A Saudi Arabian student sentenced to 34 years in prison for her social media activity had been reported to the country’s authorities using a crime-reporting app, highlighting the use of technology by Saudi authorities to clamp down on dissent.
Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two children who was studying at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, was reported for her Twitter content through the “Kollona Amn”, or “We Are All Security” app, the Guardian newspaper reported.
It is unknown if the authorities directly responded to the report, but two months after it was issued, al-Shehab was arrested.
According to the Guardian, the sentence handed to al-Shehab on Monday is the longest-known sentence for a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Shehab had initially been sentenced by Saudi Arabia’s special terrorist court to three years in prison for using Twitter to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security”.
But during the appeal process, a public prosecutor asked the court to include other alleged crimes and al-Shehab received a 34-year prison sentence, followed by a 34-year travel ban.
It is believed that al-Shehab may still be able to appeal the new sentence.
Salma al-Shehab, 34-year-old Saudi women's rights activist, PhD candidate @UniversityLeeds and mother of two young children has been sentenced to 34 years in prison followed by a 34 year travel ban.
HER CRIME: Using @Twitter #SaudiArabia pic.twitter.com/pCKqI1QOBS
— Dr. Nina Ansary (@drninaansary) August 17, 2022
The case has sparked concerns regarding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) crackdown on dissidents and activists in the country.
Prominent women’s rights activists, such as Loujain Alhathloul, as well as religious scholars such as Salman al-Awdah, have been imprisoned, while dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
“Salma’s shockingly harsh sentence sends a chilling message to Saudi society – that despite their rhetoric of reforms, the authorities remain as hellbent as ever on crushing any form of peaceful dissent,” said Lina Alhathloul, the sister of Loujain, who continues to face restrictions in Saudi Arabia despite being released.
“By rehabilitating Saudi Arabia’s leaders, western states are giving the green light for such abuses to occur. Instead, sustained international pressure must be exerted to help release Salma and bring about meaningful progress on human rights in the country,” Alhathloul, who is the head of monitoring and communications at the Saudi human rights group ALQST, told Al Jazeera.
US following case
Al-Shehab’s sentencing comes only a few weeks after United States President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met MBS.
The US government has now said that it is studying al-Shehab’s case.
“Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalised, it should never be criminalised,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday.
Al-Shehab’s Twitter account has more than 2,900 followers and includes retweets tweets of Saudi dissidents living in exile.
The student came back to Saudi Arabia in December 2020 for a holiday and planned to bring her husband and children with her back to the UK. However, during her stay she was called in by the Saudi authorities for questioning and was then arrested in January 2021.
Al-Shehab was a PhD student at Leeds University, and also worked as a dental hygienist, medical educator and lecturer at Saudi Arabia’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University.
The University of Leeds has expressed its concerns regarding the sentence, saying it was “seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her”.