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Artists use Twitter and translation to rally behind poet jailed in Saudi Arabia

Artists and activists this week showed their support for Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet who has been held in a Saudi prison for more than two years, by translating his writings and tweeting his picture with the hashtag #FreeAshraf.


Fayadh was first arrested in August 2013 due to a complaint from a Saudi citizen who said he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people,” according to Amnesty International.

He was released but rearrested in January 2014 because of a book of poetry he published in 2008 in Lebanon that Saudi authorities said questioned religion and promoted atheism.

He also was charged with violating the country’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law of 2007 by taking and storing photos of women on his phone, Amnesty said.

Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy, or renouncing Islam, but his punishment was later reduced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

When President Barack Obama visited King Salman in Saudi Arabia in April, a group of U.S. senators urged him to raise the issue of the government’s crackdown on activists engaging in freedom of speech, specifically the cases of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The White House said an inclusive government and human rights were on the president’s agenda, reported the Associated Press.

Fayadh was born in Saudi Arabia in 1980 to Palestinian refugees. His sentence was reduced following an organized series of events around the world in January during which hundreds of writers read his works. The artists supporting him are hoping to keep his story alive through this week’s Twitter campaign.

M. Lynx Qualey, who runs the blog Arabic Literature and helped organize the Twitter campaign, said Fayadh’s poetry “is not apostasy, it is a critique of human power and human actions.”

Fayadh’s book, “Instructions Within,” recounts his experiences as a stateless refugee. From one of his poems:

you are inexperienced with Time
lacking rain drops
that could wash away all the remains of your past
and liberate you of what you had called piety…
of that heart… capable of love,
of play,
and of intersecting with your obscene withdrawal from that flabby religion
from that fake Tanzeel
from gods that had lost their pride.

Mona Kareem, a poet and activist from Kuwait who now lives in the U.S., is friends with Fayadh and has translated some of his poems on her blog. Though Fayadh’s works imitate the Quran, she said, “borrowing from the Quran is very common in Arabic* poetry.”

“After the (Arab Spring) revolutions, it has become very easy and quick to put people in jail just for their words,” she added.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in February about the criticism over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including the imprisonment and lashings of bloggers and the executions of 47 alleged terrorists.

“We’re a sovereign country. We have our legal system. We expect people to respect it, just like we respect their legal systems,” he told her. “A lot of the cases that creates criticism tend to be misunderstood in terms of what the actual legal issues are.”

Activists like Kareem contend that since Fayadh’s poetry “never entered the kingdom” — it was banned there — it cannot be in violation of Saudi Arabia’s print law, she said.

In a message from prison, Fayadh said, “I just hope I will survive and that people continue to remember me. I am scared to be forgotten.”

His friend Kareem said people did forget him, “that’s why we’re doing this.”

*An earlier version of this story quoted Mona Kareem as saying “Saudi” rather than “Arabic.”

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