AMMAN // Jordan says that it has guarantees that a notorious businessman serving a three-year prison term for corruption will return to jail after he gets medical treatment in the United States.
Jordanians fed up with corruption are citing the case as another example of the government’s unwillingness to be firm with rich and influential people who break the law.
The interior ministry allowed Khaled Shaheen, 49, who was convicted of graft last year along with three government officials, to leave the country on February 25 for “humanitarian reasons”.
It cited a law that allows an inmate to temporarily leave prison for medical treatment if prison doctors cannot treat him properly.
But when Arab Al Yawm, an independent daily, broke the news that Shaheen was seen in London last week having lunch with his family in a fancy restaurant, many Jordanians were outraged. Even King Abdullah II is reportedly angry about Shaheen’s release and the fact that he’s apparently staying in London rather than going to the US for medical care. He has demanded an explanation.
It seems that government officials released Shaheen without realising that his visa to visit the US had been revoked because of his conviction.
“This indicates that there is complicity of senior government officials that enabled him to escape the country to London,” said Salameh Dirawi, head of the business section at the newspaper.
“The fact that Mr Shaheen was allowed to leave the country shows that there is no will to fight corruption,” said Osama Bitar, a lawyer who handles corruption cases. “Unfortunately it does not come as a surprise.”
The case unfolded just as Jordan, under heavy public pressure to crack down on graft, referred several high-profile cases to the Anti-Corruption Commission in the wake of protests sweeping the region.
Analysts and legislators blame corruption for the country’s budget deficit estimated at 1.16 billion Jordanian dinars (Dh6bn).
Marouf Bakhit, the prime minister, said that if the government hadn’t allowed Shaheen to travel and he died in prison, the media and human-rights organisations would have blamed him.
“You can check his medical report,” he told reporters on Saturday. “We started investigating his whereabouts in London or the US. We have guarantees that he would return. His assets have been frozen.”
A medical report signed by 10 consultants in the private sector found that Shaheen suffers from a slew of health problems.
He is obese. He weighs 130 kilograms and his height is 1.69 metres. He has diabetes, sleep apnoea, disc problems in the neck, a swollen thyroid, a weak heart muscle, high blood pressure and other ailments. The report said his health was deteriorating in prison and that he required 24-hour supervision.
Four of five doctors representing a senior health government committee approved that report, but they did not examine Shaheen.
One of the private-sector doctors, who works at the army-run Royal Medical Services centre, had reservations about the report. He disagreed with the part of the report that said Shaheen needed to go to a specialised centre for anaesthesia. He said the Royal Medical Services centre can provide safe anaesthesia for Shaheen.
Dr Jihad Barghouti, one of the consultants who signed the report, said that Shaheen is supposed to go to Cleveland, Ohio for treatment.
“It was impossible for Mr Shaheen to be treated in Jordan because he is a high-risk patient,” Dr Barghouti said. “When it comes to anaesthesia, it endangers his life.”
For its part, the ACC said it is following up Shaheen’s case.
“We want to look into the circumstances in which he was allowed to leave the country. If there was corruption involved, we will follow it up,” Commission Director Samih Bino said.
The state security court sentenced Shaheen last July for bribing three officials, one of whom is a former finance minister, to select his company as a partner for an expansion of the country’s sole oil refinery. The contract was worth US$2.1 billion (Dh7.7bn).
Two weeks ago, Shaheen was linked to another case involving a feasibility study of a water project. The case dates back to 2005 when an investment fun affiliated with the Jordan Armed Forces signed a $1.950,000 contract with a Shaheen company to conduct a feaseability study and to supervise the project’s funding at $60 million.
The money, however, has been deposited in an account in Luxembourg controlled by Shaheen. Also, the ACC determined that the company’s fees were “exaggerated and unreasonable”.