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.

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.

And journalists privately suspect the government of using the pretext of Islamist outrage to clamp down on dissent. Since ascending the throne in 1999, King Abdullah has suspended parliament, postponed elections, and issued a series of new security decrees that diplomats fear could send Islamic opposition underground and provoke a backlash.

The military tribunal that sentenced the journalists also closed the Al Hilal newspaper for two months - the first time a publication has been shut down under King Abdullah's Article 150, decreed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, critics said the decree treats journalists and terrorists similarly. "Mistakes are not an excuse to treat journalists like criminals and jail them," said a member of Jordan's Committee for the Defense of Journalists.

Al Hilal publisher and royal adviser, Ahmed Salama, claims his paper's ribald depiction of the Prophet's passion stems from early Islamic texts, and is fair game for comment. "We have to cure the followers of Islam of rejecting criticism," says Mr. Salama. "Islam is a good religion, but the fundamentalists are worshiping the prophet, not his revelation."

Islamist leaders in Jordan accuse Hilal of distorting the sacred texts to boost sales. "The prophets were men of religion, not sex," says former Minister for Religious Affairs Brahim Zaid Kilani, now a leading cleric in the ranks of the Islamic Action Front. "If we won't write about the sex drives of our king or queen, how can we talk about the sexuality of our prophet and his wives?"

Since it hit newsstands three years ago, Hilal has courted controversy. It has touted the alleged Christian origins of Islam and once splashed a picture across its front page of the crucified Jesus dressed as a suicide bomber with a belt of explosives in place of his loincloth.

Such is the sensitivity of the issue that most Jordanian journalists have shied from publicly defending their colleagues, noting that even Western states like Britain have laws against blasphemy. In response to the jailing of colleagues, Jordan's Syndicate of Journalists this week pronounced the article's authors "unethical," and offered to convene their own trial of the authors in return for the journalists' release from Amman's Juwaida jail.

And even publisher Salama crumbled under questioning by the military prosecutor, saying he had sacked all staff involved in the article, including the typist. Publication, he told the court, was unfitting in an organ of an Islamic nation which revered the King Abdullah, a 23rd-generation descendant of the House of Muhammad.

Formal protests have come from outside the kingdom. Both the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York and Reporters Without Borders in Paris issued protests at the jailing of journalists.

"The Jordanian authorities wished to appease the country's Islamic opposition," said Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "Repressive methods limiting freedom of the press merely play into the hands of the most intolerant."

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