AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan’s former spy chief, once one of the country’s most feared officials, went on trial on graft charges on Thursday in the first high profile case from an anti-corruption crackdown driven by popular protests.
Former General Muhammad al-Dahabi, who headed the General Intelligence Department (GID) from 2005 to 2009, pleaded not guilty to charges of embezzlement, abuse of a public post for personal gain and money-laundering.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The trial is unprecedented in a country where few senior officials have been tried or imprisoned. Most such trials have been held in military or special courts that bypass the judiciary and are criticised by rights advocates as unconstitutional.
Dahabi’s supporters have said a conviction would prove he was being set up as a political scapegoat.
In a case highlighting corruption in the country’s vaunted intelligence community, the prosecutor said Dahabi’s wealth had quadrupled during his years in office, reaching almost $40 million by the end of 2011. The money, he said, was held in several foreign currency accounts in a leading domestic bank.
Prosecutor Nazeer Shehada said investigators found evidence of cheques in Dahabi’s name showing he had taken 500,000 dinars from a ministry of interior project in 2007 to install equipment for parliamentary elections.
Shehada also said Dahabi extorted money and favours from Iraqi businessmen in return for security clearances needed to conduct business in the kingdom. He also used intelligence department funds to design a palatial mansion and get kickbacks from contractors, the prosecutor said.
Dahabi invested several million dollars in several global Western investment funds through his bank, trying “to lend legitimacy” to the deposits funnelled from his abuse of power, Shehada told the court in the palace of justice in Amman.
The intelligence service operates with no judicial oversight, runs its own courts and has wide political powers. It became even more ubiquitous under Dahabi, lawyers and politicians say.
Denied bail 15 times since he was arrested in February, Dahabi is the most high profile suspect to be accused in an anti-graft crackdown heralded as the largest ever in Jordan.
King Abdullah launched the campaign after street protests inspired by uprisings last year which toppled four Arab leaders.
Although many ministers have been called for questioning and scores of businessmen have been detained or investigated in the anti-graft crackdown, few cases have gone to court and convictions have been rare.
Both Islamists and liberal politicians accused Dahabi of overseeing widespread vote rigging in the 2007 elections in favour of tribal loyalists.
“Dahabi’s deposits in dollars, euro and Jordanian dinars amounted to huge sums that did not correspond to the nature of his work or his monthly salary,” Shehada told the court.
Dahabi’s salary of around 3,400 dinars was never used, Shehada said, citing evidence from the investigation into his financial dealings in the local bank.
Government officials have strongly denied suggestions that the anti-corruption campaign the affair is turning into a political purge to settle scores among establishment figures.
But some lawyers and investors have been skeptical about Jordan’s ability to safeguard a legal process in a country which has seen several smaller graft scandals in recent years involving political nepotism and back door dealings.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Heavens