November 24, 2015
Poet sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia
by Liam O'Brien
Last week, a Saudi Arabian court ordered the execution of Ashraf Fayadh, a poet and artist born in Palestine who is now officially stateless, and who is also a member of the British-Saudi artist collective Edge Of Arabia.
The death sentence was a severe shock to Fayadh, who was retried after his attempt to appeal another court’s initial sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes. David Batty at The Guardian reported:
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.”
Fayadh’s supporters believe he is being punished by hardliners for posting a video online showing the religious police (mutaween) in Abha lashing a man in public. “Some Saudis think this was revenge by the morality police,” said Kareem.
Fayadh is described by colleagues as passionately devoted to the amplification and curation of the small but growing contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia. He was first arrested by the religious police in August 2013; he was accused of committing apostasy and promoting atheism through his poetry. He was released, but then re-arrested for further alleged Shariah violations, and subsequently jailed. As Batty detailed in the Guardian,
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.”
The documents also state that he admitted that he had relationships with the women. But Fayadh said his words had been twisted: the women were fellow artists and the photos on his phone, some of which he posted on Instagram, were taken during Jeddah art week, Saudi Arabia’s most important contemporary art event.
Ben Hubbard of the New York Times notes that Fayadh’s sentence comes on the heels of several harsh, high-profile sentences handed down by the Saudi government, as well as the highest recorded number of executions ordered by the kingdom since 1995.
Such punishments have fueled comparisons between Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States, and the jihadists of the Islamic State, both of whom claim to rule according to Islamic Shariah law and penalize acts that are not considered crimes in much of the world.
Saudi officials stand by their allegiance to Shariah but reject any comparison with the Islamic State, saying that Saudi courts apply equal justice and noting that jihadists have repeatedly attacked their country.
The Saudi government has not commented publicly on Mr. Fayadh’s case, and its Justice Ministry does not have a known news officer.
According to Human Rights Watch, the sentence must be approved by the appeals court, and the kingdom’s Supreme Court. Until then, petitions to demand Fayadh’s release are available at Change.org and Avaaz.
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.