by Shadi Al-Kasim
AMMAN, Sep 8 (IPS) - In lowering the number of crimes for which the death penalty would be eligible, the Jordanian government says it has moved one step closer to becoming the first Arab state to abolish capital punishment altogether.
But the move has received very mixed responses from everyone else. Within the Jordanian population, it is wildly unpopular. Human rights groups are torn. One local group called it a first step toward abolition, but the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) called it “symbolic at best.”
In August, the government eliminated four crimes – relating to drugs, possession of illegal explosives and weapons — in the criminal code which carry the death penalty. Defendants still can be executed for murder, rape, terrorism, drug trafficking, treason and espionage.
Jordanian Minister of Justice, Dr. Abed al-Shakabneh, told the Jordanian Dostoor newspaper that the cabinet’s approval was given to help the government cope with the new regulations concerning the human rights.
FIDH, however, says the move will have no practical effect. “If the death penalty is retained for these crimes it is unlikely that the number of executions will decrease,” FIDH said in a statement. According to official figures, 41 people were executed in Jordan since 2000, all of whom were convicted for murder, terrorism or sexual assault charges – crimes which still carry the death penalty.
Like other groups, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and local, Jordanian human rights organisations, FIDH opposes the use of the death penalty because it contradicts the notion of human dignity and liberty.
Specifically, the groups said they are concerned that Jordan’s State Security Court, responsible for the majority of the country’s death sentences, will remain intact. That court includes military judges – its president is an army officer – who are appointed by the prime minister and therefore violate the principal of judicial independence and the separation of powers.
Moreover, rulings by the Court of Cassation to uphold death sentences do not require unanimity. A FIDH fact-finding team examined final rulings by that court and found cases in which defendants were sentenced to die on a 5 – 4 vote.
“Torture and mistreatment in places of detention in Jordan is another well-documented concern that adds to the necessity of an absolute abolition of the death penalty,” FIDH said.
Still, the government’s action was greeted by local human rights groups as a first step. “We have been lobbying for an end to the death penalty for years,” Essam Rababa’ah from Adaleh Human Rights group told IRIN news agency. He urged officials to consider annulling the capital punishment entirely.
Yet the president of the Jordan Bar Association , Mr. Saleh Al-Armouty, and many Jordanian lawyers and segments on the Jordanian population, vociferously oppose an easing of death penalty laws.
“This is absolutely unacceptable. Dubious human rights groups should not interfere in our legal system,” Al-Armouty said. He pointed out that death sentences, which are issued annually in Jordan, are very rare.
Al-Armouty was not alone.
“I have many reservations concerning the cancellation of the execution sentence in Jordan. The tribal nature of the Jordanian community would increase the revenge crimes in Jordan,” Adnan al-Momani, former general prosecutor of Jordan Customs Department and currently a lawyer, told IPS.
Saad Azzouni, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian newspaper, al-Hayat, he told IPS, “I refuse to abolish this penalty categorically. It is a strong deterring penalty for criminals. And cancelling it would only increase the rate of crime on the Jordanian society.”
Still, in spite of the strong public reaction against even the slightest move, King Abdullah II recently told an Italian newspaper that, “Jordan could soon become the first country in the Middle East without capital punishment.”