It's easy just to take for granted just how lucky we are to live in a country where the right to freedom of speech is so respected. Unfortunately, there are many countries where the citizens are not so lucky. Recently in Saudi Arabia a poet, Ashraf Fayadh, was sentenced to death for "renouncing Islam," a charge Fayadh denies. Fellow poets from around the world are denouncing the sentence, but under Saudi law, it is still perfectly possible to be executed for something you've written.
Ashraf Fayadh, 35, is a Palestinian poet who was born Saudi Arabia. He was convicted in a court in the southeastern city of Ahba on multiple blasphemy charges, including insulting the Prophet Mohammed, mocking the Quran and spreading atheism, due to his poetry. Fayadh denies the charges and claims that he was accused based on false statements made to the country's religious police because of a personal dispute. Her sister has supported these claims and also stated that the courts were misreading his poetry, telling CNN in an interview, "He wrote in words that stupid people misunderstood."
Fayadh has 30 days to appeal his ruling. An English translation of some of his work can be found here.
Since the ruling was first handed down, the international community has expressed strong support of Fayadh, with many calling for his release and condemning the sentence. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have taken notice. Amnesty International is urging people to make calls on Fayadh's behalf and has started a petition asking that he be freed. And more than 60 international organizations have signed a PEN Foundation International letter calling the sentence a human rights violation and asking Saudi Arabia to release him immediately.
And poets from around the world are signing another PEN letter, this one for Fayadh himself, expressing their support. Signatories so far include names such as Paul Madoon from Ireland, American John Ashberry, Amir Or from Israel, and Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan. The letter reads:
It is not a crime to hold an idea, however unpopular, nor is it a crime to express opinion peacefully. Every individual has the freedom to believe or not believe. Freedom of conscience is an essential human freedom. We, Fayadh’s fellow poets, urge the Saudi authorities to desist from punishing individuals for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and call for his immediate and unconditional release.
So far, though, it seems that Saudi Arabia is not intimidated by the criticism. In fact, the country has stated they are preparing to sue one Twitter user who compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS based on the Fayadh decision.
It's hard to imagine living in a world where a poet can be executed for his work, and yet that is, potentially, the world we are in fact living in. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion might be listed as human rights by the United Nations, but many people are still denied these basic rights.
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