AMMAN: As a country with a budget depending mostly on loans and foreign assistance, and hosting millions of refugees, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan finds itself with no other option but to wage a war on corruption.
With every new government formed over the decades, combating corruption was the motto many Jordanian observers had not yet seen in action. A system of wasta among middlemen is common throughout the country and considered part of doing business, making transactions opaque and hindering competitiveness.
Corruption is an obstacle for businesses operating or planning to invest in Jordan. However, the government’s determination to eradicate it could be the magic potion to restore investors’ confidence and start new businesses in a country with a population of 10 million, creating jobs for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed.
Other obstacles include high levels of bureaucracy and vague regulations. Jordan’s penal code criminalizes corruption, including abuse of office, bribery, money laundering and extortion, but the government has not implemented the law effectively. Corrupt public officials are not systematically punished and high-ranking civil servants are rarely prosecuted.
A few weeks ago, Jordanian society was shocked by a multimillion-dollar corruption case and, since then, the story has been the subject of much social media attention.
The issue was triggered by two MPs, Nabil Gheishan and Musleh Tarawneh, during their deliberations on the newly formed government of Omar Razzaz’s vote of confidence and policy statement in the Lower House. Both dared the government to reveal the issue and the names of those implicated, alleging that influential persons were behind the illegal business that has cost the Treasury more than JD155 million (more than $211 million).
Gheishan said in a phone interview with Arab News that the issue is a “bombshell that exploded in the face of the government.”
The amount of taxes and fees lost in the process at the time was estimated at JD155 million, he said. However, the legislator claimed that the estimated loss was reduced by JD5 million and four seized machines were returned to the factory, which “resumed business as usual without the approval of the Department of Standards and Metrology.”
He also demanded that the government track down all those implicated, even officials and members of security agencies, in case some were involved.
The government vowed to take action immediately. The authorities raided several tobacco farms in the Jordan Valley that have allegedly been producing counterfeit cigarettes for sale within the country, with profits of millions of dinars.
Authorities identified the main suspect involved in the case as businessman Awni Motee, who fled the country a day before police raided the farms.
In an interview with a local station, Motee claimed the police operation was a “war against him,” and that his factories have been dormant since last year. He said that he would return to the Kingdom and prove his innocence.
He also threatened to sue all those who posted accusations against him in relation to the case, which erupted as a public opinion issue.
But at the time of publication of this report, this has not happened. Motee is at large and his whereabouts unknown. Jordan a few days ago contacted Interpol seeking its assistance in arresting him. According to documents the government shared with the media, Interpol has accepted Jordan’s request and issued a red warrant for Motee’s arrest.
In a related development, Lower House Speaker Atef Tarawneh, who was shown in photos with Motee, along with other lawmakers and during public events, condemned attempts to insert his name into the case.
In a statement carried by the Jordan News Agency, Petra, the speaker said that the government “is now responsible for investigating the case, identifying the persons involved and bringing back those who escaped.”
“The government has to find a solution to the misuse of social media outlets” through baseless defamation attempts, Tarawneh said.
On a local TV talk show, Tarawneh said that the case involved very influential names.
“It all depends on the government’s seriousness to eradicate corruption. If they mean it, big heads will roll,” he said. “This is a case like no other case. If you do no extract it from its roots, it will spread to the rest of the body and then it will be too late to do anything about it,” he said.
Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat announced that arrest warrants had been issued for 30 suspects who are allegedly involved in the case of illegally producing and smuggling tobacco, of which 16 have already been arrested including Motee’s two sons.
Ghunaimat, who is also the government spokesperson, stressed that the government had directed the customs department and relevant security apparatuses to arrest the suspects and issue travel bans against them, Petra reported.
“We are taking every measure to ensure vigilance and transparency and let our justice system run its course,” Ghunaimat said.
The case was investigated last year as a tax evasion matter. The government of former prime minister Hani Al-Mulki allegedly knew about the factories and allowed them to continue operations. Al-Mulki stepped down following widespread protests in June.
After his return from a month-long private vacation, King Abdullah II presided over a government meeting last week where he reiterated his support for the government’s anti-corruption measures.
Emphasizing that Jordan will overcome the challenges it faces, King Abdullah said that combating corruption was a key priority, expressing full support for the anti-graft efforts. “The goal is to eradicate corruption and move ahead. We have to break the backbone of corruption … no one is above the law,” he said.
On his Facebook page, Tarawneh said that breaking the backbone of corruption involves bringing all individuals involved to justice no matter who they are. The backbone of corruption is those who are supporting it and the corrupt who operate without any accountability, he said.
In a related development, Mohammad Allaf, the head of Jordan’s Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission (JIACC), said in a TV interview that investigations are ongoing and JIACC’s prosecutors have summoned several officials and MPs to listen to their statements in the case.
“We have evidence that the prime suspect in the case received assistance from (people) within the country who facilitated his departure before the arrest campaign occurred,” he said. However, Allaf stopped short of naming the insiders.
The prime minister said that he will not back down from going ahead with the trial of corrupt individuals and is ready to go as far as it takes. Razzaz insisted that he is going to open all files completely until all culprits involved are brought to justice.