Saudi woman sentenced to 34 years in prison for using Twitter | Saudi Arabia

A Saudi University of Leeds student who had returned to the kingdom for a holiday has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists.

The sentencing by Saudi Arabia’s special counter-terrorism court came weeks after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which rights activists say could encourage the kingdom to step up its crackdown on dissidents and others pro-democracy activists.

The case also marks the latest example of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has targeted Twitter users in his crackdown, while simultaneously controlling a major indirect stake in the US social media company through the fund. Saudi sovereign, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Salma al-Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children, was initially sentenced to three years in prison for the “crime” of using a website to “cause public disorder and destabilize civil and national security”. But an appeals court on Monday handed down the new sentence – 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban – after a prosecutor asked the court to look into other alleged crimes.

According to a translation of the court records, which have been viewed by the Guardian, the new charges include the allegation that Shehab was “helping those who seek to cause public disorder and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and by retweeting their tweets. It is believed that Shehab may still be able to request a re-appeal in the matter.

Salma al-Shehab and her family. Photography: ESOHR

By all accounts, Shehab was not a prominent or particularly vocal Saudi activist, either inside the kingdom or in the UK. She described herself on Instagram – where she had 159 followers – as a dental hygienist, medical educator, PhD student at the University of Leeds and lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, and wife and mother of her sons. , Noah and Adam.

Her Twitter profile showed she had 2,597 followers. Among tweets about Covid burnout and photos of her young children, Shehab occasionally retweeted tweets from Saudi dissidents living in exile, who called for the release of the kingdom’s political prisoners. She appeared to support the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was once jailed, allegedly tortured for supporting women’s right to drive and now lives under a travel ban.

A person who knew Shehab said she couldn’t stand the injustice. She was described as well-educated and an avid reader who had arrived in the UK in 2018 or 2019 to pursue her doctorate in Leeds. She had returned home to Saudi Arabia in December 2020 on holiday and intended to bring her two children and husband back to the UK with her. She was later summoned for questioning by Saudi authorities and eventually arrested and tried for her tweets.

A person who followed her case said Shehab was sometimes held in solitary confinement and sought during her trial to privately tell the judge something about how she was treated, which she did not want to say. in front of his father. She was not allowed to deliver the message to the judge, the person said. The appeal verdict was signed by three judges but the signatures were illegible.

Twitter declined to comment on the matter and did not respond to specific questions about Saudi Arabia’s influence – if any – on the company. Twitter previously did not respond to questions from the Guardian about why a senior aide to Prince Mohammed, Bader al-Asaker, was allowed to keep a verified Twitter account with more than 2 million followers, despite claims of the US government that he orchestrated an illegal infiltration. company that led anonymous Twitter users to be identified and imprisoned by the Saudi government. A former Twitter employee has been convicted in a US court in connection with the case.

One of Twitter’s biggest investors is Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns more than 5% of Twitter through his investment company, Kingdom Holdings. While Prince Alwaleed is still chairman of the company, his control over the group has been the subject of questions in the US media, including the Wall Street Journal, after it emerged that the Saudi royal – a cousin of the crown prince – had been held captive at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh for 83 days. The incident was part of a wider purge led by Prince Mohammed against other royals and businessmen, and involved allegations of torture, coercion and expropriation of billions in assets in Saudi coffers.

In a 2018 Bloomberg interview of Prince Alwaleedwhich was conducted in Riyadh seven weeks after his release, the billionaire admitted to having reached a “confirmed agreement” with the Saudi government, apparently in connection with his release, which was confidential.

More recently, Kingdom Holding announced in May that it had sold around 17% of its company to the PIF, where Prince Mohammed is president, for $1.5 billion. This, in turn, makes the Saudi government a significant indirect investor in Twitter. According to Twitter, investors have no role in running the company’s day-to-day operations.

The Saudi European Human Rights Organization condemned Shehab’s sentence, which it said was the longest prison sentence ever given to an activist. He noted that many female activists were subjected to unfair trials that resulted in arbitrary convictions and were subjected to “severe torture,” including sexual harassment.

Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi who lives in exile and whose sister and brother are being held in the kingdom, said the Shehab case proved Saudi Arabia’s view that dissent equals terrorism.

“Salma’s draconian sentencing by an anti-terrorism court for peaceful tweets is the latest manifestation of MBS’ ruthless repression machine,” he said, referring to the crown prince. “Just like [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi’s assassination, his sentencing is meant to send shockwaves inside and outside the kingdom – dare to criticize MBS and you’ll end up dismembered or in Saudi dungeons.

Although the case has not received widespread attention, the Washington Post on Tuesday published a scathing editorial over Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the Leeds student and said her case showed the ‘pledges’ the president had received on reforms 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, aged 4 and 6, in the UK and resume her duties there. studies,” he added. Lily.

Additional reporting by Robyn Vinter in Leeds

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Edward L. Robinett