(New York) - Prosecutors should immediately drop charges against two leaders of a group of government workers who publicly protested their dismissal, Human Rights Watch said today. The prosecution for such activities is a violation of their rights to freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

The two men, Muhammad al-Sunaid and Ahmad al-Luwanisa, leaders of the Committee of Day Laborers at Government Offices,  gathered with 30 other day laborers on May 10, 2010, outside the offices of the Center for Participation on Behalf of Democracy in Ma'daba, where the agriculture minister was scheduled to give a lecture. They held a peaceful protest of their recent dismissal by the Ministry of Agriculture, then attended the speech, where they questioned the firings and called for the minister's removal during the question and answer period. The two men were arrested and charged with holding an unlawful gathering, defaming and insulting a public official, "causing ... noise and a din," and "resistance ... stopping a legitimate act" by a public official. The first hearing in the case was on June 14.

"Prosecuting workers who are peacefully expressing grievances to government representatives shows a disturbing lack of respect for Jordanian citizens," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Citizens have the right to protest their government, even more so where the government is their employer."

Questioned about the dismissals after his speech, Agriculture Minister Sa'id al-Masri praised Sunaid's efforts on behalf of the workers, but said that he was fired for other reasons. Some of the day laborers then shouted slogans calling for the minister's resignation, but remained peaceful, Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the democracy center, who was present, told Human Rights Watch. Nevertheless, the governor of Ma'daba province, Samih al-Majali, who was also there, told police officers to arrest Sunaid and Luwanisa.

Sunaid had been a day laborer at the ministry for over 15 years. Government agencies appoint day laborers to specific jobs at set daily wages. If the work relationship persists for more than three months, the workers fall under the provisions of the labor law. The day laborers were dismissed as the country's economy worsened despite what Sunaid said were promises that all laborers would be made permanent government employees with full employment benefits and protections.

The two men were detained for a day at the Public Security Directorate at Ma'daba then sent to the State Security Court, a special court in which two-thirds of the judges are military officials. The military prosecutor at the court charged both workers with "unlawful gathering," which carries a sentence of up to one year in prison under article 164 of the penal code.  Sunaid remained in custody pending the investigation, while al-Luwanisa was released. The article specifies that for a gathering to be considered unlawful, seven people must gather "with the intent to commit a crime," or to reasonably appear to be about to "disturb the public order." Sunaid began a hunger strike, ending it when the military prosecutor accepted his release on bail after 10 days in detention in Balqa' prison.

At the June 14 hearing, the court denied the defense request to call the agriculture minister as a witness, but allowed Mustafa Hamarneh, head of the democracy center, to be included in the defense witness list.

Sunaid and al-Luwanisa also face four separate criminal charges of "defaming ... a [public] official who was carrying out his duties," under article 191 of the penal code, carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison, "insult ... directed against a [public] official who was carrying out his duties," under article 196 of the penal code, carrying a sentence of up to six months in prison, "causing without reason noise and a din in a way that robs locals of their peace," under article 467 of the penal code, carrying a fine of up to JD15 ($22.50), and "resistance ... stopping a legitimate act by [a public official]," under article 186 of the penal code, carrying a sentence of up to six months in prison, at the Criminal Court of Conciliation in Ma'daba. That trial has not yet begun.

Article 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Jordan is a party and which became Jordanian law upon its publication in the National Gazette in June 2006, protects the right to peaceful assembly, allowing no restrictions on this right "other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Article 19 of the covenant protects the right to freedom of expression, and any restriction must be necessary "for respect of the rights or reputations of others; [and] for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals."

Both the peaceful gathering at the center and the heckling of the minister during his presentation were political comment, which carries strong protection under human rights law and therefore requires particularly high justification for any interference or restriction by governments. Criminal prosecution for peacefully engaging in such activity is very likely to be a violation of these rights. .

Sunaid co-founded the Committee of Day Laborers at Government Offices, on May 1, 2006. The 12 committee members represent the interests of 13,000 day laborers, Sunaid said, and are lobbying the government for full employment as civil servants instead of their precarious situation as day laborers. Sunaid said that the Labor Ministry denied the committee status as a union since they are not privately employed, but employed by the government.

Sunaid, who worked as a well technician, told Human Rights Watch that as a day laborer, he had no job security, earned JD230 (US$340) a month after more than 15 years of service, had 14 days of annual leave under the labor law, and 14 days of sick leave at full pay, then another 14 at half pay, after which his entitlements stopped. Civil service employees doing the same job, in contrast, earn about JD350 ($475) a month for similar length of service, a total of about 40 vacation days, and full pay in case of illness, together with job security.

In 2007, the day laborers succeeded in lobbying the government to convert their job status to civil service in three groups of laborers, the final one to be converted in 2010, Sunaid said, in addition to a promise not to fill new vacancies with day laborers, but to hire civil servants instead. However, Sunaid told Human Rights Watch that the present government was not implementing this agreement, and that it had fired day laborers as the economic climate worsened and government revenue decreased this year.