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Inside the Middle East
December 2, 2012
Posted: 1150 GMT
PHOTO: AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

American reality TV star and all-around celebrity Kim Kardashian can't seem to please anyone in the Middle East these days.

Just weeks after causing a Twitter outrage with her comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kardashian's appearance in Bahrain Saturday to open a branch of a milkshake franchise prompted street protests.

While throngs of adoring fans paid up to $1,200 to attend her appearance at a mall in the tiny Gulf kingdom, about 100 hardline Islamists protested outside where, according to reports, police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd.

One protestor held a particularly crude banner that read "Syria receives martyrs while Bahrain receives whores."

Last Tuesday a group of conservative Bahraini parliamentarians put forth a proposal to ban Kardashian from visiting the country, citing her "bad reputation," but the motion gained no traction and was not put to a vote.

PHOTO: AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

The buxom brunette, who is prolific on social media, paid no heed to the protests, instead focusing on her fawning fans and tweeting multiple photos of herself – seeming to take particular delight in all things camel – posing in front of camels in the desert and holding a glass of camel milk.

During the official opening of Millions of Milkshakes at a mall south of the capital Manama, a local paper quoted her praising all things Bahrain – from its women: "I love the girls here; their make up and hair are beautiful"... to promoting the country as a tourist destination "People from the States should come here because the country and the people are so amazing and welcoming that I am planning to be back here on my vacation."

However it was her praise for Bahrain's ruler that sparked an outpouring of angry responses on Twitter.

The island nation has seen intermittent unrest since February 2011 as violent clashes have broken out between security forces and opposition protesters on numerous occasions, including government crackdowns that have drawn the ire of international rights organizations.

Just weeks ago, Kardashian stirred up another controversy in Twitter-verse by saying that she was "praying for Israel" during the eight days of Israel-Gaza violence that left over 150 people dead, the vast majority of them Palesitnian. She later tweeted that she was also "praying for Palestine," but the compounded backlash caused her to remove both tweets and apologize on her blog: "The fact is that regardless of religion and political beliefs, there are countless innocent people involved who didn't choose this, and I pray for all of them and also for a resolution."

It may be asking too much to expect an American reality TV star to familiarize herself with the Middle East's political complexities. Political blunders aside, Kardashian has maintained her fan base in the region.

If nothing else, she's got people talking.

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Filed under: Bahrain •Social Media


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November 14, 2012
Posted: 949 GMT

AFP/Getty Images

 

It's a story that combines three of the region's most critical issues – it's a dispute in Jerusalem, a dispute between Arabs and Israelis... and a dispute over water. All rolled into one, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most venerated sites in Christianity, has had its bank accounts frozen over $2.3 million of unpaid water bills, with monks threatening to close the church in protest.

The church receives about a million pilgrims a year and stands at the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried.

The water bill is backdated fifteen years to the time when a new company took over the supply. For decades the church was exempt from paying water bills until the Israeli water company began pressing it to pay up a few years ago.

Issa Musleh, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the UK newspaper The Guardian: "They have frozen our account. This is a flagrant act against the church."

"The church is completely paralysed. We can't pay for toilet paper. Nothing. [The water company] Hagihon has declared war on us," a Patriarchate official told the Hebrew-language daily Maariv.

In a statement to Maariv, Hagihon said it had been in talks for several years with church representatives with the aim of reaching a settlement of the debt. It was prohibited by the Israeli Water Authority from exempting any party from water charges, and more than 1,000 religious institutions in Jerusalem paid their bills regularly, it added.

According to the English-language daily Haaretz, Greek Orthodox priest Isidoros Fakitsas said that the move has impaired the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pay bills and salaries including 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of over 30 Christian schools that the church runs in the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

As a result, the church is considering closing for a day in protest, shutting the doors to pilgrims for the first time in centuries. The church is seeking international backing.

As with all issues concerning the Holy City, the issue has become politicized within the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“If they want to cut water off then we will ask the pilgrims and visitors to bring their own water with them and we will explain to them what is happening so that they would know about the Israeli arbitrary policies being practiced against the holy places,” Musleh told the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

The church is no stranger to controversy. The most memorable incident is probably the brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks a few years ago that police had to forcibly break up.

Stay tuned to CNN for more coverage of this story out of Jerusalem.

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Filed under: Israel •Jerusalem •Religion


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October 28, 2012
Posted: 1223 GMT

At entrance to Mecca, Saudi Arabia

 

'Tis the Hajj season again – once a year the world views the iconic images of a sea of pilgrims dressed in white at Islam's holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as more than 3 million people from around the world embark on this ancient pilgrimage. It is one of the pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are financially and physically able must perform this journey at least once in their lifetime.

I've personally been to the Hajj three times - in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – not as a pilgrim, but as a producer covering the event for CNN. It was one of the most logistically challenging assignments I've ever faced and one that left me with some of the more colorful and poignant memories of any story I have covered.

Overlooking the Kaaba from our live position.

 

The memories came flooding back as I watched the crowds at Mecca's Grand Mosque circling  the Kaaba, the black cube shaped building. It is believed the Kaaba stands on the spot where Abraham built his first temple to God and, while the building itself is not sacred, it is a spiritual symbol. It is towards this direction that Muslims around the world orient themselves to pray five times a day. Hotel rooms around the region have a sticker somewhere with an arrow pointing towards the Kaaba so the visiting faithful can know which way to pray. It is the proverbial North in a Muslim's compass.

These are not the accounts of a pilgrim, but one of the relatively few people who get to be AT the Hajj without being IN the Hajj.

 

The World Passing By

It seems logical to begin with the obvious. Sitting there on the white marble floor of the Grand Mosque, it was difficult not be blown away by the diversity of the people passing by. Groups of Indonesians in crisp white wearing colored headbands for identification and moving in tight phalanx formations quietly chanting the mantra of the Hajj (which translates approximately to "Oh God, I have obeyed your call"). Groups of West Africans in colorful garb almost singing verses of Islam's Holy Book the Quran. Old Chinese couples, groups of blonde Europeans and Americans; it felt as if we were literally watching the entire world walk past. The effect was nothing short of hypnotic.

The Jabs

Every time I received a call telling me I would be covering Hajj again, my first instinct was to immediately dread the vaccinations I would need. Although Viral Meningitis is the only vaccination legally required by Saudi Arabia, my doctor recommended getting an additional SIX : pneumonia, Tetatus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Diphtheria, Yellow Fever, and the run of the mill flu shot. Yet despite meticulously getting vaccinated AND constantly wearing a surgical mask around the crowds, there was not a year that the crew did not return home with the infamous "Hajj Flu." No, most doctors wouldn't call it that, but I'm convinced that gathering that many people from that many parts of the world at such close quarters for five days in the desert creates some hybrid super-virus that has knocked me down every time. During one particularly rough year, I lost my voice – which, for a field producer, is the equivalent of a cameraman losing his camera. The solution? Twice a day, the hotel doctor came to give me cortizone shots to unclench my vocal chords so I could speak.

The Devil's Makeover

One of the key rituals of the Hajj is called the "stoning of the devil." Part of the cathardic process of the pilgrimage is to throw stones at three pillars known as the Jamarat symbolizing a rejection of the devil's temptation. This was also the most dangerous part of the ritual when it came to crowd control as 3 million people tried to throw stones at the same time at the same location. There have been many instances where people closer to the Jamarat have been killed or badly wounded by stones being lobbed by pilgrims further back. The Saudi Arabian authorities spent millions of dollars renovating the area, making it multi-layered like a garage instead of one flat plain, and renovating the pillars themselves that represent Satan. When I first visited Mecca, the "Devil" was an obelisque-like pillar but the renovations included replacing the structure (after much religious scholarly debate) with a wide oval wall-like structure with a much bigger surface area that was easier to hit. I recall one late night as we were shooting a story on the preparations, being driven out to the Jamarat area with a security escort as an engineer explained to us how the "Devil" had been remodeled. I couldn't resist taking a photo.

The new "Devil" after renovation of Jamarat in 2006

 

For anyone wondering where pilgrims get the stones, it's at the nearby desert location of Muzdalifa. (The math: 3 million pilgrims, throwing seven stones at each of three pillars – that's 63 million stones.) After every Hajj, the authorities collect all the stones that have landed at the foot of the Jamarat in Mina and take them back to the plain of Muzdalifa in anticipation of next year's pilgrimage, making sure to sift out any that are too sharp or too large.

The Segregation Problem

Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative country that practices a very strict interpretation of Islam, which includes that unrelated men and women should not mingle in private spaces. When you're a CNN crew, it means that the female reporter and producer technically can't be in the same room (or tent, once we're out in the desert) as the male cameraman. This is one of my very distinct memories – every year negotiating all manner of compromises to convince the authorities that the team all needed to share a work space. Various compromises included leaving the hotel room door wedged open at all times, leaving the tent flap open, sometimes having a token chaperone in the room in the form of a government minder or just occasionally being dropped in on to make sure we were actually working and not misbehaving in any way.

I must note here that one thing I appreciate about the Hajj is that women and men all pray together and perform all the rites together (whereas mosques are segregated.) At Hajj, men and women are only segregated in their sleeping arrangements.

The Wardrobe Malfunction

Women in Saudi Arabia, and female visitors, have to wear a long-flowing black robe (called an abaya) and a headscarf covering their hair. In many malls, hotels and restaurants in big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, women can get away with removing their headscarves. But in Mecca, during Hajj, these rules are particularly strictly abided by. As a CNN crew, we often worked late hours or had requests to be available live during U.S. prime time hours which were very late at night local time – so sleep deprivation was a common companion. On one late night as we were frantically trying to make an edit deadline, I received a call from an interviewee bringing a video diary he had filmed of himself so we agreed to meet in the hotel lobby. I rushed down and walked out of the elevator and within a few seconds realized that every single person in that lobby was staring at me in horror. It took me a moment to soak in the terrifying realization that I had forgotten to throw on my abaya and headscarf and was donning only jeans, T-shirt and a pony tail... which is comparable to walking around the Vatican in a bikini. Needless to say, waiting for the elevator to come back down and take me up to the room was the longest 30 seconds of my life.

The Day the Apocalypse Arrived

It was the last day of the Hajj in 2005. We were in our hotel room overlooking the Grand Mosque as the pilgrims performed the final rites as they circled the Kaaba. The sky began to darken, the windows shook with the force of roaring thunder as torrential rains started pouring down. We went out among the crowds and the scene was almost movie-like. Exhausted pilgrims who had just reached the peak of their spiritual journey, caught up in the moment, started saying that Judgment Day had arrived and that we were witnessing the apocalypse. The grounds of the mosque were flooded, the tent city at Mina suffered landslides and several groups of pilgrims had to be rescued by chopper. On the roads, cars and buses were turned on their side in the middle of the road and it was utter chaos. It turned out not to be the apocalypse, but a sobering reminder of what can happen when a desert city without drainage infrastructure gets hit with torrential rains while 3 million people happen to be in town.

The Stampede

In 2006, as the crew was headed to the airport thinking our assignment was over, we received word that a stampede had taken place. In people's rush to try to beat the crowds on the last day, the crowds got crushing that more than 350 people were trampled to death. We came back to the sounds of ambulance sirens wailing in warning and family members wailing in mourning. Just a few hours earlier the sense was one of collective euphoria as pilgrims completed their rites and were spiritually "cleansed" and ready to go home. Now the scene was chaos, blood, bodies shrouded in the same white cloths that they had performed their pilgrimage in. It was the deadliest day at Hajj in years. Subsequent pilgrimages have avoided similar disaster by spreading out the times that people can conduct the stoning ritual, carefully controlling the number of people at the Jamarat at any one time to avoid bottlenecks and overcrowding.

 

Tears on the Plain of Arafat

Overlooking the Plain of Arafat.

Despite the tragedies... Despite the crowds (it could take half an hour to find a hotel elevator with enough room to fit a 3-person crew with equipment)... Despite the traffic (it could take 4 hours to travel a couple of miles and if it happened to be prayer time, everyone abandoned their vehicles and started praying on the streets)... Despite  it all, the most powerful memory that stayed with me is standing on the plain of Arafat. The Day of Arafat is the spiritual culmination of the Hajj, the peak of spiritual cleansing as millions of people shed tears as they prayed for God's forgiveness for their sins.

As media, we had access to the Saudi Television facility that had a high tower overlooking the entire plain. There is no sight more overwhelming than seeing waves and waves of people in white praying and crying in the most effusive expression of religious emotion I have ever witnessed. It is a day that people smile to each other through their tears, as if in disbelief that they're finally there, finally completing the journey of a lifetime, finally so close to God. It is a moving and powerful moment that this spectator will never forget.

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Filed under: Hajj •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia


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October 2, 2012
Posted: 1316 GMT

Swedish furniture giant IKEA apologized Monday for removing women from their catalogues distributed in their stores in Saudi Arabia.

The free Swedish newspaper Metro published an article showing side-by-side images from the IKEA catalogue – in the Saudi version, a woman has been airbrushed out of the photo.

In a statement, IKEA spokeswoman Ulrika Englesson Sandman said the company "regrets" the incidents and understands "why people are upset."

"It is not the local franchisee that has requested the retouch of the discussed pictures" Sandman said." The mistake happened during the work process occurring before presenting the draft catalogue for IKEA Saudi Arabia. We take full responsibility for the mistakes made."

Sweden has long been committed to gender equality and IKEA's marketing move sparked criticism at home that the company is breaching long held values regarding women's role in society.

Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling told the Metro newspaper "It's impossible to retouch women out of reality." Sweden's European Union Minister Birgitta Ohlsson, apparently branded the incident as "medieval" in Swedish tweet.

Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative kingdom where women can't drive and need the permission of a male guardian to work or travel. When in public, women are required to cover their hair and wear a loose flowing robe called an abaya.

It is also common for Saudi censors to black out magazine pages showing women's arms and legs, essentially using a permanent marker to add an abaya to models.

The story sparked mixed reactions on social media ranging from outrage to lack of surprise...

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Filed under: Saudi Arabia •Women


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June 26, 2012
Posted: 1115 GMT
Rows of chocolate-filled syringes with fake Nutella packaging as posted on www.souq.dubaimoon.com
Rows of chocolate-filled syringes with fake Nutella packaging as posted on http://www.souq.dubaimoon.com

Chocoholics beware! There's a new take on the idea of "getting a chocolate fix."

Emirati newspapers Tuesday are flashing alarming headlines like "don't buy chocolate spread in syringes," "chocolate needles alarm bells,"  and "illegal chocolate syringes spark sharp response."

The Dubai Municipality has issued a stern health warning against buying or consuming (or presumably injecting!) chocolate-filled syringes after the photos above were circulated among UAE residents via blackberry, smartphones and social networking sites.

The photos show rows of syringes filled with what looks like chocolate, carrying the familiar label of the hazelnut chocolate spread Nutella. Regional distributors of the Nutella brand have issued fervent denials to the press that their product is in any way connected to these syringes and that there is no way they would be marketed or sold to consumers.

In a statement released by the municipality yesterday, the head of the food control department at Dubai Municipality said the civic body was working with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environment to take necessary action.

Some newspapers are reporting similar images dating back a year; but it might have been this online ad in the classified section of a local online shopping site that sparked this recent frenzy.

Posted June 15, it tells buyers to hurry up and get their choco-shots! Only 10 Dirhams! (about $2.70)

We called the number on the ad and got through to 17-year-old Abu Dhabi resident Salem Al Mihri. He told us that it was indeed him who was selling the candy contraband online.

"But what about the Dubai Municipality health warning?" I asked.

"What health warning?" Al Mihri asked. He hadn't read today's papers.

He claims he came up with the idea a few months ago while hanging out with friends – he considered it an entrepreneurial inspiration. Al Mihri says he bought the syringes from the pharmacy, filled them with Nutella spread and added and label and voila!

He says he sold all 30 of his creations to cousins – not the general public . Since our conversation, the photo on the ad has been updated to say "Sold Out."

Oh, and he was very insistent that the syringes were totally "sterile" and did NOT have hypodermic needles attached.

"It's a fun way to eat them, squeeze them out of the syringe, of course I didn't mean it as an injection!"

Al Mihri assured us this was an one-off idea done for fun. So the Dubai Municipality and the general public can rest assured that these fake products are NOT for sale (no guarantees that there won't be another copycat with an "entrepreneurial spirit")

Al Mihri says he'd like to go to university where he hopes he'll learn to be a businessman and where we hope he'll learn about trademark infringement and food health & safety.

Meanwhile, our final thought on the matter might be best reflected in this tweet...

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Filed under: Health •Social Media •UAE


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May 29, 2012
Posted: 1206 GMT

Tragic images out of the Qatari capital Doha as families mourn the deaths of 19 people in a fire at an upscale mall, including 13 children. It seems the fire began in the Gympanzee nursery and fire fighters had to break through the roof to get it.

The dead include four teachers, two would-be rescue workers, and thirteen children from multiple nationalities including 2-year-old triplets from New Zealand.

The Qatari government has ordered  an immediate investigation into the incident. A Civil Defense official said at a press conference yesterday that the roof and staircase of the nursery had collapsed, forcing rescue workers to create an opening in the roof to take out the victims.

Eyewitness Christine Wigton told CNN "There were no sprinklers, and there was nothing that would tell somebody that something was wrong."

Qatari authorities insist that all buildings adhere to strict codes per civil defense.

Disturbingly, a Qatar expat forum flagged exactly this issue as far back as February 2009 in a post titled "Fire Hazard at Villagio", with photographs claiming to show padlocked fire exits at the Villagio Mall itself.  

CNN cannot confirm the accuracy of these photos or the information claimed:

Photo from Qatar Living expat forum from February 2009 claiming to be at Villagio Mall.

Photo from an expat forum in Qatar. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of these photos, their location, or date.

An eerie comment posted over three years ago rings ominous on this tragic day...

A gathering is planned today at 5pm Doha time at nearby Aspire Park to commemorate the victims.

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Filed under: Qatar


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May 28, 2012
Posted: 1109 GMT

Check out this youtube clip published a few days ago showing a Saudi woman standing up to the Mutawwin, or religious police.

The woman is being told to leave the mall, apparently because she is wearing nail polish and – possibly – because some of her hair is showing.

Although women are expected to cover their hair in public, many women in malls, hotels and restaurants in Saudi Arabia wear only the flowing black abaya, without covering their hair. It is not clear from the video where the incident took place, but it is not uncommon to be monitored in malls by members of the dreaded body officially called The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

“You are not the boss of me” the woman yells in the video which according to an article published by The Saudi Gazette, prompted the commission to start an investigation into the incident.

Despite efforts to reform the religious police, including setting up a human rights unit and signing a deal with the local tourism authority , many a woman will still reach for her headscarf when a Mutawwi is nearby!

This video revived an ongoing debate in the kingdom about the role the religious police should play in Saudi.  Here’s what some tweeted:

Here you can see photos from Inside the Middle East's most recent trip to Saudi a few months ago.

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Filed under: Saudi Arabia •Women


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May 18, 2012
Posted: 1147 GMT

File picture dated August 21, 2008 shows Warda Al-Jazayriah, one of the Arab world's most famous Divas, during her memorable performance on the steps of the Bacchus Temple in the Roman Acropolis of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. PHOTO: AFP/Getty Images

Fans around the Arab world are mourning the death of Algerian diva Warda, known for her powerful voice, patriotic songs and cinematic roles. She died of cardiac arrest at her Cairo home at age 72.

Born in France in 1940 to an Algerian father and Lebanese mother, she started singing at age 11 and moved to her native country after it gained independence in the 60s. She married there and quit singing for ten years, reportedly because her husband banned her from performing, but returned to the limelight when then-president Boumedienne asked her to perform to commemorate Algerian independence day.

Warda worked with some of the most iconic Arab musicians including composer and singer Mohammed Abdelwahab and composer Baligh Hamdy who she eventually married. She and Hamdy collaborated on of her most famous songs  "Ismaouni" or "Listen to Me."

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Filed under: Algeria •Culture


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May 16, 2012
Posted: 1106 GMT
Most malls in the UAE have a dress code displayed at entrances. Some Emiratis now want foreigners to respect this dress code. PHOTO:Dubaimall.com
Most malls in the UAE have a dress code displayed at entrances. Some Emiratis now want foreigners to respect this dress code. PHOTO:Dubaimall.com

It is not unusual to see (usually female) tourists and expats in Dubai's malls and restaurants dressed in fashions that could be called short, tight, strapless or generally "revealing."

Now some Emiratis are saying Respect Our Culture. An online campaign launched by two Emirati women shocked at the liberal dress code of many foreigners has gained momentum. The hashtag #UAEDressCode is trending on Twitter, local media is asking the question "how short is too short?" and even the British ambassador has weighed in, calling on tourists to respect local culture.

Although the overwhelming majority of those living in this Gulf nation are expatriate, Emiratis themselves are generally conservative and abide by Islamic customs and traditions. Tourism sites welcoming visitors to the country describe it as "conservative but tolerant when it comes to dress code."

Perhaps tolerance has its limits!

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Filed under: Social Media •UAE


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May 15, 2012
Posted: 1501 GMT

The Kuwait Times is reporting that an appeals court yesterday upheld a 10-year jail term for a tweeter found guilty of insulting the nation's ruling Emir and calling for the overthrow of the regime. Orance Al-Rasheedi was tried on charges of "spreading false news about Kuwait to undermine the oil-rich country’s image and calling for regime’s overthrow in video footage on YouTube." It said he had also used the social networking site Twitter and YouTube to publicly insult the Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who is protected against criticism by Kuwait’s constitution.

According to the same article but in an unrelated case, a Kuwaiti man charged with defaming Islam's Prophet Muhammad on Twitter as well as insulting the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will stand trial on May 21 and plead not guilty.

The article says the case of Shiite Hamad Al-Naqi, who faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted, has caused uproar in the state, where dozens of Sunni activists and lawmakers have protested against his alleged crime in the streets. Some have called for him to be put to death. Blasphemy is illegal under Kuwaiti law as is libel.

Naqi was arrested in March and charged with defaming the Islamic faith and Prophet Muhammad, as well as his companions and his wife on the popular micro blog. Prosecutors later charged him with insulting the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Twitter too. Naqi has told police that he did not make any of the comments and that his account was hacked. Earlier this month, lawmakers endorsed a legal amendment that could make such crimes – if committed by Muslims – punishable by death.

Naqi’s lawyer said the amendment should not affect his client however. “The new law does not affect this case because it happened in the past,” his lawyer, Khaled Al-Shatti, told Reuters. “The new law will only take effect in the future,” he said. If Naqi is found guilty of endangering state security the maximum penalty he could face would be 10 years in jail, Shatti added. Twitter is extremely popular in Kuwait. One million accounts were registered in the country of 3.6 million as of April, a two-fold rise in 12 months, according to Paris-based Semiocast, which compiles Twitter data. Read full article...

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Filed under: Kuwait •Religion •Social Media •UAE


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