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(Amman) – Jordanian authorities in 2015 missed an opportunity to remove vague and overly broad charges in the country’s penal code and counterterrorism law that are used to curtail free expression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Jordan prosecuted activists, dissidents, and journalists for speech offenses, relying largely on 2014 amendments to its counterterrorism law that broadened the definition of terrorism and included acts such as “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state.” In February, a court sentenced Zaki Bani Irsheid, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post criticizing the United Arab Emirates.

“Jordan’s concerns over its security situation shouldn’t translate into branding journalists and dissidents as security threats merely for doing their jobs or expressing themselves peacefully,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Jordan should revise its terrorism law and penal code to remove vague language used to limit peaceful speech.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Jordan curtailed media freedom in 2015 by detaining and bringing charges against at least nine journalists and writers, in some cases under the counterterrorism law. They included Jamal Ayoub, a freelance columnist, who was detained from April 22 to August 17 for a column that criticized Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen; Seif al-Obeidat, a journalist; and Hashem al-Khalidi, the publisher of the Soraya News website, were jailed from January 28 to March 8, after the site posted an article on negotiations between Jordan and the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, for the release of a captured pilot, Mu`ath al-Kasasbeh, whom ISIS subsequently killed.

In May, a Justice Ministry committee issued a proposed penal code overhaul that would amend at least 180 articles of the 1960 law. The draft amendments provided alternatives to imprisonment, such as community service, for the first offense, but did not amend or remove articles long used by authorities to limit free expression.

In December 2014, Jordan revived capital punishment by hanging 11 Jordanian men, ending an eight-year de facto moratorium. In February, only hours after ISIS released a video showing the captured pilot’s murder, Jordan executed two Iraqis, both long-term death row inmates affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor group to ISIS.

Jordan hosted over 633,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. Beginning in March, Jordanian authorities severely restricted informal eastern border crossings, stranding hundreds of Syrians in remote desert areas just inside Jordan’s border for days and weeks with limited access to food, water, and medical assistance. Aid workers and Syrian refugees confirmed that deportations of Syrians and Palestinians back to Syria occurred during the year.

Jordan blocks Palestinians from Syria from entering the country, and detains and deports back to Syria Palestinians who enter at unofficial border crossings using forged Syrian identity documents, or those who enter illegally via smuggling networks.

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