RIYADH A Saudi blogger was freed on Tuesday, 20 months after he was detained for publishing an imaginary conversation with Islam's Prophet Mohammad on Twitter, his friend and a lawyer said, though there was no confirmation from the government.
Hamza Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia for Malaysia in February last year after his tweets enraged some conservative Muslims and triggered death threats. He was extradited back to the kingdom days later and imprisoned.
"He was freed this morning," the 24-year-old's friend told Reuters, but declined to comment further. Prominent human rights lawyer Abdulrahman Allahim congratulated Kashgari on his release on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have grown increasingly sensitive to criticism of senior officials, ruling family members and clerics, and to comments they regard as blasphemous, particularly on social media.
Another rights lawyer and activist, Waleed Abu al-Khair, told Reuters he had been sentenced to three months in jail on Tuesday for signing a petition in 2011 against the imprisonment of a group of political reformers.
Activists said on Twitter a columnist, Tariq al-Mubarak, has been in detention for two days after supporting a campaign to allow women to drive.
Saudi Arabia's Justice Ministry and government spokespeople were not immediately available for comment on the cases.
The kingdom has regularly dismissed criticism of its human rights record from Western countries and campaign groups.
On Monday the cabinet issued a statement saying it "works to protect and promote human rights to maintain its identity, culture, gains and care for its citizens, on the basis of adherence to the Holy Koran".
Kashgari's tweets addressed Mohammad on the Prophet's birthday, saying he "loved the rebel in you" and "loved some aspects of you, hated others".
There were no details on what led up to Kashgari's release. But the former columnist in the kingdom's al-Bilad newspaper, had issued a long public apology after deleting the messages, and his family said he had repented. Authorities did not make any formal charges against him public.
Offences like blasphemy can be punished by death under the interpretation of Islamic law enforced in Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam.
The lawyer Abu al-Khair said he had been sentenced for signing a petition calling for the release of 16 activists jailed in December 2011 on charges ranging from financing terrorism to incitement against the king, charges they had denied.
He said he was also facing more serious charges of setting up a human rights organisation without a licence, illegal contact with foreign journalists and rights organisations and "damaging the country.
Activists convicted on similar charges have been sentenced to jail terms of several years.
He added he remained free while he launched an appeal.
A court in Kuwait on Monday upheld a 10-year prison sentence imposed on a man convicted of endangering state security by insulting Prophet Mohammad and the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media.
Shi'ite Muslim Hamad al-Naqi had denied the charges, saying his social media accounts had been hacked. New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for him to be released.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Heavens)