Activists launch petition to free Saudi author

DUBAI Thu Jan 3, 2013 8:51pm IST

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Activists and intellectuals have petitioned Saudi authorities to free a prominent author two weeks after he was detained over tweets deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammad, campaigners said on Thursday.

Turki al-Hamad, one of the best known liberal thinkers and writers in the conservative Muslim kingdom, was detained on December 24 over the comments on microblogging site Twitter which suggested that Islam needed to be rectified.

"Our Prophet had come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is the time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammad," read one tweet in Arabic posted on December 23.

It was one of several tweets written that day under al-Hamad's name criticising religious hardliners.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, follows an austere version of Sunni Islam. King Abdullah, its head of state, has pushed cautious social reforms but disrespectful references to the Prophet Mohammad may still be considered blasphemy.

Al-Hamad was the third Saudi activist since early last year to be detained for allegedly insulting Islam. One activist said authorities in the kingdom had carried out a wave of arrests under pressure from religious hardliners.

Rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair said al-Hamad was being questioned over tweets related to Islam and had not been charged with any offence.

Saudi website said his arrest was ordered by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef following a complaint from a Saudi religious body.

An Interior Ministry spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

The petition seeking al-Hamad's release was signed by more than 500 activists and intellectuals around the world, including Lebanese Poet Adonis. It urged Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz to help release al-Hamad, saying the writer deserved a reward, not arrest.

"We are addressing you because you have always been known as a friend to journalists and intellectuals and, as the saying goes, 'a friend in need is a friend indeed'," the petition read.

"This wrong should be righted by his immediate and unconditional release. Dr. al-Hamad also deserves a public apology after being the target of several campaigns of incitement and distortion," it added.

Last February, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old blogger and columnist, was detained after he was deported to his country by Malaysia where he had fled from death threats triggered by comments on the social network Twitter seen as blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad.

Saudi authorities also detained a citizen, Raif Badawi, for setting up a website that "harms the public order and violates Islamic values", court documents and his lawyer said.

Human Rights Watch said in December that Badawi faced a possible death sentence after a judge cited him for apostasy and moved his case to a higher court.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Tom Pfeiffer)

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