On Monday, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her Twitter account to retweet messages from dissidents and activists speaking out against the Saudi government. Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old PhD student at the University of Leeds, was first detained and questioned in December 2020 upon returning to her home country with her husband and two children. According to translated documents acquired by the Guardian, Shehab’s initial charges were for using a website to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security.”
At first, she received a significantly lesser sentence (some outlets have said three years, others have said six). But after prosecutors asked the special terrorist court to consider additional “crimes,” she got an additional 31 years (and a ban on traveling upon her release) for following and retweeting critics of the Saudi regime. As The Indian Express noted, this is the longest sentence that any Saudi human rights defender has ever received.
While those acquainted with her told the Guardian that Shehab “couldn’t stomach injustice,” she is far from a leading activist. According to Shehab’s Instagram account (which is set to private), in addition to pursuing a doctorate degree, she is a “dental hygienist, medical educator...and lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University.” Yes, she did speak out against the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul—who was similarly tortured and deemed a national “traitor” by the government—but so did hundreds of other civilians. It wasn’t like her online influence was particularly booming, either: On Instagram, Shehab only has over 100 followers; on Twitter, she has about 2,500. By all accounts, she’s a regular citizen who uses social media platforms to amplify messages she believes in, just like any of us.
Twitter has made clear who they are and aren’t willing to protect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the social media platform has not issued a statement on the matter—a move that could upset its top investors, including Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns 5% of the company’s holdings. Twitter remained similarly silent when it allowed Saudi senior aide Bader al-Asaker to keep his verified Twitter account after he was accused of bribing Twitter employees (with amounts over $300,000) to leak activists’ account info. Just earlier this week, former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo was found guilty of spying for the Saudi government, leaking private information of those critical of the regime’s actions.
Since her initial arrest, Shehab has been periodically held in solitary confinement. According to the Guardian, during her trial, she asked to privately detail her treatment during certain periods because she did not want her father to hear. As many human rights activists worry, this potentially suggests that her maltreatment included sexual assault.
Shahab’s draconian sentence comes only a few weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit with Saudi prince and ruler Mohammad Bin Salman, an event that “human rights activists and critics warned could embolden the country’s crackdown on activists and dissidents,” according to CBS News. In a statement released yesterday, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights said, “The ruling against Shehab reveals that the recent steps taken by the Saudi government in the file of women’s rights are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is carrying out to improve its poor human rights record. The Saudi government continues to practice its grave violations against women activists without any hesitation,” further calling the sentence “unprecedented” and “dangerous.”