Kuwait's parliament has voted in favour of a legal amendment that would make blasphemy a crime punishable by death following the arrest of a man accused of insulting the Prophet Mohamed on the social-networking website Twitter.
The amendment must still go to a second and final vote and win approval from Kuwait's ruler before becoming law, but MPs yesterday voted overwhelmingly in support of stiffer penalties, with 46 in favour and four against.
Recent tweets by a Kuwaiti citizen, Hamad al-Naqi, allegedly defaming the Prophet, his companions and his wife provoked an outpouring of fury in the tiny Arab state last month. The episode spurred MPs to seek a hasty toughening of the blasphemy laws. Several politicians have openly called for the man's execution.
Blasphemy has been a punishable offence in Kuwait since 1961, but until now has carried only a jail sentence. If the new amendment is approved, it will, controversially, bring Kuwait in line with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where critics say blasphemy laws are misused to persecute those from minority faiths.
Mr Naqi, who is currently in custody awaiting trial, has rejected the charges, telling police that somebody hacked into his account and sent the tweets in his name. The authorities have also claimed to have found evidence that he supported pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, led mainly by the country's marginalised Shia Muslims. The dispute has refocused attention on sectarian divisions within the country, with calls for Mr Naqi, a Shia Muslim, to face harsher penalties originating mainly from the Sunni majority. Kuwait's Shias make up about 30 per cent of the country's million native citizens. Shia MPs did not support the bill.
In a parallel case, clerics in Saudi Arabia have called for the death penalty against Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old reporter from Jeddah who was charged with blasphemy after he tweeted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet.
In the wake of pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have increasingly focused their attentions on Twitter, leading to a spate of arrests of users accused of offences ranging from sectarian incitement to criticism of the state.