Closure of Jordan’s sedition trial leaves unanswered questions

The trial against Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid was closed to the media and the government tightly restricted public knowledge of events inside the court room.

Officers stand guard outside Jordan's State Security Court, as it is set to announce its verdict in the trial of two officials accused of helping Prince Hamzah try to overthrow his half-brother King Abdullah II, in the capital Amman.
The court sentenced two former officials to 15 years in jail over a palace coup plot [Mohammad Ali/EPA]

The guilty verdict issued by Jordan’s State Security Court to a former finance minister and a minor royal over charges of sedition was met with muted reaction from Jordanians, even as it left many unanswered questions about the nature of a plot that was allegedly aimed at overthrowing the country’s longtime monarch.

Bassem Awadallah, a former minister and Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant relative of Jordan’s ruling family, were sentenced on Monday to 15 years in prison for conspiring with Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, the half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah, to destabilise the country which is a key US ally in the region.

The charge sheet for the two men stated that they worked to promote Prince Hamzah as king, while inciting unrest among Jordan’s powerful tribes over economic grievances and mismanagement of the coronavirus.

The two men were arrested along with 18 other figures on April 3 when Jordan’s government announced it foiled a plot to destabilise the Kingdom. Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest and later signed a letter pledging his support for the monarch. The Jordanian King said that the Hashemite family was handling his half-brother’s case privately.

Awadallah and Sharif Hassan were the only two figures tried in connection with the plot, which exposed deep rifts within the Jordanian royal family and challenged the country’s image as a bastion of stability in the region.

Bassem Awadallah, chief of the royal court in 2007-08, was among those arrested for ‘security reasons’ on April 3 [File: Joseph Barrak/AFP]

Trial shrouded in secrecy

The trial began last month and was concluded after just six sessions. It was closed to the media and the government tightly restricted public knowledge of events inside the courtroom.

Efforts by the defence to call witnesses were rejected by the court, while prosecutors only shared purported transcripts, but not audio, from surveillance of the two defendants. Lawyers for both men said their clients will appeal the verdict while questioning the fairness of the trial.

A question moving forward will be if Jordan is serious about enacting political reform after the high-profile trial that was shrouded in secrecy.

“From the way things progressed with the trial this outcome was expected,” said Amer Sabaileh, an Amman-based political analyst, who also sits on a 92-member committee established by King Abdullah to deal with the fallout of the plot.

“We lost an opportunity to build trust in society. Generally anything lacking transparency suffers from not being accepted by the people.”

The day before the verdict, Awadallah, who also holds US and Saudi citizenship, claimed he had been tortured while in detention. Michael Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor hired by Awadallah’s family in the US to represent him, said the trial had “been completely unfair” and guaranteed a guilty verdict.

Khaled al-Qudah, an Amman-based political commentator said the onus is on Awadallah to prove the serious torture allegations, “He looks tired, but he doesn’t look beat up and crippled as he described. And he waited until the very last day to say something through his lawyer.”

Many Jordanians believe Awadallah enriched himself by privatising state assets and see him as the public face of a corrupt ruling class responsible for the country’s deteriorating economic situation.

One of the complaints levelled against the government over the trial was that Awadallah faced charges for inciting against the monarchy, but was not charged with any of the corruption allegations most ordinary Jordanians associate him with.

“People wanted to see him in jail over the economy and for all his corrupt deals to be exposed in public. They hoped the government would hold him accountable for that,” al-Qudah stated.

For many Jordanians dealing with a flagging economy, high costs of living, and widespread corruption the trial ranked low on their list of priorities.

“This case is no longer important to people,” Saud al-Sharafat, a former Brigadier General in the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate, told Al Jazeera. “Jordanians are more interested in the Tawjihi [final high school examination] than some secret trial.”

Political fallout

One explanation for the apathy is that many Jordanians saw the trial as a carefully staged display for the public, but believe the real fate of the two men will be decided behind closed doors.

There is already speculation that King Abdullah may issue a royal pardon as he seeks to manage the fallout surrounding allegations of foreign involvement in the sedition case.

During the trial, the state prosecution claimed that Awadallah was enlisted in the plot because of his foreign connections. The former finance minister served as an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, spurring rumours that Riyadh was involved in the sedition plot.

Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant cousin of the king, pleaded not guilty to sedition and incitement charges [Raad Adayleh/AP]

The Saudi government has refuted claims of any involvement and came out in support of King Abdullah immediately after the plot was made public. They have also denied making requests to return Awadallah to Saudi Arabia after his arrest.

Although Riyadh is a major donor to Amman and the two neighbours are close allies, they also have a historic rivalry. The Hashemites were custodians of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites, and ruled the Hejaz, the western part of modern-day Saudi Arabia, until being replaced by the Saudi family after World War I.

Some analysts believe that Saudi Arabia viewed King Abdullah as an impediment to the Abraham Accords and efforts by the Trump administration to broker a possible normalisation deal between Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

The Hashemite monarch holds custodianship of the Christian and Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem and there was speculation that MBS sought to replace the Jordanian’s position in the city as part of any normalisation deal.

“Amman handled this file very carefully in order to avoid consequences on the Jordanian-Saudi relationship,” Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, stated.

“The political will is not to make a big problem with the Saudis, it is the last thing we need,” he added.

If there was any Saudi involvement in the case it has not publicly effected the bilateral relationship which Sharafat said remains strong, “The border is open, the embassies are operating, and Saudi business and aide in Jordan is going on as usual.”

Still, Rantawi said an early pardon would indicate Jordan’s desire to repair any private rifts between the Hashemite and Saudi families.

“If Awadallah remains in prison for a long time, it will be a reflection of the poor state of Saudi-Jordanian relations.”

Source: Al Jazeera