GENEVA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia must not put Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy this month as it would be "an arbitrary and thus unlawful execution" based on unreliable evidence, U.N. human rights experts said on Thursday.
Fayadh was detained by the country's religious police in 2013 then rearrested in 2014 and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. That was changed to a death sentence on appeal last month.
Saudi Arabia's justice system is based on Sharia Islamic law. Its judges are clerics from the kingdom's ultra conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam. In the Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia, religious crimes including blasphemy and apostasy, abandoning the Muslim faith, incur the death penalty.
“The promotion of such a violent response against a legitimate form of opinion and expression has a widespread chilling effect across all of Saudi society,” said David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.
The U.N. statement from Kaye, Christof Heyns - the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions - and four other independent U.N. investigators said the death sentence was based on a collection of poems and testimony from a single witness, who claims he heard Fayadh make blasphemous comments at a café.
The original court ruling threw out the case because it said the witness was motivated by animosity for Fayadh.
It appeared that he "is about to be executed on the basis of seemingly unreliable evidence to the effect that he exercised his freedom of expression after an unfair trial," Heyns said in the statement.
The UN human rights experts also expressed concern at reports that Fayadh did not have legal counsel during the judicial proceedings, in violation of international law.
Saudi judges have extensive scope to impose sentences according to their own interpretation of Sharia law without reference to any previous cases. After a case has been heard by lower courts, appeals courts and the supreme court, a convicted defendant can be pardoned by King Salman.
In January, liberal writer Raif Badawi was flogged 50 times after his sentencing to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for blasphemy last year, prompting an international outcry. Badawi remains in prison, but diplomats say he is unlikely to be flogged again.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Hugh Lawson)