Jordan's Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour speaks during a news conference in Amman, Jordan on August 31, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

(Amman) – Jordan should strengthen proposed amendments to its 1960 penal code to better protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour released today.


The proposed amendments, drafted by a legal committee under the Justice Ministry, contain 186 articles and would amend more than 180 articles of the current penal code. They are now under review by Jordan’s Legislative and Opinion Bureau, part of the prime minister’s office. Once that review is complete, in order to become law they must pass both houses of parliament and be approved by the king. Ensour should ensure that additional amendments are included to eliminate penal code articles that unduly limit free expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

“Jordan will take a step in the right direction if it changes the law to prevent rapists from getting away with their crimes and strengthens the rights of people with disabilities,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “And Jordan’s lawmakers shouldn’t miss the chance to remove unnecessary restrictions on basic freedoms. When they consider the proposed amendments, they should ensure the new penal code enables citizens to speak freely.”

Jordan will take a step in the right direction if it changes the law to prevent rapists from getting away with their crimes and strengthens the rights of people with disabilities. And Jordan’s lawmakers shouldn’t miss the chance to remove unnecessary restrictions on basic freedoms. When they consider the proposed amendments, they should ensure the new penal code enables citizens to speak freely.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director


The amendments address a wide variety of subjects from water theft to gunfire at public celebrations. Human Rights Watch analyzed amendments that directly affect human rights.

One proposed penal code amendment would allow judges, for the first time, to impose alternatives to imprisonment, such as community service, but the amendment currently fails to detail the specific crimes and circumstances in which judges could use alternative sentencing, what forms community service would take, and how it would be monitored.

The amendments also increase protections of the rights of people with disabilities by increasing penalties for those who commit crimes against them, including negligence, rape, manslaughter, deprivation of liberty, and financial deception. The 1960 penal code did not identify people with disabilities as a protected category in relation to these crimes.

Another proposal would amend penal code article 308 to end the exemption from investigation and prosecution for persons accused of sexual assault who agree to marry their victims for at least five years. The amendment proposes to leave the exemption in place, however, for those – in practice, men – accused of consensual sex with a child over 15 years old who then agree to marry the child.

The draft amendments also fail to address marital rape as they include no proposal to change the law’s current rape provision that limits criminalization to “[a]ny person who has forced sexual intercourse with a female, other than his wife…” Jordan should not miss the opportunity provided by the penal code review to define marital rape and make it a crime, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed amendments also fail to correct provisions that state security officials, prosecutors, and judges have long applied to curtail basic rights of free expression and peaceful assembly.

Article 118 of the current penal code, for example, stipulates a minimum sentence of no less than five years for anyone who commits “acts or writings the government did not authorize that expose the kingdom to the danger of hostile actions, disturb its relations with a foreign country, or expose Jordanians to acts of revenge targeting them and their assets.”

The vague and broad wording of this article allows the government to imprison someone merely for expressing an opinion that the government dislikes or of which it disapproves. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which this article has been used to jail journalists and citizens for peaceful criticism of foreign countries. In 2014, Jordan added the language of article 118 to the country’s counterterrorism law, making such “crimes” also terrorism offenses.

Article 149, another current provision that falls under the terrorism section of the penal code, outlaws “undermining the political regime or inciting opposition to it,” a vague charge that has been used to jail and try dozens of peaceful political activists in Jordan’s State Security Court since 2011.

The proposed amendments also fail to address other penal code articles that are vague or inconsistent with the right to free expression and Jordan’s obligation to uphold this right, Human Rights Watch said. They include articles 122 (disparaging a foreign state, army, flag, national slogan, president, minister, or political representative), 132 (broadcasting false news outside the kingdom to harm prestige of the state), 191 (disparaging parliament, government agencies, courts, etc.), and 195 (insulting the king).

One proposed amendment to article 183 of the penal code would also infringe on labor rights by prohibiting and criminalizing labor strikes by some categories of public and private sector employees. It would prohibit workers who provide “public or basic services to the public” from “abstaining from work with the goal of [creating] pressure to achieve a specific goal or inciting others to do so,” removing the right to strike of workers in sectors such as healthcare, electricity, water, telephone, education, the judiciary, and transportation. Those convicted under the amended article would face up to three months in jail and a financial penalty, with both sanctions doubled if the strike resulted in “strife between people,” a vague phrase that the amendment does not define.

The proposed amendments also fail to bring the definition of torture in penal code article 208 into line with international standards by making it a more serious crime than a minor offense and differentiating between private actors and public officials; fail to address the provisions that allow parental use of corporal punishment “in accordance with local customs” so long as it does not “cause harm or damage” (article 62); and fail to excise provisions (articles 98, 340) that allow perpetrators of so-called honor crimes to receive mitigated sentences.

“Constitutional guarantees that protect basic rights amount to little more than ink on paper if the authorities don’t get rid of penal code articles that are used to undermine them,” Whitson said.