AMMAN, JORDAN — POLITICIANS in Jordan are anxiously awaiting tomorrow's verdict in a controversial trial of two members of parliament charged with plotting to overthrow the regime. The lawmakers could face the death penalty if found guilty.
Political activists and elected officials say that regardless of the outcome, the trial of the parliamentarians, known here as deputies, has already affected the three-year-old democratization process in the kingdom.
Since many politicians believe that political motives are behind the trial, analysts say the trial carries a message for political institutions and activists not to overstep certain limits in opposing the establishment.
Deputies Leith Shbeilat and Sheikh Yacoub Qarash, along with two merchants, were arrested in August for allegedly establishing the Shabab al-Nafir al-Islami (Vanguards of Islamic Youth) in order to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with an Islamic state.
Mr. Shbeilat is charged with illegally receiving funds from outside Jordan, mainly Iran and the Iranian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.
The two merchants have pleaded guilty to possession of weapons and explosives, but insist that their aim was to "work against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and not inside Jordan." The deputies pleaded not guilty with regard to involvement in the Nafir group.
Putting Shbeilat - an outspoken critic of government corruption and security-force excesses - on trial has generated an outcry from political activists in the capital and from people in the southern part of Jordan, especially Shbeilat's hometown of Tafileh. The Tafilis have requested King Hussein's intervention in the case, as have more than 50 deputies and political activists representing a variety of political backgrounds.
But the king has kept silent about the issue. He made no mention of the case in a major address to the nation on Thursday.
The deputies and merchants are being tried by a panel of three military judges of Jordan's State Security Court, because the charges concern national security. It is within the king's constitutional powers to issue an amnesty after the court rules. The prime minister must either endorse or reduce the court's sentences, but they cannot be appealed.
The government has also refused comment on the trial. "All issues related to the case are within the jurisdiction of the State Security Court and any questioning or discussion of the court's proceedings will be an insult to justice and tantamount to an attempt to influence the court's decision," Justice Minister Yousef Mbaideen said late last month.
The deputies' defense lawyers withdrew from the case Oct. 18 after they were called to court for an unscheduled closed-door hearing, known here as the "secret session," where a witness testified that he had delivered 300,000 deutsche marks ($189,700) from the Iranian leadership to Shbeilat last April.
The lawyers complained that the court did not permit them to look at the witness's passport, which the prosecution said was Syrian, and that they could not see his face properly. Witnesses in these cases are directed to keep their eyes on the judge as they respond to cross-examination, but defense lawyers said that the witness's head scarf, or kaffiyeh, obscured his face.
Shbeilat told reporters he had been able to see the witness, but denied ever meeting the man before. Shbeilat and Mr. Qarash began a hunger-strike in detention the same day their lawyers withdrew, and despite their objections, the court appointed new lawyers to represent them.
Ibrahim Bakr, the lawyer who led Shbeilat's defense team, has objected to the prosecution's introduction of wiretapped telephone conversations. Mr. Bakr, a prominent attorney who was a member of the royal commission that drew up guidelines for liberalized political activity in Jordan, rejected the wiretaps, ordered by an officer of the General Intelligence Department (GID), as "violating the Constitution, which protects personal freedoms."
Bakr, who has refused public comment since his pullout, also objected to the testimony of five prosecution witnesses who have been detained by the GID since August in another matter. He suggests that their testimony was given under duress.
Some observers say the role of the GID in this trial could mean that the security apparatus is trying to re-establish its authority. The power of the police and other security institutions was curbed following Jordan's free parliamentary elections in more than 24 years, held in 1989.
"The Shbeilat case is a setback for democracy and a comeback for anti-democratic forces, especially the security apparatus that lately lost some of its influence," says Abdallah Hassanat, a managing editor of the daily Jordan Times.
The trial, says leftist political and human rights activist Ramadan Rawashdeh, has "scared the people from joining political parties and from political activity."
While the prosecution insists this trial is "purely a legal matter," Shbeilat has accused the prosecution of "fabricating these charges against me for political vengeance."
The deputy, a popular representative of an upper-middle class part of Amman, headed the lower house's investigations committee dealing with corruption involving a powerful former prime minister, Zaid al-Rifai. Mr. Rifai narrowly escaped parliamentary indictment for misuse of public funds in a road project in the late 1980s.
"It is possible that Shbeilat's role in the corruption case is linked to his trial," says Ibrahim Khreisat, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist movement that dominates the political opposition in parliament.
Like all the Islamic politicians in this country, Shbeilat opposes the Arab-Israeli peace talks. But unlike the Brotherhood, he enjoys independent, leftist, and pan-Arab nationalist support.
The State Security Court has denied any political motives behind the prosecution of Shbeilat. In an unprecedented press conference last week, the military attorney-general assailed the deputy's lawyers for "attempting to turn this trial into a political issue."
"We don't want armed militias running around this country threatening its stability," the official said.