Dr. Heba Melhem (Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot Courtesy Jordanian Opposition Coalition)
A shocking report of abduction and torture committed by the Jordanian authorities against an anti-regime activist has aired in the midst of daring civilian protests, which are challenging Jordan’s King Abdullah II and raising comparisons to the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
Jordan - which receives massive economic aid from the US, and in mid-February signed a 5-year $6.4 billion aid package with America - is currently in a state of deep unrest. Popular protests have been boiling over since early February in response to draconian austerity measures, which seek to address the state’s massive debt that has reached 95% of its GDP.
The tax hikes target regular commodities - with bread, for example, doubling in price - and have many worried about their survival given historic unemployment rates near 20%, which are expected to rise due to government mismanagement. A third of Jordanians reportedly live below the poverty line; as a result, the outpouring of popular anger has been massive and intense.
“Jordan is engulfed in a life and death situation,” says Mudar Zahran, Secretary General of the London based Jordanian Opposition Coalition (JOC). “Unlike previous protests, these ones call openly for toppling the regime, and are spreading across the nation.”
Against this background, a women’s rights activist and lawyer disappeared in mid-February following her public protest against the government, only to reappear a number of days later reporting brutal torture, according to Zahran.
Family lawyer and college professor Heba Melhem, who holds a PhD in Sharia Law and lives in Amman, put out a public cry for help in early February, saying she had received threats from the government after taking off her hijab (Muslim head covering) to criticize its unfair treatment of women - in a reminiscent fashion to Iran’s recent crackdown on female protesters removing their hijabs. Melhem, who is an independent rights activist, likewise condemned the lavish lifestyle of King Abdullah and his "Palestinian" wife Queen Rania, who does not wear a hijab, even as their citizens starve, and questioned why Jordan cannot have true peace with Israel.
Clarifying the threats against Melhem, Zahran explains that “Heba’s criticism of the king netted a court ruling that declares her mentally incompetent. It adds that she should therefore be forcibly institutionalized.” He explained that the ruling on her “mandatory detention and institutionalization” was issued by a “government-controlled court.”
In her filmed request for help (see below), Melhem explained the authorities had labelled her “mentally unstable” in an attempt to silence her, and threatened that they would abduct her and lobotomize her if she didn’t adopt a low profile.
The authorities apparently were not long in waiting - Zahran reports that on Feb. 15 Melhem disappeared without a word, and activists who checked her home found it empty and “feared the worst” had happened.
Several tense days of waiting ensued, with activists certain that Melhem’s words against the king had led her to be dragged against her will to an insane asylum, likely never to return - at least, not intact.
A week later, Melhem reappeared to the relief of her fellow activists. She reported that she had indeed been abducted and taken to a mental facility.
While she was not subjected to a lobotomy, she reports undergoing non-stop torture from the moment she arrived there (see accompanying photo of her arm taken just after her release). In the end she was released, but not before being threatened that the minute she opened her mouth again in protest she would find herself back in the asylum - likely to face an even more sinister fate than conventional torture.
Responding to Melhem’s ordeal, Zahran said, “The king has not only placed himself above the Constitution and people, but on one hand he vows to stop fundamentalism while each and every action of his revolves around empowering Islamists at home and oppressing any secular or moderate voices. The king is systematically oppressing any moderate voices and what he is doing to Heba Melhem is evidence of that.”
“Heba is a strong woman, a great woman, and a woman many Jordanians are proud of,” Zahran continued. Commenting on how Melhem was targeted for removing her hijab, Zahran added, “The West should understand that this fact alone proves that Jordan's king has allowed fundamentalist Islam to sprout and flourish in the nation.” He warned that the state’s crackdown on the protesters “will backfire on them and ignite a Syria-like situation, undermining American interests in the region.”
Jordan’s “Marie Antoinette”
Melhem was not the only one to have her rights abused merely for protesting against the monarchy.
Zahran reports that during an anti-regime protest in Kerak 100 miles south of Amman on Feb. 23, activist Seyaj Al-Majali criticized Queen Rania saying, “The wives of Jordanians were from known families and respected themselves and did not appear on the cover of magazines with [U2 lead singer] Bono” (Al-Majali’s comments can be seen starting from 3:38 in the video below).
According to the JOC head, Queen Rania directly ordered the activist’s arrest in response, and he noted that her celebrity hobnobbing “has been a matter of controversy, mockery and rumors in Jordan for years, and it clearly bothers the queen.” He explained much of the Jordanian public has dubbed her “Marie Antoinette” for her life in the lap of luxury and alleged multiple extra-marital affairs, even as the common people struggle to make ends meet.
“On behalf of the Jordanian people, the JOC demands that they [the government] release Majali and all other detainees immediately,” Zahran said. “If any activists who are exercising their right to free speech are harmed in any way, not only will every member of the US Congress and UK Parliament be educated about your actions, but we will pursue actions against you in the International Courts.”
Alaa Al-Kofahi, JOC's Human Rights Secretary, added, "What the king and queen have done to Majali is evidence of a politically bankrupt regime, and it has to stop immediately.”
Despite the reported crackdown on Melhem and Majali, the popular uprising of protest continues to swell and grow ever more bold in its vocal condemnation of Abdullah. The demonstrations are said to stretch from As-Salt west of Amman, Al-Kerak just across from the Dead Sea, Al-Theeban (Dhiban) south of Amman, and Az-Zarqa northeast of Amman - the second largest city after the capital. Arab media reports translated by JOC indicate the scope of the demonstrations.
“The king is losing control of the country department by department, block by block, and person by person,” Zahran said. “In the past, this would never happen – to maintain control, the king would simply send in the military to put down the crowds, have the police or military arrest everyone, put them in jail, and then allow them to somehow disappear.
“For some reason, the King is not arresting people. I believe it’s because putting them in jail is expensive, and as many of the chants heard during the demonstrations say, he is about to flee the country, and do so with billions of dollars in gold, jewelry, antiquities and cash.”