Using the Internet and social networks to “spread lies through tweets” is one of the crimes for which a Saudi woman has been sentenced to 45 years in prison, according to a court document seen by The Guardian. Noura al-Qahtani, whose case was first reported last weekis nearly 50 years old, has health problems, and is the mother of five daughters, one of whom is disabled, according to court records.
US accuses two ex-Twitter employees of acting as spies for Saudi Arabia
Abdullah Alaoudh, director of the NGO Dawn in the Gulf (based in the city of Washington and founded by the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to promote democracy), shared with the British newspaper Guardian the court document recording the conviction of al-Qahtani by a special criminal court.
For the second time in a matter of weeks, a draconian sentence has come to light against an ordinary woman who did not personally participate in political activities and who used the networks as a way to express her support for dissidents. It contradicts the public image that the Saudi government and its supporters try to spread about the greater personal freedoms for women under the government of Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS), the country’s de facto leader.
In August, a Saudi appeal court sentenced Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account, following dissidents and activists, and retweeting their messages. A doctoral student at the University of Leeds and a mother of two, al-Shehab was arrested and sentenced when she returned to her country of Saudi Arabia for a holiday. The sentence has been widely criticized and from the US State Department they claim to have discussed her case with her Saudi counterparts on several occasions.
Critical tweets with the prince
In al-Qahtani’s case, the court document states that he used two anonymous Twitter accounts. One of them, @Najma097 It follows 293 other Twitter accounts and appears to have been last active on July 4, 2021. It contains tweets that appear to be critical of Prince Mohamed bin Salman and in defense of the rights of political detainees.
Al-Qahtani was sentenced on various charges, including “defaming” the crown prince and King Salman; “encourage participation in activities that harm the security and stability of society and the State”; express “support” for the ideas of those who wish to “destabilize” the kingdom; join a group dedicated to these causes on Twitter and follow them on YouTube. She was also convicted of “outraging” State symbols and authorities, for seeking the release of detainees and for obstructing the investigation of her social networks by “destroying and hiding the mobile phone used in the crime.”
She was also convicted of being in possession of a banned book, written by well-known reformist cleric Salman Alaoudh (father of Abdullah Alaoudh of the Dawn group), who is serving a life sentence in a Saudi prison. Salman Alaoudh has been in jail since 2017 after calling for peace on Twitter following the imposition of a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar.
The book al Qahtani allegedly owned was not one of Alaoudh’s political books. According to his son Abdullah, who lives in the US, it is a book about self-improvement and the fight against selfishness within oneself. “It’s a very apolitical book,” he said.
Government infiltrators on Twitter
The court record also refers to a technical analysis carried out by state authorities, but contains no mention of the mechanism used by the Saudi authorities to identify the Twitter username allegedly used by al Qahtani.
Twitter has not responded to The Guardian for comment. In 2014 and 2015 there was an infiltration of people in the pay of the Saudi state in the American social media company. According to US prosecutors, Twitter employees secretly paid by top Saudi government officials allowed Saudi authorities to access information about dissidents using Twitter anonymously within the kingdom.
increase in sentence
According to the court record, al-Qahtani received a first sentence of 13 years in prison for his “crimes”. The sentence was extended to 45 years after a prosecutor complained on appeal that the original ruling was too lenient.
The court document shows al-Qahtani’s defense in court that she was not a terrorist, planning a terrorist attack, or part of a terrorist organization. She also stated that she was almost 50 years old, that she had no priors, and that she regretted her tweets.
The appeal court not only increased his sentence to 45 years, but placed a travel ban on him for 45 years after his release from prison, when he would be almost 100 years old. Her daughter with her disability is 10 years old and suffers from a genetic disorder that hinders her development.
The Saudi embassy in Washington has not commented. According to the date of the judicial record, the last sentence was issued on August 9.
Translation of Francisco de Zarate