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

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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia quietly sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity last week, marking the longest sentence ever handed down for a peaceful activist and sparking a new wave of fear among government critics, a rights group has said.

The woman, Salma al-Shehab, was arrested in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia, where she was on holiday, days before the Saudi citizen and mother of two was to return home to Britain, peace groups said. defense of rights. The charges against the 33-year-old all revolved around her activity on Twitter, said the Saudi European Human Rights Organization, which reviewed court documents and spoke to her friends.

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 also called for the release of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

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The Euro-Saudi human rights group, which tracks arrests in the kingdom, said Shehab was accused of undermining societal security and state stability, spreading sedition, assisting those who seek to disrupt public order and spreading false and malicious rumors on Twitter.

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.

The sentence includes a 34-year travel ban and the closure of his Twitter account, said Lina al-Hathloul, monitoring and communications manager 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 at least if they’re asked to shut it down, it’s coming from the Saudi government and not her.”

In its statement on Tuesday, the Euro-Saudi rights group said the decision to convict Shehab under the counterterrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia treats those who demand reform and critics on social media as 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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Shehab is a PhD student at Britain’s University of Leeds and a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The oral medicine specialist belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, considered by many die-hard Sunni Muslims to be heretical.

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, her tweet pinned to the top of her activity is a 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”.

Annabelle Timsit in France contributed to this report.


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