Salma al-Shehab, Saudi activist, sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting

Salma al-Shehab, Saudi activist, sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting
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BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia last week quietly sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activities, the longest Saudi prison term ever for a peaceful activist and sparked a new wave of fear among government critics, three rights groups said.

The woman, Salma al-Shehab, was arrested in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia where she was on holiday, days before the Saudi national and mother-of-two was due to return to her home in the UK, according to rights groups. The charges against the 33-year-old all revolved around her Twitter activities, according to court documents.

Shehab has been active on the social media platform during campaigns 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 political prisoners.

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According to court documents obtained by the Washington Post, Shehab was charged with using a social media site “to disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and to support those who are engaged in criminal acts under the Civil Protection Act.” counter-terrorism activities and its funding.”

The documents said she supported such individuals “by following their social media accounts and rebroadcasting their tweets” and that she spread false rumours. The documents go on to say that after she appealed an initial conviction, it was ruled that her sentence was too short “considering her crimes” and that her previous sentence “failed to achieve restraint and deterrence.”

In addition to a 34-year prison sentence and a subsequent 34-year travel ban beginning after the sentence ends, the court ordered her cellphone confiscated and her Twitter account “permanently shut down.”

The allegations are well known: Sowing incitement and destabilizing the state are common accusations against activists in the kingdom who speak out against the status quo. Saudi Arabia has long used its anti-terror law against its citizens, whose protests have been deemed unacceptable, particularly when they criticize the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In late 2021, the original verdict against Shehab gave her six years in prison. However, when she appealed, it was increased to 34 – the longest prison sentence in the country for a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Human rights groups have repeatedly warned about the government’s recent use of the Counter-Terrorism Act. In April, Human Rights Watch Said laws such as “the notoriously abusive Counter-Terrorism Act and the Cybercrime Act contain vague and overly broad provisions that have been broadly interpreted and abused.” The verdicts are also often characterized by contradictory and harsh penalties.

Because the ruling includes the closure of her Twitter account, at least one rights group is trying to ensure it isn’t shut down, said Lina al-Hathloul, head of surveillance and communications at ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group.

“Now we’re working with Twitter not to shut it down or to make them aware that if they’re asked to shut it down, it’s at least from the Saudi government and not them,” she said. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

In its statement on Tuesday, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which tracks arrests in the kingdom, said the decision to try Shehab under the Counter-Terrorism Act “confirms that Saudi Arabia is treating those calling for reform and on social media.” criticize as terrorists”.

The group said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and shows that Saudi Arabia’s widely touted efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is conducting 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 Britain’s University of Leeds. She was conducting exploratory research there on new oral and dental techniques and their applications in Saudi Arabia, said a colleague working with her in Leeds.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, described Shehab as a “wonderful” and “generous” colleague — “the kind of person who always brings in treats.”

She has never spoken publicly about politics, the colleague added, instead she often talks about her children and shows photos of them to friends and colleagues. She “missed her family a lot.”

Shehab returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2019 and never returned to school in the UK. That didn’t worry anyone at first, given the long period of coronavirus lockdowns that began in England in March 2020. But eventually, her colleague said, people started asking, “Has anyone heard from Salma?”

“It was a shock to all of us because we were like, ‘How can a person like her get arrested?’ said the person. The University of Leeds did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

When asked if it was monitoring Shehab’s case or involved in attempts to get her released, Britain’s Foreign Office told The Post by email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns with the Saudi authorities about the detention of women’s rights defenders and… will continue to do so.”

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Shehab belongs to Islam’s Shia minority, considered heretical by many Sunni Muslims and whose followers in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by the Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for its treatment of the Shia minority. Earlier this year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its yearbook report on human rights that the kingdom “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities”, including Shias.

Shehab’s last Twitter activity was on November 1, 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 has a pinned tweet of a prayer asking for forgiveness if she has ever unknowingly offended another human being and asking God to help her reject and forgive injustice help those who face it.

The tweet ends with “Freedom for the political prisoners and for every oppressed person in the world”.

Timsit reported from France.

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