23 -29 May 2002
Issue No.587
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

'A sad day for freedom of expression'

Human rights groups are up in arms over prominent Jordanian activist Tojan Al-Faisal's prison sentence, calling it a blow against freedom of expression. Al-Ahram Weekly's correspondent reports from Amman

Human rights activists have sprung to the defence of Jordan's Toujan Al-Faisal, a prominent woman politician and activist. Enraged human rights groups are appealing to King Abdullah VI to pardon her and sign for her release from the 18-month prison sentence which she has just began to serve on four counts of seditious libel.

Al-Faisal, Jordan's first elected female member of parliament, was found guilty of "disseminating information abroad and in Jordan, undermining the reputation of the state and that of its officials, defaming the judiciary and offending religious sentiment."

Al-Faisal made her controversial comments on a US website that is maintained by an Arab media group. She accused the Jordanian government of corruption and cited as an example a cabinet decision that endorses an increase in the premiums that the country's private insurance companies can levy.

Al-Faisal contended that the decision would personally benefit several cabinet members who own stakes in insurance companies, including Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb.

Al-Faisal also demanded that an investigation be opened into a five million dollar dam that was built for a Jordanian company but collapsed without the Yarmouk Insurance Company -- that is partially owned by a branch of the Abu Ragheb family -- paying out any compensation.

She also suggested that King Abdullah is disappointed with the Abu Raghed government, considers it inefficient and is planning to replace some or all of the cabinet ministers.

When Al-Faisal's high-profile four-week trial concluded on Thursday, the State Security Court, a military tribunal, sentenced her to jail terms ranging between three and 18 months. The terms would run concurrently, meaning that she would spend a maximum of 18 months in prison. Al- Faisal was also served a 20 dinar fine ($30).

The State Security Court's verdict cannot be appealed to a higher court but is subject to a routine review by the court of cassation. Only the monarch has the authority to issue a pardon and release her from prison.

Al-Faisal's outspokeness, in accusing several pro-establishment figures of corruption, mismanagement of state funds, misuse of office and inefficient administration, incurred their wrath.

She also angered the Islamists by levelling scathing attacks on their interpretation and implementation of religious tenets and Islamic law (Shari'a). Al-Faisal has a track record with the Islamists. She was once declared an apostate by an Islamic religious court but successfully challenged the verdict.

This time, comments that the female politician -- a member of Jordan's minority Circassian community -- made about the Abu Ragheb government, prompted the State Security Court's ruling that Faisal, in making statements and publishing articles, made false accusations that are "beyond the boundaries of criticism."

The court decreed that Al-Faisal's statements to the press and an online letter she sent to King Abdullah were harmful to the country's image and tantamount to fanning unrest.

The tribunal also found Al-Faisal guilty of having made "anti-Jordan" remarks at a public meeting in Baghdad in early March, a few days before her arrest, in which she ridiculed Jordan's policy on Iraq, saying that Amman's "position vis-à-vis Baghdad varies like the stock market."

While in prison, she was accused of "religious slander" for allegedly "cursing the faithful." The charge stemmed from what her lawyer said was a complaint she made about the loud noise caused by loudspeakers relaying the call to prayer. In court, Al-Faisal maintained that she did not abuse or curse anyone but simply requested that the volume be turned down.

While in detention, Al-Faisal staged a hunger- strike, prompting the authorities to hospitalise her.

She was released on bail shortly after, upon the intervention of the Circassian community's leaders and social activists.

But Al-Faisal was rearrested on the day before she was due to address a press conference in which she was expected to outline her charges against the government and substantiate her allegations.

Al-Faisal denied all the charges in court. She was forced to defend herself after her attorneys walked out in protest at the tribunal's refusal to subpoena Judge Farouq Keilani, former head of the Supreme Court of Justice, and Prime Minister Abu Ragheb as witnesses.

Al-Faisal listed at least three former prime ministers and several ex-ministers as her witnesses but only Abdul-Karim Kabariti, a former prime minister, testified. He said that he considered Al-Faisal's comments to be constructive criticism and an exercise of her right to free expression.

That is the key argument that human rights activists have put forward -- that Al-Faisal was only exercising her right to freedom of expression in criticising government policies, hardly a solid reason for putting her on trial and handing down such a harsh sentence. Many women activists, liberal groups and citizens' rights organisations are organising a petition that they hope will be signed by one million people, urging King Abdullah to grant Al-Faisal an amnesty.

In her final statements, Al-Faisal unleashed a bitter barrage of criticism against Prime Minister Abu Ragheb, castigating him for refusing to appear in court in response to her request.

Human rights activists said that Al-Faisal's case is a byproduct of Article 150, a new article in the Jordanian penal code which makes any criticism of a cabinet or government official a punishable crime.

Amnesty International condemned Al-Faisal's 18-month prison term. "This is a sad day for freedom of expression in Jordan. Toujan Al- Faisal has been imprisoned solely for exercising her fundamental right to express her opinion," the London-based human rights organisation said.

"Sentencing Toujan Al-Faisal is a breach of international human rights treaties to which Jordan is a ratifier," Amnesty added in a statement. "As we feared, the Jordanian courts are using new measures supposedly introduced to fight 'terrorism' in order to clamp down on the individual's exercise of the right to criticise government policy."

Toujan Al-Faisal was sentenced under a law promulgated through a provisional royal decree two weeks after the 11 September attacks. The law not only expanded the definition of "terrorism" but also further restricted freedom of expression in Jordan.

Offences committed under the law are to be judged in State Security Courts which almost invariably use military judges and do not provide the same guarantees of independence and impartiality as ordinary courts.

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