The anguish of a family seeking justice for writer shot outside Jordanian court

The family of Nahed Hattar want an idependent investigation into his death, after the journalist was killed on the steps of the courthouse where he was due to stand trial for 'inciting Islam'. They were charges Mr Hattar rejected

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The Independent Online

The murder of Nahed Hattar – journalist, Christian, Jordanian – was not just a tragedy. It was a disgrace, a crime against all journalists, vicious proof that another ‘moderate’ government beloved of the West does precious little to safeguard the lives of its citizens when the Muslim Brotherhood is beating at the gates. The Jordanian prime minister himself had ordered Nahed Hattar’s arrest, and he was shot at the very gates of the court in which he wished to demand justice – and, just as we Westerners are frothing with righteous anger over Aleppo, we have already forgotten this feisty, eloquent, annoying, provocative and brilliant writer.

But first, let’s hear from his 27-year old son Mutaz a personal account he gave me of his father’s last moments when I called to see him at the family’s modest home in Amman. Opposite their front door, I could scarcely help noticing, was a squad of policemen. Let’s hope they take their constabulary duties more seriously than their colleagues did last September when they stood by and watched Nahed Hattar shot down in front of them.

“I entered the court and my brother was behind me with my father on the steps,” Mutaz said. “Then I heard three or four shots. And then I went to see where the sound came from. I found my father on the steps. My brother was chasing the murderer, so I alone found my father on the steps. He did not even blink – so I think he was not alive. No-one moved. None of the policemen [outside the court] moved. There were ten or fifteen of them.”

But now it’s time for what we used to call ‘the story so far’. And the more you learn about that story and about 56-year old Nahed Hattar’s death and its aftermath, the more enraged you become. Hattar also enraged people because he was an individualist who liked to provoke the most extreme elements in all religions, knowing well that the Jordanian government was content to appease them. As a Christian, he was a member of a minority comprising only 6 per cent of Jordanians. He supported the Syrian government and army. He was, in the words of his fellow journalist Sharmine Narwani, “cantankerous and difficult, single-minded and biting” and his latest ‘crime’ was typical of him.

He had posted a cartoon on his Facebook page which depicted a Muslim jihadist admonishing God. Nahed Hattar hadn’t drawn the cartoon and he made it very clear in his post that this was not Islam’s God; it represented the God of Isis, the ‘Islamic State’. But only hours later, a Muslim Brotherhood publication ran a version of the cartoon on its own website, deleting part of the illustration – and also censoring Hattar’s explanation that the ‘God’ depicted in the cartoon represented the version of the Almighty whom Isis worshipped, not the one revered by Islam. 

But the government of ‘moderate’ Jordan immediately accused Hattar of incitement, and Jordanians – influenced, perhaps, by the filth that Westerners so often throw into social media – immediately moved to Twitter and Facebook to threaten Hattar’s life, even offering cash for his body parts, especially his tongue. They used real accounts and real identities – and the government did nothing. Nahed Hattar had already been arrested and detained on 13 August – and reportedly beaten in custody – but he was determined to defend himself in court on 25 September. Next day, photographs appeared around the world of the courthouse steps, literally literally spilling over with his blood.

Before we return to his family, a glimpse of the alleged murderer, named by the authorities as 49-year old Riad Ismail Ahmed Abdullah who, according to the Hattar family, fought in Syria against the Assad regime but was ‘cleared’ on his return and eventually picked up a job with – the Jordanian ministry of education. In other words, he was a civil servant as well as being a preacher in two Amman mosques. But the Hattar family blame far more important people for Nahed’s death.

His brother Khaled, for example, recalls how the Jordanian prime minister, Hani al-Mulki, tried to stop Nahed Hattar’s criticism. “He sent messages to him through other people, saying ‘stop writing about me – I’m not that bad!’ But in August, Mulki ordered the minister of interior Salam Hammad to arrest my brother while filing a law suite against him. Salama Hammad described him as a dangerous criminal and a fugitive from justice…They arrested my brother before legal action had taken its course and they started a social media campaign against him and condemned him as a fugitive. When he was in jail for 26 days [before the hearing], the government refused him bail, even though this was not a criminal charge. By law, it’s not a crime. It would be a ‘misdemeanor’.”

Immediately after the killing the Jordanian government described the murder as a ‘heinous crime’ and said that ‘the government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community.’

But when the family sought protection for Nahed Hattar on his pre-trial release from prison, Khaled says a security official told them that they could hire their own security. “An official said to us: ‘from our analysis, there is no danger – tell him he can write his name on his forehead and he can walk in the street.’ Then when he was going to court, they leaked the date. ‘Al-Sabeel’ [the Brotherhood website] gave the date…”

Hattar’s son Mutaz, an intellectual who studied finance and is also a musician but who – in the last days of his father’s life – was almost his secretary, recalls how his father believed the Jordanian government wanted to “destroy” his image. “My father said they wanted to assassinate him – though not physically – so they tried to assassinate his personality in Jordan. ‘This is a new level of crime,’ he said. Those were his words.”

It was five days before King Abdullah of Jordan, a direct descendant of the Prophet, paid a visit of condolence to the Hattar family. His father Hussain, say several acquaintances, would have arrived at the family home within 30 minutes. King Abdullah, according to the family, said he did not know of the alleged murderer’s past life. “We told the King he was a time bomb waiting to explode,” says Khaled Hattar. “He said he would not let any terrorist cross Jordan’s borders. We asked for an independent investigation and the King said: ‘Yes, we will investigate independently about this and we will let you know the details’. But we have had no reply till now. He should investigate al-Mulki.”

But as Nahed Hattar’s widow Randa told me only last week, “we are still waiting for any response from the committee which the King promised us personally…to take action against those who failed to do their jobs... but there is nothing.” 

The British ambassador came to pay his condolences to the Hattar family. So did the Iranian ambassador and the Syrian and Lebanese ambassadors. “Nahed had attacked the government for allowing terrorists to go and fight in Syria,” Khaled Hattar says. “He said the Jordanian government was siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis by…sending them into Syria.”

Hattar’s widow Randa believes that many people did not understand her husband. “He had a complicated – and diverse — personality. He was distinguished not only in Jordan but the whole Middle East. In our daily life, he was a simple, loving person.” When I asked Randa why she had married her husband, she replied very simply. “I loved him – he was an intellectual person, a very deep person. He wrote a poem about the grand-daughter he is dreaming about. He was very serious in his political work and very kind-hearted in his personal life.”

Perhaps the most anguished remark I heard came from Nahed’s son Mutaz. “He was my father and my best friend,” he says. “I felt like he was also my son – I tried to protect him – and I feel I have lost responsibility now. Over the last two years, I was translating for him, making breakfast for him. My life was being a secretary for him. I still feel people are talking about someone but not my father. When he came home, he would analyse himself as he appeared on television. He would go and feed the birds and think and read poetry and at the same time he could be very serious. He wrote us a poem when he was in jail.”

No-one could deny Nahed Hattar’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He was close to Hezbollah. He spent several years in Lebanon as an editorialist for the ‘Al Akhbar’ newspaper. Nor could they deny that he was an intellectual. When he visited Moscow last June, he visited the homes of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and attended Swan Lake at the Bolshoi. Did he fear the Islamists whose ‘Caliphate’ blossomed north of Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria? Certainly, around 2,500 Jordanians have joined Isis. Attacks by the group killed 11 Jordanian soldiers and intelligence officers last June. And whose hand lay behind the actual murder of Nahed Mattar?