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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Jordan juggles anti-terror law, reform

The passage of a new anti-terror law gives sweeping powers to Jordan's security services, but critics warn that if the government fails to tread carefully, it could lead to violence and instability.

Commentary by Dominic Moran for ISN Security Watch (11/09/06)

A lone gunman's attack on tourists in downtown Amman last week has drawn attention to Jordan's passage of a new anti-terror law, which critics say endangers the monarchy's tentative reform program.

Jordan's constitutional monarchy, while not currently at risk, looks increasingly isolated in a region destabilized by the Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian conflicts.

Most analysts believe that Jordanian security forces have so far succeeded in combating fundamentalist Salafist groups, which, feeding off widespread anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment, have boosted their power in the kingdom since the return of Jordanian mujahideen from Afghanistan in the early 1990s.

The fact that the bombers in the 9 November 2005 hotel attacks - in which 60 people were killed and 115 others wounded - were not Jordanians, testifies to the apparent failure of international Islamic groups to gain an established foothold in the country, despite the arrival of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Jordan since 2003.

A slight majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent and share familial ties with residents of the West Bank. As such, the ongoing violence in the Palestinian territories has a significant, direct and deleterious impact on the stability of the Hashemite kingdom.

Jordan's relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) relations are at an all-time low following the discovery by Jordanian security forces of an alleged Hamas plot to attack infrastructure targets in the kingdom.

On 27 August, Jordan's elected lower house, the 110-member Majlis al-Nuwaab ("Chamber of Deputies"), passed a controversial law providing the security forces with extensive new powers to combat Islamic militants and their supporters.

Acting under significant pressure from the US, Jordan began drafting the new anti-terror bill legislation last November in the wake of the hotel bombings.

The legislation bans both direct and indirect contacts with domestic or international terror groups, proscribing a wide-range of activities from active involvement in terror plots to financing, incitement or expressions of sympathy with radical organizations. The possession, manufacture or transportation of raw materials that could be used to create weapons is also prohibited under the law.

The bill gives state security services sweeping powers to act against suspected militants and their supporters, legalizing detention for up to 30 days without access to legal counsel, and transferring terror cases from the civil courts to military tribunals.

Domestic critics charge that the security services already enjoy sufficient legal powers to combat extremists and that the legislation is an attempt to quash criticism of pro-US government policy.

Fourteen opposition parties have joined in condemning the bill, which they say constitutes a declaration of "martial law" and "a blunt violation of the Jordanian constitution and the International Declaration of Human Rights."

The largest opposition party in the Chamber of Deputies, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamic Action Front (IAF), decided on Friday not to ask its 17 parliamentarians to resign from the house.

The move had been considered in protest over the arrest of two IAF legislators who are charged with violating Article 150 of Jordan's Penal Code, banning speech "intended to, or [that] results in, stirring up sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation."

King Abdullah had promised to revoke this and other legal strictures on free speech.

Rights groups allege that significant strictures remain on freedoms of expression and the press. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the General Intelligence Department of torturing political suspects in the agency's detention facilities.

In choosing to favor a confrontational legislative approach rather than seeking dialogue with Islamic moderates and advocates of democratic reform, King Abdullah has effectively set his administration against the large minority of his subjects who support the IAF, encouraging further radicalization.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, warns that the government faces growing public resentment amid ongoing economic difficulties. The passage of the anti-terror law is likely to stoke these feelings of alienation and may overshadow or stymie future reform efforts.

Much will depend on the use the military makes of its new legally mandated powers. The prominent role of the security services and its close ties with the monarchy have also been reinforced by the law in a fairly open manner and to the detriment of the elected legislature.

Many analysts believe that the king should look to promulgate a long-awaited new electoral law, allowing the public to select a more representative Chamber of Deputies, and begin moves to share his extensive executive powers with parliament.

The threat posed by militant violence to the future stability of Jordan is very real and pressing. Nonetheless, security considerations must be balanced against the needs of an emerging democracy, with effective civil judicial oversight maintained of the military's use of its newly won powers.

Given the key geo-strategic position of the state and its traditionally warm relationship with the West, a stable, democratic and prosperous Jordan is a lynchpin for the future stability of the region and should be a priority for the international community.

Dr. Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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