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Why a Saudi blogger faces a possible death sentence for three tweets

Hamza Kashgari's tweets on the prophet Muhammad's birthday have resulted in charges of blasphemy, apostasy, and atheism – and Saudi Arabia appears to be making an example of his actions.

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After the firestorm broke out, Kashgari fled his home in Jeddah, transiting to Jordan, then the United Arab Emirates, then to Malaysia, where he was detained on Feb. 9 trying to catch a flight to New Zealand to seek amnesty. On Feb. 12, authorities in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur deported him back home.

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In the days after his arrest, Kashgari’s friends organized themselves on Twitter and Facebook, calling for the blogger’s release. They have set up a website, Free-Hamza.com. An online petition circulated when he was in Malaysia, calling for the country to avoid extradition; 4,000 people signed.

Now, however, organizing has become far more difficult: On Feb. 13, Saudi Arabian news outlet Al Hayat reported that anyone who was advocating on the young man’s behalf online or in any social media could also be called before the courts. (This is why the Monitor cannot use their names in this article.) The announcement stopped any tentative supporters from speaking out. 

Malaysia defends its deportation order

Malaysian lawyer Muhammad Afiq Mohamad Noor, contacted by Kashgari's family after his detention in Malaysia, has been trying to fight his extradition. In a phone conversation from Malaysia, he says that he tried but was unable to see or speak with Kashgari while he was in the custody of a special Malaysian task force set up to fight extremism and terrorism.

Mr. Noor did, however, secure an order from the country’s high court on Sunday morning that should have prevented the extradition. “Technically speaking the Malaysia government couldn’t deport him to Saudi, because there was a court order preventing them from doing so,” he says. Noor has since filed a motion against the extradition in Malaysian courts to which the government will have to respond on Feb. 22.

Earlier this week, the minister defended his country’s decision, telling the Associated Press, "I will not allow Malaysia to be seen as a safe country for terrorists and those who are wanted by their countries of origin, and also be seen as a transit county.''

Now that Kashgari has arrived in Saudi Arabia, Noor says neither his lawyer there, nor his family, has had access to the accused. “He’s incommunicado.”

There are no clear indications of what will happen next in his case, or when. Kashgari's Saudi-based lawyer told AAP news agency that he will be interrogated by the Ministry of Information. In an interview Tuesday morning, Human Rights Watch's Middle East director Sarah Lee Whitson said this could be the best hope. "We hope that if he is tried, it is by the Ministry of Information as a media offense, where the worst he would face is a penalty or a fine."

 
Professor Gause, who teaches at the University of Vermont, says it's unclear what the protocol would be. "There’s no good precedent to judge what this case will look like," he says, but adds that pressure, whether from human rights groups or diplomats, could exacerbate the situation.  "Outside pressure would just further stir up the folks who have brought this case to the fore."

“Hamza Kashgari’s only chance not to face a harsh punishment,” wrote Menoret in an open letter to the country’s leadership, “is the recognition by the highest Saudi authorities of the benign nature of his posts on Twitter.”

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