Story and photo by Clare Coughlan
AMMAN, Jordan – Ten years after the Jordanian government promised to reform its criminal justice system, it has just begun the process of improving access to legal counsel and developing alternatives to jail time for criminals.
“This is a new kind of reform for the penal law,” says Judge Ammar Al-Husseini, the director of International Relations at the Ministry of Justice, who stressed that the changes will happen slowly because the concept of legal aid reform here is novel.
Increasing transparency in the courts and decreasing corruption among the country’s 840 judges have been the overriding goals of the reforms. Also part of the plan is to create a program with public defenders for those who can’t afford representation, and also develop alternative punishments to jail time, such as rehabilitation or community service.
“I believe we will be the first Arab country to have this new kind of punishment,” Al-Husseini said in reference to the jail-time alternative – which is particularly revolutionary in a country where the accused can languish in a cell for days and even months without proper adjudication.
The reforms couldn’t be happening without financial support from other interests across the globe. For example, the European Union has given about $2.5 million to facilitate some of these infrastructure changes, and England’s Minister of Justice will head the project. The World Bank also contributed money for the cause.
And, there is already the foundation of a plan locally, experts say. Amman’s Justice Center for Legal Aid and Tamkeen, both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide legal representation – have been around for at least four years. Both organizations have as their primary goal the desire to help those who otherwise do not have a strong voice – the low-income, women, the disenfranchised and indigent – in defense of themselves.
“When you have a lawyer, you will have access to a fair trial. Without a lawyer you will lose [every case],” said Salah Jaber, a legal consultant for JCLA, which provided consultation or legal representation for 2,093 cases in 2011.
Sadam Azam, a justice advocate at the National Centre for Human Rights based in Amman, said the government needs to do more to secure legal aid for the poor in Jordan, because there are too few NGOs to handle the burden.
For example, only nine lawyers work at the JCLA office in Amman, a city of 6.5 million. There are six other branches, but the capital city’s office is the largest. By next month, though, there will be 32 lawyers in the Amman office, thanks to the grant by the World Bank.
Still, significant strides with reform cannot happen unless the Jordanian government steps in and institutionalizes a new standard, said Azam, speaking through a translator. “The implementation of legal aid is not done in a good way. There are not enough NGOs and there are not enough donors for NGOs. “
Mu’men Hadidi, founder of the Society for Criminal Research and Studies – a research firm developing a catalogue of crime statistics about Jordan – said he believes the success of the reforms lies in establishing trust, transparency and a robust database of research to turn to.
Hadidi, former director of Jordan’s National Institute of Forensic Medicine, founded the research center last year because he worried that without statistics, no one could know how prevalent certain crimes were, or how badly services were needed to address them.
Ultimately, said Hadidi, “we are enhancing the criminal system by enhancing the transparency.”