Saudi PhD student gets 34 years in prison for tweets

Dubai, United Arab Emirates –

A Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumors” on Twitter and retweeting dissidents, according to court documents obtained Thursday, drawing mounting global condemnation.

Activists and lawyers consider the sentence against Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at the University of Leeds in Britain, shocking even by Saudi standards of justice.

Until now unrecognized by the kingdom, the ruling comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent even as his government granted women the right to drive and other new freedoms in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.

Al-Shehab was detained during a family vacation in January 2021, just days before she planned to return to the UK, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights group.

Al-Shehab told judges she had been jailed for more than 285 days before her case was sent to court, legal documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

Freedom Initiative describes al-Shehab as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority, which has long complained of systematic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that it is improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no doubt that with this abhorrent phrase the situation is only getting worse,” said Bethany al-Haidari, a case manager. Saudis from the group.

Since taking power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has accelerated efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil with massive tourism projects; More recently, he plans to create the world’s longest buildings that would stretch more than 100 miles into the desert. But he has also faced criticism for the arrests of those who do not align, including dissidents and activists, but also princes and businessmen.

The judges charged al-Shehab with “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric,” claims stemming solely from his activity on social media, according to an official charge sheet. They alleged that al-Shehab followed and retweeted dissident Twitter accounts and “spread false rumours.”

A special court for crimes against national security and terrorism handed down the unusually harsh sentence of 34 years, followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision was made earlier this month when al-Shehab appealed his initial six-year sentence.

“The (six-year) prison sentence imposed on the defendant was less in view of her crimes,” a state prosecutor told the appeals court. “I call for amending the sentence in light of your support for those who are trying to cause disorder and destabilize society, as evidenced by your follower counts and retweets (Twitter).”

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 his final year of doctoral studies at the medical school.

“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,” the university said.

Al-Shehab’s sentence also caught the attention of Washington, where the State Department said on Wednesday it was “studying the case.”

“The exercise of free speech to defend women’s rights should not be criminalized, should never be criminalized,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

Last month, US President Joe Biden traveled to the oil-rich kingdom and held talks with Prince Mohammed in which he said he raised human rights concerns. Their meeting, and the much-criticized fist bump, marked a sharp reversal from Biden’s earlier promise to make the kingdom a “pariah” for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

During his appeal, al-Shehab said the harsh trial amounted to “the destruction of me, my family, my future and the future of my children.” He has two young children, ages 4 and 6.

He told the judges he had no idea that simply retweeting posts “out of curiosity and to see other people’s points of view” from a personal account with no more than 2,000 followers constituted terrorism.


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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