Obama Administration Silent on Saudi Journalist Accused of Online Blasphemy

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President Obama meets with Suaid King Abdullah at a G-20 summit in London on Thursday, April 2, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – The plight of a young Saudi journalist accused of blaspheming Islam’s prophet on the Internet is prompting growing concern around the world, although the Obama administration has been silent on the case so far.

Hamza Kashgari, 23, fled his native country last week after his postings on Twitter brought death threats and calls for his execution. En route to New Zealand he was arrested at Kuala Lumpur international airport in Malaysia, and sent back to Saudi Arabia in controversial circumstances.

Now under arrest at home, Kashgari faces the possibility of a trial for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in the kingdom. Senior religious leaders are pressing for a quick trial, and Saudi media report that many clerics in Mecca raised the case in their Friday sermons on Feb. 10.

“Some of the imams dedicated their entire Friday sermon to attacking the blogger and calling for his trial, while others strongly warned against insulting the Prophet in words or deeds,” the Arab News reported. “Some of the imams were not able to hold back their tears while defending the Prophet, recalling verses from the Qur’an warning against attacking Allah or His Prophet.”

Human rights advocacy groups have been voicing concern about the case for several days, and the president of the European Parliament as well as a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton both indicated an intention to do whatever was possible to ensure a positive resolution.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent advisory body, expressed grave concern.

“Mr. Kashgari should not be charged with any crime,” said the commission’s chairman, Leonard Leo. “Laws against apostasy and blasphemy violate the internationally-guaranteed individual rights to freedom of religion and expression and, as evidenced by this case, exacerbate religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence and lead to grave human rights abuses.”

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Neither the State Department nor the White House has commented on the matter.

Silent on Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s rulers follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. The kingdom is one of the few Arab countries to have avoided large “Arab spring”-type protests, in part due to King Abdullah’s announcement of a spending package worth billions of dollars including financial help for first-time home buyers and unemployed citizens.

The exception has been in the east of the country around Qatif, where minority Shi’ites have been demonstrating to demand political reforms and the release of political prisoners. Hundreds have been arrested, and several protestors were shot dead during clashes with security forces last November and again in January.

The Obama administration has been relatively quiet about the need for the oil-rich kingdom to reform. In a major speech on the Arab protests last spring, President Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia once.

On Monday, the State Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 included $770 million for a new fund to help promote political reforms in the Middle East and North Africa, with 10 countries and the Palestinian territories named as targets.  Saudi Arabia was not one of them.

“Based on facts, the U.S. and other Western democratic countries’ continued support for the absolute Saudi monarchy will only strengthen and spread the Saudi deadly doctrine, Wahhabism,” Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Tuesday.

Saudi Wahhabism, he said, “poses a mortal threat to our freedom of expression and individual liberty, as evidenced by the anti-apostate U.N. resolution 16/18.”

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(Resolution 16/18 is a measure passed by the U.N. Human Rights Council last March and heavily backed by the Obama administration, which views it as an attempt to balance freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Critics see it as a new tactic in a longstanding attempt by Islamic states to use the world body to promote blasphemy laws.)

Invited to comment on the fact Saudi Arabia does not feature on the State Department list of countries where it plans to promote reforms, Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, was critical but unsurprised.

“The U.S. had never allocated any money to aid the people in Saudi Arabia nor have supported their aspirations. This has been true in the past 60 years,” he said.

“I do not see this as a negative as the people in the region will have to earn their freedom without U.S. intervention. Currently the U.S. is lending its full support to the ruling monarchy and this will not change anytime soon.”

Al-Ahmed was also critical of Western media organizations, which he said were ignoring or downplaying protests against the Saudi regime.

“While western reporters made it inside Syria and covered the deadly events there, not even a single one was able or tried to travel to Qatif to cover the protest or the killings there,” he said. “There are scores of western reporters based in Riyadh but they are unwilling to anger the monarchy.”

‘I will greet you as an equal’

According to translations of his Arabic postings, Kashgari used his Twitter account on the day Muslims mark Mohammed’s birthday to post three informal comments directed to the 7th century Arabian who founded Islam.

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One read, “On the day of your birthday, I will not prostrate myself in front of you, nor kiss your hand, I will greet you as an equal, and smile at you as you smile at me, and speak to you as a friend, not more …”

Saudi journalist
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Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, 23, is accused of blaspheming Mohammed in postings on his Twitter account. (Photo: Facebook)

After the comments drew a firestorm of protests on the site, Kashgari deleted them within hours and apologized. But the furor grew, prompting him to flee.

His arrest in Kuala Lumpur and subsequent deportation has stoked controversy.

Government officials in Malaysia, usually characterized as a “moderate” Muslim country, told wire services late last week that Interpol had been involved in the arrest, prompting legal activists to condemn the international police body. In a statement emailed to CNSNews.com Wednesday Interpol emphatically denied any role.

While lawyers were preparing to bring an urgent legal injunction to prevent his deportation, the authorities apparently put him on a flight to Saudi Arabia.

Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian non-governmental organization, says it has filed an application to have a court declare the arrest and deportation unlawful.

A representative of the NGO, lawyer Fadiah Fikri, said Malaysia and Saudi Arabia do not have extradition treaties.

“The cold hard truth is that Malaysia has bent over backwards to please Saudi Arabia, breached international law by not allowing Hamza to seek asylum and instead handed him on a silver platter to his persecutors and condemned him to torture and near certain death,” she said.

Further fueling the row, Malaysia’s home affairs minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, told the Associated Press in connection with the case, “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.”

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