A Saudi Leeds University student who returned to Saudi Arabia for her vacation has been sentenced there to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and following and retweeting accounts of dissidents and activists.
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Salma al-Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children, was initially sentenced to three years in prison for the “crime” of using an internet website to “provoke public disturbances and destabilize civil and national security”. But an appeal court on Monday handed down the new sentence after a prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged crimes: 34 years in prison followed by a travel ban for another 34 years.
According to a translation of the court records, seen by Guardian, the new charges include the allegation that Shehab was “aiding those trying to cause public disturbance and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and retweeting their tweets. Shehab is believed to still be able to apply for a new appeal in the case.
The suppression of the crown prince
The ruling by the special Saudi terrorism court was handed down weeks after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, about which human rights activists had already warned that could embolden the kingdom to step up its crackdown on dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.
The case is also the latest example of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has targeted Twitter users in his campaign of repression, while at the same time controlling a significant indirect stake in the US social media company through the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.
Dental hygienist and doctoral student
According to available information, Shehab was not a prominent or particularly vocal Saudi activist, either inside Saudi Arabia or in the UK. She described herself on Instagram – where she had 159 followers – as a dental hygienist; medical educator; PhD student at the University of Leeds and Lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University; and as wife and mother of her children, Noah and Adam.
His Twitter profile showed that he had 2,597 followers. Between tweets about exhaustion from COVID and photos of his young children, Shehab sometimes retweeted tweets from Saudi dissidents living in exile calling for the release of the kingdom’s political prisoners. She seemed to support the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was jailed, allegedly tortured for supporting women’s driving rights, and who is now lives under the travel ban.
A person who knows Shehab says that she could not bear injustice. She describes her as a well-educated and avid reader who came to the UK in 2018 or 2019 to do her PhD at Leeds. She returned to her home in Saudi Arabia in December 2020 on vacation and intended to bring her two children and her husband back to the UK. She was then called in for questioning by the Saudi authorities and eventually she was arrested and tried for her tweets.
Another person who has followed her case says that Shehab has been in solitary confinement at times and that during her trial she has tried to speak privately with the judge to tell him how she has been treated without her father hearing. But, according to this source, she has not been able to give the message to the judge. The appeal verdict has been signed by three judges, but the signatures are illegible.
No comments from social network
Twitter has declined to comment on the case and has not responded to specific questions about the influence – if any – that Saudi Arabia has over the company. The social network also did not respond to questions from Guardian on why a top adviser to Prince Mohammed, Bader al-Asaker, has been allowed to maintain a verified Twitter account with more than two million followers, despite accusations from the US government that he orchestrated illegal access at the company that led to anonymous Twitter users being identified and imprisoned 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 Al-waleed bin Talal, who owns more than 5% of Twitter through his Kingdom Holdings fund. Although Prince Al-waleed remains the chairman of the company, his control over the group has been questioned by the US media, including the Wall Street Journal, after it came to light that the Saudi royal – he is a cousin of the crown prince – had been held captive at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh for 83 days. The incident was part of a broader purge led by Prince Mohammed against other members of the royal family and businessmen, including allegations of torture, coercion and expropriation of billions in assets from Saudi coffers.
In a 2018 interview with Bloomberg news agency after his release, Prince Al-waleed said he had reached a confidential “understanding” with the Saudi government apparently regarding his release.
More recently, Kingdom Holding announced in May that he had sold about 17% of his company to the FPI, where Prince Mohammed acts as president, for 1,500 million dollars. This, in turn, makes the Saudi government a major indirect investor in Twitter. According to the social network, investors do not play any role in the daily management of the company.
A “draconian” sentence
The Saudi European Organization for Human Rights condemned Shehab’s sentence, which, he said, is the longest ever handed down against an activist. He pointed out that many activists have been subjected to unfair trials that have led to arbitrary sentences and have been subjected to “severe torture”, including sexual harassment.
Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi living in exile whose sister and brother are detained in Saudi Arabia, said Shehab’s case demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s view that dissent equals terrorism.
“Salma’s draconian conviction in a terrorism court for peaceful tweets is the latest manifestation of MBS’s ruthless crackdown machine,” he said, referring to the crown prince. Like the murder of [el periodista Jamal] Khashoggi, your conviction is meant to send shock waves in and out of the kingdom: Dare to criticize MBS and you will end up dismembered or in Saudi dungeons.”
Although the case has not received much attention, the Washington Post published a harsh editorial on Tuesday about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the Leeds student and says her case shows that the “compromises” Biden received on reforms are “a sham.”
“At a minimum, Biden must speak out now and demand that Shehab be released and allowed to return to her children, aged four and six, in the UK, and resume her studies there,” it says.
Additional reporting by Robyn Vinter in Leeds
Translation of Celia Broncano