AMMAN, Jordan — Jordanian authorities on Sunday released a prominent cartoonist detained and charged for publishing a drawing critical of the Israel-UAE deal to establish diplomatic ties, a case that sparked outrage from rights groups.
But Emad Hajjaj, who was arrested Wednesday and charged with “undermining relations with a friendly country,” will still face trial for “slander and libel,” a judicial source told AFP.
The initial charge carried a sentence of up to five years in jail, but now he faces between six months and two years if found guilty.
“The decision to release Hajjaj came after the state security court prosecutor decided to change the accusation against him to slander and libel, and his case has been sent back to the Amman state prosecutor,” the judicial source said.
Rakan Saaydeh, the head of the country’s journalists’ union, confirmed the release and the new charges as took custody of Hajjaj from the Balqa jail just northwest of Amman on Sunday.
“He will now appear before the Amman prosecution,” not the state security court, a military tribunal that deals with terrorism-related cases, Saaydeh told reporters.
It was not clear when his trial would begin.
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His arrest sparked condemnation online and from local and international human rights groups, who demanded that Hajjaj be released and accused Jordan of threatening free speech.
“Calling a satirical cartoon a terrorism offense only confirms that Jordan intends to muzzle citizens who speak freely,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
“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,” said Ignacio Miguel Delgado of the Committee to Protect Journalists on Thursday.
The cartoon deemed “offensive” by the Jordanian prosecutor was 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 white dove, bearing the Israeli flag, which spits in the face of the UAE leader, also known as MBZ.
“Spit-35” is seen written in Arabic in the spittle on his 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 normalization 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.