Rights groups urge Jordan to release publisher

International rights groups urged Jordan Thursday to immediately release the publisher of an online newspaper who was arrested after his website posted an article alleging misconduct by royal officials.

Jamal Muhtaseb, the publisher of Gerasanews.com, was arrested on Monday and charged with propagating "anti-regime sentiment." The chief prosecutor of Jordan's security court ordered Muhtaseb be held for 14 days, pending investigation.

Two New York-based groups — Human Rights Watch and The Committee to Protect Journalists — criticized his detention, saying it is an assault on free speech.

Muhtaseb's website published a story that included statements from a lawmaker alleging the Royal Court, the office of Jordan's monarchy, instructed parliament not to refer to trial a former minister accused of corruption in a housing scheme backed by King Abdullah II.

The article was written by Muhtaseb's sister, who was also arrested but released the same day on $7,000 bail.

Christoph Wilcke, a Jordan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Muhtaseb's arrest marked the fifth time this year that critics of the monarchy have faced charges of speech offenses.

"Jordan cannot claim to be making democratic reforms while prosecutors hunt down journalists doing their job," he said. "Jordan's talk of reform is meaningless as long as the law deprives citizens of meeting and speaking freely."

Under the current law, the state security court has jurisdiction over speech-related crimes, including insulting the king.

Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, also condemned the use security courts.

"The Jordanian government may not relish journalists investigating its actions, but it has no right to drag them before a military court for doing so," he said in a statement issued by the group.

Earlier this year, a Jordanian youth was charged with "undermining his majesty's dignity" for burning a poster of the king and two separate groups of protesters were arrested for defaming the king.