Friday, February 5, 2016
Ryan Rodrick Beiler
A Saudi court ruled this week that instead of beheading Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, he will now face flogging and eight years in prison as punishment for what state religious authorities consider to be crimes against Islam.
According to The Guardian, the change in sentencing came after an appeal filed by Fayadh’s lawyer. The appeal argued that Fayadh had been denied a fair trial, was convicted based on questionable testimony and that he shows evidence of mental illness.
Despite the change in sentence, the court maintains Fayadh’s guilt. In addition to 800 lashes administered 50 times each on 16 separate occasions during his imprisonment, the court has ruled that he must publicly repent on Saudi state media.
Fayadh was first arrested in the Saudi city of Abha in August 2013 following a dispute in a local cafe. According to a review of court documents by Human Rights Watch, members of Saudi Arabia’s Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, responded to an accusation that Fayadh “had made obscene comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Saudi state.”
The accuser also alleged that Fayadh’s book of poetry, Instructions Within, “promoted atheism and unbelief.”
He was released after one day, but Fayadh’s friends told The Guardian that after the religious police failed to demonstrate that his poetry was atheist propaganda, they berated him for smoking and having long hair.
Fayadh was then re-arrested in January 2014 and accused of a range of religious offenses.
He was also accused of having illicit relationships with women whose photos were discovered on his phone.
During six hearings between February and May 2014, Fayadh maintained his innocence. Defense witnesses, including the uncle of his initial accuser, testified that the accuser was lying.
Fayadh’s recent appeal asserted that the “judiciary cannot rely on [the accuser’s evidence] due to the possibility that it is malicious.”
Regarding his book Instructions Within, Fayadh told The Guardian last year that it was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Fayadh also explained that the photos of women found on his phone were of fellow artists, some of them posted on Instagram during Jeddah Art Week, a contemporary art event in Saudi Arabia.
At the conclusion of his first trial, Fayadh expressed repentance for anything that religious authorities may have considered insulting in his writings and was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes.
But following an appeal by the prosecution, Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy in November last year.
According to The Guardian, Fayadh’s father suffered a stroke after hearing of his son’s death sentence and died last month as a result.
Authorities prevented Fayadh from visiting his father before his death and barred him from attending the funeral.
Saudi courts have become notorious for issuing harsh sentences on religious grounds. In 2014, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his criticism of the state’s political and religious leaders.
The first of his public floggings last year was met with international outcry. He has not been publicly beaten since, but remains in prison.
Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States and other Western governments, has one of the highest execution rates in the world, with more than 150 in 2015, and often administers the punishment through public beheadings.
According to Human Rights Watch, the vast majority are for murder and drug crimes, but Saudi courts occasionally hand down death sentences for religiously defined “crimes” such as “apostasy” and “sorcery.”
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
While Fayadh’s lawyer welcomed this latest revocation of the death sentence, he told The Guardian that his client remains innocent and that he would seek to be released on bail while further appeals are filed.
Now aged 35, Fayadh was a rising star in the budding Saudi arts scene. A member of the UK-Saudi artists group Edge of Arabia, he has curated shows in Jeddah and at the 2013 Venice Biennale, showcasing new generations of Saudi artists.
Many prominent writers, poets, actors and other artists have appealed for Fayadh’s release.
Notable supporters include Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern museum in London, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and actor Helen Mirren.
Following Fayadh’s death sentence in November, dozens of artists issued a letter challenging Saudi authorities and calling on other governments to apply pressure on his behalf.
While relieved that his life has been spared, Fayadh’s supporters remain outraged at his treatment by Saudi authorities and continue to demand his freedom.
“The Saudi courts have simply prolonged this injustice by imposing a lengthy prison sentence and abhorrent physical punishment,” reads a statement by Carles Torner, executive director of leading writers’ association PEN International.
“Ashraf Fayadh has already served time in prison simply for exercising his legitimate right to freedom of expression,” Torner adds.
Instead of beheading Ashraf Fayadh, a poet convicted of apostasy, a court in Saudi Arabia has reduced his sentence to eight years in prison, 800 lashes and a public declaration of repentance.
So is this enough to absolve Saudi Arabia of comparisons with the lslamic State, which is known for its extreme religious ideology and cruel summary judgments? No. Mr. Fayadh’s crime, in essence, was committing poetry and art.
The new sentence, made public on Tuesday, reversed the one handed down in November when Mr. Fayadh was convicted of blasphemy and illicit relationships with women. The charges were based on photographs and a book of his poetry that was published abroad years before.
Mr. Fayadh, 35, was born in Saudi Arabia to a stateless family of Palestinian origin and was not known as a dissident, according to Ben Hubbard of The Times. He was active in Saudi Arabia’s small art scene, curating shows at home and abroad.
In 2013, he was arrested after an argument in a cafe. Although Mr. Fayadh was released without charge, he was arrested again later and hit with the blasphemy charges. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. He appealed and, after a retrial, got the death penalty.
This week’s sentence modification was the result of another appeal. It followed widespread condemnation by artists and human rights groups around the world. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t spoken out.
Saudi Arabia has come under a lot of fire lately and for good reason. The country follows an extremist version of Islam called Wahhabism that has inspired the Islamic State and other jihadis, and the judiciary is controlled by conservative clerics who are allowed a wide berth to apply Shariah law.
Last year, the Saudi government carried out its highest number of executions in two decades. The Saudis’ bloody record has brought unfavorable comparisons to the Islamic State.
It is time for Saudi authorities to end their unjust campaign to punish the poet for what PEN America, a press freedom advocacy group, describes as “the simple human act of artistic expression.”
By Jessica Schulberg
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called for the U.S. to cease military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, doubling down on his critique last week of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told HuffPost's Friday podcast of "So That Happened" that he hasn't yet heard a legitimate defense of the Obama administration's policy of providing military assistance to the Saudis in their aerial war in Yemen. That war has killed thousands of civilians and deteriorated conditions in an already unstable country.
"We're sort of still grounded in this world in which we just back our friends' play, no matter the consequences to the United States. The Saudis are in a fight, then we're going to be in a fight with them," said Murphy of what seems to be the prevailing logic behind U.S. support.
As Murphy sees it, the consequences of backing Saudi Arabia in this particular fight are devastating: collateral damage and chaos that has allowed extremist groups to expand their presence in Yemen.
"I just don't see any evidence right now that the Saudis are conducting that military exercise in a way that's responsible. It's just feeding the humanitarian crisis inside Yemen," the senator said.
He argued that Congress should block future sales to Saudi Arabia of weapons that likely would be used offensively in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia began airstrikes on Yemen last March at the request of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been driven out of the capital city of Sanaa by a separatist rebel group called the Houthis. The U.S. immediately confirmed its support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign.
Because the Shiite Houthis receive some support from Iran, the Saudi government has managed to frame the war in Yemen as an effort to curb the spread of Iranian influence -- an idea that is popular with some congressional lawmakers. White House and intelligence officials dispute the notion that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, and HuffPost previously reported that the Iranians actually warned the Houthis against an aggressive takeover of Sanaa.
By Murphy's calculus, the potential to curb Iran's influence in Yemen doesn't outweigh the catastrophic reality of the Saudi war. "Even if we do forestall the growing Iranian influence in the region ... the growing footprint of al-Qaeda and ISIS inside Yemen is much more damaging to U.S. interests," he said, using one of several names for the Islamic State group. The Houthis fight against both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Murphy's call for the U.S. to exit the war in Yemen is one of the first to come from Capitol Hill. Whereas lawmakers regularly slam the Obama administration for its failure to elucidate a plan to defeat the Islamic State, few publicly question the absence of a coherent strategy in Yemen.
"This has largely gone under the radar screen," Murphy said. "For all the attention on the U.S. campaign against ISIL and whether or not we put troops or resources into that fight ... the United States is, in many respects, at war against certain forces inside Yemen funded by the Iranians."
Since raising questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship last week, Murphy said colleagues from both sides of the aisle have privately expressed support. He said he expects some will eventually join him in speaking out.
The White House has defended its support of Saudi Arabia, saying American logistical and intelligence support helps the Saudis target militants more accurately and minimize civilian deaths. At the same time, administration officials told HuffPost that they don't make the final call when it comes to targeting decisions -- which could explain why the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of regularly bombing hospitals and schools.
When asked about the White House's line of logic, Murphy flatly rejected it.
"The defense that your involvement is simply limiting the casualties is really no defense at all," he said. "That would be an argument for the United States to get involved in virtually every conflict on every side, if our argument was simply that U.S. targeting can more precisely kill the other side while limiting civilian casualty. You actually have to have a little bit higher bar for U.S. involvement."
Ecuador has summoned the Turkish ambassador in Quito to formally protest the treatment of three of its citizens who were forcibly removed after demonstrating against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he was speaking at an event. The three women were removed from Quito's Centre for Higher National Studies on Thursday by Erdogan's security personnel when they interrupted his speech. Local media were also prevented from filming the altercation
A land operation requires "consent of the Syrian government to have other armed forces be deployed in its [Syria’s] territory," he said. "On the other hand, Russia has always called to form a board anti-terrorist coalition and this call is still on the agenda. We are ready for cooperation with other countries."
"But if this anti-terrorist coalition sets a political goal — impossibility of Bashar Assad’s staying on his post, then how it can conduct an anti-terrorist operation on a territory of a state where its leader is not recognized," Ozerov noted. "This contradiction gives grounds for doubts, at least I think so, in the sincerity of the operation Saudi Arabia is speaking about."