KUWAIT (Reuters) - A 26-year-old Kuwaiti pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges he insulted the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media, the first day of a high-profile and divisive court case in the Gulf state.
Charges were brought by a civil plaintiff, who called for Shi‘ite Muslim Hamad al-Naqi to be put to death, saying he must be made an example of to others. The case has stoked tensions between Kuwait’s Sunnis and minority Shi‘ites.
Naqi’s lawyer asked for his client, who has been in prison since his arrest in March, to be released on bail. The judge declined the request and adjourned the trial until next week.
Sitting in a wooden and metal cage guarded by armed guards in black balaclavas at the start of the trial, a bearded, tired-looking Naqi sat quietly clasping his hands, occasionally rubbing the back of his shaved head and looking at the floor.
Wearing a blue prison uniform and glasses, Naqi was escorted from the cage to face the judge, confirmed his personal details and entered his innocent plea.
The case has caused uproar in Kuwait, where dozens of Sunni Muslim activists and lawmakers have protested against Naqi some calling for the death penalty and accusing him of links to Shi‘ite regional power Iran, something he has denied.
Shi‘ites make up about one third of Kuwait’s 1.1 million nationals and vocal members can be found in senior positions in parliament, media and business.
Although Kuwait has largely avoided the sectarian violence and pro-democracy uprisings seen elsewhere in the region, it is concerned its sizeable Shi‘ite minority may turn restive.
Kuwaiti authorities have been closely watching Shi‘ite-led protests in Bahrain and unrest in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, home to more than two million minority Shi‘ites.
Kuwait’s parliament, where opposition Islamists have grown in influence, endorsed a legal amendment this month that would make insulting God and the Prophet Mohammad by Muslims punishable by death instead of a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
Naqi’s lawyer and Amnesty International say the death penalty cannot be applied in the Naqi case because the alleged crime took place before the change in legislation.
But civil plaintiff Dowaem al-Mowazry, who is arguing the case against Naqi, said this was a special case.
“We will ask for the implementation of the death penalty for Naqi because he insulted Allah, the Prophet Mohammad and his companions,” he told Reuters after the opening of the trial.
“He will be an example for anyone who thinks he can do such a thing.”
Naqi has told police that he did not write the comments and that his Twitter account was hacked. His lawyer Khaled al-Shatti argued that Naqi should be granted bail because Kuwaitis charged with similar crimes had been granted it in the past.
“He denied the charges. But even if we were to imagine hypothetically that he did say something, this would be an ”opinion crime“, not a crime threatening state security,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; Editing by Angus MacSwan