Following international outcry, Jordanian authorities released a cartoonist who was arrested last week after publishing a satirical cartoon about the diplomatic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Hajjaj was arrested on Wednesday, August 26, hours after he posted on his Facebook page a cartoon that mocks Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (known as MBZ). The cartoon shows a peace dove with an Israeli flag spitting in the Emirati ruler’s face. The cartoon is titled “Israel asks America not to sell F-35 planes to the Emirates.” Hajjaj added “Spit-35” in Arabic onto MBZ’s smeared cheek.
The cartoon responded to reports that Israel acted to prevent the sale of American F-35 fighter jets and advanced drones to the UAE. This development dampened the newly normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, which announced a peace agreement on August 13. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied any knowledge of the arms deal despite an earlier statement from his office that he had opposed it in meetings with American officials. Unconvinced, the UAE canceled a meeting with Israeli officials in Washington, DC that was planned for Friday, August 28.
Hajjaj was initially charged with “carrying out acts and publishing material aimed at undermining relations with a friendly country.” He was expected to face five years in prison if found guilty. On Sunday, his case was downgraded from terrorism charges to slander and libel, for which he could still face up to two years in prison.
“Calling a satirical cartoon a terrorism offense only confirms that Jordan intends to muzzle citizens who speak freely,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This arrest sends the message that Jordanian authorities would rather abuse the rights of their own citizens than risk offending a gulf leader’s feelings.”
On social media, supporters and press freedom advocates from around the world launched the campaign #Freedom4EmadHajjaj.
“I did not commit any crime,” Hajjaj told Aljazeera in an interview in Arabic after his release. “Political cartoons are an artist’s basic right to express his opinions. They are at the heart of democratic discourse.”
Hajjaj described the arrest experience as “difficult” but said that it will no stop him from continuing to make political cartoons.
“This is my profession,” he said, “I will not give it up.”