Hundreds of writers around the world have joined human rights groups in urging Saudi Arabia to
release a poet who faces the death sentence on charges of “apostasy” for his poetry.
Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh, 35, was sentenced to death by a court in the southwestern Saudi city of Abha earlier this month on a series of
blasphemy charges, according to Human Rights Watch, which viewed the trial documents .
The charges included insulting the “Divine Self” and the Prophet Mohammed, mocking the Quran and spreading atheism.
Fayadh had originally been handed a lesser sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes on the charge of having inappropriate relations with members of the opposite sex.
The court had dismissed a prosecution request for a death sentence on the apostasy charge, citing Fayadh’s declared “repentance” and testimony that
indicated hostility between Fayadh and the complainant, HRW said.
But the prosecutor appealed the ruling, according to HRW.
In mid-November a new judge dismissed the earlier decision, saying Fayadh’s repentance was
not enough to avoid a death sentence for apostasy, citing verses from the defendant’s poetry.
Fayadh was initially arrested in 2013 after a personal disagreement with a man at a coffee shop in the town of Abha in relation to his poetry, according to HRW and writers’ association PEN
The man reportedly complained to the ultraconservative kingdom’s religious police, accusing Fayadh of insulting Islam in his book of
poems and insulting the Saudi state.
Fayadh reportedly has 30 days to appeal the death sentence, after which the case goes to the Supreme Court, HRW reported.
After Fayadh was arrested, according to HRW’s account based on the court documents, the
religious police discovered on his phone photos of Fayadh with several women, whom Fayadh said he met at an art gallery. These photographs were the basis for the charge of having inappropriate
relations with members of the opposite sex.
Activists have posted scans online purporting to be the original trial documents .
The sentence has drawn condemnation from rights groups, cultural figures and social media, with the hashtag #FreeAshraf appearing in response to reports of the sentence.
Prominent writers including Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Syrian poet Adonis signed an open letter by PEN International saying they were
“appalled” by the judgment.
“It is not a crime to hold an idea, however unpopular, nor is it a crime to express an opinion
peacefully,” read the letter.
An online petition launched by Amnesty International calling for his release has already reached more than 22,000 signatures.
“The sentencing of Ashraf Fayadh to death after an unfair trial shows the deep flaws in Saudi Arabian
criminal justice system and is yet another appalling example of the authorities flouting their international human rights obligations,” said Sevag Kechichian, Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia researcher.
“Fayadh was imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression — he
should be immediately and unconditionally released and his conviction should be quashed.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said that “regardless of what Fayadh said or didn’t say, Saudi Arabia should stop arresting people for their personal beliefs.”
“The fact that Ashraf Fayadh is facing the prospect of being beheaded only adds to the outrageousness of this court ruling,” Whitson said.
Fayadh, a Saudi-born Palestinian, has been a prominent figure in Saudi Arabia’s nascent contemporary art scene, where he was involved in the Saudi-British art group Edge of Arabia and curated its exhibit for the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Saudi Arabia has faced increasing criticism for the punishments handed down by its judicial system, including beheadings, crucifixions and floggings.