The Saudi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Salma Al-Shehab. She was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her Twitter posts.
Salma Al-Shehab, who was working on her PhD at the University of Leeds in the UK, was sentenced to 6 years in prison mid-2022. After an appeal to the Special Criminal Court on 9 August 2022, a judge in a highly unfair trial raised her sentence to 34 years in prison. After her release, Al-Shehab was given a 34-year travel ban.
“It is disgraceful that Salma Al-Shehab, a doctoral student and mother of two who belongs to Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, received such cruel and illegal punishment just for using Twitter and retweeting activists who support women’s rights,” said Diana Samaan. Amnesty International. Selma Al-Shehab should never have been convicted in the first place, but the increase in her sentence from 6 to 34 years shows that the authorities want to use it as an example of how she is cracking down on free speech. She must be released immediately and unconditionally.
Authorities targeted Salma Shehab for her use of Twitter to follow, write, and support women’s rights activists. Among them is Loujain Al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned after a grossly unfair trial at the Special Criminal Court on charges of “espionage for foreign parties” and “conspiracy against the kingdom”. Al-Hathloul was paroled in 2021 and subsequently banned from travel.
Long-term solitary confinement
According to activists, Salma Al-Shehab was arrested in January 2021, a few days before she was due to return to the UK to continue her studies. She was placed in solitary confinement for 285 days before appearing in court, in violation of international standards and Saudi Arabia’s Code of Criminal Procedure. During her pre-trial detention and during interrogation, she was denied access to legal aid.
During the appeals trial, the prosecutor demanded a more severe sentence. The court sentenced her to 34 years in prison for “supporting those who seek to disturb public order and disturb the security and stability of the state” under the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law. The sentencing against Salma Al-Shehab shows that Saudi authorities are increasingly using the counter-terrorism law to criminalize and unlawfully restrict the right to freedom of expression.
More women’s rights activists arrested on Twitter
Amnesty International has learned from activists that several women’s rights activists have been arrested for their Twitter comments since Al-Shehab’s arrest. However, fear of retaliation prevents people from speaking out about these matters on social media or in the media.
Saudi Arabia must end its brutal crackdown on women’s rights activists and others who dare to express their opinions freely. Women like Salma Shehab must be recognized and protected. The authorities should also stop equating freedom of expression with “terrorism”. They should repeal or amend Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws, which criminalize critical opinion. “We need new laws that fully comply with international human rights law and standards,” said Diana Semaan.