A Leeds university student and mother-of-two in Saudi Arabia has been sent to jail for 34 years for Twitter activism, in what is believed to be the longest-ever prison sentence given to a critic of the kingdom.
Salma Al-Shehab, a PhD student, was on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was arrested on sedition charges for having a Twitter account and for retweeting critics of the Saudi leadership to her fewer than 3,000 followers.The mother-of-two was initially sentenced to six years in prison sometime last year. But this week she was handed a new 34-year sentence and a 34-year travel ban, as part of what human rights groups said was the most draconian sentence they had seen in cases involving critics of Saudi Arabia.
According to a translation of the court records, which were seen by the Guardian, the new charges include “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and by re-tweeting their tweets.
Human rights groups have warned that Saudi Arabia is embarking on a grim new phase in its crackdown on women.
Sentence part of crackdown on female critics
The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights warned that the ruling “sets a dangerous precedent for women activists and human rights defenders”. It also warned that the kingdom was pushing ahead with “grave violations against women activists without any hesitation”.”The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights considers that the sentence issued against Salma Al-Shehab is unprecedented and dangerous, as it is the longest prison sentence issued against female or male activists and might be a step towards further escalation against them,” the human rights group added.Ms Shehab’s arrest appears to be linked to a widening crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on female critics, with officials using Twitter activity as evidence to secure convictions.
Ms Shehab, 34, had a relatively small and unassuming presence on social media, with only around 2,500 Twitter followers and just 159 followers on Instagram.She occasionally retweeted statements by Saudi dissidents living abroad and appears to have supported the plight of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi feminist activist who was imprisoned and allegedly tortured by Saudi authorities.Speaking to the Guardian, an acquaintance of Ms Shehab described her as a well-educated and avid reader who came to the UK in 2018 or 2019 to study her phD at Leeds University.
Calls for President Biden to secure her release
She reportedly went back to Saudi Arabia for a holiday in December 2020 and had intended to bring her husband and two children back to Britain before she was arrested. An editorial in the Washington Post has called on President Joe Biden to secure her release and allow her family to return to Britain.
In her appeal, Ms Shehab denied the charges of sedition and accusations of being a security risk. She pointed out that she had a small following online and that her social media posts were peaceful and included posts about her children. She is said to have been held in solitary confinement for 284 days.Her last post on Twitter was on January 13 2021, a retweet of a classic Arabic song about missing the company of a loved one. Another tweet called for “freedom to the prisoners of conscience and to every oppressed person in the world”.
Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain and a member of the London-based human rights group ALQST, told the Washington Post that the sentence included an order to close Ms Shehab’s Twitter account.
The rights group was working to prevent Twitter from closing the account, or at least ensure Twitter realises the request to close it came from Saudi authorities and not Ms Shehab herself, she said.
According to Saudi human rights activists, at least one pro-Saudi “troll account” has boasted of reporting Ms Shehab to the authorities using an app for tracking crime.The three-decade sentence was handed down just a few weeks after President Biden visited Saudi Arabia to discuss oil production amid the global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.Critics say that controversial visit has legitimised the Crown Prince, who became a global pariah in 2018 after he allegedly ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi commentator. The Crown Prince strongly denies he ordered the murder, which Saudi Arabia blamed on rogue agents.The Telegraph approached Saudi authorities for comment but did not immediately receive a response. The Guardian said Twitter declined to comment on the case or respond to questions about whether Saudi Arabia has any influence over the company. Twitter did not immediately respond when contacted by the Telegraph.
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