Saudi Journalist Facing Trial for Tweets About Prophet Muhammad

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A young writer in Saudi Arabia is facing very serious charges because of a few tweets. 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari posted the tweets last week. They were written as a fictional conversation with the prophet Muhammad, and in Saudi Arabia that could constitute blasphemy and be punishable by death. Kashgari apologized for his tweets following the outraged reaction of thousands of Saudis, then he fled the country, but Kashgari was detained by authorities in Malaysia and deported back to Saudi Arabia yesterday. Mohammed al-Qahtani is cofounder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. He says Kashgari could be caught in a political crossfire in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed al-Qahtani: It has been a tug of war going on for years between the so-called Saudi liberals and conservatives. And the government has played a predominate role that you know, the government will appear as the dominant player that could sift these words and tell them when to stop, but I'm pretty sure that this young man is a victim of that war and they could use these tug of wars to go after him basically.

Werman: His comments on Twitter came in the context of questions addressed to the Prophet Muhammad. What was he saying?

Qahtani: First he made the comment during the day of Prophet Muhammad's birthday basically, and he was saying there are things that I like about you, there are things I do not like; I will not bow to you, but I will extend my hand to you to shake your hand as a man to man…the comments to that extent, so basically it wasn't so bad, but I think the conservative elements are outraged. And they even asked the government to go after the known liberal writers who have written something to that extent many years ago. So it will turn into a witch hunt no doubt.

Werman: It sounds like in many ways it's already turned into a witch hunt. I mean Kashgari has apologized apparently, but that hasn't calmed things down, and judging from thousands of Facebook subscribers asking for him to be punished. Can you just explain how social media can be understood so differently inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia than the outside. I mean from the US it seems to be a human rights disaster.

Qahtani: It is. You see, traditionally the Saudi government controls all the media, whether it's TV, radio stations, and also the newspapers. But now we live in an age where you can make your own broadcasts basically, using these social medias. And I think they're annoyed of course by this level of freedom where you can not only connect, but you could mobilize people, you could write stuff. And that's why they passed several laws, they could hold someone accountable to some tweets that they've have written, or have posted at his website or his Facebook page for that matter. And we have cases for someone thrown in prison for months merely for expressing his ideas. So it's really restrictions in the freedom of expression. So it's an attempt also to scare off people not to go and write their own ideas, their own lines basically. Look, I was in an interrogation room a week ago representing one of the co-founders of our organization, and the interrogator looked at me and said, "Look, these tweets that you are writing, one day you'll be tried for it. You know, there are laws that could criminalize you and whatever you write."

Werman: What were you writing Mohammed al-Qahtani that merited a comment like that?

Qahtani: Well, we are concerned about the situation of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, the have broken justice system. Of course, we are doing it by encouraging people to file lawsuits against the government, so we're not really keeping quiet about it, but we are trying to connect with the families of political prisoners to sue the government. And we are announcing on Twitter, on Facebook and elsewhere that we are taking these cases to the UN special reporters, and the Human Rights Council, so we are very public about it. And the government is really annoyed, so it's not going to be a pretty picture, but I think we need to push the limit a little bit. For instance, if you go back to the case of this young man, Hamza Kashgari, one of the fears that I have is of course, he will not get a fair trial. A fair trial in this country is next to impossible because judges come from the conservative camps, prosecutors too. No attorney will take your case, so it's a very difficult situation.

Werman: Mohammed al-Qahtani, you're using your real name and as you say, you were in an interrogation room last week just talking about what you've tweeted, what's the risk to you and your safety for speaking about this whole topic with a western media organization like ours?

Qahtani: You know, as Martin Luther King said, we fear no man, and I think we have went beyond the intimidation, beyond the fear that the regime is trying to play on us. I think the deteriorating human rights conditions in this country is in a very dire situation that we must try to improve it. So unless we take it upon ourself to change it things will not change by itself.

Werman: Civil rights activist, Mohammed al-Qahtani, speaking with us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Thank you very much for your time indeed, sir.

Qahtani: Thank you very much.