JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) - A young Saudi blogger and columnist has been deported to his homeland to face trial soon after fleeing from death threats triggered by comments on the social network Twitter seen as blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad.
Hamza Kashgari, 23, fled Saudi Arabia four days ago but was arrested by police in Malaysia en route to New Zealand. Malaysia, which has a majority Muslim population and enjoys close ties with Arab states, sent back Kashgari on Sunday.
A former columnist for the Al Bilad newspaper, Kashgari had sent a series of Twitter posts, or tweets, one week ago of an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Mohammad.
In Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter and home to Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, such comments could be considered blasphemy and punishable by death under the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam.
Kashgari has apologized at length for his posts, however, and a Saudi lawyer said while he faced harsh punishment, it was unlikely to be the death penalty.
Interior and foreign ministry spokesmen declined to comment on Kashgari's status, although Saudi Information Minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja responded to the incident via Twitter.
"When I read what he posted, I wept and got very angry that someone in the country of the Two Holy Mosques attacks our Prophet in a manner that does not fit a Muslim...," Khoja said.
"I have given instructions to ban him from writing for any Saudi newspaper or magazine, and there will be legal measures to guarantee that," he said.
Writing on the Prophet Mohammad's birthday, Kashgari sent three tweets of a fictional conversation with the Prophet.
Addressing the Prophet, Kashgari said he "loved the rebel in you" and that he "loved some aspects of you, hated others."
The reaction on the Internet was swift and vitriolic.
First, there was a flurry of angry comments on Twitter - estimated at more than 30,000 in 24 hours. A Facebook page, "Saudi people want punishment for Hamza Kashgari," has quickly grown to more than 20,000 members.
"The only choice is for Kashgari to be killed and crucified in order to be a lesson to other secularists," an online reader of al-Madina newspaper, Abu Abdulrahman, commented on the news of Kashgari's extradition on Sunday.
Malaysia's government defended on Monday its decision to extradite Kashgari. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had called on Malaysia not to deport Kashgari.
"Don't think that Malaysia is safe for them to seek shelter here and avoid being traced. We will not allow them to use Malaysia as a transit," Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
Hishammuddin said Kashgari had been arrested following a request from Saudi Arabia and clarified that the operation had not involved Interpol. A Malaysian police spokesman had told Reuters on Friday that the arrest was part of an operation involving the international police agency.
"I hope this issue is not politicized on the basis of freedom and human rights," Hishammuddin said. "We received a request from Saudi Arabia and we will not protect anyone who is wanted."
A YouTube video of a tearful Saudi cleric Nasser al-Omar calling for Kashgari to be arrested and tried went viral.
Kashgari will probably face trial soon, Saudi officials told Reuters.
"Thank God that he has repented and we hope that Allah will accept it. If, God forbid, there is a trial, we ask for it to be a lenient one," said a person close to Kashgari's family.
Although Kashgari will almost certainly receive a harsh punishment, he is likely to avoid the death penalty if he formally repents in court, said Saudi lawyer Sulaiman al-Jomaii.
"His case is dependent on his repentance. If he repents (in court) then it will be as if he has not committed a crime and there is no Saudi law that details a punishment for his offense if he repents," Jomaii said.
"(This) is a struggle between moderate, true Islam and extreme Islam. Moderate Islam is tolerant. The young man (Kashgari) made a mistake, a big blunder and he must apologize," said Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi. "I'm sure that the state is kind and it should not come under pressure. He is only 23 years old. Young people go through these kinds of doubts."
Kashgari removed the offending Twitter comments six hours after posting them and issued a long public apology, but his family said he fled the country because he had feared for his life.
Before his arrest Kashgari said in an interview with the U.S. news website Daily Beast that he did not think he could ever go home because of the death threats, but was also defiant.
"I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights - freedom of expression and thought - so nothing was done in vain," Kashgari was quoted as saying. "I believe I'm just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights."
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative states in the Arab world. There is tension over the pace of gradual political, economic and social reforms in Saudi Arabia aimed at reconciling the Islamic kingdom's conservative traditions with a young, increasingly outward looking population.
A graduate of the University of King Abdulaziz with a major in Islamic studies, Kashgari had left the Al Bilad newspaper five weeks before the incident due to disagreements over money and his writing.
"Hamza always liked being alone, he wasn't a social person," said a senior editor at Al Bilad. "He had a broken look in his eyes and I think that was a sign of sadness or depression. He's a poet and had a lot of philosophical ideas."
The editor said the young writer had learned the Koran by heart and always had good manners, noting that none of his columns had touched on controversial religious ideas.
Despite a tightening of media rules after the spread of popular revolts through the Arab world over the past year, Saudis are increasingly turning to online news, social networking and satellite television for information.
That has made social media an especially popular - and closely-watched - forum for exchanging views.
Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Roger Atwood