The Case of Former Jordanian Intelligence Chief Mohammad Dahabi

Mohammad Dahabi, who headed the General Intelligence Department from 2005 to 2008 was convicted today of all the charges he was facing, which included embezzlement, money laundering, and exploiting public office. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, forefeiture of JD 23 million ($32.5 million) in assets, in addition to fines totalling JD21 million ($29.7 million). He and his lawyers are said to have expected a different verdict – or at least a more lenient sentence – and plan to appeal.

At a first glance, this case seems like a positive development. According to Al-Jazeera Dahabi was close to King Abdullah and was a powerful – and feared – security official.  He stood accused of accepting payments from Iraqi businessmen for money laundering activities, and for granting citizenship to Iraqis in return for bribes. The investigation also noted that his net worth quadrupled during the time he was serving as intelligence chief. Upon hearing about this case, citizens in Amman were said to be happy with the decision as a powerful former official was held accountable. For a government that is trying to demonstrate that it is reforming – and fighting corruption – this is the message it wanted people to believe. According to the government’s narrative, he was a corrupt official who was convicted, and this proves that the government is serious about reform.

However, upon closer examination there are many troubling facts in this case. It is important to remember that just because someone is guilty of the charges (and I have every reason to assume he’s guilty) does not rule out the possibility of them being singled out and made a scapegoat, perhaps because they fell out of favor? The regime also likely saw the opportunity to achieve two objectives at once by both dealing with a former official who had fallen out of favor while at the same time appearing to be serious about reform while actually continuing to stall. For the regime, this was a win-win.

First of all – as critics have argued – how likely is it that Dahabi acted alone or that this was an isolated incident? In order to assume that this was an isolated incident one must believe, against all rationality, that Dahabi – while GID head  - personally accepted JD23 million in bribes without anyone else finding out. That’s implausible. It’s more likely that he assumed that as head of the GID (and someone who could likely have someone arrested with a single phone call) he would never be held accountable for it. Other corrupt officials likely aslo engaged in similar ventures to profit at the state’s expense. If someone knew about it they were either complicit or afraid of his retaliation if they came forward. And that – notwithstanding Dahabi’s crimes – is the real issue. The larger problem is with a system where someone can steal with the presumption of impunity, where if someone had come forward it was possible – indeed likely – that they would be arrested and Dahabi would have retained his position unscathed.

There’s another issue here as well – if other officials engage in corruption, why was Dahabi singled out specifically? Was it because of the amount of money he had accepted in bribes and embezzled, or is there something else here? As mentioned above, Dahabi was close to King Abdullah. Could he have fallen out of favor with the King – or other powerful officials – and only then was he prosecuted for his crimes?

As intelligence chief, he may also have been in a position to know about the actions of other corrupt officials, and might have at some point disclosed information about them. In a political environment that is changing rapidly, such a worry would likely have crossed the minds of those who arranged his downfall.

The government is also taking other steps on the issue of corruption, but until they address the fundamentally undemocratic way that Jordan is governed it is impossible to believe that they are serious about reform. Right now, the government is backing a new law (to be considered by the next parliament after the elections) that is targeted at “illicit fortunes.” This draft legislation would impose disclosure requirements for financial gains by senior government officials and military officers, as well as others including judges and diplomats. It also establishes an anti-corruption department at the Ministry of Justice, as well as a new panel to review complaints about corruption and investigate allegations. On the surface, it sounds good.

However, there’s one major issue – with much of the opposition boycotting the January 23rd election the next parliament is likely to be dominated (like the previous one) by supporters and allies of the King. Sure, he has said parliament will elect the next PM, but if it’s one of his allies the change will be only cosmetic, and the justice minister tasked with overseeing the anti-corruption department will owe his position to a PM allied with the King, chosen by a parliament that much of the public considers illegitimate. Until the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Jordan is governed are changed such steps will represent nothing more than cosmetic measures so that it appears as though things are changing.

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