Proud partner of DIGNITY: As the first country in the Arab region, Jordan’s civil society got access to the prisons

For almost 10 years DIGNITY has cooperated with the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) in Jordan to prevent torture. NCHR has taken many steps against torture but creating a team to monitor the otherwise closed prisons in Jordan is the biggest achievement, says acting commissioner for enhancement at NCHR Nisreen Zerikat. We have talked to Nisreen Zerikat and member of the national monitoring team for prisons Inas Swaiss.

-Dirty mattresses and blankets, personnel beating up groups of inmates, inmates being physically inspected whilst standing naked out in the open area. These are just some of the complaints a voluntary prison monitoring team received when visiting the Jordanian prisons.

From 2009 to 2016 a volunteer team of 35 human rights defenders, which included doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and journalists, visited 16 different prisons in Jordan. Established by the NCHR, the National Monitoring Team (NMT) sought to secure that prisoners’ rights were being protected and that there was no torture or ill-treatment taking place. DIGNITY and NCHR is now focusing on other projects, but as the first of its kind in the Arab region, Nisreen Zerikat is particularly proud of this team.

-This is the first time a team of civil society members was able to go inside the prisons and write reports that can be accessed by the public. That is very important for Jordan and we are very proud of this project, says enhancement Commissioner and supervisor for the team Nisreen Zerikat.

Through interviews with the inmates and the staff, the team wrote reports about the conditions and complaints. The reports were passed on to governmental entities and described issues such as overcrowded prisons leading to fighting, lack of psychologists and doctors as well as more everyday issues such as lack of drinking water and bad food and hygiene in the kitchen.

Prisoners need someone who listens
Journalist Inas Swaiss was one of the members of the team. She used to report on human rights issues for the Jordanian news agency Petra News and decided to join the team, in order to gain a better insight into the world of prisons. And for her, accessing the prisons is one of the most important things about the team, as their presence had a positive impact on the amount of violence.

-When prisons knew they were being monitored they would make an effort and stop abuses, she explains.

Besides making the prisons minimize mistreatment, the team was also able to help managing the problem of hunger strikes.

-The prisoners hunger strikes because they want someone to listen to them and to find a solution to their problems both inside and outside the prison. The monitoring team members listened to their problems and passed them on to the prison director. That is a really important impact, says Nisreen Zerikat.

-We came to understand what hunger strikes are about and it was often about very simple things that needed to be communicated about. For instance if the inmates wanted to be moved to a prison that was closer to their families, says Inas Swaiss.

Still a long way to go
Even though the openness of the prisons has been a big step forward in preventing torture in Jordan, there is still a long way to go before torture is completely abolished explains Nisreen Zerikat and points out, that there since 2013 have been 5 cases of torture accusations, which have not yet been investigated.  - You should have a strategic plan when it comes to torture in Jordan. Change doesn’t come suddenly, it comes gradually, she says.

NCHR, however, never stops fighting for human rights. Besides the NMT, NCHR also focuses on raising awareness about people’s rights and advocates for change in legislation. Together with DIGNITY and other partners, NCHR has pushed for a change of law, which means that it is now illegal for a rapist to marry his victim in order to escape punishment. And even though NCHR no longer have the prison monitoring team, amending the prison system is still high on the agenda.

-We are working on a manual about human rights guarantees to guide the police officers who work in the first part of the investigation phase, where torture most often occur. This, I would say, is a very practical achievement in the fight against torture.

The monitoring team, however, is still Nisreen Zerikat’s proudest achievement.

-The NMT is the first in the region, and three months ago, when I was in Lebanon to talk about our achievements, I said: In Jordan we had a team that monitored prisons and wrote public reports about it. That is something to be proud of.

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