(New York) -- Amnesty International today declared Hamad al-Naqi a prisoner of conscience after he was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for sending Twitter posts that criticized the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others deemed “insulting to Islam.”
Al-Naqi, a member of the country's Shi'a Muslim minority, previously said that his Twitter account was hacked and that he did not send the offending messages.
Amnesty International demanded that al-Naqi be released immediately and unconditionally.
"Criticizing religion is a protected form of expression and should not be criminalized," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's deputy Middle East and North Africa program director. "Nor should individuals be subject to imprisonment for insulting heads of state or other public figures or institutions. The Kuwaiti authorities should take urgent steps to review the law so that no one can be imprisoned solely for expressing their view about religion or public figures where they are not inciting hatred or violence."
Held since his arrest on March 27 in Kuwait Central Prison, al-Naqi has been denied bail. His lawyer Khalid al-Shatti said he intends to appeal the conviction.
Al-Shatti told Amnesty International that his presence was not permitted during the investigative stages of his client's trial and he was not allowed to have a copy of the case file.
Under Article 15 of Kuwait's National Security Law, broadcasting statements, which includes tweeting, that are construed as endangering state security are punishable with a minimum of three years' imprisonment. Several other social network users in Kuwait are facing prosecution for expressing opinions in blogs and on Twitter.
One of the offending tweets was deemed "blasphemous" – a criminal offense in Kuwait – for insulting the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife.
After the messages were sent, members of Kuwait's majority Sunni community who lodged a complaint against him demanded that Hamad al-Naqi be sentenced to death for "lasphemy."
Al-Shatti told Amnesty International the death penalty could not be applied in his client's case because current law calls for a prison sentence as the maximum punishment.
In April this year, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to amend the law on insult to religion and blasphemy making the offences of "insulting God, his prophets and his messengers" subject to the death penalty unless the perpetrator publicly repented. Repeated offences would also lead to an automatic death sentence.
On Wednesday, the amendment was rejected by the Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah. The bill will now return to parliament where it could still become law if two-thirds of MPs voted for it again.
"Had this amendment passed into law, it would have been a flagrant violation of international human rights law," Harrison said. "We urge Kuwait's parliament not to try to pass it again."
Under international law, "religious" offenses do not fall under the category of "most serious crimes," the minimum threshold for applying capital punishment.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.