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Malaysia defends deportation of Saudi journalist

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) - Malaysia's government on Monday defended its decision to deport a young Saudi journalist who may face persecution at home for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter.

International rights groups have slammed the deportation but Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia was not a safe haven for fugitives.

Jiddah-based newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, 23, was detained Thursday at the Malaysian airport while in transit to New Zealand. He was deported Sunday despite fears from rights groups that he may face the death penalty if charged with blasphemy over remarks he tweeted that many considered offensive.

"I will not allow Malaysia to be seen as a safe country for terrorists and those who are wanted by their countries of origin, and also be seen as a transit county," Hishammuddin said.

He said the deportation followed a request from the Saudi government. Allegations that Kashgari could be tortured and killed if he was sent back home are "ridiculous" because Saudi Arabia is a respectable country, he said.

Malaysian authorities also didn't receive any court order to halt the deportation, he added.

Lawyers representing Kashgari's family obtained a court order Sunday to try to keep him in Malaysia but he had been put on a plane back home by the time the order was issued.

Human Rights Watch slammed Malaysia's failure to respect human rights. It said Kashgari was kept incommunicado and denied access to lawyers and the U.N. refugee agency. Police also told lawyers that Kashgari was still being held after he already had been forced on a plane, it said.

"By its actions, the ministry of home affairs once again showed that it believes rule of law is whatever it says and that it is more than willing to be totally opaque in its operations to maintain its flexibility to do what it wants when it wants," said Phil Robertson, its Asia deputy director.

"If he (Kashgari) faces execution back in Saudi Arabia, the Malaysian government will have blood on its hands," he said.

Local rights group Lawyers for Liberty said Kashgari arrived in Malaysia on Feb. 7 from Jordan and was leaving the country two days later to New Zealand to seek asylum when he was detained.

"The cold hard truth is that Malaysia has bent over backwards to please Saudi Arabia, breached international law by not allowing (Kashgari) to seek asylum and instead handed him on a silver platter to his persecutors," it said.

Amnesty International has called Kashgari a "prisoner of conscience."

In Brussels, the European Union said it was "deeply disappointed" by Malaysia's decision to deport Kashgari.

Spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said it appeared that he had not been granted access to a lawyer or the right of appeal "in accordance with international standards."

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Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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