AMMAN, Jordan — A young man dressed in brown prison garb entered the defendant’s cage in Jordan’s newly empowered state security court and listened politely as an intelligence officer he had never met began testifying against him.
“Sir, I apologize for the interruption, your Excellency, but this is my first time before a court, and I am unsure of the correct proceedings or my rights?” the defendant interjected..
The man in the cage late last month was Wassim Abu Ayesh, 20, a Jordanian from the city of Irbid who was arrested in August and charged with “promoting terrorist ideology and propaganda through social media.” Specifically, the prosecutor alleged, Abu Ayesh had posted an Islamic State YouTube video on his Facebook page — a crime now punishable by five to 15 years in prison.
For years, Jordan’s security apparatus has closely surveilled threats posed by the country’s large refugee population, homegrown militants and radical Islamists, especially after Iraqi operatives bombed three Amman hotels in 2005, killing 60 people. There have been both crackdowns and soft-power attempts to encourage moderate expressions of Islam.
Now, the pro-Western monarchy is responding to the rapid rise of the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq with a tough, recently amended anti-terror law, enacted in June by King Abdullah II, a close U.S. ally. Fearing contagion, Jordan has announced that it will not tolerate any open activity, recruitment or support for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“Our position is that it is not okay to wave ISIS flags,” said Mohammad Al Momani, minister of state for media affairs. “It is against the law, and you will be arrested.”
The Islamic State and its supporters “will not find a hospitable environment in Jordan," he said.
A Jordanian human-rights activist and legal advocate, Taher Nassar, said the June amendments to the country’s 2006 anti-terror law have given authorities a “blank check” to arrest dissidents and Islamists alike without charges, and to expand crackdowns beyond suspected terrorists to include government opponents.
“Under the new anti-terror law, any phrase, photo or video shared online can be construed as ‘inciting terrorism’ no matter what the content actually is,” said Nassar, whose clients include a journalist and six opposition activists facing terrorism charges at the state security court for comments posted on their Facebook pages.
As many as 2,000 Jordanians have fought in Syria over the past three years, according to estimates by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization — not only for the Islamic State, but also for various religious militias as well as the Free Syrian Army. In recent months, small, scattered demonstrations of support for the Islamic State have taken place in Amman, Zarqa and Maan, where masked youths have waved homemade Islamic State banners.
According to Islamists and their attorneys, between 60 and 90 Jordanians have been arrested for alleged ties to the Islamic State under the new anti-terror law. So far, only 11 have been referred to the security court.
Of those, the case of Abu Ayesh, the accused Facebook poster, was the first to be heard.
In this opening session, presided over by three military judges, the first witness was Mohammed Youssef Ibrahim, an officer with Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.
The defendant was represented by Moussa Abdallat, a feisty defense attorney for Islamist movements, who wore a rumpled suit and stained tie. The courtroom was empty, except for guards and a couple of foreign journalists.
The trial got underway with the defendant, Abu Ayesh, swearing that during his many interrogation sessions, he repeatedly told the intelligence officers: “I am against killing and I am against the Islamic State in Jordan.”
He added that while in prison he was handed a statement written by his interrogators and made to sign his name without reading it.
Attorney Abdallat: “Did Wassim or did Wassim not tell you that he was against killing and against the Islamic State in Jordan?”
The intelligence officer paused, looked at the ceiling, and answered, “I don’t remember.”
The defense told the judges that the video in question was not made by the Islamic State.
Attorney Abdallat: “In Wassim’s ‘confession,’ did he or did he not tell you that the video in question that he put on his Facebook page had to do with the Abu Ghraib prison [in Iraq] and the abuses by the Iraqi government there and was not in fact a pro-Islamic State video?”
Agent Ibrahim: “I am not sure.”
Attorney Abdallat: “‘I am not sure?’ Is there not a big difference between a video about Shiite abuses against Sunni Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison and a video promoting the Islamic State? Did he not say this?”
Agent Ibrahim: “I do not remember.”
Attorney Abdallat: “Did you, personally, see his Facebook page? His Twitter posts?”
Agent Ibrahim: “I do not know how to use Facebook or Twitter.”
Attorney Abdallat (incredulously): “Then how do you know my client promoted Islamic State propaganda on Facebook?”
The intelligence officer said he never questioned the defendant and had only read the case file of evidence assembled against him. The defense attorney demanded to see the file. The intelligence agent replied, “It is classified.”
The judge reminded the attorney, “You know intelligence department files are classified.”
After this exchange continued for another 10 minutes, the defendant pleaded not guilty. The judge said the trial would reconvene later in October.