A Kuwaiti man accused of using Twitter to defame the Muslim Prophet Mohammad has ignited a debate in the tiny but wealthy Gulf country about imposing the death penalty for the crime of blasphemy.

Muslim preachers, lawmakers and international human rights groups have all jumped into the debate, which erupted after Hamad Al-Naqi, a member of the country’s Shiite minority, was arrested March 28 on charges of “defaming the Prophet” in tweets posted on the social-networking website. He has denied making the posts, claiming that somebody hacked into his Twitter account.

Under Article 111 of Kuwait’s penal code, which prohibits defamation of religion, Naqi faces up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine. But soon after he was arrested calls emerged for Kuwait to follow its bigger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and impose the death penalty for such crimes.

Within days, Kuwait’s parliament responded to the public outcry and gave preliminary backing to a capital punishment amendment last Thursday. Forty six out of 52 deputies voted in favor. But the fight is still on: the amendment must go to a second vote two weeks after the first and then be approved by the government and Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.

On Tuesday, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International weighed in against the change.

“All eyes are on Kuwait’s recently-elected legislators. They must immediately scrap any plans to introduce the death penalty for blasphemy,” said Ann Harrison, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “On no account should he be sentenced to death.”

Naqi’s case echoes that of Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad over Twitter last February who faces possible beheading. In both cases the accused either denied the crime or in Kashgari’s case quickly repented, but in each case they had set off a firestorm of public anger because their remarks had been broadcast on one of the world’s biggest social media platforms.

Many politicians, journalists and public figures use Twitter to debate events and share gossip. The most popular figures have hundreds of thousands of followers.

Although local media have quoted what they say are Naqi’s remarks about Mohammad, they have been erased from Twitter and can’t be verified, according to the Reuters news agency. “I would never attack the Holy Prophet,” Naqi, who is now being held in pre-trial detention, was quoted as saying.

Kuwait, whose population is about 70% Sunni and 30% Shiite, practices a more mild form of Islam than Saudi Arabia. Its constitution protects freedom of belief, even if individual laws impose limits and Islam is designated the state religion. In addition to laws against blasphemy, others ban apostasy and especially proselytizing.

“While the number of situations to which these laws applied was extremely limited, the government actively enforced them, particularly the prohibition on non-Muslim proselytizing of Muslims,” the US State Department said in it latest annual International Freedom of Religion report.

In fact, under Kuwaiti law Naqi should be spared his life no matter what parliament decides. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits governments from imposing a heavier penalty than in force at the time an alleged offense was committed.

“If it emerges that Hamad al-Naqi's Twitter account was indeed hacked then he has no case to answer; otherwise he is being held solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression and, unless charged with an internationally recognizable offense, he must be released immediately,” said Amnesty’s Harrison.

But lawmakers may have trouble holding back the tide of public opinion. At a rally at Kuwait City’s Erada Square at the end of March, legislators and others vied with each other over who could offer the biggest promises and most severe penalties for blasphemy, Al-Seyassah daily reported.

Lawmaker Adel Al-Damghi said blasphemers should be punished by public execution. Shafi Al-Ajmi said that anyone who harms the Prophet is indirectly harming God and therefore punishments should be severe. Osama Al-Shaheen said blasphemy is a chronic problem and should be treated severely. Abdullah Al Barghash urged Kuwaiti to demand that lawmakers who oppose the capital punishment amendment to quit parliament.

“Parliament should be dissolved if such a draft law is not approved,” added Ahmad Al-Azmi.

But not all the lawmakers are prepared to accept the death penalty. Ahmed Lari said during the parliamentary debate that amendments fail to explain what constitutes blasphemy and that Muslim scholars differ in opinion in that regard. “Issues pertaining to execution should not be hurried until there is definitive evidence of the crime,” Lari was quoted as saying, adding that the amendment made no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Jamal Al-Shihab, the minister of Waqf and Islamic Affairs, urged parliament not to rush to approve of the law because of religious sensitivities. Despite this, all the cabinet members present, including Shihab, voted in favor of the amendment.

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