Palestinian blogger facing prison for Islam 'insults'

West Bank - The dilapidated internet cafe on a back street of the West Bank town of Qalqilya is what a real estate agent might call "bijou".

It's tiny. A shoebox into which somehow nine desks and computers have been shoehorned in.

It is full of the usual crowd to be found in such places: teenage boys, gaming, chatting and flirting online.

But it seems one client, Waleed Hasayin, was up to more than that. The young blogger in his 20s has now been locked up by the Palestinian Authority for almost a month after being accused of mocking Islam, the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad in online postings under the username God Almighty.

"Sometimes he was in here until after midnight for over eight hours a day, always sitting in the corner. He was very secretive. He never wanted you to see his screen," said Ahmed Abu Asab, the cafe's owner.

Mr Abu Asab said he became suspicious of Mr Hasayin. When the young blogger had left the shop, the owner would access the computer's hard drive to access some of the things Mr Hasayin had been writing.

Mr Abu Asab still has the files stored on his computer, but he denies that it was him who alerted the police.

Execution calls

One of Mr Hasayin's postings was called Why I left Islam. He goes on to strongly criticise the religion for not allowing free-thinking and also mocks and insults the Prophet.

Some of his essays posted on a website called The Light of the Mind are detailed and clearly written by someone with a strong academic background. He also identified himself as a Proud Atheist.

Mr Hasayin's own Facebook pages have now been deleted, but his postings have ignited heated debate in the blogosphere. At least one Facebook group has been set up supporting Mr Hasayin while others have called for him to be severely punished, even executed.

Digitally-altered photos of Mr Hasayin have been posted, making him look like a pig.

"He should be killed," says Ghassan, a 21-year-old customer in the internet cafe.

"Look at how the Muslim world reacted when the cartoons were published in Denmark. But this guy is supposed to be a Muslim. He should be severely punished," he adds.

Ghassan says the police originally came to question him and a few others about Mr Hasayin before they eventually arrested the blogger.

Across Qalqilya, a conservative town whose council is controlled by the Islamist movement Hamas, there seems to be almost universal criticism of Mr Hasayin.

The attention the young man is getting has surprised many who say they always thought of the computer science student as quiet and unremarkable.

Prison term

At the small barbershop run by his father and where Mr Hasayin sometimes helped out, nobody in the family wanted to talk. Local people said they believed the family felt ashamed.

As to exactly why Mr Hasayin has been arrested, the Palestinian Authority is not saying.

A spokesman for the Palestinian security services, Gen Adnan Damiri, said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

"Insulting religion is a crime under Palestinian law," says Naser al-Rais, a lawyer with the Al Haq human rights organisation based in Ramallah.

Asked to comment on the case, Mr Rais said: "I respect Mr Hasayin's right to have these beliefs but he also has to respect the law, there are limits to freedom speech."

Mr Rais says Mr Hasayin could face a prison term of between three months and three years.