Famous Jordanian cartoonist Emad al-Hajjaj was arrested on Thursday on charges of sabotaging Jordan’s relations with the United Arab Emirates after publishing a cartoon satirizing the Israel-UAE normalization agreement.
Rather than prosecute him in the civilian courts, the Jordanian state will try al-Hajjaj in “state security” courts run by the country’s intelligence agencies, according to the Jordanian daily al-Ghad.
Al-Hajjaj will reportedly be charged under a controversial 2018 Jordanian cybercrimes law that dramatically expanded authorities’ ability to penalize expression on social media.
“We demand his immediate release, as detention and arrest are a violation of his rights,” the Jordanian Center for the Protection and Freedom of Journalists said in a statement.
Emad al-Hajjaj’s cartoons are widely beloved among Jordanians. His style is playful and bright, but his characters — especially his bumbling, conniving protagonist Abu Mahjoub — are brutal satires on Jordanian life and politics. Intended to represent a stereotypical Jordanian, Abu Mahjoub spends his time alternately suffering from the country’s systemic dysfunction and contributing to it himself.
— علاء ملكاوي (@Alaa_malkawi202) August 27, 2020
Al-Hajjaj’s cartoons have also sparked controversies, however, and he was detained in 2017 for a cartoon deemed to have offended the Greek Orthodox Church. He even sketched King Abdullah II himself — a major taboo in Jordan, which tolerates limited political criticism of legislators and government officials but cracks down on open opposition to the king.
The cartoon that landed the artist in hot water was titled “Israel asks America not to sell F-35 planes to the UAE.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied reports that the recent normalization deal included promises that the UAE would receive F-35 fighters from the United States.
In the cartoon, a dove emblazoned with an Israeli flag spits in the face of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. An Arabic inscription reading “Spit-35” is written on the saliva, mocking the back-and-forth over whether or not the UAE would receive one of the sophisticated aircraft as part of a peace deal with Israel.
Al-Hajjaj published the cartoon on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday morning, he had already been called to the office of the state’s attorney in Amman to hear the charges against him, according to Jordanian media.
Al-Hajjaj’s arrest ignited a wave of criticism among fellow Jordanians. A small protest was held in front of the court on Thursday morning during a hearing on his case.
Well-known comedian Nikolas Khoury called the charges “a ridiculous, meaningless accusation.”
“When I heard about the charges against Emad al-Hajjaj, it was like I was laughing, crying, enraged and sick to my stomach at the same time. What is this feeble state whose ‘security’ is shaken by a cartoonist?” Khoury wrote on Facebook.
Jordan has already been experiencing a summer of political turmoil. Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets to protest the arrest of several leaders of the national teacher’s union. Local media were barred from reporting on the demonstrations, which often led to violent clashes between police and protesters.