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

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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia last week quietly sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity, which is the longest ever Saudi sentence for a peaceful activist and launching a new wave of fear among the government’s opponents, three human rights groups said.

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

Shehab was active on the social media platform during campaigns demanding the abolition of the country’s child custody system, which gives men legal control over certain aspects of the lives of female relatives. She had called for the release of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

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According to court records obtained by The Washington Post, Shehab was accused of using a social media website “to disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and support those who committed criminal acts.” under the Anti-Terrorism Act and its financing.”

The documents said she supported such individuals “by following their social media accounts and rebroadcasting their tweets”, and that she spread false rumors. The documents went on to say that after she appealed a first conviction, it was decided her jail term was too short, “given her crimes”, and that her previous sentence did not “reach restraint and deterrence”.

In addition to a 34-year sentence and a subsequent 34-year travel ban, which will take effect after the jail term ends, the court ordered her mobile phone to be seized and her Twitter account to be “permanently closed”.

The charges are well known: inciting incitement and destabilizing the state are charges often used against activists in the kingdom who speak out against the status quo. Saudi Arabia has long been enforcing its anti-terror law against its citizens whose protests are deemed unacceptable, especially when they criticize the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At the end of 2021, the first verdict against Shehab gave her six years in prison. However, when she appealed, it was increased to 34 — the country’s longest sentence against a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned about the government’s recent use of the anti-terrorism law. In April, Human Rights Watch said that laws such as “the notoriously abusive Anti-Terrorism Act and the Anti-Cybercrime Act contain vague and over-broad provisions that have been widely interpreted and abused.” The verdicts are also often characterized by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

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

“Now we are working with Twitter not to shut it down or to make them aware that if they are asked to shut it down, it will come 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 Organization for Human Rights, which monitors arrests in the kingdom, said its decision to convict Shehab under the anti-terrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia treats those demanding reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists.” .”

The group said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and shows that Saudi Arabia’s widely acclaimed efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the money laundering campaigns it is pursuing to improve its human rights record.” .”

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

Speaking about the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, the person described Shehab as a “wonderful” and “generous” colleague — “the type of person who always brings in treats.”

She never spoke publicly about politics, the colleague added, instead speaking often about her children and showing friends and colleagues pictures of them. She “missed her family very much.”

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

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

Asked if it was monitoring Shehab’s case or was involved in efforts to secure her release, the British Foreign Office told The Post via email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly expressed concerns about the detention of women’s rights defenders with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so.”

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Shehab belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, considered heretical by many hardline Sunni Muslims and whose adherents in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for the way it treats the Shia 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 the company of a loved one.

On her Twitter page, which is still active, she has a pinned tweet of a prayer asking for forgiveness if she ever unknowingly offended another human being and asking God to help her reject injustice and to help those who are confronted with it.

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

Timsit reported from France.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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