Jordan to diminish tasks of military court

September 1, 2013 - 5:35 PM

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan said Sunday it will sharply diminish the duties of its powerful military court in line with promised state reforms to allow for wider freedom of expression.

Spearheading the reforms, Jordan's King Abdullah II has called for amending a law governing the tasks of the no-jury tribunal, officially known as the State Security Court.

Reformists criticize the court as a government tool to muzzle them.

Information Minister Mohammad Momani said the amended draft law, which will be debated in the elected parliament, was unanimously endorsed by Cabinet Sunday.

He said out of 17 crimes previously under its jurisdiction, the military court would now only have authority over matters related to terrorism, espionage, treason, illegal drugs and currency counterfeiting.

"This is a significant milestone toward the aspired reforms in line with consistent demands by reform movements in Jordan," Momani told The Associated Press following the Cabinet endorsement.

He said one of the most controversial offenses removed from the court's jurisdiction is criticizing the king in public, better known as lesser majeste — punishable by up to 3 years in jail. In practice however, the king often intervened and pardoned his critics.

Reformist activist Assef Nasser said it was a "step in the right direction."

"We hope that the ultimate goal would be to dissolve the court altogether," said the activist, who faces trial in the military court with 10 other young Jordanians on charges of plotting to overthrow the government for taking part in violent riots last November over an across-the-board fuel price hike. Four people, including three policemen, were killed and scores of others were wounded in the unusual violence.

Jordan has seen protests calling for reforms, but they were much smaller and relatively peaceful compared to mass and violent demonstrations in other Arab capitals.

Jordan's king was able to stave off the violence that swept other Arab countries in the so-called Arab Spring that toppled four Arab leaders in 2011 by speeding up reforms he initiated since he ascended to the throne in 1999.

The changes included removing restrictions on public gatherings, holding parliamentary elections and amending 42 articles, or one-third, of the 60-year-old constitution, giving more powers to the elected parliament. The king promised more powers to the legislature gradually over the next few years as the crown takes a step back from running the daily affairs of state.