Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Jordan begins trial of officials in fake-brand cigarette case

The case is vital to the government of Omar Razzaz and its attempts to rebuild trust among the Jordanian public

A Jordanian man works in his tobacco store in Amman, Jordan. The National
A Jordanian man works in his tobacco store in Amman, Jordan. The National

Several former officials charged with corruption have called into question the legality of their military trial as Jordan pushes full steam ahead in its largest corruption case in nearly two decades.

In the opening session of the trial into a $200-million fake-brand cigarettes case, broadcast on live television, lawyers on Sunday representing 29 former officials and businessmen, including a former minister, called into question the jurisdiction of the country’s state security court – a military-civil hybrid tribunal normally reserved for terrorism cases and militant acts – to try men for a “customs case” and economic crimes.

After a recess, the court threw out the defence’s claims that the trial was unconstitutional, reiterating that the military tribunal had jurisdiction on a corruption case affecting the country’s national interests.

The court formally charged the 29 accused with several charges including “accepting bribes, tax evasion, evading customs fees/customs fraud, money laundering and abuse of public office.” All the defendants present pleaded not guilty. Six other defendants remain at large, according to authorities.

The former officials and businessman are at the centre of an alleged far-reaching manufacturing and importing fake brand cigarettes ring that cost the government an estimated $200 million in lost fees and taxes.

The government of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has repeatedly referred to the case to show its seriousness in combatting en graft.

Yet questions remain whether the high-profile case, which in rare move in Jordan is being aired on state TV and radio, was resonating with a Jordanian public that believes corruption is rife.

Some defendants, such as Hamoud the former customs director, have an A-list defence team, including a former head of Jordan’s state security court. In addition to challenging the legality of the trial, their teams accused the government, namely the prime minister, of “interfering” in the judiciary through press statements and social media.

In statements to the local press, the government has denied reports that it has received claims for compensation from international tobacco companies.

Jordan’s security court adjourned until March 26 to finish hearing the defence witnesses.

The trial comes months after Jordan extradited the alleged ringleader off the scheme, the hitherto unknown and shadowy businessman Awn Muttee, from Turkey, and the charging of Munir Oweis, a former minister of water, and Wadah Al Hamoud served as Director of the Jordan Customs Department.

Oweis and Hanoud served in official posts between 2015-2018 when the alleged scheme was going on.

For the past year, Jordan’s King Abdullah has made tackling corruption a priority both in public and in private, reiterating in front of the cabinet and in meetings with officials and opinion leaders the need to "break the back of corruption".

Despite the trial, many citizens insist that higher ranking officials linked to the case are being protected, and believe that persons close to the Royal Court and past governments abused their posts and benefited from the privatisation of state-owned industries and governments over the past 15 years.

Sceptics accuse the Razzaz government of a “selective” approach to combatting corruption, urging other cases to be opened.

“The cigarettes case is small, our main question is to those who oversaw privatization and now have villas across the world- where did you get this from?” said Mohammed Suleiman, an Amman shopkeeper.

Sporadic protests over economic policies and alleged corruption continue in Amman gathering dozens on a near-weekly basis.

In the most recent public opinion survey released by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in January, 91% of citizens stated that they believe financial and administrative corruption was prevalent in Jordan. In the same survey, one-fifth of citizens, 21%, said they believed corruption was the reason why the country was on the “wrong track”.

Updated: March 13, 2019 04:40 PM

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