President Barack Obama joined by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, right at the UN headquarters, Sept. 20, 2016. Carolyn Kaster/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Ten years ago, on November 1st, 2006, Jordan enacted the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” in response to the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman that left sixty people dead.
In 2014, faced with threats of spillover from the Syrian war, the law was amended and broadened to include nonviolent acts, in an attempt to legitimise the government’s crackdown on peaceful expression and assembly.
Journalists, political opponents, freedom of expression advocates and human rights defenders have since been put on trial under the pretext of “terrorism”.
The law’s vague definition of terrorism opened the door to abuses. Individuals have been prosecuted for “disturbing public order”, an accusation usually made against peaceful demonstrators and political opponents. Others have been accused of “disturbing relations with a foreign country”, which leaves a window for interpretation and allows for any criticism of another country to be silenced.
This was the case of Professor Amjad Qourshah who was detained for three months in 2016 pending investigations by the general intelligence authority, due to a video in which he criticised the participation of Jordan in the international coalition against the Islamic State as being part of the US agenda, which, in his opinion, was forcing Arab States to fight a war that is not theirs.
In July 2015, a human rights activist for the Palestinian cause, was sentenced to ten years in prison on the basis of confessions extracted under torture because he published articles critical of Israeli policies.
Last but not least, the law also curtails press freedom. Journalists or media outlets can be prosecuted for “promoting [terrorist] ideas” if they publish information related to terrorist attacks. In July 2015, a journalist working for al-Rai newspaper was investigated for having violated a media gag order by publishing details about a foiled terrorism plot.
Most of these “crimes” already existed in the Jordanian Penal Code, only now they entail harsher sentences with a minimum of five years imprisonment.
One wonders if other repressive provisions, such as article 149 of the Penal Code – which criminalises “the contestation of the political system” and has allowed for the prosecution of political opponents and a professor because of a Facebook post – will soon become a terrorist offence too.
The anti-terrorism law allows the repression apparatus, composed of the country’s intelligence agency and the State Security Court (SSC), to suppress any dissenting voice by means of systematic judicial harassment and torture.
Vested with the investigation of “terrorist crimes”, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) - whose director is appointed by the King - operates without any oversight: its headquarters are used like a secret detention centre where torture – including beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation and prolonged solitary confinement – are commonly used against detainees who are completely cut off from the outside world. Forced confessions are then used by the SSC prosecutor, a military officer who sits at the GID premises, to charge the suspect.
The SSC, under the cover of legality, is a tool of repression at the hands of the executive: it is composed of two military and one civilian judges directly appointed by the prime minister. The PM can also refer cases, and the SSC decisions – mostly based on confessions extracted under torture – cannot be appealed.
Using the pretext of “terrorism” to legitimise the crackdown on freedom of expression is a dangerous path.
Today, Jordan is a strong ally of several western countries; it is perceived by many as the 'good student' of the Arab region, so much that the authorities’ clampdown on freedom of expression goes unnoticed.
In January 2015, less than five days after King Abdullah’s participation in the Paris rally for freedom of speech, little was said when two activists were arrested for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations against Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Recently, King Abdullah affirmed that the rule of law had to be upheld by each state institution “as a constant approach and key pillar in its work.”
It is now time that these fine words be translated into action and that the authorities stop labelling all those who dare speak their minds as “terrorists”.