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(Amman) – Police raided the Jordan Teachers Syndicate headquarters in Amman and 11 of its branches across the country, shuttered them, and arrested all 13 syndicate board members on July 25, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Attorney General Hassan Abdallat issued the order to close the independent, elected labor union representing teachers across Jordan for a period of two years after high-profile disputes between the Jordanian government and the Teachers Syndicate.

Shortly after the shutdown, the attorney general ordered a comprehensive gag order on all reporting about the situation, including on social media or sharing social media comments.

“Shuttering one of the Jordan’s few independent labor unions following a protracted dispute with the government and on dubious legal grounds raises serious concerns about the government’s respect for the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of transparency and the ban on discussing this incident on social media only reinforces the conclusion that the authorities are violating citizens’ rights.”

The Attorney General said the closure order is based on three pending criminal complaints before the public prosecutor’s office, but there appears to be no basis in Jordanian law for him to issue the closure order. The 2011 Jordan Teachers Syndicate Law states that the group’s board can only be dissolved by a vote of two-thirds of the members of its central committee or by judicial order. Under Jordanian law, neither the Attorney General nor another public prosecutor is empowered to make judicial orders.

The Jordanian government and the Teachers Syndicate have engaged in high-profile public disputes since the establishment of the syndicate in 2011, primarily over public school teacher pay. In September 2019, the Teachers Syndicate led a 4-week nationwide teachers strike demanding a 50 percent pay raise it said the government promised in 2014, but eventually agreed to a 35 to 75 percent raise depending on a teacher’s rank. Tensions resurfaced after the government in April froze all public sector pay increases until the end of 2020 due to Covid-19.

The official state news agency reported that the measures were taken based on three ongoing criminal matters. These include an investigation of financial matters by Jordan’s Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission, another case involving “‘inflammatory measures’ announced by the syndicate’s council and circulated on social media,” and a third case involving a video posted on social media by the syndicate’s deputy head, the contents of which remain unclear. On July 26, Education Minister Tayseer al-Nueimi announced that the ministry would name a temporary committee to lead the syndicate. The committee was formed the next day, effectively completing a government takeover of the group.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five people with ties to the syndicate, three of whom were in syndicate offices when police arrived on July 25. The witnesses who were in different offices said that that the authorities refused to show the judicial order for the office closures. A witness who was in the office in the northern city of Irbid said:

I was there, along with four other employees and some syndicate members. [A policeman] wearing civilian clothing who didn’t identify himself said that they have a judicial order to close the branch. He was asking us to take our personal belongings and leave the place. I asked him to see the judicial order. I told him I need to see the written order, even if you don’t have it with you now, I still need to see at least a copy of it. He didn’t have it…

The witness said that syndicate members and employees left the building but remained outside arranging a protest. He said that about an hour and a half later the police returned with a paper that appeared to be a court document but was unsigned. Police later sealed the office door with a wax seal.

In a video circulated on social media that purports to show police closing the syndicate branch office in Karak, syndicate members demand that a policeman show an arrest warrant. He refuses and replies, “I am the warrant.”

A family member of the syndicate’s deputy head, Nasser al-Nawasra, whose alleged videos posted to social media were cited by the attorney general as one basis of the syndicate’s shutdown and the arrests, told Human Rights Watch that al-Nawasra had received calls and text messages from the General Intelligence Directorate in recent weeks threatening him with detention if he did not stop his activities.

The family member said al-Nawasra was not home when the family received news about the police raids but later confirmed his arrest. He said, “When we visited him in prison on Sunday he told us that [he was driving] on the Irbid-Amman highway and three GMC vehicles followed him, surrounded his car [to stop him], and put a black bag on his head and arrested him. He was treated in a very unethical way.”

A lawyer for the syndicate said he was at the syndicate’s headquarters in Amman when the police raided the building. He said he demanded to see the judicial order mandating the closure but police refused to show it. He said: “I told them this is illegal and I would need to see a judicial order to allow [them to shut down the office]. I told them if you show me an order, I will allow you to do whatever you want, otherwise everything you do is illegal.”

The lawyer, who was present when detainees appeared before prosecutors, said that the basis of the detentions appears to be “electronic crimes” resulting from their social media postings. He said he believed the catalyst for the closure and arrests was a document published by the syndicate on July 13 laying out the syndicate’s plan to recover the bonuses negotiated in 2019. The steps included a series of intermediate actions eventually resulting in another strike.

In addition to the 13 members of the syndicate’s board detained on July 25, the syndicate members provided to Human Rights Watch lists of dozens of names of other members whom police subsequently arrested. One syndicate member said that police have threatened teachers who have participated in subsequent protests over the syndicate closure. A Ministry of Education circular leaked on social media also warned public employees not to participate in protests. Human Rights Watch also observed a large number of police officers and security forces around areas where protests were expected on the afternoon of July 29.

Blanket bans on public employees participating in protests or strikes violates their rights to free expression, freedom of assembly, and labor rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Jordanian authorities should immediately make clear all details around the arrests and the syndicate closure and reverse the closure and release detainees if there is no legal basis to support the arrests. The authorities should halt intimidation tactics and blanket bans that prevent people from participating in protests and strikes and exercising their right to freedom of association.

“A government takeover of a union and a harsh crackdown is a worrisome reflection of how insecure the Jordanian government is when faced with opposition,” Page said.

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