Salma al-Shehab, the mother of two young children, was studying for a PhD at the University of Leeds and took time off to go home to Saudi Arabia for a vacation. Ms. Shehab is a Shiite Muslim, a persecuted minority in the kingdom, and a women’s rights activist who spoke out on social media for the right of women to drive. Her vacation ended in prison.
Saudi authorities detained Ms. Shehab in January 2021 and subsequently sentenced her to six years in prison for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.” On Twitter, she had demanded freedom for Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for women’s right to drive and was incarcerated and tortured for it. In her appeal, Ms. Shehab noted that she used her real name on social media, had a peaceful background, posted photos of her children and had relatively few (2,000) followers, so how could she pose a security risk? She complained of being held in solitary confinement for 285 days. In response, prosecutors argued that she should be charged simultaneously under the kingdom’s counterterrorism laws and under its cybercrime statute. On Aug. 8, the court delivered an especially draconian sentence: 34 years in prison and then 34 years of travel restriction. According to the Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, this is the longest known sentence for a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia.
The case offers yet another glimpse at the brutal underside of the Saudi dictatorship under its crown prince and de facto head of state, Mohammed bin Salman, whose hit team assassinated Post Opinions contributor Jamal Khashoggi nearly four years ago. The crown prince, known as MBS, has been eager to portray himself as a modernizer, lavishing Saudi wealth on an international golf tour and promoting a utopian city to be built in the desert. In February 2021, Ms. Hathloul was released after nearly three years in prison but is still under travel restrictions, one of the Saudi ruler’s many pernicious punishments.
When President Biden visited Saudi Arabia last month and fist-bumped MBS, the White House said he “raised specific cases of concern” about human rights, including “the egregious murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” The president “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.” Now the crown prince shows exactly what safeguards were in place: none. The Saudi promises to Mr. Biden were a farce.
At the very least, Mr. Biden must now speak out forcefully and demand that Ms. Shehab be released and allowed to return to her sons, 4 and 6 years old, in the United Kingdom, and to resume her studies there. Golf fans and hosts of the upcoming Saudi-backed LIV golf events in Boston, Chicago and Miami should protest Ms. Shehab’s cruel treatment. In the Saudi kingdom, the crown prince commands fear and silence. But in open societies, his ruthless behavior must be denounced at every opportunity.
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