Saudi Arabia sentences Palestinian poet to death after appeal against 800 lashes
A Palestinian poet has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam. Ashraf Fayadh, who said he did not have legal representation, was given 30 days to appeal against the ruling. Fayadh, aged 35, was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014. But after his appeal was dismissed he was retried last month and a new panel of judges ruled that his repentance did not prevent his execution.
“I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death,” Fayadh told the Guardian.
Mona Kareem, a migrant rights activist from Kuwait who has led a campaign for the poet’s release, said: “For one and a half years they promised him an appeal and kept intimidating him that there’s new evidence. He was unable to assign a lawyer because his ID was confiscated when he was arrested [in January 2014]. Then they said you must have a retrial and we’ll change the prosecutor and the judges. The new judge didn’t even talk to him, he just made the verdict.”
Freedom of expression campaigners English PEN, PEN American Center and PEN International condemned the Saudi Arabian authorities’ decision,and called for his immediate release.
Fayadh’s supporters believe he is being punished for posting a video online showing the religious police (mutaween) lashing a man in public. “Some Saudis think this was revenge by the morality police,” said Kareem. The religious police first detained Fayadh in August 2013 after receiving a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute with another artist during a discussion about contemporary art in a cafe.
He was released on bail but the police arrested him again in January 2014. Acording to Fayadh’s friends, when the police failed to prove that his poetry was atheist propaganda, they began berating him for smoking and having long hair. “They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,” said Fayadh. He added that the book, Instructions Within, published in 2008, was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
The case went to trial in February 2014 when the complainant and two members of the religious police told the court that Fayadh had publicly blasphemed, promoted atheism to young people and conducted illicit relationships with women and stored some of their photographs on his mobile phone. Fayadh denied the accusations of blasphemy and told the court he was a faithful Muslim. According to the court documents, he said: “I am repentant to God most high and am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.”
Saudi Arabia executed 175 people in the past year, according to figures provided by Amnesty International. In September this year Saudi Arabia was elected as chair of the UN’s Human Rights Council Panel. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s most valuable customer in arms sales.