Zarqa, Jordan – Heavy rainfall slams the streets of Rusaifah, an impoverished neighbourhood of Zarqa, northwest of Amman. Yet the downpour fails to deter Raed Abu-Khater from taking his guests on a tour of the densely populated area, pointing out the intricate Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls of nearby schools, mosques and social centres in the town.
“This is my son’s work,” the 50-year-old schoolteacher says proudly, as he gestures towards a sign of intricate calligraphy hanging above a local school.
Abu-Khater’s son, Mohammad, twice made headlines in Jordanian newspapers. The now 19-year-old first graced the front pages of the local dailies in late 2005 after winning a national calligraphy contest that commemorated the triple-hotel bombings carried out by Iraqi fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda earlier that year. His award-winning piece, “No to Terrorism: Jordan is peaceful,” currently hangs in the living room of the family’s house.
The University of Jordan fine arts student once again grabbed headlines in 2012, when he was arrested for an alleged connection to a foiled al-Qaeda plot to strike the Jordanian capital. “Terrorism? Al-Qaeda? Our son?” Abu-Khater said. “It was a shock to us.”
Mohammad was among 11 young men arrested by Jordanian authorities in October 2012, accused of being involved in an attempted attack targeting Western diplomatic missions and shopping centres in western Amman. They were also suspected of having links to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“These 11 terrorists were Jordanian nationals with clear ties to al-Qaeda, targeting the security and stability of Jordan,” Samih Maaytah, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs and communications, told a press conference at the time.
We do not have political prisoners in Jordan. We have only tens of detainees who were arrested with charges of threatening state security.
Meanwhile, the young men – who deny any association prior to the arrest and any links to hardline “Islamist” groups – claim they are scapegoats in Jordanian authorities’ widening “war against extremism”. Mohammad’s family insists their son is innocent, as “he did not participate in any protests against the government and never joined any religious organisations”.
Facing possible life imprisonment, the young men and dozens of other alleged supporters of radical Islamic groups at Jordan’s Sawaqa, Muaqar, Zarga and Rumaimeen prisons have begun a series of hunger strikes to protest what they claim is systematic abuse at the hands of security and prison authorities.
According to Hassan Abu Hanaieh, an expert on Islamic movements in Jordan, there are approximately 180 prisoners in Jordan classified as “Islamist” and jailed on alleged ties to “Islamist groups”. About 120 were arrested on alleged links to the Salafist jihadist movement in Syria.
Just last month, Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced 10 young men to two and a half years in jail for attempting to cross to Syria. “The Jordanian authorities’ recent crackdown on Salafism is directly linked to the rising influence of jihadist groups in Syria,” with more than 2,000 Jordanians reportedly fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, Taylor Luck, an expert on Islamist movements told Al Jazeera. The authorities, he said, “are attempting to arrest and intimidate any citizen who may express support for Syrian jihadist groups to prevent them from ever reaching the border”.
Rather than face civil courts, prisoners accused of links to outlawed groups, including those held on charges of supporting jihadist groups, are being tried in the country’s military State Security Court, held as “enemy combatants” and denied basic constitutional rights held by other prisoners.
“We do not have political prisoners in Jordan,” Amer Sartawi, a spokesperson for Jordan’s public security department which supervises prison facilities, told Al Jazeera. “We have only tens of detainees who were arrested with charges of threatening state security.”
In March, detainees’ families staged a protest to denounce the alleged ill treatment of their relatives. “All we are asking for is treating our children equal to other prisoners,” said Mohammad Abu Taha, whose brother was arrested in October 2012 for allegedly planning to attack shopping centres and foreign diplomatic missions in Amman.
“They give them their meals underneath the door without any respect for their dignity,” said Musa al-Qadeq. His 20-year-old brother was arrested near the Jordanian-Syrian border in 2013 for what authorities claim was an attempt to “join jihadist groups in Syria”, al-Qadeq said.
in Jordan remain minimal because people do not complain. They do not have faith the system will bring them justice.”]
Detainees, their relatives and human-rights advocates say those with alleged ties to Islamist groups face discrimination in Jordan’s jails, segregated from other prisoners, often held in solitary confinement and barred access from basic facilities such as prison libraries, mosques and even medical centres.
While the hundreds of detainees held on charges such as murder, theft and bank fraud are allowed regular exercise and multiple hours of sunshine per day, detainees accused of security offences are allegedly granted an hour outside their cells per week, in line with the treatment guidelines for “foreign enemy combatants”.
While prisoners are granted regular family visits, those accused of security offences are restricted to immediate family members, while those held on more serious charges are at times restricted visits altogether.
“There is obvious and evident harassment against Islamist detainees,” said defence attorney Moussa Abdullat, who advocates for detainees accused of having links to so-called terrorist groups.
Some of his clients have reported having restricted access to news, except for state-controlled media outlets like al-Rai newspaper and Jordanian state television. “But even these are censored,” he said.
Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told Al Jazeera that the reports coming from security detainees and their families are very similar to what HRW had documented in a 2008 report. HRW has not conducted a prison visit in Jordan since 2009.
In that report, HRW found that prisoners accused of security offences faced greater abuse than ordinary prisoners, and that prison authorities were also housing Islamist prisoners in separate facilities.
The Jordanian government has denied allegations of torture and mistreatment against these prisoners, however. “We do not have torture in prisons in Jordan,” Sartawi told Al Jazeera. “Our doors are opened for researchers and human-rights organisations if anyone files complaints against us.”
Jordan’s penal code criminalises using torture to force someone to confess to a crime or to obtain any information regarding a crime. “Jordan should transfer all torture and ill-treatment cases to the jurisdiction of independent civilian courts. As it stands, if accused of torture, police officers go to special and military courts,” Coogle said.
Human rights activist Eva Abu Halaweh told Al Jazeera that while the 11 detainees who were charged with “plotting attacks against civilians and diplomatic missions” should be allowed to speak with their families and lawyers within 24 hours of the arrest, they were denied this right. “For 75 days, these guys [detainees] were not allowed any contact with the outside world,” she said.
The Mizan human-rights group has assisted families in registering complaints about allegations of torture with the Attorney General in Jordan, and the case is still pending, Abu Halaweh said. In its 2012 annual report (the 2013 report is not out yet), the National Centre for Human Rights stated that it received only 16 complaints of torture by prisoners in Jordan.
“Complaints [filed against prison authorities] in Jordan remain minimal because people do not complain. They do not have faith the system will bring them justice,” HRW’s Coogle said.
Meanwhile, back in Zarqa, Raed Abu-Khater shares family photos and artwork painted by his son, Mohammad.
“We anticipated [that] he will become an artist one day, but treating him like that [in prison], I hope my son does not turn to the extreme,” said Abu-Khater, before walking his guests out through the backyard.
“This [backyard] used to be Mohammad’s studio,” the father-of-six said, explaining that Mohammad previously used the space to work and earn extra money to pay the fees for his university courses. Randomly mixed colours cover the gate, and the words “painter, calligrapher” are painted next to Mohammad’s phone number, advertising his work.
“We want our country to remain stable and safe,” said Abu-Khater. “But they [the authorities] should realise that achieving justice is the first step for maintaining stability.”