RIYADH: A Palestinian in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to death for apostasy, a rare ruling which can be appealed, Human Rights Watch said today.
The ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom's use of the death penalty, typically carried out by beheading has drawn widespread international criticism.
A lower court on Tuesday issued the sentence against Ashraf Fayad, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for the New York-based HRW.
That decision, apparently after an appeal, overturned another lower court's ruling in 2014 sentencing Fayad to four years' prison and 800 lashes.
"I read the court documents", Coogle said.
The complaint against Fayad stemmed from a cultural discussion group at a cafe in the Gulf state's southwestern city of Abha.
"What Ashraf claims is that he had a falling out with other members of the group," Coogle said.
One man claimed he heard Fayad say things against God, while a religious scholar accused Fayad of blasphemy in a volume of poetry he had written a decade previously, Coogle said.
At the first trial, witnesses for Fayad testified that the man who complained was probably "out to get him".
As for the second accusation, Fayad denied the book was blasphemous but apologised in case it was. Because of that remorse and the complainant's possible ulterior motives, the court "didn't want to sentence him to death", Coogle said.
On Tuesday, however, the second court did not consider the testimony of Fayad's witnesses. Arguing that "repentance is for God", it sentenced him to death, the researcher said.
As the verdict is a lower court ruling, it can still be reviewed by an appeals court and the supreme court. All executions also have to be ultimately approved by King Salman.
Under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic legal code, murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death.
"It's pretty rare" to have a conviction for apostasy, Coogle said.
Saudi media reported one other death sentence issued this year for apostasy abandoning one's faith.
London-based Amnesty International last week said 151 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year, the highest figure since 192 people were put to death in 1995.
On Tuesday, the European Union issued a statement saying that a number of people had been put to death recently in Saudi Arabia after convictions for drug trafficking.
"The European Union is opposed to capital punishment in all cases and without exception," it said.
Saudi Arabia's interior ministry says the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.