President Bush was stumped yesterday when he was asked at his news conference about the plight of a Jordanian man who faces a two-year prison term for slander after giving a lecture last month calling for a boycott of American goods and companies. "I'm unaware of the case," he said.
The circumstances are somewhat murky, but in many ways the case signifies the difficult choices and trade-offs inherent in Bush's call in his inaugural address for the right to dissent and protest around the world.
Jordan is a close U.S. ally, ruled by a monarch, whose support has been critical in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the war in Iraq, despite growing resentment among Jordanian citizens over these policies. Ali Hattar, the man charged with slander, is vehemently opposed to Jordan's 1994 establishment of relations with Israel, which he has demanded be reversed. Hattar is not a democracy activist, nor would he be considered an appealing figure by many Americans, but he has been charged under a type of vague law frequently used to suppress dissent across the Middle East.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said there are few activists in the Middle East who could be considered supportive of U.S. policies. Yet Bush said last week that the United States will press the cause of "free dissent and the participation of the governed" with "every ruler and every nation."
"Freedom has to include the freedom to criticize the United States," Malinowski said. "If Bush would stand up for this guy, people who doubt his sincerity would be impressed. It is an opportunity for the administration."
After the news conference, the White House directed the State Department to inquire about the case through the U.S. Embassy in Amman, a senior administration official said, declining to comment further.
But a senior State Department official said the embassy had been following the case and raising questions about it with the government. He said the incident and similar cases had already figured in the draft of the department's annual human rights report, scheduled to be released next month.
Fadi Qadi, a Middle East specialist with Human Rights Watch, said the embassy had translated Hattar's speech and had determined that it did not include language that could be defined as hate material.
Hattar's arrest came at the end of a year during which the Jordanian government made dozens of similar arrests as it struggled to cope with rising domestic militancy, much of it the result of its support of U.S. policies in Iraq and toward Israel. Largely as a reward for Jordan's support of the war effort, U.S. military and development aid to Jordan tripled in 2003, to more than $1.5 billion.
Bush, at the news conference, said he was not able to address Hattar's case but added, "I urge my friend, his majesty, to make sure that democracy continues to advance in Jordan." Bush went on to praise King Abdullah's "understanding of the need for democracy." In a televised speech yesterday in Jordan, Abdullah announced a plan to set up locally elected councils to increase public participation in regional development.
But Abdullah's public backing of the Bush administration has infuriated many of the kingdom's 5.5 million people, more than half of whom are of Palestinian descent. The result has been increasingly strident rhetoric from the professional organizations and Islamic parties that present most of the opposition to the government, much of it delivered in Jordan's mosques and meeting halls.
In September, Interior Ministry agents arrested 38 men across the country, some of them during midnight raids on private homes. Those detained, including former government ministers and members of parliament, were associated with the country's Islamic movement, which has been gaining popularity in Jordan and across the region.
The Jordanian government, long among the most tolerant in the Middle East, said at the time that the men were arrested for slandering the monarchy and preaching in mosques without a government license.
Some of those arrested had condemned Jordan's "infidel government" in Friday preaching, and sharply criticized other Arab rulers for doing nothing to fight the United States' operations in Iraq or its support of Israel. Those detained described the arrests as a government campaign against free speech. Some of them were held for several days, but it appeared that none was charged.
Hattar -- who Qadi said is a Christian -- belongs to Jordan's professional association of engineers, whose membership is made up mostly of men of Palestinian descent and is among the most politically militant in the country. He is a delegate of the group's "anti-normalization committee," which lobbies against Jordan's 1994 agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a decision he and others have demanded be reversed. Hattar may be the first to face a slander charge, which carries a potential sentence of two years in prison. He was arrested in December within days of delivering a speech titled "Why We Boycott America."
But government officials said at the time of his arrest that the charges against him were related to his contention that the Jordanian government was buying U.S. weapons for use against its own people. At the time of his arrest, Hattar said he did not mention Jordan in his speech. But in the following question period, he said he used Jordan as an example of developing countries buying U.S. weapons for use against "their own people."
Wilson reported from Amman, Jordan.