A former top adviser to King Abdullah II and a relative of the monarch have pleaded not guilty to sedition and incitement charges linked to an unprecedented public rift in Jordan’s royal family, a defence lawyer said.
The highly anticipated trial was held on Monday under tight security and was closed to the media.
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The defendants are accused of conspiring with a senior royal – Prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of the king – to foment unrest against the monarch while soliciting foreign help.
Prosecutors had referred to a military court the case of Bassem Awadallah, an ex-royal court chief and finance minister who played a big role in the drive to liberalise Jordan’s economy, and Sherif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant relative of King Abdullah.
During the first session of the trial on Monday, both pleaded not guilty, according to Mohamed Afif, Awadallah’s lawyer. He said the court heard two prosecution witnesses, and that another session would be held on Tuesday.
Hamzah, 41, is not facing charges, with the king having said the royal family is handling the matter privately. Yet he is the central figure in the case, and defence lawyers said they plan to call him to the stand.
“As far as I know, there has not been a case this big in the history of Jordan,” said defence lawyer Ala Khasawneh earlier on Monday.
The palace drama erupted in early April when Hamzah was placed under house arrest. It has since broken taboos in Jordan and sent shockwaves through foreign capitals, with Western powers rallying behind Abdullah, a strong ally in the region.
The case exposed rivalries in Jordan’s traditionally discreet Hashemite dynasty and spawned unprecedented public criticism of the monarch. The defendants are the most senior establishment figures to appear before the security court, which typically goes after drug offenders or members of armed groups.
In clashing narratives, Hamza is either a champion of everyday Jordanians suffering from economic mismanagement and corruption, or a disgruntled royal who never forgave Abdullah for taking away his title of the crown prince in 2004 and giving it to his eldest son.
The indictment, read in court on Monday, alleges Hamzah was driven by personal ambition and determined to become king. It says the prince and the two defendants conspired to stir discontent.
The charges carry sentences up to 30 years in prison.
A video leaked from inside the court shows Awadallah, wearing the light blue uniform of detainees and a face mask as he was being led by guards through a room in the court. State media ran the footage and still photos of Awadallah on their websites.
Security agencies began monitoring the defendants in mid-March at a time of public uproar over an oxygen outage at a hospital in the town of Salt that killed eight coronavirus patients.
Hamzah met bereaved families just after the king visited Salt. The indictment alleged the prince “took advantage” of the families’ pain to spread a populist message.
Ties to Jordan’s tribes
Hamzah’s popularity stems from ties he has nurtured with Jordan’s tribes, the bedrock of Hashemite rule.
Atef Majali, a tribal leader in the town of Karak, said he and other sheikhs have met the prince more than a dozen times over the years, but denied the king was criticised at these events.
The indictment alleged Hamzah and the two defendants were working on social media messages the prince was to post, with the aim of “inciting some groups in society against the ruling system and state agencies”.
Hamzah has denied sedition claims, saying he is being punished for calling out corruption and mismanagement.
On April 3, the day he was placed under house arrest, more than a dozen tribal and public figures were arrested, including his chief aide. Only Awadallah and bin Zaid remain in detention.
The prince is not in legal trouble.
The royal court has declined comment when asked if Hamzah can leave his Amman palace or communicate with others. Atef Majali said Hamzah’s staff was not allowed to return to work.
In the days leading up to the trial, a broader narrative has surfaced, though it is only alluded to in the indictment.
In this version, the alleged conspirators sought foreign help to exploit the king’s perceived vulnerability at a time when he was under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to accept a now-defunct Trump administration Middle East plan sometimes referred to as “the deal of the century”.
Jordan has expressed concern the plan would weaken the monarch’s historical role as guardian of key Muslim and Christian sites in occupied East Jerusalem and a pillar of Hashemite claims to legitimacy.
Allegations about foreign outreach focus on Awadallah, who holds Jordanian, US and Saudi citizenship, and once served as the king’s official envoy to Riyadh. He has close ties to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Amman turned down Riyadh’s request to hand him over, according to officials familiar with the affair, without elaborating.
In Jordan, Awadallah has been widely blamed for economic policies seen as mainly benefitting the rich and has been dogged by suspicions of corruption. In Riyadh, he had been visibly involved in efforts to draw foreign investment.
The indictment alleges Hamzah and bin Zaid invited Awadallah to join them because of his foreign ties. At one point, Hamzah allegedly asked Awadallah: “If something happened to me in Jordan, will the Saudi officials help me or not?”
Saudi Arabia, a leading financial backer of Jordan, immediately sent its foreign minister to the kingdom after the crisis erupted, publicly reaffirming support for the king.
Damaging to Jordan
Mohammed Momani, a member of Jordan’s senate and former information minister, maintained there was a link between the alleged sedition plot and regional politics.
“When you see that Jordan is under pressure from its major allies because of the deal of the century, then you probably saw this as an opening or as a possibility or an opportunity to solicit some support from the outside world,” alleged Momani, who said he was briefed on the investigation.
Momani alleged bin Zaid had approached a foreign embassy, “trying to ask them for their reaction” if the accused conspirators put their plan into motion. He did not identify the embassy.
Jordanian officials have said the plot was uncovered in time but posed a threat to stability.
Critics said claims of a threat seem overblown, noting any plot would have required the backing of the security forces.
“I cannot find any evidence that would lead to this kind of trial,” political analyst Amer Sabaileh said. He and Momani are among 92 members of a political reform committee formed by the king to deal with the crisis.
Sabaileh said the saga may have caused lasting damage.
“It has opened the Hashemites’ door for ordinary people to look inside, and I think this is not good regardless of how it happened,” he said. “It’s better for this family to be united and not to show that there is this kind of competition or sense of revenge.”