(Amman) – Jordanian authorities are seeking to limit protests over austerity policies throughout 2019 by targeting protest leaders, participants, and other critics for harassment and arrest, Human Rights Watch said today. At least seven activists have been detained since September.
Most of those detained face charges related to social media posts that show them participating in protests or criticizing the country’s leadership. Jordan’s Penal Code prohibits insulting the king, queen, crown prince, and other “guardians of the throne,” a prohibition often described with the French phrase lese majeste. The authorities accuse other activists of “undermining the political regime,” a terrorism offense under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court. Jordanian authorities should stop using vague criminal provisions to limit freedom of expression and release anyone held for peaceful expression of their views.
“Jordan faces significant economic and political problems that are adding to citizens’ frustrations, but jailing activists and violating protesters’ rights may only hide popular discontent,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing free expression is essential for giving citizens confidence that their concerns are being heard and taken into account.”
On October 13 2019, the authorities detained Moayyad al-Majali, 47, an employee at the Ministry of Justice and an independent researcher who had been looking into state property registered under the king’s name. In July, al-Majali submitted a request for information to the prime minister’s office, which rejected the request.
A family member told Human Rights Watch that on October 13, officers of the Jordanian police Criminal Investigation Unit searched his house, confiscated his electronic devices, and detained him. The next day authorities transferred him to the public prosecutor, who accused him of insulting the king, slandering the king, and “inciting strife” stemming from an article published on a local news website about his inquiry and research.
On November 3, authorities took him before the public prosecutor again, where he was accused of insulting the queen and defamation for a January Facebook post concerning the alleged use of state land. Al-Majali’s lawyers submitted 10 bail requests, which were rejected. The Justice Ministry suspended him on October 15, and he is currently on trial while held in Amman’s Marka prison.
On October 31, a group of unemployed Jordanians in the southern town of Karak began a sit-in in front of the governorate building. On November 15, the authorities arrested a participant in the protest, Khaled al-Sarayrah, 23, and other activists for not carrying their IDs. A family member told Human Rights Watch that family members went to the local police station to present Sarayrah’s identification but that the police refused to release him. Family members said that the public prosecutor ordered his detention for a week on the suspicion of criticizing the king, then released him on November 21.
Police preventive security officers detained another activist, Alaa Malkawi, 34, on October 25 while he was on his way to a planned protest at Amman’s fourth circle, next to the prime minister’s office. The officers transferred him to the police electronic crimes unit, where authorities accused him of insulting the king and taking part in an illegal gathering. The authorities extended his detention administratively on November 25. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the accusation is based on a video posted online in 2018 showing him at a protest asking Jordanian authorities, “What did you do in the past 20 years?”
The authorities also detained four activists affiliated with the hirak Bani Hassan, a coalition organized by one of the largest tribal groups in the country demanding political reforms. In recent months, hirak Bani Hassan has held protests in various governorates but also joined in the weekly protests in front of the prime minister’s office in Amman.
One hirak member, Hisham al-Saraheen, 50, was detained on October 25 when about 50 uniformed police and plainclothes officers blocked the road to stop the car he was travelling in, a witness told Human Rights Watch. The police took al-Saraheen to the police preventive security department in Amman for interrogation and then transferred him to the state security public prosecutor. The prosecutor ordered his detention for “undermining the political regime” based on a video posted online in which he was chanting at a protest, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
A group of about 25 masked men detained a second hirak member, Abdullah al-Khalayleh, 42, on October 27 at the gym where he was exercising, an activist and family member told Human Rights Watch. His lawyer said he is charged with “undermining the political regime” and criticizing the king and queen based on videos posted on his Facebook profile. He is in Marka prison. The arrests of al-Saraheen and al-Khalayleh led to violent street protests by residents of Zarqa’s Awajan district, where both activists live.
Authorities detained another hirak member, Khaled al-Khalayleh, 53, on November 3 after he arranged a peaceful protest in front of Zarqa’s governorate building demanding the two men’s release, an activist told Human Rights Watch. The public prosecutor ordered his detention for two weeks for insulting the king and queen. He remains in detention under investigation.
The authorities detained a fourth hirak member, Abd al-Rahman Shdeifat, 30, on November 10 after a he finished a job interview in Mafraq, a family member told Human Rights Watch. Al-Rahman Shdeifat’s whereabouts remained unknown until November 15, when his family was able to visit him in Bab al-Hawa prison in Irbid.
A family member who spoke to Shdeifat said that at least seven masked men surrounded him as he left the interview and detained him without providing an arrest warrant. They took him to the preventive security department in Amman where he was interrogated for four hours about his activism. On November 11, authorities transferred him to the state security public prosecutor, who ordered his detention for undermining the political regime, insulting the king and queen, and inciting civil strife.
Abd al-Karim al-Shraydeh, 52, a lawyer and a head of a local nongovernmental organization, is currently on trial for criticizing the king. He told Human Rights Watch that the electronic crimes unit of the Jordanian police summoned him on September 2 and detained him. He was released after two weeks pending the trial. The evidence against al-Shraydeh is a video he posted to his Facebook page about high levels of poverty in the country and perceived corruption. In it, he addresses the king, stating “Fear God in what you’re doing to people.”
Since mid-November, Jordanians began tweeting the hashtag #stop_arrestjo to call attention to arrests and pressure authorities to release all those detained on charges tied to their peaceful statements and criticisms of authorities.
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. Such restrictions should rarely, if ever, limit public and peaceful criticism of state leaders and institutions.
“Telling Jordanian activists to shut their mouths and go home or risk arrest will not ameliorate legitimate concerns about the economic situation or perceived government corruption,” Page said.