(Beirut) – Jordanian authorities should stop using state security courts to try civilians, including for participating in peaceful protests. Protests have intensified following an announcement by the government on November 14, 2012, that it would end fuel subsidies.
The authorities have arrested over 300 people since November 14, later releasing several dozen. At least 107, including 9 children, were referred to state security courts on charges including “subverting the system of government,” “participation in unlawful gatherings,” and “vandalism of property.” While some protests turned violent, authorities have targeted protesters who participated in peaceful gatherings.
“Instead of respecting the right to peaceful protest, the Jordanian authorities are using what remains essentially a military court to punish civilians, including peaceful protesters,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should stop using the special security courts to try civilians, and recognize that peaceful assembly is not a crime.”
Jordan’s State Security Court is a special court that is not independent of the executive. The prime minister appoints its judges, who typically sit on panels of two military judges and one civilian judge. The court has jurisdiction over penal code crimes deemed to harm Jordan’s internal and external security – involving drugs, explosives, weapons, espionage, and high treason but also including offenses related to peaceful speech.
Security forces attacked protesters both during demonstrations and in detention centers. On November 14, Mahdi al-Saafin, a leader of the Democratic Youth Federation, was injured when, according to his family, security forces unleashed dogs on a group of protesters during a demonstration in Jabal al-Hussain, a suburb of Amman.
His family told Human Rights Watch that security forces then took al-Saafin to Al’abdaly police center, where police officers beat him repeatedly for three days and forced him to stand naked with a group of other detainees. He faces a trial by a state security court on charges of “subverting the system of government,”“participation in unlawful gatherings,” and “vandalism of property.” Family members said that authorities have not allowed him to see a doctor, although during a visit the family observed injuries that appeared to be from the beatings.
Sahel Musalma, a 23-year-old pharmaceutical worker in Amman, also faces trial in a state security court. A member of his family told Human Rights Watch that security forces arrested him at a restaurant after he participated in a peaceful protest, and beat him with batons while taking him into custody. Security officials also beat him several times in jail, and forced him to stand naked, his family said. Musalma faces charges of “participation in unlawful gatherings” and “vandalism of property,” although he told his family that he did not participate in any violent protest. He is his family’s sole breadwinner.
Security forces arrested Ola Safi, a 52-year-old Amman resident, at a protest at Jabal al-Husain on November 14. A family member told Human Rights Watch that security forces used water cannons against protesters who refused to disperse and arrested her after she tried to prevent security forces from beating an older man. She told a lawyer who visited her in prison that she had also been beaten there. The lawyer told her family that he saw bruises on her hands and body consistent with her allegations.
On April 23, Jordan’s military prosecutor brought charges against a journalist and the publisher of a news website for “subverting the system of government” over an article concerning the king’s supposed intervention in a corruption investigation.
On April 1, the State Security Court prosecuted 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 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.
“Jordan cannot claim to be pursuing democratic reforms while authorities punish peaceful dissent,” Stork said. “Authorities should drop charges against peaceful protesters and investigate all episodes of police abuse.”