Repression in under 140 characters

The adverse effect of a tweet on politics may be much in the news in Ireland, but what about the adverse effects of politics on tweeters?

Like the Saudi man left facing the death penalty over a Twitter message.

Hamza Kashgari, 23-year-old former columnist for the country’s Al-Bilad newspaper, faced the prospect of beheading for making three tweets which have offended the hair-trigger sensibilities of hardliners in his home country.

It is impossible to verify with certainty what he actually wrote, since the account has now been closed down. But there are a handful of reports on the web claiming he had voiced an ambivalent attitude towards Prophet Mohammed.

It seems even a smattering of ambivalent words is enough to spur the Saudi authorities into launching an international manhunt, and Mr Kashgari was apprehended and deported from Malaysia en route to New Zealand, where he had hoped to find safety.

Now being held by Saudi authorities, he has been accused of ‘apostasy’ by the courts – a crime that can carry the death sentence. In recent days he has repented and will be hoping to escape a beheading. The Economist has just published good piece about the Saudi kingdom’s failure to come to terms with unrest amonmg the Twitter generation.

Although it is one of the starkest examples in recent memory of a questionable prosecution for social media activities, there is no shortage of other cases.

Despite being hailed as a tool of free speech – and much has been made of the ‘Arab Spring’ effect – social media sites can also be a risky business for many of those in countries where the right of free speech has little meaning in law.

So here is a timely ‘greatest hits’ list of some of the most outrageous persecutions launched against other Tweeters, bloggers, and social media users:

July 8, 2009: Azerbaijani bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli are arrested after posting a video on YouTube featuring a spoof press conference given by a donkey. It followed the government’s decision to import hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of the animals from Germany. Sentenced to…: jailed for two years / two-and-a-half years, respectively, for ‘hooliganism’.

October 17, 2010: Cheng Jianping re-tweets a satirical remark which her husband made about growing anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Sentence: she is given one year of ‘re-education’ at a forced labour camp.

May 21, 2011: Manal al-Sharif is arrested by Saudi authorities, for driving a car. It transpired that she had earlier posted a picture of herself driving on YouTube, supporting an online campaign to overturn the ban on women motorists. She was held on grounds of “inciting women to drive”. Sentence: Amid an international outcry, it is believed she was released some days later, and that the charges have not been taken further.

December 14, 2011: A post-revolutionary Egyptian military court re-affirms Maikel Nabil Sanad’s conviction for writing a blog post which mocked a well-known pro-military chant. During the course of his ‘trial’, the authorities attempted to classify him as insane. Sentence: two years’ in prison, but overturned January 2012.

February 10, 2012: Zhu Yufu is jailed for writing a poem and sending messages over Skype, which prosecutors for the Communist state claimed was “incitement to subversion of state power”. Sentence: seven years’ in jail.

So, while Hamza Kashgari may be the latest social media repression case across my desk, I do not expect him to be the last. You can follow @AmnestyNI here.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan