A man in Kuwait was sentenced to a decade of imprisonment on Monday for mocking Sunni Islam on social media.
Hamad al-Naqi, a 26-year-old Shia Muslim, was arrested after officials found a series of provocative posts on his Twitter account. He has now been convicted of insulting Islam and endangering state security by exacerbating sectarian tensions, as well as insulting the Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Naqi denied the charges, claiming that his Twitter account was hacked. But Judge Hisham Abdullah found him guilty on all counts.
Many Kuwaitis have called for an even harsher punishment for Naqi, including several politicians who recommended the death penalty.
Dowaem al-Mowazry, the civil plaintiff who argued against Naqi in court, explained to the Arab Times why the verdict was justified.
This verdict is a deterrent to those who insult the Prophet Mohammad, his companions and the mothers of the believers, he said.
Naqi's attorney, Khaled al-Shatti, disagreed, saying the defendant's Twitter posts constituted a crime of opinion that did not merit a 10-year jail sentence.
Monday's decision is similar to a recent ruling in Egypt. In April, a 17-year-old boy there was sentenced to three years in prison for posting images to his Facebook profile that mocked Islam. The boy, Gamal Abdou Massoud, was a Coptic Christian from the southern village of Assiut, where many Christian Egyptians live. His Facebook post and subsequent arrest sparked outrage on both sides, and even some violence -- several Copts were injured when a group of outraged Muslims set fire to homes in Assiut, according to Reuters.
Kuwaiti officials hope to avoid similar violence on their own soil, but ongoing tensions and political controversies there have sparked worries over sectarian conflict in the oil-rich Gulf state.
These are trying times for the government of Kuwait. Nine of the 50 members of Parliament, who were elected to office but serve under the dynastically appointed prime minster and the ruling emir, are now under investigation for embezzlement and corruption charges.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, the emir since 2006, has a tense relationship with parliament, especially since elections have increasingly favored more conservative Islamist candidates who oppose Sheikh al-Sabah's western-aligned style of governance.
But the emir cannot easily dismiss the offending politicians, as that could spur public unrest and lead to new elections that would result in an even more conservative polity.
Protesters in Kuwait already demonstrated against Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the emir's nephew, last year; he was ousted from office in December.
On top of all this, there have been concerns about divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country, which the Naqi case could inflame. The ruling regime of Kuwait is Sunni, but Shias make up about one-third of the population. In the middle of the tumultuous Arab Spring, especially with Shia-led protests in nearby Bahrain and neighboring Saudi Arabia, Sunni leaders in Kuwait are wary of unrest within their borders.
The Naqi case comes at an interesting time, since the Kuwaiti parliament just approved a law that mandates capital punishment for any Muslim who insults Islam and does not repent, according to the BBC. The law has not yet been signed by the emir, who tends not to side with such conservative measures. But even if his pen never touches the bill, it could still see ratification if two-thirds of the parliament approves it.
Though such a ruling would not be retroactively applied to Naqi himself, it does raise questions about the future of Islamic law in Kuwait.
In the meantime, Shatti has pledged to contest Monday's ruling. The prison sentence is long, but we have the chance to appeal, he said to the Arab Times.