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

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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia quietly sentenced a woman last week to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity, marking the longest Saudi sentence ever handed down for a peaceful activist and sparking 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 vacation, days before the Saudi citizen and mother of two was to return home to Britain, advocacy groups say Rights. The charges against the 33-year-old all revolved around her activity on Twitter, according to court documents.

Shehab had been active on the social media platform in campaigns demanding the abolition of the country’s guardianship system, which gives men legal control over certain aspects of female relatives’ lives. She had called for the release of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

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According to court records obtained by The Washington Post, Shehab was charged with using a social media website “to disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and support those who had committed criminal acts in accordance with the Anti-Terrorism Act and its funding.

The documents said she supported these people “by following their social media accounts and reposting their tweets”, and that she was spreading false rumours. The documents went on to say that after appealing an initial conviction, it was decided that his prison sentence was too short, “in view of his crimes”, and that his previous sentence had not “done restraint and deterrence”.

In addition to a 34-year sentence and a 34-year travel ban, which begins after the end of the prison sentence, the court ruled that his mobile phone would be confiscated and his Twitter account would be “permanently closed. “.

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

At the end of 2021, the initial judgment against Shehab sentenced him to six years in prison. When she appealed, however, the sentence was increased to 34 – the longest sentence in the country against a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned against the government’s recent use of the anti-terrorism law. In April, Human Rights Watch said laws such as “the notoriously abusive Anti-Terrorism Act and the Cybercrimes Act, include vague and overbroad provisions that have been widely interpreted and abused.” Decisions are also often characterized by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

As the sentencing includes shutting down his Twitter account, at least one rights group is trying to make sure it isn’t shut down, said Lina al-Hathloul, monitoring and communications manager at ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group.

“Now we are working with Twitter not to shut it down or to make them aware that at least if they are asked to shut it down, it is from the Saudi government and not from her,” 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 convict Shehab under the counter-terrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia treats those who demand reform and criticize on social media like terrorists”.

The group said the decision sets a dangerous precedent and shows that Saudi Arabia’s widely hailed efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is waging to improve its human rights record”.

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Prior to her arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and a doctoral candidate at Britain’s University of Leeds. There she was conducting exploratory research on new oral medicine techniques and their applications in Saudi Arabia, said a colleague who worked with her in Leeds.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, described Shehab as a “wonderful” and “generous” colleague – “the type of person who always brings goodies”.

She never spoke publicly about politics, the colleague added, often talking about her children and showing photos of them to friends and colleagues. She “was greatly missed by her family”.

Shehab returned to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2019 and never returned to school in Britain. At first this did not alarm anyone, given the long period of coronavirus lockdown which started in March 2020 in England. But eventually, her colleague said, people started asking, “Has anyone heard of Salma?”

“It was a shock to all of us because we thought, ‘How can a person like that be arrested?’ ” the person said. 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 if it was involved in attempts to secure his release, Britain’s Foreign Office told the Post via email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised their concerns about the detention of women’s rights defenders to the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so.

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Shehab belongs to the minority Shia sect of Islam – seen by many die-hard Sunni Muslims as heretical and whose adherents in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by 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 annual human rights report that the kingdom “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities”, including Shiites.

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

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

The tweet ends with “freedom to prisoners of conscience and all oppressed people in the world”.

Timsit reported from France.

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