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Saudi woman sentenced to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity

Human rights groups say the case of Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two, shows the situation for women's rights in the kingdom "is not improving, but getting worse by the day."

She went home for a vacation. Now a Saudi woman is facing 34 years in prison for sharing her views on social media, human rights groups say, in a case they have condemned as the latest worrying sign of the kingdom's crackdown on dissent.

Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two, was an active Twitter user while studying for a doctoral degree at the University of Leeds School of Medicine in the United Kingdom. She posted her own tweets about human rights issues as well as retweeting activists.

Al-Shehab, who is a Saudi citizen, was arrested while visiting her home in January 2021, according to multiple human rights groups based in Europe and the United States.

After initially being sentenced to six years in jail, the sentence was increased to a record 34 years earlier this month following her appeal, the rights groups said. Al-Shehab was also slapped with a 34-year travel ban that will take effect following her release, they said. 

approach to University of Leeds on Woodhouse Lane, Woodhouse, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, UK
Salma al-Shehab was arrested just days before she planned to return to her residence in the English city of Leeds, rights groups said. Kay Roxby / Alamy Stock Photo

The charges against her included sedition and spreading false and malicious rumors on Twitter, according to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, a Berlin-based group critical of the Saudi government.

“They charged her for 34 years over 280 characters,” Nada Zamel, ESOHR’s head of advocacy, told NBC News.

She said the tweets that got al-Shehab into trouble were relatively anodyne, expressing support for freedom of speech and the lifting of rules that limit freedom for women in Saudi Arabia.

Zamel added that the sentence raises concerns about other activists facing similar charges. 

Given the harsh sentence for an account with only around 2,000 followers, Zamel said, “imagine what will happen to other activists who were arrested in the same period.” Though she noted al-Shehab can still appeal to the Saudi supreme court.

The Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for prisoners in the Middle East and North Africa, said it had seen court documents that showed she had complained of abuse and threats while in detention due to her background as a Shia Muslim, a minority community in Saudi Arabia.

“Al-Shehab, who comes from the Shia Muslim minority, also said she faced sectarian harassment, including insults to her religion and family,” the group said in a press release, adding that this suggested “religious discrimination may have played a role in her draconian sentencing."

The Saudi Embassy in London and the Saudi Ministry of Media did not respond to requests for the details of and comment on al-Shehab’s case. NBC News has also reached out to the Saudi embassy for comment on the allegations that Al-Shehab was abused while in detention.

A spokesperson from the University of Leeds said in a statement: “We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her. Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family, and her friends among our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers.”

'Getting worse by the day'

Bethany Alhaidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, described al-Shehab’s tweeting style as “sweet and diplomatic” rather than fiery or aggressive.

One of the causes al-Shehab supported was that of imprisoned women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who drew global headlines for her campaign to get women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina, was one of the activist accounts that al-Shehab retweeted in the months before her arrest. She’s now head of monitoring and communications for ALQST, a group that focuses on human rights in Saudi Arabia. In an interview, she said the sentence shows “that Saudi Arabia’s promises on women’s rights reforms are only words, it’s ink on paper, and that the situation of women and women’s rights activists is not improving, but getting worse by the day.”

Al-Hathloul said it’s difficult to know how al-Shehab will be treated in jail, but that “we have heard of many cases of women’s rights activists being tortured in prison, being held in solitary confinement, and threatened with rape.”

Alhaidari said her organization was seeing a shift toward harsher penalties for dissent in Saudi Arabia, which she attributes to Western countries welcoming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back into the fold following a period of estrangement after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

“This is a new shift that is a consequence, a direct consequence, of the international community kind of brushing aside horrible human rights violations,” she said.

President Joe Biden bumped fists with the crown prince during a visit to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah last month that outraged critics of the desert kingdom’s de facto ruler, while former President Donald Trump recently hosted a Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour event at his course in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Asked about al-Shehab’s case during a briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized; it should never be criminalized.”

Price added that “far from, I think, giving Saudi Arabia license to act with greater impunity, our engagement” with the Saudi government has made clear “the fact that human rights is central to our agenda. It is always on our agenda, and it is always high on our agenda.”

A White House spokesperson said: “We are studying the case and the sentence. As a general matter, exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized.”

The spokesperson added that while in Saudi Arabia in July “the president privately and publicly underscored the United States’ conviction that respect for and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms promotes stability and strengthens national security.”

Twitter declined to comment on al-Shehab’s case.

The lengths that Saudi Arabia appears willing to go to use social media to crack down on criticism were also on display last week, when a jury in California found a former Twitter employee guilty on charges relating to him helping Saudi Arabia access dissidents’ personal information.