Malaysian authorities on Sunday deported a young Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter, a police official said. The move came despite concerns from rights groups that he may be persecuted at home.
Jiddah-based newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari was detained Thursday upon his arrival in Malaysia. Some Saudis have reportedly made death threats against him or called for him to face criminal charges over remarks he tweeted that many considered offensive.
National police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf told The Associated Press that the 23-year-old Kashgari was handed over to Saudi officials and flown back Sunday morning.
Malaysia is a majority Muslim country with a close affinity with many Middle Eastern nations through their shared religion. The Southeast Asian nation is also a U.S. ally and a leading global voice for moderate Islam, meaning that any decision to extradite Kashgari certain to be controversial.
Blasphemy is a crime punishable by execution under oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law. It is not a capital crime in Malaysia.
The 23-year-old Kashgari reportedly posted the comments on his Twitter feed to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday on Saturday, drawing thousands of outraged comments on Twitter and other social networking sites.
The comments could not be verified because he later deleted them, but media reported that one them reflected his contradictory views of the Prophet.
Kashgari later said in an interview that he was being made a “scapegoat for a larger conflict” over his comments.
“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom,” Kashgari was quoted as saying in the interview with the Daily Beast website.
“I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain.”
The news of Kashgari’s imminent extradition prompted ripples of outrage on Twitter.
“His blood on Malaysia’s hands,” wrote Mona Eltahawy, a commentator on Arab and Muslim issues.
Muhammad Afiq Mohamad Nor, a lawyer appointed by Kashgari’s family, said Malaysia’s move was unlawful because he had obtained a court order to block the deportation. He said he hasn’t been informed by police and was still verifying if the Saudi had indeed been sent back.
“We are concerned that he would not face a fair trial back home and that he could face the death penalty if he is charged with apostasy,” the lawyer told the AP.
Amnesty International has called Kashgari a “prisoner of conscience” and called for his release.
Human Rights Watch said Saudi clerics have condemned Kashgari as an apostate who must face punishment. The rights group had urged Malaysia to allow him to seek asylum.