Saudi activist Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting

Saudi activist Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting
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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia last week quietly sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activities, making it Saudi Arabia’s longest sentence. Three rights groups said it had set off a new wave of fear among government critics for a peaceful activist.

The woman, Salma al-Shehab, was detained in Saudi Arabia on holiday in January 2021, days before the Saudi national and mother-of-two was due to return home to Britain, according to rights groups. According to court documents, the charges the 33-year-old woman faced were related to her Twitter activity.

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

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According to court documents obtained by The Washington Post, Shehab was accused of using the social media site to “disrupt public order, undermine public safety and stability of the state, and support those who commit crimes under anti-terrorism law and statutes.” its financing”.

In the documents, he said he supported such individuals by “monitoring their social media accounts and retweeting their tweets” and spreading false rumors. The documents further said that after he appealed his original conviction, it was decided that his prison term was too short “considering his crimes” and that his previous sentence did not achieve “security and deterrence”.

In addition to the 34-year sentence, which begins after the prison term ends, and a subsequent 34-year travel ban, the court ordered the confiscation of his mobile phone and the “permanent closure” of his Twitter account.

The charges are familiar: Inciting rebellion and destabilizing the state are charges often used against activists who oppose the kingdom’s status quo. Saudi Arabia has long enforced an anti-terror law against its citizens, whose protests are deemed unacceptable, especially if they criticize the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A preliminary ruling against Shehab in late 2021 sentenced him to six years in prison. However, when he appealed, it was increased to 34 — the country’s longest sentence for a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Human rights activists have repeatedly warned of the government’s recent use of the anti-terror law. in April, Human Rights Watch “Laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Anti-Cybercrime Act contain vague and overbroad provisions that are widely interpreted and abused,” he said. Decisions are also often characterized by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group, said that since the punishment included the suspension of his Twitter account, at least one rights group was trying to make sure it was not shut down.

“Now we’re working with Twitter to make sure they don’t shut it down, or to let them know that at least if they’re trying to shut it down, it’s coming from the Saudi government, not him.” Twitter did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

In a statement on Tuesday, the European Saudi Human Rights Organization, which monitors arrests in the kingdom, said the decision to punish Shehab under the anti-terror law “confirms that Saudi Arabia is treating those demanding reforms and criticizing social media as terrorists.”

The group said the decision sets a dangerous precedent and shows that Saudi Arabia’s widely lauded efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights “are not serious and are part of its whitewashing campaigns to improve its human rights record.”

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Before his arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and a doctoral student at the University of Leeds in Britain. A colleague who worked with him in Leeds said he was there doing exploratory research into new techniques in oral and dental medicine and their applications in Saudi Arabia.

The person, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the case, described Shehab as a “beautiful” and “generous” colleague – “the type of person who always brings pleasure.”

The colleague added that he never openly discussed politics, instead often talking about his children and showing photos of them to friends and colleagues. He “missed his family so much.”

Shehab returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2019 and never returned to school in Britain. Given the long coronavirus lockdown in England that began in March 2020, this was hardly a concern. But eventually, according to his colleague, people started asking, “Anyone hear from Salma?” they started asking.

“It was a shock to all of us because we were like, ‘How can you arrest someone like him?’ we thought. ” the man said. The University of Leeds did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

Asked whether Britain’s Foreign Office was following Shehab’s case or involved in any efforts to secure her release, the Foreign Office told The Post via email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns about the detention of women’s rights activists with Saudi Arabia.” Arabia and will continue to do so.

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Shehab belongs to the minority Shia sect of Islam – viewed as a heretic by many hardline Sunni Muslims – and his followers in Saudi Arabia are automatically viewed with suspicion by the Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized for its treatment of the Shiite minority. Earlier this year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report report on human rights that the kingdom “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, including Shiites.”

Shehab’s last Twitter activity was in January. 13, 2021, when he retweeted a classic Arabic song about losing a loved one, two days before his arrest.

On his Twitter account, which remains active, he posted a tweet asking for forgiveness if he had unknowingly sinned against another person and praying for God to reject injustice and help those who face it.

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

Timsit reported from France.

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