4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

'I will not be silenced'

Following her release from prison, political activist Toujan Al-Faisal vowed to continue her battle against corruption in Jordan. Al-Ahram Weekly's corespondent in Amman reports

Toujan Al-Faisal Toujan Al-Faisal
Firebrand activist Toujan Al-Faisal has been released from prison after being given a special pardon by King Abdullah of Jordan. "I will not be intimidated or cowed," said Faisal, 53, as she left Farah Medical Centre, where she spent the last days of her incarceration because of the deterioration of her health owing in part to a hunger strike she had launched while in prison.

When Faisal was released, she was 100 days into serving an 18-month prison term on charges of libel, having been convicted of disseminating information at home and abroad deemed harmful to the country and its officials, undermining the reputation of the state and its officials, defaming the judiciary and offending religious sentiment.

Since her release, Faisal has remained defiant, vowing to continue to criticise what she views as the prevalence of corruption and political influence-peddling in her country. "I will not be silenced. They can lock me up again."

Faisal was charged on the basis of a series of articles she wrote for a US-based news media outlet accusing the government of corruption, and statements she subsequently made alleging that King Abdullah was disappointed with the government of Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb and was intending to replace him.

Faisal's statements prompted a hasty rebuttal from "sources close to the palace".

What appeared to have hurt the government most was Faisal's assertion that a Council of Ministers' decision to increase premiums for the mandatory third-party insurance coverage for all vehicles was personally motivated. She pointed out that several members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, owned sizable stakes in car insurance companies in the country and that the increase in premiums meant a increase in profits for them.

Faisal, who in 1993 became Jordan's first woman to be elected a member of parliament, has long had a reputation of being a fiery politician. In 1989, she ran afoul of the country's powerful Islamists when she hosted a television show critical of the religious establishment and what she described as their misguided representations of Islam.

Faisal also wrote about these ideas in a series of articles in the country's mass-circulation Al-Rai daily. Islamists hit back, with Shari'a court judges proclaiming her an apostate. The government intervened behind the scenes, ensuring the nullification of the apostasy charge, which could have forced Faisal into a divorce and opened the way for attempts on her life, with the killer assured of immunity "for shedding the blood of an apostate".

This episode appeared to have prompted Faisal to enter politics. But before she embarked on that battle, contesting a seat reserved for the Circassian minority in 1993, she plunged into studying law, taking a crash course at Jordan University during which she became fluent in the nuances of Jordanian legislation, much to the surprise of many, but not those who knew her iron will.

Faisal used to engage her male counterparts in bitter debates and once launched a scathing verbal attack against Ben Shaker, a cousin of the King and former prime minister. Her performance on the floor during parliament sessions meant that many of her colleagues gave her a wide berth, if only because they could not match her wits and counter her arguments which drew widespread public applause.

During her trial at the State Security Court, Faisal petitioned to put Prime Minister Abu Ragheb on the witness stand -- a request that was rejected. However, former Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Kabariti testified in her favour saying that her comments and criticism were merely the exercise of the right of freedom of expression which is constitutionally guaranteed for every Jordanian citizen.

Kabariti said it was necessary to "draw the line between the official post as prime minister and his or her personal life". "One would expect criticism once someone assumes public office," the former premier told the court. Former Health Minister Abdel-Rahim Malhas also testified in Faisal's favour, saying that "criticism of public figures fell within democratic norms".

Former member of the Highest Court of Appeals Abdel- Razzaq Abu Ethem also took the stand and said that "criticising the judiciary does not constitute seditious libel." More than a dozen Jordanian lawyers lined up to defend Faisal in court, although they boycotted the sessions contending that the court was not following procedure. In court, Faisal also sought to prove her charges that ministers stood to profit from the hike in insurance premiums by establishing that they owned majority shares in insurance companies.

However, the tribunal found her guilty as charged and sentenced her to 18 months in prison. The sentencing triggered a wave of protests from the country's human rights activists and leftist groups as well as appeals from international organisations who argued that Faisal was unjustly tried and jailed.

Several petitions were sent to King Abdullah for an unconditional pardon under the slogan "Freedom for Toujan Faisal". The king issued an amnesty for Faisal on 26 June -- one day after the country's highest court rejected an appeal that she had filed. The court said she was not entitled to appeal the State Security Court's verdict because she was convicted on misdemeanour. An amendment made to the State Security Court Law last year stipulates that those convicted of misdemeanours do not have the right to appeal.

The king's pardon came two days after three Egyptian human rights activists made a telephone appeal to the palace on behalf of Faisal who is also being treated for cancer. The amnesty cancelled her sentence, but did not annul the conviction. Meanwhile, Faisal is recuperating in Damascus where she is staying with relatives in the Syrian capital.

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