A Palestinian poet convicted in Saudi Arabia of charges including insulting Islam now faces 800 lashes, his lawyer said Wednesday, after a court commuted the death sentence in a case that has stirred international outrage over the kingdom’s harsh codes.

The punishment reflects the wide authority of the ultraconservative clerics who oversee a legal system based on strict Islamic views, and effectively serve as behind-the-scenes power brokers for Saudi Arabia’s Western-allied rulers.

It also highlights what rights groups and others describe as a widening crackdown on perceived dissident amid increasing uncertainty for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom now faces belt-tightening over sinking oil prices and unease over its nearly year-long war in neighboring Yemen.

It was not immediately clear when lashing could begin against the poet, Ashraf Fayadh, or whether the sentence would be on hold during possible appeals or other reviews.

His lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, said in Twitter post that the court decreed that the lashings – if carried out – would come in “installments” of 50 each. Fayadh, who has denied the charges, also was sentenced to eight years in prison, Lahim said.

In November, Fayadh was quoted as denying the allegations. “I am not an atheist and it is impossible that I could be,” the news website Mecca Online quoted him as saying in a prison interview.

Fayadh, who lived in Saudi Arabia but has Palestinian roots, insisted his poetry has no anti-Islam undertones. He said a Saudi student brought false accusations against him following an argument.


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