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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Jordan touts extradition of fake cigarette salesman to win over public on corruption

The highly publicised case comes as the Razzaz government tries to rebuild trust

Jordan's Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has lauded the extradition and arrest of Awni Mutee, a businessman accused of corruption. Reuters
Jordan's Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has lauded the extradition and arrest of Awni Mutee, a businessman accused of corruption. Reuters

Jordan on Tuesday touted the extradition and arrest of a businessman wanted for tax evasion and corruption as a sign that its anti-corruption crusade will continue in a bid to win over a skeptical public and growing discontent over the economy and alleged mismanagement of public funds.

On Tuesday, Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz highlighted the extradition from Turkey to Jordan of Awni Mutee, a businessman at the center of a $200 million fake brand cigarette fraud, on late Monday evening as a sign of how the government’s “war on corruption is a principle, not just a slogan”.

“There is no protection for the corrupt and the government will not back down in its fight against corruption,” Mr Razzaz told MPs during a meeting in parliament on Tuesday.

Later in a meeting with the heads of Jordan’s public security department, Mr Razzaz declared that “the government will not stop at the Mutee case, we will go after anyone who dares to tamper with or target public funds, and any case that harms public interest.”

For months, the government has repeatedly referred to its pursuit of Mutee, who fled Jordan to Lebanon in July, as its commitment to clean up graft. The businessman is at the centre of an alleged manufacturing and importing fake brand cigarettes ring that cost the government an estimated $200 million in lost fees and taxes.

Jordan’s anti-corruption drive has support from the very top in the kingdom. In August, King Abdullah announced to the cabinet that “we want to break the back of corruption in the country; it’s enough.”

The Jordan news agency Petra reported that the extradition operation and arrest had indeed come at the behest of royal directives. Mutee’s extradition from Turkey to Jordan came hours after a phone call between King Abdullah and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The highly publicised case and arrest of Mutee comes at a time that the Razzaz government is trying to rebuild public trust and quell growing discontent and protests over the country’s economy.

Unemployment in Jordan has reached 18.6 per cent, estimated over 30 per cent unemployment for Jordanians between the ages of 15 and 30.

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The Jordanian government has pushed through unpopular economic measures over the past two years, such as lifting bread subsidies, taxing fuel and lowering the threshold for taxable income to JD18,000 per household per year (Dh93,000) in a bid to curb debt levels that hover at 95 per cent of GDP to meet requirements of a $723 million conditional IMF credit line.

With government austerity measures, rising prices and the pushing through of an unpopular income tax law, the issue of corruption has reemerged as a hot topic and a main demand for citizens, and has driven a renewed protest movement that sparked violent clashes with security forces last Thursday.

But the issue of corruption goes beyond protests.

In the latest public opinion poll by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan released on December 2, more than one-fifth of citizens, 21 per cent, cited the “presence of corruption” as the reason they believed the country was on the wrong track, the second most common response behind rising prices (29 per cent of respondents).

Observers say the government can regain public confidence not only through the arrest, but a transparent prosecution of Mutee.

“As the Mutee case goes through the court system, it is important for the government to show that the state is credible and investigate whether others are involved in this case – as many in the public suspect,” says Musa Shteiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

Citizens say they have a long list of officials and families they claim have abused public funds and siphoned off resources.

“Mutee is just a front man, we want to see serious efforts that go after the big names we know of to show that Jordan truly is a country of laws,” says Mohammed, a protester from a southern Jordanian town who did not wish to use his full name for fear of arrest.

Mohammed and other activists on Tuesday said that despite Mutee’s arrest, they are set to continue their protests over the economy and corruption at the Prime Ministry this Thursday.

“Once we see big heads roll, then we can trust this government,” he said.

Opposition politicians have echoed calls for greater accountability.

“We have grabbed one Mutee, but there are many Mutees remaining under different names,” Dima Tahboub, MP for the Islamic Action Front, said in a tweet on Tuesday.

“The names are different but the crimes against the nation and the people are similar.”

Updated: December 18, 2018 08:48 PM

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