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.

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.

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.

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.

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