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Poet Ashraf Fayadh Is Appealing the Death Sentence Handed Down by a Saudi Court

Ashraf Fayadh friends and family say that the poet—who is accused of apostasy and writing love poems that were allegedly anti-Islamic—is formally fighting his sentence.

Ashraf Fayadh (left) with Edge of Arabia artist colleagues Ahmed Mater (center) and Stephen Stapleton (right), attending a contemporary exhibition of Middle Eastern art at the British Museum in London in 2006.

The legal team for Ashraf Fayadh, the poet sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy and writing love poems that were allegedly anti-Islamic, is appealing those charges, according to Fayadh's family, friends, and sources close to his lawyer.

Fayadh, who is of Palestinian origin and is not a Saudi citizen, was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in 2014, but his initial appeal was tossed out and he was retried. He flatly denies the allegations against him, and some close to him say that there is still hope he will not be executed.


"Things are going in the right direction," said Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, who spoke to Fayadh over the telephone recently from his prison. "This pressure worked very well—the news—all of this was good," he added, referring to the worldwide media pressure and outcry from human rights groups in response to Fayadh's sentencing. "He's OK. He's waiting. He's feeling much better because everyone is with him."

"[Fayadh is] not just a Palestinian poet accused of atheism—he's an extraordinary human being," said Stephen Stapleton, co-founder of Edge of Arabia, a contemporary art collective that Fayadh worked closely with. Like many others, Stapleton is vocal about Fayadh's innocence and thinks that the Saudi courts wrongly interpreted his colleague's poetry.

"The charges are outrageous," he added. "I can't see how a verdict has been made on this poem—it's a subjective interpretation. The case against him is weak. The charges are not right and they're not true."

Fayadh's legal team filed an appeal by email on Saturday, Stapleton said, but the hard copies of the paperwork is "going through system and will take a few days until officially accepted." An appeals court needs to approve his case before it can move to Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court. At the top of the legal food chain is King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who then has to sign off on the final ruling.

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Fayadh's conviction rested heavily on a book of his poetry and the witness testimony of three people: a man who reported Fayadh for blasphemous remarks in a Abha café in 2013, and the two religious police officers who subsequently arrested him. Saudi authorities also found photos on Fayadh's cell phone that were used as evidence to also charge him with having illicit relationships with women.

Fayadh's beheading sentence follows an alarmingly high number of executions in Saudi Arabia this year. Beheadings—often public—are the sanctioned form of execution in Saudi Arabia, where sharia law commands secular and political life. Capital punishment is used in crimes including murder, rape, armed robbery, and adultery. According to Human Rights Watch, the country has executed 155 people so far in 2015.

"It's the highest [rate of executions] in 20 years," said Adam Coogle, a Middle East expert for Human Rights Watch who's based in Jordan and has been monitoring Fayadh's case. After nearly a month without any executions, Coogle said, the kingdom carried out three in the past week.

Though the kingdom has made headlines for months thanks to its executions, Coogle thinks that the Saudi government is slowing its pace as 2016 approaches. "The fourth quarter of the year has been slow [for executions]," he said. "In the middle of the year we were predicting over 200 because that's the rate they've been on."

As Fayadh appeals his sentence, some are urging the Obama administration to call for a transparent appeals process, a request which might have weight given America's longstanding alliance with the Saudis.

"Given the United States' close ties to Saudi Arabia, we're in a position to exert pressure on the Saudi government," said Gretchen Head, a Yale University literature professor and expert in free speech and blasphemy in Islamic culture. "And if we don't, there's no way to pretend that we're not, as a nation, complicit [if Fayadh is executed]. We regularly turn a blind eye to the human rights violations of Arab states we consider our allies."

Coogle, however, thinks it's unlikely that the US will take any official position on the matter. "I wouldn't hope for much a response from the US," he said. "They've never been particularly good on Saudi human rights issues."

Dorian Geiger is a Canadian multimedia journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and is freelance crime contributor for VICE. He's based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.