The jarring tale of Jordan’s killer couple

Between 1994 and 1998 a serial killer terrorized the relatively safe country of Jordan, which then enjoyed a lower crime rate than other countries in the Middle East. Twelve brutal murders and robberies had occurred across several cities, leaving authorities embarrassed and scrambling to find the criminals responsible.

The age, gender and background of the victims varied wildly, which is unusual for serial killers, who usually have well-defined victim preferences. The victims in this case however, included the owner of a banana stand, an Egyptian woman and her six-month-old child that lived in the outskirts of the capital, as well as a young woman who was about to get married. Eventually, as they wreaked havoc on the country, police investigators zeroed in on main suspects Bilal Musa and his wife Susan Ibrahim.

How exactly police found the couple as potential suspects in the first place was never disclosed across Arab and international media reports that were published at the time. All that was disclosed was that Musa, then 26 years old, along with his 27-year-old wife Susan had fled to Libya, but were recaptured and extradited back to Jordan via Tunisia with the help of Interpol in 1998.

Jordanian authorities claimed that the couple generally committed their murder-robberies in the early morning hours, and often posed as salespeople to get into people’s homes, which is a bizarre claim considering that posing as salespeople is all but guaranteed to ensure an aggressive response on the  part of the homeowners. Police also stated that the duo sometimes posed as journalists, which would make only slightly more sense.

Their preferred method of killing was stabbing, a strangely personal method of murder, with at least one source referencing one victim that had his neck slashed open. The only mention of any corroborating evidence was eyewitness testimony. The lack of detail in this case is striking, even in the Middle East, where police usually disclose information about crimes well after the fact. Yet, in this case, so few details were ever disclosed at all. In fact, an Associated Press article at the time was essentially a reproduction of police press releases with scant additional details if any.

Once back in custody in Jordan, they confessed to the crimes and were promptly convicted. Bilal was handed 7 death sentences and was executed by hanging in Swaqa prison, south of Amman on December 7, 2000. His wife’s sentence was commuted from death to life in prison with hard labor. She died shortly after in prison from an undisclosed illness. Prisons in Jordan came under scrutiny in 2007 after claims of abuse and torture were reported on by Reuters.

Swaqa prison where Musa was hanged in 2000.

This case would have been fairly unremarkable had it actually ended there. But five years later, another man, Zuheir Ahmed, was sentenced to death for the murder of Najeh Khayat in 1995. The same victim that Musa was executed for supposedly committing.

After the courts realized their mistake, they shuffled the case between themselves, from the lower courts to the Court of Cassation and back again. Until it was ultimately decided that Musa’s confession was more aligned with the facts of the case and therefore more likely to have been true. Despite Musa insisting that the police spoon-fed him information, and that he confessed under extreme torture. Musa claimed that he was beaten and hung by his arms and feet on a thin broom, a common method of police torture in the Middle East, possibly pioneered by Egypt’s corrupt police forces. In fact, he confessed to only one murder, that of a fifty-year-old man who had raped Musa’s wife, Susan.

According to a complaint filed by Musa’s family to Arab human rights groups afterward, Musa was a scapegoat used by the police to alleviate pressure on the security apparatus for their continued failure to prevent these crimes or catch the perpetrators. And that in many of the cases, there was nothing tying them to Musa in any way. The only real evidence that was presented and that was the basis of his execution, was a forced confession.  The only details available are questionable, considering that they were published by the notorious Qatari news channel, Al Jazeera Arabic with no mention of any source whatsoever.

The same judge who presided on the Musa case also covered the second case, clearly a conflict that had dire consequences on the decisions of the court. How he was even indicted for a case that was solved and whose sentence was carried out, is baffling. This highlights the significant shortcomings of the Jordanian judiciary, although is still sadly common throughout the Middle East, where due process and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt are almost entirely non-existent, as are computerized court records.

When it was discovered that Musa was executed for crimes that he didn’t commit, international backlash was swift and rightfully harsh. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both issued press releases calling for the abolishment of the death penalty in Jordan, and for an investigation into the two cases more thoroughly, claiming repeatedly that Musa was tortured while in police custody. Human Rights Watch cited an eyewitness who said that they heard screams coming from Musa’s interrogation room.

“These two cases exemplify the Jordanian judiciary’s failure to conduct even the most basic inquiry into the facts, even in the most serious cases,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan should urgently follow King Abdullah’s call to abolish the death penalty to prevent tragic cases like this in the future.”

A year after Musa’s execution was revealed to be wrongful, Jordan had a moratorium on all executions between 2006 and 2014, after which they resumed. The systemic reform that was called for by international human rights groups went all but unheeded, and it is quite likely that today across Jordan and the Middle East, are many defendants who have been coerced into signing away their life by an unjust and indefensible judicial systems.

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