‘Cigarettes case’ testing Jordan government stance on corruption

Case of illegal production of fake-brand cigarettes captures public attention amid calls to fight high-level corruption.

Jordan''s designated new prime minister Omar al-Razzaz leaves the Parliament building in Amman, Jordan
Omar al-Razzaz, who became prime minister last month after large protests, has vowed to fight corruption [Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

The case of a criminal ring with rumoured political ties involved in the illegal production and smuggling of fake-brand cigarettes worth of millions of dollars is dominating public discussion in Jordan – and testing the new government’s stance on corruption.

Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz announced on Monday the case’s referral to the state security court, which typically handles serious criminal and terrorism cases.

The move came as Jumana Ghunaimat, minister of state for media affairs, announced the arrests of 30 suspects amid an ongoing investigation.

Dubbed “the cigarettes scandal”, the case has roused intense political and social media debate in the country. It was brought to light last week by members of parliament calling for an investigation.

Muslih al-Tarawneh, an MP, told Al Jazeera he demanded the prime minister uncover what he called “out-right corruption by senior government officials” who allegedly aided the criminal syndicate. Tarawneh did not mention any names and presented no evidence in public to back up his claims.

Al Jazeera could not independently confirm the accusations.

Al-Razzaz previously described it as a “do-or-die” issue for him, reiterating his government’s determination to combat corruption and economic crimes.

‘Serious effort’

The cigarettes case is seen as the prime minister’s first major test to earn the confidence of a disillusioned Jordanian public, amid persistent civil society calls to tackle corruption after years of failures.

Activists often accuse the government of cracking down on minor suspects, while turning a blind eye on corruption committed by powerful and politically connected figures.

Al-Razzaz was appointed prime minister in June after large anti-austerity protests forced the previous government to resign.

“Al-Razzaz is very popular and has an untarnished reputation, and I think he is serious about fighting corruption,” Mohamad Hejouj, a former MP, told Al Jazeera.

“There is a political decision made by the upper echelons in the government to investigate this case and bring it to justice,” he added.

“Corruption in Jordan is a mafia institution on its own and is very powerful economically and politically. It is time the government make a serious effort to crack down on it and punish its members from within and outside government ranks.”

Illegal manufacturing

According to Tarawneh, the case in question involved the smuggling of equipment to produce and sell cigarettes into the country, with several factories set up on farms around the capital, Amman.

In a statement, the government identified the main suspect as businessman Awni Motee, who left Jordan on July 11 – one day before one of these factories was raided by security forces.

Motee is believed to be behind several operations to manufacture illegal cigarettes that brought in millions of dollars, according to police sources. The sites mainly produced fake versions of international brands popular in Jordan, such as Winston.

In a telephone call with a Jordanian TV station from Lebanon, where he is currently based, Motee denied any involvement, saying the cigarette factory he owned is not in operation after being shut down last year.  

He described the past week’s events as a “war being waged against him” because of his tobacco-farming operations in the Jordan Valley.

‘Strange and mysterious case’

The case originally came to the attention of the authorities last year during the tenure of former prime minister Hani al-Mulki as a tax evasion matter, which, according to some estimates, could be worth more than $100m in tax revenues, fines and fees.

A government official, who declined to be named publicly, confirmed to Al Jazeera the government had “looked into” the case last year. However, it is unclear what steps or decisions were taken to deal with it.

“This case is very strange and mysterious at this point,” the official said.

The cigarette production sites were able to carry on their illegal operations until last week when they were shut down by authorities after the case became public.

Ghunaimat said the government established a task force made up of investigators from Jordanian customs, the ministry of finance, the ministry of trade and industry, police and the intelligence department.

She told Al Jazeera that despite the recent arrests, no one has yet been charged with a crime.

“We are taking every measure to ensure vigilance and transparency and let our justice system run its course,” said Ghunaimat.

Even though accusations implicating powerful government figures as “behind-the-scenes” owners of the cigarette factories, or “partners” in the crime ring, have surfaced on social media accounts, Ghunaimat rejected these claims as inaccurate, adding only the prosecution will determine the guilt or innocence of anyone involved.

Still, many Jordanians on social media expressed doubts over the case’s resolution. 

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @Ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera