Government Should Immediately Drop Charges, End Attacks on Civil Society
(Washington D.C., September 28): The criminal trial against staff of the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR), the country's only quasi-governmental human rights organization, is a retaliatory effort to silence the organization for its critique of governmental abuses; the government should immediately drop the charges and fire Prosecutor Mahmoud Smadi for bringing this case, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) today.
The attacks against the NCHR, including the trial currently underway, take place in the context of a months-long campaign against the organization and a significant increase of repression against civil society activists throughout the country.
"The government's charges against the staff of the NCHR – accusing them of corruption for approving a modestly increased per diem fee for field workers – are spurious on their face and smack of a deliberate effort to punish the organization for criticizing government abuses," said DAWN consultant Jamal Al-Tahat. "While government prosecutors have done nothing, absolutely nothing, about serious evidence of corruption in the country, they laughably are bringing a case against human rights workers who appear to have done nothing more than reimburse staff for meager expenses."
On August 10, an unnamed assistant of the Attorney General, Yousef Thiabat, ordered an investigation against the General Commissioner of the NCHR, Ala'a Al Armouti, and three NCHR staff, Rasha Nikai, Nisreen Zraeqat, and Amani Hassouneh. On August 18, Prosecutor Smadi charged them with criminal felonies under Articles 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the Economic Crime Law, alleging abuse of power, embezzlement, negligence, and waste of public funds. The charges relate primarily to a $28 increase in the per diem for human rights trainers, amounting to a total per diem of $7,800 over 18 months for eight staff during their field trainings in remote areas.
Government prosecutors appear to have meddled into the organization's internal budgeting processes to conjure up claims of unlawful conduct based on a funding budget for a foreign donor that provided for overhead and per diem expenses. An investigation by DAWN, including interviews with Dima Khleifat, a lawyer and NCHR Board member, and Asem Omary, a lawyer involved in the case, in addition to a review of the prosecutor's charge sheet, indicate that the government's claims stem from internal staff disputes over a 2020 contract signed by Commissioner Al Armouti for €157,000 (approximately $156,600) with the Spanish Agency for Development and International Cooperation and the European Union to provide a human rights training program across the country from January 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022. NCHR's financial and administrative manager, Abdulwahab Aqeel, drafted the initial project budget to provide €7,848 (approximately $7,833) in NCHR overhead expenses, but the Spanish agency refused these charges, stating it does not pay for overhead. In addition, Aqeel had limited the per diem charges for project staff to $70.
Nikai, NCHR's head of projects; Zreiqat, NCHR's project manager; and Hassouneh, a financial assistant, revised Aqeel's budget to remove the overhead charges but to increase the per diem amount by $28 to $98. Government prosecutors then relied on Aqeel as a "prosecution witness" to charge these staff with corruption for making these changes to the draft budget, which had not yet been approved by the donor, Commissioner Armouti or the NCHR Board.
Prosecutor Smadi also indicted Commissioner Armouti on claims that he signed the contract, as well as alleging that he operated outside his legal authority by appointing a new employee to replace one who went on leave without the board's approval, and approving a bill for JD 3,689 (approximately $5,164), exceeding his authority to approve bills up to JD 1,500 (approximately $2,200).
The first hearing in the matter was held on September 15, in which the prosecutor submitted new evidence, so defense lawyers asked the court for more time to reply. Seven representatives from Western diplomatic delegations, including Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Holland, and Spain, attended the second hearing on September 20, in which the chairman of the NCHR board, Dr. Irhail Gharaibeh, testified; the hearing was suspended because Gharaibeh stated he was ill. The next hearing is scheduled for October 4.
"The Jordanian prosecutor's micro-analysis of NCHR's budgeting and hiring processes to conjure up criminal charges against the staff is really all you need to know about how ridiculous and baseless these charges are," said al-Tahat. "Whether or not the NCHR charged overhead or per diem is entirely the business of the organization and its funders, not legal authorities who should be busy dealing with very serious reports of massive corruption in the country."
The retaliatory nature of the government's attacks against the NCHR relate back to recent recommendations of the NCHR and comments by Commissioner Al Armouti regarding the government's abuse of pretrial detention. On February 15, 2022, in a rare rebuke of the government, the NCHR demanded the release of twelve people whom the government had pre-trial detained that month, and publicly asserted "the government's duty to guarantee individuals their freedom to exercise their rights to express their opinions on all subjects using all available means, including writing, publishing, commenting and peaceful gathering." NCHR also asserted the "need for the government to abide by international human rights standards and national law, in particular Article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that the government may exceptionally use pre-trial detention according to certain limited justifications and constraints".
On May 10, less than two months after the government carried out mass "preemptive" arrests of more than 150 activists, most of them teachers, to prevent a peaceful teacher's protest, Commissioner Al Armouti publicly criticized the government again, stating: "the right of peaceful association is guaranteed by the Jordanian constitution and the international covenants for human rights," during a ceremony hosting Clement Nyalatsossi Voule, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, who had been visiting the country.
The NCHR Board, appointed by the government and approved by the King, acted against NCHR staff following these remarks. On April 13, following the February remarks, the Board established a special committee to investigate "administrative issues," according to lawyer Asem Omary. On May 24, they suspended Commissioner Al Armouti and referred the matter of the Spanish contract to the attorney general, pursuant to the committee's report accusing Al Armouti of administrative breaches. Board member Hadeel Abdulazeez, a lawyer, resigned on June 2 in protest. Board member Dima Khleifat, a lawyer, also loudly criticized the moves on her Facebook Page on July 30 as a deliberate attack against NCHR, stating that "what is going on… is destroying a national institution concerned with the public interest". The events garnered a great deal of public attention, with many concluding that the board's move was retaliatory against Armouti.
The NCHR was founded in 2006 as an independent but government-funded and government-appointed institution to monitor violations of human rights and seek to correct them, and to educate the public about human rights. The government funds the NCHR's administrative expenses, but the organization is not part of the national budget. It has legal authority to establish partnerships and receive international funding conditioned on government approval.
The attacks against the NCHR take place in the context of a dramatic escalation in repression in Jordan, as extensively documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report describing how authorities are persecuting and harassing citizens organizing peacefully and engaging in political dissent. King Abdullah II continues to detain his half-brother the former Crown Prince Hamza under house arrest without charge or trial because of Prince Hamza's critical comments about corruption in the country. On March 24 and March 27, the government "preemptively" arrested at least 150 civil society activists from the teachers' syndicate and other groups who had planned to gather to protest unemployment in southern Jordan relying on its notorious Crime Prevention Law; it alleged that the detainees who were planning to protest peacefully threatened the country's security and stability, despite the fact that the country's constitution guarantees the right to assembly, as the NCHR announced on May 10.
On August 15 Prosecutor Smadi also detained pre-trial Adnan Al Rousan, a 71-year-old writer, for "threatening state security" by posting two Facebook messages criticizing government policies, in violation of Al Rousan's rights under Article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which limits pre trial detention to very exceptional cases under well identified constraints. As one lawyer involved in the case said to DAWN "the government has turned the Jordanian judicial system into a tool of oppression." Al Rousan has been released on bail but he continues to face prosecution.
Most recently, on September 6, a 37-year-old street vendor, Zaid Sudqi Ali Dabash, died in police custody apparently due to torture in Marka prison, in a case that generated mass attention. On August 31, Jordanian authorities also arbitrarily banned Ahmed Al-Neimat and Abdulrahman Shdaifat from traveling to Turkey without any legal basis, violating their right to freedom of movement. In these cases, the NCHR has been completely silent as its own staff face criminal charges and legal harassment.
The U.S. government currently provides the Jordanian government with $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. At least $77 million of these funds, approximately 4.7%, are intended to support "democracy and good governance directly". On September 16, the State Department announced a Memorandum of Understanding extending U.S. financial support to Jordan at $1.45 billion annually for the fiscal years 2023-2029.
"The U.S. government should take a close, hard look at Jordan's slide into ever-increasing authoritarianism, acting like a piranha against the country's nascent democratic and human rights activists," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN. "We need to take responsibility for the fact that our own government is financing the Jordanian government's brutality and oppression of its own citizens."
DAWN called on the Jordanian government to dismiss the charges against NCHR, end its abusive practices of pretrial and preemptive detention, and discharge Prosecutor Smadi. DAWN urged the United States to end all military and economic support to the monarchical dictatorship of Jordan.