(Beirut) – The arrest by security forces of well over a dozen peaceful reform activists since September 7, 2012, signals the government’s toughening stand toward demands for political reform in the kingdom. The authorities should release all of those detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to expression, association, and assembly.
The security services arrested activists in various parts of the country for peacefully protesting or calling for reform, in what appeared a concerted move by security and judicial authorities against opposition groups. Those arrested include eight activists from the southern town of Tafila, two from Karak, and seven from Amman. All were charged under terrorism provisions, which place them under the purview of the military-dominated State Security Court, three lawyers for the activists told Human Rights Watch. All remain in detention.
“The arrests show how shallow promises of political freedoms in Jordan are,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is deeply worrying that Jordan is using laws against terrorism to prosecute peaceful activists.”
Participants in the protests involved who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the demonstrations were peaceful and the government has not charged the activists in question with violent acts.
After noon prayers on Friday, September 7, a group of activists from the Tafila Popular Youth Movement, an opposition group, demonstrated in Tafila, a southern province, raising banners that said, “We will not pay the bills of your promiscuity,” using a derogatory Arabic term with sexual connotations, and, “Down with the rule of the low-lifes.”
Security forces at the protest arrested Muhammad al-Ma’abiri, who was holding one of the banners, another protester told Human Rights Watch.
In the evening, the group held another protest without banners calling for al-Ma’abiri’s release. Security forces “randomly” arrested some participants, one of them told Human Rights Watch. Khalid al-Harasis, Husain Shubailat, Ahmad al-Jarayisha, Zaid al-Hajjaj, and Abd al-Mahdi al-‘Awwajin were arrested at the demonstration. That night, security forces arrested Dr. Bassam al-‘Amayiri, another participant, at his home. The military prosecutor at the military-dominated State Security Court charged them with “incitement to resisting the political system of government in the kingdom”under article 149 of the penal code.
On September 11, Ibrahim Abu ‘A’isha, a Tafila, an activist, presented himself to the police after learning he was also wanted for participating in the two protests and was arrested, two lawyers for the activists told Human Rights Watch. Civilian prosecutors charged him under the same article, a Tafila Movement activist said. He has not yet been transferred to the military prosecutor of the State Security Court, said Tahir al-Nassar, a lawyer for the other Tafila activists.
Also on September 7, security forces raided a cafe in the area of the Sports City roundabout in Amman and arrested two opposition activists, Mu’in al-Harasis and Muhammad al-Ra’ud, of the Tafila Neighborhood Popular Youth Movement in Amman for leading calls to hold protests in capital the following week against corruption under the heading of the Rejection Protest, two activists told Human Rights Watch. Opposition activists in Jordan have taken to giving names to weekly protests, such as Anti-Corruption Protest, or Judicial Independence Protest.
Security forces arrested a third activist from the Tafila Neighborhood Movement, Hisham al-Sarahin, that day in the same area as he was walking home, two activists told Human Rights Watch separately. All three have been charged with “incitement to resisting the political system of government in the kingdom,”and their cases were transferred from civilian prosecution to the military prosecution service at the State Security Court on September 12.
Lin al-Khayyat, one of the lawyers for the activists, explained to Human Rights Watch that civilian prosecutors may first look into the case and charge the defendant, but later decide that the criminal subject matter is outside their jurisdiction and refer the case to the State Security Court. All three lawyers of the Tafila and Tafila Neighborhood activists, al-Khayyat, al-Nassar, and Muhammad al-Harasis, described this as a delaying tactic by the government to prolong pre-trial detention.
Under amendments to its constitution promulgated during a period after King Abdullah II tasked the government with political reform in October 2011, the jurisdiction of the military-dominated State Security Court over civilians was restricted to crimes of terrorism and drugs. Although none of those arrested are accused of violent acts, which the definition of terrorism in article 147 of the penal code requires, prosecutors apparently classified their acts and the crime as falling within the rubric of terrorism.
On September 11, police in Amman took Abdullah Mahadin into custody when he tried to reclaim his car, which police had confiscated the day before. Mahadin is a well-known activist of the Amman Popular Youth Movement, a reform group that was calling for an end to corruption and fair elections among other issues. He faces charges of “undermining the political system of government” as a result of his participation in peaceful demonstrations in Amman on September 7, 8, and 9, in addition to a charge for carrying and possessing weapons, al-Khayyat and a reform movement activist told Human Rights Watch. A Jordanian news website, khaberni.com, cited security sources as saying they found an electrical stick, a scalpel, publications, and brochures in Mahadin’s car. The activist, who was present when the car was confiscated, told Human Rights Watch that the stick was made out of wood, and was lying unused in the car.
Security forces also arrested two people from the opposition Karak Popular Youth Movement, Ibrahim al-Dhumur and Ra’uf al-Habashna, during the week following September 7 as a result of their peaceful protest activities and charged them under article 149, three activists told Human Rights Watch.
Jordanian news websites, one political activist, and one lawyer confirmed another arrest – Muhammad al-Natur on September 11 for writing reform slogans on walls. The activist said al-Natur was not known to belong to any political movement. It was not known whether he had been charged.
On September 12, security forces arrested Fadhil al-Masamira and a second person identified as Laith, whose full name is not known, who were demonstrating in front of the Interior Ministry in Amman for the release of Mahadin and other activists, one activist told Human Rights Watch. He said al-Masamira was charged with working to “change the constitution of the state by unlawful means” under article 136 of the penal code, which is punishable by death.
Since January 2011, Jordan has witnessed hundreds, if not thousands of demonstrations, from small protests to larger marches. Following a change of the Public Gatherings Law in 2011, organizers no longer required prior approval to hold a public protest and Jordanians have made use of this change. In March and April 2012, however, the government began to arrest activists and bring politically motivated charges against them for their reform activities. Prosecutors have reverted to a provision in the penal code that criminalizes the unlawful gathering of seven or more people with the intent to carry out a crime.
One of those detained before the recent string of arrests was Sa’ud al-‘Ajarma, a member of an opposition group who has been in detention for over two months, al-Nassar, his lawyer, told Human Rights Watch. Al-‘Ajarma faced five charges of insulting the sovereign (lese majeste), criminal defamation, resistance to police, and attack on public property, in addition to incitement to resisting the political system of government, al-Nassar said. Al-‘Ajarma has participated in a number of peaceful demonstrations.
Some of the other arrested activists from Tafila, Karak, and Amman also faced additional charges of lese majeste, unlawful gathering, or stirring up sectarian strife.
On September 13, the Legal Committee of Jordan’s upper house of parliament approved amendments to the Press and Publications Law that would increase censorship on online expression, after the lower house had endorsed the government’s bill with minor changes. Human Rights Watch had criticized the draft amendments as incompatible with Jordan’s international obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression.
“Jordan’s government is in full reversal mode against the modest gains in public liberties achieved by reform activists during the regional popular empowerment in 2011,” Wilcke said. “The government should address legitimate concerns rather than trying to silence people who raise them.”