6-14-2012By Pamela Kling Takiff
Last month Kuwait’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to amend the country’s penal code to authorize the death penalty for any unrepentant Muslim convicted of religious blasphemy. In an encouraging move two days ago, Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah rejected the amendment. Parliamentarians, however, can override the Emir’s decision with a two-thirds majority vote. They should embrace the Emir’s decision and abandon all efforts to impose the death penalty in blasphemy prosecutions.
Despite the blocked amendment, the Kuwaiti government continues to persecute those accused of blasphemy. On June 5, Hamad Al-Naqi, a Kuwaiti Shiite, was found guilty of posting tweets mocking Islam, defaming Mohammad, provoking sectarian violence and criticizing the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. He was sentenced to ten years in prison—the maximum sentence—and hard labor. Al-Naqi, who was denied bail and has been held in solitary confinement since being attacked by another inmate, claims that his Twitter account had been hacked and that he was not responsible for the contentious tweets. He intends to appeal.
Human Rights First has documented the steady rise in the number of criminal prosecutions against users of social media expressing religious or political sentiments deemed offensive to Islam—and not just in Kuwait. This trend is certain to continue given the growth of social media around the world and the ambiguity in the laws that are being used.
In our newly updated report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Criminalization of Defamation of Religions, we highlight recent cases in many countries—including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey—where users of social media have been targeted, charged, and punished, sometimes with prison time, for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Some of the countries that have blasphemy laws argue that such laws are necessary to fight incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence as well as to protect freedom of religion. In fact, these laws promote intolerance and intimidation and provide governments with the power to decide which ideas are acceptable and which are not. Governments and individuals frequently abuse blasphemy laws to stifle dissent, harass rivals, legitimize violence, prosecute minorities, and settle petty disputes.
Human Rights First recognizes that some of these cases involve expression that may be characterized as offensive. Nonetheless, much can and should be done to confront problems of intolerance, discrimination and violence without restricting speech.
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