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HRW slams Jordan arrest of cartoonist over UAE drawing

Human Rights Watch on Friday urged Jordan to release prominent cartoonist Emad Hajjaj after he was arrested for publishing a drawing deemed offensive to the United Arab Emirates.

On Thursday, Hajjaj was charged by Amman’s general prosecutor with “carrying out acts and publishing material aimed at undermining relations with a friendly country” and was referred to the state security court, according to a judicial source.

The court, a military tribunal which deals with terrorism-related cases, decided to keep Hajjaj in detention for 14 days pending an investigation.

If found guilty, he could face up to five years in jail.

“Jordanian authorities should immediately release and drop abusive charges against Emad Hajjaj,” HRW said in a statement.

“Calling a satirical cartoon a terrorism offence only confirms that Jordan intends to muzzle citizens who speak freely,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the New York-based watchdog.

“This arrest sends the message that Jordanian authorities would rather abuse the rights of their own citizens than risk offending a gulf leader’s feelings,” he added.

The cartoon deemed “offensive” by the Jordanian prosecutor was published by Hajjaj on his Facebook page.

Entitled “Israel asks America not to sell F-35 planes to the Emirates”, it shows Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan holding a dove with the Israeli flag painted on it, spitting on the face of the top UAE official, who is also known as MBZ.

“Spit-35” is seen written in Arabic in the spittle covering the UAE leader’s cheek.

The sale of F-35 jets to the UAE is seen as a hiccup on the road to a US-brokered deal announced earlier this month for the normalisation of ties between the Jewish state and the wealthy Gulf nation.

Jordan is bound by a peace treaty with Israel and has good relations with the energy-rich Gulf countries.

Hajjaj’s arrest has sparked condemnation from other rights groups, including from the Committee to Protect Journalists, with all demanding his release.

“Journalists and cartoonists like Emad Hajjaj are entitled to express their views freely on the Israel-United Arab Emirates deal, which affects the lives of millions of people across the region,” Ignacio Miguel Delgado of the CPJ said in a statement Thursday.

“Jordanian authorities should immediately release Hajjaj, drop all charges against him, and allow him to provide political commentary without fear of imprisonment.”

Hajjaj, 52, is a popular cartoonist in Jordan and the Arab region.

His drawings have been published in several Jordanian newspapers but also in Arab ones abroad, and mostly focus on political, economic and social issues.