My speech at the Jordan Option Conference

My speech at the Jordan Option Conference

According to The Jordan Times, the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unanimously approved a report praising Jordan’s King Abdullah for implementing internal reforms. However, to the contrary of the king’s public perception in the West as a moderate seeking to improve the living conditions in his country slowly and gradually, the Jordanian king’s oppression of dissidents and other human rights abuses within the country remain systematic despite recent reforms implemented by the regime.  In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the king remains above the law and one speaks out against him at one’s own risk. According to Human Rights Watch, “Jordanian law criminalizes speech deemed critical of the king, foreign countries, government officials and institutions, as well as Islam and speech considered to defame others.”

The country is not democratic and certainly is not free. This was recently demonstrated by Human Rights Watch. They documented that the Jordanian regime is going after the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists due to the foreign funding that they receive.  Human Rights Watch stressed: “The Jordanian authorities’ treatment of this media freedom group indicates that they view some nongovernmental organizations as enemies that must be controlled rather than as partners in improving the country’s human rights situation.”

Freedom House reported in January 2017 that 18 social and political activists were arrested in Jordan for their social media posts criticizing government corruption. In its 2015 semiannual report Media Freedom in the Arab World, the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists documented 15 incidents of serious violations against journalists in the country in 2015: 10 detentions, two cases of physical assault, two cases of humiliating treatment, and one injury.

Furthermore, the Jordanian intelligence is notorious for sexually harassing, torturing, abusing, waging online hate speech against and even killing journalists and dissidents opposed to the regime.  For example, Zahran’s wife was repeatedly called a whore by Jordan’s intelligence and Zahran himself has been accused of collaborating with Israel since he has published articles in Israeli newspapers. He was sentenced to life imprisonment plus hard labor for his opposition to the king, resulting in him fleeing to the UK. Jordanian dissident Abed Almaala, who is a vocal supporter of peace with Israel, survived an assassination attempt by the king’s embassy in Washington, DC.  The case is documented by the FBI. And both Jordanian dissident Mohammed Btaibet and Jordanian dissident Naseem Gheewan were forced to flee Jordan due to the fact that the king threatened their lives due to their opposition to the Hashemite regime.

With social media in mind, it is against Jordanian law to criticize the king online and anything you say there can cause you to wind up in jail.  Take the case of Ali Al Malkawi.  He was prosecuted for insulting the king after he posted a comment on Facebook criticizing Arab inaction in protecting Burmese Muslims. He spent six months in prison for this Facebook post. Activist Jawad Jaffreh was imprisoned for tweeting about the king’s guards beating up a child. And Jordanian peace activist Ahmed Shahwan faced death threats from loyalists of the Jordanian king for “insulting his majesty the king” and speaking out against the “Palestinian Intifada.” This prompted him to flee to Canada.

Furthermore, the Jordanian intelligence agency threatened to rape the relatives of Ouni  Abed Boutrous Hadadeen, a Christian Jordanian intelligence officer who came out against the king due to the Jordanian intelligence’s practice of assassinating pro-democracy activists and committing other massive human rights abuses. Ouni himself was also tortured. Since he fled Jordan, they also ran a social media campaign against him, calling him a witch and a pig. In an exclusive interview that I conducted with Hadadeen, he told me that the Jordanian intelligence is willing to rape all peoples women via masked convicts who are working for them: “The intelligence department is sending masked men into universities and into schools and is making police officers shoot at children, school buses. They beat up pregnant women under the claim that they are fugitives, just to come out and say it was a mistake!”

In addition, Jordanian Christian journalist Nahed Hatter was assassinated in front of a Jordanian courthouse before he was supposed to be tried for insulting religion after he posted a cartoon critical of ISIS.  The cartoon showed a jihadist smoking in bed with two women while Allah waited at the window for him. The jihadist ordered Allah to fetch him some wine and to take away the dirty plates while asking the Angel Gabriel to bring him some cashew nuts. Hatter insisted his cartoon was intended to mock ISIS and other radical Islamist groups rather than the Islamic faith, stressing that he was merely against the type of Islam that terrorists follow but the Jordanian government still sought to prosecute him nevertheless. If he was convicted, he could have spent 3 years in prison. Hatter’s family blamed the Jordanian government for his assassination, emphasizing that they failed to protect the writer and by prosecuting him for the cartoon, they created an atmosphere where an Islamist extremist would come out and slaughter him.

After Hattar’s assassination, hundreds of protesters including members of the Hattar family took to the streets, chanting no to extremism, no to violence and down with the government.  The Jordanian government responded by imposing a media blackout on all news associated with Hattar’s assassination. Following the murder of Hatter, increased anti-Christian sentiment was also witnessed online in Jordan. Although Hattar’s murderer was sentenced to death, the plight of Christians remains dire in Jordan. Earlier this year, it was reported that vandals attacked a statue of the Virgin Mary in a Christian cemetery in Jordan. According to the US State Department, the Jordanian educational curriculum does not promote diversity and includes many negative examples about non-Muslims, which can be used to incite violence against Christians and other non-Muslims. While non-Muslims can opt out of courses on Islam, non-Muslim students who wish to attend university are required to have the same level of understanding on the Quran as a Muslim would.  This serves as a major hindrance for Christians and other minorities who want to attend university.

At the same time, Jordanians who convert to Christianity face much ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse including beatings, insults and intimidation from their families and religious leaders. For this reason, they are often forced to worship in secret.  Many of these individuals are interrogated by the Jordanian Security Forces. Missionaries who target Muslims can be prosecuted for inciting sectarian conflict and harming national unity.  Individuals who do this can face one year imprisonment or a 70 dollar fine. Furthermore, Church leaders reported that many Christian women who marry Muslims suffer from domestic violence and other forms of abuse based upon their religious faith. Jordan is not really doing anything to protect these women.

In addition, according to the US State Department, 5 Christian denominations are not recognized in Jordan as denominations.  They are considered associations. These denominations include the Free Evangelical Church, the Nazarene Church, the Assemblies of God, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Baptists. This prevents them from being part of the Council of Church Leaders, which forces them to get other individuals to negotiate with the government on their behalf. This creates obstacles in opening up bank accounts, purchasing real estate and hiring staff.

According to the Jordanian constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Matters of personal status where the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts. A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court. Per the constitution, matters of personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities. Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities. However, churches that aren’t recognized as denominations cannot have their own religious courts.  This creates obstacles regarding personal status issues such as marriage and divorce for adherents of these churches. Many Jordanian Christians convert to Islam or to one of the recognized churches for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce.

However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon’s have it even worse.  They are not even recognized as associations.  Their status is similar to the members of the Bahai faith.  Although Bahais in Jordan are not persecuted to the same level that they are in Iran, their schools and places of worship are not recognized by the Jordanian government. In addition, the Jordanian government refuses to issue marriage certificates to Bahai that are required for obtaining citizenship for a foreign spouse or for obtaining government health insurance and social security. In addition, in cases where a Bahai man marries a Bahai woman who is registered mistakenly as a Muslim, which happens quite frequently, the Jordanian government treats their children as illegitimate and they refuse to issue birth certificates for them. This creates obstacles for such children registering for school and for obtaining citizenship.

Although there is no local Jewish community in Jordan, Jews are barred from obtaining Jordanian citizenship, owning land in the Hashemite Kingdom and Jews who sought to bring religious items into the Hashemite Kingdom were barred from doing so.  In addition, the Jordanian media routinely incites against Jewish people and encourages terror attacks against Israelis, referring to Palestinian terror attacks as “heroic operations” and in some instances calls for the murder of all Jews even if they are just 5-years-old. A 2016 report by the US State Department documented that Jordanian “cartoons, articles, postings on social media, and public statements by politicians continued to present negative images of Jews.” In addition, anti-Semitic works such as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and Mein Kamp are proudly displayed in Jordanian bookstores and Jordanian society views them to be legitimate works of non-fiction.

The Jordanian educational system, instead of teaching the country’s youth to peacefully co-exist with Israel, educates youngsters that Palestine was stolen by the Jews. A report published by Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia Today, states that in Jordanian school textbooks, “references to Zionists as agents of imperialism and proponents of expansionists’ schemes […] occur.” Many of the anti-Israel textbooks that are presently used within Palestinian schools were originally Jordanian textbooks.  Due to this atmosphere, many Jewish tourists who come to Jordan are forced to hide their Jewish identity. The treatment of the non-recognized Christian denominations, Bahais and Jews by the Jordanian regime fosters a society that is intolerant towards minorities and anyone else who is different.   However, it should be noted that the Druze have it a bit better than the unrecognized Christian denominations, Bahais and Jews for the Jordanian government treats them like Muslims.  However, they also are not recognized as a separate faith.

The plight of prisoners in Jordan also remains a systematic issue.  Inside Jordanian police stations and prisons, torture remains a serious problem. The US State Department Report on Religious Freedom confirmed that at least 3 people supposedly died in Jordanian custody due to torture in 2016. According to a report by the quasi-governmental National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), 239 complaints of torture and mistreatment in Jordanian police stations and 38 cases of torture and mistreatment in prisons were investigated in 2015. The NHCR report cited that there were no effective measures by the legislative and executive branch to prosecute those who commit torture against detainees.

While it is true that the Jordanian government recently rescinded Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims — an important and long overdue reform — the penal code remains discriminatory against women. According to Human Rights Watch, article 340, which allows reduced sentences for perpetrators of honor crimes, still remains in force.  According to Sisterhood is Global Institute/Jordan, at least 26 Jordanian women and girls were murdered between January and November 2016 in what the perpetrators claim to be honor crimes.  Many more incidents go unreported.  A 1998 UN study found that 55% of the homicides against women in Jordan were honor crimes.

According to Jordanian scholar Fadia Faqir, 92.5% of the cases of violence against women in Jordan are not reported. In addition, numerous honor crimes are reported as accidents or suicides since the police investigations are too superficial in order to uncover the truth.  According to Jordanian Police Prosecutor General Sabr Yassin Rawasbeh, the Jordanian authorities often investigate cases of theft more seriously than honor crimes.  But the Jordanian Police and Jordanian law are not the only issue. According to human rights lawyer Hami Dahleh, Jordanian judges deal with these crimes in a facilitating way, often understanding the man.

According to Human Rights Watch, in Jordan, honor crimes of women and girls by their male relatives remain one of the most prevalent physical threats to women and girls. It must be stressed there is a direct correlation between the high number of honor crimes in Jordan and the lax punishment for perpetrators of honor crimes. While it is true that numerous countries that have a Muslim population deal with the problem of honor crimes, it is a crime against humanity to have a legal system that offers reduced sentences for perpetrators of such wanton acts of violence.

Systematically, Jordan places women who are in danger of being killed in honor crimes in protective custody. In fact, Article 7 of the Prevention of Crimes Law (1954) gives “the administrative governor the license to place women in protective custody in prisons and rehabilitation centers” if they are at risk of being killed in an honor crime.  According to the UK-based Al Araby: the New Arab website, an EU study found that women in protective custody in Jordan are frequently abused, mistreated and even tortured and sexually abused. According to the report, there are an estimated 140 women currently being housed in protective custody – most for their own protection as they have no other means of shelter. Many of these women in protective custody are at risk of being killed in honor crimes for behaving in a non-orthodox manner – such as for “walking alone in public at night or in the company of men who are not their relatives.” The EU report stressed that Jordan should not be placing these women in protective custody and instead should build safe homes for them.

But this is far from the only women’s rights issue in Jordan. Marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are not recognized as legitimate under Jordanian law and this mentality is engrained within the Jordanian bureaucracy. In addition, Article 9 of Jordan’s Nationality Law does not allow Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian spouses to pass on their Jordanian nationality to their children. This in affect amounts to gender-based discrimination against Jordanian women enshrined within Jordanian law.

However, Jordanian women are not the only residents of Jordan who face gender-based discrimination. Female domestic workers frequently face sexual violence and other types of abuse; the Jordanian authorities’ mishandling of such cases is horrific.   According to Human Rights Watch, 80,000 migrants live in Jordan and they suffer from “non-payment of salaries, unsafe working conditions, long hours, document confiscation, and sometimes physical, verbal and sexual abuse.”  Frequently, domestic workers who try to escape these conditions end up in Jordanian prisons.

Take the story of Evangeline.  She worked every day from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. and slept in a storage room next to the washing machine. She was paid regularly for the first year, she said, but her employer started withholding her salary toward the end of 2016. “I have a son who needed a heart operation in the Philippines, so I was asking for my salary,” Evangeline said from inside the Juweida women’s prison. Instead of paying Evangeline, her employer beat her, poured burning water on her hands and twice put her head in the toilet. Evangeline tried to call her agency but they didn’t pick up, she said. In December 2016, Evangeline attempted to call the Philippine embassy for help. When her “madam” found out, she called the police, accusing Evangeline of theft.

The story of Evangeline is that of countless other female domestic workers in Jordan. Another female domestic worker from Ethiopia who worked without pay, without access to a phone and without a day off for five years after she was trafficked in from Dubai was prosecuted for adultery by her employer when she started a relationship with an Egyptian worker and got pregnant. The poor woman found herself in prison and pregnant without anyone being able to help her.  Once a human rights group came upon her by chance, they tried to get her released due to the fact she was trafficked illegally into the country but due to the adultery charges, as of June this year, she remained in prison and gave birth behind bars while her lover was deported to Egypt.

However, domestic workers are not the only foreigners who face systematic persecution in Jordan.  Because the Jordanian government and bureaucracy created registration and other issues initially that prevented refugees from providing for their children and sending them to school, many Syrian refugee girls have been forced into marriage or prostitution at a young age. According to UNICEF, 32% of Syrian refugee marriages involve a child under age 18.  The Syrian refugee parents believe that marrying these girls off is one of the few ways that they can guarantee that they are provided for. However, there is an issue with this way of thinking. Frequently, men from the Persian Gulf go to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and pick out girls. They marry the girls and keep them for a couple of months due to the belief that Syrian girls are pretty and then they divorce them after they grow tired of them within a couple of months.

Due to the shame associated with being divorced, these girls cannot return to their families so they turn to prostitution instead. Still other Syrian refugee girls turned to prostitution directly without ever getting married because it was the only way that they could support their families back in Syria and their families living inside Jordanian refugee camps.  These women were unable to find more respectable jobs as waitresses, secretaries, etc. and simply had no other way of providing for their families. In other cases, the families of these refugee girls will pimp out their daughters themselves merely in order to ensure they are economically provided for. In this way, many Syrian refugee girls are condemned to be prostitutes. Due to necessity, these women remain prostitutes even though it is an illegal occupation in Jordan and these women can be deported at any time if caught. The fact that Jordan deports these girls is immoral. They should go after the pimps who exploit them rather than vulnerable refugee women and girls.

But Syrian refugee girls are not the only victims.  Many Syrian refugee boys also fall victim to child labor.  Take the story of Ali.  Since his family fled the civil war in Syria, 15-year-old Ali al-Sbehi hasn’t set foot in a school. Instead, he has to put in 12-hour shifts at a supermarket, a fast food stand and a coffee shop, enduring abuse from employers, back-breaking work and low pay because he is the sole breadwinner of his family of eight. “I have no future,” said the teenager. Ali represents many Syrian refugee children in Jordan.

According to Save the Child, 50% of Syrian refugee families in Jordan rely upon income generated by children.  Jordanian civil society has taken some measures to address this issue and the registration issues that had initially made it difficult for Syrian refugees to study have recently been amended but still the royal family has not done enough to help these children for the situation has still not changed on the ground. According to VOA News, in Jordan, about 126,000 out of 212,000 Syrian refugee children are enrolled in school. Another 46,000 attend informal education. This constitutes about a third of Syrian refugee children of school age who remain out of school despite Jordanian government pledges to change this and to enroll these children this year. The right to an education is a universal human right that the Jordanian government and bureaucracy is not doing enough to ensure it.

Yet aside from the horrendous conditions that Syrian refugees experience in Jordan, Human Rights Watch reported that the Jordanian government has been summarily deporting Syrian refugees back to Syria. According to the report, during the first five months of 2017, Jordan deported 400 registered Syrian refugees each month including ones that arrived as part of large families. “Jordan shouldn’t be sending people back to Syria without making sure they wouldn’t face a real risk of torture or serious harm and unless they have had a fair opportunity to plead their case for protection,” Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Director Bill Frelick proclaimed. The Arab Charter of Human Rights, to which Jordan is a party, prohibits collective expulsions “under all circumstances.” Jordan is also bound by the customary international law principle of not returning refugees to places where they would be persecuted, exposed to torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.  However, this has not stopped Jordan from sending Syrian refugees back to Syria.

However, dissidents, journalists, minorities, women, foreign domestic workers and Syrian refugees are not the only victims of oppression within Jordanian society. Like in much of the rest of the Arab world, Jordan persecutes gays and lesbians. According to a recent report in Human Rights Watch, following an inquiry into the legality of My.Kali, a Jordanian homosexual exclusive online publication, the Jordanian government not only shut down this online voice for the Jordanian gay and lesbian community but they waged a public campaign against Jordanians who have a different sexual orientation.  Jordanian Interior Minister Ghaleb al-Zu’bi proclaimed, “Jordan has not and will never endorse any charter or protocol acknowledging homosexuals—known as the LGBT community—or granting them any rights as it is considered a deviation from Islamic law and the Jordanian constitution.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Zu’bi’s recent statement served no other purpose other than to humiliate the homosexual community in Jordan for My.Kali was already shut down by the authorities in 2016 and there was no purpose in re-establishing its ban other than to encourage homophobic discourse.  This was not the first time that the Hashemite Kingdom persecuted homosexuals. In 2014, 10 homosexuals were arrested for attending a gay party. In 2015, the US Ambassador was condemned in Jordan for attending a My.Kali event. And in both 2016 and 2017, Jordan banned Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay lead singer, from performing in Jordan.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that the time has come for all of these human rights violations to come to an end.  The Jordanian people deserve to have a government that treats their citizens with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  The Jordanian king is no benign despot.  To the contrary, he is a dictator who not only persecutes dissidents but also presides over a legal system that discriminates against women, domestic workers, Syrian refugees, homosexuals and members of religious minority groups.  In addition, his government and bureaucracy incites violence in Israel and stands behind much of the unrest that is occurring here, as Edy Cohen so nicely explained.  Therefore, for these reasons, it is time to give something different a change.  It is time to bring democracy to Jordan and for the democrats and dissidents to form a new government, which supports peace with Israel and her neighbors, and all of the other countries on this planet.  Thank you.




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