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Jordan's Moves Toward Democracy Tested In Case Against Muslim Parliamentarians

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JORDAN'S nascent experiment with democracy seems to be hanging in the balance as tension grows between parliament and the government over the prosecution of two independent fundamentalist members of parliament on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.

One of the politicians, Leith Shbeilat, is one of Jordan's harshest critics of government corruption and security-force excesses. There is speculation that he is being targeted for political reasons.

Mr. Shbeilat and Sheikh Yacoub Qarash were charged along with two Jordanian merchants with belonging to an illegal group formed to undermine the Constitution and the government "through revolution and terrorism." The indictment, or charge sheet, which was made public Wednesday, said the group was financed by Iran and a militant Palestinian faction. Shbeilat, and possibly Sheikh Qarash, may face a death sentence in the case, although capital punishment is rare in Jordan.

The prosecution of Shbeilat and Qarash is raising questions about the regime's readiness to ease the grip of Jordan's powerful security apparatus. And at the same time, the discovery of several caches of arms linked to the country's fundamentalist movement is raising popular concern about the willingness of Islamic fundamentalists to accept pluralism.

Many Jordanians, worried that these events will lead to a confrontation between the government and the fundamentalists, hope that King Hussein, who returned to Amman yesterday following kidney surgery in the United States, will somehow defuse the brewing crisis.

"We don't think the country can afford a political conflict that will undermine the democratization process," said Tayseer Zabri, leader of the leftist People's Democratic Party, in a telephone interview yesterday. "We hope that his majesty will contain the crisis to minimize the damages for the country and the democratization process."

If the government cannot produce convincing evidence at the trial, which is to begin Tuesday, Mr. Zabri said, "the consequences will be very dangerous."

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