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

Saudi activist Salma al-Shehab sentenced to 34 years for tweeting
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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia served the longest Saudi sentence ever, silently jailing a woman for 34 years for Twitter activity last week Three rights groups said it had sparked a new wave of fear for a peaceful activist and among opponents of the government.

The woman, Salma al-Shehab, was detained in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia, where she was on vacation days before her Saudi national and mother of two returned to her UK home, according to rights groups. All of the charges against the 33-year-old suspect revolved around Twitter activity, court documents show.

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

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According to court records obtained by The Washington Post, Shehab was charged with using the social media site to “disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and to support criminals under anti-terrorism law and support under anti-terrorism law.” financing.”

The documents said he supported such individuals by “following their social media accounts and reposting their tweets” and spreading false rumors. The documents went on to say that after the applicant appealed his initial conviction, his prison sentence was found to be too short “given his crimes” and that his previous sentence “did not provide restraint or deterrence”.

The court ordered the confiscation of her mobile phone and the “permanent shutdown” of her Twitter account, in addition to a 34-year sentence and then a 34-year travel ban that began after her sentence expired.

The accusations are familiar: revolting and destabilizing the state are common accusations against activists who oppose the status quo in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has long used anti-terrorism law against citizens whose protests are deemed unacceptable, especially if they criticize the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In late 2021, the initial verdict against Shehab sentenced him to six years in prison. But when she appealed, it rose to 34, the country’s longest sentence for a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Human rights groups have repeatedly warned of the government’s recent use of anti-terrorism legislation. in April, Human Rights Watch The laws in question “contain vague and overly broad provisions, widely interpreted and abused, including anti-terrorism law and anti-cybercrime law, which are notorious for their abuse.” Decisions are also often characterized by inconsistent and harsh sentences.

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at London-based Saudi rights group ALQST, said she’s trying to make sure at least one rights group isn’t shut down, as the penalty includes shutting down her Twitter account.

“We’re now working to make sure that if they don’t shut down Twitter, or at least if they’re asked to shut it down, it’s from the Saudi government, not Twitter,” he said. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

The European Saudi Human Rights Organization, which followed the arrests in Saudi Arabia, said on Tuesday that the decision to punish Shehab under anti-terrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia deals with reform seekers and critics on social networks as terrorists.”

The group said the decision set a dangerous precedent and showed that Saudi Arabia’s widely-praised efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights were “not serious and fall within the scope of its whitening campaigns to improve its human rights record”.

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Prior to his arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital Riyadh and a final year PhD student at the University of Leeds in England. A colleague who worked with him in Leeds said he was doing exploratory research there on new techniques in oral and dental medicine and their application in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, the person described Shehab as a “great” and “generous” colleague – “the kind of person who always brings treats”.

His colleague added that he never spoke publicly about politics, but instead frequently talked about his children and showed his photos to friends and colleagues. “He missed his family so much”

Shehab returned to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2019 and never returned to school in England. At first, this did not alarm anyone, given the prolonged coronavirus lockdowns in the UK that began in March 2020. But in the end, his colleague said, “Has anyone heard from Salma?” she said she started asking.

“It was a shock to all of us because ‘How can someone like him be arrested?’ we thought.’ said the person.

A spokesperson from the University of Leeds told The Post via email: “We are deeply concerned to learn of this latest development in Salma’s case and seek advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her.”

“Our thoughts are with Salma, her family and friends amongst our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers,” the spokesperson said.

When asked if it is monitoring Shehab’s case or if she has made any attempts to secure her release, the British Foreign Office told The Post via email: “Ministers and senior officials have said that Women’s Rights Defenders are and will continue to do so to Saudi officials.” .

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The Shehab belongs to the minority Shiite sect of Islam – viewed as heretical by many strict Sunni Muslims, and her followers in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for its treatment of the Shiite minority. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report earlier this year: statement On human rights where the kingdom “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities”, including Shiites.

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

The Twitter page that remains active has a pinned tweet of a prayer asking for forgiveness if he has unknowingly committed a crime against another human being and asking God to help him reject injustice and help those who face it.

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

Timsit reported from France.

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