Saudi blogger likely faces harsh punishment over Prophet Mohammed tweets

The Globe and Mail

A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone in Los Angeles October 13, 2009. (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS/MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

A Saudi blogger whose tweets about the Prophet Mohammed were deemed blasphemous and tantamount to apostasy has been deported from Malaysia back to Saudi Arabia, where he is certain to face trial and possibly the death penalty.

Hamza Kashgari, 23, fled Saudi Arabia last week in hopes of finding political asylum after his tweets sparked a Twitter lynch mob that called for his death.

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Mr. Kashgari used the occasion of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday nearly 10 days ago to send out three tweets.

One of them read: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you.”

“I will not pray for you,” he added, as reported by AFP.

The tweets resulted in a barrage of over 30,000 tweets condemning Mr. Kashgari for blasphemy and apostasy and calls that he face execution.

Mr. Kashgari fled the country and felt it was impossible for him to ever return to Saudi Arabi, where he would certainly face trial and possible execution under the country’s laws governing apostasy.

“I’m afraid, and I don’t know where to go,” he told the Daily Beast.

He was detained in Malaysia and deported to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

There was growing pressure from human rights groups on the Malaysian government, which has close to ties to the Saudi kingdom but no formal extradition treaty, to resist any pressure to deport the Saudi blogger.

“Saudi clerics have already made up their mind that Kashgari is an apostate who must face punishment,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The Malaysian government should not be complicit in sealing Kashgari’s fate by sending him back.”

Malaysian human rights groups said they had secured a court injunction preventing Mr. Kashgari’s deportation but had been prevented from serving the order. The Malaysian government denies that it had any knowledge of such a court order.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that Mr. Kashgari had been arrested following a request from Saudi Arabia, and that Malaysia was not to be used as a “safe haven” or “safe transit country” for those involved in “transnational crime” and wanted by their country of origin.

The move by the Malaysian government was condemned by human rights groups and journalists.

“Shame on #Malaysia for extraditing journalist Hamza Kashgari back to #Saudi Arabia when there are calls for his head,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof Tweeted.

Saudi media reported that Mr. Kashgari had been taken into custody after arriving in Saudi Arabia on Sunday night and that he would likely faces charges of blasphemy in spite of the fact that Mr. Kashgari had apologized, removed the tweets and deleted his account.

Last week, a Saudi panel of senior clerics called the Permanent Committee of Scholarly Research and Islamic Edicts said that anyone mocking the Prophet Mohammed ought to be tried on charges of apostasy, which is interpreted by Muslim scholars as the rejection of the Islamic faith after having embraced it.

On his Crossroads Arabia blog, former U.S. foreign service officer John Burgess, who has completed two tours in Saudi Arabia, explained the severity of the charge.

“Because Saudi Arabia closely follows sharia law, it will be compelled to follow its rulings. The Koran [2:217]appears to consider apostasy to be a serious sin/crime, but that is to be punished in the afterlife.

“Numerous ahadith [sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed] however, call for the death of the apostate. The question is under debate in various parts of the Islamic world, but for the ulema [religious scholars]in Saudi Arabia, the question is settled,” Mr. Burgess writes.

Saudi Arabian news site Arab News reported that the Saudi blogger is more likely to face charges of blasphemy. Other cases of blasphemy in the Saudi kingdom have involved lashes but not the death penalty.

Saudi lawyer Sulaiman al-Jomaii told Reuters that Mr. Kashgari could be spared the death penalty.

“His case is dependent on his repentance. If he repents (in court) then it will be as if he has not committed a crime and there is no Saudi law that details a punishment for his offense if he repents,” Mr. Jomaii said.

There will be calls for the Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to show leniency and mercy on the case of Mr. Kashgari.

“(This) is a struggle between moderate, true Islam and extreme Islam. Moderate Islam is tolerant. The young man (Kashgari) made a mistake, a big blunder and he must apologize,” Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi is quoted as saying by Reuters.

“I’m sure that the state is kind and it should not come under pressure. He is only 23 years old. Young people go through these kinds of doubts.”

Mr. Kashgari believed the campaign against him was politically motivated.

“I never expected this. It was a huge surprise. My friends are writers and bloggers and now their lives are in danger too,” Mr. Kashgari said before he was detained in Malaysia.

“They fear what will happen to them. The government is trying to scare them and show that what is happening to me can happen to them sooner or later,” Mr. Kashgari said.

A report in Gulf News says the prosecutor who will bring the case against Mr. Kashgari will likely summon people who supported or agreed with Mr. Kashgari.

“The public prosecutor, as the attorney for the society, has the right to summon anyone who encouraged the defendant or who is connected to matters that motivated his action,” Abdul Aziz Al Zamel, a legal consultant, said.

There is growing fear that the case of Mr. Kashgari will be used to carry out a wider crackdown on Saudi liberals and reformists.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah unveiled a series of reforms last year, including giving Saudi women the right to vote and run in local elections – a move that made conservatives bristle.

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