Over the past five years, there’s been a crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia under its current leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. He’s responsible for the arrests of activists, princes and businessmen. Although there have been certain progressive advances under MBS (like granting women the right to drive), Saudi Arabia’s human rights reputation is still pretty bad among the international community. One example of this was the arrest of 34-year-old Saudi doctoral student Salma al-Shehab in January 2021, just days before returning to the UK.
Now, Saudi court documents have been obtained detailing her sentencing to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumors” and retweeting some dissenting opinions. A student at Leeds University in the UK and part of the Saudi Shi’a Muslim minority, al-Shehab was initially given six years in prison for the “crime” of using an internet website to “cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security,” but she received a harsher ruling from an appeals court on Monday. The charges come after Al-Shehab posted on Twitter calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia and the release of political prisoners. The court ruled that she’d been aiding dissidents, which it considers terrorism. This is the country’s longest prison sentence handed down for a peaceful activist.
“Saudi Arabia is boasting to the world that they are improving women’s rights and implementing legal reforms. But there is no question with this sentence that the situation is just getting worse,” said Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, to the BBC.
“We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her. Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family, and her friends among our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers,” a Leeds University spokesperson said.
Al-Shehab told judges that she had no idea that retweeting posts “out of curiosity and to observe others’ viewpoints,” would be viewed as terrorism.
“The (six-year) prison sentence imposed on the defendant was minor in view of her crimes. I’m calling to amend the sentence in light of her support for those who are trying to cause disorder and destabilize society, as shown by her following and retweeting (Twitter) accounts,” a state prosecutor told the appeals court.