Jordan ex-officials sentenced to 15 years in jail over ‘coup plot’

The trial took place behind closed doors at the State Security Court, a military tribunal that also includes civilian judges.
Monday 12/07/2021
Bassem Awadallah, one of two former officials on trial, is shown on a live screen as he attends a verdict hearing at a state security court, in Amman, Jordan, July 12, 2021. (AP)
Bassem Awadallah, one of two former officials on trial, is shown on a live screen as he attends a verdict hearing at a state security court, in Amman, Jordan, July 12, 2021. (AP)

AMMAN – A Jordanian court on Monday sentenced two former officials to 15 years in jail after finding them guilty of a coup plot that sparked a rare crisis in a kingdom seen as a pillar of stability in the region.

Former royal court chief Bassem Awadallah and an ex-envoy to Saudi Arabia, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, had been convicted of conspiring to topple King Abdullah II in favour of his half-brother Prince Hamzah.

The former crown prince himself was not charged in the trial, but the charge sheet said he was “determined to fulfil his personal ambition to rule, in violation of the Hashemite constitution and customs”.

The trial took place behind closed doors at the State Security Court, a military tribunal that also includes civilian judges.

But on Monday, journalists were allowed to watch footage of the ruling via video link from a tent set up outside the court.

Delivering the ruling, Judge Muwaffaq al-Masaid noted that the men had been friends for 20 years and were close to Prince Hamzah.

He said they had tried to put into action “ideas that are hostile to the existing political system in the kingdom and his majesty King Abdullah”.

The men had tried “to create chaos, sedition and divisions within Jordanian society and spread hateful discourse towards the political system, threatening the safety and security” of the kingdom, he said.

Awadallah and Bin Zaid, who both have close ties to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, were found guilty of “incitement against the ruling system” and “acts that could threaten society and create sedition.”

Awadallah, who holds Saudi nationality, had been on trial alongside Bin Zaid, a relative of King Abdullah, since June 21.

Images released by authorities showed the two men, wearing light blue prison uniforms, being escorted in handcuffs into the court, under heavy guard.

Their lawyers did not comment on the ruling apart from saying they would appeal.

— Unprecedented palace crisis —

Bin Zaid was also found guilty on two drug charges which would have carried prison terms, but the court did not extend his incarceration.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has fervently denied any involvement in the alleged plot.

The unprecedented palace crisis erupted in April. Eighteen suspects were arrested after authorities announced they had foiled a bid to destabilise the pro-Western kingdom, but 16 were later released.

A former crown prince who was sidelined as heir to the throne by the king in 2004, Hamzah accused Jordan’s rulers of corruption and ineptitude in a video message posted by the BBC on April 3.

He said the same day that he had been put under house arrest.

Authorities later said he would not stand trial, as his case had been resolved within the royal family, with Hamzah pledging allegiance to Abdullah.

The king appointed Hamzah as crown prince in 1999, at the request of his late father, but removed him from the post in 2004, later naming his son, Prince Hussein, as next in line to the throne.

— Closed-door trial —

The court had rejected a defence request to summon three princes along with Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi as witnesses, calling it “unproductive.”

The trial was held behind closed doors in the capital Amman.

Bin Zaid’s lawyer said ahead of the verdict that the defence team had asked the court to “find both our clients innocent of the charges against them”.

US-educated Awadallah was long considered a contentious and divisive figure in Jordan, having served as finance and planning minister before becoming royal court chief in 2007.

He played a key role pushing for economic reforms, before he resigned in 2008 amid criticism over alleged interference in sensitive political and economic issues.

He rose to become an influential figure familiar with the inner workings of the Saudi leadership, and often appeared alongside Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Following the crisis, King Abdullah appointed Samir al-Rifai, a former prime minister, to oversee plans to “modernise” the country’s political system.

The initiative aims to offer Jordanians “a political life that suits them,” Rifai said in June.