Jordanâ€™s trial of the century has gotten under way as a relative of King Abdullah II and a former chief of the royal court were ushered into the defendantsâ€™ cage at the state security court to face charges of sedition and incitement.
The men stand accused on Monday of conspiring with a senior royal â€“ Prince Hamzah, a half-brother of the king â€“ to foment unrest against the monarch while soliciting foreign help.
â€œAs far as I know, there has not been a case this big in the history of Jordan,â€ said defence lawyer Ala Khasawneh. State news agency Petra confirmed the trial started on Monday.
The palace drama erupted in early April when Hamzah was placed under house arrest. It has since broken taboos in Jordan and sent shockwaves through foreign capitals, with Western powers rallying behind Abdullah, a strong ally in the region.
The case exposed rivalries in Jordanâ€™s traditionally discreet Hashemite dynasty and spawned unprecedented public criticism of the monarch. The defendants are the most senior establishment figures to appear before the security court, which typically goes after drug offenders or members of armed groups.
The 41-year-old Hamzah is the central figure, though he is not facing charges. In clashing narratives, he is either a champion of everyday Jordanians suffering from economic mismanagement and corruption, or a disgruntled royal who never forgave Abdullah for taking away his title of crown prince in 2004 and giving it to his oldest son.
The indictment, leaked to state-linked media, alleges Hamzah â€œwas determined to achieve his personal ambitionâ€ of becoming king. It said the prince and the defendants â€“ Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a royal, and Bassem Awadallah, a former royal adviser â€“ conspired to stir discontent.
Security agencies began monitoring them in mid-March at a time of public uproar over an oxygen outage at a hospital in the town of Salt that killed eight coronavirus patients.
Hamzah met with bereaved families just after the king visited Salt. The indictment alleged the prince â€œtook advantageâ€ of the familiesâ€™ pain to spread a populist message.
Ties to Jordanâ€™s tribes
Hamzahâ€™s popularity stems from ties he has nurtured with Jordanâ€™s tribes, the bedrock of Hashemite rule.
Atef Majali, a tribal leader in the town of Karak, said he and other sheikhs have met with the prince more than a dozen times over the years, but denied the king was criticised at these events.
The indictment alleged Hamzah and the two defendants were working on social media messages the prince was to post, with the aim of â€œinciting some groups in society against the ruling system and state agenciesâ€.
Hamzah has denied sedition claims, saying he is being punished for calling out corruption and mismanagement.
On April 3, the day he was placed under house arrest, more than a dozen tribal and public figures were arrested, including his chief aide. Only Awadallah and bin Zaid remain in detention.
The prince is not in legal trouble, with the king saying the matter is being dealt with by the family and that his half-brother remains under his care.
The royal court has declined comment when asked if Hamzah can leave his Amman palace or communicate with others. Atef Majali said Hamzahâ€™s staff was not allowed to return to work.
Khasawneh, who represents bin Zaid, a distant cousin of the king, said his client is â€œin shockâ€ and plans to plead not guilty. In addition to sedition and incitement, bin Zaid is also charged with narcotics possession after two pieces of hashish were allegedly found in his home.
The lawyer said he plans to call Hamzah to the stand â€“ potentially amplifying the sensationalist nature of the trial. It is not clear if the palace, eager to tamp down the crisis, would allow the prince to make his case on such a public stage.
Khasawneh said his client plans to fight the charges and brushed aside questions about a possible plea deal. During security court trials, defendants stand in a courtroom cage. Awadallah and bin Zaid are expected to be confined to the cage as well, wearing the blue uniforms of detainees, said former state security court president Mohammad al-Afeef, who represents Awadallah.
The defendants, who are being held at an intelligence compound in the capital Amman, face up to 20 years in prison.
In the days leading up to the trial, a broader narrative has surfaced, though it is only alluded to in the indictment. In this version, the alleged conspirators sought foreign help to exploit the kingâ€™s perceived vulnerability at a time when he was under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to accept a now-defunct Trump administration Middle East plan sometimes referred to as â€œthe deal of the centuryâ€.
Jordan has expressed concern the plan would weaken the monarchâ€™s historical role as guardian of major Muslim and Christian sites in contested Jerusalem and a pillar of Hashemite claims to legitimacy.
Allegations about foreign outreach focus on Awadallah, who holds Jordanian, US and Saudi citizenship, and once served as the kingâ€™s official envoy to Riyadh. He has close ties to Saudi Arabiaâ€™s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
In Jordan, Awadallah has been widely blamed for economic policies seen as mainly benefitting the rich and has been dogged by suspicions of corruption. In Riyadh, he had been visibly involved in efforts to draw foreign investment.
The indictment alleges Hamzah and bin Zaid invited Awadallah to join them because of his foreign ties. At one point, Hamzah allegedly asked Awadallah: â€œIf something happened to me in Jordan, will the Saudi officials help me or not?â€
Saudi Arabia, a major financial backer of Jordan, immediately sent its foreign minister to the kingdom after the crisis erupted, publicly reaffirming support for the king.
Damaging to Jordan
Mohammed Momani, a member of Jordanâ€™s senate and a former information minister, maintained there was a link between the alleged sedition plot and regional politics.
â€œWhen you see that Jordan is under pressure from its major allies because of the deal of the century, then you probably saw this as an opening or as a possibility or an opportunity to solicit some support from the outside world,â€ alleged Momani, who said he was briefed on the investigation.
Momani alleged bin Zaid had approached a foreign embassy, â€œtrying to ask them for their reactionâ€ if the accused conspirators put their plan into motion. He did not identify the embassy.
Jordanian officials have said the plot was uncovered in time but posed a threat to stability.
Critics said claims of a threat seem overblown, noting any plot would have required the backing of the security forces.
â€œI cannot find any evidence that would lead to this kind of trial,â€ political analyst Amer Sabaileh said. He and Momani are among 92 members of a political reform committee formed by the king to deal with the crisis.
Sabaileh said the saga may have caused lasting damage.
â€œIt has opened the Hashemitesâ€™ door for ordinary people to look inside, and I think this is not good regardless of how it happened,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s better for this family to be united and not to show that there is this kind of competition or sense of revenge.â€