Jordan enacts laws restricting demonstrations, NGOs

Measure intended to restrict Muslim Brotherhood; would also require Western charities to be approved by gov't.

jordan protests 224 (photo credit: AP)
jordan protests 224
(photo credit: AP)
Jordan's government is targeting its hard-line Muslim opponents with legislation restricting demonstrations and is pushing for constraints on non-governmental organizations and Christian groups in a rollback of promised political reforms. The country's largest political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, said Tuesday that the measures were part of a government effort to suppress the opposition. Human Rights Watch also responded with concern Tuesday, pressing the government to drop the legislation. The measures mainly target hard-line Muslims and leftists, who are vocal opponents of Jordan's moderate policies, its pro-American stances and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Although both bills refrain from mentioning them by name, public protests are mostly staged by those groups. Since his accession to the throne in 1999, Jordan's ruler, King Abdullah II, has given wider freedoms to women, endorsed several independent radio stations and, for the first time, allowed local elections of officials who used to be appointed by the government. Still, plans for implementing wider public and media freedoms and a larger role for opposition parties have been put on the back burner. Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi told lawmakers the bills were in line with the government's "democratic aspirations and aim at providing wider public freedoms." The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the legislation would stifle democracy in the country. "These draft laws show Jordan's intolerance for critical debate in a democracy," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director, in a letter to al-Dahabi. "Jordan is trying to put a legal veneer on its efforts to stifle civil society," she said. One of the measures, which parliament is likely to debate and approve soon, would give the government considerable control over non-governmental organizations by requiring official approval for donations, budgets and finances. It also allows authorities to shut down organizations for minor violations. The proposed NGO law would require Western charities and Christian groups to be approved by the government, which would monitor their finances and transactions. It also bans them from receiving foreign aid, which is the only source of income for most groups, including church charities. The move could virtually lead to the closure of several organizations. The Jordanian Council of Churches, grouping five mainline denominations, criticized the NGO law. "We urge the government to change this law so that it would not be biased against the church and instigate sedition," said a statement signed by five archbishops. The other law, which was approved last week, restricts people's right to gather or hold demonstrations. It eases some limits from a previous law on public gatherings but maintains the necessity for government approval. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement said it believed it was specifically targeted by the laws. "They are martial laws meant to rob the Brotherhood of its freedom and undermine its role in the country," said Jamil Abu Bakr, the Brotherhood's deputy chief. He said both laws should never have been introduced in the first place. Besides its political activity, the Brotherhood runs the country's largest charity network, which involves schools, banks, hospitals and health clinics. It provides nearly free of charge services to needy Jordanian Muslims - filling in a service vacuum left by the government.