Jordan Quashes Unions, Critics of US

Jordan’s new Prime Minister Adnan Badran is coming under attack from pro-democracy advocates for his role in the killing of three university students in 1986. Badran wasn’t elected prime minister of Jordan – he was simply picked for the post by Jordanian ruler and U.S. ally, King Abdullah II.

Columnist Jamal Tahat had just graduated from Jordan’s Yarmuk University when students took to the streets to protest a fee increase. He remembers that – rather than talk to the students – the president of the university, Adnan Badran called in the Jordanian police and military.

"As a result of this decision, students were killed and more than 15 were injured," Tahat recalls. "Many of them still feel the pain in their bodies from that time."

After the students’ killing, Badran was removed from his post at Yarmuk University, but he was never charged with any crime and eventually found a job as a high ranking official at the United Nations aid agency UNESCO. Now, he’s been installed as prime minister without an election.

"There was not any sort of democratic process producing this guy," argues Tahat, adding that Badran’s younger brother was prime minister of Jordan in 1990, when the Kingdom looked favorably on Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

"To a great extent in Jordan, we don’t have an objective political process for choosing a prime minister, they’re just selected by the king," Tahat says.

Badran’s appointment comes at a time of increased civil unrest in Jordan. King Abdullah’s tacit support of the brutality of the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is deeply unpopular. Those who speak out against those policies are repressed. Earlier this year, the 135,000-member Union of Professional Associations – the largest civil society group in Jordan – was barred from undertaking any political activities.

When the group protested, the police attacked.

"There have been haphazard arrests of union activists; at three or four times, the police closed down the union complex, and all the area surrounding it from one kilometer was closed down," relates Dr. Hisham Bustani, a dentist and a leader in the organization. "Union members were beaten in the streets; some of them were hospitalized."

In one of the most high-profile cases, the leader of the Jordanian engineers union, Ali Hattar, was accused of "provocation" and detained overnight by the authorities in December after he delivered a lecture critical of U.S. military and political involvement in the Middle East. Observers expect the space for protest to get smaller under the new government since the man in charge of the crackdown has been given the ministry charged with political reform.

Meantime, legislation to permanently prohibit political activity by professional associations has been introduced in the Jordanian Parliament.

The law is far-reaching and would create a government-controlled disciplinary structure with the authority to punish and suspend members from the ability to practice their profession if they engage in outside activities.

New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson calls the move "a naked attempt to silence the vocal and often critical public debate that the professional associations foster."

"This law threatens association members with the loss of their livelihood should they dare to criticize the government or hold a meeting without government permission," Whitson adds.  

All of these developments have gone uncriticized by the Bush administration. Indeed, many in Jordan believe the new prime minister was installed at the request of Washington, since his appointment came immediately following King Abdullah’s visit to Washington and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Jordan.