Saudi Arabia: Saudi court sentences Palestinian poet to death

Saudi Arabia: Saudi court sentences Palestinian poet to death

PEN Center USA joins PEN American Center, English PEN, and PEN International to call on the British government to pressure Saudi authorities to release Ashraf Fayadh, a poet, artist, and curator sentenced to death. A version of this statement originally appeared on the English PEN website.

PEN is appalled at the General Court of Abha’s decision on November 17, 2015, to sentence Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, to death for apostasy. Used as evidence against him were several poems within his book Instructions Within, Twitter posts, and conversations he had in a coffee shop in Abha. PEN International has reviewed the trial documents and found that during his original trial in April 2014, the General Court of Abha lifted the penalty for apostasy (riddah) owing to his repentance, however, he was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes for storing images on his mobile telephone. Fayadh has 30 days to appeal his sentence.

Fayadh is reported to be "really shocked" by the sentence, stating "I didn’t do anything that deserves death." To read extracts of Ashraf Fayadh’s poems used in evidence against him, click here.

PEN calls on the Saudi authorities to commute his death sentence immediately, and if as it appears, he is held solely on account of his views on religion which do not advocate violence, to release him immediately and unconditionally.

PEN is also calling on the British government to put pressure on the Saudi authorities to release Fayadh, Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, and others detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression. Last month, David Cameron claimed he ‘completely disagreed with [the Saudi authorities] about their punishment routines, about the death penalty, about all those issues’. We therefore urge the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to raise Fayadh’s case at the earliest opportunity with the Saudi authorities and to call for his immediate release.

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Please SIGN the petition at the bottom of this page to join PEN Center USA's appeal to the Saudi authorities:

  • Protesting the heavy-handed sentence handed down to Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, on November 17, 2015;
  • Urging the Saudi Arabian authorities to release Ashraf Fayadh immediately and unconditionally if he is being held solely for his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and belief;
  • Calling for Ashraf Fayadh’s death sentence to be commuted immediately;
  • Urging the government to immediately commute any sentence of flogging, if as it is feared he still faces 800 lashes, as it violates the absolute prohibition in international law against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • Calling for him to be granted access to lawyers of his choice;
  • Calling on Saudi Arabia to ratify, without reservation, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Background via PEN International

Saudi-born Palestinian poet, artist, curator and member of British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia, Ashraf Fayadh, was initially arrested in August 2013, accused of ‘misguided and misguiding thoughts’ following the submission of a complaint to the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue. According to reports, the complaint sustained that Fayadh had made obscene comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Saudi state. He was later released on bail, however, on January 1, 2014, Fayadh was re-arrested on charges of ‘insulting the divine self’ and having long hair. He has been held in a prison in the city of Abha ever since.

According to PEN’s information, during his trial held over six hearings between February and May 2014, Fayadh stood accused of numerous blasphemy-related charges, including insulting the ‘divine self’ and the prophet Mohammed, spreading atheism, refuting the Qu’ran, and insulting the King and the Kingdom, among other charges. Evidence compiled against him included at least 10 pages from his collection of poetry Instructions Within, published by the Beirut-based Dar al-Farabi in 2008 and later banned from distribution in Saudi Arabia. Also used as evidence against him were Twitter posts, and conversations he had had in a coffee shop in the city of Abha, where he lived. Fayadh was also accused of having illicit relations with foreign women for having images on his mobile telephone. English translations of the poetry used in evidence against him are available here. Other poetry by Fayadh, is available here and here.

Witness testimony reportedly claimed that the complaint submitted to the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue was the result of a personal dispute. During the last session, Fayadh expressed repentance for anything in the book that religious authorities may have deemed insulting, stating, according to trial documents, “I am repentant to God most high and I am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.”

According to court documents, on April 30, 2014, the General Court of Abha found proof of Fayadh having committed apostasy (riddah) and his repentance for it. The court therefore ruled to lift the penalty for apostasy, however, it sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes—to be administered 50 at a time every 10 days—for storing images on his mobile telephone, and the confiscation of his telephone.

On June 17, 2015, the General Court of Abha sentenced Fayadh to death for the crime of being an infidel (kāfir) following a re-trial. The court argued that Fayadh’s repentance for the crime of apostasy was a matter of the heart and should have no bearing determining whether or not the crime had been committed. Fayadh now has 30 days to appeal the sentence.

As a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the pre-eminent intergovernmental body tasked with protecting and promoting human rights, and the newly elected Chair of the HRC’s Consultative Group, Saudi Arabia purports to uphold and respect the highest standards of human rights. However the decision of the court is a clear violation of the internationally recognised rights to freedom of conscience and expression. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that, ‘[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief’. Furthermore, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Saudi Arabia is therefore in absolute contravention of the rights that it as a member of the UN HRC has committed to protect.

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