News / Asia

Saudi Blogger Faces Trial for Apostasy

Hamza Kashgari faces trial in Saudi Arabia for apostacy
Hamza Kashgari faces trial in Saudi Arabia for apostacy

Saudi newspaper Arab News says a Saudi blogger accused of apostasy has been detained on arrival in Riyadh after being deported from Malaysia, where he fled last week.

Hamza Kashgari caused an outcry among devout Saudis earlier this month, when he used his Twitter account to post thoughts about the Prophet Muhammad they deemed insulting to Islam.

The comments by the 23-year-old columnist for Jeddah-based newspaper al-Bilad triggered tens of thousands of Twitter responses, many from enraged Saudis calling for his death.

Kashgari quickly apologized and deleted his Twitter account, but fled the country last Tuesday as the outrage grew.

A day later, a committee of senior Saudi clerics appointed by the king declared Kashgari to be an apostate - a crime punishable by death - and called for him to be put on trial.

Human Rights Groups Express Concern

Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher with New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, told VOA that Kashgari is "very unlikely" to get a fair trial in which the offending remarks can be explained.

Wilcke said the senior Saudi clerics who called for Kashgari to face trial also have predetermined its outcome by declaring him an apostate. He said one cleric even called for the blogger to be executed.

The clerics of the Saudi kingdom's Permanent Committee for Research and Religious Verdicts are responsible for making authoritative interpretations of Islamic law. Their verdicts almost are equivalent to "an act of the U.S. Congress and a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court at the same time," said Wilcke.

But, Wilcke said there is a chance that Kashgari could appeal to Saudi King Abdullah for leniency and avoid execution.  He noted the case of Hadi al Mutif, a member of the minority Ismaili sect whom the government pardoned last week after arresting him for apostasy in 1993 and later sentencing him to death.

Malaysia also is facing criticism from rights activists for its decision to quickly extradite Kashgari to Saudi Arabia. Malaysian police detained the blogger after he arrived at Kuala Lumpur's international airport Wednesday en route to another country. Sunday, police handed him to Saudi officials who escorted him on a flight to Riyadh.

Malaysia Says It's a Saudi Affair

Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia, but said it has a "long-standing arrangement" to extradite individuals wanted in other countries.  Kuala Lumpur said the charges against Kashgari were a matter for Saudi authorities.

Ali Alyami, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told VOA that he believes Malaysia extradited Kashgari for other reasons. "The Saudi regime and religious establishment have influence in Malaysia because of the financial support they give to Kuala Lumpur," he said. Saudi and Malaysian business people also have strong ties.

Wilcke said the Malaysian government did not act in good faith because lawyers had obtained a court order to prevent Kashgari's deportation and were prevented from seeing their client while he was detained.

"It remains unclear what legal basis was used to keep Kashgari in detention since he entered Malaysia legally, for all we know, and committed no crime there," said Wilcke.

In his tweets, Kashgari imagined a conversation with Prophet Muhammad in which he said they are equal. He said he admires some of the prophet's characteristics, but dislikes others.

Alyami said questioning Islam is taboo in Saudi Arabia because religion is a "tool in the hands of rulers who want to control people financially and economically and to discriminate against minorities."  He also said many Saudis are "religiously brainwashed" and feel they have to call for Kashgari's execution in order to be perceived as "good Muslims."

Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam. In a 2011 report, the U.S. State Department said some Muslims who did not adhere to Riyadh's interpretation of Islam faced "significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination."

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's request for comment on Kashgari's case. But, its website says the Saudi government has embarked upon a "comprehensive reform agenda to promote a vibrant economy, a civil society, and broader political participation by Saudi citizens."

Alyami said Kashgari is not unique among Saudis in speaking out about controversial topics.  Millions of young Saudi men and women are "very frustrated with the lack of political freedom, sexual freedom and jobs," he said. "They also feel isolated from the rest of the world and... disconnected from religious traditions of the past."

"Now, for the first time, young Saudis are connecting with each other through social media to discuss these issues." Saudi rulers' "failure" to recognize this trend is the real danger, said Alyami.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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