Saudi whistleblower app appears to have been used against jailed student in Leeds | Saudi Arabia

The Saudi woman who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for a tweet appears to have been reported to Saudi authorities via a crime-reporting app that users in the kingdom can download on Apple and Android phones.

A review of tweets and interactions by Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student in Leeds, shows that she received a message from someone using a Saudi account on November 15, 2020 after posting a mildly critical tweet in response to a message from the Saudi government regarding a new public transport contract.

The user told Shehab that he reported her on the Saudi app, which is called Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security. It is unclear whether Saudi officials responded directly to the report, but the 34-year-old mother was arrested two months later.

Shehab’s case has been condemned by human rights groups and other pro-democracy outlets who said the draconian sentencing against her was further evidence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relentless crackdown on dissent.

A University of Leeds spokesperson said on Wednesday: ‘We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her. Our hearts go out to Salma, her family and her friends within our close-knit community of postgraduate scholars. Shehab’s research has focused on improving dental treatment for patients with disabilities.

Shehab was still working on completing her PhD in the UK in December 2020 when she returned home to Arabia to visit family. A few weeks into her visit, she was ordered to report to Saudi authorities who arrested and tried her for her use of Twitter.

His alleged crimes, including using a website to “cause public disorder” and “assisting those who seek to cause public disorder and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and retweeting their tweets.

Shehab had around 2,000 followers. A review of his account activity shows that on October 8, 2019, Shehab replied to a tweet from a verified Saudi account that reports on developments in the kingdom’s infrastructure projects. When the account tweeted about the launch of a new bus network, she tweeted the word “finally! “.

More than a year later, on November 15, 2020, a Saudi account with around 200 followers – which shows a man’s face and uses the name Faisal OTB – replied to his tweet with a slur. The user wrote that he was puzzled by Shehab’s Twitter account for displaying both the Saudi and Palestinian flags and denounced her for posting “garbage”. The account user then said he took screenshots of some of Shehab’s Twitter activities and flagged them on Kollona Amn, adding that he hoped she would be deported to Palestine.

Shehab’s response – which was posted shortly before she left the UK to return to Arabia – was provocative. She said in a short reply that it wouldn’t be so bad to go to Palestine, where she could visit the Holy Mosque in Jerusalem and he should do whatever he wanted.

On official Saudi websites, Kollona Amn – which also has a Twitter account – is described as an application that allows citizens and expatriates to submit security and criminal reports related to attacks on personal life, threats, identity theft, extortion, account penetration of social media, defamation, fraud and other criminal offenses and security reports.

Noura Aljizawi, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab which identifies digital threats to civil society, said the use of such apps – which can be downloaded through app stores for iPhone users and Android – represented a “new phase of digital”. authoritarianism”.

“Previously, this type of censorship was carried out by security intelligence forces, but now having these apps and encouraging citizens to report to each other, opens the door to massive censorship,” she said. .

“It’s very concerning because the people who post something can’t predict the risk or who’s going to report it, and who’s going to go back and search their news feed for posts that don’t match government propaganda. “, Aljizawi said. Recalling his own experience in Syria, Aljizawi described the phenomenon of citizens unable to trust their own neighbours.

“Sometimes people get into trouble. They need a promotion or have to prove their loyalty to the state, so they do something like that. Just take a screenshot and report it,” she said.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to questions from the Guardian about whether to allow the download of Kollona Amn in light of Shehab’s conviction.

Bethany Al-Haidari, Saudi case officer at Freedom Initiative, a US-based human rights group, said Saudi Arabia has used technology to violate human rights and stalk government targets for decades.

“We now see that Kollona Amn could be linked to the detention of a women’s rights defender. Technology has a wonderful power to transform and develop a society. However, in the hands of a dictatorship targeting human rights defenders, technology turns into a terrifying tool that accelerates repression, and the consequences are severe,” she said.

A friend of Shehab’s in the UK said he feared she had been targeted by the government because she was a doctoral student.

The friend, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted herself, said Shehab regularly tweeted in support of the rights of others, but thought it went unnoticed because she didn’t have many Twitter followers.

“She [would] always defend all human rights in saudi arabia or outside saudi arabia. She has a very sweet personality and you can’t see her without a cute smile on her face.

The person said Shehab, who has been studying in the UK since 2017, was not particularly critical of the government and supported Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and towards services such as health and tourism.

The person said: “She was happy with the small steps towards women’s rights, like driving.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn said he was “shocked” to read Shehab’s case and would raise the issue of his sentence with the government.

“She should be released to return to her grandchildren and husband, and for her studies in Leeds,” he said.

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Edward L. Robinett