness said that Qutaish threatened al-‘Utti, Ziyada and another two prisoners with ill-treatment again only hours before the fire on April 14. Three eyewitnesses spoke of the frequent morning searches, beatings, and insults by prison guards and the shabah-style torture of prisoners who resisted the searches.

After the fire, the prison administration placed all surviving prisoners from Cell 3, Section A and the roughly 100 other prisoners who had witnessed the events either into solitary confinement or separate from the remaining prison population after they had briefly been treated for smoke inhalation, burns, or injuries from beatings. At dawn on April 15, they transferred between 15 and 60 prisoners to other prisons. Their families and lawyers have been unable to visit the isolated prisoners, “by order of the Ministry of Interior,” one family member told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch knows of at least five families unable to visit their loved ones in prison since the incident. The prison also prohibited the visiting NCHR representatives from seeing these prisoners.

Eyewitnesses also said that the police put pressure on the transferred prisoners to exonerate the security forces of the deaths and warned them not to mention that complaints about torture had given rise to the protest.

On April 20, four days after issuing its critical findings on al-Muwaqqar, the executive director of the NCHR, Shaher Bak, resigned.

“King Abdullah has an obligation under human rights law to set up an independent commission with judicial powers to investigate the torture, protests and response to the fire in al-Muwaqqar prison, as the police authorities have clearly shown themselves incapable of holding their own members to account,” said Whitson.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that, even with evidence of criminal culpability on the part of the members of the Public Security Directorate, there are significant obstacles in the way of prosecution. In Jordan, a police court has jurisdiction over all cases in which members of the PSD stand accused of crimes. The PSD director appoints police officers as judges of the police court as well as the police prosecutors, and he retains the right to reduce sentences. Such a tribunal fails to meet any standard of independent judicial scrutiny.

The police court has a poor record of holding police to account for abuses. In March 2008, the police court sentenced two officers who beat an inmate to death in Aqaba prison to two-and-a-half years in prison, but only after private efforts by the family of the deceased, the US embassy, and Human Rights Watch to bring the perpetrators to justice. Before these efforts, the police court merely charged the men with “abuse of authority” and “violating orders and directives.” In December 2007, the police court sentenced the director of Swaqa prison to two months in prison for “exercising unlawful authority resulting in harm,” then commuted the sentence to a fine of JOD120, or about US$170. The prison director had beaten, and forcibly shaved the heads and beards, of almost all 2,100 inmates at Swaqa prison, Jordan’s largest, on his first day as director there.