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Former parliamentary candidate arrested, detained for peaceful expression

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Amman, December 12, 2010 - Jordan's military prosecutor at the State Security Court should immediately free a former parliamentary candidate and drop politically motivated charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Tahir Nassar, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the November 9, 2010 elections, was charged on November 27 with "stirring up sectarian strife" in his election manifesto.

"Jordan waited for the international election monitors to leave before clamping down on a candidate who sought reform," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities persist in using criminal laws to stifle unwelcome views."

Nassar, a 45-year old lawyer from Rusaifa, was an independent candidate for his electoral district in Zarqa, northeast of Amman, the capital. A month before the elections, Nassar published his election manifesto, in which he lamented, "the discrimination between citizens on the basis of the birthplace by which this nation without equality distinguishes itself." He said that "in all states of the advanced world the scientific degree is the basis for obtaining jobs in the public sector, whereas in Jordan the basis is a birth certificate." Nassar called for the equal treatment of all Jordanians under the law, as provided in the constitution.

Nivin al-'Ajarima, Nassar's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the military prosecutor at the State Security Court, a special court dominated by military judges, summoned Nassar on November 27 and charged him under article 150 of the penal code with undermining national unity and "stirring up sectarian strife." Nassar was then detained in Salt prison, where he remains.

Jordanian prosecutors routinely detain criminal suspects pending trial. On November 30, al-'Ajarima presented a petition for Nassar's release, to which the prosecutor has not replied. The initial detention warrant, which can be renewed, is valid for 15 days.

Nassar's detention is the latest in a string of arrests and prosecutions for speech protected under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Jordan ratified in 1975. Jordan amended its penal code in July, but kept numerous articles criminalizing peaceful speech.

On July 25, the State Security Court military prosecutor detained Hatim al-Shuli, a student, over a poem allegedly insulting the king of Jordan, under article 195 of the penal code and for stirring up national strife under article 150. Al-Shuli was released in September after more than 40 days in pre-trial detention. His trial continues.

In mid-November the Court of Cassation affirmed the State Security Court's two-year sentence for 'Imad al-Din al-'Ash, also a student, for insulting the king in an electronic message.

Jordan grants prosecutors, who are not independent judicial officers, the power to issue arrest and detention warrants, which may remain valid for up to six months in national security cases, before bringing a suspect before a court. During that period, detainees have no practical means of challenging their detention in court.

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