A PhD student based in the UK has been jailed for 34 years in Saudi Arabia over a handful of Twitter posts and retweets, which rights groups said was the longest sentence ever to be handed to an activist in the country.
Salma al-Shehab was sentenced earlier this month by a Saudi counter-terrorism court after being arrested in January last year. At the time of her arrest she was on a trip to Saudi Arabia from the UK, where she is a PhD candidate at Leeds University. She comes from the Shia Muslim minority, who are regularly subjected to discrimination in Saudi Arabia, where most people are Sunni Muslims.
Al-Shehab has also been handed an additional 34-year travel ban for tweeting in solidarity of women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, as well as retweeting and following several dissidents calling for basic rights in Saudi Arabia.
In a grim sense of irony, Al-Hathloul was released from prison after more than 1,000 days in jail just weeks after Al-Shehab was detained. Her sentence also comes just weeks after US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia and fist-bumped its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
The Freedom Initiative said that the sentence handed to Al-Shehab, who is married and has two young children, marked an “escalation” in MBS’ crackdown on dissent.
“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse,” said Dr Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative. “It is unfortunately no surprise that MBS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious rights violations.”
The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights called the sentence handed to Al-Shehab “unprecedented and dangerous.”
“It is the longest prison sentence issued against female or male activists and might be a step towards further escalation against them,” the organisation said. “In recent years, many women activists have been subjected to unfair trials that have led to arbitrary sentences, in addition to some of them being subjected to severe torture, including sexual harassment.”