Jordan: Government Crushes Civic Space

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Jordanian teachers display their national flag during a protest in the capital of Amman on September 5, 2019.
© 2019 KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

(Amman) – 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 today.

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.

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 suicide and 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 Law of 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 that 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.

Restrictions on Freedom of Association and Assembly

In 2020 and 2021, Jordanian authorities targeted organized groups such as professional unions and political parties, using dubious legal grounds to halt their work, creating serious constraints on freedom of association.

Several Jordanian laws restrict freedom of association, including the Labor Law of 1966, which limits the ability to freely form trade unions, and the Associations Law of 2008, which regulates the formation and operation of nongovernmental groups. Jordanian authorities impose onerous pre-approval restrictions on the receipt of foreign funding by nongovernmental groups. In late 2019, Jordanian authorities created a centralized committee under the prime minister’s office to study and decide foreign funding approval requests, but representatives of donor states and local nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch in 2022 that the committee has done little if anything to ease the restrictions. In September 2022, the Community Media Network, a local nongovernmental group, filed a complaint with the NCHR over authorities’ arbitrary rejection of a 25,000 Jordanian Dinar ($35,200) grant from the German development agency to produce a campaign to raise awareness about recycling.

Professional Unions

In July 2020, the police raided the Jordan Teachers Syndicate, an independent elected labor union, and arrested its board members, then dissolved the union. The harassment occurred shortly after high-profile disputes between the government and the union over the salaries of public school teachers. Human Rights Watch documented due process violations during the process and retaliatory measures against the hundreds of members.

In July 2021, Amman’s Criminal Court found the deputy head of the union, Nasser al-Nawasrah, not guilty in the three charges. They included “intervening in broadcasting fake, exaggerated news which undermine the state’s prestige,” in violation of articles 132/1 and 80/2 of the penal code, and “threatening to cause unjustified harm,” in violation of article 354 of the penal code, with reference to article 15 of the Cybercrimes Law.

In November 2021, authorities forced dozens of teachers into early retirement, and barred the union’s former board and members from protesting or holding a news conference. In June 2022, a court approved a request to halt the prosecution of members of the syndicate but upheld the 2020 decision to dissolve it.

In May 2020, 11 board members of Jordan’s Medical Association resigned following an April government decision to freeze all public sector pay raises due to Covid-19. In June 2020, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s cabinet approved the board’s dissolution based on article 75 of the Medical Association Law of 1972, which states that the cabinet may, upon the recommendation of the health minister, dissolve the association’s board for “public safety and security requirements.” The cabinet then appointed a committee headed by the health minister to lead the association. A higher administrative court upheld the decision.

In June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed two former board members, who said they resigned because their repeated requests to hold meetings to discuss the decision to halt raises for public sector employees were dismissed, preventing them from adequately fulfilling their mandates.

Both said that during their terms on the board, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, GID offices frequently intervened in their association work. When the board’s agenda focused on reforms around the labor rights of Jordanian doctors, one of the board members said, they received calls from GID officers directly after meetings, questioning them about their opinions on demands related to labor reforms. Both said that in 2019, intelligence officers told them not to participate in the board’s planned protests in support of the 2019 teachers’ union crisis. One said that after they participated, an intelligence officer sent them a photo of them protesting.

Political Parties

In mid-2022, Jordanian lawmakers approved a new Political Parties Law based on a recommendation by the Royal Committee to Modernize Political Systems. Under the law, party registration and oversight is transferred from the Political and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry to the Independent Elections Commission, but the law maintains vague provisions that can be used by authorities to restrict political parties.

The previous Political Parties Law of 2015 included several articles that restricted political parties from operating freely and allowed for their oversight by the Political and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry and its Committee of Party Affairs.

On January 7, 2021, for example, the ministry filed a Court of Appeal case to dissolve the Partnership and Salvation Party, a registered political party since 2018, and made an expedited request to suspend the party’s work and activities during the trial. The ministry’s action was based on article 34.B of the Political Parties Law of 2015, which allows the court of appeal to dissolve political parties if they commit violations under any provisions of the law, including failing to correct any violations within a 30-day notice.

Human Rights Watch reviewed court documents provided by the party’s lawyer that show that the Party Affairs Committee, which operates under the ministry and is responsible for oversight of political parties, alleged in filing the case that the party had committed six administrative and procedural violations. The documents said that the party submitted its 2018 annual budget late, and failed to report party employees’ salaries and to submit certified copies of the party’s rental agreements or any bank statements. The law does not appear to require these documents. In its trial defense, the party provided documents showing it had submitted the budget reports within the legal period.

On May, 4 2021, the Court of Appeal dismissed the case and revoked the decision to halt the party’s work during the trial.

Based on local media reports, the Committee of Party Affairs previously referred three political parties to the courts, which then dissolved the parties on grounds of violating administrative and financial laws and policies. The most notable was the 2020 decision by the Court of Cassation to dissolve the Islamic Action Front party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing in Jordan.

Based on a Human Rights Watch review of publicly available court documents, the authorities in mid-2020 detained and prosecuted two high-ranking members of two prominent political parties for posts expressing political opinions on social media. The court documents say that one was charged with “broadcasting news that undermines the prestige of the state” because of an online post criticizing Independence Day celebration. Amman’s Criminal Court found in May 2021 that “his action does not constitute a crime and does not require punishment.” In the other case, authorities charged a high-ranking party member with “lengthening the tongue” against the king and insulting the president of a foreign country under article 122 of the penal code, both charges under article 15 of the Cybercrime Law. Amman’s Criminal Court found him not guilty of both charges in June 2021.

Separately, Human Rights Watch interviewed leading members of two political parties, in September and October 2021. They said that along with the restrictions they face under the current Political Parties Law of 2015, political parties frequently deal with violations by security agencies, including summonses and arbitrary harassment measures.

One political leader said that over the last two years, at least 30 members of political parties withdrew due to the authorities’ pressures. He also said that intelligence authorities imposed arbitrary measures on members of his party including travel bans, confiscation of passports, and inability to obtain official documents.

One political party member was summoned for security approval, then interrogated, after he applied for a motorbike driver’s license. He said he was asked about reasons for his membership in the political party, about certain party members and about political discussions within the party. He was not given the security approval after the visit, and authorities rejected the two other applications for a license, in August 2021 and January 2022.

Recommendations

The government and parliament should immediately amend problematic provisions in the Cybercrimes Law of 2015, the penal code, and the Counterterrorism Law of 1964 in line with international standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and repeal the Crime Prevention Law.

The GID Department should abide by King Abdullah II’s February 2021 instruction not to exceed its intelligence mandate and stop all interference with peaceful political opposition or dissent, including peaceful protests or other expression of dissent. The GID Department should also respect the rights of defendants, and not force them to sign pledges.

The government should put in place a system to independently and transparently investigate allegations of harassment by GID officers of individuals, family members, their employers and relatives, including through arbitrary travel bans and work restrictions, and should rescind any such arbitrary restrictions, and hold those responsible for such harassment to account.

The government should allow the creation of independent, elected trade unions in all trades, limit official involvement in the creation and management of such unions, and allow for the reinstatement of the unions and political parties that have been arbitrarily dissolved, or dissolved based on abusive and overbroad provisions.

Jordan’s international partners should publicly and explicitly condemn all violations relating to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Jordan and should ensure that respect for such freedoms is a condition of all existing programs. Donors should push for and track concrete reforms in these areas.

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