A Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting opponents, according to court documents obtained Thursday, a decision that has drawn mounting global condemnation.
Activists and lawyers considered the verdict against Salma Al-Shehab, a mother of two children and a researcher at the University of Leeds in Britain, shocking even by the standards of Saudi justice.
The ruling, which the kingdom has not yet recognized, comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent even as his rule grants women the right to drive and other new freedoms in the ultra-conservative Islamic state.
Al-Shehab was detained during family leave on January 15, 2021, just days before she plans to return to the UK, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based rights organization.
Al-Shehab told judges that she was held for more than 285 days in solitary confinement before her case was referred to court, according to legal documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Freedom Initiative describes the Shehab as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, which has long complained of systemic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia has bragged to the world that it is working to improve women’s rights and bring about legal reform, but there is no doubt in this hateful sentence that the situation is getting worse,” said Bethany Al-Haidari, the group’s director of Saudi issues.
Amnesty International, a leading human rights watchdog, on Thursday criticized Al-Shehab’s trial as “grossly unfair”, calling it “cruel and illegal”.
Since ascending to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has stepped up efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil with massive tourism projects – most recently planning to construct the world’s tallest buildings that will stretch more than 100 miles into the desert. But he has also faced criticism over his arrest of those who did not stick to the line, including dissidents and activists, as well as princes and businessmen.
Judges accused al-Shehab of “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” — allegations arising solely from her social media activism, according to an official indictment. They claimed that Al-Shehab followed and retweeted opposition accounts on Twitter and “transmitted false rumours”.
The Specialized Criminal Court issued an unusually harsh sentence of 34 years in prison under Saudi anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws, to be followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision came earlier this month when Al-Shehab appealed her initial 6-year prison sentence.
The Public Prosecutor of the Court of Appeal said: “The defendant’s sentence of imprisonment (6 years) was light given her crimes.” “I am calling for the sentence to be amended in light of its support for those who try to create chaos and destabilize society, as evidenced by her (Twitter) follow-up and retweet accounts.”
The Saudi government in Riyadh, as well as its embassies in Washington and London, did not respond to a request for comment.
The University of Leeds confirmed that the meteor was in her final year of doctoral studies at the Faculty of Medicine.
“We are deeply concerned to learn of this latest development in Selma’s case and are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her,” the university said.
Al-Shehab’s ruling also caught Washington’s attention, with the State Department saying Wednesday that it was “studying the case.”
“Exercising freedom of expression to defend women’s rights should not, and should never, be criminalized,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern on Twitter on Thursday that the kingdom had targeted the Meteor “because of its peaceful activism in solidarity with political prisoners” as well as for its Shiite identity.
Last month, US President Joe Biden traveled to the oil-rich kingdom and held talks with Prince Mohammed in which he said he had raised human rights concerns. Their meeting – and slamming a lot of fist fist It represents a sharp turnaround from Biden’s earlier pledge to make the kingdom a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Al-Shehab said during her appeal that the harsh sentence was “destroying me, my family, my future and the future of my children.” She has two sons, ages 4 and 6.
She told the judges she didn’t know that simply retweeting “out of curiosity and observing others’ views” from a personal account of no more than 2,000 followers, constituted terrorism.
Author Matthew Lee at The Associated Press in Washington contributed to this report.