The escape of a person who is an alleged owner of a company that illegally produced and smuggled tobacco grabbed a vast attention of Jordanian media on Saturday, as the government said no charges have been pressed yet.
Citizens taking to social media, as well as MPs asked for businessman Awni Mutee to be brought back from Lebanon, and grilled the government over the way and timing of his “escape” from the Kingdom just one day before a raid at the said factory.
The issue was triggered by two MPs, Nabil Gheishan and Musleh Tarawneh, during their deliberations of the government's policy statement at the Lower House.
Both dared the government to reveal the issue and the names of those implicated, alleging that influential persons were behind the illegal business that has cost the Treasury more than JD150 million.
In statement sent to The Jordan Times on Saturday, State Minister for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat said that the concerned authorities on Saturday imposed a travel ban on seven persons implicated in the case but no arrests were made.
Gheishan said in a phone interview with The Jordan Times that the issue is a “bombshell that exploded in the face of the government” which has now to reveal a list of names of corrupt persons involved in the case that was trending heavily on Saturday, prompting the government to issue a statement to clarify the situation.
The case being tackled by the authourites before the two lawmakers mentioned it in their remarks under the Dome, according to Gheishan, who said that authorities dealt with the first leads on April 26, 2017, after a complaint by two international cigarette companies that their trademarks were being forged.
The amount of taxes and fees lost in the process at the time was estimated at JD155 million, he said. However, the legislator claimed that the estimated loss was reduced to JD5 million and four seized machines were returned to the factory, which “resumed business as usual without the approval of the Department of Standards and Metrology”.
Mutee must be brought back under the pan-Arab Riyadh Extradition Agreement, Ghieshan demanded.
He also demanded the government to hunt all those implicated, even officials and members of security agencies, in case some were proven involved.
Ali Khaldi, a social media user, wondered if Mutee left the Kingdom one day before the raid by mere coincidence.
In a sound clip posted on Facebook, purportedly of a phone interview with Mutee, the businessman said that he had nothing to do with the factory, insisting that the law will prove his innocence.
He also threatened to sue all those who posted accusations against him in relation to the case, which erupted as a public-opinion issue.
Mutee said he would come back to Jordan to prove that he is not guilty.
In a related development, Lower House Speaker Atef Tarawneh, who was shown in photos with Mutee, along with other lawmakers and during public events, condemned attempts to insert his name into the case.
In a statement carried by the Jordan News Agency, Petra, the speaker said that the government “is now responsible for investigating the case, identifying the persons involved and bringing back those who escaped”.
“The government has to find a solution to the misuse of social media outlets” through baseless defamation attempts, Tarawneh said.
Ghunaimat said the government is committed to following up on the case in cooperation with the security apparatus and other relevant agencies.
The minister, who is also the government’s spokesperson, said that six of the travel-banned persons are Jordanians and one is Dutch, noting that investigations were initiated and will be referred to the customs prosecution office once the initial probe is completed.
On Mutee, Ghunaimat said that he left the country on July 11, 2018, one day before the raid, which was cited by Prime Minster Omar Razzaz in his reply to the MPs deliberations on the government’s policy statement as a serious move on the part of his government to crack down on corruption.
The travel ban included Mutee’s brother and son, according to the minister.
Ghunaimat stressed that any person believed to be involved in the case and is outside the Kingdom will be extradited under agreements signed with the international community.
She also said that any person proven involved in assisting suspected persons to leave the country will be brought to justice.
According to the official, the Jordan Customs Department’s (JCD) personnel raided on July 12, 2018 four locations inside Zarqa Free Zone, where they found a warehouse used for storing raw materials used for manufacturing tobacco.
The personnel also raided three companies in Rama in the Jordan Valley, where they found materials and equipment used for producing cigarettes.
Another raid targeted a location in Um Al Amad in Madaba where a company licensed as a juice factory had inside a “complete” tobacco production line.
On Thursday, JCD cadres stopped a truck that was heading to the Zarqa Free Zone carrying equipment for a tobacco manufacturer.
Belal Ajour, a citizen, told The Jordan Times that he could find five copies of the same brand of tobacco that tasted differently and looked almost the same.
By Ahmed Bani Mustafa
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