JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, July 15 Saudi Arabia is studying new regulations to criminalise insulting Islam, including in social media, and the law could carry heavy penalties, a Saudi paper said on Sunday.
The potential regulations come five months after a Saudi blogger and columnist Hamza Kashgari, 23, was arrested for tweeting comments deemed as insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Kashgari said there were things he liked and disliked about him.
"Within the next two months the Shura Council will reveal the outcome of study on the regulations to combat the criticism of the basic tenets of Islamic sharia," unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter told al-Watan, adding that there could be "severe punishments" for violators.
Criticism penalised under the law would include that of the Prophet, early Muslim figures and clerics, it said.
"The (regulations) are important at the present time because violations over social networks on the Internet have been observed in the past months," the sources said.
Saudi Arabia follows a strict version of Sunni Islamic law, referred to as Wahhabism. Blasphemy can be punishable by death.
A spokesman from the Shura Council, the governments all-appointed consultative body, did not respond to calls for comment.
Kashgari's case set off a debate in Saudi Arabia, a close US ally for decades and leading world oil exporter, on whether repentance could save convicts from the death penalty.
Kashgari fled the country in February, a few days after his twitter posts, but was later arrested by police in Malaysia en route to New Zealand.
Despite declaring repentance, he was deported back to Saudi Arabia and was taken into police custody to face a trial.
Tension has risen in recent years between religious conservatives and reformers over the pace of gradual political, economic and social reforms in a country with a large young population.
Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi said the law required extensive public debate.
"I would rather have this law discussed by the public first. It should not only be debated by the Shura, it should be debated in newspapers first because it can be misused," Khashoggi said.
"I don't want anything to affect my freedom and we don't want Saudi Arabia to be another Iran." (Reporting by Asma Alsharif)