Family speak of grief, loss and anger after brutal torture of Jordanian teen

The attack on 16-year-old Saleh resonated through Jordan but locals of Zarqa say it speaks to deeper issues of insecurity and lawlessness in the town

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Abu Jihad struggles to contain his anger as he talks about the attack on his nephew by a group of men who abducted and tortured the teen, attempted to gouge out his eyes, chopped off his hands and left him bleeding in the street – a crime that has sent shockwaves through Jordan.

The locals of Zarqa say the lively but impoverished city’s reputation for violence and drugs is warranted. They describe a culture of fear and intimidation where thuggish behaviour thrives and the police are seemingly absent.

A life sentence isn't enough for what these men have done to Saleh

It was in this climate that the feud between two families in the town 30 kilometres from Amman spiralled out of control, culminating in the attack on Saleh Hamdan.

Thirteen people have been charged with the crime, and authorities say the case will go to the State Security Court, meaning the men may receive the death penalty if found guilty.

From an olive farm belonging to a local sheikh a few kilometres outside the city, Abu Jihad tells The National that the attack on his nephew goes beyond his family – it throws the security of the entire country into question.

“A life sentence isn’t enough for what these men have done to Saleh,” he said. “When we found out what had happened, grown men cried, my wife collapsed and had a nervous breakdown and another of the male relatives crashed his car into a wall out of sheer anger.”

The men are accused of using an axe to hack off both of Saleh’s hands, before attempting to gouge out his eyes – the first eye with sharp objects and the second with their fingers.

The motive was retaliation for the killing of the lead suspect’s uncle in August. Saleh’s father is currently in jail awaiting trial, but through tribal mediation, the family thought they had established a truce.

“Saleh, his mother and I were supposed to visit Saleh’s father in prison on the day of the attack,” Abu Jihad says. “I called them to see when to expect them and Saleh told me ‘we’re coming, I just need to go and pick up some bread’.”

Saleh and his mother never made the visit.

Saleh’s father, Abu Saleh, was an imam at a local mosque and respected among the community, say his family and local traders. He was also responsible for the security of a local vegetable market’s roughly 150 stalls.

Pictured: The entrance to the market in Zarqa where both the victim's and the suspects' families had market stalls. 
Photographer: Charlie Faulkner

One night in August, Abu Jihad says, Abu Saleh was called in the early hours of the morning because someone known to the men was causing trouble at the market - not for the first time.
"The man causing trouble was drunk. He had a gun. The men got into a fight and the gun was fired, but no one was hurt," says Abu Jihad.

“Saleh’s father told me it was a situation of ‘I either kill him or he kills me’,” he adds.

In the altercation, the family say, the imam stabbed the man – who market traders and other local figures say had a reputation for violence – in the leg with a Swiss army knife.

They maintain it was in self-defence, the knife did not belong to Abu Saleh and if he had aimed to kill the man, he would have stabbed him somewhere more vulnerable.

In the end though, it did not matter – the knife hit a major vein and the man bled to death.

In Jordan, when killings like this occur, tribal law stipulates that in addition to the civil legal proceedings, the perpetrator’s family leaves the area or they pay blood money. Sheikhs representing each side usually undertake these negotiations.

If neither happens, a revenge attack can be expected.

Pictured: The now-closed market stall at the edge of the market belonging to the men who have been charged with the attack on the 16-year-old victim. 
Photographer: Charlie Faulkner

Saleh’s family chose to leave. Seven households gave up their homes and their shops, and moved out of the city.

Tears roll down Abu Jihad’s face as he talks with frustration about the sacrifice his family made to prevent further violence.

“We didn’t have an income because we left the city because of an issue with a guy who’s a criminal, who should have been stopped by the police before it came to this,” he says.

Sheikh Sulaiman Mohammed Abu Khorma, the owner of the olive farm where Abu Jihad spoke to The National, provided Saleh's family with support and represented them during the truce talks.

Pictured: Sheikh Sulaiman Mohammed Abu Khorma  in his home on the outskirts of Zarqa. He was at the centre of truce talks between the two families after the attack victim's father was jailed for killing a man, which led to the revenge attack on the teenager.
Photographer: Charlie Faulkner

“Breaking the tribal law is something very big,” says the sheikh. “It is dangerous because the civil law and tribal law are intertwined here.”

If the family feels that the legal courts fail to deliver justice for Saleh, there could be more violence.

“Of course, there is a problem with violence in Zarqa, but the attack on Saleh was so ugly that anyone in the world would be shocked by it,” the sheikh adds.

Locals say that police are usually powerless to stop local crime because the climate of fear means they won’t talk to the authorities. Since the attack, patrols have been stepped-up and security forces have carried out a wave of arrests.

A member of Jordanian security forces stops cars as the police and army close-off the area surrounding the site of an explosion at a military munitions depot in the city of Zarqa, 25 Km (15 miles) east of the capital Amman, on September 11, 2020. - A huge blast rocked a Jordanian military munitions depot early sparking a large fire, but the army said there were no casualties at the base situated in an uninhabited area, adding in a statement that the explosion was "due to high temperatures provoking a chemical reaction in a shell". (Photo by Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

Jordan’s head of Public Security Directorate, Maj Gen Hussein Al Hawatmeh, vowed to “strike with an iron fist” against anyone who threatened the country’s security.

Police have arrested around 600 people suspected to be involved in criminal activities, as well as repeat offenders nationwide – a move both Abu Jihad and Sheikh Abu Khorma say was long overdue.

A fourteenth man was jailed for a week for filming the attack on Saleh. But, the boy’s family say they are grateful for the video as they believe that without it, the authorities would not have responded with such force.

While the night time altercation in Zarqa market seems to have triggered a cycle of violence, traders and locals say it’s long been a sore.

Mohamed Mohareb, a prominent official in the area where both families had businesses, says there have been disputes over market vendor spaces for years. He says where plots are not registered with the municipality, traders are forced to pay fees to powerful local families to secure a spot.

Mr Mohareb says he arrived at the scene shortly after Saleh's father stabbed the man and also believes Saleh’s father was trying to protect market stalls that night.

He says the lead suspect in the attack on Saleh is from one of the two main families he believes is behind the bullying, racketeering and violence.

“This attack on Saleh is very shameful for the country but it’s forced the government to address security issues here,” he says. “This was needed a long time ago, however people here are very afraid to talk so it makes it more difficult for the police.”

Pictured: A vendor, who asked not to be named, in a market in Zarqa, said the level of violence executed in the attack on the 16-year-old victim is very worrying. However, he does not feel unsafe. 
Photographer: Charlie Faulkner

In the market, a visibly nervous seller agrees to talk to The National but won't give his name for fear of retribution.

“I’ve seen another man get stabbed before,” he says. “I’m talking to you because what happened to Saleh is unforgivable.” He adds that he welcomes the police crackdown.

Saleh is a good person, he says, and the attack has sent shock waves throughout the community.

“There were a lot of problems even before this attack. There are a lot of thugs who are involved with drugs and just take market stalls as they please.”

Another seller, who also won’t give his name, condemns the extreme violence against Saleh.

“If you want to get revenge, you should put a bullet in his head. I’m not saying it’s OK but 12 people torturing a child is far worse,” he says.

Nidal Al Hassan, 50, who sells bags at the market, believes in tougher prison sentences but is ultimately fatalistic.

“Violence doesn’t come from nothing. If people are violent, they will receive violence.”