(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have increasingly targeted political and anti-corruption activists on charges that violate the right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said today. Since mid-March 2019, the authorities have detained over a dozen people, most linked to a loose coalition of political activists across the country known as the “hirak” coalition, as well as journalists, for public criticism of Jordanian leaders and policies.
The charges filed against activists range from insulting the king (“lengthening the tongue against the king”) to the vague charge of “undermining the political regime” to online slander. At least six of the detained activists began hunger strikes in May.
“Jordanian authorities should manage public discontent over domestic economic woes and austerity policies by engaging and listening to citizens rather than arresting protest organizers and those calling for public accountability,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “During Ramadan last year, the authorities listened to citizens’ concerns following mass protests and they should do the same now.”
Among the activists currently held is Sabri al-Masha’leh, a 31-year-old teacher from the town of Dhiban, who has been on hunger strike since May 6. One of al-Masha’leh’s family members told Human Rights Watch that the Interior Ministry’s Electronic Crimes Unit summoned him for interrogation on March 28 about four Facebook posts he wrote in February, only one of which directly referred to the king by name.
The authorities charged al-Masha’leh with insulting the king and brought him to trial in Amman’s Court of First Instance. After six hearings, during which the family member said the judge denied al-Masha’leh’s lawyer’s request to summon interrogators from the Electronic Crimes Unit, the court convicted him on April 30 and sentenced him to two years in prison. The court later reduced the sentence to one year, which al-Masha’leh is serving in Sawaqa Prison, south of Amman.
Another person detained recently is Ahmed Tabanja, 33, a human rights activist from the northern town of Irbid. Jordanian authorities first detained Tabanja on March 17 while he was using his phone to broadcast over Facebook Live a protest by unemployed Jordanians in front of the royal court complex in Amman. Authorities released him two days later. On March 29, authorities arrested Tabanja a second time based on a series of Facebook posts he wrote. A prosecutor ordered his detention for one month on suspicion of “insulting an official agency.” A close friend of Tabanja told Human Rights Watch that the authorities extended the detention administratively, transferred him to Ma`an prison in southern Jordan, 296 kilometers from his home, then released him on May 21.
Other activists detained for insulting the king include Ahmed al-Neimat, 33, Taha Daqamseh, 40, and Abdullah Wreikat, 45. A court convicted Wreikat on April 22 and sentenced him to one year in prison for a Tweet he wrote responding to a member of the royal family in which he criticized the king.
Several activists are on trial before Jordan’s State Security Court, a military court with some civilian judges, on charges related to protests against austerity policies, perceived corruption, and of criminalization of peaceful expression.
Those on trial include Mo’awiyeh al-Shawawrah, 58, a teacher from the southern town Karak. One of Al-Shawawrah’s family members told Human Rights Watch that authorities detained him on December 13 as he was returning to Karak from a protest in Amman at the Prime Ministry building. The family member said that he faces the charge of “undermining the political regime” based on protest chants he made about government corruption. The family member said his health has deteriorated in detention and that he was hospitalized in intensive care unit April, handcuffed to the bed.
Others currently held for “undermining the political regime,” which as a terrorism charge falls under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court, include Kameel al-Zoubi, 42, and Naeem Abu Rodniyye, 37, both detained on May 11. One of Abu Rodniyye’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that a large group of uniformed and plainclothes police came to Abu Roniyye’s house to arrest him, adding: “They surrounded the whole area and searched the house like Naeem was a spy or something.” He is in al-Juwaida prison in Amman and began a hunger strike to protest his continued detention on May 24.
The relative said that security officials have pressured members of Abu Rodniyye’s tribal group, Bani Hassan, which is the largest in the country, to publicly condemn Abu Rodniyye’s activism, but they refused. On May 15, the head of Jordan’s National Center for Human Rights forwarded a letter to Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz on behalf of Bani Hassan leaders demanding the release of detained activists.
On May 22, authorities detained Firas al-Rousan, 53, the lawyer for Abu Rodniyye and al-Zoubi, as he entered Juwaida prison to meet his clients. One of al-Rousan’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that authorities took him for questioning at a police station and then sent him for pretrial custody and charged him with insulting the king and “undermining the political regime.” Authorities have rejected bail requests. He is in Juwaida prison.
The crackdown has also included two journalists for the TV station al-Urdun al-Youm (Jordan Today). The authorities detained Mohammad al-Ajlouni, a director, and Rana al-Hmouz, a broadcaster, on May 19 in response to a May 15 television segment in which the al-Hmouz criticized the head of Jordan’s Gendarmerie Police forces for criticizing retired military officers for participating in pro-reform protests and for allegedly appointing people from his home region to various posts. The two posted bail on May 19 but face slander charges.
In March, Jordanian authorities also blocked local access to alurdunyya.net, a website set up by Jordanian activists in exile seeking to document political affairs in Jordan and arrests of activists.
The latest arrests come amid a reshuffle of Jordan’s security agencies that oversee the forces carrying out these arrests. King Abdullah II issued a royal decree on May 1 appointing Maj. Gen. Ahmad Husni as new head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and Salameh Hammad as new interior minister on May 9. Hammad previously served three different stints as interior minister, most recently between 2015 and early 2017.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Jordan is a state party, 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).
International law allows only narrowly defined restrictions on these rights that conform with the law and are necessary in a democratic society for national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
“Jordan’s government cannot stamp out citizens’ discontent with their government through arrests and harassment,” Page said.