November 27, 2015   |   Carey Wedler
November 27, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) Abha, Saudi Arabia — In 2015, the Saudi Arabian kingdom made a chilling name for itself over its chronic habit of executing subjects who express their views. Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for operating a blog authorities accused of insulting Islam. Ali al-Nimr, a young man barely out of his teens, was sentenced to crucifixion and beheading for attending an anti-government protest during the Arab Spring. Now, the kingdom has sentenced another man to death by beheading, namely for love poems authorities claim denounce the Islamic faith.
Ashraf Fayadh, 35, was born in Saudi Arabia but is a Palestinian refugee. He was arrested by the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — Saudi religious police — after a man reported him following a personal dispute. According to Human Rights Watch, court documents say the man claimed 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 arrested in the southwestern city of Abha in August 2013, and while he was in custody, authorities found pictures on his phone of women he met at an art show. Though he was released after only a day, he was rearrested on January 1, 2014. Prosecutors promptly charged him 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.”
Fayadh denied the allegations during the trial, which unfolded over several sessions from February to May of last year. Three witnesses testified that the charges were unwarranted and added they had never heard Fayadh say anything blasphemous.
Fayadh, who endured the trial without a lawyer, also testified that his 2008 book of love poems, Instructions Within, was not written with the intention of insulting Islam. Nevertheless, he apologized for anything in his book the authorities deemed inappropriate. “I am repentant to God most high and I am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case,” he told the court. As he told the Guardian, the book is “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
In May, Fayadh was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes, but the court stopped short of sentencing him to death due to the “hostility” between Fayadh and his accuser. The prosecutor was unsatisfied and filed an appeal. The appeal was sent back to the General Court of Abha, a lower court, and on November 17, a new panel of judges found Fayadh guilty of apostasy — the abandonment of his religion.
The court ruled that “Repentance is a work of the heart relevant to matter of the judiciary of the hereafter; it is not the focus of the earthly judiciary,” as it sentenced him to beheading.
“I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death,” Fayadh told the Guardian. Some of his supporters believe his punishment is retaliation from religious hardliners because he posted footage to the internet of religious police publicly inflicting lashes on a suspect, though this was not included in the official charges.
The ruling must be approved by the appeals court and Saudi Arabia’s supreme court, but it is difficult to predict the final outcome. The kingdom has a reputation of refusing to offer mercy — unless there is international outrage. It caved on its planned execution of an older British man who sold wine in the country, where it is prohibited. Saudi Arabia also backed off its decision to crucify al-Nimr.
Even so, those punished by the Saudi state are not always so lucky. Though the kingdom temporarily suspended lashes for Badawi after global outcry, it intends to move forward with his debilitating flogging [Update: As of 11/28, reports suggest Badawi will be pardoned after international outcry]. Human Rights Watch noted that earlier this year, a man was executed for posting a video to Youtube in which he burned pages of the Quran. Though he was reportedly mentally ill, he, like Fayadh, was also convicted of apostasy.
Many individuals and organizations have spoken out against Fayadh’s conviction. Writers, artists, musicians, the Index on Censorship, literary association PEN International, and the International Association of Art Critics signed a joint statement condemning the conviction.
Amnesty International issued an urgent call for his release, deeming him a “prisoner of conscience” and decrying his lack of legal counsel throughout the trial.
The brief report also highlights the kingdom’s broader problems with execution:
“Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific executioners in the world, putting more than 2,200 people to death between 1985 and 2015. Between 1 January and 9 November 2015, it executed at least 151 people, almost half of them for offences that did not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’ for which the death penalty can be imposed under international law.”
Human Rights Watch also strongly condemned Fayadh’s conviction. “Regardless of what Fayadh said or didn’t say, Saudi Arabia should stop arresting people for their personal beliefs,” argued Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s Middle East director. “The fact that Ashraf Fayadh is facing the prospect of being beheaded only adds to the outrageousness of this court ruling.”
As these groups work to prevent his beheading, Fayadh has expressed gratitude and apparent level-headedness. “I am grateful for everyone working on my behalf. To be honest, I was surprised because I felt alone here. I am in good health. I’m struggling to follow all the developments,” he said.
“People should know I am not against anyone here, I am an artist and I am just looking for my freedom.”
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