Jan 21 2016

When tribal law supersedes civil law

Published by at 11:52 am under Articles,Jordan

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By Daoud Kuttab

A murder took place in Jordan. The suspected killer is known, but unlike in normal cases, this time it was addressed by tribal law.

Tribal law is not new in Jordan. It has existed for centuries and the modern nation state has found ways to accommodate it.

Civil courts have often been presented with cases of conflicts that had been initially resolved in a tribal manner and used such decisions to make their final resolution.

But when tribal law replaces civil law and when such a decision involves members of the government, one has to take a clear position.

The deputy prime minister and minister of education headed on January 15 a delegation of dignitaries with the aim of soothing the anger of one of Jordan’s communities in the south.

As part of the atwa (tribal agreement), the deputy prime minister and his delegation signed a document that violates Jordan’s Constitution, laws and treaties.

The agreement, signed by Minister Mohammad Thneibat, declares without trial the guilt of the suspected killer, decides capital punishment for him and vows not to pursue any effort for clemency for him.

Furthermore, the tribal agreement includes a decision to deport all the relatives of the suspected killer, including decedents “up to his fifth grandfather”. The jalweh, or deportation, applies to tens of Jordanian families that must leave their homes and towns for three months.

In return for this harsh and unconstitutional punishment, the families of the killed agree not to take revenge against the other tribe.

Justifications for this harsh collective punishment vary from the need to sooth the anger of the family of the deceased to claims that deporting the families is in fact necessary for their own protection.

For those who follow tribal laws and traditions, this kind of judgement is not new or strange. It certainly was the norm when the population was living in tents and there was no rule of law.

But for such a decision to be taken in the third millennium, after decades of a stable government, with plenty of policemen and judges to carry out and enforce any fair judgement on an individual suspect is very sad.

The modern state of Jordan has made impressive strides towards modernity and the rule of law.

Jordan has a respected judiciary, a strong police force and intelligence service, and a powerful, well equipped army. It is making important progress towards empowering women and bridging the gender divide in society.

Jordan is even courageous enough to talk about its tribal past with sensitivity and courage, as in the recently Oscar-nominated film Theeb.

Ironically, the film takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and is set in the pre-state tribal surroundings where revenge is the dominant ethos of society.

The Kingdom is well aware of its tribal past and present, as was highlighted in the long interview that His Majesty King Abdullah had with the American monthly The Atlantic.

In the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the King referred to “dinosaurs” when talking about some of the tribal leaders in the country.

The progress that Jordan has made should be built on in a progressive way that can reassure the 7 million plus citizens of the country that their individual rights are protected and that they will not be punished for a crime carried out by an individual even if that individual comes from their extended tribe.

Change is difficult and such change from tribal to civilian law in certainly a work in progress. But the fact that the minister of education, who is entrusted with ushering in this change, signed a regressive and anti-democratic decision that infringes on the rights of the suspect and his extended family and tribe should not be left without a comment.

Cases such as this, difficult as they maybe be, are an opportunity to teach the nation a simple rule: that a person is responsible for his own acts and that a properly constituted court of law is the only branch of the state that is allowed to pass judgement based on laws passed by Parliament.

The police force representing the executive branch should be the only one entrusted with enforcing the law.

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