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Jordanian Armed Forces guarding a hotel used as a quarantine site in Amman, Jordan. 18 March 2020. © 2020 Roya News

UPDATE: On March 20, the Prime Minister imposed a mandatory curfew pursuant to the law. Violation of the curfew is punishable by up to one year in prison. The Public Security Directorate said it had arrested 693 individuals for violating the curfew on March 21.

(Amman) – The Jordanian government has declared a state of emergency as part of a series of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 17, 2020, Jordan’s King Abdullah II issued a royal decree activating a 1992 law that grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights, but Prime Minister Omar Razzaz pledged to carry it out to the “narrowest extent” and stated that it would not impinge political rights, freedom of expression, or private property.

According to the Health Ministry, Jordan had only recorded 69 COVID-19 cases by March 19, but the government had already imposed a series of pre-emptive restrictions. It closed the kingdom’s land and air borders, took over 34 hotels to convert them into quarantine centers, banned crowds of 10 people or more, and closed public and private businesses and offices, with exceptions for health and essential services. The government did not impose a curfew but urged people not to leave their homes except in emergencies and to meet basic needs.

“Jordanian authorities should stick by their commitment not to abridge basic rights under the state of emergency and to ensure that all measures taken are necessary and proportional to the threat posed by the pandemic,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “The test of every nation is how it treats its citizens in times of crisis.”

Under the Defense Law of 1992, the prime minister may declare a state of emergency in response to exceptional circumstances that threaten national security or public safety, including a pandemic. The law gives the prime minister the authority to suspend certain rights, including restrictions on freedom of expression and movement, and does not appear to have time limits.

The prime minister may issue orders restricting movement, preventing public meetings, and detaining anyone the government deems a threat to “national security or public order.” They can also confiscate any land or private and personal property, including money. The law also allows the government to monitor the content of newspapers, ads, and any other method of communication prior to publication, and to censor and shut down any outlet without justification. If an individual violates the Defense Law they can be sentenced to three years in prison, fined 3,000 Jordanian Dinars ($4,200), or both.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jordan ratified in 1975, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the situation would require states parties to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.” The committee stressed that such measures “are of an exceptional and temporary nature and may only last as long as the life of the nation concerned is threatened.”

Certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency, Human Rights Watch said. These include the right to life, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, the prohibition of discrimination, and freedom of religion, as well as the right to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention, and the right to judicial review of detention. It is strictly prohibited for any measures in effect during states of emergency to discriminate solely on the ground of race, color, sex, language, religion, or social origin.

In addition to restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the virus, the government has also stated that it will consider measures to combat price gouging during the crisis. The government also announced the release of 480 administrative detainees, 1,200 detainees in pretrial detention, and postponed the imprisonment of those unable to pay off their debts, 3,081 people, to reduce the risk of infection in prisons. The government should free all detainees held in administrative detention and consider temporary release of detainees held for non-violent crimes. The authorities should also ensure that those who remain in prison are kept in sanitary conditions and able to access adequate health care, Human Rights Watch said.

The prisoner releases followed a prison riot on March 15 at Bab al-Hawa prison in northern Jordan, which left two inmates dead. The authorities stated that the riot began after they informed inmates that family visits with inmates would be suspended as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Measures under consideration such as temporary prisoner releases, combating price gouging, and debt relief will go a long way toward helping Jordan get through the crisis,” Page said. 

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