Saudi Arabia, which has already drawn condemnation for a string of executions this year, has sentenced poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh to death for the crime of apostasy, or leaving one’s religion. It is unclear when the sentence is due to be carried out.
Fayadh, who is of Palestinian origin, was first arrested in 2013 for an act he blamed on an argument with a fellow artist. He was later released but re-arrested in January 2014, on the grounds that a book of poetry he’d published in 2008, Instructions Within, promoted atheism.
The first court to hear his case sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes. An appeals court passed the case down to a lower court, which convicted him again and upped the punishment to a death sentence. According to Reuters, Fayadh was convicted “based on evidence from a prosecution witness who claimed to have heard him cursing God, Islam’s Prophet Mohammad and Saudi Arabia.”
“I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death,” Fayadh told the Guardian in an interview last November. “They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society.” He added his book was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Fayadh was also convicted of violating Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Passed in 2007, the law makes it a crime to produce “something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network.” In Fayadh’s case, “religious police discovered on his phone photos of Fayadh with several women, whom Fayadh said he met at an art gallery,” according to court documents seen by Human Rights Watch.
“Throughout this whole process, Ashraf was denied access to a lawyer – a clear violation of international human rights law, as well as Saudi Arabia’s national laws,” Amnesty International UK said on its petition to have Fayadh freed.
Outcry against his sentence has come from around the world, including a letter from PEN America to President Barack Obama asking him to intervene and have the sentence overturned. The International Literature Festival Berlin is organizing a worldwide reading of Fayadh’s poetry, scheduled to take place on Thursday in 44 countries.
Ashraf Fayadh’s execution date is currently unknown. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that it was due to occur on Thursday.
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