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Opportunity for police accountability

May 22,2015 - Last updated at May 22,2015

On May 14 “Ahmed”, a resident of the southern town of Maan, called and told me that Gendarmerie forces had destroyed part of his house during a raid early that morning.

“I’d never had any problem with the security forces,” he said.

“But they came and destroyed part of my house with me and my children inside, claiming I was hiding wanted men. They left without arresting anyone.”

Human Rights Watch was not able to verify Ahmed’s account, but it is consistent with the cycle of violence that Maan has experienced over the last two years, with dramatic police raids on houses sparking protests and riots, prompting further police raids.

On May 17, the events in Maan helped trigger a political shake up, with interior minister Hussein Majali resigning, and the heads of the Public Security Directorate, which oversees the police and prison system, and Gendarmerie forces forced into retirement.

The government said little to explain the moves, but cited the “security agencies’ failure to coordinate between them over issues concerning citizens’ security and stability”.

A security official told Reuters that the high-level changes stemmed partly from the “heavy-handed police crackdown” in Maan in recent years, as well as the death of a detainee, Abdullah Al Zoubi, in early May, for which the authorities arrested four police officers.

The recent arrests of police officers and removal of security agency chiefs may represent a shift towards accountability for abuses by the PSD and Gendarmerie forces. Yet, much more needs to be done to end the culture of impunity that has prevailed for so long.

Authorities should put in place practical mechanisms that everyone in Jordan can rely on to curb abuses by security services and deliver justice.

Lawmakers should amend the Criminal Procedure Law to allow all detainees the right to a lawyer as soon as they are arrested. That would help prevent both mistreatment and coercion to sign false confessions.

With such a rule in place, deaths of detainees such as Zoubi may be prevented in the future.

In addition, Jordan should overhaul its special judicial system for police crimes.

PSD officers in Jordan appear to have near total impunity, in part because there is no independent mechanism to investigate abuse.

Internal police prosecutors investigate cases, along with other alleged crimes by the PSD and Gendarmerie. And cases are heard by the police court, where two of the three sitting judges are appointed by the police.

Making matters worse, the police court lacks transparency. Police officials rarely release information about the status of cases before the court, including the results.

Jordanian officials have assured Human Rights Watch that police officials release information to victims’ families, but in the absence of information in the public record, Jordanians have no way to know whether police are taking investigations and prosecutions seriously.

There is no way of finding out whether any policeman has ever been convicted of torture under Jordan’s penal code.

Even in cases where the outcome came to light and officers were found guilty, the crimes were treated as mere disciplinary matters.

For example, in 2007, following a mass beating of 70 inmates in Swaqa prison, the court convicted the prison director of “exercising unlawful authority resulting in harm” for violating police regulations, and fined him JD170 ($250).

The court cleared 12 prison guards who participated in the beatings, saying they were merely following orders.

The government’s failure to ensure a serious and credible system of justice for police abuses underscores the need for radical change. This would be best achieved by moving jurisdiction for these crimes to the regular civilian court system.

Jordan has an important opportunity now to address the issue of police impunity, but this requires more than merely changing the faces at the top of the country’s security agencies.

It means fixing the systematic deficiencies that make it virtually impossible to hold the security agencies accountable and improving the safeguards against abuse.

Only when these changes occur will Jordanians have confidence that the government takes these crimes seriously.


The writer is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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