Saudi women’s rights campaigner Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison on Monday for her activity on Twitter, according to court documents viewed by CNN.
Al-Shehab, 33, was also banned from traveling outside of Saudi Arabia for another 34 years.
The PhD student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom had been arrested in January 2021 and was subjected to questioning sessions over a period of 265 days before being brought to the Specialized Criminal Court, according to independent human rights organization ALQST.
She was initially given a six-year sentence late last year – this was increased to 34 years after al-Shehab filed an appeal, according to the documents.
The charges filed against her by the Public Prosecution included “providing succor to those seeking to disrupt public order and undermine the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumors on Twitter,” ALQST said.
Al Shehab told the court that without prior warning, she was “propelled” into the months-long investigation, during which she was kept under solitary confinement, according to the court documents.
The mother of two also asked the court to take into consideration the need to care for her children and sick mother, the documents said.
ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Communications Lina Al-Hathloul told CNN that al-Shehab had been arrested for supporting her sister Loujain al-Hathloul – a prominent activist who spent more than 1,000 days in jail following a May 2018 sweep that targeted well-known opponents of the kingdom’s since-rescinded law barring women from driving – and other prisoners of conscience on Twitter.
Lina Al-Hathloul said in the ALQST statement that al-Shehab’s sentence “makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities’ claims of reform for women and of the legal system,” adding that it “shows that they remain hellbent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely.”
They urged that the Saudi government release al-Shehab and demanded that the kingdom protect freedom of speech.
Al-Shehab’s Twitter account remains online with a pinned tweet that reads: “Freedom for prisoners of conscience and all the oppressed of the world.”
The US State Department said it is “studying” the case on Wednesday.
“But I can say this is a general matter and I can say this without any caveat and resolutely: exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price at a briefing with reporters.
Asked if Saudi Arabia had been emboldened by recent US engagements with the country, Price responded that “our engagement… has made clear… that human rights is central to our agenda.”
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