A Palestinian poet convicted in Saudi Arabia of charges including insulting Islam now faces 800 lashes, his lawyer said Wednesday after a court commuted the death sentence in a case that has stirred international outrage over the kingdom’s harsh codes.
The punishment reflects the wide authority of the ultraconservative clerics who oversee a legal system based on strict Islamic views and effectively serve as behind-the-scenes power brokers for Saudi Arabia’s Western-allied rulers.
It also highlights what rights groups and others describe as a widening crackdown on perceived dissident amid increasing uncertainty for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom faces belt-tightening over sinking oil prices and unease over its nearly year-long war in neighboring Yemen.
It was not immediately clear when lashing could begin against the poet, Ashraf Fayadh, or whether the sentence would be on hold during possible appeals or other reviews.
His attorney, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, said in a Twitter post that the court decreed that the lashings — if carried out — would come in “installments” of 50 each. Fayadh, who has denied the charges, also was sentenced to eight years in prison, Lahim said.
A handful of nations, including Singapore and Qatar, have lashings or floggings as part of their legal measures, but international attention has been particularly intense in nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. The group Freedom From Torture said lashings in Saudi Arabia are often carried out with a short cane or a whip to the back.
“The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused,” raising the risks of infection, wrote the anti-torture group’s head of doctors, Juliet Cohen.
Lahim noted that although the court commuted the life sentence, it confirmed Fayadh’s conviction for apostasy, including claims of promoting atheism and insulting Islam. Such a decision could be a setback for further legal appeals.
Fayadh, who was detained in 2013, was originally sentenced to 800 lashes and eight years in prison, but a court then imposed the death sentence during an appeal. The prosecution stems in part from a decision by a religious council that Fayadh’s 2008 poetry collection “Instructions Within” contained passages considered atheistic and offensive to Islam.
Under the Saudi system, which is based on strict Sunni Islamic interpretations known as Wahhabism, death sentences are common in cases involving charges of blasphemy and apostasy.
In November, Fayadh was quoted as denying the allegations. “I am not an atheist and it is impossible that I could be,” the news website Mecca Online quoted him as saying in a prison interview.
Fayadh, who lives in Saudi Arabia but has Palestinian roots, insisted that his poetry has no anti-Islam undertones. He said a Saudi student brought false accusations against him following an argument.
Rights groups have condemned Saudi Arabia’s leaders for failing to curb sentences such as lashings and beheadings.
“Saudi Arabia should reform its justice system and halt these ghastly punishments,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a report issued last week.
Amnesty International has called Fayadh a “prisoner of conscience.”
But the effects of international outcry on Saudi decisions is difficult to gauge.
Last year, writer Raif Badawi received 50 lashes as part of a blasphemy sentence of 1,000 lashes. The punishment was then put on hold, although Badawi remains imprisoned. Saudi officials have not given a reason for the halt in lashings, but it followed intense protests from rights groups and others, including the U.S. State Department, which called the punishment “inhumane.”
Yet in January, Saudi Arabia ignored widespread concerns over stoking regional tensions and executed a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, for allegedly leading anti-state unrest.
Nimr’s death set off protests in Shiite power Iran and prompted a diplomatic splintering in which Saudi Arabia and some Sunni Muslim allies broke ties with Tehran.