In the western world, Queen Rania of Jordan is viewed largely as one of the most progressive leaders in the Arab and Islamic region. Describing herself as "a mum and a wife with a really cool day job", her social media accounts – which have approximately 27 million followers, almost three times her country's population – feature both family portraits and pictures of her meeting women and children in refugee camps.
However, behind this glossy image lies a different reality for Jordanian citizens. For a start, anyone who dares to criticise either the Queen herself or her husband King Abdullah II faces between one to three years in prison under article 195 of the Penal Code. When, in January 2017, a former member of parliament published an article on Facebook denouncing corruption and asking whether the King was aware of the situation, he was arrested by the intelligence services and charged with "insulting the King" and "undermining the political regime"; the latter constitutes a terrorist offence in Jordan.
Alarmingly, this former MP is only one of many peaceful dissenting voices who have become victims of Jordan's repressive apparatus made up of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and the State Security Court (SSC), both under tight control of the executive. The GID, known commonly as the mukhabarat with a director who is appointed directly by the King, is tasked with carrying out operations to "safeguard national security". In practice, however, the intelligence services have been cracking down on dissent by means of arbitrary arrest and torture.
Although the GID is no law enforcement agency, it arrests and takes suspects to its headquarters, where they are detained with no access to the outside world, be it their lawyer or family. During this period, detainees are subjected to torture and forced to make self-incriminating statements, which are then used as the sole evidence against them at trial. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) Committee against Torture denounced the "widespread" use of this practice by the intelligence services, and called on Jordan to limit the powers of the GID.
It seems unlikely that the authorities will take measures to that end, given that the GID has so far responded to such criticism with denials. Indeed, on its website, the GID states that such reports are "exaggerated", "politically motivated" and ultimately aimed at "harming Jordan's good image and standing in the international community."
However, the GID is not acting alone. Its judicial counterpart, the State Security Court, is another part of this repressive machinery. Not only is its General Prosecutor a military officer sitting at the GID headquarters, but the SSC judges – two from the military and one civilian – are nominated by the Prime Minister and can be replaced at any time by executive decision.
UN human rights bodies have raised concerns repeatedly over the lack of independence and impartiality of this exceptional jurisdiction. On 9 November, after reviewing the human rights situation in Jordan, the UN Human Rights Committee – a group of independent experts assessing the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) worldwide – published its concluding observations, in which it called for the abolition of Jordan's SSC. The Committee had already made this recommendation twice before in 1994 and 2010, but the authorities have not taken any steps towards its effective implementation to date.
The SSC relies on a flawed legal framework to prosecute those who have exercised their right to freedom of expression. The victims face charges of terrorism, the definition of which has been broadened over the years to include acts of free speech.
It was in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, that the Penal Code was amended to criminalise acts of terrorism for the first time. Back then, article 149 was enacted, listing as a terrorist crime any act that would "encourage the contestation of the political system" or "aim at changing the fundamental structure of society". Several years later, in 2006, the authorities promulgated the "Prevention of Terrorism Act" in response to the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman. In 2014, the law was broadened to include nonviolent acts aimed at "causing disorder to the public order" or "disturbing relations with a foreign country", definitions which are flawed and leave room for interpretation.
While Jordanian officials claimed that this move was aimed at providing a better response to threats of spillover from the Syrian conflict, in practice, these amendments have allowed the authorities to silence more dissenting voices. In its November 2017 conclusions, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its 2010 call to amend the Anti-Terrorism Law to bring it into compliance with the ICCPR, despite the authorities' claim that the law is "living up to Jordan's international obligations".
Following a wave of demonstrations in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring, Jordan's monarch called for "sky-high" freedoms. However, it was also in 2011 that article 149 of the Penal Code was used for the first time against teachers who were protesting near the Prime Minister's offices for the establishment of a teachers' syndicate.
Since then, dozens of critics, journalists, political opponents and peaceful demonstrators alike have been arrested and tortured by the GID, and then prosecuted before the State Security Court under terrorism charges for merely having expressed their opinion.
A telling example of the political nature of such judicial harassment is the case of the well-known TV and radio presenter Amjad Qourshah, who was arrested in June 2016 after criticising Jordan's participation in the US-led international coalition against Daesh. Qourshah had published a video on YouTube in which he stated that Arab states were being forced to fight a war that was not theirs. The State Security Court Prosecutor charged him with "disturbing relations with a foreign state" under the Anti-Terrorism Law.
As a strong ally of western countries, Jordan seems to be succeeding in maintaining its liberal image. In January 2015, Queen Rania and King Abdullah were among the world leaders who marched to defend the right to freedom of expression in Paris following the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo. Nevertheless, at the same time, the authorities have continued to clamp down on freedom of expression in the Hashemite Kingdom under the pretext of "national security".
Such contradictions seem rooted in Jordanian politics. In March 2016, the authorities launched a ten-year Comprehensive National Plan for Human Rights, which set among its priorities the enhancement of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Six months later, the Media Commission prohibited news outlets from reporting any news about the King or other members of the royal family.
However, this gap between Jordan's liberal public image and conservative domestic policy is largely going unnoticed within the international community. As the UN Human Rights Committee recalled recently, one of the Kingdom's most pressing challenges remains the need to find a balance between security and human rights; behind the liberal mask, the former still has priority over the latter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.