AMMAN, Jordan (AP) – A U.S.-based watchdog group on Saturday urged Jordan to protect freedom of speech, after the kingdom’s arrest of four lawmakers who visited the family of the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“Expressing condolences to the family of a dead man, however murderous he might be, is not a crime,” Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement Saturday.
The lawmakers, members of Jordan’s largest opposition group, visited al-Zarqawi’s family home in Zarqa, 27 kilometers (17 miles) northeast of Amman, on June 9, two days after the terrorist leader was killed in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad. One of the men, Mohammed Abu Fares, described al-Zarqawi as a “martyr.” Abu Fares and three others, Jaafar al-Hourani, Ali Abu Sukkar and Ibrahim al-Mashwakhi, were arrested two days later, and charged with “instigating sectarian strike” and “fueling national discord.” They remain jailed, serving 15-day detention orders.
Whitson said “a dubious comment about an alleged terrorist leader” should not be considered “incitement to violence.” “Going after these people is an unacceptable violation of their basic rights to free speech,” her statement added.
Human Rights Watch also urged Jordan not to “roll back on its commitment to fully respect freedom of expression.” “Rather than implement the reforms it promised, the government of Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit is giving the intelligence agencies, the police and prosecutors free rein to clamp down on legitimate speech,” it said.
The legislators’ visit sparked two protests in the past week, in which thousands of Jordanians flooded Amman’s streets demanding that King Abdullah II dissolve parliament.
Families of those killed in last November’s triple hotel bombings in Amman, for which al-Zarqawi had claimed responsibility, have demanded parliament take drastic measures to punish the lawmakers.