The Impossible Defense of an Accused 'Atheist' the Saudis Want to Behead

In Saudi Arabia the number of writers and bloggers facing the whip and the sword—and even crucifixion—is growing. Sound a bit like ISIS? Many think so.

12.14.15 6:00 AM ET

GAZA STRIP — It’s been a bad year for Saudi Arabia’s public image. An unusually large number of death sentences and executions have sparked outrage from rights groups and activists across the world.

The latest controversy comes from the case of Ashraf Fayadh, a 35-year-old Palestinian poet whose death sentence was handed down for charges of apostasy on Nov. 17.

Now, in a strange twist, a Palestinian human-rights lawyer in the besieged Gaza Strip will do his best to save Fayadh’s life. But Raji Sourani, Fayadh’s representative and a veteran human-rights crusader, isn’t quite sure how to do it. He began an interview with The Daily Beast by admitting it’s his “first time dealing directly with the Saudi Arabian legal system.”

Sourani does know that he won’t have access to Fayadh. “Our only contact is through his sister and mother in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “His other sister is here [in Gaza]. She’s the one who asked for my assistance.”

Sourani says that the charges against the poet are baseless and motivated by a personal dispute with another Saudi over a European soccer match. “He was arrested in 2013, then again in 2014, and that time he was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes.”

The repeated arrests, followed by a new judge being appointed to the case who decided Fayadh was promoting atheism (through a collection of poems that weren’t even published in Saudi Arabia), seems fishy to Sourani.

Also, Fayadh was accused of having inappropriate relations with women, a charge supported by the fact that Fayadh had some photos on his phone of female friends and colleagues he had met while attending cultural events throughout the world.

What's more, Fayadh has denied that he's anything but an athiest. 

"I am not an atheist and it is impossible that I could be," he told the Associated Press. "The judgment against me was based on the testimony of this student... The terminology I am condemned for is not even in the book, but the accusation against me was based on wrong interpretations for some of the poems."

Sourani, the experienced lawyer and founder of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, says that the next step is to write Fayadh’s appeal, and to reach out to Saudi officials, including King Salman.

Sourani recognizes that appealing to the king may seem like a suspiciously extrajudicial move for the head of a human-rights organization to make, but he points to Article 50 of the Saudi constitution, which says that “The King, or whoever deputizes for him, is responsible for the implementation of judicial rulings.”

Adam Coogle, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) specializing in Saudi Arabia’s implementation of the death penalty, told The Daily Beast there’s little that any defense attorney could do to help Fayadh.

“At this point, it’s really a matter of writing the appeal. Fayadh’s case won’t be argued in front of judges,” Coogle said. It’s up to the appeals court to repeal the decision.

The researcher pointed out that Saudi Arabia “doesn’t really have a penal code. They basically use principles of Islamic law to criminalize a wide swathe of charges.” In Coogle’s experience, he says, he’s seen apparently “ad-hoc” legal allegations that “were basically just a description of whatever broad accusations of which the defendant was being accused.”

The charge of renouncing one’s faith leveled against the Palestinian poet is a grave one, known as a hadd crime in Islamic law, an offense against God whose punishments are divinely set in stone, meaning that not even Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud could pardon him if he is guilty. However, the king could refuse to sign the death warrant, in which case the punishment would not be carried out.

In response to Fayadh’s impending doom, many on Twitter took to comparing Saudi Arabia to the Sunni so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, due to their similarly strict interpretations of Islamic law.

The Saudi justice minister then threatened to “sue the person who described… the sentencing of a man to death for apostasy as being ‘ISIS-like.’”

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This prompted a Twitter storm of people comparing Saudi Arabia to ISIS with the hashtag #SueMeSaudi. Coogle said that the issue was run by HRW’s legal team, and there’s really no need to worry about any non-Saudi being sued.

Fayadh’s case is the latest in a line of public outrage. Recently, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, 21, a member of the Shia minority, which comprises between 15 and 20 percent of the Saudi population, is awaiting a Roman-style (in the imperial sense) execution, sentenced to both beheading and crucifixion.

Nimr participated in anti-government protests in 2012, at the age of 17, and his case was highlighted in September 2015 after campaigners asked King Salman to pardon him during the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Earlier in the year, Raif Badawi, a blogger and well-known reformist, was convicted of “cybercrime and insulting Islam,” and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.

Although a lot of recent media attention has surrounded cases of Saudi human-rights abuses, under King Salman’s reign, which began in January, the number of executions has almost doubled from 88 in 2014 to 151 in 2015, yet it could be worse. “It’s not even a particularly egregious year,” said Coogle. “It’s great that these cases are receiving attention, but there are others that flew under the radar.”

He cites the case of Waleed Abu al-Kheir, a prominent Saudi human-rights activist and lawyer who marked the first of 15 years behind bars this past April. He was convicted of “broadly worded and vague charges that stemmed solely from his peaceful activism,” according to HRW. “That’s five more years than Badawi,” Coogle noted.

Saudi Arabia’s questionable human-rights record has stirred debate about the moral efficacy of its involvement in the fight against ISIS.

In October 2014, Sevag Kechichian of Amnesty International told Newsweek that if the U.S. and other Western governments want their concerns about human rights in the region, including the atrocities committed by ISIS, to be taken seriously, “they must apply the same standards to their closest allies.”

Former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, a lobbyist in the employ of Saudi Arabia (at a reported $60,000 monthly retainer fee) and head of the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund, one of the largest super PACs in the nation, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

During King Salman’s meeting with President Barack Obama in his first official visit to the United States, the focus was on economic issues, as well as the Saudi-Iran proxy war taking place in Yemen.

The issues of human rights and even ISIS were both reportedly sidestepped. Instead, both leaders pledged to “significantly elevate the relationship between the two countries.”

Back in Gaza, Sourani told The Daily Beast that he “would do everything in his power to secure Fayadh’s release.” He said he has to trust in Fayadh and his family, whom he says is “very sincere, and very worried.”

When asked if he trusts in the Saudi justice system, Sourani said, simply, “There isn’t one to speak of.”

UPDATE 9:56 P.M.: This story has been updated to include Fayadh's denial that he is an atheist.