On November 17 a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced the artist, poet, and curator Ashraf Fayadh to death for renouncing Islam. He has 30 days to appeal the sentence.
“I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death,” he told the Guardian, adding that his poetry was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
The 35-year-old told the Guardian that the apostasy charges stem from a book of his poems published in 2008, Instructions Within, and an argument he had with another artist in a café in his hometown of Abha in August 2013. According to Ashraf’s father, Abdul-Satar Fayadh, after the argument the other man reported his son to the Saudi religious police (or mutaween). Fayadh was arrested and then released on bail a day later.
On January 1, 2014, he was arrested again, and his identification was confiscated — as the Saudi-born son of Palestinian refugees, Fayadh has no official citizenship, only documents issued to him by the Egyptian government. He was accused of having illicit relationships with women and of blasphemy, Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told the New York Times Times. Originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in May of last year, he appealed that decision and was retried before a new panel of judges, who sentenced him to be executed.
“He was unable to assign a lawyer because his ID was confiscated when he was arrested,” New York–based migrants’ rights activist Mona Kareem told the Guardian. “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 is affiliated with the London-based nonprofit Edge of Arabia, for whom he co-curated the exhibition Rhizoma at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The same year he curated the exhibition Mostly Visible in Jeddah, which featured 24 contemporary Saudi artists. That show was praised by Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon, and Fayadh appeared on Saudi television to discuss it.
Fayadh’s sentence comes near the end of a record year for executions in Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International, 151 people have been put to death in the country so far in 2015, the highest figure since 1995. Saudi society, including its courts, follows the strict principles of Islamic Shariah law. Earlier this month a British former oil executive was freed after being held in jail for over a year because homemade wine was found in his car, a violation of the prohibition on alcohol. The liberal blogger Raif Badawi is currently serving a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing Saudi clerics on his blog.