Female Saudi activist gets record 34 years in prison for critical tweets

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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia last week quietly sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity, the longest Saudi sentence ever. Starting a new wave of fear for peaceful activists and government opponents, three rights groups said.

The woman, Salma al-Shehab, was detained in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia, where she was on holiday, days before the Saudi national and mother of two returned to her home in Britain, according to rights groups. According to court documents, all of the 33-year-old’s allegations revolved around her Twitter activity.

Shehab has been active on social media platforms during a campaign calling for the abolition of the country’s guardianship system, which gives men legal control over certain aspects of the lives of female relatives. She called for the release of Saudi prisoners.

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According to court records obtained by The Washington Post, Shehab was charged with using the social media website to “disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and support those who commit crimes under the Anti-Terrorism Act. its financing.”

The documents state that she supported such individuals by “following their social media accounts and rebroadcasting their tweets” and that she spread false rumours. The documents said that after she appealed the initial sentence, her prison term was too short “considering her crimes” and that her previous sentence had failed to achieve “sobriety and deterrence”.

On top of the 34-year sentence, which begins after the end of the prison sentence, and a subsequent 34-year travel ban, the court ordered the confiscation of her mobile phone and “permanently closed” her Twitter account.

The charges are familiar: sowing sedition and destabilizing the state are frequently used charges against state activists who speak out against the status quo. Saudi Arabia has extended an anti-terrorism law against its citizens whose protests are deemed unacceptable, especially if they criticize the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In late 2021, the initial verdict against Shehab resulted in her serving six years in prison. When she appealed, however, it was increased to 34 — the country’s longest sentence against a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned against the government’s use of recent anti-terror laws. In April, Human Rights Watch “Laws such as the notoriously abusive Anti-Terrorism Act and the Anti-Cybercrime Act contain vague and overly broad provisions that have been widely interpreted and misused.” Judgments are also often characterized by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

Since the punishment includes shutting down her Twitter account, at least one rights group is trying to ensure her account is not shut down, said Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at the London-based Saudi rights group ALQST. .

“Now we’re working with Twitter not to shut it down or to make them realize that if they’re told to shut it down, it’s coming from the Saudi government, not her,” she said. Twitter did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

In a statement on Tuesday, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which tracks arrests in the kingdom, said the decision to sentence Shehab under anti-terrorism laws “confirms that Saudi Arabia treats those calling for reform and critics on social networks as terrorists.”

The group said the decision set a dangerous precedent and showed that Saudi Arabia’s widely praised efforts to modernize the state and improve women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the purview of whitewashing campaigns to improve its human rights record.”

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Before her arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital Riyadh and a PhD student at the University of Leeds in Britain. A colleague who worked with her in Leeds said she was doing exploratory research into new techniques in oral and dental medicine and their applications in Saudi Arabia.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, described Shehab as a “wonderful” and “generous” colleague – “the type of person that is always there.”

She never talked about politics publicly, colleagues added, instead often talking about her children and showing photos of them to friends and colleagues. She “missed her family so much.”

At the end of 2019, Shehab went back to Saudi Arabia and never returned to school in Britain. Initially, given the long duration of the coronavirus lockdown that began in England in March 2020, this did not scare anyone. But eventually, her colleague said, people started asking, “Has anyone heard of Salma?”

“We were all shocked because we thought, ‘How can someone like her be arrested?’ ” the person said. The University of Leeds did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

Asked whether it was monitoring Shehab’s case or involved in any efforts to secure her release, the British Foreign Office told The Post via email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns with Saudi authorities about the detention of women’s rights defenders and will continue to do so.”

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Shehab belongs to the minority Shia sect of Islam – viewed as heretics by many hardline Sunni Muslims and whose followers in Saudi Arabia are automatically viewed with suspicion by Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for its treatment of the Shiite minority. Earlier this year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual Report On human rights the state “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities,” including Shiites.

Shehab’s last Twitter activity was on January 13, 2021, two days before her arrest, when she retweeted a classic Arabic song about missing the company of a loved one.

On her Twitter page, which remains active, she tweeted a prayer asking for forgiveness if she had ever inadvertently transgressed against another human being and asking God to help her reject injustice and help those who face it.

“Freedom to prisoners of conscience and every oppressed person in the world,” the tweet concludes.

Timsit reported from France.

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