Saudi Arabia spares Palestinian poet’s life, but he’ll get 800 lashes

February 04, 2016 02:44 am | Updated 02:44 am IST - RIYADH:

A court in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday revised the punishment given to a stateless Palestinian poet convicted of apostasy, reducing it from death to eight years in prison, 800 lashes and public repentance, his lawyer said.

The poet, Ashraf Fayadh, had been sentenced to beheading because of the apostasy conviction announced in November, based partly on his published poetry.

The sentence came near the end of a year in which the Saudi authorities carried out the highest number of executions here in two decades, and just before a mass execution of 47 men on terrorism charges. Fayadh (35) was not a known dissident.

He was born in Saudi Arabia to a stateless family of Palestinian origin, meaning that has no citizenship; he carries identification documents issued by Egypt.

He was active in Saudi Arabia’s small contemporary arts scene and had worked to make it better known.

His legal troubles began when he was arrested in 2013 in the city of Abha in south-western Saudi Arabia after an argument in a cafe. He was released without charge but re-arrested later and accused of blasphemy and illicit relationships with women. The charges were based on photographs and the contents of his poetry book published abroad years before, according to court documents.

He was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 blows. But that sentence was thrown out on appeal, and Fayadh was retried and sentenced to death.

Saudi courts have given similarly harsh sentences to those they see as a threat to the religious nature of the state. In 2014, they sentenced Raef Badawi, a liberal blogger who had criticized the religious establishment, to 10 years in prison, a large fine and 1,000 blows, to be delivered in multiple floggings. The public administration of the first 50 blows last year caused international condemnation, and Badawi has not been publicly caned since, although he remains in prison.

Fayadh’s lawyer, Abdulrahman al-Lahim, appealed the case, and the court announced the new sentence on Tuesday, according to a statement Lahim posted on his Twitter account.

The statement said the judges still considered Fayadh guilty but had withdrawn the death penalty, sentencing him instead to eight years in prison and 800 blows, to be administered 50 at a time. Fayadh would also have to publicly denounce his writings in official Saudi news media, the statement said.

Mr. Lahim said he would file a new appeal. — New York Times News Service

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