Jordanian authorities arrest head of Hirak's Executive Office, Sufian Al-Tal, and other Hirak leaders for planning to criticize King Abdullah's parliament speech
(Washington D.C., February 6, 2023): Jordanian security forces raided the house of 87-year-old Sufian Al-Tal, head of the Executive Office of the civil society group Al-Hirak Al-Mowahad (often referred to as "Hirak"), arresting him and two others for planning to publicly criticize King Abdullah's November 2022 speech to the parliament. Security forces have regularly targeted Hirak, a loose association of pro-democracy activists across Jordan, as part of a broader effort by the government to silence dissent and crush civil society within Jordan, particularly when the group has addressed the King, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
U.S. officials should press for the release of those detained and end military aid to Jordan in light of the ongoing systematic abuses of human rights in Jordan.
"The arrests of senior leadership of Hirak, including its 87 year old head, under the dubious charge of 'undermining the regime' simply for planning to speak critically of the government demonstrates the lengths King Abdullah will go to silence criticism of his rule," said Jamal Al-Tahat, Senior Consultant for DAWN. "The government's weaponization of its surveillance technology and judiciary against peaceful activists is an alarming new trend designed to crush Jordanian civil society and cement King Abdullah's absolute authority."
On December 5, 2022, Jordanian authorities arrested three members of Hirak's Executive Office for planning to issue a public response to King Abdullah's annual speech to the parliament on November 13, 2022. In the speech, the King praised his efforts to promote political and economic "modernization" in Jordan and recent constitutional and legislative amendments he said he pushed through the parliament. He claimed his government is building a "new Jordan," comprising a "modern state rooted in participation, active citizenship, the rule of law, and dedicating all available resources to development; a state led by its young men and women, with their limitless aspirations and relentless resolve."
Several minutes before Hirak planned to release its reply on December 5, state security forces raided the house of Al-Tal and arrested him and two other members of the Executive Office, Abed Tawaheih, 65, and Omar Abu Rassa'a, 50. In an interview with DAWN on January 15, Al-Tal said police confiscated his phone and computer, as well as the phones of Tawaheih and Abu Rassa'a.
Neither Al-Tal nor Hirak published their intent to publicly reply to the King's speech to the parliament. Jordanian authorities had no lawful way of knowing that this reply existed, its contents, or the plan to publicly issue it on December 5, suggesting it was the result of extensive government surveillance of Jordanian citizens. The government also carried out mass "preventative" arrests of Jordanians last year for their suspicion that they were planning to protest, again suggesting that the government is using its surveillance technology against citizens exercising their basic human rights.
A source familiar with the case told DAWN that security forces were surveilling Al-Tal's house prior to the arrests and saw state security forces at the house earlier in the day on December 5. The same source said the General Intelligence Department (GID) released Al-Tal on conditional bail on December 8 on the condition that he not publicly publish Hirak's reply to the King's speech. Abed Tawaheih and Omar Abu Rassa'a are still imprisoned.
"It seems that Jordan is using surveillance technology ostensibly acquired for counter-terrorism efforts to spy on its own citizens instead," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director for DAWN. "The Jordanian government needs to come clean and tell its citizens the extent, nature and basis of its snooping on their private communications."
Hirak activists and lawyers representing the detained told DAWN January 27, 2023, that the State Security Court has charged all three with "undermining the regime," which allows Jordanian authorities to bring them before the State Security Court. According to Penal Code Article 149, the sentence for "undermining the regime" can range between three and 20 years imprisonment.
"It would be laughable if it weren't so tragic that on the same day King Abdullah trumpeted 'active citizenship and the rule of law,' he deployed his security forces to spy on, arrest and prosecute Jordanian citizens who even consider expressing their opinions about his rule," said Jon Hoffman, Research Director for DAWN. "Unless and until King Abdullah learns to live by the values he preaches, respecting the right of Jordanians to free speech and association, there will be no positive change in Jordan."
The Hirak response to King Abdullah's speech, shared with DAWN, criticizes the Jordanian parliament for "praising" and "legalizing" corruption and tyranny while serving as an extension of the security state. It stresses that national consensus cannot be achieved without the provision of "public freedoms" and "real representation of all political, economic, and social components of society." In place of such freedoms, the regime has created an "atmosphere of terror, exclusion, marginalization, and displacement," the statement says, hoping to break the will of the people and turn various segments of Jordanian society against one another. It argues that King Abdullah is driving the country toward an absolute monarchy wherein he has ultimate authority. The statement asserts that for more than 20 years the people of Jordan have listened to the King promise various reforms but constantly fail to deliver. It concludes by calling for "the protection of the inviolable rights of the Jordanian people, a truly independent judiciary and legitimately elected parliament, and an end to rampant corruption."
The weaponization of the legal system by Jordanian authorities to silence opposition is not a novel development. They have increasingly used these tactics, including against Hirak, to target activists across the political spectrum. However, the new campaign against Hirak is a significant escalation, with Jordanian authorities targeting the organization as a whole. According to three Hirak activists who spoke with DAWN on January 27, 2023, six of the Hirak's 16 Executive Office members are now imprisoned and five others are released on bail. Charges leveled against these individuals include allegations of "undermining the regime" and "insulting friendly countries." Enabling this increased repression are dozens of constitutional amendments King Abdullah pushed forward that further centralized and concentrated his state powers.
In an interview with DAWN on January 15, 2023, Moeen Al-Harasees, a member of Hirak's Executive Office, stated, "they [the regime] want a tamed opposition…. the King wants to set the agenda of the opposition… he wants to mute every voice and to lead by fear."
The U.S. government currently provides the Jordanian government with $1.45 billion annually, following a Memorandum of Understanding announced by the State Department extending U.S. financial support to Jordan at $1.45 billion annually for the fiscal years 2023-2029, making Amman the second largest recipient of U.S. aid. This includes $425 million in military assistance and at least $845 million in budget support, in addition to $475 million in "direct cash transfer to the budget," effectively buttressing the monarchical dictatorship's increasingly tyrannical rule over Jordanians. Though the Jordanian monarchy has promised to implement constitutional reforms to democratize the country and transfer power to the elected parliament, the King has made none of the promised reforms, and instead only further centralized his executive powers.
Ahead of King Abdullah's visit to Washington, D.C. for meetings with Congress on January 28, 2023, DAWN published a list of six questions members should ask him about deteriorating political, economic, and human rights in Jordan. The Biden Administration and Congress should pressure King Abdullah into releasing Hirak leaders and activists in addition to all other prisoners of conscience currently detained in Jordan. DAWN calls on the U.S. Congress to cease its financial and military assistance to Jordan in light of its systematic and widespread rights abuses and expanding royal autocratic control of the country.