A Jordanian court on Monday found both a relative of King Abdullah II and his former top confidant guilty of sedition and incitement against the crown, concluding that both men engaged in a conspiracy that exposed a shocking level of intrigue and estrangement inside the royal household.
The two men were accused of forging a “criminal project” involving Prince Hamzah, the king’s half-brother and former heir to the throne, to spread chaos against the monarch, according to a televised statement from the military judge presiding over the closed-door trial.
Bassem Awadallah, the former confidant, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a cousin of the king, each received a sentence of 15 years with hard labor. Hassan was also found guilty on drug charges (reportedly possessing hashish), with an additional sentence of one-year imprisonment as well as a 1,000 dinar ($1,400) fine. Prince Hamzah was not arrested, and Abdullah has said the dispute with him would be resolved within the royal family.
Lawyers in the U.S. retained by Awadallah’s family said in a statement on Monday they were not surprised at the verdict. Awadallah holds U.S., Jordanian and Saudi Arabian citizenship.
“The fix was in from the moment our client was arrested and charged, a fact made all the more clear by the physical abuse, deprivations, and horrific threats inflicted on Bassem in order to compel him to sign blank papers that were then fabricated into ‘evidence’ of his confession,” the statement said.
Jordanians were shocked in April when Hamzah and some 18 of his associates were alleged to have plotted a coup against Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 1999. The alleged conspiracy deeply rattled the Hashemite kingdom, one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East. Most of those arrested were later released, except for Awadallah and Hassan.
In his remarks, the judge, Lt. Col. Muwafaq Masaeed, said Awadallah and Hassan had been friends since 2001 and shared an animosity toward the current system of rule in Jordan and toward the king himself, and that they disagreed with the “general policy of the Jordanian state” in its handling of internal and external affairs.
This dovetailed with the ambitions of Prince Hamzah, the favorite son of his father, King Hussein. Hamzah, whose voice and general mien strongly resemble his father’s, cultivated his image as Hussein’s natural successor. Before Hussein died, he named Abdullah king and Hamzah crown prince, an always uneasy situation that Abdullah ended in 2004 when he stripped Hamzah of the title. A few years later, Abdullah named his oldest son, Hussein, as heir to the throne, leaving Hamzah increasingly embittered, his critics say.
Even before the verdict was announced, Awadallah’s lawyers said the guilty verdict was “a foregone conclusion.” His Jordanian lawyer, Mohammad Afif, said in a phone interview after the announcement Monday that he intended to appeal.
Since June, the courtroom drama — dubbed Jordan’s trial of the century — has kept residents in thrall, despite the fact that its six sessions unfolded mostly in secret. Even the defendants’ arrival at the courthouse was kept clandestine, with a pair of blacked-out SUVs barreling down the street before stopping at a nondescript beige building in the capital, Amman.
One image showed Hassan blindfolded and looking small in the back of a vehicle among a quartet of balaclava-clad security personnel. On Monday, video emerged of the two defendants being escorted into the courtroom before sentencing, both of them manacled and dressed in light blue prison jumpsuits.
Throughout the weeks of the trial, there has been a steady drip of leaks — all eagerly lapped up by Jordanian media and the public — including a raft of alleged WhatsApp messages among Awadallah, Hamzah and Hassan. The Los Angeles Times could not confirm the authenticity of the messages, which suggested that the trio had worked to foment opposition against Abdullah in March, following protests over coronavirus restrictions and oxygen shortages at a state hospital that led to the deaths of COVID-19 patients.
A leaked image of the prosecutor’s charge sheet contended that Awadallah and Hamzah had been communicating since last year, with Hassan as the intermediary. Hamzah sought Awadallah’s help in crafting tweets on social media he could then release so as to inflame public opinion against the government’s performance.
If proved to be real, the WhatsApp messages, some of which are voice notes, could be interpreted as little more than a public relations campaign. Hamzah is heard speaking with Hassan and needing advice for his coming moves; Awadallah is allegedly referred to as “No Lube,” a reference to his teetotaling. At other times, Hassan relays messages of encouragement from Awadallah to Hamzah.
“Things are happening faster than we expected,” Awadallah allegedly told Hassan on March 14. “It’s H’s time.”
But it’s difficult to discern seditious intent. No references are made to the king, and many of the messages seem the result of over-earnest conversations after one too many drinks. (Hassan and the prince use “lube” as code for alcoho.)
During the trial, it was clear that authorities wanted the proceedings to be swift as they had become a public relations black eye for Abdullah. The scandal spurred unprecedented criticism of the 59-year-old monarch inside and outside the country, changing his image from a dependable and benevolent Middle Eastern potentate into a vindictive figure out of touch with Jordan’s ills.
Though Awadallah’s lawyers had requested 27 people — including Hamzah, two other royals and the prime minister — to serve as witnesses, the court refused, saying the request was “unproductive” and that bringing the witnesses would “delay the trial’s proceedings,” Afif said.
“There was a desire to quickly turn the page. It was clear this was put on the fast track,” said Amer Sabaileh, an Amman-based political analyst. “There were important messages to anyone who dares to strike the stability of the country: that it wouldn’t be dealt with in the normal fashion, and that there are red lines.”
The crisis also exposed the fault lines between Abdullah and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, over the bevy of normalization deals Israel recently signed — with the Trump administration’s backing — with Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates.
Jordan, which has a sizable community of Palestinian refugees, opposed approval of those deals without a peace process that would see the creation of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Some observers speculated that Bin Salman, through his close ties with Awadallah — who was once his own special advisor — sought to weaken King Abdullah and force him to drop his opposition, relinquish his custodianship over Jerusalem’s holy sites and give Bin Salman the space to go ahead with his own peace deal. And if Hamzah was to replace the king, even better: prosecutors reportedly claimed he said Jerusalem was “not one of his priorities at this time” and would be more pliable than Abdullah regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace.
In the immediate aftermath of the arrests in the alleged conspiracy, Saudi Arabia dispatched four planeloads of officials to Amman, reportedly to ask for Awadallah’s release. Riyadh denied that, saying it was to express solidarity with Abdullah.
The king is set to become the first Arab leader to meet President Biden on a visit to the White House on June 19.
Jordan’s crisis first erupted in April, when authorities swept up government officials in coordinated raids and put Hamzah under de-facto house arrest, citing a plot to destabilize the kingdom. Hamzah shot back with a pair of videos he released to his lawyer before all communications from his home were cut.
“I’m not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, for the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years, and has been getting worse by the year,” he said in one of the videos, referring to Abdullah’s reign.
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Since then, Hamzah has been seen in public only once, with nothing heard from him save for a statement in which he said he placed himself “in the hands” of his half-brother. That silence continued on Monday, with little information given as to what fallout Hamzah could face after the conviction.
Instead, attention has focused on Awadallah, a figure not widely known outside of Jordan. In the West, he was probably most widely seen in a video alongside Bin Salman during the October 2018 Future Investment Initiative, a conference held soon after the brutal killing and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. authorities have blamed the slaying on the crown prince.
In Jordan, Awadallah cut a Rasputin-like figure during his longtime tenure in government, where he took up posts including finance minister and head of the Royal Court. He was considered the architect of liberal economic policies that critics said were steeped in corruption and had left the country worse off. Abdullah appointed him as special envoy to Saudi Arabia in 2016 but removed him two years later, reportedly because he had become too close to Bin Salman.
Last month, Abdullah created a 92-member committee tasked with modernizing the country’s political system, including changing its law on elections and political parties.
It’s unclear, however, whether the move will succeed in appeasing Jordanians’ demands for change. The country has been hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns, which have worsened its perennially precarious economic outlook.
Official estimates put unemployment at 25%; many say it’s significantly higher. The World Bank says the economy contracted by 1.6% in 2020. The government is widely seen as either corrupt or incompetent — and often both.
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