This is why Jordan can't be trusted on torture

If Home Secretary Theresa May thinks the Jordanian government can be trusted not to torture its prisoners, she needs to look a little harder at the evidence

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It is an abysmal spectacle to watch: the UK is vigorously surveying routes for a detour around the fact that Jordanian security forces torture detainees with near-total impunity. In order to deport Abu Qatada, a suspected terrorist, the UK has gone so far as to negotiate a new treaty with Jordan to supposedly address what Home Secretary Teresa May called a “narrow legal issue”– namely, that Jordan might convict him on the basis of torture evidence.

Torture and other ill-treatment in detention are not explicit policy in Jordan, but remain a significant blight on Jordan’s human rights record. Deficient investigations, lackluster prosecutions, and lenient sentences combine to make it nearly impossible to hold torturers accountable. That’s why Human Rights Watch takes the position that Abu Qatada risks torture if he is sent back - notwithstanding the European Court of Human Rights’ conclusion to the contrary.

Instead of rushing to think she’s solved the torture problem in Jordan, May might do well to follow developments in the recent case of Sultan al-Khatatba. Police arrested al-Khatatba, 32, from the northern town of Ajloun, for alleged drug possession in early March. He died four days after being incarcerated at Juweida Prison, in Amman.  

His medical report offers a horrific record of his experience in detention: bruises on his face and head caused by “contact with a blunt object,” bruises on his left elbow and leg as a result of “collision with a rough object,” and “circular abrasions on the left wrist.” Despite police claims that he was injured when he fell to his death, the medical examiner’s report indicated that the marks on his body were consistent with torture.

In late March, an Amman prosecutor brought torture charges against six members of the Public Security Directorate’s drug squad in connection with al-Khatatba’s death. The indictment charged them with violating Article 208 of Jordan’s penal code, which lawmakers modified in 2007 to ban torture explicitly. But no security official has been convicted of torture under Article 208, and Human Rights Watch believes that may be first time a prosecutor has tried.

The prosecutor’s decision is a step in the right direction, but Jordan’s long record of impunity and serious shortcomings in the administration of justice for such cases raise doubts that justice will be served.

The trial of the six officers will not take place in an independent civilian court. In Jordan, abuses in detention are investigated and punished by each security agency through internal mechanisms. The only one of these quasi-judicial mechanisms that is not completely opaque is the Police Court, whose three-judge panels consist of two fellow police officers appointed by the police director and one civilian judge.

The record of such shadowy, internal accountability mechanisms does not bear out May’s confidence. Unsurprisingly, Jordan has a dismal record of poor investigations and light sentences for officers accused of committing abuses, including torture.

Even when the Police Court finds officers guilty of abuses, it often merely disciplines them. For example, in 2007, following a brutal mass beating of 70 inmates in Swaqa Prison, the court convicted the prison director of “exercising unlawful authority resulting in harm” for  violating police regulations and fines him  170 JOD (USD$ 250). The court cleared 12 prison guards who participated in the beatings on the pretext that they were only following orders.

But more often, credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment go uninvestigated and unpunished, or no information is published about any accountability measures.

In 2011, at a mass trial of Islamists on terrorism-related charges before Jordan’s State Security Court, many of the defendants claimed they had been tortured by security services, but their allegations were not investigated. The State Security Court, a quasi-military court that lacks independence and has a record of using torture-tainted evidence, is where Abu Qatada himself would probably be tried.

In March 2012, police officers allegedly beat close to 30 detainees with truncheons, kicked them, and slammed their heads into the walls at a police station. Two were beaten until they lost consciousness. The police reportedly opened an internal inquiry, but the results were not made public, and to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge no officers faced prosecution.

Two years have passed since Jordan amended its constitution to explicitly outlaw torture and the use of torture evidence. Despite many promises of reform, allegations of torture persist, precisely because no credible accountability mechanism exists. The UN special rapporteur on torture noted as much in late 2011 when he criticized Jordan’s torture record, noting the “high number” of complaints against security officials, the low number of cases  actually investigated, and lack of independence of investigative bodies.

If the Jordanian government is serious about ending torture and its use as evidence, its first step must be to ensure accountability for abuses. As a start, Jordan should transfer all torture and ill-treatment cases to the jurisdiction of independent civilian courts, ensure independent and vigorous investigations of torture claims, and develop a confidential complaints mechanism for victims of torture.

The UK seems to be sparing no effort to get rid of Abu Qatada.  If only it would expend a portion of that effort to get Jordan to end systemic impunity for torture.

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