The global police organisation went beyond its remit in pursuing Saudi Arabian journalist Hamza Kashgari, says Denis MacShane MP. Now we must ensure the kingdom’s authorities respect free speech
Can a tweet kill? Yes, if you live in Saudi Arabia and have Interpol working for the killers. All a 23-year-old Saudi provincial journalist, Hamza Kashgari, did was tweet on the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. His tweet read: “On the day of your birth, I find you wherever I turn. I like some things about you but I have given up others and there’s lots I don’t understand about you.”
By the standards of a Hitchens or a Dawkins, the tweet was not exactly a profession of atheism. But it was enough for the Saudis to take time off from pouring money into their campaigns to establish Wahabi Islamism as the norm in Egypt, Tunisia and now Syria to attack the young man. He was banned from his work as a local journalist by the Minister of Information. The Saudi Islamist preacher Nasser al-Omar went on television to call for the execution of the “blasphemer.” There were tears in his eyes as he announced that Islamism demanded the tweeter be put to death.
The Saudi Council of Fatwas announced Kashgari was guilty of apostasy — a crime which carried the penalty of beheading by sword carried out by the régime which Britain, the USA and European leaders like Merkozy never dare criticise.
Sensibly enough the young writer withdrew his tweet, apologised in every way he could, and said he would give up tweeting.
The charge of apostasy was maintained, his home was attacked and, again, sensibly enough, Kashgari decided it was time to leave Saudi Arabia. The response of the Saudis was to approach Interpol and ask them to issue an international search and arrest warrant.
Interpol is meant to be tackle serious crime, not act as the little helper for régimes that want to kill journalists. Kashgari headed for New Zealand hoping to win asylum status there. New Zealand is about as far away as you can get from Saudi Arabia and does not have the constant press and political attacks on political refugees and human rights that many other democracies now are infected by. But he was detained in Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur airport. Despite appeals to the Malaysian government, this nominally democratic Commonwealth country decided to kow-tow to the Saudis and sent Kashgari home. Malaysia has no extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia and was under no legal obligation to send him back but as in so many other Commonwealth nations the notion of human rights is extremely limited.
Now the world waits to see his fate. Pressure is important. This time last year the Egyptian military police arrested an Egyptian blogger. Maikel Nabil. He was jubilant about the fall of Mubarak but as he saw the increasing role of the military he criticised the soldiers. A military tribunal sentenced him to three years in prison but an effective international campaign got under way and on Saturday I got a letter from the Egyptian ambassador announcing that Nabil has been freed and pardoned.
So once again it is time to write to the Saudi Ambassador, and to William Hague so that our Ambassador in Riyadh can make protest. The Commonwealth Secretary General should get involved too, as it is to Malaysia’s shame that they send this harmless young man to the possibility of a dusty public square and the executioner’s sword. The Home Secretary too should ask why Interpol is acting as an agent for the most blood-thirsty and cruel of régimes. Might Twitter pay for his legal defence? And when one of our Royals takes tea with one of their Royals perhaps a few whispered words might be muttered about why in the 21st century Royals — Muslim, Christian, whatever — should not chop off heads because of a tweet.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former FCO minister
UPDATE 15/02/11: Interpol has claimed that it was not involved in the pursuit of Hamza Kashgari