A Saudi student at the University of Leeds who returned to the kingdom for a holiday has been jailed for 34 years for having a Twitter account and following and sharing with dissidents and activists.
The ruling by Saudi Arabia’s Special Terrorism Court comes weeks after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which human rights activists warned could embolden the kingdom to step up its crackdown on dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.
The case is the latest example of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has targeted Twitter users in his crackdown campaign while controlling a large indirect stake in the US social media site through the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Salma al-Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children, was initially sentenced to serve three years in prison for the “crime” of using a website to “cause public disorder and destabilize civil and national security”.
But the appeals court handed down a new sentence – 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban – after a prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged offences.
According to a translation of court records seen by The Guardian, the new charges include an allegation that Shehab “aided and abetted those who sought to cause public disorder and destabilize civil and national security by following their accounts on “Twitter” forwarded their tweets”. It is believed that Shehab may still seek a fresh appeal in the case.
Shehab does not appear to have been a leading or particularly active Saudi activist either in the kingdom or in Britain. On Instagram, where she has 159 followers, she describes herself as a dental hygienist, medical educator, PhD student at the University of Leeds and lecturer at Princess Noora bint Abdulrahman University, as well as a wife and mother to sons Noah and Adam.
Her Twitter profile shows that she has 2,597 followers. Along with tweets about Covid and pictures of her young children, Shehab sometimes retweets tweets by Saudi dissidents living in exile who call for the release of the kingdom’s political prisoners.
She appears to have championed the case of Loujan al-Hatlul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was previously jailed, allegedly tortured for her support for women’s driving rights, and now lives under a travel ban.
A person who knew Shehab said she could not stand the injustice. She is described as a well-educated and avid reader who arrived in the UK in 2018 or 2019 to do a PhD at Leeds.
She returned to Saudi Arabia on holiday in December 2020 and intended to bring her husband and two children with her to the UK.
She was then called in for questioning by Saudi authorities and eventually arrested and tried for her tweets.
A person following her case says Shehab was kept in solitary confinement at times, and during the trial she wanted to tell the judge something in private about how she was treated that she didn’t want to say to her father. She was not allowed to deliver the message to the judge, the person said. The appealed judgment was signed by three judges, but the signatures were illegible.
Twitter declined to comment on the case and did not respond to specific questions about what, if any, influence Saudi Arabia has over the company. Twitter previously did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about why Prince Mohammed’s top aide, Bader al-Asaqer, was allowed to keep a verified Twitter account with more than 2 million followers, despite US government accusations that he orchestrated illegal infiltration at the company, which led to the identification and imprisonment of anonymous Twitter users by the Saudi government. A former Twitter employee was convicted by a US court in connection with the case.
One of Twitter’s biggest investors is Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns more than 5% of Twitter through his investment company Kingdom Holdings. Although Prince Alwaleed is still chairman of the company, his control of the group has been questioned in the US media, including The Wall Street Journal, after it emerged that the Saudi king – a cousin of the crown prince – was being held captive. at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh for 83 days. The incident was part of a wider purge led by Prince Mohammed against other members of the royal family and businessmen, and included allegations of torture, coercion and the embezzlement of assets worth billions in the Saudi treasury.
In Prince Alwaleed’s 2018 interview with Bloomberg, conducted in Riyadh seven weeks after his release, the billionaire acknowledged that he had reached an “agreement” with the Saudi government, apparently related to his release, which is confidential.
As recently as May, Kingdom Holding announced that it had sold about 17% of its company to PIF, where Prince Mohammed is chairman, for $1.5 billion. This in turn makes the Saudi government a significant indirect investor in Twitter. According to Twitter, investors play no role in managing the day-to-day operations of the company.
The European Saudi Human Rights Organization condemned Shehab’s sentence, which it said was the longest prison sentence ever handed down to an activist. She noted that many female activists were subjected to unfair trials that resulted in arbitrary sentences and were subjected to “severe torture”, including sexual harassment.
Khalid Aljabri, who lives in exile and whose sister and brother are detained in the kingdom, said the Shehab case proved that Saudi Arabia equates dissent with terrorism.
“Salma’s draconian sentence handed down by a terrorism court over peaceful tweets is the latest manifestation of MBS’s ruthless repression machine,” he said, referring to the crown prince. “
Like the assassination of (journalist Jamal) Khashoggi, her sentence is intended to send shockwaves through the kingdom and beyond – if you dare criticize MBS, you will find yourself dismembered or in the Saudi dungeons.”
Although the case did not receive widespread attention, the Washington Post newspaper published a scathing editorial about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the Leeds student and said her case showed the “commitments” the president had received to reform were a “farce.” .
“At the very least, Mr Biden must now speak out and demand that Ms Shehab be released and allowed to return to her sons, aged 4 and 6, in the UK and continue her education you’re there,” the article says.
Photo by Sora Shimazak / pexels