Jailing of officers seen as test of free speech in Jordan

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) " When retired Maj. Gen. Mohammed Otoom was summoned to Jordan's domestic intelligence service over a critical web comment, he wasn't too rattled. After all, he was a 30-year veteran of the agency that sought to question him.

To his surprise, Otoom, 63, was detained on the spot and has spent almost three weeks in a crowded prison cell.

Seven others, including another ex-officer and a former member of parliament, have also been jailed on warrants from the state security court for protesting on social media against the government's planned price hikes and its purported failure to go after corrupt officials.

The high-profile case spotlights Jordan's unwritten "red lines" in public debate, at a time when the U.S.-allied kingdom faces growing security threats and an economic downturn accompanied by spikes in poverty and unemployment.

Traditionally, it was permissible to criticize the government, while the royal family, religion and the security forces were seen as off limits.

Some say Jordan has further curtailed free expression, using security arguments such as the threat posed by Islamic State extremists, to retract political reform promises made in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the region.

In this context, the detention of members of Jordan's security and political establishment should be seen as a warning to ordinary Jordanians to steer clear of anti-government protests, said Otoom's wife, Raeseh.

"This is meant to send a message to the rest of the people so they stay silent," she said in an interview in her home in a middle-class neighborhood of the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Relatives of the detainees portray them as patriots who risked their status for the good of the country. Four portraits of King Abdullah II adorn the walls of the Otoom living room, alongside one of the general in uniform.

But authorities have suggested the men pose a threat to national security.

Prime Minister Hani Mulki told parliament in mid-January that the security court ordered their arrest for allegedly engaging in actions that "could incite public opinion and change the basic situation of the society, in violation of the law."

He cited article 149 of the Jordanian penal code which carries a minimum sentence of seven years for leaders or founders of a group that seeks to change the basic social order.

Mulki said at the time that the government respects the right to free expression, provided it does not violate the law and "does not compromise higher national interests."

Government critics say Jordan has several vaguely worded laws that allow for the prosecution of people expressing their opinions.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group that has rated Jordan as "not free," slammed the detention of the senior officials as a violation of the right to free speech. The decision to charge them with incitement "shows the government's determination to muffle dissent and criticism," the group said.

Government spokesman Mohammed Momani declined comment on the case because it's a legal matter. He said last month that the government is weighing new legislation to combat what he described as a rise in hate speech on social media.

The case against Otoom and the others comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction with government policies.

Fifty-eight percent of Jordanians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 43 percent in April, according to a poll published Monday by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute.

A weak economy, rising prices, administrative and financial corruption, poverty and unemployment were given as top reasons, according to a November survey of 1,000 respondents, with an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

Discontent is bound to rise with expected price hikes in coming weeks. The government has said it is increasing taxes on some goods to help reduce a spiraling budget deficit. On Wednesday, gas prices went up by more than 6 percent, with part of the increase to be used to help narrow the deficit, state media said.

In recent weeks, retired security officers who previously accused the authorities of not going after senior officials suspected of corruption emerged as critics of the austerity measures.

The officers said that if the government retrieved millions of dollars allegedly lost to corruption, it would not need to impose new burdens on Jordanians.

Retired Lt. Col. Khaled Majali, who served under Otoom, wrote on his website that "7.5 million Jordanians are screaming loudly, 'wake up, there is still time to fix things' and they are ready to renew loyalty" and move to a better future.

Otoom's wife said her husband posted a brief comment, taken from a poem about the last Arab king of Andalusia, who was told by his mother after losing his throne: "Now cry like women for a throne that you didn't defend like men."

Otoom was summoned by the intelligence service after that post, along with former legislator Wasfi Rawashdeh and retired army Col. Omar al-Osofi.

Rawashdeh had urged the king in an open letter to be "careful of the ones who are killing the love of the people for you," and criticized what he said is long-standing nepotism. Al-Osofi published an essay about dictatorship, his son, Wael, said.

A fourth detainee, Hussam Abdallat, who served in the prime minister's office for 20 years, was arrested after holding a meeting with other activists at his home to launch an anti-corruption initiative, said his brother, Mohammed.

"What they were calling for is anti-corruption, transparency and freedom of speech," Mohammed Abdallat said. He said only his brother and another participant in the meeting are still in jail.

Defense lawyer Abdel Qader Khatib said a total of eight men are in custody,

One is from the Muslim Brotherhood, once Jordan's most organized opposition group, but increasingly weakened by internal rifts and government restrictions in recent years.

Relatives rejected suggestions of a conspiracy, saying the former legislator and the ex-security officers acted on their own in posting their comments.

Otoom and Abdallat are being held in difficult conditions in crowded cells, family members said after prison visits.

Abdallat, 48, who suffers from diabetes, was shackled and forced to wear a hood when transported to a prison hospital, his brother said.

Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi said jailing senior ex-officers is rare but not surprising, because criticism from members of the establishment carries more weight. "People would come out and say, 'if these people criticize, it means things are worse even than we imagined," he said.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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