Dutch stand up for Saudi Twitter apostate

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Twenty-three-year-old journalist and Twitterer Hamza Kashgari was extradited from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. He faces a possible death sentence for apostasy. Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has expressed his concern. And Dutch politicians are calling for more action from the government.

Based on a report by Jannie Schipper

“On your birthday, I shall not bow to you,” tweeted Hamza Kashgari in the run-up to Mawlid, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth. “I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”

The former columnist’s imaginary Twitter conversation with the Prophet caused a storm in Saudi Arabia. “When I saw the tweets it made me cry,” tweeted Saudi Information Minister Aziz Khoja.

Kashgari tweeted a profuse apology in response to the outrage. But by this time he was already at the airport fleeing the country, says rights group Amnesty International.

Kashgari’s apology has done nothing to stem calls for his prosecution in Saudi Arabia, where he has become the subject of a hate campaign in both the traditional and social media. According to a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, apostasy is punishable by death, but not if the apostate has expressed remorse. Nevertheless, Kashgari has been put on a par with Salman Rushdie by his enemies in the Saudi press.

Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Lionel Veer says he will be raising the case during his current visit to Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has expressed his concern and is adding his voice to calls for an EU protest to the Saudi authorities. In response to Dutch appeals, the EU urged Malaysia not to agree to the young journalist’s extradition.

The opposition Labour Party and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party have called on the foreign minister to do all he can to secure Kashgari’s release. And the Labour Party says the Netherlands should offer him asylum.

The anti-Islam Freedom Party wants Minister Rosenthal to summon the Saudi ambassador and demand the journalist’s release. What’s more, the party says Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten should investigate the role of Interpol in the case. Kashgari was reportedly arrested in Malaysia in response to a tip-off from the international police organisation.

Crossed the line
The uproar surrounding Hamza Kashgari’s case is not unusual, according to Dutch Saudi Arabia specialist Paul Aarts:
“It goes in waves. Sometimes the royal family give the religious lobby what they want, and then it’s time to give more room to the liberals.”

The Saudi king personally gave orders for Kashgari’s arrest, according to some media reports. However, it’s wrong to think that that any kind of criticism in Saudi Arabia is impossible, Mr Aarts adds: 
“There is a range of opinion, there are liberal and conservative newspapers. There is more debate in the Saudi media than people often think here, also about religious matters, and about the Saud family. But there are lines that can’t be crossed, and this Twitterer has clearly done so.”