NEW YORK—Seventy-one of the most prominent names in international literature and art have joined PEN America in an open letter to President Obama today, urging him to take up the cases of two writers sentenced to extreme and brutal punishments in Saudi Arabia.

Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet, artist, and curator living in Saudi Arabia who faces a sentence of death by beheading on charges of apostasy stemming from his poetry collection Instructions Within and a personal altercation with a man who reported him to Saudi religious authorities. His supporters also believe he is being punished because of a video he posted online showing religious police publicly lashing a man. Raif Badawi is a blogger arrested in 2012 and convicted of insulting Islam and promoting liberal thought through electronic channels, for which he has received a sentence of 10 years in prison sentence and 1,000 lashes. Yesterday the European Parliament awarded Badawi the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, a prestigious honor whose past recipients include Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

“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,” reads the letter, signed by writers and artists including Chimamanda Adichie, JM Coetzee, Jennifer Clement, and Neil Gaiman. “If these two writers die, and you as President have said nothing, the blame will be shared.”

Saudi Arabia is one of America’s strongest Middle East allies on pressing issues like the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria, and U.S. officials have often been criticized for their seeming reluctance to press the Saudi king on human rights abuses.

“Raif Badawi and Ashraf Fayadh have received brutal sentences for doing nothing more than speaking their minds,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. “Saudi Arabia is an important and powerful ally in the fight against extremist violence, but insisting upon strong respect for human rights is a bulwark of American foreign policy that can only advance that shared mission.”

The full text of the letter is available at

Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications:, +1 646 779 4830