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Sunday 18 February 2018

Jordanian writer gunned down outside court before cartoon trial

An ambulance transports the body of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar to a medical facility, after he was shot, in Amman (AP)
An ambulance transports the body of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar to a medical facility, after he was shot, in Amman (AP)

A prominent and outspoken Jordanian writer has been shot dead in front of the court where he was on trial for sharing a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam.

The gunman was identified as Riad Abdullah, an imam in his late 40s, at a local mosque.

Jordanian media said he was motivated by his anger over the cartoon posted to Facebook by writer Nahed Hattar.

The shooting was the latest in a string of deadly security lapses in Jordan.

The gunman shot Mr Hattar, 56, at close range as the writer was preparing to enter the court for a hearing, said witnesses and police.

"He was standing at a short distance of about one metre in front of Nahed on the stairs of the Supreme Court," said a witness.

Mr Hattar was shot three times, said the official Petra News Agency.

The witness said the gunman, who was immediately arrested, was wearing a long grey robe and long beard characteristic of conservative Muslims.

Abdullah, from northern Hashmi, a poor neighbourhood in Amman, recently returned from a trip abroad.

Abdullah had confessed to police that he was upset over the cartoon, which depicted a bearded man smoking and in bed with two women, asking God to bring him wine and cashews.

All physical depictions of God or the Prophet Muhammad, even respectful ones, are forbidden under mainstream Islamic tradition.

The killing was condemned as a "heinous crime" by Government spokesman Mohammad Momani.

"The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community," he said.

But supporters of Mr Hattar said they held the government responsible for the shooting, accusing prime minister Hani al-Mulki of creating a hostile atmosphere that encouraged violence against the writer.

"The prime minister was the first one who incited against Nahed when he ordered his arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon, and that ignited the public against him and led to his killing," said Saad Hattar, a cousin of the writer.

Mr Hattar has long been a controversial figure in Jordan. Years ago, he claimed that the late King Hussein had arrested and tortured him many times for his critical writings and vowed not to mourn the king, who died in 1999.

While born a Christian, he considered himself an atheist. He was a strong supporter of Syrian president Bashar Assad and an outspoken critic of the Islamic State group and al Qaida.

Mr Hattar was detained in August after sharing the cartoon on Facebook. Relatives said the cartoon was meant to illustrate what he viewed as the twisted religious views of Islamic State extremists.

The post was quickly deleted after many angry responses. Jordan is an overwhelmingly Muslim and deeply conservative society.

Mr Hattar was briefly detained for two weeks before he was released on bail.

The family called on the government to hold accountable all those who had incited against Mr Hattar.

"Many fanatics wrote on social media calling for his killing and lynching, and the government did nothing against them," they said.

Jordan is a close ally of the West and has been largely spared from the violence engulfing neighbouring Syria and Iraq. But a series of recent attacks has raised concern about security in the kingdom.

A Jordanian police captain opened fire on instructors at an international police training centre in Jordan's capital late last year, killing at least five people, including two Americans. He was shot dead by security forces.

And a suicide car bomb attack near the Syrian border in June killed seven Jordanian soldiers.

Hundreds of Jordanians have been sentenced to prison, are awaiting trial or are being held for questioning about links to IS.

Under toughened anti-terror laws, even liking or sharing the group's propaganda on social media can land someone a prison sentence.

But social media accounts of prominent Islamists in Jordan and elsewhere were celebrating Mr Hattar's death, saying he deserved it for blasphemy.

Anja Wehler-Schoek, resident director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Jordan, said she found the social media posts shocking.

The German foundation promotes democracy and political education in the region.

"This is clearly a very dark day for Jordan, which has long been celebrated as a model of peaceful co-existence," she said.

"I am very worried we are seeing the end of an era here and more and more problems to come in the future."


Press Association

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