Jordan’s corruption puzzle – By Christina Satkowski

Posted on May 19, 2012

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Jordan, Amman, King Abdullah Mosque Deutsch: J...

Jordan, Amman

Earlier this month, Jordan’s new prime minister, Fayez Tarawneh, unveiled his new cabinet and reaffirmed the kingdom’s self-described commitment to combating corruption. But for the new government — Jordan’s fourth since the Arab Spring began — the drive against kickbacks andwasta may be losing steam as doubts arise about the progress of the anti-corruption campaign. The crackdown on corruption — including the arrests of several high-profile politicians once considered “untouchable” — has been a key element in the Jordanian government’s strategy to navigate the political turbulence of the Arab Spring. In December, former Amman mayor Omar Maani was arrested on fraud charges. (He was released four weeks later on bail.) In February, Mohammad Dahabi, the former director of Jordan’s intelligence service, was taken into custodyon charges of money laundering.

But the arrest of Mr. Dahabi has raised some eyebrows. Dr. Abdelrazaq Beni Hani, an economist who served as deputy head of Jordan’s Anti-Corruption Commission from October 2010 until he resigned to protest what he saw as the commission’s lack of professionalism in January 2012, is one of several parliamentarians, academics, and former government officials who have publicly and privately questioned the foundations of the case against Mr. Dahabi.

“It is a highly politicized case,” Beni Hani told me last month. He questions the timing of the prosecution and the fact that Dahabi has been denied bail 11 times. Although the alleged crimes occurred several years ago, he was not arrested until this year. Dahabi’s assets have been frozen and he is barred from leaving the country. At a press conference in April, his British lawyers insisted that there is no evidence against him and no reason to keep him behind bars. Beni Hani has suggested publically that Dahabi’s arrest resulted from a well-publicized rivalry between Dahabi, his brother Nader (a former prime minister), and Bassam Awadallah, chief of the Royal Court.

Indeed, what began as quiet criticisms of recent corruption cases in Jordan have evolved into a growing public debate about who is targeted by anti-corruption probes and why. At the heart of the matter, many observers say, is the absence of independent, professional investigations in many of the most prominent cases.

Stepping back and taking a broader look, it would appear that Jordan has been making progress in combating corruption. In 2005, it established the Anti-Corruption Commission, an independent body tasked with spearheading the national campaign. The kingdom took a further positive step forward in 2011 when a constitutional amendment shifted the authority to adjudicate corruption cases from a primarily military body, the State Security Court, to civil courts.

The Jordanian parliament, however, has frequently pre-empted the courts by undertaking investigations of its own. Often, the parliament concludes that there is not enough evidence for a case to proceed, effectively acquitting the individual in question before there is a proper trial. On April 23, for example, the parliament voted to abandon the investigation into the controversial case of Khalid Shahin, a convicted business tycoon who received permission from the government to leave prison and travel abroad, ostensibly for medical care. Jordanians were enraged when he was later seen dining in a fancy London restaurant. Following the vote, one MP declared that the parliament is itself “obstructing justice” by not allowing the case to continue on to the courts.

Now the Jordanian Royal Court is battling accusations that royal advisors have intervened to have cases dismissed. Last month, Jamal Muhtaseb, publisher of the online news siteGerasanews.com, was arrested on charges of “disseminating anti-regime sentiment” after his organization published an article in which an MP suggested the Royal Court intervened in and halted a parliamentary corruption investigation involving a former public housing minister.

Maher Abu Teir, a columnist for the daily Ad-Dustour newspaper, who has written frequently about corruption in the kingdom, cautions that some individuals who point fingers squarely at the Royal Court may do so because they have political agendas of their own. However, he noted a disturbing pattern in the recent corruption cases: Many of the accused individuals who are left to face judges or jail time often do not come from the large families that form the basis of Jordan’s political power structure.

Regardless of whether the allegations of interference by royal advisors are legitimate or not, it is clear from the growing chorus of criticism, especially from individuals within or close to the regime, that confidence in Jordan’s anti-corruption drive is eroding. This not only undermines genuine, good-faith efforts to tackle corruption, but also the government’s ability to respond to the demands of the Jordanian people for reform. In a time of shifting political constellations in Jordan and the region, such criticisms, if left unaddressed, could swell into a serious threat to the Kingdom’s stability.

Will the new government of Fayez Tarawneh use the transition as an opportunity to restore public faith in the anti-corruption campaign? In a nod to critics, King Abdullah II used his letter of designation to stress to Tarawneh that a “just and impartial judiciary is the only party that has the final word over suspected cases of corruption.” Yet Ad-Dustour’s Abu Teir is among the pessimists. He expects that the new government is more likely to focus its political capital on the electoral law and the economy than the emerging concerns about how corruption cases are handled. Besides, he told me with a sigh, corruption is a problem so entrenched in Jordan that “it simply cannot be solved.” But corruption, and public perceptions of corruption, are intertwined with all aspects of the government’s work. The longstanding view that corruption is “unsolvable” cannot hold for much longer.

Christina Satkowski is a researcher in Amman.