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Deaths put spotlight on human rights in Jordan

Rights organisation says amendments to the penal code that made torture a crime have not deterred policemen from using excessive force.

Riot policemen block a road in Amman as protesters demonstrate against the death of a man allegedly caused by police.
Riot policemen block a road in Amman as protesters demonstrate against the death of a man allegedly caused by police.

AMMAN // The deaths of two Jordanians as a result of an alleged police beating last month have once again put a spotlight on human rights in the kingdom, with local and international rights groups calling for excessive use of force cases to be tried in civil rather than closed police courts.

Despite police attempts to combat torture and abuse, the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) warned that the existing measures, such as a two-year-old amendment to the penal code that made torture a crime, are not enough to deter policemen from resorting to excessive force to impose public law and order. "We have recommended several times in our reports that cases of torture should be referred to a civil court instead of a police court to ensure the independence and transparency of the decisions," said Nisreen Zreiqat, the director of the NCHR's criminal justice unit.

"The existing penalties that range from six months to five years in prison do not constitute a deterrent and are not stopping police from disproportionate use of force because they are often commuted. In police courts, there cannot be guarantees of a fair trial based on international standards." Maj Mohammad Khatib, the Public Security Directorate's (PSD) spokesman, dismissed the NCHR's assessment and said police resort to the use of force only when the situation calls for it. "The beatings only occur out of necessity, like when police need to take control of suspects."

He also said "the PSD holds accountable those who resort to excessive use of force outside the law." And pointed to the two most recent cases of deaths from alleged police brutality. Last month, four policemen involved in the beating of Sadem al Saoud, a street vendor, were referred to a police court. Al Saoud died on November 8 after spending three weeks in a coma from head injuries sustained during his detention at an Amman jail.

Another police officer, charged with the murder of Fakhri Kreishan in the southern city of Ma'an during a brawl, was also referred to a police court this month, Maj Khatib said. In that case, rioters clashed with police as the they tried to arrest a suspect. Kreishan, 47, died in hospital last month, two days after slipping in to a coma. Jordan is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which requires countries to take effective measures to prevent torture. Ms Zreiqat of NCHR admitted that the rise in police brutality cases mirrors a rise in general violence. "Violence is increasing in society, so is police violence," she said.

"Therefore, we proposed a strategy to the government that the police cadres need to be trained in self restraint, anger management and respecting human rights. We do not want the [increased] security measures to marginalise human rights." The recent deaths sparked a wave of anger in Jordan and once again stained the country's human rights record. "What we saw is terrifying phenomenon of social violence that is growing to include all parts of the Kingdom," wrote Fahed Kheitan, an editor and columnist at Arab Al Yawm, an independent daily, in reaction to al Saoud's death, last month. "But what is concerning is not the torture of Sadem al Saoud at a detention centre that lead to his death. Such human rights violations which occur in several countries are in no doubt condemned and the perpetrators deserve harsh penalties. But it is the state of animosity and the lack of trust between the people and the government (that is of concern) which emerges to the forefront - and manifests itself with violent confrontations where citizens vandalise public property as if they are sending a message of protest."

Amnesty International said last week the deaths of two men at the hands of police within one week is a "very worrying development". Amnesty also said that the police courts are neither sufficiently independent nor transparent in their conduct. The court decisions are not disclosed and the sessions are closed to the public and press. The PSD, however, defended itself against the criticism. "The trials take place within a police court as a sign of respect to the uniform which we revere. The sessions are open unless they are related to juveniles or based on a special requests from citizens," a senior police officer said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media. "The police court decisions related to crimes are further reviewed by the court of cessation, which is an independent body.

"There were sentences issued by the police court that reached ten years of imprisonment in drug related crimes," he said. "In several cases, we had two brothers tried in the same case; the policeman tried in a police court and the other in a civil court, and the verdicts where almost [the same]." Still, this does not mean that the police court decisions are necessarily independent, Ms Zreiqat said. "That's because starting with the investigation committee and the general prosecution, they all belong to the same administration."

Although conditions in the kingdom's prisons improved last year, according to the NCHR report, the grievances and human rights office at the PSD received 16 complaints related to torture, only one of which was investigated. Last year Human Right Watch called the police verdicts flawed. In one case, it criticised a fine for a former Swaqa prison director of US$180 (Dh660) for ordering and participating in the beating of 70 prisoners in August 2007. The court also found 12 other guards, who had participated in the beatings, not guilty because they were "following orders".

"When there are [violations] and the authorities remain quiet, this will harm the reputation of the country," Nabeel Gheishan, an editor and commentator at Arab Elyawm, an independent Amman daily, said. "Authorities should have condemned the [police] attacks, and dismiss them as individual cases that do not represent the PSD," he said. smaayeh@thenational.ae