By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan's former spy chief, once one of the country's most feared and powerful officials, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on Sunday in the first high-profile case from an anti-corruption crackdown driven by popular protests.
Retired General Mohammad al-Dahabi, who ran the country's intelligence agency from 2005 to 2009, was found guilty of money laundering, embezzlement and abuse of power, and was ordered to return $30 million.
It was the first time a member of the political elite had been tried and jailed in a country where accusations of corruption are widespread and the security service wields huge power.
Dahabi's arrest last February and his trial which began in Amman a few months later were the most dramatic steps in an anti-graft campaign heralded as the largest ever in Jordan.
The drive launched by King Abdullah last year was seen as a response to Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations calling for greater political freedoms and an end to corruption.
Dahabi's civilian trial broke new ground in Jordan, where most graft trials have been held in military or special courts that bypass the judiciary and are criticized as unconstitutional by rights activists.
Although many ministers have been called for questioning and scores of businessmen have been detained or investigated in the recent crackdown, few cases have gone to civilian court and convictions have been rare.
Dahabi denied the charges. His supporters have said he is a political scapegoat.
In a case which highlighted corruption in the country's intelligence community, prosecutors said Dahabi's wealth had quadrupled during his years in office, reaching almost $40 million by the end of 2011.
They also said Dahabi used intelligence department funds to design a palatial house, and received kickbacks from contractors.
The court ordered the confiscation of millions of dollars which Dahabi had deposited in several Western investment funds.
Analysts say the intelligence service was at the height of its influence under Dahabi, interfering in top appointments and harassing opposition leaders. Dahabi was accused by the liberal and Islamist opposition of overseeing widespread vote-rigging of 2007 elections in favor of tribal loyalists.
Government leaks have implicated Dahabi in a scandal involving journalists allegedly on his payroll at the height of a smear campaign against former royal aide Bassem Awadallah.
Awadallah, a confidant of the king who challenged a conservative establishment opposed to his liberal policies, was forced to resign in 2008.
The intelligence agency under Dahabi also played a role in revoking citizenship for Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Jordan's old guard fears liberal reforms will allow their countrymen of Palestinian origin, a majority of the country's 6.7 million population, and Islamists a bigger political role and erode its grip on power.
Government officials have strongly denied suggestions that the anti-corruption campaign is turning into a political purge to settle scores among establishment figures.
But some lawyers and investors have been skeptical about Jordan's ability to safeguard a legal process in a country ruled by a tribal political establishment and in which nepotism and back-door dealings are rampant.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Pravin Char)