Female Saudi activist gets record 34 years in prison for critical tweets

Rights groups have repeatedly warned about the government’s recent use of the counterterrorism law. In April, Human Rights Watch said laws such as “the notoriously abusive counterterrorism law and the anti-cybercrime law, include vague and overly broad provisions that have been widely interpreted and abused.” The rulings are also often characterised by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

As the sentence includes the closure of her Twitter account, at least one rights group is trying to make sure it is not shut down, said Lina al-Hathloul, the head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group.

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“Now we’re working with Twitter not to close it or to make them aware that at least if they’re asked to close it, it comes 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 Tuesday, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, which tracks arrests in the kingdom, said the decision to sentence Shehab under the counterterrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia deals with those who demand reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists”.

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

Before her arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and a PhD student at Britain’s University of Leeds. She was conducting exploratory research there about new techniques in oral and dental medicine and their applications in Saudi Arabia, a colleague who worked with her in Leeds said.

The person, who spoke on the condition anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, described Shehab as a “wonderful” and “generous” colleague – “the type of person who always brings in treats”.

She never publicly spoke of politics, the colleague added, instead speaking often of her children and showing friends and colleagues photos of them. She “missed her family a lot,” the colleague said.

Shehab went back to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2019 and never returned to school in Britain. At first, that didn’t alarm anyone, given the long period of coronavirus lockdowns that began in March 2020 in England. But eventually, her colleague said, people began asking, “Has anyone heard from Salma?”

“It came as a shock to all of us because we thought, ‘How can a person like her be arrested?’” the person said. The University of Leeds did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

When asked whether it was monitoring Shehab’s case or was involved in any attempts to secure her release, the British Foreign Office said that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns over the detention of Women’s Rights Defenders with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so”.

Shehab belongs to the minority Shiite sect of Islam – viewed by many hard-line Sunni Muslims as heretical. Its adherents in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by the Sunni authorities.

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

Shehab’s last Twitter activity was on 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 has a pinned tweet of 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 the prisoners of conscience and to every oppressed person in the world”.

Washington Post

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