Free Ashraf Fayadh, Palestinian Poet Facing Execution in Saudi Arabia

Steven Katsineris calls for the release of a poet facing execution in Saudi Arabia. Steven Katsineris is a Melbourne based writer and activist.

We, poets from around the world, are appalled that the Saudi Arabian authorities have sentenced Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy. It is not a crime to hold an idea, however unpopular, nor is it a crime to express opinion peacefully. Every individual has the freedom to believe or not believe. Freedom of conscience is an essential human freedom - PEN International letter signed by a group of poets in an expression of solidarity with Ashraf Fayadh.

Ashraf Fayadh (35) is a Palestinian refugee and writer living in Saudi Arabia. He is also a leading member of the young Saudi art scene. Fayadh is awaiting execution, after being sentenced to death by a Saudi court on charges of apostasy, or abandoning his faith in Islam. The charges against him appear to be based on his poetry and other writing, but maybe also retaliation for Fayadh posting an online video showing Saudi religious police lashing a man in public.

In January 2014, he was arrested and his identity documents confiscated and Fayadh was held for a lengthy period without charge. He was then sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes for what he wrote in his book of poetry and for allegedly having illicit relations with women. After he appealed the sentence, Fayadh was re-tried and sentenced to be executed. He did not have any legal representation.

Fayadh was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, a charge which he denies. Evidence used against him included poems from his collection ‘Instructions Within’, which is banned in Saudi Arabia, as well as his posts on Twitter and a conversation he had in a coffee shop in the town of Abha which was said to be blasphemous. 

Fayadh said his poetry book, ‘Instructions Within’, is “just about me being a Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues.” But the religious extremists claimed his writings were destructive ideas against God.

According to Human Rights Watch, as well as the charges of blasphemy and spreading atheism, Fayadh was also charged with having an illicit relationship with women, based on pictures found on his phone. He told the court the pictures were of women he had met at an art gallery.

His supporters are now asking how the case could draw such different verdicts, especially when, according to US-based Human Rights Watch, two of the three judges in the original case also served in the later retrial. The case illustrates how courts in Saudi Arabia can issue vastly different punishments based on how judges interpret Islamic law, a system derived from scholarly interpretations of the Koran and verified and documented rulings and sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Fayadh's friends have submitted testimony disputing the veracity of a complaint filed to the religious police by an acquaintance who accused him of making blasphemous comments about God, the prophet Muhammad and the Saudi state during a heated discussion at a cafe in Abha, the city where the case was heard.

The one-page court document says their testimony was not accepted in the retrial because the defendant's own "admission is the strongest evidence", without specifying what Fayadh admitted to. He was arrested and released within a day for that argument in August 2013, Human Rights Watch says.

Just days earlier, Fayadh's friends say he may have caught the attention of religious police when he filmed one of them slapping a man on the face and forcibly pinning him against a wall in Abha. The video on YouTube has been viewed over 195,000 times.

While judges in the initial trial accepted Fayadh's repentance for anything deemed offensive to religion in his poetry book, judges in the retrial said the case was considered an instance of Hadd (literal meaning "limit", or "restriction" is an Islamic concept: punishments, which under Islamic Sharia law are mandated and fixed by God. The Sharia divided offenses into those against God and those against man) with specific crimes, such as apostasy, having fixed punishments in Islam.

Sharia is open to various interpretations and many Muslim clerics say the death penalty is not the standard punishment for someone who leaves the faith or is an apostate, sourcing it to the prophet Muhammad's pardon of a Muslim who had renounced Islam.

Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative teachings of Islam, known as Wahhabism, have drawn comparisons to some of the ideologies behind the other Islamic State, which executes non-Muslims and Muslims alike for criticism of the faith. In Saudi Arabia, however, there are no known cases in recent years of executions for apostasy, though 152 people have been executed this year for crimes such as murder, rape and drug smuggling, according to Amnesty International.

Saudi Sharia courts can issue discretionary judgments on a wide range of crimes, which also allows leniency. But in crimes of Hadd even the Saudi king cannot issue a pardon, though he can interject if there are questions around how the case was handled, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle and Fayadh's friends who are familiar with the case.

The judges in Fayadh's retrial sentenced him to death after one hearing, but the first trial lasted six hearings. Nowhere in the court's second judgment did it state what Fayadh said that was allegedly insulting to God and religion.

Fayadh's brother-in-law, Osama Abu Raya, described the artist's 2008 Arabic poetry book, ‘Instructions Within’, as a compilation of his thoughts as a young man. The court began assessing the book last year after a man filed a complaint against him and mentioned his poetry to the religious police. Then a fatwa council, which issues religious edicts, was asked to analyse it.

Fayadh had been better known for his role in the modern art world, curating an exhibition of Saudi artists at the 2013 Venice Biennale. He also curated a show in Saudi Arabia called ‘Mostly Visible’, which was visited by the director of London's Tate Modern, Chris Dercon. He also produced Saudi artist Ahmed Matar's presentation, Word Into Art, at the British Museum in 2005.

Ahmed Matar said Fayadh's poetry book was about Palestinian issues. He said Fayadh, who was born and raised in Abha, "is in a weak position" because he is Palestinian and does not have the backing of a powerful Saudi tribe to mediate. In a statement, the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank publicly appealed to Saudi Arabia to release him.

The Saudi government's human rights body says it sent representatives to meet Ashraf Fayadh in prison in Abha, where he has been under arrest since January 2014. Fayadh's case will likely now go back to the appeals court and then to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.

"He's not an atheist. He is a Muslim artist and poet ... He's very sensitive, he's very intelligent. He's a very good friend to major artists," said Stephen Stapleton, founding director of the London-based Edge of Arabia, which promotes Saudi artists.

Over one hundred Arab intellectuals, as well as many cultural, free speech and human rights groups, such as Pen International, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network have joined the calls for the immediate freedom of Ashraf Fayadh. 

In protest at the terrible treatment of Fayadh, many Palestinian poets, writers and intellectuals have been gathering in Ramallah and other towns in the West Bank of Palestine to read poems and make calls to save Fayadh’s life and the release him from prison. These actions are part of an international campaign, with Fayadh’s poems to be read in 42 countries. 

Poets from around the world are also lining up in solidarity with the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, with the Syrian poet Adonis, Ireland’s Paul Muldoon and Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy signing a PEN letter stating they are “appalled” at the death sentence he has been handed by Saudi Arabian authorities. Among other poets who rallied and joined in signing the letter attacking the Saudi ruling were Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, the American John Ashbery, Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan, Israeli Amir Or and the Hungarian-born George Szirtes.  They wrote:

We, Fayadh’s fellow poets, urge the Saudi authorities to desist from punishing individuals for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and call for his immediate and unconditional release

The letter says that Fayadh’s death sentence “is the latest example of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s lack of tolerance for freedom of expression and ongoing persecution of free thinkers,” it ended with a plea for the Palestinian’s release.

“Incitement can be a crime, hate speech may be a crime, but opinions are not,” Szirtes said. “It runs counter to all our thoughts, habits and instincts, not just as poets or writers but as human beings. Nor is it just a cultural matter: it is a matter of exactly that which we describe as universal human rights.” he added.

According to Szirtes it is, “That is precisely why organisations such as PEN exist. Any sentence for an individual opinion brings shame on Saudi Arabia: a death sentence brings maximum shame.”

The appeal follows the release of a joint statement signed by more than a dozen cultural and free speech organisations condemning the conviction of the Palestinian poet, including PEN International.

PEN said that during his trial, the poet “expressed repentance for anything in the book that religious authorities may have deemed insulting”, and said, according to trial documents: “I am repentant to God most high and I am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case. Fayadh stated, “I didn’t do anything that deserves death”.

In a message to his supporters on 25 November, Fayadh said he was “grateful for everyone working on my behalf.” To be honest, I was surprised because I felt alone here. I am in good health. I’m struggling to follow all the developments. People should know I am not against anyone here, I am an artist and I am just looking for my freedom”, said Fayadh. 

In another separate case that also drew widespread condemnation, including from Saudi Arabia's closest Western allies, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who ​was publicly flogged 50 times this year and is serving a 10-year sentence for expressing his opinions and criticising the kingdom's powerful religious establishment online.

Fayadh’s imprisonment, persecution and death sentence by the Saudi regime reflects the extremely reactionary role played by the Saudi regime in the region, with the support of its close allies, as it seeks to repress Palestinian and Arab culture and independent movements and works to suppress any struggle for genuine free expression. 

The deplorable situation of Fayadh is very dire and life threatening. Please act to express your solidarity with Ashraf Fayadh and do whatever you can to publicize his case and exert pressure on the Saudi regime. Help save Fayadh’s life and support his struggle for justice and freedom. 

“They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,” he said, describing his poetry collection as “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.” Ashraf Fayadh.

To Take Action: What to do to Save Fayadh 

Information from Samidoun (Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network)-

1. Call the Saudi Embassy in your area and demand freedom for Ashraf Fayadh. In the United States, call 202-342-3800. In Canada, call 613-237-4100. Find the embassy in your country here:

 2. Protest at the Saudi Embassy in your area for freedom for Ashraf Fayadh. Print signs and materials, and gather outside the Saudi embassy with Palestine rights activists, artists and others to demand his freedom. See the list of Saudi embassies here:

3. Contact your government officials. The Saudi regime is a close partner of the United States, Canadian and various European governments. Demand that your government pressure the Saudi regime to release Fayadh. In Canada, Call the office of the Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion, at 613-996-5789 and demand Canada pressure Saudi Arabia to release Fayadh, or email: In the US, call the White House (202-456-1111) and the US State Department (202-647-9572); demand the US pressure Saudi Arabia to release Fayadh. In the EU, contact you’re MEP – you can find your MEP here. 

Sources-Samidoun, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, Amnesty International, Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss.

No comments