In Brief

Saudi Arabia Downgrades Poet’s Death Sentence to 8 Years in Jail and 800 Lashes

Ashraf Fayadh (screenshot via YouTube)
Ashraf Fayadh (screenshot via YouTube)

A court in Saudi Arabia has overturned the death sentence given to Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh last November on charges of publicly renouncing Islam, but the new terms of his punishment are also extremely savage.

His lawyer, Abdulrahman al-Lahem, summarized the revised judgment in an Arabic-language post on Twitter, explaining that Fayadh will serve eight years in prison and be given 800 lashes over the course of 16 separate sessions, according to the Guardian. He will also be required to renounce his art on official Saudi media.

The appeal documents filed by Lahem following November’s death sentence pointed out that Fayadh’s conviction had ignored the fact that he suffers from a mental illness and that the original allegations levied against him were uncorroborated and had been made by a man who’d gotten into a dispute with Fayadh in a café.

The Kafkaesque details of Fayadh’s legal tribulations paint a grim picture of the Saudi justice system. He was first arrested on August 6, 2013, following claims by a Saudi man named Shaheen bin Ali Abu Mismar that he was spreading blasphemy and promoting atheism through his poetry. Though he was eventually released, he was rearrested on January 1, 2014, and charged with apostasy and violating Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law because he had kept photographs of women on his phone, according to an Amnesty International report. (The women in question were allegedly artists featured in an exhibition he was curating through the London-based nonprofit Edge of Arabia.) Testimony from witnesses, including Abu Mismar’s uncle, stating that his allegations were not trustworthy was ignored by the court.

In April 2014, Fayadh was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes for Cyber Crime, though the court found his repentance sufficiently truthful to drop the apostasy charge. A subsequent appeals court ruled that he should nevertheless be charged with apostasy, sending his case back to the general court, where he was sentenced to death.

The sentence provoked outcry around the world. An Amnesty International petition calling for his release has amassed over 44,000 signatures. Hundreds of gatherings took place across the globe on January 14, where his writings were read aloud as an expression of solidarity with and support for the persecuted poet.

Lahem plans to appeal the new sentence and will seek to have Fayadh released on bail.

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