SAUDI ARABIA – PALESTINE Riyadh: Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh released, convicted of apostasy

The 42-year-old artist was first sentenced to death, later commuted to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. He was due to be released in October 2021, but was released a few days ago. The Court of Appeal overturned the first-degree acquittal and sentenced the former imam of Mecca who criticized bin Salman to eight years in prison.

Riyadh () – The Saudi authorities released – long after the deadlines had expired – the poet of Palestinian origin Ashraf Fayadh, sentenced in 2016 to eight years in prison (and 800 lashes) for apostasy after commuting the initial sentence that established the death penalty. The information about the 42-year-old artist and intellectual, “whose sentence expires in October 2021”, was released by the London-based Alqst human rights movement, which has a dense network of informants in the Wahhabi kingdom.

The reasons for Riyadh’s decision in recent days are unknown and there are no official statements in this regard. However, for many relatives and friends it is a moment of joy and satisfaction because justice has been done -albeit with considerable delay- in the face of an arbitrary and authoritarian verdict by the judges. According to various sources and activist movements, Ashraf Fayadh did indeed leave prison on August 23.

The Palestinian-born poet, born in Saudi Arabia to refugee parents from Gaza, was arrested in August 2013 because a Saudi citizen accused him of promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas. He was released the next day, but jailed again in January 2014 and charged with apostasy.

Activists and international NGOs affirm that the accusations are related to his artistic activity and his collection of poems – Instructions Within, published in 2008 – in which, according to critics, he questions the dictates of religion and spreads ideas related to atheism. Riyadh authorities also charged him with violating the Internet crime law for storing photos of women taken in public on his cell phone. The death sentence was handed down on November 17, 2015 but was commuted in February of the following year to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, applied in 16 batches, in a trial that many considered “deplorable”.

As an artist and intellectual, Ashraf Fayadh had represented the Saudi kingdom at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The texts of the poems talk about the plight of Palestinian refugees, exile, love relationships, death, and more generally, about the feeling of absence. His works, written in Arabic, have been translated into French to give them greater international significance. On one occasion he wrote: “Home: a piece of paper slipped into the wallet. Money: a paper where they drew portraits of caudillos. Photo: Represents you until you return. And I return: a myth… that the stories of grandmothers speak of”.

The good news of his release coincided, moreover, with the conviction of a prominent personality from the Wahhabi kingdom. Indeed, the Court of Appeals has imposed 10 years in prison on the former imam of Mecca Sheikh Saleh al Talib, annulling the acquittal of the judges of first instance. The first arrest took place in 2018, without official motives, after criticizing in a sermon the General Authority for Leisure, the government entity in charge of reforming the art, entertainment and events industry, which has had a considerable development in recent years. The condemnation of the events, which were described as deviating from the radical and Wahhabi vision of Islam, was certainly not appreciated by Mohammed bin Salman, the mastermind behind the reforms of recent years and the first to allow cinemas, concerts and shows in the country. Human rights activists and NGOs report that the former imam of Mecca is just one of dozens of people, including members of the royal family, who ended up in jail or disappeared for opposing the crown prince.

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