Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet who came to Saudi Arabia as a refugee, and is now imprisoned by his adopted homeland for a series of poems that he wrote describing his life while fleeing war in Palestine.
Fayadh was charged in November 2015 with apostasy, or abandoning Islam, over the contents of his 2008 collection of poetry, Instructions Within. Apostasy is punishable by death in the theocracy, in which the last recorded judicial execution for the crime was the 1992 public beheading of a man alleged to have called Mohammed a liar.
In addition to his poetry, an unnamed witness and two members of Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween religious police force testified to having overheard Fayadh “cursing God, the Prophet Mohammed, and Saudi Arabia” to a fellow artist in a café.
Fayadh himself continues to state that he is a practicing Muslim, and denies all accusations brought against him.
Fayadh was originally sentenced in 2014 to four years in prison and 800 lashes, but his penalty has been upgraded to death as a result of the effective absolute power granted to Saudi judges to interpret Sharia law as they choose. The judge presiding over the recent review of Fayadh’s case dismissed the testimony of the defense in favor of only accepting those of the witnesses who testified against the poet.
[Update] The death sentence has been overturned and Fayadh is now sentenced to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes.
Evidence presented by the prosecution as proof of Fayadh’s atheism included the length of his hair, his smoking of cigarettes, and photographs on Instagram in which Fayadh posed with female artists at an art show in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Many of Fayadh’s friends have stated their belief that the true motivation for the case against the poet was a video which he posted online criticizing a public lashing by the Mutaween.
The poet, who was denied access to a lawyer after his ID was confiscated in 2014, has been given 30 days to appeal his trial. The date for Fayadh’s execution is not known yet, those sentenced to death have been known to spend anywhere between 5 years and over a decade in prison prior to the carrying out of their sentence.