Last week, Ashraf Fayadh, a poet, artist, curator, and member of British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia, was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy.
Fayadh was first detained in August 2013 in relation to his collection of poems Instructions Within. He was released on bail but rearrested in January 2014. Months later, in May 2014, the General Court of Abha found proof that Fayadh had committed apostasy but had repented for it. The charge was dropped, but he was nevertheless sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in relation to numerous charges related to blasphemy.
Eighteen months later a judge has declared that repentance was not sufficient grounds for the apostasy charge to be dropped, and reversed the previous ruling. Last week, Fayadh was sentenced to death.
In the days since, rights groups and international organisations have strongly condemned the sentence, while poets and writers, including Ruth Padel, Simon Schama, and George Szirtes are among the individuals who have spoken out on Fayadh’s behalf.
George Szirtes said:
Opinions are not crimes. Incitement can be a crime, hate speech may be a crime, but opinions are not. That is precisely why organisations such as PEN exist. Any sentence for an individual opinion brings shame on Saudi Arabia: a death sentence brings maximum shame.
Ruth Padel said:
In this appalling and unjust sentence, the Saudi Arabian government and legislature demonstrate their weakness as well as their barbarity. As Shelley said, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; poets witness to the moral landscape they see around them. For the Saudi government to sentence to death the clear-sighted, sensitive and forward looking Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh is to condemn themselves, in the eyes of the world, to a criminal unfitness to govern.
Simon Schama said:
A society reveals itself as barbaric when it criminalises religious or irreligious belief. It reveals itself as completely beyond the pale when it condemns a man to death for scepticism. This is the imminent fate of Ashraf Fayadh whose offence has been engagement in contemporary art. Anyone with a conscience should abhor the sentence and shun those responsible as inhuman.
To show our grave concern for Fayadh, PEN is now co-ordinating a statement of support to be signed by poets and writers from around the world. Please email email@example.com if you would like to add your name.
We will be hand-delivering this letter alongside a statement signed by concerned organisations to the Saudi Embassy in London on Friday morning, 27 November, following a vigil for Ashraf Fayadh, and two other cases of particular concern, PEN Pinter Prize winner Raif Badawi and his lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair. Do join us if you can!