Jordan using new antiterror law to stifle dissent, democracy activists say

Since September, dozens of political activists have been arrested. Jordan said Friday that a Jordanian warplane had crashed in Syria and its pilot had been captured by Islamic State, which claims to have downed the aircraft.  

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on Friday, Dec. 5, in the Oval Office of the White House. The leaders discussed topics including the Islamic State, Syria, and refugees.

Three years ago, Rani Zawahreh was at the forefront of Jordan’s Arab Spring-inspired pro-democracy movement, leading weekly protests demanding an end to corruption and far-reaching political reforms curbing King Abdullah’s powers.

Now standing shackled in a prison-issued blue tunic before a military tribunal on terror charges under a controversial new antiterror law, the 27-year-old engineer says that very activism led to his singling out and “persecution” as a political prisoner.

He is being tried for “undermining the rule of law” with statements he made at an antigovernment protest in early September.

“I have never threatened my country or the government,” Mr. Zawahreh said at a trial at Jordan’s state security court Monday, referring to his remarks during the protest. “I only threatened the corrupt, who are now trying to use their power to get back at all of us activists.”

According to court and police recordsZawahreh is one of 50 Jordanian political activists who have been detained by authorities as Jordan, watching nervously at Islamic State gains in neighboring Iraq and Syria, widens its crackdown on suspected IS supporters and members.

Jordanian officials say that overall, the crackdown has netted more than 90 suspects and led to the swift trial and imprisonment of 30 since mid-September.

However, as Jordanian authorities widen their net, an increasing number of opposition leaders with no overt links to IS or terror are being caught in the crackdown, including a group of 10 pro-Palestinian activists, a leading labor leader, and the deputy leader of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood – the country’s largest opposition movement.

At the center of the crackdown is the country’s strict antiterror law passed in June that  criminalizes forms of expression as small as a Tweet or Facebook post deemed harmful to Jordan’s interests.

“We are sending a clear message both within Jordan and abroad that the threat of the Islamic State and extremism affects each and every one of us and statements in support will not be tolerated,” says Mohammed Momani, Jordanian government spokesman and minister of media affairs.

“This requires vigilance and action on all fronts, and the law is a part of this.”

Yet by defining terror as any act that “undermines Jordan” or “harms Jordan’s interests with a foreign state” and extending its reach to social media and the Internet, activists say, the law has given authorities and the country’s security court a far-reaching new tool to hit back at the opposition, press, and even dissenting citizens.

Stretching definition of 'terror'

As the number of arrests grows, activists and legal advocates say authorities are increasingly stretching the definition of “terrorist acts.”

Zaki Bani Rsheid, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested Nov. 20 for a Facebook rant critical of the United Arab Emirate’s banning of the group as a terrorist outfit. Mr. Bani Rsheid, one of Jordan’s most prominent political figures, accused Abu Dhabi of carrying out “Zionist” and “terrorist” policies across the region. The group's global leadership has repeatedly rejected violence in Arab countries, while its Jordan branch has spoken out against the Islamic State as “deviants of Islam.”

Defending the terror trial, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said Bani Rsheid’s statements endangered the 225,000 Jordanians living in the UAE and the $3 million supplied by the Emirati government to Jordan daily.  

When merchants rioted after their popular street market in downtown Amman was closed down by officials in late October, authorities referred 12 to the court for “intent to carry out terrorist acts.”

“Right now, in the courts, any act or statement the government does not like is considered terrorism,” says Taher Nassar, Zawahreh’s defense attorney, who also represents 15 other detained activists. “The word has lost its meaning.”

'Times have changed'

Some observers say, however, that what is driving Jordan’s renewed crackdown is not a change of laws, but a change of heart.

For over two years following the Arab Spring uprisings, Jordan allowed near-daily protests demanding everything from political reforms to teachers’ pay raises and the return of tribal lands. With economic woes at home and increasing turmoil in neighboring countries, Jordan has now become a much less tolerant place, these observers say.

“Many of these protests and activists were actually breaking the law in 2011 and 2012 when they were criticizing the royal family and closing down streets, but the state looked the other way,” says Samih Maaytah, former minister of media affairs and chairman of Jordan’s state-run newspaper, Al Rai. “But now, times have changed.”

Moreover, Jordan has received an influx of 1.3 million Syrian refugees, witnessed Islamic State reach its eastern border with Iraq, and seen more than 1,200 of its citizens go off to fight alongside the jihadist movement.

Free speech 'in a state of war' 

An even bigger factor is Jordan’s leading role in the US-led coalition against IS, analysts say, noting that the country’s participation in bombing runs in neighboring Syria and Iraq have prompted mixed reactions from the public.

“Jordan considers itself in a state of war, and in a state of war, free speech and expression suffer,” says Oraib Rintawi, a political analyst and head of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

Despite the rising number of trials, Jordan’s opposition activists vow not to go quietly. “They can arrest us, they can threaten us, and they can silence us,” Zawahreh said. “But our message will live on.”

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