Saudi court reduces Palestinian poet's 'apostasy' sentence

Saudi court reduces Palestinian poet's 'apostasy' sentence
A Saudi court has reduced a death sentence against Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh for 'apostasy' to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, his lawyer said Tuesday.
2 min read
03 February, 2016
Fayadh was accused of apostasy [Facebook]

A court in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reduced a death sentence against a Palestinian poet convicted of "apostasy", giving him eight years in prison and 800 lashes instead, his lawyer said.

The court in the southwestern city of Abha "overturned the previous sentence to execute him for apostasy," the lawyer for Ashraf Fayadh said in a statement he posted on Twitter.

The ruling follows widespread international criticism of the rising number of executions by the ultra-conservative kingdom.

According to the new sentence, Fayadh is to receive 800 lashes, in sessions of 50 lashes at a time, his lawyer Abdul Rahman al-Lahim said.

The poet has also been ordered to repent for his "apostasy" through an announcement in official media.

The defence objects to the new ruling and has asked for Fayadh's release, Lahim added.

A lower court in November issued the rare death sentence for apostasy, apparently after an appeal.

That decision overturned another court ruling in 2014 sentencing Fayadh to four years in prison and 800 lashes, Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch said at the time.

The complaint against Fayadh stemmed from a cultural discussion group at a cafe in Abha.

"What Ashraf claims is that he had a falling out with other members of the group," said Coogle, a Middle East researcher for the New York-based HRW.

One man claimed he heard Fayadh say things against God, while a religious scholar accused Fayadh of blasphemy in a volume of poetry he had written a decade previously, Coogle said.

At the first trial, witnesses for Fayadh testified that the man who complained was probably "out to get him".

Under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law, murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death. In 2015 the kingdom executed 153 people.

In 2012, Saudi Arabia arrested blogger and activist Raif Badawi who faced several charges including insulting Islam using electronic channels, and apostasy - which carries an automatic death sentence.

A judge ordered his website to be shut down for criticising Saudi Arabia's religious police.

In 2013, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. His sentence was extended in 2014, and, in mid-January 2015, it was passed to the Saudi Supreme Court for review.

Amnesty International says the number of executions in Saudi Arabia last year was the highest for two decades.

Agencies contributed to this report.