Two weeks after a 34-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to prison for retweeting activists critical of the Saudi government, another woman has been handed a record-breaking sentence for using social media.
Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani has been sentenced to 45 years in prison for her reportedly minimal but apparently destabilizing online activity, according to court documents obtained by Democracy for the Arab World Now.
Specifically, al-Qahtani was convicted of “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric” after a judge accused her of using social media to “violate the public order.” There are zero details about what she potentially tweeted, posted, blogged, liked, etc., etc. Her charge sheet, which was seen by the Associated Press, only said that her case involved social media.
Dawn, a Washington-based nonprofit founded by Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was tortured and dismembered in Istanbul’s Saudi Consulate in October 2018, also told the Guardian they had verified the docs through Saudi sources.
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There are even fewer details available about al-Qahtani herself, apart from reports that she hails from one of Saudi Arabia’s largest tribes and doesn’t have a history of activism. She also doesn’t have a social account attached to her name—though it’s common for Saudis to use pseudonyms online, especially when criticizing anything about the government. She was reportedly taken into custody on July 4, 2021, before being convinced by the kingdom’s specialized criminal court. She received her 45-year sentence during an appeal.
Despite the lack of details, al-Qahtani appears to have been jailed for “simply tweeting her opinions,” Abdullah Alaoudh, the director for the Gulf region at Dawn, told the Guardian. Further, Alaoudh believes a lack of action from the U.S. government has emboldened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to continue handing out cruel sentences to anyone critical of the government. (For reference, please see the fist bump heard around the world.)
“It is impossible not to connect the dots between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with President Biden last month in Jeddah and the uptick in the repressive attacks against anyone who dares criticize the crown prince or the Saudi government for well-documented abuses,” Alaoudh said in a statement.
The news comes two weeks after another woman, Salma al-Shehab, was sentenced to 34 years prison for retweeting activists who were critical of the Saudi government. The PhD student at the University of Leeds was similarly charged with using Twitter to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security,” according to documents obtained and translated by the Guardian. al-Shehab’s sentencing had been reported as the longest sentence ever received by a Saudi human rights defender—meaning, regrettably, that al-Qahtani now holds the record for the longest sentence.
“In both the al-Shebab and al-Qahtani cases, Saudi authorities have used abusive laws to target and punish Saudi citizens for criticizing the government on Twitter,” Alaoudh said. “But this is only half the story because even the Crown Prince would not allow such vindictive and excessive sentences if he felt that these actions would be met by meaningful censor by the United States and other Western governments. Clearly, they are not.”