A Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting dissidents, a ruling that has drawn mounting global condemnation.
Activists and lawyers consider the sentence against Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at the University of Leeds in Britain, shocking even by Saudi standards of justice.
The ruling comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent, even as his government granted women the right to drive and other new freedoms in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.
Al-Shehab was detained during a holiday on January 15, 2021, days before she was due to return to the UK. Al-Shehab told the judges that she had been detained for more than 285 days in solitary confinement before her case was referred to court.
Freedom Initiative describes her as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority, which has long complained of systematic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that it is improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no doubt that the situation is only getting worse,” said Bethany al-Haidari, an expert on Saudi cases at the group. .
Since assuming power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has accelerated efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy with tourism projects and more recently with plans to build the world’s largest buildings, which would stretch more than a hundred miles into the desert. . But he has also faced criticism for the arrests of those who do not align with his policies.
Judges charged al-Shehab with “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric,” claims stemming solely from his activity on social media, according to an official charge sheet. They alleged that he retweeted dissident Twitter accounts and “spread false rumours.”
The specialized criminal court handed down the unusually harsh sentence under Saudi anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws, followed by a 34-year travel ban.
Al-Shehab also caught the attention of Washington, where the State Department said Wednesday it was “looking into the case.” “The exercise of free speech to defend women’s rights should not be criminalized, should never be criminalized,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Last month, President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia and held talks with Prince Mohammed, in which he said he raised human rights concerns.