In Jordanian city, cries of 'Hands Up, Don't Shoot' echo Ferguson

Jordan's interior minister and police chief resigned in the wake of the latest death in custody of a suspect. Citizens in Maan, a city with a reputation for militancy, have adopted the slogans of US protesters to push back against police brutality. 

Taylor Luck
Mahmoud Abu Dayeh and his nephew stand at where Jordanian police partially demolished their family home in Maan, Jordan.

Mahmoud Abu Dayeh stands atop rubble and crushed cinderblocks that once made up his family home. Tripping over bullet casings and twisted metal, he suddenly ducks behind a curtain suspended from a clothesline separating the rubble as a car approaches. 

“The police,” he says as a squad car rolls harmlessly by. “They won’t stop until they finish us off.”

Abu Dayeh is one of a growing number of Jordanians at the receiving end of police brutality, and the resulting public backlash led to the sudden resignation last week of the country’s interior minister and police chief. In a statement, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour cited a “lack of coordination” between security services. However, government sources say recent police killings and excessive use of force led to their resignation.

The government has named a new interior minister and plans to appoint new heads of the police and the gendarmerie, a paramilitary force.

At the same time Jordanian citizens are pressing further for greater transparency and accountability in the way security forces are run.

Nowhere is the tension over police more acute than in Maan, a southern city with a strong tribal structure and a reputation for dissent.

Last year residents raised the flag of Islamic State, a provocation that alarmed Amman.

Fundamental shift in use of force

Unlike its more repressive neighbors, Jordan has long been reputed as one of the Arab world’s more tolerant and tactful security services.

While policemen clubbed demonstrators in Egypt and gunned down dissidents in Libya at the height of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Jordanian police distributed water and juice to pro-democracy protesters. Its constitutional ruler, King Abdullah defused political tensions at the time by promising reforms that have been stalled amid an intensifying focus on counter-terrorism.

Hailed by the US as a regional model for policing and counter-terrorism, Jordan has been used as a base to train policemen and security personnel from states across the region. Since 2007, at the Jordan International Police Training Center outside Amman, Jordanians have trained 73,000 police from Iraq and Libya, with support from the US, the UK, and Canada.

Yet somewhere between the twilight of the Arab Spring and the dawn of the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, observers and citizens say a fundamental shift occurred in Jordan’s security policy, to the point where use of force became a first, rather than last, resort.

Since early 2013, nine Jordanians have died during police raids or while in police custody since – eight of those in Maan. The total number of such deaths since 2013 surpasses that of the previous eight years combined, according to news media reports.

“In the days of the Arab Spring, the security services took a ‘hands off’ approach and allowed citizens to gather, protest and assemble,” says Maher Abu Taer, political analyst and columnist for the Al Dustour Jordanian daily.

“The beginning of the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State marked a new era of Jordanian policy. Security now comes first, no matter what the cost.”

The case that finally put the police’s use of force under a national spotlight was the May 2 death in custody of Abdullah Zoubi, a 19-year-old member of a powerful northern tribe arrested for suspected narcotics possession.

Police initially claimed that Zoubi died after leaping off the third floor of a police station in the northern city of Irbid while fleeing investigators.

An official autopsy and graphic photos published by his family on social networking websites revealed that Zoubi died as the result of a severe beating allegedly at the hands of policemen. Within two weeks, Interior Minister Hussein Majali and Tawfeek Tawalbeh, the head of the Public Security Directorate had stepped down.

Broken trust

Nowhere is the distrust of police stronger than in Maan, billed by some residents as “Jordan’s Ferguson.”

For the past two years, Jordanian gendarmerie and police forces have been embroiled in a security crackdown in the desert town to apprehend 19 residents wanted for crimes ranging from bounced checks to car theft who had been enjoying protection from their tribes.

Tactics have been harsh. Over the past two years, security forces have stormed over 20 homes, gunned down six of the suspects and two of their relatives. But in a raid on May 14, the cops rolled out a new strategy: home demolition.

Shortly before dawn, security services called Suleiman Abu Dayeh, accusing him of harboring two of his nephews who are wanted for torching a Jordanian intelligence agency car in 2013. The car was attacked in retaliation for the police shootings of two of the men's brothers in 2013. The elder Abu Dayeh denied harboring the two fugitives.

“Then the bulldozing began,” Mahmoud Abu Dayeh says.

As dozens of security personnel and gendarmerie stormed their family home, spraying the compound with bullets, the Abu Dayehs say they responded with what has become Maan residents’ automatic response to the police.

“Our hands are up, don’t shoot!” says Ghazwah Abu Dayeh, echoing the slogan used by protesters in Ferguson, Mo. The nephews are still at large; one was wounded during the raid.

“The trust between the people and the security services has been completely broken. Everyone is afraid that one day they will be the next target,” says Majed Sharari, the city’s elected mayor. “You could say that we are Jordan’s Ferguson.”

Internal affairs

Activists and citizens complain of a lack of deterrence and penalties for offending police officers.

Rather than the general prosecutor, authorities refer police officers to an internal “police court” where a tribunal composed of police judges, appointed personally by the police chief, reviews each case. Proceedings are closed to the public while the names of plaintiffs and even verdicts are shrouded in secrecy -- a measure Amman claims aims to protect police officers from personal attacks. At times, victims’ families are not even informed of the outcome.

The PSD refused to disclose the number of cases before the court, or the type of sentences it has handed down to violating officers. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, previous sentences have ranged from two-and-a-half years in prison to a $180 fine.

“If you are a police officer in Jordan and you know there are no consequences, you are going to do whatever it takes to get a confession,” says Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch representative in Jordan.

“There is a lot of pressure to get quick confessions and what appears to be complete impunity. This is a recipe for abuse, and it is what the system wants.”

Yet Jordan’s current security shakeup has created room for hope. Within an hour of Mr. Majali’s resignation, Maan residents distributed sweets to neighbors and fired off guns in celebration. The new interior minister, Salameh Hamad, has a strong relationship with Jordan’s tribes in the south and has pledged to “respond to the calls of the citizens." A delegation from the Royal Palace visited Maan last week to reassure residents over the ongoing crackdown.

Yet unless the police mend their ways, citizens warn public anger may boil over to wider unrest. “No-one will stay silent in the face of police oppression - not in America not in Jordan,” Mr. Abu Dayeh says.

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