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Jordan: Government Crushes Civic Space, Says HRW

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Civic space in Jordan has shrunk over the past four years as authorities persecute and harass citizens organizing peacefully and engaging in political dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

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The authorities use vague and abusive laws that criminalize speech, association, and assembly, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities detain, interrogate, and harass journalists, political activists, and members of political parties and independent trade unions, and their family members, and restrict their access to basic rights, such as work and travel, to quash political dissent.

“There is an urgent need to address the downward spiral on rights we are seeing in Jordan today,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “‘Maintaining stability’ can never be a justification for abusing people’s rights and closing space that every society needs.”

Human Rights Watch investigated 30 cases between 2019 and 2022 in which authorities used overly broad criminal defamation provisions to arrest and charge citizens for peacefully expressing political opinions on social media platforms or in public gatherings. Human Rights Watch also asked 42 Jordanian activists to provide written responses to a survey about their experiences with law enforcement agencies.

Jordan’s authorities are using vague and overly broad criminal provisions including under the Penal Code of 1960, the Cybercrime Law of 2015, the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2006, and the Crime Prevention Law of 1954 to suppress free speech and assembly. The declaration of the state of emergency following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has also given the prime minister sweeping powers to further curtail civil and political rights. In 2020, the number of cases relating to these charges almost doubled from the previous year, according to the annual reports from the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR). Taken together, these practices amount to a systematic campaign to quell peaceful opposition and silence critical voices, Human Rights Watch said.

Relatives of those targeted and others with direct knowledge of the cases said that in several cases, detainees were placed in solitary confinement and denied access to lawyers and families. In most cases, the country’s two primary security agencies, the General Intelligence Department (GID) and the Preventative Security department of the Public Security Directorate (PSD), were responsible for the arrests. In some cases, those arrested were charged, but charges were later dropped. In others, people were detained for long periods but not charged. A small number of cases resulted in prosecution. In several cases, General Intelligence told people to sign a pledge not to insult the king or the intelligence services.

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The Jordanian government has also dissolved political parties and independently elected trade unions after members exercised their right to protest and express political opposition. In 2020, following a high-level dispute between the government and the teachers’ union over salaries, the authorities raided and arrested union board members, then dissolved the union.

Human Rights Watch previously documented how Jordanian authorities have limited media freedom in recent years through sweeping gag orders, harassment, and arrests in order to control and restrict reporting on sensitive issues.

In February 2021, King Abdullah II sent a letter to the head of General Intelligence asking him to limit the department’s involvement in non-intelligence related matters. In June 2021, the king convened the Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System, which issued recommendations for amending laws on political parties and elections, and other legislations that would allow for further engagement in the country’s political life. The recommendations emphasized the need for “full respect for human rights and the creation of a safe space for fundamental freedoms that would enable political participation.”

Despite these high-level calls for reform, little has changed, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2021, CIVICUS Monitor, an organization that collects data on the situation for civil society in 197 countries, downgraded Jordan’s civic space rating from “obstructed” to “repressed.”

Under international human rights law, freedom of expression, assembly, and association are recognized as fundamental human rights, often overlapping, and essential to the effective functioning of a democratic society and to the enjoyment of other individual rights. Human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Jordan is party, permit restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, including the protection of national security, public order or public health, and morals, and are nondiscriminatory. In no case may restrictions be applied or invoked in a manner that would impair the essence of a human right.

Jordan’s partners and donors, such as the United States and European Union, provide direct assistance and training to Jordan’s security agencies. These donors have highlighted democratic governance and rule of law reforms as key objectives of their economic and political cooperation with Jordan, but these programs have done little to halt the visible deterioration of basic rights.

Jordanian authorities should extend the country’s political reform program by undertaking concrete measures that would alleviate the growing repression that restricts civic space and political participation in the first place, Human Rights Watch said. Such measures should include amending vaguely worded legislation that authorities use to curtail basic rights as well as halting all informal harassment and persecution using the legal system of Jordanians who seek to peacefully express their views and form independent groups.

“It is doubtful that Jordan’s political reform program will succeed in the face of a deterioration of freedom of speech, assembly, and association across the country,” Fakih said. “Jordanian authorities should take urgent steps to reverse the closure of civil space and allow Jordanians to fully participate in the social and political life of the country without hinderance.”

Abusive Legal Framework

In the last four years, Jordan’s authorities have increasingly used vaguely worded criminal laws to prosecute citizens for peacefully expressing political opinions on social media platforms or in public gatherings.

Human Rights Watch investigated 84 government charges in 30 cases in which the authorities used such laws between 2019 and 2022. In 63 cases, the authorities used criminal defamation provisions under the Penal Code of 1960, including article 132, which allows for the prosecution of citizens “who broadcast fake or exaggerated news that would undermine the prestige of the state.” Such provisions cast a wide net for what constitutes defamation and give authorities significant leeway to pursue charges without any clear connection to criminal wrongdoing, with a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

To extend the reach of these provisions to the use of social media and the internet, the authorities have also used the Cybercrime Law of 2015, which, under article 11, stipulates a penalty for anyone who intentionally sends, resends, or publishes libel or slander with imprisonment for a period of no less than three months and a fine of no less than 100 JDs (US$141) and a maximum of 2,000 JDs ($2,820). The authorities also frequently use article 15, which criminalizes use of the internet or information network to carry out acts that are punishable by other legislation.

While the government previously proposed amendments to the existing laws, for example in December 2018 for the cybercrimes law, in response to the objections to the texts, no positive changes were made. In certain cases, amendments were ultimately adopted with more problematic provisions, including for example, the penal code amendments of 2022, which criminalized attempts to commit suicide or express intent to commit suicideand statements that seek to instill fear in people.

According to statistics available by the NCHR in 2020, there were 2,140 court cases on the basis of article 11 of the cybercrime law. In the same year, 402 court cases were recorded on the charge of “insulting an official agency,” 49 cases on “inciting strife,” and 311 cases for “lengthening the tongue” against the king (Lèse-majesté or insulting the king). In November 2021, King Abdullah II issued a royal decree pardoning 155 people convicted for “lengthening the tongue” against him.

The Counterterrorism Law of 2006 includes a broad definition for a terrorist act. These cases are tried by the State Security Court (SSC), a special military court with mostly military judges that does not meet international standards of independence and impartiality, and that has been regularly used to prosecute civilians in contravention of international law.

Between 2019 and 2022, Human Rights Watch documented 19 of these cases, for “disturbing relations with a foreign state” under article 3.B and “committing an act that endangers the safety and security of the society and violates public order” under article 2 of the counterterrorism law.

Article 149 of the of the penal code is also under the jurisdiction of SSC. It criminalizes any act that “undermines the political regime or incites opposition to it” or “intends to change the economic or social entity of the state.” It has been regularly used to prosecute political and anti-corruption activists linked to an umbrella coalition known as al-Hirak al-Muwahhad, a political reform movement that emerged from the 2011 protests.

Finally, the Crime Prevention Law of 1954 includes expansive powers to use administrative detention in contravention of rights obligations. Under article 3, local governors are allowed to take action against anyone “under their jurisdiction,” allowing officials to routinely circumvent the criminal justice system to detain people by administrative order with limited judicial review. In mid-February 2022, the authorities arrested 11 political activists under this law. In March, they used it to arrest at least 150 people to pre-empt protests or quash sit-ins across the country.

Jordanian authorities also used emergency legislation brought in at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 to quash dissent, including activating the Defense Law of 1992, which grants the Prime Minister expansive powers to curtail basic rights.

In March 2021, al-Hirak al-Muwahhad called for demonstrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 protests against unemployment and corruption. Riot police broke up protests and detained hundreds of people across the country. A lawyer from the National Freedom Forum, an initiative by Jordanian lawyers providing legal aid for political activists, provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 105 people detained on March 25 and released on March 28. Forty-five of them were charged with participating in an illegal gathering and causing public disturbance under article 165 of the penal code, in addition to breaching Defense Order No. 16, which prohibits public gatherings of more than 20 people and under Defense Order No.22, which increases sentences for such violations.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the charge sheet of 12 activists who took part in protests in Dhiban, a town in the Madaba governorate, and were sentenced to three months in prison, but were later found not guilty by Madaba’s Court of First Instance after submitting a complaint regarding the court’s decision because two of them were convicted in absentia. In seven photos and videos filmed by an activist in the northern city Mafraq, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, police are seen surrounding and arresting protestors who were abiding by public health laws, including by maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

Arbitrary Arrests 

Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases in which the GID, Jordan’s main intelligence department, and the Preventive Security, a branch of the PSD, arbitrarily detained activists between 2018 and 2021.

In all 10 cases, family members or the activists said that officers wearing civilian clothes from one of these agencies enforced the arrests, alongside other police forces. In five of these cases, family members or activists said that officers identified themselves as being from one of these agencies. In eight cases, family members or activists said that large numbers of police, including plainclothes police, either raided their homes or arrested them on the street.

In three cases, activists said they were held in solitary confinement at the General Intelligence headquarters in Amman, with limited or no light and irregular or no visits from families and lawyers. These accounts are consistent with previous Human Rights Watch documentation of the agency’s detention practices and the NCHR 2017 annual report. Activists said that General Intelligence officers interrogated them for long hours about their political activism.

Two of those detained at the General Intelligence headquarters were taken before the state security prosecutor, a military officer with offices in the complex. Under the State Security Court Law of 1959, the prosecutor can extend the detention warrant for a renewable period of 15 days after charging a suspect if it is in the interest of the investigation.

In April 2021, the authorities arrested a political party member and Hirak activist after he posted on Facebook about the arrest of 20 people, and the house arrest of King Abdullah’s half-brother following an investigation into an alleged plot to unseat the king. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video recorded by neighbors showing at least 17 vehicles, including civilian, Preventative Security, and gendarmerie vehicles surrounding his house.

The activist said that a police officer alongside a General Intelligence officer presented him with a search and arrest warrant issued by the public prosecutor. He said four agents blindfolded him and took him in a civilian car to General Intelligence headquarters in Amman. He said he spent 16 days in incommunicado detention, during which he was subjected to mental pressure throughout long interrogation sessions with security officers who accused him of being one of the plotters. He said officers also questioned him about his political activism, particularly his membership in one of the country’s registered political parties. During the interrogation, the officers told him to sign a pledge not to, directly or indirectly, insult the king or General Intelligence.

Six days into his detention, his case was transferred to the state security prosecutor, who charged him with undermining the political regime based on the same Facebook post. Those charges were later dropped before the case went to trial for reasons that were not made clear. He was released 16 days after his detention.

In August 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed an activist with the Dhiban branch of al-Hirak who was detained and prosecuted three times. Authorities detained him for the first time on October 22, 2018, following his participation in anti-austerity protests, then in 2019 for a Facebook post that criticized officials, and in March 2021 as one of the 12 activists in Dhiban who participated in protests.  

He said he was arrested at 7:30 a.m. on October 22, 2018, by a group of plain clothes officers who surrounded the school in Amman where he was a teacher. Security officers confiscated his personal belongings, blindfolded him, put him in a civilian car and drove him to the General Intelligence headquarters, where he was held in solitary confinement for 37 days.

After two days, his case was transferred to the state security prosecutor, who showed him a video of him chanting slogans criticizing the royal family and charged him on the basis of that video with undermining the political regime, as well as insulting the king and the royal family.

During his 37 days in solitary confinement, the authorities permitted one visit with his lawyers, and a few days later with his family. In one interrogation session, an officer asked him to provide information about the protests near the prime minister’s office, as well as a statement to the king demanding further reforms that he signed along with hundreds of other people. He also said that intelligence officers offered to support him financially “if he commits to leaving the Hirak.”

After 37 days, he was transferred to Juwaida Prison and was finally released on November 29. After three hearings in his case, the state security court sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for undermining the political regime. That sentence was later dropped as part of the General Amnesty Lawof 2019. In March 2019, he was brought in again for “lengthening the tongue” on the basis of a Facebook post and convicted in April, for which he spent a year in prison.

Harassment 

Security agencies, primarily General Intelligence, have arbitrarily and without any clear legal basis, imposed restrictions on citizens in reprisal for speaking out or engaging in political activities including by restricting their ability to work, travel, and obtain official documents. In most cases, there is no official evidence such as judicial documents mandating any of the measures against them.

Human Rights Watch reached out to 42 Jordanian political activists and asked them to provide written responses to a survey about their experiences with law enforcement agencies. They could submit their responses anonymously to avoid fear of retaliation. While the rates of harassment found in the survey cannot be generalized to all Jordanian activists, the responses indicate trends commonly experienced.

All respondents, except one, said they had been summoned and questioned about their political activism by security agencies, including the GID, Preventative Security, and governors. Twelve said the authorities had summoned them more than 10 times through various means, by phone, through distant relatives and friends, or while visiting an official government agency.

In some cases, the authorities handed documents summoning activists for interrogation to family members while they were visiting government agencies to conduct other business. Nineteen said they were told during interrogation to halt their political activism. Thirty-one said that after their interrogation, authorities told them to remain in touch with the security agency.

Security agencies imposed travel bans on several activists without explanation, or confiscated their passports or passports of their family members at the airport while they or their relatives were attempting to leave the country or returning, strongly suggesting the restrictions were arbitrary.

Nineteen said they had lost their jobs due to security agency harassment of them or their employers and 16 said that relatives and friends were threatened with either losing their jobs or with further harassment.

Seventeen said they faced difficulties in obtaining a certificate of good conduct, a document issued by General Intelligence tat indicates a clear record, and is required for work, visa, and residency applications, while nine others said they struggled with obtaining a clear criminal record due to past court convictions. Nine said they had problems renewing official documents, such as passports, IDs, and driver’s licenses.

Case studies

In January 2022, Human Rights Watch documented the case of a Hirak activist banned from traveling on three occasions, twice in July 2019 and once in October 2021. Based on the person’s account, during each incident at Queen Alia International Airport officials told him that General Intelligence had ordered his travel ban. Between 2017 and 2021, the authorities detained and prosecuted him four times on charges related to free speech and assembly, including “lengthening the tongue” against the king and queen.

In 2021, al-Salt Criminal Court sentenced him to three months in prison for resisting an official employee carrying out a public job, while participating in protests in al-Salt governorate after oxygen ran out in the city’s hospital leading to at least six deaths of patients on ventilators. The activist’s lawyer submitted two applications to replace the sentence with a fine. The court rejected the petitions, and he started to serve his prison sentence in February 2022.

In December 2020, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed an artist currently living in exile and whose political satire work is known on social media. He said that General Intelligence had summoned him twice earlier that month while he was in Jordan. In two long interrogation sessions, he said, intelligence officers questioned him about at least eight of his published art pieces that were critical of the country’s electoral law and parliamentary elections held in November 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said that at least five intelligence officers were present during the interrogation and pressured him to identify local and international entities and individuals who supported his work. He said that intelligence authorities threatened him with prosecution on charges such as inciting election boycotts, “lengthening the tongue” against the king, and insulting high-ranking officials. He said that GID told him not to publish artwork that is critical of the state and its institutions, and to obtain approval from intelligence officers before publishing any other work.

The political activist arrested in April 2021 told Human Rights Watch that GID summoned him four times between April and September 2021 to question him about his political activity. He also said that in May 2020, authorities had prohibited his brother-in-law from traveling with the Jordanian Armed Forces, of which he is a member, denying him the required security approval. He said his brother-in-law was told to tell him to visit the GID office as part of the brother-in-law’s security approval process.

“They [the authorities] transfer your clash with them to a clash with your society – it doesn’t remain personal,” he said.

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