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Jordan: Deliver on Promises to Respect Free Expression

Arrests, Security Trials for Peaceful Criticism
January 28, 2014

(Amman) – Jordanian lawmakers should undertake critical reforms in 2014 to remove or amend laws that place impermissible limits on free expression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

Jordanian officials prosecuted people during 2013 on such vaguely worded charges as “insulting an official body,” “undermining the political regime,” and “disturbing relations with a foreign state,” to stifle peaceful expression. Authorities failed to bring the 1960 penal code into compliance with constitutional free speech guarantees strengthened by 2011 constitutional amendments.

“It’s shameful that Jordanian prosecutors can still imprison people who simply chant a slogan at a protest or voice an opinion about a leader,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Constitutional guarantees are just ink on paper if the authorities don’t get rid of penal code articles that undermine them.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

In September, prosecutors charged the publisher and the editor of the Jafra News website with “disturbing relations with a foreign state” after the site posted a third-party YouTube video that authorities deemed insulting to the brother of Qatar’s ruler. Authorities held them until December 31, when an appeals court ordered their release on bail and transferred their case from the State Security Court to the Amman Court of First Instance.

The State Security Court in May exonerated five students at Al al-Bayt University in the northern city of Mafraq of “inciting sectarian or racist strife,” but on January 20 a regular court convicted four of them for “insulting a religious symbol” and sentenced them to one month in prison. Prosecutors alleged that their style of dress and musical tastes indicated that they were “devil worshippers.”

The director of the Press and Publications Department on June 2 ordered the blocking of more than 260 news websites that had refused to register, as required under a 2012 amendment to the press law. Some registered in November after losing a lawsuit to overturn the order.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced in September that the government planned to amend the State Security Court law to end trials of civilians before the court except on charges of terrorism, espionage, treason, money counterfeiting, and drugs. Yet the penal code’s overbroad definition of terrorism includes such vaguely worded offenses as “undermining the political regime.” Dozens of protesters face terrorism-related charges before the State Security Court merely for chanting slogans or carrying signs at protests critical of the king and other officials.

In breach of international law, officials denied entry to certain groups of people fleeing Syria’s conflict, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees residing in Syria, single males of fighting age, and people without documents.

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