Ashraf was first arrested by the mutaween (Saudi Arabia’s religious police) in August 2013 at a cafe following a complaint that he was cursing God and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia, and distributing a book of poems he wrote, titled “Instructions Within,” that promoted atheism. He was released the next day due to a lack of evidence, but the mutaween began an investigation into these charges that led to his second arrest on January 1, 2014. Ashraf has been in jail since his second arrest.
Ashraf’s first trial began on February 20, 2014, but was delayed for one week because the prosecution was unable to provide their evidence and witnesses. One of the witnesses for the prosecution was a former friend of Ashraf who first reported him to the mutaween. However, his testimony was rejected because the defense was able to provide evidence that the former friend had threatened to have Ashraf arrested several times after prior disputes. Ashraf’s family also submitted medical documents regarding some psychological health issues he had been having, but these were rejected by the courts as well. After 6 hearings, the courts issued a ruling on May 25, 2014 that sentenced Ashraf to 4 years in prison and 800 lashes. He was convicted of having committed apostasy and repenting for it, along with having pictures on his phone of himself and women posing in art galleries that the court deemed inappropriate. Following the ruling, the District Attorney submitted an appeal on the trial because they were pushing for the death sentence.
On November 17, 2015 Ashraf was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to be executed after spending 1 year and 7 months in prison waiting for the appeal trial.
No witnesses were called during the second trial, Ashraf’s medical documents regarding his psychological health issues were rejected a second time, and the courts ruled that Ashraf committed apostasy by admitting he had written the poems. The poems were ruled to be apostasy because some of the lines he wrote were very similar in rhythm and content to lines from the Quran. However, this line of reasoning contradicts components of Sharia law that govern the conviction of apostasy. Any admittance of apostasy must be clearly spoken by the accused that they are no longer a Muslim and don’t believe in God, unlike Ashraf’s case where the decision was based upon an interpretation of his writing.
The day after the ruling, Amnesty International created an online petition to save Ashraf’s life as his case began to gain international attention. By November 26th, the Society of Authors in collaboration with PEN International began another online campaign calling for the release of Ashraf and held a candlelight vigil in his honor outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London on November 27, 2015.
Following Ashraf’s second trial Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, a Saudi Arabian lawyer, began working on Ashraf’s case. On December 2, Ashraf’s lawyer published a statement regarding the second trial and listed several mistakes committed by the courts, and later filed an appeal to overturn the execution sentence on December 13, 2015. Ashraf’s case continued to gain international media attention and on January 14, 2016 the International Literature Festival Berlin organized a campaign with 122 events across 44 countries where hundreds of writers gathered to read Ashraf’s poetry. The campaign also released statements calling upon the US and UK to stop the execution and put pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.
Ashraf’s third trial was set to start on January 18, but was moved back three times until the court finally issued a ruling on the appeal on February 2, 2016. The court decided to overturn the execution sentence, however Ashraf was sentenced to 8 years and 800 lashes and still was still charged with committing apostasy. The lawyer is currently working on the second appeal for this ruling in the hopes of clearing Ashraf’s name as an apostate and ultimately free him from prison.