Street Talk: Aqaba Protests

2 08 2009

Going back in time to 2002,  me and some friends attended a peaceful and silent candle vigil in Sahet Al-Hashmi downtown Amman to protest against the Israeli massacre in Jenin. Soon after a policeman requested ending the vigil and dispersing as any public gathering with more than 8 people was illegal he explained. We left with disappointment after various attempts to express that we did not aim to stir public disorder. However, till now i wonder on what basis were we denied to practice our constitutional right to peaceful assembly and how can a statute override it?

After a year of being abroad studying human rights law, i came back to Jordan to the news that during July 2009 two protests have ended up in clashes between the demonstrators and Gendarmerie Forces; the latest is a protest organized by the employees of Jordan Ports Corporation (JPC) on the 30 July 2009 in Aqaba. Among the protestors’ demands is the equal distribution of funds generated by the government’s sale of a plot of land in Aqaba port and worker’s compensation for risk. On the second day of the sit-in the police authorities dispersed the crowd using tear gas and batons.

What is surprising is the excessive use of force by the Gendarmerie which left a Jordanian citizen, Ahid Al Alawneh, hospitalized with a severe concussion and internal bleeding resulting from being beaten on the head by batons and 30 other employees injured. Moreover, more than 65 protesters were arrested, among which are six of the sit-in organizers who were released on Saturday 1 August 2009. Mean while the Governor of Aqaba’s reply was that the sit-in was illegal and the protest “began to violate the public safety and stability” in addition to the authorities getting complaints about phone threats being received by some of the protestors’ colleagues who were not taking part in the sit-in.

Does the illegality of a peaceful sit-in serve as a justification for the excessive use of force by state officials-especially when issuing permits for holding demonstrations are often refused? Jordan’s international obligations allow for the use of force as a last resort and to a minimum degree in dispersing unlawful but non-violent assemblies. Article 13 of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states:

‘In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.’

As for investigating the events of the protest, till now there has been no official response to the demands of the protesters and Ahid Al-Alawneh’s family regarding carrying out an investigation about the actions of the security forces.

What has dispersing the demonstrators forcefully accomplish other than spreading a culture of fear among the protesters themselves and others who see the street as the most genuine public outlet to voice one’s demands and the essence of a true democracy. At a time when Jordan is trying to promote the political participation and active involvement of its citizens in the policies which affect them such acts trample its efforts.

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