(Amman) – The prominent Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar was murdered on September 25, 2016, as he entered an Amman court to stand trial for insulting religion.
Authorities arrested Hattar on August 13, after he posted an anti-ISIS cartoon to his Facebook page in which the cartoonist depicted God’s face. Following the posting, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulqi ordered Interior Minister Salama Hammad to investigate Hattar, leading the next day to his arrest. He was held in Marka Prison until September 8, then released on bail. Local media extensively reported on the case, though the authorities on August 14 issued a gag order on further reporting.
“Nahed Hattar’s senseless murder in front of an Amman courthouse comes on the heels of the government’s senseless charges against him over a cartoon he posted to his Facebook page,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary prosecutions for defamation of religion stigmatize individuals and make them targets for vigilante reprisals.”
Jordan’s new cabinet should take immediate steps to introduce legislation to remove defamation of religion charges from the country’s penal code. The charges limit free speech and put anyone charged with such an offense in danger, Human Rights Watch said.
Hattar, 56, was a well-known Jordanian writer and political commentator. His posting of the cartoon on August 12 ignited controversy. The cartoon, titled “In Heaven,” depicts a jihadi fighter in bed with two women. The fighter orders God, whose white-bearded face is depicted, to bring him wine and other items and to send someone to clean up the dirty dishes.
The authorities charged Hattar with “inciting sectarian strife” and publishing material that insults “other people’s religious feelings” under articles 150 and 278 of Jordan’s penal code. The “inciting sectarian strife” charge can carry up to three years in prison. Authorities released Hattar on bail on September 8.
According to media reports, at 9 a.m. on September 25, Hattar was approaching the front steps of the Palace of Justice, a major court complex in the Abdali neighborhood in central Amman, to attend a court session relating to these charges, when a gunman approached and shot him three times, killing him. Hattar’s family members and police apprehended the gunman.
Jordan’s cabinet, as well as the Islamic Action Front, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, and Jordanian nongovernmental groups quickly condemned the murder. Later in the day, a Jordanian prosecutor referred Hattar’s alleged assailant to trial before Jordan’s State Security Court on murder and terrorism charges.
According to media reports, Hattar’s family has refused to claim his body until authorities take action against those who incited violence against him.
Human Rights Watch has documented previous cases in which authorities pursued defamation of religion charges. In 2013, authorities employed the same charges used in the Hattar case to jail and try five university students after other students alleged they had desecrated a Quran and engaged in “devil worship.” The court eventually convicted the students and sentenced them to time served.
“Jordanian authorities should recognize that ’defamation of religion’ laws and prosecutions effectively contribute to violent extremism,” Whitson said. “The government should immediately suspend prosecutions for defamation of religion, move to repeal the provisions from its penal code, and allow citizens to engage in peaceful debate even of ‘taboo’ subjects.”