(New York) – Saudi authorities should free Hamza Kashgari and drop any charges against him based on comments he made on Twitter expressing his personal religious views, Human Rights Watch said today. On the morning of February 12, 2012, Malaysian authorities deported Kashgari back to Saudi Arabia to face charges of apostasy there, hours before lawyers obtained a Malaysian High Court injunction against his deportation.
Saudi Arabia’s highest official clerics have declared Kashgari guilty of apostasy based on his now-deleted tweets and called for him to be put to death.
“Malaysia had no business deporting Kashgari, and Saudi has no business prosecuting him for his tweets expressing his religious opinion, which it is his right to do freely,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is near certain he will not get a fair trial in Saudi Arabia, where religious scholars have concluded that he is guilty of apostasy and should be put to death.”
Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia, on February 6, to Malaysia, following popular outrage and calls for his punishment after he published a number of tweets expressing his religious views, which he has since deleted. Human Rights Watch has reviewed the alleged tweets and not found any language that could incite violence. The 23-year-old journalist, who wrote for Al-Bilad daily newspaper, has expressed regret for the tweets, saying he had no idea they would elicit such a strong negative reaction.
Kashgari was preparing to seek political asylum in New Zealand in light of the likely death sentence he faces in Saudi Arabia for expressing his religious views. Saudi Arabia immediately sought his extradition from Malaysia, though the countries do not have a bilateral extradition treaty.
Malaysian authorities denied Kashgari’s lawyers access to him throughout his detention, and refused repeated requests by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for access to assess whether Kashgari wished to make a claim for political asylum. On February 12, Malaysian lawyers for Hamza Kashgari obtained an injunction against his deportation from a Malaysian High Court judge. When lawyers went to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to serve the injunction on the authorities there, Malaysian authorities informed them that they had sent Kashgari on a private plane to Saudi Arabia earlier in the day.
Kashgari’s lawyers were told by Immigration officers at the airport that the deputy inspector general of police was involved in putting Kashgari on the flight back to Saudi Arabia. Despite that fact, immigration authorities at the airport told Kashgari’s lawyers that they had not officially recorded the details of the deportation. In light of the absence of a bilateral extradition treaty, it is unclear under what legal authority he was deported.
“Malaysian officials held Kashgari incommunicado for days, refused requests from the UN refugee agency, and hid the deportation from his lawyers – hardly the actions of a rights-respecting government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.
Saudi courts have a dismal record of upholding a defendant’s right to be presumed innocent and have found [several] people guilty of “apostasy” for expressing their religious opinions, Human Rights Watch said. In Kashgari’s case, the General Presidency for Scientific Research and Religious Rulings, a sub-committee of the General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, appointed by the king as the highest authority on interpreting Islamic law, issued a statement on February 8, that religious scholars of all ages are “in consensus that whoever is a Muslim and mocks [God, his messenger (the Prophet Muhammad), or the book (the Quran)] is thereby an unbeliever who has turned away from Islam.”
In a media interview uploaded to YouTube on February 10, a member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, Dr. Salih bin Fawzan al-Fawzan, whose signature also appears on the statement, said in response to a question on Kashgari’s case that, “Whoever insults God or his messenger is to be killed without being asked for repentance for this is his sentence that must be carried out on him.”
Hadi Al Mutif, another Saudi sentenced to death for apostasy over two words he uttered that judges deemed insulting to the prophet in 1993, was freed on February 8 after spending 18 years in jail, after the chief mufti, Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh, who is the head of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, accepted his repentance. In a 2007 submission in Al Mutif’s case to then-Chief Judge Shaikh Salih al-Luhaidan, Saudi human rights lawyer and Islamic law expert Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim laid out a number of considerations that would need to be determined before concluding that a person had committed apostasy. The Supreme Judicial Council at the time did not take those points into consideration while conducting a review at the time. Al-Lahim has said he is prepared to defend Kashgari in court.
“It is appalling that one member of the UN Human Rights Council will likely attempt to impose the death penalty on a person for expressing his views, while another member of the Human Rights Council has deported him to face these absurd charges,”Whitson said.