AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan's King Abdullah on Sunday pardoned 20 tribal opposition activists detained and charged with insulting the monarch, officials said, after complaints that the charges violated their freedom of expression.
The king announced the pardon to tribal elders from the city of Tafila, an impoverished region in the south, who met him at his palace and asked for the release of the detainees, most of whom came from Tafila, officials said.
Eight of the activists were arrested almost seven weeks ago, after months of protests by tribal youths venting their frustrations against the royal palace, whose opponents portray it as detached from their everyday lives and problems.
The others were arrested after a sit-in near the prime minister's office two weeks ago, when protesters refused to stop chanting anti-government slogans at a rally demanding the release of the eight Tafila detainees.
"The excesses and verbal abuse exceeded all acceptable norms and the government can no longer tolerate any act that affects the prestige of the state, its stability and its symbols," a government spokesman said at the time.
All the detainees were charged at the military-dominated State Security Court with "insulting the king." Some were also charged with "unlawful gathering" and "subverting the system of government in the kingdom or inciting to resist it."
The arrests prompted an outcry by rights activists who called on the authorities to release all prisoners of conscience and stop referring civilians to military courts.
"Their arrest was against the basic rights of expression, they should not have been arrested in the first place,"said Jihad Muheisen, a Jordanian rights activist.
Jordan has had a year of peaceful street protests by Islamists, tribal figures and leftist opposition members, inspired by the wave of Arab revolts demanding wider political freedoms and a crackdown on corruption.
All the demonstrators have called for reforms, but in provincial areas inhabited by native East Bank citizens used to preferential access to state jobs, the protests have been driven largely by concern over keeping such jobs and the dwindling benefits going to tribal and rural areas that support the king.
East Bank Jordanians have been the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy and supply the manpower for the powerful security forces and army.
The palace and the government are increasingly worried by rising tribal disaffection, and the authorities have tried to placate these regions by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on developing them.
Jordan's monarchs have frequently given prominent dissidents special royal pardons to damp down disaffection.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tim Pearce)