Advocacy letter

President Obama: Call on Saudi Arabia to Release Poet Ashraf Fayadh

Today Freedom House and PEN America released a letter calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to push for the release of poet Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia. The letter was signed by a coalition of rights groups including PEN America, Freedom House, Human Rights First, and the Center for Inquiry.

April 19, 2016
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned free expression and human rights organizations, call on you to push for the release of poet Ashraf Fayadh during your visit to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on April 21. Mr. Fayadh, who had previously been sentenced to death in 2015, was resentenced on a further appeal to eight years in prison and 800 lashes on charges of apostasy on February 2, 2016.

Ashraf Fayadh, a poet, artist, and curator of Palestinian origin, was first arrested in 2013 on accusations stemming from supposed atheistic and blasphemous themes in his poetry and a personal altercation with a man who reported him to Saudi religious authorities. Mr. Fayadh’s poems are ruminations about his life as a Palestinian refugee and 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. In December 2015, PEN America and over 800 signatories urged you ahead of your previous visit to Saudi Arabia to intervene in Mr. Fayadh’s case.

Saudi Arabia systematically targets individuals who exercise their right to freedom of expression and imposes heavy and inhumane sentences upon them. For example, the blogger Raif Badawi is serving a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which were meted out to him in January 2015. The next round of lashes has been repeatedly postponed due to international pressure, but Mr. Badawi’s health has deteriorated immensely and his transfer to a more isolated prison intended for prisoners whose avenues for appeal have been exhausted indicate dashed hopes of a pardon. Numerous other punishments for exercising creative freedom have been meted out, and Saudi Arabia is ranked as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights.

We recognize the sensitive nature of your visit as you strive to coordinate efforts to address the threats posed by ISIS and the conflict in Syria. But, as you know, the Saudi government’s approach to governing their own citizens relates directly to how they influence governments and populations both in their region and around the world. Working to secure Mr. Fayadh’s freedom presents a direct and concrete way to address the urgent human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and to make clear that the United States will not turn a blind eye to such concerns. Mr. Fayadh is currently in the process of his final appeal. Your decision to speak out now will be especially consequential in that the death penalty could possibly be reinstated or the sentence of eight years in prison and 800 lashes upheld. If Ashraf Fayadh is executed, 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 to urge King Salman to grant Mr. Fayadh an unconditional and immediate release.


Suzanne Nossel
Executive Director
PEN America

Michael De Dora
Director of Public Policy
Center for Inquiry

Neil Hicks
Director, Human Rights Promotion
Human Rights First

Mark P. Lagon
Freedom House