The return of death penalty to Jordan

On March 4, Jordan woke up with the news of the execution of 15 people sentenced to death by hanging. They were carried out with total secrecy, catching public opinion by surprise. Since the re-application of the capital punishment in 2014, 28 people have been executed in the kingdom for offences related to terrorism, but also to rape, murder or drug trafficking. These last events show that death penalty has returned back to remain in place.

Among the 15 executed were five of the involved in the Irbid terror cell, an ISIS-affiliated group that Jordanian police disrupted on March 2016 before they carried out an attack. Another five were also convicted for terrorism-related crimes, including the responsible of the 2003 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad that killed 19, the 2016 attack on a General Intelligence Directorate (GID) office in Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp that killed five security officers, the attack in Sama in December 2015 that killed two policeman, the September 2006 attack on tourists at the Roman amphitheater in Amman and the assassin of prominent Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar in September 2016.

The remaining five sentenced were for murders in recent years, including two men that killed their daughters and one who killed a doctor.

Why ending the moratorium?

Jordan established a moratorium on the execution of the sentences in 2006. Since that moment, human rights activists trusted that the country would progress in the path towards the complete abolition. However, in 2014 Jordanian Parliament approved the new anti-terrorist law that expands the definition of terrorist act in a broad sense, to include not only the terrorist acts themselves, but also the recruitment or the attempt to recruit, the establishment of charities aimed at funding terrorism, the use of information systems to support or promote terrorist groups, or even not terrorist-related offences as assaulting the king and queen’s life, threatening the constitutional order or forming criminal gangs.

Besides the broad definition of terrorist crime, the law incorporates also the fact of punishing a terrorist act with death penalty if it results in the death of another person, in the full or partial destruction of a building with people inside and if it is committed using weapons of mass destruction, and also if it assaults the king and queen’s life resulting in death. But the law also considers that a partner to the crime shall be punished with the same penalty as the original person, regardless of the type of involvement and if the crime was totally accomplished or not. This opens the door to sentence to death people who are not the physical or intellectual authors of the crime.

On December 21, 2014, 11 inmates were executed for murder offences, breaking in this way the eight-year moratorium. On February 4, 2015, after the killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh by Daesh, 2 convicted Iraqi prisoners were executed due to their affiliation with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group founded by Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2003 and the precedent of current Daesh.

Authorities justify the re-application of death penalty because of the increasing in crime rate. However, statistics about crime in Jordan are not public and the ones existent are not updated. The increasing of Jordanian population from six million to more than nine in less than five years must be a factor accounting for the increasing of criminality.

The Amman Attorney General, Judge Ziad Dmour, declared to Petra News Agency that the recent executions are a clear message to “anyone trying to tamper with the Kingdom’s security”. He also added that capital punishment “is the inevitable fate of anyone committing a vicious criminal act” and seeing it as a way to prevent crime and bringing justice to the families of the victims.

However, the response from the main international human rights watchdogs contradicts this approach. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, stated that “Jordan may think this projects an image of strength but the death penalty will never deter terror attacks and murder, or make Jordan safer”.

Since the re-application of the capital punishment in the Kingdom, terrorist attacks have not stopped. In November 2015 an attack took place in Muwaqqar against the military that killed 6; in March 2016 the Irbid cell was disrupted; in June 2016 the attack on Baqa’a refugee camp GID office; the assassination of the writer Nahed Hattar in September 2016, and the attack in Karak in December 2016, together with several attacks by extremist groups on the Syrian border against the Jordanian military.

“The terror attacks of the last two years in Jordan show that reinstating the death penalty has done nothing to end such violent attacks”, sentences Whitson.

Also Amnesty International’s Deputy Director at Beirut regional office, Samah Hadid, declared that “the scale and secrecy around these executions is shocking”, adding that “there is no evidence that the death penalty address violent crime, including terrorist-related acts. Hanging people will not improve public security.”

In fact, the lack of transparency and information to the general public about executions casts a shadow on the reasons behind them. In a way, it seems much as a populist way to show public opinion that the government is handling the criminality and terrorism by executing convicts whose crimes were really abhorrent for the population. The election of those ones who will be executed seems to be totally random, not related to a timeline of when the crime took place, and aimed at increasing the legitimacy of the authorities in their fight against terrorism since the executions are always carried out in retaliation for a previous event.

A worrisome regional trend

The several executions carried out by Jordan since 2014 seem to have turned back the country into the nations where death penalty is active, questioning its status of retentionist state.

In that sense, it seems to be joining a regional trend of resorting again to death penalty. According to Human Rights Watch, in January 2017, Bahrain executed three people, ending a six-year de facto moratorium. Also Kuwait executed a person for the first time in four years. This adds to Saudi Arabia and Iran, both among world leaders in capital punishment executions.

As Hadid pointed, “this is a major step backwards for both Jordan and efforts to end the death penalty. Jordan had for years been a leading example in a region where recourse to the death penalty is all too frequent.”