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Jordan: Two Face Charges for Criticizing Government

Newspaper Editor, Professor Arrested Over Peaceful Comments

(Amman) – Jordanian prosecutors have charged a newspaper editor and a university professor in separate cases for peacefully expressing their opinions.

On August 18, 2015, a Jordanian prosecutor summoned Atef al-Jowlani, editor-in-chief of the daily al-Sabeel newspaper, over an opinion article he wrote and published on June 17 that criticized Jordanian authorities for rejecting a gas cylinder shipment from India. Authorities brought criminal charges against him and released him on bail later that day, an al-Sabeel journalist told Human Rights Watch. Jordanian authorities have also been holding a university professor, Eyad Qunaibi, since June 15 over Facebook comments criticizing what he considered un-Islamic social phenomena in Jordan and Jordan’s cooperation with Israel, among other things.

“Jordan faces real threats to its security and stability, but these don’t include op-eds about gas cylinders and Facebook posts that peacefully criticize the government,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Jordanian authorities should stop going after peaceful critics and enact reforms that genuinely protect free speech.”

Al-Jowlani’s article, “Gas Cylinders … Are We More Careful than the Italians?” criticized the government’s decision to reject a gas cylinder shipment from India, saying that Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour and others had caved in to pressure from media outlets by not importing the cylinders. Jordan sold the cylinders to an Italian company at a loss.

Al-Sabeel reported that the head of Jordan’s Standards and Metrology Organization, the government agency that refused to allow the gas cylinders into Jordan, filed the criminal complaint against al-Jowlani. According to his lawyer, he has been charged with cursing and insulting an official body under articles 190-191 of Jordan’s penal code, as well as publishing false news under the Press and Publications Law.

He is one of at least six journalists and writers facing prosecution in Jordan for their writings.

Qunaibi, 39, a pharmacologist and professor at Jordan’s Applied Sciences Private University, was detained over a Facebook post, “Jordan Heading toward the Abyss,” that criticized what he perceived as un-Islamic developments in Jordan. The State Security Court charge sheet, which authorities did not distribute to Qunaibi’s family members until August 16, indicates that he has been charged with “undermining the political regime in the kingdom or inciting opposition to it” under article 149 of Jordan’s penal code, which the law defines as a terrorism charge.

The charge sheet cites as evidence sections from the Facebook post, including, “[In Jordan] bearded [i.e. religious] men and women who wear head scarfs are arrested and thrown to the floor as part of exercises called fighting terrorism, and this coincides with the reception of the pope of the Vatican with celebratory religious rituals.”

The charge sheet also cites as evidence criticism of Jordanian officials’ participation in the Paris march that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, an accusation that the director of Jordan’s Standards and Metrology Organization has encouraged Jordanian farmers to grow grapes for wine production, and criticism of then-Israeli President Shimon Peres’ visit to Jordan in 2013 for the World Economic Forum. The charge sheet notes that Qunaibi has more than 735,000 Facebook followers.

Qunaibi is currently held at Muaqqar I Prison, 40 kilometers southeast of Amman.

Authorities previously arrested Qunaibi in 2011 and held him for 14 months while prosecuting him for sending money to the Afghan Taliban, which he did not deny. Human Rights Watch wrote to the head of Jordan’s Judicial Council in September 2011 regarding the case, urging the council to halt application of the penal code article then being used to prosecute Qunaibi on the ground that its vague and overbroad nature opens it to political interpretations that can result in violations of freedom of expression. An appeals court later acquitted Qunaibi in that case, but a family member told Human Rights Watch that he remains banned from speaking in mosques.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jordan has ratified, protects the right to freedom of expression, including “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (article 19). The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has stated that: “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration,” and, “All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”

Under article 9.3 of the ICCPR, “[i]t shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”

“Arrests and prosecutions for peaceful criticism are not only unjustifiable and punitive for those they target, but have a wider chilling effect on free speech and the expression of legitimate dissent,” Whitson said.

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