Capital Punishment in Jordan: Will Human Rights Organizations Fight Back?

2015-02-10    |   

Capital Punishment in Jordan: Will Human Rights Organizations Fight Back?

Jordan’s civil society is still in shock after the horror of what they have come to call “a massacre carried out in the name of law”, following the execution of 11 prisoners by Jordanian authorities on December 12, 2014. The executed men had been sentenced to death years ago, but the sentences were not carried out due to the Jordanian Government's decision to suspend the death penalty in 2006. The official step to reinstate capital punishment had been paved for earlier; on November 9, 2014, Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali stated that the government was considering a step to reinstate the death penalty after an 8-year moratorium, due to the “high crime rate in recent years”, as he put it.


Following the executions, a flurry of articles and press releases were published on news sites and daily newspapers with headlines such as: “An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth” and “And There Is for You in Legal Retribution [saving of] Life” [Quran verse]. It appears that Jordanian authorities have finally succeeded in uniting the Islamist, the clansman, the loyalist, and the opposition activist over one goal that is in the interest of the state: the execution of murderers. Jordanian authorities settled the controversy over the issue during the moratorium period, announcing via Interior Ministry Spokesperson Ziad al-Zubi that by reinstating the capital punishment, it has returned to the right track. The men who were hanged were all males between the ages of 30 to 45 years and committed murder, a crime that does not fall under “terrorism”. With their execution, another 111 Jordanian prisoners, including 12 women, remain on death row by hanging.


Human Rights Organizations Accused of Collaboration with the West

Controversy over the death penalty has gone overboard, at times, to the extent of accusing local human rights organizations of directly serving Western interests that wish to hinder the state from applying the law in accordance with Islam, Jordan’s constitutionally-consecrated official religion. Proponents of capital punishment viewed the death sentence as the right penalty for murderers under Islam, and a deterrent for potential criminals. Many of them posted pro-death penalty articles and commented on social media about stories of murder and rape, in an attempt to gain more sympathy for their view.


Newspapers which supported the reinstatement of the death penalty included Jordan’s daily, al-Dustur. On December 22, 2014, the day after the execution verdict was issued, the newspaper’s editorial described it as “popular demand and a legitimate implementation [of the law]”. The editorial also argued that keeping the perpetrators in prison rather than executing them would have increased the financial burden of the public purse, costing the treasury a monthly sum of JD700 [US$987] per inmate.


The most prominent stands were those taken by opinion leaders, including columnists in various newspapers strongly supporting the death penalty application. These writers, whose articles were published on the day following the issuance of the verdict, turned the discussion into one about striking a balance between the demands of security, sovereignty and “human rights”. Al-Dustur’s Abdallah al-Majalias described the latter as a “bizarre concept” promoted by local, but foreign-backed, organizations. In his article titled: “And There Is for You in Legal Retribution [saving of] Life”, he wrote that “some human rights centers and activists try to depict death as a crime committed by the state, but that logic is quite poor”. He added that with the exception of some western values which have emerged recently, it goes without saying that a killer should be killed, since nothing can quench the anger of the victim’s family but to kill the killer or forgive him; otherwise, society shall enter a vortex of violence, hatred and revenge. On his part, al-Sabeel’s Omar Ayasrah wrote in his article titled “Reinstatement of the Death Penalty” the following:

“Personally, I support the decision to reinstate the death penalty, and I refuse external dictates which dominated us for eight years, hindering the implementation of court decisions”.

— Al-Sabeel newspaper, which is thought to be a mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Arab Organization for Human Rights’ branch in Jordan shared these views. A statement it issued concluded that carrying out the death penalty against murderers is a “victory for the divine law and for the victims and their families”. The statement added that peace and security will not prevail unless an actual application of the law takes place, and that the state must not give in to any form of pressure, whatever the source is or whoever stands behind it.


University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, seen as the only monitor of public opinion in Jordan, conducted a survey one month prior to the executions. According to its results, 75% of Jordanians support the death penalty. This study served as further justification for Jordanian authorities to continue to implement such a penalty.


Facing the most ardent death penalty supporters were the most vociferous abolitionists. The local Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies set a precedent when it issued a statement describing the penalty as “killing by law”. The statement added that public authorities would be better off tackling the economic, social, and political root causes of the crime. A number of prominent writers such as Osama al-Rantisi, the editor-in-chief of al-Arab Al-Yawm newspaper, also denounced capital punishment. Al-Rantisi pointed out that prior to the moratorium put in place 8 years ago, implementing the death penalty did not alter the rate of crime. He added that the increased reporting on crime in media outlets in recent years is not indicative of an increase in crime rate after the moratorium. Writer Ibrahim Gharaybeh summarized his position with an article titled “Love Your Enemies”. He said: “Death does not deter criminals, rather, it grows hatred and mistrust. It creates fear; not of committing a crime, but a fearful soul that trusts no one. The fear persists and grows into hatred, extremism, and violence once again. The Government intimidates the societies and peaceful people more than it does the perpetrators.”

International and Western protests which were the object of anger of pro-execution forces, came only pursuant to human rights protests in social media and the press. The most notable criticism of reinstating the death penalty was that of Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Al-Hussein, who is a Jordanian and a relative of King Abdallah II, expressed deep regret in a statement broadcasted by the United Nations radio at the recent lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan and Jordan, stressing that no judiciary can be infallible.


Amnesty International also issued a statement describing the death penalty as “discriminatory and often used disproportionately against the poor and members of minorities, racial, ethnic, and religious groups. It is also imposed and carried out arbitrarily”. Subsequent statements denouncing the penalty were issued by the European Union, Norway, and Switzerland within what is called the European Diplomatic Mission.


On December 14, 2014, several days prior to the execution, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement recalling an incident where a Jordanian man convicted of murdering nine people was executed. Back in 2000, he confessed under duress, and five years after his execution it turned out that one of the victims was killed by another perpetrator. HRW then concluded that the justice system in Jordan had failed tragically to protect the accused, calling for the abolition of the death penalty to prevent tragic events of this kind from happening in the future.


Human Rights Organizations are Called upon to Reconsider their Advocacy Methods

Aside from the feasibility and effectiveness of carrying out the death penalty, and the sterile debate between parties of different opinions, implementing the penalty has revealed that the majority of Jordanians support the reinstatement for religious reasons. Some support it for vindictive reasons. This constitutes a challenge for human rights organizations who are now expected to rethink their strategies of persuasion, which appear to have been ineffective at the level of public advocacy and government policy making. Human Rights Activist Wael Mansi, described the executions as a setback for the human rights movement, and the steps taken by the state towards broader application of human rights standards in its legal system. In a statement to The Legal Agenda, Mansi told The Legal Agenda that by carrying out the executions, the state has thrown everything it achieved in this regard out the window. Lawyer Saddam Abu Azzam also suggested in a statement he made to The Legal Agenda that in order to get out of this crisis, a number of legal steps should be taken to discourage the state from moving forward with the death penalty. These include:

expediting the implementation of quantitative and qualitative analytical studies, and analyzing the existing conditions of crime and crime rates in a scientific manner;

contributing to the formation alliances in order to exercise systematic pressure;

forming a legal team that would assist death row inmates and their relatives; and

intervening through mediation with the victims’ families for forgiveness.

Hala Ahed, legal consultant in the Jordanian Women's Union (JWU), shares the same viewpoint. She stated that “the struggle to abolish the death penalty requires concerted efforts by all human rights organizations, both at the public and official levels, through UN channels, and in cooperation with the media”. Ahed added that many media outlets had played a negative role towards incitement to carry out the execution.


The last execution Jordan carried out took place in 2006 against two al-Qaeda affiliates: one Jordanian and another Libyan. The two men were convicted by the State Security Court for “terrorist acts leading to the death of a person, after they assassinated American diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002”. Human rights groups have been calling for the need to take public steps towards the full abolishment of the death penalty, despite the 25 legal texts which provide for the penalty of death by hanging.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Muhammad Shamma is a journalist specializing in human rights issues

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