AMMAN (Reuters) - A leading U.S. human rights group said on Friday beatings of inmates in Jordanian jails were rampant and many of the country’s top Islamist detainees were denied justice.
Christoph Wilcke, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Jordan specialist, speaking after a two-week tour of jails across the country, said detainees had cited serious abuses and beatings and told the group two prisoners died under torture since May.
He said the HRW mission marked the first time Jordan had opened its five main prisons, including the intelligence headquarters’ main detention centre, to the scrutiny of a foreign human rights group.
“There is a systematic policy of corporal punishment which is widespread and systematic, and under some directors in some prisons some of those beatings amount to torture,” he said.
Jordan is a close U.S. ally in its war on terrorism which is seeking to improve its civil rights image. Officials deny any systematic violation of prisoners’ rights.
But Wilcke said guards act with impunity. Methods include beatings with electric cables and truncheons and hanging inmates in cuffs for long periods, he said.
HRW carried out interviews with more than 100 detainees.
Wilcke said around 350 inmates in the high security Swaqa jail, which holds several al Qaeda militants convicted over foiled plots to attack U.S. and Israeli targets, caused serious self mutilation during a prison visit last Sunday.
“When they saw us walk with the director through the corridors they feared they could not tell us their complaints so they then expressed themselves by slashing themselves,” he said.
Wilcke said they had wanted to protest an incident several days before when around 2,000 inmates, among them Islamists, had been beaten and humiliated for eight hours after the HRW team visited them and prisoners spoke of widespread abuse.
“Everybody’s head and beard was shaved. For the religious prisoners this was to humiliate and degrade them, not for any legitimate penal reason. Every prisoner was beaten and people had not recalled this happened before,” Wilcke said.
Nineteen security detainees held in solitary confinement in the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) detention centre did not complain of physical abuse but said they were being held illegally.
Security sources in Jordan say the rise in militancy is tied to growing anti-American sentiment since the invasion of Iraq.
Wilcke cited the case of a top security inmate, Jordanian Sheikh Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, 48, a leading al Qaeda thinker, whom the group met and has been held in solitary confinement for over two and a half years without trial.
“He ... has gone on hunger strikes to protest his detention and cannot choose his own lawyer to defend him,” Wilcke said.
Like Maqdisi, scores of militants arrested on charges of plotting attacks on Americans and Westerners are held for years without trial, Wilcke said.