(Amman) – Jordan’s parliament has approved a series of important human rights reforms in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Positive changes include a new law that improves rights of people with disabilities, the full repeal of a controversial penal code article that allowed people who commit sexual assault to avoid punishment if they marry their victims, and new limits on pretrial detention and other criminal justice reforms.
“After years of promising reforms Jordan is finally delivering real change on important issues,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should swiftly move to carry out these legislative changes that will improve the lives of Jordanians with disabilities, women, and criminal suspects.”
Jordan’s 18th parliament, formed following lower house elections in September 2016, passed the reforms during its first ordinary session, between November and July, as well as the first extraordinary session from July to August. The Royal Committee for Developing the Judiciary and Enhancing the Rule of Law, which King Abdullah II set up in September 2016, recommended many of the reforms. The committee presented its 282-page report to the king on February 26. In March, Human Rights Watch urged Jordanian officials to carry out the program.
In May 2017, authorities promulgated the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the official gazette. For the first time, the law explicitly prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and largely complies with established disability rights definitions and principles in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Jordan ratified in 2008.
The law is groundbreaking in that it is one of the first national disability laws to protect the right to legal capacity – the right to make decisions about one’s own life, in line with the international disability rights treaty. The law states that a person with a disability, or the legal guardian of a child with a disability, must freely consent to “every action, procedure, or legal measure to be taken regarding their rights or freedoms after being notified, in a way that he/she understands the content, results, and impacts thereof.”
This provision on decision-making underscores the autonomy and inherent dignity of people with disabilities to be treated like anyone else. The law also includes a unique provision requiring the authorities to closely consult with people with disabilities and their representative organizations any time the legal capacity provisions are revised in the personal status law or any other law.
Article 2 defines discrimination as “every constraint, exclusion, restriction, cancellation, or denial either direct or indirect due to disability of any rights or freedoms determined in this law or in any other law, and that constitutes discrimination on the basis of disability and refusal to provide reasonable accommodation contrary to the provisions of this law.”
The law also expands the meaning of disability, defining it as a “long-term physical, sensory, mental, psychological or neurological impairment, which, as a result of interaction with other physical and behavioral barriers, may hinder performance by such person of one of the major life activities or hinder the exercise by such a person of any right or basic freedom independently.” Article 6 extends the law’s protections to people with temporary disabilities, defined as expected to recede within 24 months.
In line with international standards, article 4 calls for “inclusion” of people with disabilities “into all areas of life.”
The law enshrines into law the principle of “reasonable accommodation,” meaning that steps must be taken to “enable the person with a disability to practice a right and freedom, or to gain access to services on equal basis with others.”
The law also provides an expansive definition of “violence” against people with disabilities, as “an action or a denial that will deprive a person with a disability of a certain right or freedom.” Those who violate this provision are subject to jail terms of one year or a fine of up to 1,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$1,411). Employers who refuse to employ a person with a disability solely because of the disability are subject to fines between 3,000-5,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$4,235-US$7,058).
The law also provides for deinstitutionalizing people with disabilities. Article 27 says that the Social Development Ministry should create a comprehensive national plan for alternatives to governmental residential institutions and prohibits licensing new residential institution for people with disabilities.
The law also contains some elements that are not in line with the treaty. It uses fixed definitions of “major life activities” in a way that could lead to restrictions for people with disabilities in areas that the law does not specifically mention. It also does not clearly guarantee the right to live independently and to be included in the community.
Violence Against Women
In August, both houses of parliament passed amendments to the country’s 1960 penal code. Among the most important was the full repeal of article 308, an infamous provision that allowed those responsible for sexual assault to avoid punishment if they married their victims. The full repeal was adopted over another provision that would have maintained impunity for those responsible for certain sexual offenses, including those who have sex with children ages 15 to 17.
The debate was part of a regional move toward canceling provisions that allow impunity for sexual assault. Since July, Tunisia and Lebanon have also repealed similar penal code provisions.
Lawmakers also amended article 98 to disallow mitigated sentences for those who commit crimes against women. The provision leaves a loophole, however, under article 340, allowing mitigated sentences for those who murder their spouses discovered committing adultery. According to press reports, about 20 women are killed in Jordan each year by male family members in so-called “family honor” crimes.
Criminal Justice Reforms
In mid-2017, both houses of parliament adopted royal committee proposals to overhaul the criminal procedure law to create a legal aid fund to provide lawyers for suspects who cannot afford them.
A 2012 closed criminal case study by the Justice Center for Legal Aid, a local organization that offers free legal services, found that 83 percent of defendants were not represented by a lawyer during the investigation and pretrial stages, and 68 percent were not represented in court.
Other changes include measures to limit the use of pretrial detention. The law now makes pretrial detention an “exceptional measure,” allowed only under certain circumstances, including when it “is the only means of preserving evidence or material signs of a crime” or “to prevent coercion of witnesses or victims, or to prevent the suspect from contacting his partners or associates in a crime...” The changes limit pretrial detention for minor offenses to a maximum of three months, removing courts’ authority to extend these detentions, and limiting extensions for serious offenses to a maximum of one year or 18 months, depending on the alleged crime.
The changes also provide for alternatives to pretrial detention for the first time, including electronic monitoring, travel bans, house arrest, or other restrictions on movement.
The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) 2016 annual report says that 28,437 people were held in pretrial detention in Jordan in 2015, almost double the 15,765 serving sentences.
The amendments do not appear, however, to apply to detention by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. It also does not prevent local governors from ordering arbitrary administrative detention of up to a year under the Crime Prevention Law of 1954, which circumvents Jordan’s Criminal Procedure Law. The NCHR 2016 annual report said that 19,860 people were administratively detained in 2015, some for longer than a year.
“The recommendations to improve Jordan’s justice sector could be a major step forward for human rights in Jordan, but authorities should move to annul other practices and legal provisions that allow for arbitrary detention,” Whitson said.