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Jordan's Moves Toward Democracy Tested In Case Against Muslim Parliamentarians

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Although the two parliament members belong to a small, mystic Sufi group that has no broad power base, the Muslim Brotherhood - the fundamentalist bloc that effectively dominates parliament - viewed the government's move as a direct warning. The detentions followed the arrest of a prominent official of the Brotherhood after the discovery of large caches of weapons in at least six earth bunkers near Amman.

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At least nine members of Hamas - the armed affiliate of the Brotherhood formed after the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories - were also detained in connection with the arms caches. Hamas immediately announced that the weapons, including explosives and fire arms, were meant to be smuggled across the Jordan River to the territories to be used against the Israeli Army.

The government's actions, combined with revelations about the presence of armed groups in the country, sent shock waves across Jordan, where people are haunted by the violent confrontation between Algerian authorities and that country's fundamentalist movement last year, and the years of factional strife in Lebanon. Tense atmosphere

An uncharacteristic barrage of leaks by unnamed security sources suggesting the two members of parliament had financial and military links with hard-line Palestinian groups and Tehran have contributed to a tense atmosphere.

Many parliament members, angered by the way the government has handled the Shbeilat and Qarash case, have reportedly suggested a collective resignation of parliament or a call for the resignation of the government.

Last week, Ibrahim Bakr, a prominent lawyer who leads Shbeilat's defense team, filed a suit on behalf of the politician's wife against the prime minister, the attorney-general, and the chief of the intelligence department demanding Shbeilat's immediate release. Mr. Bakr argued that procedures used in Shbeilat's arrest and detention violate Jordan's new state security law.

Mrs. Shbeilat's move is expected to reinforce the widely held popular conviction that her husband has been targeted for political reasons in order to discredit his criticism of government corruption and security excesses.

In 1989, as the head of Jordan's broad-based Professional Association Council, Shbeilat played a pivotal role in transforming the antigovernment riots that erupted against increases in the prices of fuel and food into a national platform demanding political freedoms and the resignation of then-Prime Minister Zaed Rifai.

Two months ago Shbeilat led a parliamentary investigation into government corruption. Although Mr. Rifai himself narrowly avoided parliamentary indictment, Shbeilat publicly declared that the vote amounted "to a political condemnation" of Rifai, who presided over a repressive era in Jordanian politics.

Shbeilat's record as a defender of political and human rights has secured him strong support among the capital's professional class.