Judging by the list of people Saudi Arabian courts sentenced in recent weeks, the kingdom seems to be struggling to determine which forms of religious expression are and are not “criminal.” Last week, a Saudi court sentenced Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy. Saudi Arabia’s religious police arrested Fayadh at a cafe in August 2013 after a witness alleged that Fayadh made obscene comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Saudi state. The state’s witness also accused Fayadh of using a book he authored to promote atheism and unbelief. Authorities released Fayadh after one-day in detention. A few months later, on 1 January 2014, officials arrested Fayadh once again. This time, the public prosecution charged him with spreading atheism and mocking verses of God. Fayadh repeatedly denied these charges; witnesses attending court on his behalf said that the state’s witness held a grudge against Fayadh before bringing allegations against him.
Defense witnesses stated that Fayadh never made blasphemous statements and that his book, Instructions Within, is a compilation of love poems, not a tool to spread atheism. During his last court session, Fayadh repented for anything to which the religious authorities took offense. In recognition of his repentance and of the prior dispute between Fayadh and the state’s main witness, the court did not sentence him to death. Instead, the presiding judge gave him four years in prison and 800 lashes. Human Rights Watch has reported that the public prosecutor appealed the ruling to a higher court, which then referred the case to the General Court in Abha, whose judge sentenced him to death by beheading for apostasy.
Fayadh is not the only one to face severe legal sanction in recent weeks; Saudi courts have also punished a human rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari for associating with Shia Muslims, further denigrating an already-marginalized religious minority. Over the course of the last decade, security forces arrested al-Shammari multiple times for his attempts to improve relations between Sunnis and Shia in the Eastern Province and his articles critiquing the government. In 2010, the public prosecution brought a case against him for “annoying others.” On 17 June 2013, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, convicted him of “sowing discord” and sentenced him to five years in prison and a ten-year travel ban. The public prosecution brought a second case against him in 2014 for which the al-Khobar criminal court convicted him of “stirring public opinion by sitting with the Shia” and “violating instructions by the rulers by holding a private gathering and tweeting.” For these “crimes,” the court sentenced him to an additional two years in prison and 200 lashes. On 22 November 2015, the Court of Appeal in Dammam upheld this second sentence; a separate appeals court had upheld his prior ten-year sentence in 2014.
These cases represent a wider Saudi government pattern of targeting individuals based solely on their peaceful discussion of alternative religious traditions. The sentences against Ashraf Fayadh and Mikhlif al-Shammari violate Saudi Arabia’s obligations as a signatory of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression. While the Saudi government may have never set down a formal penal code, these cases make clear that the state empowers judges to define religious acceptability on a case-by-case basis to serve political interests.
Shelby Jamerson is an advocacy intern at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain