A Saudi court has sentenced to death the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, convicted of several blasphemy-related crimes.
Fayadh, described by The Guardian as a “leading member of Saudi Arabia’s nascent contemporary art scene,” was first arrested at a café in the southern city of Abha, where he resides, in August 2013.
Human Rights Watch, in its statement condemning the 17 November ruling, said that “religious police went to the café after a man reported that Fayadh had made obscene comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Saudi state. The man also alleged that Fayadh passed around a book he wrote that allegedly promoted atheism and unbelief.”
Fayadh was held for a day and then released.
But he was arrested again in January 2014 and, according to Human Rights Watch, charged with “blaspheming ‘the divine self’ and the Prophet Muhammad; spreading atheism and promoting it among the youth in public places; mocking the verses of God and the prophets; refuting the Quran; denying the day of resurrection; objecting to fate and divine decree; and having an illicit relationship with women and storing their pictures in his phone.”
The organization notes that Fayadh denied the charges during his trial, which consisted of six hearings held between February and May 2014. Three defense witnesses also contested the testimony of the man who reported Fayadh to the religious police, and said that he went to the authorities following a personal dispute with Fayadh.
Fayadh told The Guardian that the complaint was made after an argument with another artist about contemporary art.
Fayadh was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes, according to Human Rights Watch, but the court rejected the prosecutor’s request for the death penalty.
That was reversed after the prosecutor appealed the sentence.
“The case moves next to the appeals court. The sentence must be approved by the appeals court and the Supreme Court,” the group stated.
The oil-rich kingdom regularly executes people for even nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, often in public beheadings.
Saudi Arabia has executed more than 150 people so far this year, according to Human Rights Watch.
It has one of the highest rates of executions in the world.
In September, a court upheld the death sentence against Ali al-Nimr, who was arrested for participating in protests when he was 16. The sentence “stipulates that al-Nimr should be beheaded and that his headless body should be strung up for public display,” according to Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle.
There may also be a political dimension to Fayadh’s case.
His supporters told The Guardian that the poet is being “punished by hardliners for posting a video online showing the religious police … lashing a man in public.”
Months before his first arrest, Fayadh curated the underground exhibition Mostly Visible, to coincide with the Jeddah Art Week organized by Sotheby’s.
“Our goal was to show the contrast, the other side, the real side of how art can be,” Fayadh wrote at the time, “simple, authentic, with little funding and lots of self-effort, with the soul of teamwork, inspired by our own culture, our own lifestyle, issues and concerns, and raising the level of awareness of our society by drawing the attention to the social, popular and genuine culture.”
The photo at the top of this page, found on Fayadh’s Instagram account, shows him with Chris Dercon, the outgoing director of the Tate Modern in London, at the exhibition.
Fayadh also co-curated a show at the Venice Biennale, a major international art event, that same year.
His supporters told The New York Times that Fayadh’s role in promoting the nascent contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia also may have put him in ill favor with the religious police. Though he was born in the Gulf country, his status as a stateless Palestinian made him an especially vulnerable target, they say.
An online petition in support of Fayadh created a day after the death sentence ruling has gained 16,000 signatures.
One hundred Arab intellectuals have also called for the poet’s release.