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April - 1999
Vol# 15 - Issue# 27

Jordan: A Modern Criminal Justice System Amidst Turmoil

-Cindy Moors (Managing Editor of CJI)

With the passage of King Hussein, much attention of late has focussed on the desert country of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in southwestern Asia. The area of Jordan is 89,213 square kilometers, a comparative area would be slightly smaller than the state of Indiana. Despite turmoil and conflict in several nearby countries, bounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank, Jordan reports no transnational disputes going on at the time. Although Jordan has not been a recent target, the threat of terrorism and violence from terrorist groups or individuals opposed to the Middle East Peace Process is ever present. The monarchy has been plagued by reports of subversion, conspiracy, assassination and smoldering tensions in many parts of the society. The principal sources of these threats to overthrow or discredit Hashemite rule are Arab militants openly hostile to the late king's position as a pro-Western moderate in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Almost entirely Arab, the population of Jordan (1997 estimate), is about 5,774,000. The only sizable racial minorities in the country are the Circassians and the Armenians; each group accounts for less than one percent of the population. The internal security risk has assumed two forms of radical–leftist, anti-Hashemite factions of the Palestinian movement and extremist groups associated with Islamic revival. Most of these movements are small and scattered and appear to be effectively controlled and contained by Jordanian security services.

Legal System

Under Jordan's limited constitutional monarchy King Abdullah is now the Chief of State and Head of State. He may declare war, conclude peace and convene, adjourn and suspend the lower house of the legislature. He is also the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The head of government is the Prime Minister. Appointed by Hussein, Abd al-Salam al-Majal has been Prime Minister of Jordan since March 19, 1997. The Prime Minister in consultation with the King appoints cabinet members; all three sharing executive power and responsibility to the parliament.

The legislative branch is a bicameral Majlis al-'Umma (National Assembly) which consists of the Majlis al-A'ayan (Senate) and the House of Representatives. The Senate is a forty-member body appointed by the king from designated categories of public figures who serve four-year terms. The House of Representatives members are elected by popular vote on the basis of proportional representation to serve four-year terms. In the last elections in 1997, eighty legislative seats were contested.

Jordan is divided into eight administrative districts/divisions, or governorates (muhafazah), each headed by a governor appointed by the monarch. Jordan's nomadic population is governed separately.

Justice System

Until the nineteenth century, only Islamic religious law was considered to be authoritative in controlling criminal activity in the region that was to become Jordan. For centuries this law and its applications remained unchanged, subject only to interpretation by religious scholars and enforced by Muslim judges. In the mid-1800s new comprehensive criminal codes were adopted based on French law that was modified to accommodate Muslim customs. These reforms were aimed to enhance Ottoman control of the area.

After World War I, Britain became the mandatory power of Jordan. British statutes supplemented Ottoman laws. Independence came to Jordan on May 5, 1946. Based on Syrian and Lebanese codes, which in turn were modeled from Islamic law and French codes, the Jordanian National Assembly adopted a new criminal code and code of criminal procedure in 1956.

Professional Police Force

Established in 1956 as an outgrowth of the Arab Legion, the country's national police, the Public Security Force, is primarily responsible for the routine maintenance of law and order. The police have traditionally been commanded by an officer with the title of Director General of Public Security. He is usually a senior army general, who reports to the Minister of Interior. This position is selected on the basis of military record, leadership qualifications and loyalty to the crown.

The police are classified according to areas of geographic responsibility. The three major divisions are the metropolitan (Amman), rural (small towns and villages) and desert contingents. Reorganized in 1987, the Public Security Directorate is a three-tiered structure. Police headquarters in Amman (the country's capital) provide a centralized administrative control point with an array of technical support activities. Ten directorates each have regional responsibilities for police, security and law enforcement activities. Eight of the directorates correspond to the eight governorates (administrative districts/divisions). One covers only the city of Amman and its suburbs. The tenth directorate is for the desert region which is patrolled by the Desert Police Force, having the primary responsibility for detecting and stopping drugs and gun smuggling.

These ten regions are further subdivided into fifty-nine security centers. Typically, each security center is responsible for an area of five to ten square kilometers and serve approximately 50,000 people each. In addition to maintenance of public order, protection, investigation and apprehension, the Public Security Force also operates the country's penal institutions. An emphasis has been placed on the increased social role for the police and strengthened police relations with the local community since the reorganization.

The police force is fully motorized and operates much the same as European law enforcement agencies. Depending on their location, police are armed with nightsticks, guns, or light automatic weapons. In larger towns like Amman, special crowd and riot-control equipment and armored vehicles are available. The traditional system of camel-mounted patrols still continues in the desert areas, supplemented by four-wheel drive vehicles.


Jordan, like many Arab countries, has both a civil and a religious court system. Magistrate courts, the lowest in the civil system, hear minor criminal and civil cases. Important cases go to Courts of First Instance. Decisions of these courts are subject to review by Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court of Jordan, known as the Court of Cassation, presides over cases against the state, hears appeals and interprets the law. Sharía (Muslim religious) courts rule on marriage, divorce, interdiction, wills and guardianship cases for citizens desiring Muslim interpretation rather than civil decisions. Non-Muslim minorities may resort to religious courts of their own traditions in personal status cases. The country's nomadic tribes may bring cases to separate tribal courts.

Criminal Code

Adopted in 1956, the criminal code contains the most of the country's criminal law. In traditional French form, the Jordanian criminal code divides criminal offenses into three categories according to the severity of the punishments. These categories equate roughly to felonies, misdemeanors and minor violations. The criminal code provides for minimum penalties for all major infractions rather than relying on the discretion of the courts.

Felony punishments range from death by hanging to imprisonment for a three-year period to life. The death penalty is sanctioned for murder, arson, assassination attempts on the king and a broad range of crimes defined as "threats to the security of the state." Many Palestinians have been sentenced in abstentia to death under this decree, however, executions are politically sensitive and rare in Jordan.

Life imprisonment is imposed for such felonies as lesser crimes against national security, homicide during the commission of a misdemeanor, torture, terrorist activity and kidnapping. Shorter imprisonment is prescribed for some these same offenses if mitigating circumstances are presented. The influence of the sharía is still evident in the order of prison sentences for child abandonment, abortion, marrying a girl under the age of sixteen, openly ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad and breaking the fast of Ramadan. Sharía is also important in the criteria for justifiable homicide, although no penalty is imposed for the immediate killing of someone who defiled a person's or family's honor.

Misdemeanor penalties include imprisonment for periods ranging from three weeks to three years and an assortment of fines. Misdemeanors offenses include gambling, bribery, perjury, simple forgery, slander, embezzlement, assault and battery and disturbing the peace.

Most minor violations result in small fines, but punishment could range from reprimands by the court to imprisonment for up to three weeks. These offenses are punishable without proven intent. Minor violations covered by the criminal code include traffic violations, seeking redress for a crime without recourse to authorities, public drunkenness and administrative regulations such as licensing and safe housing requirements.

In effect since 1967, a state of martial law gives the government permission to detain individuals without reason and to adjudicate specific crimes within the martial law courts. These courts consist of a panel of three military officers trained in the law. Detainees do not have the right to consult with legal counsel or communicate with family. Designated martial law crimes include espionage, bribery of public officials, drug or weapon trafficking and security offenses.


A responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, the penal system is administered by the Prisons Department of the Public Security Directorate. The system is comprised of an estimated twenty-five prisons and jails, all of which are under the management of regional police chiefs and located at or near regional and local police offices, except for the system's major institution, Amman Central Prison.

Penal institutions house detained persons awaiting trial as well as convicted offenders serving sentences, although usually in separate sections. Major prisons also have segregated units for women prisoners. When juveniles reached the age of nineteen, if they have further time to serve, they can be transferred to a larger prisons from a juvenile detention center to serve the remainder of their sentences. Jordan was one of the first Arab countries to accept the theory of rehabilitation, rather than retribution, as the basis for punishment of lawbreakers. This concept--emphasizing that crime is caused by human weaknesses resulting from poor social conditions rather than by willfulness and immorality--is alien to the traditional Muslim custom of personal revenge by the victim's family. Although Jordan's penal system is designed to provide punishment suited to rehabilitate wrongdoers, in practice these efforts are limited by the lack of facilities and trained staff.

Up until his death in February, King Hussein had a continued interest in military and security affairs, cultivating the armed forces, and stressing the concept of public order founded on the supremacy of law as a prerequisite to the internal stability and the achievement of Jordan's national security goals. It will be interesting to observe any changes King Abdullah implements into this system in the follow years to come.