A Saudi court has sentenced a University of Leeds doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting dissidents, according to court documents obtained on Thursday.
Activists and lawyers say the sentencing of Salma al-Shehab, the mother of two and researcher, was appalling even by Saudi judicial standards, a decision that has drawn growing global condemnation.
The kingdom has so far not recognised the ruling, which comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cracks down on dissent, even as his rule grants women in the ultra-conservative Islamic state driving and other new freedoms s right.
According to Freedom Advocacy, a Washington-based human rights group, Ms al-Shehab was detained on a family holiday in January 2021, just days before her planned return to the UK.
Legal documents obtained by The Associated Press show Ms al-Shehab told the judge she had been jailed for more than 285 days before her case was brought to court.
The Freedom Initiative describes Ms. al-Shehab as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority, which has long complained of systemic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is boasting to the world that they are improving women’s rights and undertaking legal reforms, but there is no doubt that such hateful sentences show that things are only going to get worse,” said Bethany al-Haidari, the group’s Saudi case manager.
Since coming to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has accelerated efforts to wean the kingdom’s economy off oil through a massive tourism project — most recently with plans to build the world’s longest structures that would stretch more than 100 miles across the desert.
But he has also been criticised for arresting those who did not follow the rules, including dissidents and activists but also princes and businessmen.
According to an official charge sheet, the judge charged Ms al-Shehab with “disturbing public order” and “destroying the fabric of society” – charges stemming entirely from her social media activities. They accused Ms al-Shehab of following and retweeting dissident accounts on Twitter and “spreading false rumours”.
The Special Court for Terrorism and National Security Offences handed down an unusually harsh 34-year prison sentence, followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision was made earlier this month, when Ms al-Shehab appealed her original six-year sentence.
“The (six years) prison sentence imposed on the defendant is minor in light of her crimes,” a state prosecutor told the appeals court.
“I am calling for the sentence to be amended because she supports those who seek to create chaos and destabilize society, as her follow and retweet (Twitter) account shows.”
The Saudi government in Riyadh and its embassies in Washington and London did not respond to requests for comment.
The University of Leeds confirmed that Ms al-Shehab was studying for a PhD in medical school.
“We are deeply concerned about the latest developments in Salma’s case and we are seeking input on whether there is anything we can do to support her,” the university said.
Ms al-Shehab’s verdict has also caught the attention of Washington, where the State Department said on Wednesday it was “studying the case.”
“Exercising freedom of speech to advocate for women’s rights should not and should not be criminalized,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to the oil-rich kingdom for talks with Prince Mohammed, who he said raised human rights concerns.
Their meeting — and the much-criticized punching and kick — marked a sharp turnaround from Biden’s earlier vow to make Saudi Arabia a “untouchable” over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
During her appeal, Ms al-Shehab said the harsh sentence would “destroy me, my family, my future and the future of my children”. She has two little boys, aged four and six.
She told the judge she did not know that retweeting a post from a personal account with no more than 2,000 followers merely “out of curiosity and observing the views of others” constituted terrorism.