Hamza Kashgari fled to Malaysia after calls for death penalty in response to Twitter comment about Muhammad

Kate Hodal, Bangkok, Feb  13, 2012,-Malaysia has deported a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad on Twitter, despite claims by rights groups that he could face the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

Hamza Kashgari, 23, a newspaper columnist, tweeted doubts about Muhammad on the prophet’s birthday last weekend. After death threats, he fled to Malaysia on Tuesday and was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport while trying to leave on Thursday. Malaysian police said Kashgari was handed over to Saudi officials and flown back on Sunday morning, with flight arrangements handled by the Saudi authorities.

Malaysia and Saudi Arabia do not share a formal extradition treaty, but do have close ties as fellow Muslim countries. The Malaysian interior minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said in a statement that Kashgari’s deportation was due to a common agreement.

“Malaysia had a long-standing arrangement by which individuals wanted by one country are extradited when detained by the other, and [Kashgari] will be repatriated under this agreement,” the statement read. “The nature of the charges against the individual in this case are a matter for the Saudi Arabian authorities.”

Kashgari had tweeted about Muhammad last week: “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 deleted the tweet and apologised, but it attracted more than 30,000 responses, including death threats that spread from Twitter to YouTube and Facebook. Saudi clerics called him an apostate, and a Facebook page demanded his execution. Apostasy, abandonment or renunciation of faith, is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

“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.”

A lawyer for Kashgari called the deportation unlawful and said his counsel had not been informed that he was to be sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Malaysia’s actions set an all new low. “If Kashgari faces execution back in Saudi Arabia, the Malaysian government will have blood on its hands. The Malaysian government engaged in the most crass form of bait and switch, secretly sending Kashgari back, claiming the return is based on a long-standing understanding between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that there is no bilateral extradition treaty between the two. When seeking a seat on the UN human rights council, the Malaysian government pledged it would abide by international human rights treaties, but from the day they took their seat they have walked away from that pledge.”

A lawyer for Kashgari said that he had obtained a court order preventing his client’s deportation but had been stopped by authorities from serving it.

Fadiah Nadwa Fikri told the Malaysian Star: “When we tried to serve the order at the Kuala Lumpur international airport, an immigration officer there confirmed Kashgari had been deported. This is in contempt of court and a violation of human rights.” He added that Kashgari had been denied access to his lawyers since his arrest on Thursday.

Kashgari said in an interview that he was a “scapegoat for a larger conflict” over his comments, Reuters reported. Amnesty International labelled Kashgari a prisoner of conscience and called for his release.

Two weeks ago Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh called on Muslims to avoid Twitter as it “invited [people] to throw charges between them, and to lie in a manner that brings fame to some”, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Saudi Arabia has the third highest number of Twitter users in the Arab region, according to a social media report by the Dubai School of Government. However, those users comprise 0.5% of the nation’s overall population of 27 million.

In January, California-based Twitter said it would censor tweets in certain countries, fuelling debate over freedom of speech on the internet. Thailand, where strict censorship rules already apply, was the first nation to publicly approve of Twitter’s decision. In Malaysia, police have used Twitter and other social media to try to warn activists against rallying in support of the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In Indonesia, a government minister announced last week that people tweeting in violation of local law – relating to pornography, gambling, threats, fraud and blasphemy – could face seven to 12 years in jail, the Jakarta Globe reported.