The court convicted Iyad Qunaibi, 39, an Islamist activist, under a terrorism charge based solely on a Facebook post in which he criticized what he perceived as un-Islamic developments in Jordan. The Facebook post did not advocate violence.
“Jordan’s claims that it respects free expression aren’t credible when an innocuous Facebook post can land someone in jail for two years,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Jordanian authorities should halt prosecutions for peaceful speech and ensure that the country does not backslide on basic rights.”
The ruling signals a harsher approach by Jordanian authorities toward speech-related crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Earlier in 2015, the same court sentenced a prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure, Zaki Bani Irsheid, to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post in which he criticized the United Arab Emirates. Reuters said at the time that he was the highest-profile political figure to be imprisoned in Jordan since 1995.
Jordanian police arrested Qunaibi, a pharmacologist and professor at Jordan’s Applied Sciences Private University, on June 15, 2015, after he wrote a Facebook post on June 10, “Jordan Heading toward the Abyss.”
The State Security Court charge sheet, which authorities did not distribute to Qunaibi’s family members until August 16, indicated that prosecutors had charged him with “undermining the political regime in the kingdom or inciting opposition to it” under article 149 of Jordan’s penal code, which the law defines as a terrorism charge.
The charge sheet cited, as its sole evidence, sections from the Facebook post, including, “[In Jordan] bearded [i.e. religious] men and women who wear head scarfs are arrested and thrown to the floor as part of exercises called fighting terrorism, and this coincides with the reception of the pope of the Vatican with celebratory religious rituals.”
The charge sheet also cites as evidence criticism of Jordanian officials’ participation in the Paris march that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack in January; an accusation that the director of Jordan’s Standards and Metrology Organization has encouraged Jordanian farmers to grow grapes for wine production; and criticism of then-Israeli President Shimon Peres’s visit to Jordan in 2013 for the World Economic Forum. The charge sheet notes that Qunaibi has more than 735,000 Facebook followers.
Qunaibi is in Muaqqar II Prison, 40 kilometers southeast of Amman, the capital.
Authorities previously arrested Qunaibi in 2011 and held him for 14 months while prosecuting him for sending money to the Afghan Taliban, which he did not deny. Human Rights Watch wrote to the head of Jordan’s Judicial Council in September 2011 regarding the case, urging the council to halt application of the penal code article then being used to prosecute Qunaibi on the ground that its vague and overly broad nature opens it to political interpretations that can result in violations of freedom of expression. An appeals court later acquitted Qunaibi in that case, but a family member told Human Rights Watch that he remains banned from speaking in mosques.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jordan has ratified, protects the right to freedom of expression, including “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (article 19). The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has stated that: “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration,” and, “All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
Under article 9.3 of the ICCPR, “[i]t shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”
“Arrests and prosecutions for peaceful criticism are not only unjustifiable and punitive for those they target, but have a wider chilling effect on free speech and the expression of legitimate dissent,” Whitson said.
This report was prepared by Human Rights Watch.