Middle East

Ashraf Fayadh: Saudi court quashes poet's death sentence

Ashraf Fayadh (undated photo) Image copyright AP
Image caption Ashraf Fayadh is credited with taking Saudi contemporary art to a global audience

A Saudi Arabian court has overturned the death sentence of a Palestinian poet convicted of apostasy.

Ashraf Fayadh was instead sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, his lawyer said.

Mr Fayadh has denied the charges, claiming that another man had made false accusations against him.

His death sentence caused an international outcry with hundreds of writers, actors and artists appealing for his release.

Mr Fayadh's lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahim, said the court in the south-western city of Abha had also ruled that his client would have to issue an announcement of repentance in official media. The lashes are to be carried out in 16 sessions, he added.

Mr Lahim said the defence would appeal against the new ruling and ask for Mr Fayadh's release.

Mr Fayadh was arrested in August 2013 after a Saudi citizen alleged he was promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas, according to Amnesty International.

He was released the next day but rearrested in January 2014 and charged with apostasy - the renunciation of religious belief.

Global protest

The charge apparently related to his collection of poetry, Instructions Within, published in 2008, which critics said questioned religion and spread atheist thought.

Mr Fayadh, 35, was also charged with violating Saudi Arabia's anti-cyber crime law by taking and storing photos of women on his mobile phone.

In April 2014, a court in Abha sentenced Mr Fayadh to four years in prison and 800 lashes for violating the anti-cyber crime law. But it found his repentance in relation to the charge of apostasy to be satisfactory and not requiring further punishment.

However, an appeals court overturned the ruling and sent the case back to the original court which sentenced him to death for apostasy on 17 November 2015.

In January, hundreds of writers took part in a worldwide reading of selected poems and other texts in support of Mr Fayadh.

The International Literature Festival Berlin called on the US and UK governments to intervene on Mr Fayadh's behalf and also demanded that the UN suspend Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council "until its abysmal record on upholding civil liberties improves".

Mr Fayadh, who was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian refugee parents, is credited with taking Saudi contemporary art to a global audience.

Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic code mean the crimes of murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death.

Last year, the kingdom executed 153 people, according to a tally by the AFP news agency.

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