The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, the country’s de facto leader, in Mecca on Aug. 16. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia quietly sentenced a woman last week to 34 years in prison over her Twitter activity, marking the longest Saudi sentence ever for a peaceful activist and launching a fresh wave of fear among the government’s detractors, three rights groups said.

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

Shehab had been active on the social media platform during campaigns demanding the abolition of the country’s guardianship system, which gives men legal control over certain aspects of female relatives’ lives. She had called for the freeing 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 stability of the state, and support those who had committed criminal actions according to the counterterrorism law 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 an initial conviction, it was decided that her prison sentence was too short “considering her crimes,” and that her previous sentence failed to “achieve restraint and deterrence.”

On top of a 34-year sentence and subsequent 34-year travel ban, which begins after the prison sentence ends, the court ruled that her mobile phone be confiscated and her Twitter account be “closed down permanently.”

The charges are familiar: Sowing sedition and destabilizing the state are accusations frequently used against activists in the kingdom who speak up against the status quo. Saudi Arabia has long wielded its counterterrorism 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 ruling against Shehab gave her six years in prison. When she appealed, however, 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 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 characterized 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, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group.

“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 Organization 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 modernize 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.”

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Before her arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and a PhD student in her final year 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.”

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.

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

“Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family and her friends among our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers,” the spokesperson added.

When asked whether it was monitoring Shehab’s case or was involved in any attempts to secure her release, the British Foreign Office told The Post via email 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.”

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

Saudi Arabia often has been criticized 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 Jan. 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.”

Timsit reported from France.