Worldwide reading held for poet sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia

Worldwide reading held for poet sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia

A worldwide reading is being held in support of Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet, artist and curator living in Saudi Arabia, who has been sentenced to death for the abandonment of his Muslim faith.

The worldwide reading, organised by the international literature festival Berlin, is being held in various international locations today (14th January). Organisations hosting events include The European Parliament in Brussels, and various contingents of Amnesty International and PEN operating in all corners of the globe.

English PEN is participating in the reading in partnership with the Mosaic Rooms from 6pm - 6.30pm tonight, asking participants to read selected poems and other texts by writers including Hassan Abdulrazzak, Selma Dabbagh, Peter Kennard, AL Kennedy, Ruth Padel and Stephen Watts, to show solidarity with Fayadh and help raise awareness of his plight.

PEN’s petition on his behalf, meanwhile, has been signed by over 1,000 poets and writers, including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize, Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

Calling for Fayadh's "immediate and unconditional release" the petition says Fayadh's sentence is “the latest example of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s lack of tolerance for freedom of expression and ongoing persecution of free thinkers”.

Fayadh, 33, has been described as a "key figure" in bringing Saudi contemporary art to a global audience, having co-curated a Saudi art show at the 2013 Venice Biennale and having been active promoting Saudi art through his work with British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia.

His imprisonment for "apostacy" -  the abandonment of faith through word or deed - came about after he was accused of blasphemous remarks and for renouncing Islam during an argument with another artist in a cafe - accusations which Fayadh denies.

He was first detained by the country's religious police in 2013, before being rearrested in January 2014 and tried and retried in May 2014 and November 2015 respectively. He was denied access to a lawyer throughout.

His original sentence, given May 2014 by a general court in Abha, was four years in prison and 800 lashes for apostasy. But, after his appeal was dismissed, Fayadh was retried and in November 2015, a new panel of judges ruled he should be executed.

Fayadh told the Guardian in November: “I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death."

Fayadh's supporters speculate he is really being punished for a video he posted showing the religious police in Abha publicly lashing a man. They suspect he is being targeted, also, because he is a Palestinian refugee. 

Director of English PEN, Jo Glanville, urged the UK government "to speak out" on Fayadh's behalf of "as a matter of urgency" on 20th November; while Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, called the sentence "outrageous". Tripathi added: "It is not a crime to hold an idea, however unpopular, nor is it a crime to express opinion peacefully. Saudi Arabia must unconditionally release Fayadh, as well as Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair".

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression programmes for PEN American Center, said: "We are outraged that Fayadh’s retrial—which should have led to the absurd charges against him being dropped entirely—has instead resulted in a death sentence. We call on the Saudi authorities to cease handing down such draconian sentences for the supposed 'crime' of free expression, and to release those already convicted on similar grounds."

English PEN also continues to campaign for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who has been serving a 10-year prison sentence, plus 1,000 lashes, since May 2014 for "violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought". He was named as the 2015 International Writer of Courage last year.

Picture: Amnesty International.