It only took three tweets about the Prophet Mohammed, in which a young Saudi blogger engaged in an imaginary conversation with the founder of the Islamic faith, to launch a virtual lynch mob.
“I was sitting with my friends and one of them checked Twitter on his mobile phone,” he told a U.S.-based human right activist. “Suddenly there were thousands of tweets of people calling to kill me because they said I’m against religion,” he recalled.
One of the tweets, all of which he deleted and later apologized for, 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, in his tweets about Prophet Mohammed.
In the 24 hours that followed, there were over 30,000 tweets about his original Twitter comments, most of them negative and calling for his execution.
“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, as he fled Saudi Arabia, only to be later detained in Malaysia and returned to his home country.
Christoph Wilcke is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and has been following Mr. Kashgari’s case closely. Earlier this week he spoke to the Globe and Mail about the implications of the case:
Q: What kind of charges are Hamza Kashgari likely to face under the Saudi legal system?
He will likely face the charge of apostasy. Apostasy is not defined in Saudi law because there is no written criminal law. There are texts that go back sometimes hundreds of years, even a thousand years, of Islamic jurists who set out a long list of elements of acts that may constitute the act of apostasy.
But it’s important to emphasize that Islamic scholars disagree on this list. A number of Islamic scholars, for example, would say the charge of apostasy is something for God to determine, not something for man to determine. So we have all these differences and because it’s not codified or written down it’s difficult to assess.
Q: And what is the punishment for apostasy in Saudi Arabia?
Apostasy is one of, let’s say, about six crimes against God, so-called hudood crimes that are set out in the Koran. Those are the only crimes set out in the Koran.
What the Koran does not do is set out a specific punishment as it does for some of the other crimes set out in the Koran. Theft, for example, you chop off the right hand. So the punishment is up to the ruler to decide.
The Islamic scholars disagree. Many of them, like those in Saudi Arabia, call for the execution of the apostate. Some others call for the imprisonment for life to give the person a chance to repent, and yet some others say this is not worldly justice, it is for divine justice.
Q: There have been reports in the Saudi media last week that a senior panel of Saudi clerics was talking about a charge of apostasy and then there have been reports that it will actually be a charge of blasphemy. Is there any difference between the two charges and the kind of punishment he would likely face if convicted?
There is a difference but not a difference in result. Let’s put it this way: accidental manslaughter is still part of a broader charge of murder.
If blasphemy is proven it constitutes apostasy according to the general Saudi interpretation of Islamic law. Blasphemy is one part of the acts that can lead to a determination of apostasy.
Q: The case against Hamza Kashgari is being brought against him by the public prosecutor in the Read Sea city of Jeddah. Does it matter in which city the case is brought against him? Is there something about the Jeddah court that is perhaps more lenient?
I don’t think it matters a great deal within Saudi Arabia where the case is brought. The Saudi prosecution service is not even 20 years old. It’s a new institution. It’s been making some strides recently into actually going through the process of a trial.