WASHINGTON (IPS) — A new report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses the Jordanian authorities of routine and widespread torture of prisoners throughout the country, and calls for an end to the abuses.
According to the 95-page report, based on interviews with 110 random prisoners in several locations in 2007 and 2008, many detainees made credible claims of torture. Yet Jordanian prison officials say that beatings and ill treatment of the prisoners are isolated incidents, and that reforms since 2006 have improved prisoner conditions and accountability for abuse.
HRW said that while positive steps have been taken, a systematic problem still exists.
"Torture in Jordan's prison system is widespread even two years after King Abdullah called for reforms to stop it once and for all," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. "The mechanisms for preventing torture by holding torturers accountable are simply not working."
The HRW report notes that in 2008, the Jordanian Interior Ministry's Public Security Directorate (PSD) allowed the National Centre for Human Rights to set up an office inside Swaqa prison. However, the office was closed in April of the same year for critical reporting about a prison riot.
Beatings with cables and sticks and prisoners' suspension from metal gates for hours by their wrists were the main techniques that were used to torture the prisoners. HRW found evidence of group torture in situations when Islamist detainees were either convicted or accused of crimes against national security.
"Jordan has made some attempts to address the problem of torture in prison, but the bottom line is that the measures have been insufficient, and torture persists as a consequence," Whitson said.
Among the 110 prisoners randomly selected for interviews by HRW, 66 of them claimed that they were tortured and abused. HRW also found evidence that five prison directors had personally participated in the torture of inmates.
Firas "Sbaih" Zaidan was one of the prisoners who was tortured and was subsequently found dead on the morning of May 10, 2007. The prosecution of those implicated in the abuse reportedly upgraded the charges to "excessive beating resulting in death."
HRW spoke to six of Zaidan's fellow inmates, whose names were not disclosed at their request. They spoke in detail about the beating of Zaidan.
HRW, said the report, "believes that more should have been done to save Zaidan's life. Other officers should have intervened, since some of the beatings took place in plain view. An officer in the video monitoring room should have seen the beatings take place on his screen and intervened."
Mysteriously, Zaidan's body was also found to contain the chemical Clomipramil, an anti-depressant. How the substance entered Zaidan's bloodstream has never been fully investigated, said the report.
In 2007, the Jordanian Grievances and Human Rights Office — set up by the PSD — received 710 complaints. Ninety-five percent of those were administrative complaints.
Officials investigated 19 complaints of a potentially criminal nature, referred six to the Police Court for prosecution and decided not to refer five cases to court for prosecution because of lack of evidence. However, directors of three prisons, Muwaqqar, Qafqafa, and Swaqa, had told HRW that they had disciplined six guards for abuse without involving the PSD.
"The PSD's reluctance to prosecute and punish torturers within its ranks stems from a misguided desire to preserve the reputation of the prison service," Whitson said. "Instead, protecting guards who torture from prosecution tarnishes the image of the entire profession, including those guards who fulfill their duties without resorting to torture and abuse of prisoners."
In the few cases where the Jordanian government had prosecuted some flagrant cases of brutal abuse, the police courts have delivered flawed verdicts, according to the report.
Majid al-Rawashda, the former prison director for Swaqa prison, was sentenced by the Police Court to a fine of 120 Jordanian dinars (about 180 U.S. dollars) for ordering and taking part in the beatings of 70 prisoners in 2007.
Incongruously, in the case of the beating death of Zaidan, the convicted torturers were sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
"The police and prison service cannot credibly investigate itself," said Whitson. "Civilian prosecutors and judges should take over all investigations of prison abuse to end impunity for torturers and begin to provide redress for victims of torture."
HRW recommends that the government of Jordan set up an independent domestic prison inspection mechanism and strengthen the authorities of the National Centre for Human Rights to execute such inspections. It also calls on the European Union and the U.S. to improve the conditions in Jordanian prisons and to eliminate any incidents of torture.
The report commends the cooperation of all of the Jordanian authorities who allowed access to HRW staff conducting investigations and interviews.
"Jordan's Ministry of Interior, Public Security Directorate, prison service, prison reform program, human rights office and Police Court almost always facilitated our requests and were always open to discussions," said the report. "The willingness of these representatives of the Jordanian government to grant us access to their prison facilities and to meet with us repeatedly to discuss our concerns as well as particular cases is commendable and reflects a positive commitment to transparency and reform."