(Beirut) – The charges by Jordan’s military prosecutor against a journalist and publisher of a news website apparently violate their free speech rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The two were charged on April 23, 2012, with “subverting the system of government” for an article concerning the king’s supposed intervention in a corruption investigation.
The case is the fifth time in 2012 that peaceful critics have faced charges for speech offenses, a pattern that undermines the credibility of Jordan’s reform efforts, Human Rights Watch said.
“Jordan cannot claim to be making democratic reforms while prosecutors hunt down journalists doing their job,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan’s parliament should eliminate penal code articles that punish nonviolent speech offenses, and in the meantime, authorities should instruct prosecutors to stop bringing charges under those articles.”
In an April 23 article, the Gerasa News website cited one member of parliament as saying that King Abdullah issued instructions to members of a parliamentary committee not to refer a former minister to court on corruption charges. The committee is investigating possible corruption in relation to a public housing development on the part of Sahl al-Majali, housing minister in the 2007-2009 cabinet of Prime Minister Nader al-Dhahabi. The committee’s decision would be the first step in bringing charges against al-Majali.
Late on April 23, Ali al-Mubaidhin, military prosecutor at the State Security Court, summoned Sahar al-Muhtasab, the article’s author and the website’s parliamentary affairs correspondent, and her brother Jamal al-Muhtasab, Gerasa News’s publisher, for investigation, Sahar al-Muhtasab told Human Rights Watch.
She told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor interviewed her and her brother separately, focusing exclusively on her article, “Parliamentarian Claims There Are Royal Instructions To Find al-Majali Not Guilty over Decent Housing Case.” The prosecutor told them that King Abdullah was at the forefront of the fight against corruption and that it was forbidden to imply otherwise, she said.
The prosecutor then charged both of them with “subverting the system of government in the kingdom,” a crime that article 149 of Jordan’s penal code punishes with hard labor. The August 29, 2010 Law on Information System Crimes extends provisions of the penal code to online publications.
The news article makes no mention of Jordan’s system of government and does not advocate violence.
Sahar al-Muhtasab was released on 5,000 jordanian dinars’ (roughly US$ 7,000) bail, but the prosecutor ordered her brother detained without bail for 14 days at Balqa’ Correction and Rehabilitation Center, a prison in the city of Salt, west of Amman, where he remains.
Sahar al-Muhtasab said that neither she nor her brother were able to have lawyers present during the interrogation, but that the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, a Jordanian nongovernmental organization, had arranged on April 24 for legal counsel to represent her and her brother free of charge.
The State Security Court is a special court that is not independent. The prime minister appoints its military and civilian judges, who have traditionally sat in panels of two military judges and one civilian judge. The court has jurisdiction over penal code crimes that are deemed to harm Jordan’s internal and external security – including offenses related to peaceful speech – in addition to crimes involving drugs, explosives, weapons, espionage, and high treason.
In 2007, the government issued a Press and Publications Law that cancelled prison sentences but increased fines for content violations of that law such as not adhering to “Islamic values” or failing to be “objective.” However, successive Jordanian governments have made no attempt to reform articles of the penal code that criminalize free speech and that also apply to journalists, Human Rights Watch said. In 2010, a reform of the penal code increased penalties for some speech offenses.
The al-Muhtasab case is the latest in a series in which people have faced charges for speech or demonstrations deemed critical of the government.
On April 1, the State Security Court prosecutor charged 13 people who took part in a March 31 demonstration in Amman with subverting the system of government, insulting the king, and unlawful assembly. The State Security Court prosecutor also charged six protesters over demonstrations in March in Tafila, a southern town, with subverting the system of government, insulting the king, and unlawful assembly. King Abdullah pardoned both groups on April 15, after the first group began a hunger strike.
On February 2, the State Security Court prosecutor charged Ahmad Oweidi al-‘Abbadi, a former member of parliament and head of the Jordan National Movement, with subverting the system of government over televised comments he made on January 18 advocating a republican form of government. He was released on bail later in February. The Jordan National Movement is a political opposition group.
On January 12, the State Security Court prosecutor charged Uday Abu Issa with “undermining his majesty’s dignity” for burning a poster of King Abdullah a day earlier in Madaba, south of Amman. The court convicted Abu Issa, but King Abdullah pardoned him in February after he began a hunger strike.
“Jordan’s talk of reform is meaningless as long as the law deprives citizens of meeting and speaking freely, especially about politics and their leaders,” Wilcke said. “With five prosecutions for nonviolent speech in 2012, the kingdom risks earning a reputation for repression and intolerance.”