08/25/2022, 13.11
SAUDI ARABIA - PALESTINE
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Riyadh frees Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, convicted of apostasy

The 42-year-old artist was initially given the death penalty, which was later commuted to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. He was scheduled for release in October 2021, but was only released in recent days. The Court of Appeal overturns the first instance acquittal and imposes eight years in prison on the former Imam of Mecca, who was critical of bin Salman. 

Riyadh (AsiaNews) - The Saudi authorities have released from prison - well beyond the expiry of his term - the Palestinian-born poet Ashraf Fayadh, who was sentenced in 2016 to eight years in prison (and 800 lashes) for apostasy, with the sentence commuted from the first sentence, which included the death penalty. According to the pro-human rights activist movement Alqst, which is based in London and has a dense network of informants in the Wahhabi kingdom, the 42-year-old artist and intellectual 'whose sentence expired in October 2021'.

The reasons for the decision taken by Riyadh in recent days are unknown at the moment and there are no official statements on the matter. However, for many relatives and friends, it is a moment of joy and satisfaction because justice is being done - albeit considerably late - with respect to an arbitrary and authoritarian verdict of the judges. According to various sources and activist movements, the release from prison dates back to 23 August.

The poet of Palestinian origin - he was born in Saudi Arabia to native Gaza refugee parents - was arrested in August 2013, after a Saudi citizen accused him of fomenting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas. He was released the next day, but imprisoned again in January 2014 and indicted for apostasy.

Activists and international NGOs claim that the charges are related to his artistic activity and his collection of poems - Instructions Within, published in 2008 - in which, according to critics, he questions the dictates of religion and spreads ideas related to atheism. The authorities in Riyadh also tried him for violating the law against online crime by taking and keeping photos of women filmed in public on his mobile phone. The death sentence was handed down on 17 November 2015, then commuted in February the following year to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, imposed in 16 rounds, in a trial deemed 'deplorable' by many.

As an artist and intellectual, Ashraf Fayadh had represented the Saudi kingdom at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The poems' texts deal with, among other things, the plight of Palestinian refugees, exile, love affairs, death and, more generally, the feeling of absence. His works, in Arabic, have been translated into French to have an even more international scope. On one occasion he wrote: 'Home: a card slipped into a wallet. Money: paper on which portraits of leaders have been drawn. Photo: represents you until your return. And the return: a myth... mentioned in grandmothers' stories'. 

In the face of an excellent release, these days also see the sentencing of a very prominent personality of the Wahhabi kingdom. The Court of Appeal has in fact sentenced former Mecca imam Sheikh Saleh al Talib to 10 years in prison, overturning the acquittal of the first instance judges. The first arrest dates back to 2018, however, without official reasons and after he had delivered a sermon critical of the General Authority for Entertainment, a government body in charge of reforming the arts, entertainment and events industry, which has undergone considerable development in recent years.

The condemnation of the events, defined as deviant from the radical and Wahhabi vision of Islam, was certainly not appreciated by Mohammed bin Salman, the mastermind of the reforms of recent years, the first to open up to cinemas, concerts and shows. Activists and pro-human rights NGOs report that the former imam of Mecca is just one of dozens of people, including members of the royal family, who have ended up in jail or disappeared for their opposition to the crown prince. 

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