Dubai, United Arab Emirates — A Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting dissidents, a decision that has drawn growing global condemnation, according to court documents obtained on Thursday.
The activist and lawyer considers the conviction against Salma al-Shahab, a mother of two children and a researcher at the University of Leeds in Britain, shocking even by Saudi justice standards.
So far unacceptable by the kingdom, the ruling comes amid a crackdown on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dissent, even as his rule granted women the right to drive and other new liberties in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.
Al-Shahab was detained during a family holiday in January 2021, just days before she was planning to return United KingdomAccording to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights group.
According to legal documents obtained by the Associated Press show, al-Shahab told judges that he was incarcerated for more than 285 days before his case was referred to court.
The Freedom Initiative describes al-Shahab as a member of Saudi ArabThe Shia Muslim minority, which has long complained of systematic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled state.
Bethany Al-Haidari, the group’s Saudi case manager, said: “Saudi Arabia has claimed to the world that they are reforming women’s rights and doing legal reform, but there is no question with this disgusting sentence. That the situation is only getting worse.”
Since coming to power in 2017, Prince Mohamed has accelerated efforts to shift the kingdom’s economy away from oil with massive tourism projects – most recently plans to build the world’s tallest buildings that ply in the desert. Will span over 100 miles. But he has also faced criticism over the arrests of those who fail to line up, including dissidents and activists, but also princes and businessmen.
The judges accused al-Shahab of “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” – a claim stemming entirely from his social media activity, according to an official chargesheet. He alleged that al-Shahab followed and retweeted disgruntled accounts on Twitter and “transmitted” false rumours. ,
A special court for terrorism and national security offenses sentenced him to an unusually harsh 34 years, followed by a 34-year travel ban. The verdict came earlier this month as al-Shahab appealed for her initial sentence of six years.
A state prosecutor told the appeals court, “The prison sentence imposed on the defendant (six years) was modest in view of his crimes.” “I am calling for a revision of punishment in light of his support for those who are trying to create disorder and destabilize society, as shown by his following and retweeted (Twitter) accounts “
The Saudi government in Riyadh, as well as its embassies in Washington and London, did not respond to a request for comment.
Leeds University confirmed that Al-Shahab was in her final year of doctoral studies at Medical School.
“We are deeply concerned to learn of recent developments in Salma’s case and are seeking advice on whether we can do anything to support her,” the university said.
Al-Shahab’s conviction also caught the attention of Washington, where the State Department said Wednesday it was “studying the case.”
“Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for women’s rights should not be a crime, it should never be criminalized,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Last month, US President Joe Biden visited the oil-rich kingdom and held talks with Prince Mohammed in which he said he raised human rights concerns. Their meeting – and the much criticized fistfight – marked a sharp turn from Biden’s earlier resolve to make the kingdom a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
During his appeal, al-Shahab said that the harsh decision amounted to “the destruction of me, my family, my future and the future of my children”. She has two little boys aged 4 and 6.
She told the judges that she had no idea that retweeting a post “out of curiosity and to see the point of view of others” from a personal account with more than 2,000 followers constituted terrorism.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.