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Jordanians rejoice at plotters’ conviction - but not for the obvious reasons

Bassem Awadallah found no support as he stood trial for attempting to undermine the king. But people hated him for his neoliberal policies, not his Saudi connections
Bassem Awadallah being led into court in Amman
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Amman

As Bassem Awadallah approached court for his sentencing on Monday in a sedition plot case that has rocked Jordan, he appeared tired and resigned. The former finance minister and confidant of the Saudi crown prince was thinner after three months in jail.

Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a minor royal and distant relative of the king he was accused of trying to overthrow, also emerged from a black vehicle in baby-blue overalls, his hands tied behind his back and a steely expression on his face.

Moments later, with journalists allowed access to proceedings for the first time via video link, Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced the pair to 15 years' hard labour, convicted of undermining the rule of King Abdullah II and seeking to replace him with Prince Hamzah, the monarch’s half-brother.

Sharif Hassan bin Zaid is brought into court in Amman
Sharif Hassan bin Zaid is brought into court in Amman

“The basic elements of the crime of sedition have been proven and it has been proven that the indicted carried out a criminal act to cause sedition and it has been proven that they incited against the king,” Judge Mowafaq Massaid said as he read out the judgment.

“Those accused in the case had a friendly relationship and carry thoughts that are against the state and King Abdullah II. They worked together to cause chaos and sedition inside the Jordanian society.”

The ruling brings to a close, for now, a strange and dramatic chapter of Jordanian history, which began in April when Prince Hamzah was told by the military chief that he was essentially under house arrest, a move that prompted the royal to leak videos and recordings proclaiming his innocence.

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Awadallah, former head of the royal court, and Sharif Hassan, a one-time envoy to Saudi Arabia, were among 18 arrested at the same time. Mediation by tribal leaders secured the release of the other 16.

However, Awadallah and Sharif Hassan remained accused of plotting to sow sedition with the aim of undermining the king’s rule, and were put on a closed trial. Jordanian authorities claimed the two, who have close ties with Riyadh, were conspiring with foreign actors, and said they have the recordings and transcripts to prove it.

Middle East Eye first reported in April that Awadallah had been arrested following the revelation that he had been exchanging voice and text messages with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A source close to the investigation told MEE that the two had discussed how and when to use mounting popular unrest in Jordan, stoked by the kingdom’s flagging economy and the Covid-19 pandemic, to destabilise Abdullah.

“What happened is a criminal act that is aimed at accomplishing the internal aspiration of those accused and is aimed at the present regime. The facts of the case have proven the crime,” Massaid said in his judgment.

No charges against Hamzah or the Saudis

Mohammad al-Afif, Awadallah’s lawyer, told MEE he had expected this outcome, and that a sentence for such a conviction ranged from five to 30 years in prison. Both Awadallah and Sharif Hassan denied the charges.

“I will appeal the decision to the court of appeals because the state security court refused our request to call 26 witnesses, among them Prince Hamzah and other officials. I will also challenge the mechanism for the setup of the court,” Afif said.

Though Prince Hamzah, who was crown prince until Abdullah replaced him with the king’s own son, is a prominent figure in the alleged sedition plot, he was not put on trial or involved in proceedings in any way. The royal family said they had dealt with him internally, though leaked recordings and messages allege he played a leading role in the supposed plot.

'I will appeal the decision to the court of appeals because the state security court refused our request to call 26 witnesses, among them Prince Hamzah and other officials'

- Mohammad al-Afif, Awadallah’s lawyer

Absent, too, are open charges levelled against the Saudi government.

MEE and later the Washington Post reported that Mohammed bin Salman, alongside the Trump administration and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, sought to remove King Abdullah, frustrated by his rejection of their plans for the region and the Palestinian issue.

Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Prince Farhan, travelled to Amman in the wake of the plot accusations, reportedly attempting to secure Awadallah’s release. Riyadh says it stands by the Jordanian king.

Jordanians online, however, have not held back from linking the Saudis to the plot.

“The misery on Bassem Awadallah’s face is enough to reflect how bin Salman feels now and his relations with Jordan,” one tweeted.

“I hope Awadallah would be held accountable. He and his team should pay back the money that they wasted. This should be done regardless of the protection of the Saudi state, which we hope stays out of Jordan,” said another.

Economic crimes

Despite the reports of Saudi attempts to retrieve Awadallah, there is a widespread belief the Saudis gave up their man.

Political commentator Omar Qullab told MEE that the former royal aide would never have gone on trial if Riyadh had felt he was truly important.

Quite apart from Awadallah’s foreign links, however, was his reputation as former finance minister and leading advocate of the kingdom’s recent neoliberal economic policies, which are blamed by some of contributing to Jordan’s economic malaise.

“Jordanians are happy with Awadallah’s conviction because most of them are traditional, and rejected his privatisation plans and sale of the country’s assets,” Qullab said.

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“He couldn’t find voices to defend him, and failed to create an alliance for his defence, because everyone was afraid of public opinion.”

Similarly, Etaf Roudan, a Jordanian writer, said Jordanians have long wanted Awadallah punished for his mass privatisation of state assets. There is a feeling that he is just the tip of the sedition plot iceberg, too, she added.

“There are still a number of steps that need to be taken before the judgment is final. Awadallah in my opinion is an individual, and while this one individual might be held responsible, many others are still around and many also wish he tried a long time ago,” Roudan said.

Alaa Fazaa, a political activist who lives in self-imposed exile, told MEE Awadallah had been convicted for the wrong crimes.

“Awadallah has been the target of parliamentarians and activists for 16 years, saying he should be tried for financial, political and administrative corruption. But he is being tried now on a charge that no one believes in, which is entirely built on recordings and WhatsApp messages that don’t even rise to the level of cybercrimes.”

This, Fazaa said, shows the government is out of touch with the Jordanian people and their demands.

“The judgment is not final and it is clear that a Jordanian-Saudi arrangement has taken place in which Bassem Awadallah was sacrificed in return for not mentioning Saudi Arabia by name in the investigations.”