A Saudi court ruled this week that instead of beheading Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, he will now face flogging and eight years in prison as punishment for what state religious authorities consider to be crimes against Islam.
According to The Guardian, the change in sentencing came after an appeal filed by Fayadh’s lawyer. The appeal argued that Fayadh had been denied a fair trial, was convicted based on questionable testimony and that he shows evidence of mental illness.
Despite the change in sentence, the court maintains Fayadh’s guilt. In addition to 800 lashes administered 50 times each on 16 separate occasions during his imprisonment, the court has ruled that he must publicly repent on Saudi state media.
Fayadh was first arrested in the Saudi city of Abha in August 2013 following a dispute in a local cafe. According to a review of court documents by Human Rights Watch, members of Saudi Arabia’s Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, responded to an accusation that Fayadh “had made obscene comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Saudi state.”
The accuser also alleged that Fayadh’s book of poetry, Instructions Within, “promoted atheism and unbelief.”
He was released after one day, but Fayadh’s friends told The Guardian that after the religious police failed to demonstrate that his poetry was atheist propaganda, they berated him for smoking and having long hair.
Fayadh was then re-arrested in January 2014 and accused of a range of religious offenses.
He was also accused of having illicit relationships with women whose photos were discovered on his phone.
During six hearings between February and May 2014, Fayadh maintained his innocence. Defense witnesses, including the uncle of his initial accuser, testified that the accuser was lying.
Fayadh’s recent appeal asserted that the “judiciary cannot rely on [the accuser’s evidence] due to the possibility that it is malicious.”
Regarding his book Instructions Within, Fayadh told The Guardian last year that it was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Fayadh also explained that the photos of women found on his phone were of fellow artists, some of them posted on Instagram during Jeddah Art Week, a contemporary art event in Saudi Arabia.
At the conclusion of his first trial, Fayadh expressed repentance for anything that religious authorities may have considered insulting in his writings and was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes.
But following an appeal by the prosecution, Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy in November last year.
According to The Guardian, Fayadh’s father suffered a stroke after hearing of his son’s death sentence and died last month as a result.
Authorities prevented Fayadh from visiting his father before his death and barred him from attending the funeral.
Saudi courts have become notorious for issuing harsh sentences on religious grounds. In 2014, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his criticism of the state’s political and religious leaders.
The first of his public floggings last year was met with international outcry. He has not been publicly beaten since, but remains in prison.
Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States and other Western governments, has one of the highest execution rates in the world, with more than 150 in 2015, and often administers the punishment through public beheadings.
According to Human Rights Watch, the vast majority are for murder and drug crimes, but Saudi courts occasionally hand down death sentences for religiously defined “crimes” such as “apostasy” and “sorcery.”
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
While Fayadh’s lawyer welcomed this latest revocation of the death sentence, he told The Guardian that his client remains innocent and that he would seek to be released on bail while further appeals are filed.
Now aged 35, Fayadh was a rising star in the budding Saudi arts scene. A member of the UK-Saudi artists group Edge of Arabia, he has curated shows in Jeddah and at the 2013 Venice Biennale, showcasing new generations of Saudi artists.
Many prominent writers, poets, actors and other artists have appealed for Fayadh’s release.
Notable supporters include Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern museum in London, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and actor Helen Mirren.
Following Fayadh’s death sentence in November, dozens of artists issued a letter challenging Saudi authorities and calling on other governments to apply pressure on his behalf.
While relieved that his life has been spared, Fayadh’s supporters remain outraged at his treatment by Saudi authorities and continue to demand his freedom.
“The Saudi courts have simply prolonged this injustice by imposing a lengthy prison sentence and abhorrent physical punishment,” reads a statement by Carles Torner, executive director of leading writers’ association PEN International.
“Ashraf Fayadh has already served time in prison simply for exercising his legitimate right to freedom of expression,” Torner adds.