A 34-year-old Saudi woman, arrested last year, has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for reportedly following and retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter, prompting human rights organisations to condemn the harsh ruling. The woman, who is a PhD student at UK’s Leeds University, had returned home for holidays when she was booked, as per a news report.
The ruling is reportedly one of the longest prison sentences given to a Saudi woman’s rights defender.
Salma al-Shehab was initially sentenced to three years in prison by a special terrorist court. The court said that Shehab used an internet website to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security”. Later, on Monday, an appeals court revised it to 34 years of imprisonment and a 34-year travel ban.
Several human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Foundation, The Freedom Initiative, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights and ALQST for Human Rights, have condemned the ruling and called for her release.
“We call on Saudi authorities to free Salma, allowing her to return to care for the children and to complete her studies safely in the United Kingdom,” said The Freedom Initiative in a statement. “Tweeting in solidarity with women’s rights activists is not a crime, ” it added.
A media report said that court documents allege that Shehab was “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. The report added that she is hardly a prominent activist in the country or abroad, having 2,597 followers on Twitter and 159 followers on Instagram.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said: “Shehab’s religious identity as a Shi’a Muslim is believed to have been a factor in her arrest and harsh sentencing.”
Meanwhile, the Berlin-based European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) described Shehab as “a specialist in oral and dental medicine, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK, and a lecturer at Princess Nourah University”, who is married and has two young sons. She was arrested on January 15, 2021, days before she was scheduled to return to the UK, said reports.
“The Public Prosecution accused her of several charges, including undermining the security of society and the stability of the state, spreading sedition, providing aid to those who seek to disrupt public order, and spreading false and malicious rumours on Twitter. Appeals court judges invoked the counterterrorism regime and its financing to justify the harsh ruling, even though all charges against her relate to her Twitter activity,” ESOHR said in a statement.
“Salma was active during campaigns demanding the lifting of the guardianship system over women by their male relatives. She also called for freedom for male and female prisoners of conscience, such as human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul and members of ACPRA,” it added.
The sentencing comes weeks after US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 15. Biden was criticised for meeting with the Arab leader who has been accused of several human rights violations, including the ordering of the assassination of Saudi critic and a columnist Jamal Khashoggi.