Jordan Talks of Reform, but Old System Holds Sway

23-12-2012 12:00 AM

Ammon News - AMMONNEWS - On Nov. 13, Amer Tubeishat joined several thousand demonstrators in central Amman to protest rising prices.

As Mr. Tubeishat, a senior program officer at a nonprofit organization, walked away from the crowds, he was thrown into a police wagon and introduced to a frightening new world, where he had no access to a lawyer for three days, was prevented from using the telephone and was handed over to the State Security Court. Twenty-two days later, Mr. Tubeishat was released on bail and, in a gesture he finds surreal, invited for lunch with King Abdullah.

Jordan’s State Security Court is a special body that has jurisdiction over crimes considered harmful to Jordan’s internal and external security — involving drugs, terrorism, weapons, espionage and treason, but also speech-related crimes, including insulting the king.

The court did not the various charges against Mr. Tubeishat, including being part of an unlawful assembly and attempting to subvert the regime. He has no idea whether or when the state will resurrect those charges — the case is ongoing — and seek to try him in the future.

Revolutions that began last year in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East also inspired small but persistent protests and labor strikes in Jordan. Opposition groups have called for comprehensive political and economic overhauls, but most of them have stopped short of calling for the ouster of the king.

“For three years Jordanians have been protesting, but they were not being sent to the State Security Court for doing so until recently,” said Nisreen Zerikat, a human rights advocate and lawyer. “The cases that are referred to the State Security Court, in my opinion, deal mostly with people who have expressed their opinion.”

She added, “We had hundreds of protests since the Arab Spring and people were not detained, so you have to conclude that some people are being targeted.”

During the protest in November, against a 54 percent increase in prices for cooking gas, two officers and a civilian were killed, according to the police.

Last week the king ordered the release of most of the demonstrators detained last month who were not involved in the violence.

“The way that the king has handled his opposition has been with a more soft or mild oppressive measures,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. “He has not provided the riot police with bullets. This has helped him avoid the cycle of killings that has engulfed other authoritarian states during the Arab Spring.”

In response to the Arab Spring, the Jordanian government scrapped an article in the Public Assembly Law requiring consent to hold rallies.

“When the government announces in the media that they accept peaceful protests and then use the claim of ‘illegal assembly’ against them at the State Security Court, this means there is a big gap between what is being said and what is taking place on the ground,” Ms. Zerikat said.

Mr. Tubeishat, along with scores of other demonstrators, has been placed in legal limbo, facing a bewildering array of laws and procedures that allow the state to keep people in indefinite detention and saddle them with a criminal record that may be difficult to erase.

Both Human Rights Watch and the local National Center for Human Rights released statements last month denouncing the detention of more than 150 protesters, most of whom were charged with “illegal assembly,” “slandering the monarch” and “subverting the political regime.”

Brig. Gen. Muhannad Hijazi, attorney general for the State Security Court, said during an interview last week: “State security courts exist in many countries in the world, including in the United States, and these courts face criticism from human rights organizations and advocates because of their military affiliation.”

“We are working according to the Constitution,” he added, “and free speech is legal within the limits of the law.”

The report by the National Center for Human Rights, which received little attention here, includes interviews with detainees who said they were beaten and abused at police stations before being sent to the State Security Court.

Some of those who arrived there said they were denied lawyers and a medical examination, guaranteed by law, according to the report.

But General Hijazi said protesters signed documents that stated the charges against them and their right to an attorney. “If there is any proof of violations and we receive them, we would investigate and take action,” he said.

In an effort to respond to public pressures, last year both houses of Parliament and the king approved dozens of constitutional amendments strengthening the rule of law, fostering the role of the judiciary and establishing a constitutional court. They also approved an election law that would increase the number of seats allocated for political parties in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Parliament.

Despite promising widespread constitutional change, Jordan continues to detain demonstrators under laws that are almost 60 years old. The 1954 penal code allows provincial governors to hold suspects indefinitely if they are considered a “danger to society.”

Nine protesters from the November demonstrations have been held under these provisions. The National Center for Human Rights says that 11,000 people were held last year in administrative detention.

Dissent has been on the rise in Jordan this year, with anger directed at surging prices of basic commodities, along with that of fuel and electricity. Labor unions are becoming an increasingly strong force for calling attention to dismal working conditions and low pay.

A poor country with 14 percent of the population living below the poverty line, which is $2.60 a day, and high unemployment, particularly among the young at nearly 25 percent, Jordan is also facing external shocks, including hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled their homes and crossed into the country.

“The violence in Syria is paradoxically stabilizing the kingdom,” Mr. Schenker said. “The people in the kingdom are not coming out to protest more because they worry about chaos.”

During his detention, Mr. Tubeishat said he lost 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds. As soon as he was released, he returned to work, but said his time in detention has left him with mixed feelings.

“The most profound realization for me is the extremely tight security grip that still exists in this country,” he said. “I am focusing now on building awareness.”

Six days after his release, Mr. Tubeishat and a few other activists were invited to lunch with the king.

“I was standing in front of the State Security Court, but a few days later I was meeting with the king. It was a bit surreal,” he said. “We told him what happened to us and he said this needs to end, so I really hope there is action and follow-up.”

* New York Times

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