(New York) - Jordan's military prosecutor at the State Security Court should immediately order the release of Hatim al-Shuli, a university student, and rescind charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today.

Al-Shuli was arrested on July 25, 2010, and charged on July 28 with insulting King Abdullah (lese majeste) and "causing national strife," over a poem he denies writing that criticized the king. The military prosecutor has since renewed orders for al-Shuli's detention and denied his petitions for bail.

"Arrests for things like writing poems unfortunately are regular occurrences in Jordan," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's about time Jordan got rid of laws that criminalize peaceful criticism of its rulers."

Jordan amended its penal code in July and in August passed a Law of Information System Crimes, ostensibly to regulate the internet. But the revised laws continue to criminalize peaceful expression and in fact extend those provisions to internet expression.

In June 2009, a court of first instance sentenced the Jordanian poet Islam Samhan to one year in prison for a volume of poetry he published, Shadow's Gracefulness, that the court found to be blasphemous following complaints by the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Shuli has told his lawyer that he had nothing to do with the poem he is accused of writing, which the lawyer said he has not yet been shown. Human Rights Watch obtained two earlier poems by al-Shuli in which he appears to praise the king. In addition, Human Rights Watch has seen no indication that distribution of the poem in question led to any disturbances threatening Jordanian public order, other than a confrontation between al-Shuli and three other students.

"The main issue here is not even whether Hatim al-Shuli wrote this poem," Wilcke said. "The main issue is that Jordanian officials see nothing wrong with treating someone who writes a poem as a national security threat."

Friends and relatives of al-Shuli, a student of media studies, told Human Rights Watch that he arrived at Irbid University from Amman on the morning of July 25 to take an exam. A friend at the university telephoned him before he arrived to tell him that fliers with a poem under his name were being distributed at the university. After the exam, three fellow students confronted al-Shuli about the poem.

Al-Shuli told relatives that after the confrontation, he called the police, who took all four students into custody but later released the other three without charge. Preventive Security officers from the South Irbid police station then took al-Shuli to his apartment in Irbid and confiscated his electronic equipment. Later that day, they transferred him to the Irbid Police Directorate.

On July 26, intelligence officers stationed at Irbid University - as they are at other Jordanian campuses - interrogated al-Shuli. On July 27, Preventive Security informed al-Shuli's parents that his case would be referred to the State Security Court. His parents were unable to obtain any information about his whereabouts until they found out on July 28 that he was at Marka police station, near the State Security Court in Amman.

His parents alerted a lawyer, to whom al-Shuli gave his power of attorney before the military prosecutor informed him of the charges against him. Al-Shuli denied the charges. Since July 29, he has been in Balqa' prison, west of Amman.

Jordan's Law of Criminal Procedure requires officials to bring a suspect before a prosecutor   within 24 hours of arrest to be charged. In cases involving state security, however, that period is   seven days.

The State Security Court is a special court, sitting in panels of two military judges and one civilian judge, appointed by the prime minister, with jurisdiction specifically over lese majeste and crimes involving state secrets, internal and external security, weapons, explosives, drugs, and other matters.

Jordanian criminal law permits pre-trial detention for ordinary minor crimes only if the crimes are theft, assault, and aiding assault. Although lese majeste and "causing internal strife" are considered minor crimes, pre-trial detention is allowed in all state security cases. In Jordan, prosecutors, who are neither impartial nor independent, issue arrest and detention warrants and there is no judicial review. Military prosecutors answer to the military chain of command, not the civilian Ministry of Justice.

"Al-Shuli's detention cannot be justified on any lawful grounds," Wilcke said. "His continued incarceration looks like punishment before a court has established any guilt."

Article 150 of Jordan's penal code stipulates that "any writing or speech or act that aims at or results in causing sectarian or racial strife, or instigates conflict between members of the sects and different members of the nation will be punished with a prison term of no less than six months and not more than three years and with a fine not to exceed five hundred dinars."

Article 195 stipulates that "[a]nyone whose audacity to insult his majesty the king has been proven will be punished with prison between one and three years."

On August 29, the Council of Ministers passed the Law of Information System Crimes, which   ostensibly seeks to protect internet sites and computer systems against hackers. The law also subjects online expression to criminal sanctions for slander and defamation offenses that already exist in the penal code, such as

  • article 122, which punishes with up to two years in prison persons who insult a foreign state or head of state.
  • articles 188-199, which punish with up to two years in prison persons who defame parliament or its members, official institutions, courts, public administrations, the army, or their members while on duty (art.191); with up to three years for insulting the king, the queen, the crown prince, or those in line for the throne (art.195); with up to three months for insulting a person, and up to one year if that person is a public official, and up to two years if that person is a judge (arts 193 and 196); and with up to three years for insulting the national flag, symbols, or the flag of the League of Arab Nations (art.197).

Jordan is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 of that Covenant requires it to respect the right of everyone to freedom of expression. Article 9 states that anyone detained on a criminal charge must be brought promptly before a judge or other judicial officer. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the Covenant, has stated that the right to a fair trial means that military courts should in principle never try civilians, and even if they do that should be in the most exceptional of cases.

"Jordan missed an opportunity to bring its laws on expression into conformity with international standards," said Wilcke. "Everyone has the right to freely criticize their rulers."

Jordan's King Abdullah dissolved parliament in November 2009, and the government has been passing "temporary" laws without parliamentary approval since then. All temporary laws must be submitted to parliament as soon as it reconvenes, following elections scheduled for November 2010.