The former crown prince of Jordan, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, was recently placed under “house arrest” by Jordanian officials and was cut off from phone and internet communication, according to a video statement provided to the BBC.
Hamzah is the popular younger son of the late King Hussein, a charismatic leader who passed away before Hamzah was considered old enough to rule and who elected to pass the title to Hamzah’s older half-brother Abdullah, now King Abdullah II. In his statement, Hamzah reported that the reason for his “house arrest” was his presence in meetings where the king and government were criticized, though he denies contributing to the criticism himself. According to Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi, officials had been monitoring the prince for some time and had suspected him of engaging with tribal leaders in a seditious conspiracy.
16 other high ranking figures were also detained for participating in the alleged plot to destabilize King Abdullah II’s government, including some advisors, members of the royal family, and former officials. Hamzah has since signed a letter declaring his loyalty to the king, and Abdullah reassured the public that the “crisis” is over.
Criticism of the government and King Abdullah II is criminalized under anti-terrorism and cyber-crime laws, because it is deemed a threat to national security. As a result, Jordan’s press freedom and freedom of expression and assembly are severely restricted. The 2020 Press Freedom Index, maintained by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Jordan 128th out of 180 countries in press freedom due to the country’s punishing journalists, blocking websites and social media, and issuing gag orders that limit public debate.
Hamzah has frequently spoken out against corruption and criminalization of political dissent in the Jordanian government, and did so in his video statement, stating “even to criticise a small aspect of a policy leads to arrest and abuse by the security services”. Citizens who wish to express their dissatisfaction with the state’s policies face forcible repression, exemplified by the government’s response to dissent over the closure of the Teachers’ Syndicate and the arrest of its board members. The organization Human Rights Watch has taken note of the government’s banning of the Teachers’ protests and the gag order issued to prevent coverage of the demonstrations.
Considering the growing public discontent, it follows that a regime trying to maintain its stability and power would want to silence critics and suppress the influence of figures like Prince Hamzah. In Jordan, the management of the coronavirus pandemic has been a key source of recent protests, including a large protest that erupted after COVID-19 deaths due to a shortage of oxygen supply at a state hospital. The country has also faced worsening economic conditions and unemployment as a result of shutdowns. Jordan’s government has used the COVID-19 pandemic to institute further restrictions on protest and speech, such as arresting protestors for gathering in large groups and arresting journalists for reporting news that would “cause panic” about the pandemic.
Jordanians also have reason to criticize their government’s handling of the large volume of refugees arriving from countries like Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and others. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Jordan hosted approximately 665,000 Syrians at the end of 2020, at least 10,000 of whom live in the no-man’s-land by the Syrian border, referred to as “the berm”. Amnesty International reports that the Jordanian government’s COVID-19 restrictions blocked humanitarian convoys from entering the berm and providing essential medical care. Many Syrians also work informally without labor protections, as many professions are closed to non-Jordanians. As a result, they are more vulnerable to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite restrictions on expression, citizens of Jordan are continuing to protest and speak their minds. When the government of Jordan refuses to allow speech that is threatening to their authority, it prevents the creation of solutions for real issues like the pandemic, and workers’ and refugees’ rights. The declaration of a “state of emergency” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has given Jordan’s leaders an excuse to expand their violations of the human rights of expression. In the future, protests and criticism of the government are likely to continue, as will the tensions within the royal family.
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