Middle East

Saudi journalist detained for Muhammad tweets freed

A picture taken on 9 February, 2012 shows a Saudi internet surfer checking her twitter account at a coffee shop in Riyadh
Image caption Mr Kashgari deleted his controversial tweet about the Prophet Muhammad and apologised

A Saudi journalist detained after writing posts on Twitter deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad has been released, his friends and activists say.

Hamza Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia to Malaysia in February 2012 after his posts angered conservative Muslims and he received death threats.

He was extradited by Malaysia days later and detained by the Saudi authorities, reportedly on blasphemy charges.

The Saudi justice ministry has not yet commented on Mr Kashgari's release.

On the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday last year, he wrote: "I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don't understand about you. I will not pray for you."

The former columnist for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad newspaper issued a public apology after deleting the tweets, saying: "I have made a mistake, and I hope Allah and all those whom I have offended will forgive me."

Activist jailed

News of Mr Kashgari's release first emerged on social networking websites and was later confirmed by friends and the prominent human rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair.

"The authorities freed Kashgari at 06:30 (03:30 GMT)," he told the AFP news agency.

Prosecutors never made public any formal charges against him.

However, Interior Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja said at the time that Mr Kashgari's tweets had made him weep and King Abdullah demanded he be held accountable.

Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty to a wide range of offences, including blasphemy and apostasy.

In a separate development on Tuesday - only hours after he had confirmed Mr Kashgari's release - a court in Jeddah sentenced Mr Abu al-Khair to three months in prison for signing a statement calling for reforms in the Gulf kingdom, a rights group said.

The London-based Institute for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia reported that Mr Abu al-Khair intended to launch an appeal against the conviction next week.

He is facing a second trial in the capital Riyadh on Monday on charges of encouraging people to challenge the ruling system, establishing a human rights organisation without a licence, contacting foreign rights organisations and disrespecting the judiciary.

Earlier this month, the activist was detained for hosting an "unauthorised" forum at his home to exchange ideas with other reformists, known as a "diwaniah".

Mr Abu al-Khair is the founder and head of the pioneering Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA). The group's Facebook page has nearly 7,000 members.

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