(Geneva) – Other countries should use the upcoming periodic review of Jordan’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council to press for concrete reforms, Human Rights Watch said today. In particular, country representatives gathering in Geneva for the review process on October 24, 2013, should press Jordan to amend its penal code to remove vague charges that limit rights to free expression, assembly, and association.
Jordan rewrote its constitution in 2011 to guarantee basic freedoms. But prosecutors invoke the 1961 penal code to take dozens of largely peaceful protesters before the quasi-military State Security Court on vague charges such as “undermining the political regime and inciting resistance to it,” and “illegal gathering.” The prosecutors also invoke “lengthening the tongue,” used to prosecute insults to or criticism of the king.
“What good is the new constitution if Jordanian prosecutors can keep undermining basic rights by using the old penal code,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should use this opportunity to press Jordan to update the penal code to protect the rights the new constitution is supposed to guarantee.”
The periodic review comes just weeks before Jordan’s bid for a three-year seat on the Human Rights Council, on November 12. States will choose 14 countries to replace the ones scheduled to rotate off. As a candidate, Jordan should make commitments to end continuing abuses and set timetables to carry out human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition to concerns about the use of the penal code, the government of Jordan is interfering with free expression and media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. In July, Jordan blocked more than 200 news websites for failing to comply with 2012 press law amendments requiring them to register with the government’s press department. The amendments also make the owner, editor-in-chief, and director of an electronic publication responsible, along with the author, for comments or other posts from users on the website.
The editor and publisher of the Jafra News website have been in detention since September 17 without bail on charges of “harming relations with a foreign state.” Their news site had posted a YouTube video showing a man – allegedly a Qatari prince – sitting, dancing, and showering with several women. Other journalists face prosecution before the State Security Court for their critical reporting.
Human Rights Watch submitted its own human rights assessment of Jordan to the Human Rights Council in advance of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), highlighting key concerns and necessary steps to address them.
Other key concerns include:
- Failure to reform the 2009 associations law, which gives the government the authority to intrude on the internal activities of nongovernmental organizations. The law grants authorities discretionary powers to reject applications to register new groups and wide powers to close existing ones. It obliges groups to inform the authorities in advance of planned activities and certain meetings, which they must allow officials to attend. The law empowers the government to scrutinize the groups’ bank accounts, and groups are required to get approval from Jordan’s cabinet to receive foreign funding. In 2012, the cabinet rejected an application by Tamkeen for Legal Aid and Human Rights, a registered group, to receive US$350,000 of foreign funding, without providing a reason.
- Near-total impunity for torture and ill-treatment, and a flawed system for authorities to prosecute such crimes. Officials routinely ignore credible allegations of torture because it is up to police prosecutors and police judges to investigate, prosecute, and try their fellow officers. At the Police Court, where such cases are heard, two out of three sitting judges are police-appointed police officers. Jordan’s Public Security Directorate announced in early October that the Police Court had convicted several police officers of torture, but did not specify whether the officers were convicted under article 208 of Jordan’s penal code, which proscribes torture, or the nature of the punishments handed down.
- Use of administrative detention to circumvent due process rights mandated by the Criminal Procedure Law, including the rights to be charged and to be given a fair trial. Under the 1954 Crime Prevention Law, any provincial governor who reports to the Interior Ministry can authorize administrative detention for up to a year of anyone the governor deems a “danger to the public” without presenting any evidence of a crime. The governmental National Center for Human Rights reported over 12,000 cases of administrative detention in 2012.
- Poor enforcement of laws and regulations that protect the rights of migrant domestic workers, sometimes leading the workers to forfeit their rights, such as to unpaid salaries, in exchange for the ability to return home. Jordan also does not allow domestic workers to change employers freely, even after the contract period has ended.
The UN General Assembly resolution that established the Human Rights Council says that member states should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “shall fully cooperate with the Council.”
“More than two years after King Abdullah announced a reform process, Jordan has neglected to improve some key areas,” Stork said. “Jordan should take concrete, visible steps before the council elections to show it’s willing to improve human rights, including freeing journalists and peaceful protesters detained on vague, impermissible charges.”