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February 05, 2003

Arab Journalists' Blasphemy Trial Points to Jordan's Predicament

Another Islamic land of the free and the brave
AMMAN, Jordan -- AMMAN, Jordan -- Handcuffed, their oversize prison uniforms dragging on the floor, three Arab men were led through a bare courtroom to an iron cage. Only when they were locked inside did the day's proceedings begin.

Have they been charged with terrorism, kidnapping, murder? No. They are on trial for publishing an article about the sex life of the prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha.

The three Jordanian journalists at Al Hilal, or the Crescent, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 7,000, are accused of "harming the reputation of the government," "harming the dignity of Muslims" and, perhaps most significant, "destabilizing society by publishing perversity and false news."

They were arrested Jan. 16, are being held without bail and could receive a maximum sentence of three years. Their newspaper was shut down.

The trial is taking place in State Security Court, usually the venue for crimes associated with potential physical threats to society. For offenses such as those the three men are accused of -- technically misdemeanors -- the verdicts and sentences of the court are final; only the decisions in serious crimes can be appealed.

The flap caused by the article in this Islamic country, which is generally described as moderate, suggests how vulnerable the Jordanian government perceives itself to be on the eve of a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq, which many believe could ignite fundamentalist forces here.

The tough prosecution appears to be the government's effort to show its respect for the sensibilities of Jordan's conservative majority and to provide a counterweight to controversial pro-American policies.[more]