10 Years On: Jordan’s Anti-Terrorism Law and the Crackdown on Dissent
Ten years ago, on 1 November 2006, Jordan enacted the "Prevention of Terrorism Act", in response to the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman that left 60 people dead. In 2014, faced with threats stemming from the spillover of 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 to trial under the pretext of "terrorism".
Opening the door to abuses, it is on the basis of the law's vague definition of terrorism that individuals have been prosecuted for "disturbing the 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 to shut down any criticism of another country. This was the case of Professor Amjad Qourshah who was detained for three months in 2016 pending investigation by the General Intelligence because of a video in which he criticised the participation of Jordan to the international coalition against the Islamic States being part of an agenda of the United States, 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 him sentenced to 10 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 since 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 put under investigation 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 of 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 the prosecution of political opponents and of a professor because of a Facebook post – will soon become terrorist offences too.
Regrettably, the Anti-Terrorism law is only the last piece of the repression apparatus composed of the country's intelligence agency and the State Security Court 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 directly 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 while they are completely cut from the outside world. Forced confessions are then used by the State Security Court (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 judge directly appointed by the Prime Minister, who can also refer cases, and its decisions – which are 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", says Inès Osman, Alkarama's Legal Coordinator. "Today, Jordan is a strong ally of several Western countries and is perceived by many as the good student of the Arab region; so much that the authorities' clampdown on free expression goes unnoticed. In January 2015, little was said when two activists were arrested for their involvement in peaceful demonstration against Charlie Hebdo's cartoons less than five days after King Abdullah's participation to the Paris rally for freedom of speech. Recently, King Abdullah affirmed that the rule of law had to be upheld by each state institution which had to adopt this principle '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 as "terrorists" all those who dare speaking up their minds."
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