Police try to prevent relatives of Nahed Hatter and activists to block the street during a sit-in in front of the prime minister’s building in Amman on Monday. Image Credit: REUTERS

Amman: Jordan’s judiciary on Monday slapped a media blackout on the murder of a Christian writer who was gunned down outside an Amman court where he faced charges over an anti-Islam cartoon.

The information ministry said the aim was to preserve “the secrecy of the investigation” and that the blackout applied to both social and traditional media.

Nahed Hattar was hit by three bullets before the alleged assassin was arrested at the scene of Sunday’s shooting in Amman’s central Abdali district, official media said.

The assailant — bearded and robed — shot the 56-year-old as he made his way up the steps outside the court.

The gunman, identified as a 49-year-old Jordanian, gave himself up to police, a security source said.

A judicial source said on Sunday that the assailant was remanded for 15 days and charged with premeditated murder, meaning that he could face the death penalty if convicted.

The suspect had acted alone and was not linked to any “terrorist” group, a source close to his interrogation said, asking not to be named.

Hattar faced charges over a cartoon posted on his Facebook page, under the title ‘God of Daesh’.

Some of the most extreme elements in Jordan made clear in recent weeks that Nahed Hattar should pay for a provocative cartoon he posted online depicting a bearded man in bed with two women ordering God to bring him cashews and wine.

So when Hattar, 56, a prominent writer from a Christian family, showed up at a court on Sunday to face criminal charges of insulting Islam, at least one man with a gun decided a trial was not enough. As three bullets ripped through the writer in front of the courthouse, Jordan’s simmering tensions boiled over.

The brazen daylight killing of Hattar in front of his horrified family was not only the latest example of violence tied to cartoon renderings of Muslim figures, it was also the sort of manifestation of extremism that Jordan’s government has struggled to contain in a nation that finds itself under pressure from multiple directions.

While presenting itself as a stable outlier in a tumultuous region, Jordan maintains a complicated balancing act of its own, split between traditional tribes, Palestinians, a potent Islamist community and now more than 650,000 refugees from the grinding civil war in Syria. As Jordan strives to stay neutral in Syria and off Daesh’s radar, the cartoon Hattar posted on Facebook proved just the sort of lighter fuel to feed the flames.

Never mind that after an across-the-board social media backlash, Hattar quickly removed the cartoon, deactivated his Facebook account and apologised, saying he “did not mean to offend anyone”. If the government hoped that arresting him would tamp down the anger among the more violent sections of Jordanian society, it misjudged.

“I saw his lifeless, blood-drained body just now,” his wife, Randa Kakish-Hattar, said in an interview several hours later at her home where she was mourning with friends and family. “His two children saw him shot and killed before their eyes. And for what? For sharing a cartoon on Facebook?”

Family members accused authorities of not doing enough to guard him against death threats. “Nahed apologised about the cartoon,” Saif Hattar, a cousin, said. “It was misunderstood. We believe the [Daesh] poisonous mentality was the cause of this but the government failed to protect him.”

A suspect in the shooting was captured near the scene, according to the government, which vowed harsh action. “We will hold the perpetrator who committed this despicable act to justice, and the government will respond with an iron fist to anyone who uses this incident as an opportunity to spread hate speech in society,” Mohammad Momani, a government spokesman, said in a statement.

Jordan has sought to find ways to keep its Islamist forces in check. The Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed in Egypt, was allowed, through its political wing, to take part in Jordan’s parliamentary elections last week. The wing, along with other Islamists, won 15 of 130 seats, while women won 20, a record for the nation. By happenstance, Jordan’s government resigned on Sunday, part of the normal process after elections.

But with the Syrian civil war so close, the kingdom’s leaders fear that extremism will cross its borders or arise from within. In June, three intelligence officers and two other government employees were killed at a Palestinian refugee camp. In November, a Jordanian police officer fatally shot two US trainers, a South African trainer and two Jordanians at a training compound in Amman.

Before his death, Hattar said that he shared the cartoon not to insult Islam but to point out the hypocrisy of the Deash. In his apology statement, he said the cartoon “mocks [Daesh] terrorists and their concept of heaven”.

His explanation did not satisfy his most virulent critics. “The apology and the clarification from Hattar is no less of an apostasy than his caricature,” Abu Mohammad Al Maqdisi, one of Al Qaida’s most influential ideologues and the spiritual mentor of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the slain Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, wrote on Twitter in August.

Relatives said Hattar received more than 100 death threats, many through Facebook and some by telephone. In one message they played for a reporter, a caller said if justice did not take place, he would kill Hattar by “tearing out his heart from his chest”. The family said it went to the governor to submit the death threats but no action was taken.

“This happened despite the government knowing that Nahed is a prominent person, that he received hundreds of death threats,” said Saif Hattar, his cousin.

After Hattar’s death on Sunday, a range of organisations in Jordan spoke out against the killing, including the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The murder of Hattar targets democracy and diversity in our society and aims to spread darkness and terrorism,” Nidal Mansour, the president of the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists, said in a statement. “Even though we disagree with what Nahed says or writes, this is the time to stand united against terrorism and those who killed him. They want to instil fear and silence us.”

At the family meeting hall in Amman, relatives consoled one another.

His wife said she tried to convince Hattar to leave the country just two days earlier, but he refused.

Hattar’s younger brother, Majed, 51, was with him when he was attacked and still had blood on his clothes and shoes. He said he had chased the gunman and caught him by holding his beard.

More than 1,000 residents joined relatives on Sunday evening in Fuheis, a largely Christian suburb northwest of Amman where the writer came from. “We meet today in pain and sorrow,” said Huwaished Akroosh, the president of the municipality. “We have confidence in His Majesty the king and for safekeeping this country and its people. “

The gathering turned into a march down the main street toward Fuheis Circle, with hundreds of people chanting together. “The extremists were afraid of you, so they killed you,” they chanted. “Your blood was not spilt in vain.”

- With inputs from AFP