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Government urged to strengthen free expression on campus

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Munich, April 18, 2011 - The government should respond to King Abdullah's reform directive, including greater academic freedom, by ending restrictions on free expression on campus, Human Rights Watch said today. In particular, the government should end interference by the General Intelligence Department (GID) on campus and amend disciplinary codes at state universities that limit free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

In several incidents since November 2010, the rights of students to free expression have been violated by intelligence officers or by university administrations applying repressive regulations, Human Rights Watch said.

"Jordan's universities can't be considered free institutions of learning if intelligence officers are breathing down the necks of those who think critically and interfering with their peaceful activities," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In a March 22, 2011 letter to Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, King Abdullah outlined reforms to be carried out promptly, including at universities. The king said, "The independence of universities and the guarantee of their academic, intellectual, and innovative freedoms is a basic principle." He ordered "immediate measures to stop the interference by any party" in these freedoms, including students' "political thought." In response, al-Bakhit, on March 24, promised that "the age of [authorities'] interference in the affairs of students, their unions, and political thinking is over," the Jordan Times reported.

On April 14, Human Rights Watch wrote to the GID asking what duties and authority its officers have on campus, including what type of information they share with the university administration, and what the agency has done to carry out the king's instructions. The GID has not responded to the questions, though a GID officer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that agency personnel remained on campus.

In one recent case, a Hashemite University student told Human Rights Watch that the head of the GID's branch at Hashemite University informed her in December that he was vetoing the cultural magazine she hoped to start. The student said that the agent, who identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Qusay, told her at a meeting on December 19, "We want to control your rebellion and rein in your tongue," that hers is an "irresponsible generation," and that "students are children." Abu Qusay turned down the magazine proposal - although he had no formal authority to do so - saying, "There are outside agendas that interfere with the issue," the student recalled.

The student, who heads the university's cultural club, had proposed the magazine to Professor Firas al-Hamad, the head of student assemblies, and Professor Abd al-Karim al-Khaza'ila, head of student clubs. Al-Khaza'ila was to edit the magazine. Another student and member of the cultural club also attended the meeting and confirmed to Human Rights Watch the account of Abu Qusay's comments. The students spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions.

On April 3, Muhannad Mubaidin, a professor at the University of Jordan and host of a show on Jordanian television, invited the student who proposed the magazine to the show to discuss politics and youth. Referring to the December incident, the student said that the university president "does not control our political participation, the Intelligence does," Professor Mubaidin told Human Rights Watch. The student's mother told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of April 5, she received a call from an unidentified man she believed to be an intelligence officer who told her to warn her daughter against any student political activity, saying that if the student were a man "she would have been arrested by now."

In another incident, on November 11, Hashemite University security forces detained four students for distributing flyers that said "Arab lands are my homeland" inside the university, leading to disciplinary procedures against three of them for violating university regulations. The fourth student, who had the flyers in his bag, was not investigated or disciplined because of his family's connections to the intelligence service, the other students said. The students told Human Rights Watch their action was designed to unite students and overcome political divisions on campus due to different national origins, tribes, and religions.

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