Poet reprieved from execution but still faces 800 lashes and long jail term
A Saudi court has overturned the death sentence of a Palestinian poet accused of renouncing Islam, and imposed an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes instead. The decision by a panel of judges came after Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer argued his conviction was seriously flawed because he was denied a fair trial, according to a report in the Guardian. In a briefing on the verdict, Abdulrahman al-Lahem said the judgment revoked the death sentence but upheld that the poet was guilty of apostasy.
Lahem said Fayadh had been sentenced instead to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, to be carried out on 16 occasions, He must also renounce his poetry on Saudi state media. Lahem reaffirmed Fayadh’s innocence and announced they would launch an appeal and ask for bail.
The death sentence imposed in November resulted in a worldwide outcry, and hundreds of leading authors, artists and actors, including the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, appealed for his release. Readings of his poetry in support of his case took place in 44 countries last month.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: “It is a relief that Ashraf Fayadh no longer faces execution, but this is a wholly disproportionate and shocking sentence. It will cause dismay around the world for all Ashraf’s many supporters. The charges against him should have been dropped and he should be a free man today. We will continue to campaign for his release.”
Fayadh has spent almost two years in prison in Abha, in the south-west of Saudi Arabia. The 35-year-old Palestinian refugee was detained by the mutaween (religious police) in 2013 following 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 during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.
He was released after a day but was arrested again on 1 January 2014. In May 2014 he was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes by the general court in Abha. After his appeal was dismissed Fayadh was retried in November 2015 and sentenced to death by a new panel of judges, who ruled that his repentance did not prevent his execution.
Appeal documents submitted by his lawyer last month argued that Fayadh’s conviction was based on uncorroborated allegations and ignored evidence that he had a mental illness.
Fayadh’s father had a stroke after hearing his son was to be beheaded. Fayadh was unable to visit him before he died last month, nor was he allowed to attend his funeral.
In documents considered by the judges on Tuesday, Lahem argued that Fayadh’s initial arrest in 2013 was unlawful as it was not ordered by the state prosecution service. The allegation of apostasy was not corroborated by other evidence, which goes against the principles of sharia law, he argued.
* A poet and former political prisoner was due to take his seat in Myanmar’s new parliament this week. U Tin Thit narrowly defeated a powerful former general in the landslide victory last November by the National League for Democracy, the party led by the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Mr Tin Thit, 49, who also goes by the name Yi Mon, was in medical school in 1988 when the country rose up against the military. He joined the campaign for democracy, and like thousands of other student activists he was locked up, spending seven years in jail.
He said voters had chosen him over the general because “human dignity had been lost for 50 years. They wanted it back.” There were more than 10 poets registered as candidates for the National League for Democracy, and there is a strong link between poetry and politics in Myanmar. During five decades of military rule, the junta censored everything published in the country. “We had to write poetry to obscure the meaning of what we were saying,” Mr Tin Thit said.