Jordanian blasphemy verdict shakes the free press
Three Jordanian journalists got jail sentences Monday for an article about the prophet Muhammad.
Swaddled in blue fatigues many sizes too big and shod in battered flip-flops, three Jordanian journalists were led handcuffed into a cage in the kingdom's State Security Court Monday and given prison terms ranging from two to six months. Their crime: defaming the prophet Muhammad.Skip to next paragraph
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During the trial last month, Jordan's King Abdullah was celebrating his country's civil liberties at a Swiss ski resort 2,000 miles away:
"Through laws and independent institutions, we are ensuring freedom of expression, speech, and thought, including a free media," he told two thousand delegates attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The trial verdict came one month after the three journalists - Nasser Qamash, Roman Haddad and Muhannad Mbaidin - had spent a month accused of blaspheming God's apostle in the Al Hilal weekly newspaper last month.
Their article speculated on Muhammad's sexual potency after marrying Aisha, the favorite of his 14 wives.
The case has aroused the attention of international human rights groups, who fear it signals a reduction in the country's civil liberties as Jordan prepares for a US war on Iraq. As US troops march into the kingdom, the authorities have banned unions from discussing politics, prevented demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Amman, and appointed intelligence officers to the editorial boards of the kingdom's leading newspapers.
"It goes against the principles of a free press to criminalize journalistic writings," wrote veteran journalist, Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian Christian living in Jordan who was previously jailed by the Israelis. "Throwing them in jail is no remedy."
Kuttab's article - which appeared in the English-language Jordan Times under the headline "The right to speak one's mind" - stood out as a rare local protest against what journalists say are their diminishing freedoms. While the case emerged as a cause-celebre in the salons of the elite, newspaper editors confined their coverage to the inside pages of the press.
The authorities say they had to act, fearful of stoking a head-on clash with Islamists already restless over Jordan's increasing military alliance with Washington ahead of an expected war on Iraq. In the days that followed their arrest, Islamist firebrands warned that failure to condemn the journalists could provoke a repeat of the bloodshed that shook Nigeria's hosting of the Miss World Contest last November, when a local newspaper published a quip that the prophet Mohammed might have chosen to marry one of the contestants. The article triggered riots in which over 200 people were killed, and the journalist was forced into hiding.
"Islamic sharia deems those who abase the prophet, and slander him or his message as apostates and renegades," decreed the clerics from Jordan's main religious party, the Islamic Action Front in a page-long fatwa. According to the Koran, said clerics from pulpits across the kingdom, the journalists "will burn in hell" for eternity.
Observers questions how far the judg- ment will appease the Islamists, amid a souring of the Hashemites' traditionally tolerant relations with Muslim activists. Under King Abdullah, Jordan has supported America's "war on terror," committing troops to the US campaign in Afghanistan. The recent tape-recording claimed to be the voice of Osama bin Laden ranked Jordan at the top of the shopping list of Muslim states ripe for regime change.