The Torture and Imprisonment of Amer Jubran

The Kingdom of Jordan plays an often overlooked role in silencing the movement for justice in Palestine.

A Palestinian flag flying in Derry, Ireland. Nina Seán Feenan / Flickr

In July 2015, a story about an alleged Hezbollah cell in Jordan showed up in the international press: “Jordan jails 8 for plots against US troops, Israel.” The story details plans for “terrorist acts” against US troops at the military base in Al-Moaqar in 2006 and the Israeli embassy in Amman in 2008. The alleged leader of the cell was convicted of affiliation with Hezbollah, with a sentence from Jordan’s State Security Court of ten years hard labor.

The day before, a headline in the Jordan Times read, “12 defendants sentenced to prison in ‘Hamas case’.” Here also the State Security Court (SSC) sentenced the defendants under newly amended “terrorism” laws that criminalize association with armed organizations. The latter story quotes the Muslim Brotherhood asking the pertinent question: “[I]n in whose interest it is to try those who support the Palestinian Hamas movement?”

In both cases the groups have done nothing to threaten the Jordanian government. Hamas has been clear in restricting its military actions to the colonial occupiers of Palestine. Hezbollah has historically focused its activities on defending the territory of Lebanon — both winning battles against the United States and delivering Israel humiliating defeats in 2000 and 2006.

Even a cursory examination of the facts behind the first headline suggests that Jordan is using “anti-terrorism” legislation to eliminate pro-Palestinian organizations in Jordan, and also using such legislation as a broad cover to silence critics — including activists, journalists, and leaders of opposition parties — who object to Israeli and US policies in the region. The Jordanians are not acting by themselves but in coordination with Israel and the United States, and probably at their direct behest.

The Trial Record

First, a look at the court record in the “Hezbollah” case. According to the public prosecutor, the alleged leader of the cell, Amer Jubran, and six of his co-defendants voluntarily confessed to all the facts in the trial.

The prosecutor would have us believe that Jubran confessed the entire narrative to the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) on May 6, 2014 — less than twenty-four hours after his arrest. No interrogation was purportedly necessary. The narrative, which included detailed plans to attack American soldiers, the use of weapons and explosives, and involvement with Hezbollah, allegedly unfolded in response to one simple question: “Tell us what occurred with you.”

A similar story was told about the others. According to the prosecutor, they were arrested, brought to headquarters, and asked: “Tell us what occurred with you.” In response, there followed in each case a lengthy narrative, using identical phrases to describe the same events, although referring in some cases to events alleged to have taken place ten years earlier.

However, we know that Jubran was arrested on May 5, 2014 and held for close to two months in incommunicado detention. Yet no account is made for this fact.

At that time, a campaign emerged calling for information about his whereabouts and for his release, and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in July 2014 submitted an appeal on his behalf to the government of Jordan. We are nevertheless to believe that he was detained by the GID, made his full confession in less than 24 hours, and for some mysterious reason was then held at the GID headquarters for several weeks without access to lawyers or contact with his family.

Here is the testimony from Jubran about what actually happened. In the excerpt below from a brief submitted by defense attorneys during his trial, he gave numbers to the officers involved in his interrogation.

He has since named Officer 1 as Colonel Habes Rizk and Officer 2 as Captain Motaz Ahmad Abdurrahman:

Officer 1 threatened to “hide [the defendant] behind the sun” and expressed his racism that all the Palestinians are traitors because they want to free their country

Officers 1 and 2 deceived the defendant by claiming that his father [name], his brother [name] and ten of his company’s employees had been arrested.

Torturing other arrested persons in the same case before him like [defendant name] and [defendant name].

Successive interrogation sessions lasting seventy-two hours, with an interrogation team alternating every eight hours. Sometimes these sessions extended for 120 hours. During such sessions, the defendant sometimes suffered from fainting and in three such instances was taken to an internal clinic, a large quantity of acetone was poured into his nose to revive him, and the doctor would say that the fainting has nothing to do with cardiac disease, but is a psychological effect of the severity of the interrogation. When the interrogation was resumed, if the defendant lost consciousness he was given a cold shower with his clothes on to wake him up and the interrogation continued.

Other methods included pouring water on Jubran and treating him as though he had urinated on himself, and threatening to bring his wife in front of him and to insult and assault her. There was also physical torture, such as applying pressure to the place where Jubran’s neck met his shoulder for several hours at a time, slapping him in the face, or ordering him into a prayer position. If he refused to respond, the office would place both his feet on the defendant’s leg.

Jubran and his co-defendants submitted testimony that they were given pre-fabricated confessions under these conditions, and told that the torture would not end unless they signed them — in some cases, without even being allowed to read them first. One defendant with a life-threatening illness was denied medication until he signed.

When the state brought them before the public prosecutor, GID agents took them to a room in the same GID detention facility where the torture occurred, with their escorts standing just outside the door. They were told that the torture would continue if they retracted anything, or demanded attorneys.

The defendants’ testimony that their confessions were false and the product of torture was submitted to the court at trial. And yet the State Security Court states in its published opinion:

The court was assured of the evidence presented by the prosecution, and relies on it for proof, amongst which are the fact that the confessions of the defendants during the investigations were given clearly, correctly, with no ambiguity, and were given freely and by choice … [T]his court finds that it is not obliged to discuss Defense’s evidence presented by defense attorneys since accepting prosecution’s evidence automatically implies rejection of defense’s evidence, as this was the interpretation settled upon by the respected Court of Cassation in many of its rulings, among them decision number 757/2002 chapter 21/10/2002, from which we quote: ‘…the State Security Court has done well to set aside defense’s evidence without discussing it’.

In spite of the sheer implausibility of the prosecutor’s claims, the court used the confessions as the sole and sufficient basis for its verdict.

Jubran’s case illustrates a well-worn pattern. Global human rights organizations have extensively documented the abuse of justice in Jordan’s State Security Court — a military tribunal with no judicial independence. The Geneva-based Alkarama illuminates this pattern as it discusses collaboration between the General Intelligence Directorate and the State Security Court in creating an atmosphere of impunity for torture:

The methods of torture most commonly employed by GID officers are beatings, beatings with cables, ropes, plastic pipes, whips etc all over the body including the soles of the feet (falaqa), stress positions, sleep deprivation, injections that cause states of extreme anxiety, humiliation, threats of rape against the victim and members of his family, electroshock, prolonged isolation, etc. Abuse is more prevalent in the GID due to its close collaboration with the judges of the State Security Court.

Silencing Critics

Jubran’s case illustrates something else, too: he is an internationally known activist for Palestinian rights. Although he has expressed respect for Hezbollah, he has made it clear that he is not affiliated with it or any other political party. His case conforms to a pattern of using Jordan’s “anti-terrorism” legislation against political dissidents. This includes the use of vague new amendments enacted in June 2014 (after his arrest in May), criminalizing as terrorism acts that “threaten to harm relations with a foreign government,” and also criminalizing “affiliation” with armed organizations — both used in his case.

Trial before the State Security Court has become an instrument of choice for silencing activists, journalists, and members of opposition parties critical of Jordanian foreign policy.

In Jubran’s case, government repression has occurred without even the pretext of criticism against the Jordanian regime. He has aimed all of his activism and writing at the United States and Israel.

According to a statement from Jubran, the GID told him explicitly that all decisions in his case were being taken with “our American and Israeli friends.” He also says that the main demand made of him during his interrogation sessions was to act as an infiltrator and agent against Hezbollah.

In a second statement recorded October 1st, he gives more details about the GID interrogations:

…During the interrogation there were numerous sessions during which I was asked questions about friends and activists from the States. Including [list of names]. They claimed, when I asked why, that this was for their own use of information and for their friends in the States…

My dear friends, I admit that I was not a hero during the encounter with the GID. Except for refusing to be a sell-out. I was broken down by the amount of threats against my faith and my family, and the one I love. But one would ask, Why I would believe these threats? Because the GID is credible in its evil and criminal history. I, until this moment, still fear the vindictive reaction against myself and my loved ones. I have signed all documents that they have presented to me. And wrote all sorts of confessing narratives including admitting to full responsibility of an attack that was carried against the Israeli Ambassador convoy back in January 2010.

Jubran also confessed to plotting to attack the Israeli embassy in Jordan. He added that the confessions from all the defendants were continually rewritten and rearranged, but always to ensure his “full responsibility,” with the prosecutor changing the charges in parallel with the new arrangements of the confessions.

Jubran in the United States

We ought to pause over the GID’s questions about his friends in the US, and the GID’s assertion that such information is for “its own use and for our friends in the States.” Jubran lived in the United States for eighteen years and became prominent as a spokesperson for Palestinian rights and a leading voice in the US anti-war movement. He gave dozens of speeches at community education events, on college campuses, and at rallies and demonstrations. In 2002, he spoke from a national stage in Washington DC before a demonstration which the Washington Post described as the “largest demonstration for Palestine in US history.”

In Boston, he led the organizing for a yearly protest against the Israel Day celebration. These protests were ultimately successful, driving the celebration out of public space in Boston. But he and other local Palestinian organizers paid a high price for their success. In 2001, he was arrested in Brookline as a leader of the protest, held for twenty-four hours in hand and leg shackles, accused of physically assaulting a passerby.

The state ultimately dismissed the case when it emerged that the police suppressed evidence in discovery that the accuser — a prominent local Zionist — was actually the aggressor. Information showed coordination between police and the Israeli consulate, including sending the latter the names of US activists.

A year later, Cambridge police arrested Jaoudat Abouazza, another Palestinian activist within the same group, ostensibly for a lapsed vehicle registration. The police held and violently interrogated him when they found flyers in his vehicle announcing the Israel Day protest.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) then took Abouazza, a citizen of Canada, into custody, interrogating him, beating him, and torturing him by extracting his teeth against his will. Jubran visited Abouazza in prison and spoke out about his case.

In 2002, Jubran helped to launch an organization called the New England Committee to Defend Palestine (NECDP). It opposed the existence of Israel as a colonial settler state, and upheld the right of Palestinians to liberate all of their historic land through armed struggle. Two days after its first demonstration, on November 2 — Balfour Day — the FBI and INS burst into his home and demanded that he cooperate with an inquisition into his political activities. They threatened him with indefinite detention when he insisted on his right to an attorney.

The government held Jubran for seventeen days without charges, finally granting him a bond hearing in the face of a growing international campaign for his release. They ultimately brought false immigration charges against him as they attempted to justify his arrest, while they concealed the political motivations underlying it.

Documents obtained through FOIA reveal coordination between local and federal police agencies in a pattern of intrusive surveillance against Jubran and other local activists for organizing protests and engaging in other legally protected forms of activism, such as holding educational talks and posting information on websites.

The INS, which later became ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) as part of the Department of Homeland Security, was relentless in pursuing the case. It hounded defense witnesses and threatened them with possible prosecution for “terrorism” if they testified in Jubran’s defense. He ultimately chose “voluntary departure” and returned to Jordan in 2004.

The US government failed to shut down the NECDP, and its repression brought more attention to Jubran’s politics, as often happens in cases of blatant suppression of freedom of speech. But its tactics were partially successful in removing Palestinian voices from the US movement.

In our local situation in Boston, all five of the non-citizen Palestinians involved in organizing anti-Zionist protests had either been arrested or left the country by the end of 2004.

“Extremism” and “Material Support”

We cannot predict whether the US government will use Jubran’s conviction in Jordan as a pretext to criminalize activists here. In any case, the primary concern of those of us who knew Jubran from his time in the US has been to call attention to the severe human rights violations against him and his co-defendants, and to organize a campaign calling for his release.

We ought, nevertheless, to note that the GID’s questions to him about US activists are a threat to pro-Palestine organizers here. In the developing domestic legal regime, it has become comparatively easy for the US government to criminalize activists who express solidarity with Palestinians and other oppressed and occupied peoples engaged in armed struggles of liberation.

Following the Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project in 2010, “material support for terrorism” has been interpreted broadly as including “expert advice” and “services” and these, in turn, are interpreted to include such activities as translation, as in the case of Tarek Mehanna.

In addition to the repressive legal apparatus developed since September 11, 2001, there has been a steady stream of propaganda connecting the expression of political opinions with a process of “domestic radicalization,” leading to “terrorism.” In this context, some have tried to define certain positions as “extremism,” outside the bounds of legitimacy.

For Arabs and Muslims, this includes any invocation of the right to armed self-defense against foreign invasion. For Palestinians specifically, it includes the refusal to accept a colonial regime in the portions of Palestine that were militarily occupied in 1948 — that is to say, a refusal to renounce their legitimate rights to most of their homeland.

The US government criminalized Jubran while he was living in the United States because he refused to be intimidated in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and continued to speak out for the full range of Palestinian rights.

In Jordan, Jubran continued to speak and to write in defense of these positions, and continued to publish articles and statements through the NECDP. Another wave of repression against US pro-Palestine activists occurred in 2010, with a raid on the homes of activists in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids, and the questioning of activists across the country.

The FBI visited at least one NECDP activist in 2011. They tried to question him about articles he had written. In a statement about repression in the US published in 2011, the NECDP noted the increased attention to solidarity activists based purely on their stated beliefs. We observed that this was occurring at a time when Zionists were increasingly on the defensive, with the Foreign Ministry contemplating stopping global official lecture tours, and think tanks like the Reut Institute calling for new strategies.

According to the Reut Report, one core recommendation was to distinguish between mere critics of Israeli policy and those committed to “delegitimizing Israel,” in order to isolate the latter. As a consequence, NECDP continues, “What we are witnessing across the country is an attempt to isolate and remove radical voices from the public discussion about Palestine in order to reduce their influence within a growing movement,” with particular attention to those who defend the Palestinian right to resist, or refuse to accept the right of Israel to exist.

Jordan’s Role

Jordan has been central to the regional dominance of Israel and the United States. Refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria now represent the vast majority of Jordan’s population. From the Nakba in 1948 to the war in Iraq to the most recent US-led destabilization of Syria, it has not only absorbed these casualties of US and Israeli aggression and regional destabilization, but also kept them terrorized and silent. All serious attempts to speak out and to organize in Jordan against US and Israeli policies have been met with brutal repression by the GID.

At the same time, Jordan must present itself to its own street as “a protector of Arab lands.” To that end it is superficially critical of Israeli policies, since the great majority of its people oppose them, and must appear solicitous for the rights of Palestinians.

This contradiction was everywhere evident in Jubran’s trial: the government charged him with planning attacks on US soldiers in a period during which it was officially denying the presence of US soldiers on its territory.

Defense lawyers repeatedly presented these official statements at trial, asking that the government clarify its official position or provide evidence of the presence of US troops during the dates in question. The SSC refused to entertain the motion.

It thus sentenced him for planning attacks on soldiers who, by its own claims, didn’t exist. Similarly, the government charged him with membership in Hezbollah, and yet as both Jubran and his defense attorneys have pointed out, it has never declared that organization to be a terrorist group, and the court denied all requests to require the government to clarify its official position with regard to Hezbollah.

In the last few years, Jordan has tried to paint itself as undergoing extensive “democratic reforms,” but its methods of repression — especially against the Palestinian majority — have been as brutal as those employed by Israel, including the extensive use of torture and arbitrary detention.

And yet this repression has taken place far more secretively, and not only with international impunity, but with little critical attention from activists and organizers outside the region.

For activists involved in international solidarity with Palestine, Jordan’s culpability cannot continue to be ignored.