(New York) - Civil prosecutors should open an independent investigation into serious allegations of excessive use of force by security forces during protests on March 25, 2011, in Amman, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should include the security forces' failure to prevent violence by government supporters against protesters demanding reform.
Jordanian security forces have a dismal record of accountability and have shown themselves incapable of conducting a credible investigation into their own actions, Human Rights Watch said. Even when no political protests are involved, such as at a soccer match in December 2010 at which police beat fans, security forces are not held to account.
"If Jordan is serious about following King Abdullah's call for reform, it can start by holding its security services accountable," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Promises of political reform ring hollow while police beat demonstrators or stand by and watch pro-government factions carry out violent attacks."
Human Rights Watch spoke to six witnesses present at the protests on March 25 at Jamal Abd al-Nasir Place, also called Interior (Ministry) Circle, in Amman. Hundreds of government supporters calling themselves nida' al-watan (Patriotic Call) attacked an even larger number of pro-reform protesters gathering under the so-called "24 March Movement." The reform group gathered at the Interior Circle on March 24, intending to remain there to press for reform.
The witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, gave consistent accounts, describing police failure to stop the violence against pro-reform protesters on both March 24 and March 25, when the darak (gendarmerie) joined in with government supporters, attacking the reform group with rocks, sticks, and water cannons, dispersing them.
Failure to protect
By the evening of March 24, a small number of security officers had formed a line to separate a few hundred pro-reform demonstrators and several dozen pro-government protesters, the witnesses said. The situation remained peaceful until around 10:30 p.m., when members of the pro-government gathering began hurling stones at the pro-reform protesters from the flyover on the circle, injuring at least one man. The security forces did not intervene, several witnesses said.
On March 25, larger pro-reform crowds gathered at the circle, while pro-government protesters staged an event at another Amman location. Starting at noon prayer time, a pro-government group approached the circle, witnesses said, and started shouting slogans: "The people demand the downfall of [political] parties," in reference to government attempts to reform the law regulating political parties, and "With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, father of Husain," in reference to King Abdullah, the father of Husain, and "God, Abdullah, God, Abdullah."
Around 1 p.m., the pro-government faction began hurling rocks, while the security forces formed a protective line between the two groups. Security officers also lined up in front of reform protestors, using prayer rugs to protect them, a witness said. A number of police officers were hurt, the witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Some reform protesters threw stones back at the pro-government side, they said. Videos taken at the protest also showed this episode.
The police did nothing further to stop the attacks, though. One witness said a police officer told her that they "did not want to escalate" things and were therefore not moving against the pro-government aggressors. The police also did not block access to the flyover, or a nearby empty building, from which the assailants were throwing rocks.
Police blocked road access to the circle over the following hours, but, as a video posted on the popular news website Ammon shows, police officers watched without intervening as government supporters approached from the west, throwing rocks and wielding sticks. One witness also said that the police put up little resistance to a group of several hundred people with sticks approaching from the north around 4 p.m. Another witness said some of the government supporters arrived in cars and managed to break the security cordon.
A third witness said he arrived shortly before 5:30 p.m. from close to the Marriott Hotel, west of the circle, where he saw a "group of around 10 thugs wearing civilian clothes, holding sticks and batons, coming out of official darak vans, and moving toward protesters running away from the circle." At the next corner, he saw "a group of pro-government protesters holding sticks, and standing next to them were police officers [...] A protester [was] being beaten by a thug with a stick and fifty meters away a police patrol was present but did not interfere."
The Amman governorate, an administrative and security office, is located directly on the circle. The central Interior Ministry building is located a few hundred meters away, to the northwest of the circle.
"Governments in Egypt and Yemen tried and failed this tired old tactic of having so-called pro-government protesters do their dirty work for them," Wilcke said. "It's unfortunate that the Jordanian government is trying to hide behind local thugs as well."
The witnesses described independently how, shortly after thugs from the pro-government ranks broke through the security lines, two or three darak cars moved in, one with a water cannon, and aimed the water for several minutes at the reform protesters who were huddled under the flyover in one corner. Darak officers then moved in on foot and tore down the protesters' tents and indiscriminately beat the protesters, the witnesses said.
One journalist told Human Rights Watch that coming from Jabal Husain to the south of the circle, "the thugs and hundreds of darak and security officers started breaking the protest van and the speakers, and pulled down the posters and signs. Hundreds of thugs [...] were throwing stones and rocks at the cornered protesters and hit them with sticks. Darak were using batons to hit the protesters, and I was hit again on my face and hands by a darak and a police officer."
This witness also saw a darak officer using a plastic baton to hit a protester on the ground, who had fallen as he tried to flee. A darak officer was destroying the medical supplies at the reform protesters' medical tent, the witness said.
Another witness said three darak vans encircled the reform protesters before aiming the water cannon at them, followed by officers on foot breaking the protesters' tents, and "hit[ting] the protesters with sticks and by hand," before pro-government "protesters joined them in the hitting and stone hurling. The pro-government protesters, or thugs, were allowed to violently attack the [reform] protesters and were not stopped by anyone at that moment."
A third witness confirmed that darak vans sprayed him and the other protesters with water, before officers "started to beat us with sticks, along with the [pro-government] protesters." He said a darak officer, another security officer, and a thug "beat me until I lost consciousness."
Dismal record on accountability
Human Rights Watch questioned three government spokesmen on March 28 about whether the government had announced any investigation into the March 25 events. Dr. Tahir ‘Udwan, the government spokesman, Muhammad ‘Ali, the office of the Interior Ministry's spokesperson, and Dr. Rafi' al-Batayina, an Interior Ministry human rights official, all said no inquiry had been announced. Muhammad al-Khatib, the Public Security Department spokesman, declined to comment.
During the wave of Arab uprisings in 2011, Jordan has so far been the only country known to have prosecuted pro-government protesters for violence against protestors demonstrating for reform, although investigations in Egypt and Tunisia are reportedly underway, Human Rights Watch said. Dozens of peaceful demonstrations have taken place in Jordan since January, and thugs attacked the demonstrators on only one occasion, on February 18. Following media pressure, prosecutors opened an investigation and have charged over 10 people in court, ‘Udwan said.
However, Jordanian authorities have not investigated the conduct of security forces, or made public any investigations into their conduct. In response to a question about the conduct of security forces during the attack on protesters on February 18, al-Khatib wrote to Human Rights Watch that there was no investigation and that "the work and duty of security forces is only to protect the protesters." The New York Times quoted witnesses who said, "That the police at the scene did not intervene" against the attackers, and another witness as saying, "Although we asked for help, they [the police] walked away."
The government's failure to investigate, or make public any investigation, into allegations of excessive use of force by the security forces, is a persistent pattern. They also failed to take action against darak forces who beat fans of the Jordanian soccer club al-Wahdat after a match at Quwaisma stadium against their rivals al-Faisali on December 10, 2010. Over 150 people were injured, and photos and videos in Human Rights Watch's possession show darak forces attacking unarmed al-Wahdat fans with batons on the steps of the stadium.
At the time, the Interior Ministry announced an investigation, but no results have been made public. ‘Adil Russan, the head of the Interior Ministry's human rights department and a member of the investigation, declined in February to comment on its outcome to Human Rights Watch. The head of al-Wahdat football club, Tariq Khuri, told Human Rights Watch in March that the investigation had ended, but that its results had not been made public. Dr. Muhyieddin Touq, the commissioner-general of the National Center for Human Rights, a statutory rights body, confirmed that no results had been made public or any action had been taken against darak officers.
The darak submitted a report on the events at the Quwaisma soccer stadium to parliament on December 15, which the media made public. It said that al-Wahdat fans threw empty bottles at Faisali fans who left first after the match. Faisali fans responded by throwing stones, leading al-Wahdat fans to take refuge on the lowest rungs of the stadium furthest away. With the pressure from the al-Wahdat fans, the fence separating the pitch from the spectators collapsed, causing the injuries.
The darak report does not mention use of force by its officers, and none of its recommendations calls for an investigation. But a witness told Human Rights Watch in January 2011 that darak officers "started beating the [al-Wahdat] fans who were at the front side of the field with their sticks. Thirty more darak [officers] arrived within minutes to the field and started beating the rest of the fans who were scrambling in the field."
Human Rights Watch has also documented the failure of the Public Security Directorate to publish its investigation into a fire in al-Muwaqqar prison in April 2008. Human Rights Watch and the National Center for Human Rights documented serious allegations of torture against inmates before the fire broke out, but no prison officials were referred for an investigation.
In 2010, Jordan changed the composition of judges in its Police Court, which is responsible for adjudicating any criminal charge against a member of the security forces, to include a civilian judge. The prosecutors as well as the remaining two judges are police officers appointed by the director of the Public Security Directorate.
"It is abundantly clear that Jordanian security forces cannot investigate themselves, let alone hold human rights violators among themselves accountable," Wilcke said. "The government needs to authorize independent and impartial investigations by civilian prosecutors and judges into wrongdoing by police officers."