(Beirut) – Jordan’s military prosecutor should drop charges of “undermining his majesty’s dignity” against a youth who burned the king’s image on January 11, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Although prosecutions for general criminal damage of other people's property may be permissible, criminalizing insults against a head of state is not compatible with international human rights standards protecting the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

‘Uday Abu ‘Isa, an 18-year-old activist from Madaba, 40 kilometers south of Amman, and a member of the Youth Movement for Reform, ignited a large banner showing King Abdullah II that was hanging on the municipal building in Madaba, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Such images adorn nearly every official building and office in Jordan. Security forces immediately arrested Abu ‘Isa, who is already on trial on similar charges for shouting slogans in December. The prosecutor also charged him with burning property.

“Burning a royal’s image as a political statement should not be criminally prosecuted,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To prosecute this act would send a chilling message that criticizing the king is off limits.”

Abu ‘Isa’s father and fellow activists said on January 12 that they did not know his whereabouts, but media reports later that day said the military prosecutor at the State Security Court had charged Abu ‘Isa with “undermining his majesty’s dignity.” The charge is among several acts of lèse majesté, or insulting the king, for which article 195 of Jordan’s penal code imposes sentences of between one and three years in prison.

The prosecutor also charged Abu ‘Isa with setting property on fire, a person who spoke with Abu ’Isa told Human Rights Watch. The crime is punishable, under penal code articles 368 to 375, with hard labor.

While destroying public or other people's property may be legitimately prosecuted, officials should not treat the act of burning the banner as tantamount to criminally offensive speech merely because it had the king’s image printed on it, Human Rights Watch said.

In early December 2011, the State Security Court, a special court dominated by judges and prosecutors appointed by Jordan’s armed forces, whose head is the king, detained and charged Abu ‘Isa for lèse majesté after he shouted slogans deemed insulting to the king during a protest in Madaba in solidarity with a fellow youth activist, Abdullah Mahadin. Mahadin had been arrested following an earlier protest in Amman. The trials against Mahadin, in civilian court, and against Abu ‘Issa for the December charges, at the State Security Court, are currently in progress.

Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of prosecutions for lèse majesté against people who expressed opinions deemed insulting to the king at a barber’s shop, during parliamentary campaigning, to a colleague, and for poetry published on Facebook, and other internet sites.
Abu ‘Isa’s father told Human Rights Watch that the earlier arrest had greatly upset Abu ‘Isa because he missed school examinations as a result. When Ahmad Matarna, a former employee of the Greater Amman Municipality, set himself on fire in downtown Amman on January 9 to protest his family’s poor living conditions, Abu ‘Isa’ was deeply affected, fellow activists said.

Abu ‘Isa’s father visited his son in Muwaqqar 1 prison on January 13 and 17, and told Human Rights Watch that he saw marks on his body Abu ‘Isa said were the result of a beating by police at Madaba’s Public Security Directorate on January 11. A representative from the National Center for Human Rights also visited Abu ‘Isa in prison. It was not yet clear whether Abu ‘Issa had filed a complaint for ill-treatment or whether judicial authorities had opened an investigation into the matter.

In early August the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which issues authoritative guidance on interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, issued a new General Comment on the covenant’s article 19. “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” the committee wrote. The committee found that, “[I]n any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases [of dangerous speech] and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”

In September, Abdullah signed into law constitutional changes that restricted the State Security Court’s jurisdiction over civilians to four types of offenses – high treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug trafficking – but allowed three years before these changes go into force. Members of parliament had voted down proposals to abolish all jurisdiction over civilians by the State Security Court. Human Rights Watch opposes all jurisdiction over civilians by State Security Courts on the grounds that exceptional courts have tended to infringe on fair trial rights of the accused in deference to state security interests.

“Jordan should get rid of criminal offenses that restrict free expression, such as article 195,” Wilcke said. “No fear of state sanctions should overshadow peaceful expression through symbolic acts or speech.”