Jordanian authorities have exploited the country’s Covid-19 pandemic to forcibly disperse public protests against the arbitrary closure of the country’s Teachers Syndicate and mass arrests of its leadership, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 25, 2020, the police raided the Teachers Syndicate headquarters in Amman and 11 of its branches across the country, shuttered them, and arrested all 13 syndicate board members on dubious legal grounds. The authorities have prevented or forcibly dispersed ongoing protests in towns across the country. They have arrested numerous teachers and other protesters, holding some in detention. On August 23, the authorities released the syndicate board members after holding them for a month, but other syndicate leaders and protesters remain in detention.

“The Jordanian government, despite promises to the contrary, is exploiting the state of emergency to crack down on public outrage over the arbitrary government closure of the Teachers’ Syndicate,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan should not use the pandemic as a pretext to repress expressions of public concern over these arbitrary measures.”

International human rights law allows authorities to limit public gatherings on the basis of public health, but only on a case-by-case basis rather than a blanket ban. When Jordan declared a state of emergency on March 17 Prime Minister Omar Razzaz pledged to carry it out to the “narrowest extent” and stated that it would not impinge on political rights, freedom of expression, or private property.

The authorities say they have circumscribed public protests stemming from the syndicate closure under health and safety rules tied to the country’s state of emergency for the pandemic, which limits gatherings to a maximum of 20 people, though they don’t apply the maximum to houses of worship and restaurants.

NetBlocks, an independent international nonpartisan group monitoring internet access, published network data confirming that Facebook live video streaming was restricted in Jordan on multiple days in late July and early August on which protests took place.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three protesters and sources close to three other detained protesters, who participated in protests in the cities of Irbid, Karak, Amman, and Mafraq in late July and early August. Researchers also interviewed a person detained for supporting the protests on Facebook and reviewed videos of the protests that were posted to Facebook and Twitter.

The videos and witnesses indicate that police, including the Gendarmerie (or Darak) and Preventative Security, forcefully cleared mostly peaceful protests across the country, sometimes leading to clashes, or blocked streets to prevent marchers from reaching their intended destinations.

“As soon as five protestors gathered, the police came and said you are not allowed to gather, you must leave,” said a person who participated in a protest in Mafraq on August 9. “They kept on pushing us until we left the place. After a while we all gathered at a point close by.” The police ordered them to disperse, and the protesters insisted that they had a right to protest. “After a couple of minutes, the Darak attacked us and people were running away then gathering at one point, then the Darak would attack again … until they were able to separate everyone.”

Videos of the protest posted to Twitter show groups of police chasing retreating protesters.

Another protester, a teacher in the city of Karak, that that he had participated in several protests at the beginning of August: “[At] the last [protest] on August 4, the Darak attacked us and started beating us along with another group of men wearing civilian clothing. We clashed with security forces and they started throwing tear gas at us, they weren’t throwing it in the air just randomly, they were throwing it directly at us.”

Human Rights Watch previously reported on police beatings of two journalists covering protests in July and early August.

Witnesses said the police often harassed people who attempted to film the protests. “A man wearing civilian clothing and a black mask on his face stopped me, without identifying himself, and asked me to hand him my phone,” said a protester in the northern town Irbid who described an encounter with plainclothes police on August 9. “He opened my phone, looked through my photos, the first 2-3 photos, and then went away…”

One protester said that authorities detained them for two nights. Sources with direct knowledge of three other detained protesters said they appeared to be held in nonjudicial administrative detention. Local governors, who are Interior Ministry officials, can unilaterally and arbitrarily lock people up under this system without judicial review. Two detainees alleged that authorities pressed them to sign pledges obliging them not to participate in further demonstrations or make any statements under penalty of fines ranging between 20,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$28,200) and 50,000 Dinars ($70,500).

The teacher from Karak said that police detained him at the August 4 protest, holding him for two nights at various facilities in Karak and Amman. He said they accused him of inciting protests and demanded that he provide names of teachers and others who participated in the protests. “They made me look and feel like I am a criminal, a terrorist,” he said. “I’m not an activist, I don’t take part in anything besides the [teachers’ protests].” He said that authorities forced him to sign a pledge not to participate in any further gatherings on penalty of 20,000 JOD ($28,200).

A family member of another protester in Irbid said that on August 2 police who identified themselves as Preventative Security arrested him at his home. The family member said that authorities told the family he was transferred to the local governor, leading them to assume he is in administrative detention, but that they were uncertain of the legal basis for the detention.

The lawyer of a detained protester from Amman said that his client said he is being held administratively because of “illegal gathering” and submitted two bail requests for the governor’s office. A source with direct knowledge of the detention of another detained protester from Ajloun said that the protester refused to sign the pledge not to protest, then was detained, but the source had not been able to obtain a copy of the detention order.

A man from Jerash said he was summoned to the police Criminal Investigations Division (CID) on August 3 over his July 29 Facebook post supporting the protests. He went in the next day and authorities detained him for “inciting illegal gathering,” but a court ordered his release the same day. He said that later that day he was detained administratively by the governor and held for two nights, then released after his father signed a pledge stating that he would no longer support the teachers’ syndicate or protests on social media under penalty of a 50,000 JOD ($70,500) fine.

Jordanian authorities have formally charged the 13 syndicate board members detained on July 25. The charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, listed four separate vague charges including “influencing the freedom of elections,” “inciting illegal gathering,” “encouraging others by speech or writing to undertake illegal acts,” and “inciting hatred” against public educational institutions. On August 23, authorities released the syndicate leaders after a month in detention.

A family member of a teacher and representative in the Teachers’ Syndicate’s central committee detained on August 2 said that his family was surprised to learn that the Education Ministry had placed him on a list of teachers who applied for retirement, apparently in retaliation for his syndicate activities. The family member said that the teacher was summoned by the governor on July 29, the day of a large protest in Amman, and signed a pledge that to no longer participate in protests. The family member said the governor refused a bail request and the teacher remains in detention.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed under article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Jordan acceded in 1975. Authorities may restrict the right to free assembly on the grounds of public health, as Jordanian authorities say they have done, but only after “a differentiated or individualized assessment of the conduct of the participants and the assembly concerned. Blanket restrictions on peaceful assemblies are presumptively disproportionate.”

Jordan should immediately lift its ban on public protests and protect Jordanians’ right to free assembly in line with public health concerns. The authorities should also release anyone held arbitrarily in administrative detention and revise the law to end this abusive practice.

“Jordan’s public health justification for banning all protests is a transparent pretext to silence peaceful dissent, but this crackdown could actually spark broader outrage against authorities’ abusive decisions,” Page said.