Saudi Arabia frees man jailed for Muhammad tweets, jails another

Rights groups say trials are part of an organized crackdown against human-rights activists

The general court in Riyadh in 2005.
AFP/Getty Images

Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari was freed Tuesday, 20 months after he was detained for publishing an imaginary conversation with Islam's Prophet Muhammad on Twitter, Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human-rights activist who himself was sentenced to three months in prison, told Al Jazeera.

Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia for Malaysia in February last year after his tweets enraged some conservative Muslims and triggered death threats. He was extradited back to the kingdom days later and imprisoned, despite having no formal charges ever publicly brought against him.

"He left this morning at 6 a.m.," Abu al-Khair said, "without any judgment from the court. It's usual here in Saudi Arabia — they arrest him, and after that, they release them," he said.

Kashgari's tweets addressed Muhammad on the prophet's birthday, saying he "loved the rebel in you" and "loved some aspects of you, hated others." Blasphemy may be punished by death under the interpretation of Islamic law enforced in Saudi Arabia.

There were no details on what led up to his release. But Kashgari, a former columnist at the kingdom's al-Belad newspaper, had issued a long public apology after deleting the messages and repented his actions.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have grown increasingly sensitive to criticism of senior officials, ruling family members and clerics. Saudi Arabia has regularly dismissed criticism of its human-rights record from Western countries and campaign groups.

Whereas Kashgari was set free, Abu al-Khair, a vocal proponent of a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom, has been sentenced to jail.

Abu al-Khair told Al Jazeera he was sentenced by a court in Jeddah to three months in jail for signing a petition in 2011 that demanded political reforms and condemned the imprisonment of a group of activists.

The petition also called for the right to peaceful assembly and for an end to police shootings of Shia Muslim protesters in the country’s eastern province of Qatif. Abu al-Khair signed the petition during the height of the Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled autocratic governments across the region, according to the London-based Institute for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Abu al-Khair said another case next Monday at a court in Riyadh — in which he stands accused of calling for regime change, rallying people against the government, working without a license, contacting foreign media and journalists and using the Internet to insult the regime — could lead to further convictions.

Abu al-Khair remains free while he launches an appeal, but activists convicted on similar charges have been sentenced to jail terms of several years.

He said his trial is part of a nationwide, systemic campaign against human-rights activists. Last week, Saudi officials called his wife to discourage her from participating in a driving campaign aimed at challenging the government’s ban on women's operating vehicles, he said. According to tweets by local activists, columnist Tariq al-Mubarak was detained for two days for supporting the campaign.

Saudi Arabia's Justice Ministry and government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment on the cases.

On Monday, the ministry issued a statement saying it "works to protect and promote human rights to maintain its identity, culture, gains and care for its citizens, on the basis of adherence to the Holy Quran."

Al Jazeera's Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. With wire services.

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