Q&A: What happens next for the Saudi blogger awaiting trial 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)

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.

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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.

In Saudi Arabia, trials are very closed affairs and the idea of equality of arms – that the defendant should have the same means to defend himself as the prosecution who accuses him – is entirely new, and more often than not, not respected in a Saudi courtroom.

I have seen large number of cases in which the Saudi judged kicked out of the courtroom the lawyer for a defendant in more politically charged cases, in common criminal cases, and in speech cases.

What we have seen now is the Saudi prosecutor has said he wants to file charges... against Hamza Kashgari, the tweeter, as well as against those who “supported or encouraged” Kashgari online. So the fear in Saudi Arabia right now is that this will be a witch hunt against liberals.

The panel that you mentioned earlier is the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia – the council of senior religious scholars – which sets out interpretations of Islamic law. They have called him an apostate.

So what we are saying is: even if he were to have a lawyer and all legal means of a defence at his disposal, it would be extremely hard to go up against essentially a pre-cooked verdict.

Q: You talked about this ‘witch hunt’ that people are expecting will unfold in Saudi Arabia. When the prosecutor talk about people who ‘supported’ Mr. Kashgari, what do you think that means?

There is a degree of increased freedom of expression Saudi Arabia, not so much by government fiat or government policy, but simply by the means of technology now at the disposal of Saudi citizens.

The Arab Spring hasn’t had a great impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of public demonstrations or calls for change in government.

But people have shed a good amount of fear in speaking out on even some controversial issues. So on Twitter you will find these days Saudis who are very outspoken about the social ills of that country, the ruling system, and, even sometimes as we see in this case, about the religious dogma.

And I think the prosecution is saying: those who form part of this liberal circle of intellectuals, often very young like Mr. Kashgari, will potentially face charges.

Let me give you a couple of examples: Walid Abu Al-Khair, a Jeddah-based lawyer and activist who I know fairly well, was recently called in to the prosecutor’s office and charged with communicating with Human Rights Watch. It’s those things that are uncodified, unspecified that lend themselves to political abuse that we see again in this case.

Very recently, a so-called group of Jeddah reformers were sentenced to very long prison sentences, up to 30 years, for allegedly using private meetings and using the Internet to try to overthrow the government. All they did from what we know is discuss ways of political reform.

Q: When I look at the reaction online, I see a Facebook group calling for Mr. Kashgari’s execution. I see people on social media tweeting and condemning what Mr. Kashgari originally tweeted. Do you see any support in that social media community in Saudi Arabia for Mr. Kashgari, or is it such a difficult environment for anyone to even articulate any sympathy or mercy for this young man?

There is no doubt that public opinion is against Mr. Kashgari at present in Saudi Arabia. But let’s not lose sight of a couple of facts.

One is that these campaigns, usually led by conservative Islamic clerics, are fairly organized. This is not necessarily an outpouring of public opinion per se, this is also an organized event.

What you’re getting at is, what would it take for somebody to stand against this? And I am getting messages from a number of Saudis who are horrified and outraged. And I would like to commend Abd al-Rahman Al-Lahim, a lawyer who himself has faced jail time and a ban on travelling abroad for his human rights advocacy, he has publicly said, “I am willing to defend Mr. Kashgari, however difficult it may be, he deserves a defence.”

But he’s a well-known figure. For somebody to just express his opinion online, it’s much easier to have quiet solidarity than to do so online because anybody might be next on the target list and reputation and defamation of reputation is a big issue in Saudi Arabia because it’s linked to your family, your jobs prospects, and even marriage prospects sometimes.

Q: Given everything that you’ve described in terms of the environment in Saudi Arabia, do you fear that the task before you is an impossible one, and that essentially the human rights community is an outsider to events unfolding in Saudi Arabia and that it’s very difficult to influence?

I will be very frank with you here. I don’t think that we will see a genuine discussion about the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia.

What we are trying to do is really raise the price internationally for Saudi Arabia to go ahead with the prosecution of Kashgari.

I think it’s very important that Saudi authorities in the highest places realize that if they want to be part of the international community of nations, they have to respect certain rules. And among them are rules of human rights which say you have the right to peacefully express your opinions.

Q: When you say “raise the price,” what do you mean by that?

For example, Saudi Arabia is an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Before that Human Rights Council was established a few years ago, there was an attempt to lay down certain minimum rules for its membership. They remained, unfortunately, at the level of goodwill proposals.

But, the members of the Human Rights Council should think twice whether they want a member like Saudi Arabia. Malaysia, the country who sent Kashgari back [to Saudi Arabia] is also a member of the human right council.

Q: In terms of the Kashgari case, is there any other case like it that you can recall in Saudi Arabia and how has that case ended?

Well, there is a very recent case of Hadi al-Mutif, who was released on February 10th, 2012.

He was convicted of blasphemy and therefore apostasy in 1996, and he was arrested in 1993, so he spent 18 years in jail on that charge and conviction.

And I’ve talked to al-Mutif while he was in prison, and we lobbied very hard on his behalf publicly and behind closed doors. We got the highest court in Saudi Arabia to review his case based on a recommendation by the king, but there was nothing doing.

The hardline clerics remained adamant. What led to his release recently was an arranged private meeting between the chief mufti, who declares religious rulings, and the prisoner in which he accepted the prisoner’s repentance and remorse.

So this is a possible way out in Kashgari’s case. We’re glad the execution and death sentence wasn’t carried out against al-Mutif. But he did spend 18 years in prison.

Q: What do you know in terms of the conditions Mr. Kashgari is being kept in? How is he holding up?

Well we don’t have direct knowledge. We have a well-sourced media report that he is being held in a private villa in Riyadh where he was allowed to make a phone call to his family to say he was not being ill-treated.

I am not right now concerned of ill-treatment by Saudi authorities because the case is so high profile. I’d be a little more concerned somewhere down the line if there is a guilty verdict and then he joins the general prison population.

Right now, the focus is on raising the price internationally, making sure Saudi Arabia weighs carefully whether or not to proceed with the case, and that if it does, that a full and fair hearing of his case is taking place which is a very steep and uphill battle in Saudi Arabia.

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