Saudi Arabian columnist under threat for Twitter posts

New York, February 9, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns death threats and a publishing ban against columnist Hamza Kashgari for comments he posted on Twitter addressing the prophet Mohammed.

Kashgari, a 23-year old poet, was a columnist for the Jeddah-based daily Al-Bilad before last week, when he caused an uproar by posting material on his Twitter account detailing an imaginary conversation with the prophet in which he addressed him as an equal, according to news reports. The comments were deemed religiously offensive and inappropriate by many in the kingdom, including its rulers. Some influential clerics and ordinary citizens called on the authorities to prosecute Kashgari for blasphemy and apostasy, both capital crimes in Saudi Arabia. Others directly demanded his execution or offered monetary reward to his killers, news reports said. Although he removed the tweets and issued an apology, the furor continued to grow, with someone posting his home address online, according to the reports.

On Monday, Minister of Culture and Information Abdul Aziz Khoja posted on his Twitter account that he had given orders that Hamza Kashgari “not write in any Saudi paper or magazine.”

“We are concerned about the safety and well-being of Hamza Kashgari,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Sensitivities about his postings are understandable, but threats of violent retribution are unacceptable.”

Local and regional news outlets reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia’s king had ordered Kashgari arrested. However, by then the columnist had fled the country. For his safety, CPJ is not disclosing his whereabouts.