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Jordan's mass execution revives debate on death penalty

The swift execution of 15 men in one day raised controversy in Jordan, and some analysts view this move as a message that the kingdom is actively fighting terrorists.
A general view shows security forces in front of Swaqa prison near Amman February 4, 2015. Jordan hanged two Iraqis on Wednesday, including female militant Sajida al-Rishawi, hours after Islamic State released a video appearing to show captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burnt alive, a security source and state television said. Rishawi and fellow prisoner Ziyad Karboli were executed in Swaqa prison, a large facility 70 km (45 miles) south of the capital, Amman, just before dawn, a security sou

Jordan’s execution of 15 men as dawn broke on March 4 in Swaqa prison, south of Amman, has raised questions and concerns among death penalty supporters and opponents alike.

The executions — the first in more than two years — were unprecedented in Jordan’s history both in scale and in speed: Five of the hanged men had only lost their appeals one month earlier. Dubbed the “Irbid terror cell” by local media, the suspected Islamic State (IS) militants had been arrested during a shootout with police in Irbid in March 2016 and were sentenced to death in the final days of December.

The executions appeared to target the new generation of jihadis: Of the 10 men hanged for terror offenses, eight had been convicted during the last year for crimes ranging from the killing of intelligence officers to the shooting of journalist Nahed Hattar.

They were convicted in closed trials in Jordan’s State Security Court, whose procedures fall short of international fair trial standards, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

Member of parliament Saleh al-Armouti, the former head of the Jordan Bar Association, expressed concern over the judicial process. “I support the death penalty, but only when there is a fair trial. … Even Interpol does not recognize this court,” he said, referring to the State Security Court.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Armouti said the speed of the trials and the hangings were also troubling. “The executions were carried out very quickly, and there is no justification for this. … These sentences were the swiftest judgements ever made, and they were the most recent cases,” he said, noting that other death row inmates have been waiting more than 20 years to be executed. “There is no justification for how they chose.”

Attorney General Ziad Dmour said the executions were a signal “to anyone trying to tamper with Jordan’s security,” while government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani warned, “Anyone who dares to engage in terrorist activities against Jordan will face the same destiny.”

Analyst and journalist Yousef al-Bustanji told Al-Monitor that while the executions sent “a very clear message” that any attempt to undermine Jordanian security would face a swift response, the hangings also renewed public confidence in Jordan’s ability to tackle terrorism.

Jordan has been largely insulated from the uprisings and civil wars that have swept through its neighbors in recent years, but the kingdom has suffered a spike in Islamist attacks over the last year.

“Everybody knows that Jordan is in the middle of a war zone and in an extraordinary situation,” said Bustanji. “The executions aimed to calm people’s fears.”

But Armouti suggested that a more cynical message was addressed outside the kingdom, specifically to Washington.

“The government decided to do the executions so it can be said that the government is fighting terrorism. Whoever is fighting terrorism will receive aid,” Armouti said, noting that US President Donald Trump had pledged to work with Jordan to fight terrorism.

Jordan received $1.6 billion in US funds during the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration and is hoping to continue the flow of assistance from the new White House, despite Trump’s pledges to cut spending on foreign aid.

Internally, the Jordanian government sought to rally public support for the hangings by carefully selecting the other five men who were hanged along with the 10 terrorists. They were convicted for rape and murder, according to lawyer and death penalty expert Iyad al-Qaisi.

Each had been convicted of particularly grisly crimes that had captured the public’s attention; they, too, were relatively recent arrivals to death row.

The high profiles of their cases, which are still fresh in the public’s mind, decided the men's fate on March 4: They were populist choices, said Qaisi, a consultant for the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Among those executed was a carpenter convicted of raping and impregnating his teenage daughter; she died when he performed an improvised abortion on her using a blade, a needle and thread. Also executed was Mohammad Khazaleh, convicted of stabbing to death Nour al-Awadat in a bus station in Zarqa. Photos of Awadat, a university student of Sharia, accompanied local media reports of the executions.

Sensationalist media reporting of the crimes was a factor in the prisoners’ swift executions, and it had also influenced their trials, said Qaisi. Meanwhile, Amnesty International warned that the use of torture in Jordan made the executions “especially problematic.”

According to court papers seen by Al-Monitor, Khazaleh’s conviction for the murder of Awadat was largely based on a confession that was inconsistent with the crime scene report; there were no witnesses. In court, Khazaleh retracted his confession, testifying that it was extracted by torture.

Jordan’s reinstatement of the death penalty in December 2014 after an eight-year de facto moratorium was presented as a response to public demand, but for Qaisi, the scale of the public’s appetite for executions has been overstated.

After the moratorium was broken, the families of the remaining death row inmates rushed to reconcile with the victims’ relatives; as settlements were reached, dozens of prisoners were granted reprieves, in line with Jordanian law, Qaisi said.

Meanwhile, moves toward reconciliations have already begun in response to the March 4 executions, he said, citing the willingness of victims’ families to negotiate such settlements as evidence that the Jordanian public is ready to accept alternatives to the death penalty.

But even for staunch supporters of capital punishment like Armouti, the circumstances of the March 4 executions were disturbing. Hanging can be a bloody procedure, Armouti said, and the March 4 schedule did not even leave time to clean the death chamber between executions. “Human beings have dignity. To execute them in the same place, on the same day, it was a violation of human dignity. … They shouldn’t have done that.”

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