(Beirut) – Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced a senior opposition figure on February 15, 2015, to 18 months in prison for criticizing the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The court convicted Zaki Bani Irsheid, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, under Jordan’s terrorism law, which lawmakers amended in 2014 to include a provision that criminalizes “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state.”
The prosecution was based on a November 15, 2014, Facebook post, in which Bani Irsheid criticized UAE authorities for classifying the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization.” Jordanian authorities defended the prosecution as an unbiased application of the law. Bani Irsheid has been held in Amman’s Marka prison since his arrest on November 20.
“Jordanian officials will say they gave Bani Irsheid due process, but it’s the law itself which is inherently unjust,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Jordan should stop using its terrorism law to persecute its own citizens just because they criticize foreign leaders.”
“Disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state” has been a crime under Jordan’s penal code for many years. Jordanian prosecutors have used it to prosecute Jordanians for speech critical of foreign rulers. The State Security Court reform law, passed earlier in 2014, removed this charge from the jurisdiction of the court, but in April, lawmakers reversed the reform by adding the provision to the country’s terrorism law, thereby putting the charge back under State Security Court jurisdiction as a terrorism charge.
Jordan’s 2011 constitution enshrined in law the right of every Jordanian to “freely expression his opinion” in speech or writing, but lawmakers have failed to abolish legislation and stop prosecutions that violate the free speech rights of the country’s citizens.
Bani Irsheid’s Facebook post in question does not call for violence. It accuses the UAE of collusion with Israel and calls for the UAE to be expelled from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It says Emirates undertakes the role of “American policeman,” stands behind all acts of terrorism against the Arab nation, and supports coups and Westernization movements.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour defended Bani Irsheid’s prosecution as punishing “defamation” against the UAE, stating that Bani Irsheid “should have read the law before making the post.” Another cabinet member told the Jordan Times that Bani Irsheid cannot be considered a “political prisoner” because “[i]t is only when people are arrested for their opinions that they are called ‘political prisoners.’ This has never been the case in Jordan.”
Bani Irsheid’s conviction is part of a broader clampdown in recent months on Jordanians who criticize foreign leaders or Jordanian officials, either on social media or during protest marches and demonstrations. In other recent speech-related prosecutions before the State Security Court that Human Rights Watch has reviewed, judges generally convicted defendants to time served in pretrial detention or imposed sentences of three months or less, which can be replaced by a fine.
Bani Irsheid’s 18-month sentence signals that Jordan has no commitment to its promises to end convictions for free expression, Human Rights Watch said. According to Reuters, Bani Irsheid is the highest-profile political figure to be imprisoned in Jordan since 1995.
Neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council countries pledged in 2011 to provide Jordan with US$5 billion in development aid, including $1.25 billion from the UAE.