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HRW condemns Saudi death sentence for Palestinian poet

Nov. 23, 2015 7:57 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 24, 2015 10:18 A.M.)
Ashraf Fayadh with art historian Chris Dercon, outgoing director of Tate Modern, at the opening of an exhibition in Jeddah curated by Fayadh. (Ashraff Ayadh)
GAZA (Ma'an) -- An international human rights organization on Monday condemned Saudi Arabia over a court decision last week to sentence Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for renouncing Islam.

"This death sentence against Fayadh is yet another indictment of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record," Human Rights Watch's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. "The Saudi authorities should immediately vacate this sentence and order Fayadh's release."

Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death on Nov. 17 for "alleged blasphemous statements during a discussion group and in a book of his poetry," HRW said.

Fayadh denied the charges, saying that another man made false accusations to the country's religious police "following a personal dispute," according to HRW. He has 30 days to appeal the sentence.

"Regardless of what Fayadh said or didn't say, Saudi Arabia should stop arresting people for their personal beliefs," Whitson said. "The fact that Ashraf Fayadh is facing the prospect of being beheaded only adds to the outrageousness of this court ruling."

Fayadh's sister, Raeda Fayadh, who has been living in the Gaza Strip since 2013, told Ma'an on Monday that she trusted her brother was innocent of the charges brought against him, saying that he was a Muslim who had frequently quoted the Quran in his writing.

Fayadh, whose family originally came from Gaza, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where he has worked as a poet, painter, and photographer at the forefront of Saudi Arabia's art scene.

A collection of his poetry entitled 'Instructions Within' was published in Lebanon in 2008, although it was not published or sold in Saudi Arabia. Fayadh also curated art exhibitions in Jeddah and Venice, and was a member of the British-Saudi art organization Edge of Arabia.

His sister said that his trouble began in August 2013, when he entered a dispute with a young Saudi Arabian man over the results of a football game at a cafe in Abha.

The man turned out to be part of Saudi Arabia's Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the country's religious police.

Fayadh was detained and interrogated for 25 hours for "insulting the divine self and advocating atheistic disbelief through a book," his sister said. The religious police also found photos of Fayadh with several women on his phone, who Fayadh said he had met at art exhibitions.

He was released, but arrested again five months later on a range of charges, including blaspheming God and the Prophet Muhammad, spreading atheism, and having had illicit relationships with women.

In May, the General Court of Abha sentenced Fayadh to four years in prison and 800 lashes, but the prosecution, which had called for the death sentence, successfully appealed, leading to last week's death sentence.

His sister, Raeda, called on Saudi King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Internal Affairs Minister Prince Muhammad Bin Nayif, and "every judge in Saudi Arabia that is honorable and just to end the injustice."

She also called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to intervene in her brother's case, stressing that Ashraf was a Palestinian and a cultural and literary symbol of Palestine.

HRW said that Saudia Arabia has executed 152 people so far this year, the highest recorded number since 1995. Most executions were carried out by beheading, some of them in public.

"The vast majority are for murder and drug crimes, but Saudi courts occasionally hand down death sentences for other 'crimes' such as apostasy and sorcery," the rights group said.

HRW reaffirmed its opposition to capital punishment, which it described as "unique in its cruelty and finality," adding that it is "inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error."

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