A Saudi court has overturned the death sentence of a Palestinian poet accused of renouncing Islam, imposing an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes instead. He must also repent through an announcement in official media.
The decision by a panel of judges came after Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer argued his conviction was seriously flawed because he was denied a fair trial. In a briefing on the verdict, Abdulrahman al-Lahem said the judgment revoked the death sentence but upheld that the poet was guilty of apostasy.
In a memo posted on Twitter, Lahem details Fayadh’s new punishment. He is sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, to be carried out on 16 occasions, and must renounce his poetry on Saudi state media.
Lahem welcomed the overturning of the death sentence but reaffirmed Fayadh’s innocence and announced they would launch an appeal and ask for bail.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Instead of beheading Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi court has ordered a lengthy imprisonment and flogging. No one should face arrest for peacefully expressing opinions, much less corporal punishment and prison. Saudi justice officials must urgently intervene to vacate this unjust sentence.”
The author Irvine Welsh said: “When this twisted barbarism is thought of as a compromise, it’s way past time western governments stopped dealing with this pervert regime.”
The death sentence imposed in November provoked a worldwide outcry.
Hundreds of leading authors, artists and actors, including the director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, the British poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and actor Helen Mirren, have appealed for his release. More than 60 international arts and human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the writers’ association PEN International, have launched a campaign calling on the Saudi authorities and western governments to save him. Readings of his poetry in support of his case took place in 44 countries last week.
Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, which appealed for Fayadh’s release, said: “It is a relief that Ashraf Fayadh no longer faces execution, but this is a wholly disproportionate and shocking sentence. It will cause dismay around the world for all Ashraf’s many supporters. The charges against him should have been dropped and he should be a free man today. We will continue to campaign for his release.”
Fayadh, who has mental health problems, has spent almost two years in prison in Abha, a city in the south-west of the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The 35-year-old Palestinian refugee rose to prominence as an artist and curator for the British-Saudi art group Edge of Arabia. He went on to curate shows in Jeddah and at the 2013 Venice Biennale, which showcased an emerging generation of Saudi artists.
But in August 2013, he was detained by the mutaween (religious police) following a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.
Although he was released after one day he was arrested again on 1 January 2014 and detained at a police station before being transferred to the local prison 27 days later. At his trial in May 2014, he was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes by the general court in Abha.
He was also found guilty of storing images of women on his phone, which friends and colleagues said were artists appearing in his show at the Jeddah art fair.
After his appeal was dismissed Fayadh was retried on 17 November 2015 and sentenced to death by a new panel of judges, who ruled that his repentance did not prevent his execution.
But appeal documents submitted by his lawyer last month argued that Fayadh’s conviction was based on uncorroborated allegations and ignored evidence that he had a mental illness.
Fayadh’s father had a stroke after hearing his son was to be beheaded. Fayadh was unable to visit him before he died last month, nor was he allowed to attend his funeral.
In documents considered by the panel of judges on Tuesday, Lahem argued that Fayadh’s initial arrest in 2013 was unlawful as it was not ordered by the state prosecution service. The allegation of apostasy made by Shaheen bin Ali Abu Mismar, who is alleged to have had a personal dispute with the poet, was not corroborated by other evidence, which goes against the principles of sharia law, he argued.
The appeal document also stated that the November ruling ignored testimony by defence witnesses in Fayadh’s 2014 trial who said Abu Mismar was lying, and from the accuser’s uncle, who indicated he was not truthful. It contended that the “judiciary cannot rely on [his evidence] due to the possibility that it is malicious”.
Additional reporting by Mona Mahmood