Lucy Popescu

Ashraf Fayadh

Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is once more in the international spotlight after the execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. According to Amnesty International’s latest global death penalty report, Saudi Arabia is among the top three executioners worldwide, surpassed only by China and Iran.

Another prominent example of Saudi Arabia’s lack of tolerance for freedom of expression and its ongoing persecution of free thinkers is the death sentence against Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh, who was convicted of apostasy after allegedly renouncing Islam in his poems. Fayadh is a member of the British–Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia, and has curated exhibitions in Jeddah and at the Venice Biennale. He was first detained in August 2013 following a complaint to the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue about his collection of poems Instructions Within (published by the Beirut-based Dar al-Farabi in 2008 and later banned in Saudi Arabia).

The disputed poems include the following lines (translated by Mona Kareem):

prophets have retired
so do not wait for yours to come to you
and for you,
for you the monitors bring their daily reports
and get their high salaries
how important money is
for a life of dignity

The complaint was made by another Saudi citizen, who claimed that Fayadh was promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people. He was released on bail but rearrested in January 2014, when he was charged with apostasy for questioning religion and spreading atheist thought with his poetry. He was also accused of violating the country’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law for allegedly taking and storing photos of women on his mobile phone. In May he was sentenced to four years in prison and eight hundred lashes for possessing illicit images of women on his phone.

Initially the General Court accepted Fayadh’s apology for the charges of apostasy and deemed the punishment to be sufficient. However, the Court of Appeal recommended that Fayadh be sentenced for apostasy and returned his case to the General Court. He was retried in November last year and a new panel of judges reversed the previous ruling, declaring that repentance was not enough to avoid the death penalty. Throughout, Fayadh was denied access to a lawyer – a clear violation of international human rights law, as well as Saudi Arabia’s national laws.

PEN and other lobby groups believe that all charges against Fayadh should be dropped. Writers worldwide have condemned the death sentence and over a thousand of them have signed a letter to the Saudi authorities calling for the release of Fayadh and others detained in Saudi Arabia in violation of their right to freedom of expression. The letter states: ‘It is not a crime to hold an idea, however unpopular, nor is it a crime to express opinion peacefully. Every individual has the freedom to believe or not believe. Freedom of conscience is an essential human right.’ Signatories include Adonis, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simić, John Ashbery, Ghassan Zaqtan, Golan Haji, Manal Al-Sheikh, Najwan Darwish, Carol Ann Duffy, George Szirtes and Simon Schama. The letter was delivered to the Saudi Embassy in London on 27 November 2015 following a vigil for Fayadh, and for imprisoned blogger Raef Badawi and his lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair (LR, February 2013 & July 2014).

Badawi was convicted of ‘insulting Islam’, ‘adopting liberal thought’ and ‘founding a liberal website’ after creating an online forum, Liberal Saudi Network, aimed at fostering political and social debate in Saudi Arabia. In May 2014 he was sentenced to ten years in prison, one thousand lashes and a fine of one million Saudi riyals (approximately £158,000).

On 7 July 2014, Abu al-Khair, a well-known advocate for human rights and free expression, was convicted under Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism law of ‘undermining the regime and officials’, ‘inflaming public opinion’ and ‘distorting the kingdom’s reputation’. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, to be followed by a fifteen-year ban on travelling abroad.

In 2011 Abu al-Khair was named by Forbes magazine as one of the top hundred most influential Arabs on Twitter. A year later, Abu al-Khair and his wife, Samar, Raef Badawi’s sister, began hosting weekly gatherings in their living room. These were intended as a safe space where teachers, religious scholars, lawyers and students could discuss sensitive issues freely. The meetings were given the Arabic name Sumoud, which translates as ‘steadfastness’ or ‘resistance’. Abu al-Khair remains in Al-Ha’ir Prison, a notorious maximum-security compound south of Riyadh, where both political and criminal prisoners are held.

Readers might like to send appeals condemning the death sentence imposed on Ashraf Fayadh and calling for his immediate release; urging the authorities to also release Raef Badawi and Walid Abu al-Khair, who are being held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and calling for the three detainees to be granted all necessary medical treatment and access to their families and lawyers of their choice.

Appeals to be addressed to:

HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
30 Charles Street, London W1J 5DZ
Email via the website:

His Excellency Shaykh Dr Mohammed bin Abdulkareem Al-Issa
Ministry of Justice
Fax: + 966 11 401 1741 / + 966 11 402 0311

Readers can also sign Amnesty’s petition calling for the release of Fayadh by visiting

Royal Shakespeare Company


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