Dubai, United Arab Emirates — A Saudi court has sentenced a PhD student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting dissidents, according to court documents obtained Thursday, a decision that is increasingly condemned worldwide.
Activists and lawyers consider the verdict against Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at Leeds University in Britain, shocking, even by Saudi legal standards.
So far unrecognized by the kingdom, the ruling comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent, even as his rule gave women the right to drive and other new freedoms in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.
Al-Shehab was detained while on a family vacation on Jan. 15, 2021, just days before she planned to return to the United Kingdom, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights group.
Al-Shehab told judges she spent more than 285 days in solitary confinement before her case was even brought to court, according to legal documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Freedom Initiative describes al-Shehab as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim minority, which has long complained of systematic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women’s rights and implementing legal reforms, but with this abhorrent ruling there is no doubt that the situation is only going to get worse,” said Bethany al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager for the group.
Leading human rights watchdog Amnesty International on Thursday labeled al-Shehab’s trial as “grossly unfair” and her sentence as “cruel and illegal”.
Since coming to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has accelerated his efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil, with massive tourism projects – most recently plans to build the world’s tallest buildings spanning more than 160 miles into the desert. But he has also been criticized for his arrests of those out of step, including dissidents and activists, as well as princes and businessmen.
Judges accused Al-Shehab of “disrupting public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” — allegations that stem solely from its social media activities, according to an official indictment. They claimed that Al-Shehab followed dissident accounts on Twitter and retweeted and “sent false rumours.”
The specialized criminal court handed down the unusually harsh sentence of 34 years under Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism and cybercrime laws, followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision came earlier this month when al-Shehab appealed her initial six-year sentence.
“The[six years]prison sentence imposed on the defendant was minor given her crimes,” a prosecutor told the appeals court. “I call for the sentence to be adjusted in light of her support for those who seek to cause disorder and destabilize society, as evidenced by her following and retweeting (Twitter) accounts.”
The Saudi government in Riyadh, as well as its embassies in Washington and London, did not respond to a request for comment.
The University of Leeds confirmed that al-Shehab was in her final year of doctoral studies at medical school.
“We are very concerned about this recent development in Salma’s case and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her,” the university said.
Al-Shehab’s conviction also caught the attention of Washington, where the State Department said on Wednesday it was “studying the matter”.
“Exercising freedom of speech to stand up for women’s rights should not be criminalized, it should never be criminalized,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom on Twitter on Thursday expressed concerns that the kingdom had been targeted by al-Shehab “for its peaceful activism in solidarity with political prisoners”, as well as for its Shia identity.
Last month, US President Joe Biden traveled to the oil-rich kingdom and held talks with Prince Mohammed, in which he said he expressed concerns about human rights. Their meeting — and much-criticized punching — marked a sharp reversal of Biden’s earlier vow to turn the kingdom into an “outcast” after the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
During her appeal, al-Shehab said the harsh verdict amounted to “destruction of me, my family, my future and the future of my children”. She has two young boys ages 4 and 6.
She told the judges she had no idea that simply retweeting messages “out of curiosity and to observe the views of others” from a personal account with no more than 2,000 followers was terrorism.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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