PhD student sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets

A PhD student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, who is also a lecturer at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University in Saudi Arabia, received a 34-year prison sentence and a 34-year travel ban from the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal in Saudi Arabia for peaceful activities on Twitter, according to human rights organisations.

The court issued the sentence to human rights defender Salma al-Shehab – a specialist in oral and dental medicine and a 34-year-old mother with two children – on 9 August due to charges related to her tweeting or retweeting peaceful views, according to the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

ESOHR reported that al-Shehab was active during campaigns demanding the lifting of the guardianship system over women by their male relatives. She also called for freedom for male and female prisoners of conscience, such as human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul.

A five-fold increase in sentence

The 34-year sentence represents a more than five-fold increase on appeal of a six-year prison term issued by the Specialized Criminal Court in late 2021.

ESOHR said the sentence sets a “dangerous precedent for women activists and human rights defenders”.

The GCHR said it is “the heaviest sentence that any peaceful activist has ever received”.

GCHR noted that al-Shehab used her Twitter account “in particular to demonstrate her belief in the justice of the Palestinian cause and to defend prisoners of conscience”.

The Public Prosecution accused her of several charges, including undermining the security of society and the stability of the state, spreading sedition, providing aid to those who seek to disrupt public order, and spreading false and malicious rumours on Twitter, ESOHR reported.

“Appeal court judges invoked the counterterrorism regime and its financing to justify the harsh ruling, even though all charges against her relate to her Twitter activity,” ESOHR said.

GCHR noted that al-Shehab on 30 August 2019 tweeted: “I reject injustice, and support the oppressed... Freedom for prisoners of conscience and for all the oppressed in the world.”

On 20 December 2020, she tweeted: “Freedom for the inmates of patriarchy, shame on the jailer!”

‘Longest sentence issued against an activist’

ESOHR said it considers the sentence a dangerous precedent because “it is the longest prison sentence issued against female or male activists and might be a step towards further escalation against them”.

“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.”

In recent years, the Saudi government has arrested at least 116 women, 60 of whom are still detained, and ESOHR monitored the death of one woman in prison, ESOHR said.

“Under the policy of impunity, no one has been held accountable for the abuses women were subjected to in prisons, despite the filing of multiple complaints of torture and ill treatment.”

ESOHR stressed that sentencing al-Shehab under the counterterrorism and financing system “confirms that Saudi Arabia deals with those who demand reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists”.

ESOHR also said the ruling against al-Shehab reveals that the recent steps taken by the Saudi government on women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is carrying out to improve its poor human rights record. The Saudi government continues to practise its grave violations against women activists without any hesitation.”

GCHR said al-Shehab, who also holds a masters degree from King Saud University in Riyadh, was arrested on 15 January 2021, after going to Saudi Arabia to spend the holiday with her family.

Subjected to ‘ill treatment’

“She was subjected to ill treatment during her arrest and for long hours of daily investigation over a period of nine-and-a-half months.

“It is worth noting that she was not allowed to hire a lawyer throughout the strenuous investigation stage, in flagrant violation of Article 4 of the Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure,” GCHR said.

After that, her trial began before the Specialized Criminal Court, the terrorism court established in 2008 to try members of terrorist organisations, but often used to imprison human rights defenders.