Jordan's Moves Toward Democracy Tested In Case Against Muslim Parliamentarians
JORDAN'S nascent experiment with democracy seems to be hanging in the balance as tension grows between parliament and the government over the prosecution of two independent fundamentalist members of parliament on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.Skip to next paragraph
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One of the politicians, Leith Shbeilat, is one of Jordan's harshest critics of government corruption and security-force excesses. There is speculation that he is being targeted for political reasons.
Mr. Shbeilat and Sheikh Yacoub Qarash were charged along with two Jordanian merchants with belonging to an illegal group formed to undermine the Constitution and the government "through revolution and terrorism." The indictment, or charge sheet, which was made public Wednesday, said the group was financed by Iran and a militant Palestinian faction. Shbeilat, and possibly Sheikh Qarash, may face a death sentence in the case, although capital punishment is rare in Jordan.
The prosecution of Shbeilat and Qarash is raising questions about the regime's readiness to ease the grip of Jordan's powerful security apparatus. And at the same time, the discovery of several caches of arms linked to the country's fundamentalist movement is raising popular concern about the willingness of Islamic fundamentalists to accept pluralism.
Many Jordanians, worried that these events will lead to a confrontation between the government and the fundamentalists, hope that King Hussein, who returned to Amman yesterday following kidney surgery in the United States, will somehow defuse the brewing crisis.
"We don't think the country can afford a political conflict that will undermine the democratization process," said Tayseer Zabri, leader of the leftist People's Democratic Party, in a telephone interview yesterday. "We hope that his majesty will contain the crisis to minimize the damages for the country and the democratization process."
If the government cannot produce convincing evidence at the trial, which is to begin Tuesday, Mr. Zabri said, "the consequences will be very dangerous."
Jamal Shaer, a former Cabinet member, agrees that the government must prove its case against the defendants. But he approves of the government's handling of the case and says the authorities are "salvaging democracy by taking a firm stand toward any group which entertains hostile intentions against the state."
Jordan's information minister, Mahmoud Sherif, told London's Al-Quds newspaper there were no political motives behind the case. Journalists warned
The government over the weekend warned Jordanian and international journalists about reporting on the case before trial, citing a law that prohibits swaying the outcome of a judicial proceeding. (This article was researched before this reporter left Jordan and then through telephone calls to Jordan.)
Qarash was arrested on Aug. 26 and later charged with founding a hitherto unknown armed Islamic group, Shabab al-Nafir al-Islami, or Vanguards of the Islamic Youth. Less than a week later Shbeilat, one of the most independent members of parliament, which was restored three years ago following a 14-year suspension, was arrested after members of the Shabab "confessed" they had transported firearms in Shbeilat's car.