Dear President Obama,
As writers and artists, we join PEN American Center in calling on you to press Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for the immediate release of the poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been sentenced to death, and the writer Raif Badawi, who is serving a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet, artist, and curator who faces a sentence of death by beheading for the charge of apostasy. The charges against him stem from complaints relating to supposed atheistic and blasphemous themes in his poetry collection Instructions Within, as well as a personal altercation with a man who reported him to Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities. Mr. Fayadh’s poems are ruminations about his life as a Palestinian refugee, as well as cultural and philosophical issues. His supporters also believe he is being punished by Saudi authorities because he posted a video online showing religious police publicly lashing a man.
The judicial proceedings against Mr. Fayadh have lacked any semblance of due process. Saudi police confiscated his identification documents after his arrest in January 2014, then denied him legal representation because he did not possess proper identification. The court case against him has dragged on for nearly two years, and he has now been sentenced to death simply for exercising his fundamental human right to free expression. Mr. Fayadh has been given 30 days to appeal the death sentence against him, a deadline that is rapidly approaching.
Raif Badawi is a writer and activist who managed the online forum Free Saudi Liberals, where he encouraged debate and wrote about liberalism and secularism. He was arrested in 2012 and convicted of insulting Islam and promoting liberal thought through electronic channels, for which he has received a 10-year prison sentence and 1,000 lashes. Authorities have already administered 50 lashes of this brutal sentence, and Mr. Badawi has reportedly been moved to a more isolated prison intended for prisoners whose avenues for appeal have been exhausted, a troubling sign that any hope he would be pardoned has been dashed.
We recognize that this is an exceptionally sensitive moment in U.S.-Saudi relations, as our countries are working closely together on pressing issues like the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria, and that speaking out on human rights cases involving repressive governments can sometimes seem counter-productive. However, the gravity of these sentences, rendered for crimes that are not crimes, cannot go unremarked upon any longer by the President of the United States. Your decision to speak out now will be all the more potent and meaningful to Mr. Fayadh, Mr. Badawi, and their tens of thousands of supporters all over the world, including human rights defenders who wonder whether the U.S. will stand with them in their hour of need. If these two writers die, and you as President have said nothing, the blame will be shared.
We respectfully urge you to speak out on behalf of Mr. Fayadh and Mr. Badawi and to urge King Salman to grant them unconditional and immediate release.
Thank you for your consideration.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
David Henry Hwang
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Andrew J. Nathan
Allison Markin Powell
Zia Haider Rahman