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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 18:12 GMT
Riots rattle Jordan's leaders
Map showing Jordan and the southern city of Maan
By Caroline Hawley in Maan

The Jordanian authorities are continuing their investigations into riots last week in the southern town of Maan, which were the worst public disturbances in the country in more than three years.

A policeman died during the protests which followed the death in custody of a teenager.

The government says it has launched two separate inquiries - one into the riots and one into how the 17-year-old, Suleiman Fanatseh, died.


But they did that to him because of the pictures of bin Laden and the Palestinians

Suleiman Fanatshe's mother
Although Maan is very, very quiet at the moment, these were the worst riots here King Abdullah came to power.

The authorities say Suleiman was arrested because he was about to commit a robbery and that he died of a kidney complaint.

His family has another story.

They say he had been associating with an Islamist religious leader and that he was tortured after police found a picture of Osama bin Laden in his pocket, as well as photographs of Palestinians killed during the intifada.

Protests

"May God hold them to account," Suleiman's grandmother says, as his mother angrily names the three policeman she says stubbed out lighted cigarettes on him and crushed his stomach and kidneys with their boots.

"He practised karate and was always healthy before," Suleiman's mother says. "But they did that to him because of the pictures of bin Laden and the Palestinians."

King Abdullah
The riots were the worst disturbances since King Abdullah came to power
The government has denied the teenager was tortured and blamed the riots on professional troublemakers.

Whatever the truth, many in Maan believe they were fuelled by poverty.

Vegetable sellers hawk their wares in the centre of Maan, one of Jordan's poorest cities, deep in the desert.

No coverage

There is high unemployment here and low expectations.

These men told me the economy had died.

Maan has been a centre of unrest before over price rises, and in 1998 there were violent demonstrations in favour of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.


We had to control the situation, we have to contain it, and it's just that - the whole case is not political.

Muhammad Adwan, information minister
But the latest riots have still rattled the authorities. No pictures of the riots were shown on Jordanian television and foreign crews who filmed the disturbances either had their tapes taken away or were warned not to broadcast them.

Days after the riots were over, the police did not want the BBC there either.

We were taken to the police station and told we couldn't be here and then we were given a police escort to the edge of town.

The government insists it has nothing to hide and says its forces did not fire even though some of the protestors were armed.

'Political significance'

Jordan's Information Minister, Muhammad Adwan, says this is a volatile region.

"Sometimes you take certain security measures that may seem not appropriate for journalists at the time," he says.


We are actually witnessing the beginning of the erosion of the laws that protect human rights

Labib Kamhawi, human rights activist
"But this is a government decision. We had to control the situation, we have to contain it, and it's just that. The whole case is not political. Perhaps if there is an over-reaction by some citizens or by the police, we are investigating this right now."

But human rights activist Labib Kamhawi believes what happened in Maan has wider political significance.

"The bottom line is that people are suffering," he says. "This is a general mood of the country. A spill-over is what the government is worried about.

And Kamhawi says the government has recently adopted increasingly repressive measures, particularly since 11 September.

In May, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians were banned and since the attack on the US, new laws have been adopted that curb press and other freedoms.

"We are actually witnessing the beginning of the erosion of the laws that protect human rights," Mr Kamhawi says.

"I can be taken to court now and put in jail for talking to you the way I'm talking. I should not tell you that 'yes, there are grievances' because this might be interpreted -- according to new laws -- as being defamation of the government."

Jordan has been one of the Arab world's most politically liberal countries.

But with the Middle East now in turmoil, its reputation for relative tolerance is wearing thin.

See also:

27 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Jordan
23 Jan 02 | Middle East
Jordan police out in force after riots
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