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Students accused of 'devil worship' beaten, detained in Jordan

Jordanian authorities should immediately charge or release five al-Bayt university students detained since March 12, 2013, after other students alleged they had desecrated a Quran and engaged in “devil worship,” Human Rights Watch said today. The students, who deny the accusations and have neither been charged nor taken before a judge, were assaulted by a crowd of other students, and their attackers should be brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

“Jordanian authorities should release the five students and take steps to protect them from further attack,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should hold to account anyone who joined in this witch hunt and committed acts of violence. They should not be allowed to walk free while their victims are locked up.”

Authorities should also investigate reported remarks, including by a well-known Salafi shaikh, advocating the students' deaths and prosecute anyone whose language amounted to direct incitement to murder. Other students had alleged the five detainees had “desecrated a Quran” or engaged in “devil worship” but no evidence of criminal behavior has been presented to the detained students, relatives told Human Rights Watch.

The sister of one of the five students told Human Rights Watch that a group of about 200 other students violently attacked her sister and four male students on the university campus following a rumor that some students had ripped and burned a Quran manuscript while performing a “religious ritual” in a campus bathroom. She said the attackers appeared to have targeted the five students because they frequently dress in black and are rock music devotees. Campus officials and student activists managed to pull the five students to safety, but local authorities then detained them and later handed them over to the security services. All five deny any involvement in the alleged Quran desecration.

The father of one of the male students told Human Rights Watch that his son had phoned him in distress from the university campus on the morning of March 12 and begged for help, saying, “Father they are beating me and I don't know why.” The father drove immediately from his home in Amman to the university campus in Mafraq, in northern Jordan, but by the time he arrived the university authorities had transferred his son and the four other detained students to security service custody.

Relatives told Human Rights Watch that they did not know the legal basis for the students' detention. The Jordanian news website al-Sabeel reported on March 21 that the Office of the Public Prosecutor had extended their detention for another seven days while it investigated them for “sowing discord [fitna] and defaming religion.” The father of one of the five told Human Rights Watch that, according to his lawyer, the authorities have not filed any charges.

The relatives said that they had been unable to find out whether the police were investigating the assaults on the five students on campus.

The al-Ra'i newspaper reported that the president of Al al-Bayt University told a parliamentary committee on March 17 that he had established a special committee to investigate the rumored desecration incident after students claimed that they had witnessed the five “throwing manuscripts of the Quran in the toilets.” The head of the investigative committee later told the Khabarni news website, however, that the committee had found no evidence implicating the five students in desecrating the Quran and that none of the statements against them had been based on first-hand evidence. He said that it might be difficult for the five students to return to the university due to safety concerns.

The relatives said that the four male students are being detained at Irbid prison in northern Jordan and that the female student is being held at the Juweida Women's detention facility in Amman. The father of one of the male students told Human Rights Watch that authorities had permitted him to see and speak to his son through a glass pane for 10 minutes at a time during regular prison visiting hours on three days each week. He said that his son, who suffers from a heart condition, still bore marks all over his body as a result of the assault by the student mob and that authorities had delayed more than 24 hours before admitting him to a local hospital for medical treatment.

The alleged desecration of the Quran and the assault on the five students has provoked wide interest and controversy in Jordan. The day after the incident, the Ammon news website posted an interview with a well-known shaikh, who is seen as leader of the “Salafi-Jihadi current.” The website reported that the shaikh had said it is permissible for Muslims to kill the five students because they “have been marked as infidels,” adding, “We hope to see their punishment soon.” The shaikh has not denied this interview, which remains online.

The shaikh's remarks appear to have led to other calls for the students to be killed in messages posted on the Facebook social networking site and news websites, prompting fears for their safety and doubts about whether they will be able to complete their university studies in Jordan.

Several members of parliament have called for a general session of the assembly to discuss “devil worshippers” with one, quoted in al-Ghad newspaper, castigating the acts of so-called devil worshipers as an “affront” to Jordan's societal values, beliefs, and “most sacred things.”

International law, including Jordan's treaty obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires the authorities to take reasonable steps to protect the right to security of all people within the country. It also requires Jordan to uphold the rights to freedom of expression and thought, conscience, and religion. That would require not prosecuting people for peacefully expressing their views and protecting them from attempts by others to coercively limit their ability to express their opinions and religious beliefs.

Under international law, Jordan must ensure that no one in the country is arbitrarily detained – including those detained for exercising a basic right and must “promptly” inform anyone detained on suspicion of a crime of the nature and cause of the charge against them. Article 20 of the ICCPR requires the authorities to prohibit by law “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” while article 81 of the Jordanian penal code prohibits incitement to commit crimes.

“Rather than locking up these five students without charge and compounding the harm done to them, the authorities should be bringing to justice those who violently assaulted them,” Goldstein said. “They should also investigate reported statements that appear to call for the students' deaths and prosecute their authors if they amount to direct incitement to murder.”

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