A Palestinian poet has been sentenced to death by a court in Saudi Arabia on grounds that he renounced the faith of Islam. Ashraf Fayadh was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014, however, after his appeal was dismissed a new panel of judges ordered his execution.
The 35-year-old poet was a leading member of Saudi Arabia's contemporary art scene before he was detained in 2013. Fayadh was also a member of the Saudi coalition of artists, the Edge of Arabia, known for putting on bold artistic projects.
Speaking to the Guardian about his death sentence, Fayadh said: "I was really shocked but it was expected, though I didn't do anything that deserves death."
Fayadh's friends and supporters believe that the artist is being punished because of a video he posted online that showed religious police in Saudi Arabia lashing a man in public. It is believed that the religious police first took action against the Palestinian refugee after receiving complaints that he criticised Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as distributing a book of his poetry promoting atheism.
According to Fayadh, the complaint came as a result of a dispute with another artist. The artist maintains that the book being referred to is about his life as a Palestinian refugee and "cultural and philosophical issues". He believes that "religious extremists" have twisted the message to portray it as a book of "destructive ideas against God".
Fayadh has denied blasphemy and insisted he is a faithful Muslim. He said he does not have legal representation and has been given 30 days to appeal the sentence.
Writing about a project he was involved with during his time as a member of the Edge of Arabia, Fayadh said that there had been a radical transformation in Saudi art and that a new generation of artists in the country had begun to formulate art in their own way.
He wrote: "The radical transformation in Saudi art... is now more affiliated with its roots, to the real culture represented by the awareness of the different living conditions in Saudi Arabia."
Fayadh is not the first Saudi citizen to be sentenced to death because of artistic expression. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi sparked international concern when he was arrested in 2012 on charges of "insulting Islam through electronic channels". In 2014 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, with the first 50 lashes issued in January 2015.