Saudi Woman Given 34-Year Prison Sentence for Retweeting Dissidents

Saudi Woman Given 34-Year Prison Sentence for Retweeting Dissidents

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – A Saudi student at Leeds University who had returned home to the kingdom for a holiday has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists.

The sentencing by Saudi’s special terrorist court was handed down weeks after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which human rights activists had warned could embolden the kingdom to escalate its crackdown on dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.

The case also marks the latest example of how the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has targeted Twitter users in his campaign of repression, while simultaneously controlling a major indirect stake in the US social media company through Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Salma al-Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children and a student at Leeds University, was detained in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was visiting home for a vacation. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.”

However, an appeals court on Monday handed down a 34-year prison sentence followed by a 34-year travel ban, after a public prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged crimes.

She is now charged with “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and by retweeting their tweets, The Guardian reported, citing a translation of the court records.

The Monday ruling marks the latest example of a major crackdown on Twitter users led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). It comes a week after a federal court in the United States found Ahmad Abouammo, a former manager at Twitter, guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia’s royal family.

Abouammo received at least 300,000 dollars and a 20,000-dollar luxury watch from Bader al-Asaker — a close adviser to MBS — to use his insider access to dig up information about Saudi dissidents active on Twitter, according to prosecutors.

He then attempted to conceal the payment by having the money deposited to a relative’s account in Lebanon first and wired to his US account later.

In an editorial on Tuesday, The Washington Post said Shehab’s case showed that the commitments Biden had received on reforms and institutional safeguards were “a farce.”

“At the very least, Mr. Biden must now speak out forcefully and demand that Ms. Shehab be released and allowed to return to her sons, 4 and 6 years old, in the United Kingdom, and to resume her studies there,” the Post said.

“In the Saudi kingdom, the crown prince commands fear and silence. But in open societies, his ruthless behavior must be denounced at every opportunity,” it added.

Others also condemned the ruling. Hala Dosari, a Saudi activist and scholar said it “shows the vengeful nature of the system against women in particular and ironically exposes the false formal narrative of women empowerment.”

“This is irrational, heartbreaking, and disastrous for the hundreds of women detained or to be detained in similar charges of supporting rights or freedom,” Dosari tweeted. “This is also reflective of an increased regime insecurity, both domestically and abroad.”

Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi national whose sister and brother are being held in the kingdom, said the Shehab case proved that Saudi Arabia views any dissent as terrorism.

“Salma’s draconian sentencing in a terrorism court over peaceful tweets is the latest manifestation of MBS’s ruthless repression machine,” he said. “Just like (journalist Jamal) Khashoggi’s assassination, her sentencing is intended to send shock waves inside and outside the kingdom – dare to criticize MBS and you will end up dismembered or in Saudi dungeons.”

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