The Saudi regime has sentenced a Palestinian poet and leading figure in the kingdom’s growing contemporary art to death over accusations of insulting and renouncing Islam, which he has categorically denied.
A court on Tuesday gave Ashraf Fayadh the death penalty and the 35-year-old artist now only has 30 days to appeal, reports said on Friday.
His supporters say the verdict is issued to punish him for posting a video online that showed religious police in Abha, a city in the southwest of Saudi Arabia, lashing a man in public.
Fayadh was first given a four-year jail term and 800 lashes by the general court in Abha in 2014. But his appeal was dismissed and he was again tried in October this year and this time judges ruled that he must be executed despite his repentance.
“I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death,” the poet said.
Mona Kareem, a rights activist from Kuwait who has launched a campaign for the poet’s release, said, “For one and a half years they promised him an appeal and kept intimidating him that there’s new evidence.”
Fayadh did not even have a lawyer as his ID was confiscated when he was arrested last year, Kareem added.
“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.”
The activist said some people in Saudi Arabia believe the execution was ordered as “revenge by the morality police.” Kareem argued that Fayadh has been targeted because he is a Palestinian refugee despite being born in Saudi Arabia.
The poet’s first detention
Fayadh was first detained in August 2013 over allegations of cursing God and Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him), insulting Saudi Arabia and handing out a book of his poems that was claimed to promote atheism. He said his arrest under a complaint arose from a personal dispute with another artist during a discussion about contemporary art in Abha.
The poet was set free on bail after one day only to be rearrested on January 1, 2014, and his friends say police began harassing him for smoking and having long hair after they could not prove that his poetry was atheist propaganda.
“They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,” said Fayadh and added that his book 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 poet was tried over the case in February 2014, with the complainant and two members of the religious police telling the court that he had publicly blasphemed, promoted atheism and had illicit relationships with women.
He rejected the blasphemy accusations and told the court that he is a faithful Muslim, “repentant to God most high” and is innocent of what appeared in his book mentioned in the case.
He also denied the claim of having relationships with women, saying they were fellow artists and the photos of them on his phone, some of which he posted on Instagram, were taken during Jeddah art week, which is Saudi Arabia’s most important contemporary art event.
As a key figure of the British-Saudi art organization Edge of Arabia, Fayadh curated art shows in Jeddah and at the Venice Biennale.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, has denounced Fayadh’s death penalty as indication of Riyadh’s “complete intolerance” of anyone who may not share religious, political and social views mandated by the Saudi regime.