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Jordan cracks down on racketeers following maiming of teenager

In an unprecedented move, Jordan's Public Security Department has launched a coordinated wave of arrests of those suspected of racketeering, bullying and repeat offenses, following the attack on a Jordanian teenager in the city of Zarqa that left him with amputated hands and a gouged eye.

On Oct. 13, at least six men kidnapped 16-year-old Saleh Hamdan in the city of Zarqa, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Amman, where they allegedly tortured him before amputating his hands and gouging out one of his eyes. The leader of the men allegedly sent the boy’s amputated hands to Hamdan’s mother. When Hamdan was found, he was carried to a hospital and admitted to intensive care.

The horrific assault and maiming of Hamdan has shocked Jordanian society, triggering a storm of denunciations on social media and calls on authorities to take action. It took the government a few days to react as public pressure mounted, and on Oct. 17, newly appointed Minister of Interior Tawfiq Halalmeh announced that a joint security team consisting of members of the Public Security Department (PSD) and the Gendarmerie Department would launch a campaign to arrest all wanted people and suspects of protection racketeers. He called on the public to share information on suspects with the PSD. Meanwhile, Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Bisher al-Khasawneh assured Halalmeh of the government’s full support for all law enforcement efforts in ensuring the rule of law.

The incident underlined the spread of the phenomenon of racketeering and bullying, especially in impoverished areas of east Amman and Zarqa. On Oct. 18, the joint force launched a major hunt for suspected racketeers, bullies and repeat offenders. By the first day of the crackdown, at least 100 suspects had been arrested and placed in administrative detention without bail. Many are said to have been convicted of previous crimes. Most had been released under a royal pardon issued last year.

On Oct. 14, King Abdullah II ordered that Hamdan be transferred to a military hospital for treatment. On Oct. 19, authorities announced they had arrested over a dozen people in Hamdan's case. According to police sources, the attack on Hamdan was an act of revenge for an altercation between the boy’s father, who is a mosque imam, and a racketeer in Zarqa two months ago. The quarrel ended in the fatal wounding of the racketeer and the arrest of the imam.

On Oct. 21, the general prosecutor decided to refer the case to the State Security Court since charges against the alleged assailants include acts of terrorism.

The crackdown on bullies and racketeers was only the tip of the iceberg. Confessions taken from suspects revealed connections to an underworld of crime, embezzlement, drugs and influential public figures including former lawmakers — hardly the image that Jordanians have of their country and society. The London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper quoted on Oct. 20 retired Brig. Gen. Zuhdi Janbeek, who was the former head of preventive security at the PSD, as saying that when he was in charge a few years ago, at least eight men were charging protection money from 108 nightclubs amounting to 80,000 Jordanian dinars ($113,000) monthly. But Janbeek did not disclose why no action, if any, was taken against these racketeers.

Former Secretary-General of the Ministry of Interior Raed al-Adwan told Al-Monitor that while he was in office, he saw evidence of “organized racketeering where those in charge are aware of the law and its loopholes.” He admitted that he was once forced by the then minister of interior to release a known drug dealer and racketeer on bail, and that before the minister’s call, he had resisted pressure from influential figures to do the same. Adwan praised the PSD but said that police can only intervene if they receive a complaint; in many cases, citizens are reluctant to do so.

“There are loopholes in current legislation, and we must amend the law so as to keep up with the evolution of crimes in the country,” Adwan said.

Political columnist at Al-Ghad daily Maher Abu Tair told Al-Monitor it is essential that political cover be given to the security crackdown so that the current campaign won’t be short-lived. “The manhunt should not be limited to small criminals but must go deep to locate and arrest the big names that sponsor and manage drug dealers, bullies, beggars and racketeers,” he said. “People should not be scared to inform on criminals, but many are afraid of retribution if they do so,” Abu Tair added. He noted that prisons have proven to be notorious recruiting hubs for criminals, and this issue has been neglected for some time.

On Oct. 20, Minister of Social Development Ayman Mufleh announced that his ministry is cooperating with the PSD to control the “remarkable increase in organized vagrancy,” in reference to the increasing phenomenon of beggars at major traffic lights, particularly in affluent areas of the capital. The minister said in a tweet that organized vagrancy, which has “intensified, especially near traffic lights,” has become “a source of inconvenience and concern for citizens.”

In June, the PSD announced that the crime rate across the kingdom had increased in 2019 by 7.6% compared to 2018. This year, that rate is likely to increase again as the kingdom combats a spike in COVID-19 daily infections, which has led to a shrinking economy and an increase in unemployment and poverty rates.

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