Jordanian to challenge `royal insult' jail term

The most vociferous Jordanian opponent of the Middle East peace process is to appeal against a three-year prison sentence imposed on him in Amman's State Security Court on Sunday for slandering King Hussein and Queen Noor.

One of his lawyers told the Independent yesterday that Laith Shubeilat, a prominent trade unionist and engineer, would challenge the military court's verdict on constitutional grounds.

Mr Shubeilat, who has already served four months in jail, condemned Queen Noor for weeping at the funeral of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin while expressing no sorrow to the family of Fathi Shkaki, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement murdered by Israeli agents last year.

"We are going to appeal within 30 days and we are going to say that there is no evidence that Mr Shubeilat slandered the King," Mr Omar al- Jazy, one of Mr Shubeilat's lawyers, said. "What he stated was legitimate criticism - it was public criticism within the limits of the Jordanian constitution."

The appeal means that Mr Shubeilat's words of condemnation - made in an lecture at Irbid university in November - will be repeated again, along with his assertion that the Arab-Israeli peace process is both unjust and unworkable.

American and British diplomats - as well as an Amnesty International official - were in the court on Sunday when Mr Shubeilat was sentenced, a verdict he received smiling and raising his right fist in the air in a gesture of victory. "Of course he was happy," a friend of the family said yesterday.

"He thinks that his struggle is a battle for the Jordanian constitution and that he can fight more strongly when he is condemned in the courts."

The Palestinian scholar Edward Said and the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal had both offered to be witnesses for Mr Shubeilat at the Amman court; the three judges turned them down.

Three weeks ago Mr Shubeilat told me that King Hussein had personally warned him of his possible imprisonment and had alluded to a previous trial in which he was condemned to death - and then amnestied - for allegedly importing weapons. The state prosecution witness later said that he had been blackmailed by Jordanian intelligence into giving evidence.

According to Mr Shubeilat: "[King Hussein] said: `Do you want what happened to you before to happen to you again? Because this time I won't interfere.' But what can I say? I must be free to speak. If they keep me in prison, it will become a nightmare for the government."

Shkaki, the Islamic Jihad leader, was assassinated several months after boasting that his organisation had staged a double suicide-bombing that killed at least 20 Israeli soldiers at a bus stop near Tel Aviv.

Earlier this month, Mr Shubeilat said he condemned the killing of innocents in Israel but that the slaughter came about "because Palestinians cannot express any more what they want except in such acts".

The trade unionist, who was re-elected head of the engineering union while in prison, has visited Bosnia and spoken regularly for a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy in Jordan. But his real crime appears to be his opposition to the peace accords. "They are not going to succeed," he said last month.

"They are going to be imposed ... Jordan is now under the Israeli sphere; it is being taken out of the Arab world. We are to be `used' against Iraq and maybe Syria. We are mercenaries. But we must rebuild Arab relations."

If King Hussein has his way, Mr Shubeilat will have plenty of time to develop his theories - in his prison cell.

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