Saudi Arabia drops death sentence on Palestinian poet

Ashraf Fayadh, who Amnesty International called a 'prisoner of conscience', was sentenced to eight years in prison

In this undated photo posted on the Instagram account of Ashraf Fayadh, Palestinian artist Ashraf Fayadh poses for a picture.
Instagram account of Ashraf Fayadh/AP

A court in Saudi Arabia dropped the death sentence against Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh, along with the charge of “apostasy” for which it had been imposed. But the court did convict Fayadh of having "inappropriate relations with the other gender," for which it sentenced him to eight years in prison and 800 lashes over a protracted period of separate sessions. 

Fayadh was originally sentenced to death on Nov. 17 last year for alleged blasphemous statements he made in a discussion group, and in a volume of his poetry entitled "Instructions Within" and published in 2008. One of the poems in the collection was alleged to have shown that the poet had renounced Islam. He was also accused of using his poetry to spread atheist thinking.

Fayadh denied the charges, and claimed that he was a victim of false accusations made to the religious police by another man following a personal dispute.

Fayadh had been designated by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience”, and the human rights organization had lobbied for his release. His lack of proper legal representation at his trial, Amnesty claimed, had violated both international and Saudi law.

“Our relief that Ashraf no longer faces beheading is diminished by the extended injustice and mercilessness of the new sentence dealt to him for the simple human act of artistic expression,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, in a press release.  “Words do not constitute crimes. World leaders must stand firmly behind this principle in pressing Saudi authorities to release immediately Fayadh and others imprisoned in the Kingdom for peaceful acts of expression.”

Fayadh was born to Palestinian refugee family in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Abha. In 2004, the Shatta artist group, of which he had been a member, organized the Kingdom’s first public exhibition of contemporary art. In 2013, before his arrest, Fayadh curated "Mostly Visible," “an underground event, self-organized by artists ... to highlight the ‘real’ art currently produced in Saudi Arabia, the artworks and thoughts that are directly rooted in our society,” Fayadh wrote. He also contributed an artwork of his own to the show — a video projection called "Damage."

At the 55th Venice Biennale in 2011, he co-curated “Rhizoma,” an exhibition of contemporary Saudi artists, writing at the time: "We aim to provide a clear vision of the radical transformation in Saudi art.”

Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

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