Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

Jordan authorities arrest former minister in corruption case

Men charged with costing the government $200 million in lost fees and taxes

Jordan's King Abdullah has repeatedly urged his government to quash graft and abuse of public office. AFP
Jordan's King Abdullah has repeatedly urged his government to quash graft and abuse of public office. AFP

Jordanian authorities arrested a former minister and a former head of the country’s customs department as an ongoing counterfeit cigarette scandal led to the highest-profile corruption arrests in the country in more than a decade.

Jordan’s State Security Court announced late on Wednesday it had arrested six officials including former minister of water and irrigation Munir Oweis and former director of the Jordan Customs Department Wadah Al Hamoud in connection with a case involving the smuggling and manufacturing of fake-brand cigarettes.

Mr Oweis and Mr Al Hamoud, along with the other four men, face charges of endangering the safety of society, endangering national economic resources, financial crimes, evasion of customs duties and tax evasion.

The court named the other defendants as former adviser Wahab Awamleh, customs officers Salem Khasawneh and Wael Smadi and a senior official in Jordan’s Free Zone, Islam Gheidan.

The arrests come one month after the alleged ringleader of the scheme, businessman Awn Muttee, was extradited from Turkey.

The scheme is alleged to have cost the government an estimated $200 million (Dh734.6m) in lost fees and taxes.

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Mr Oweis served as minister of water from June to October 2018. He previously served as chairman of the semi-governmental Jordan Free Zones and Development Zones Group.

Mr Al Hamoud served as director of the Jordan Customs Department from 2015 to September 2018, when he was put on early retirement. The officials served in their posts while the alleged fraud was occurring.

Jordanians have long complained of official corruption and nepotism in the country, saying that despite previous campaigns and pledges to curb graft, no high-level officials had been put on trial. The issue of corruption was a rallying cry for protesters across the country during the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Prime Minister Omar Razzaz seized on the fake cigarettes case last July as a sign that his new government would crack down on corruption. King Abdullah has repeatedly urged his government to quash graft and abuse of public office, declaring in August “we want to break the back of corruption”.

Despite the crackdown, renewed protests over unemployment and austerity measures have accused the government of “protecting the corrupt”, citing the lack of high-ranking officials behind bars.

In a public opinion survey released by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan on Wednesday, 91 per cent of citizens said they believed financial and administrative corruption was prevalent in Jordan. In the same survey, one fifth of citizens said they believed corruption was the reason why the country was on the “wrong track”.

Within minutes of the announcement, relatives of Mr Al Hamoud protested against his arrest and closed the main road to his home village near the town of Irbid with burning tires, according to local news reports.

Updated: January 24, 2019 11:13 AM

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