Five students from Al-Bayt University in Mafraq, Jordan, were charged with engaging in “devil worship,” AFP reported. If convicted, they could face up to three years in prison.
“A state security court prosecutor charged the five students today with doctrinal and sectarian incitement,” a court official told reporters.
Just before the announcement, Human Rights Watch released a statement condemning the students’ arrests on March 12. They are also charged with desecrating a Quran, Islam’s holy book. The students, four men and one woman, who have not been identified, deny the accusations.
“Jordanian authorities should release the five students and take steps to protect them from further attack,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should hold to account anyone who joined in this witch hunt and committed acts of violence. They should not be allowed to walk free while their victims are locked up.”
The students were detained for “sowing discord and defaming religion.” HRW said the accused students were attacked by a group of 200 other students after the rumor spread that they had ripped and burned a Quran manuscript and then threw it in the toilet in a school bathroom. The statement called for the attackers to be charged.
The five students have also been the target of Facebook death threats, following a call for their execution from a “well-known Salafi sheikh” named Abu Sayyaf.
“Rather than locking up these five students without charge and compounding the harm done to them, the authorities should be bringing to justice those who violently assaulted them,” Goldstein said. “They should also investigate reported statements that appear to call for the students’ deaths and prosecute their authors if they amount to direct incitement to murder.”
A sister of one of the students told HRW that they had been targeted because “they frequently dress in black and are rock music devotees.”
The head of a special committee appointed by the president of al-Bayt University to investigate the rumors said they had “found no evidence” that the allegations were true, and “none of the statements against them [the students] were based on first-hand evidence,” HRW translated.
“International law… requires Jordan to uphold the rights to freedom of expression and thought, conscience, and religion,” HRW’s statement said. “Jordan must ensure that no one in the country is arbitrarily detained – including those detained for exercising a basic right.”
Jordan’s official state religion is Islam, and the government prohibits conversion to any other religion. About 3 percent of the country is Christian. The constitution does not officially prohibit the practice of other religions, but the government does not, for example, officially recognize the Druze or Baha’i faiths.
Maya covers the U.N., Europe, and the Middle East for IBTimes. She joined the company in July 2012 after having previously worked with DNAinfo.com and Gawker.