Saudi woman sentenced to 34 years in prison for Twitter activity

A Saudi woman rides into a car in the Saudi capital Riyadh on September 27, 2017. Until recently, the women were not allowed to drive,  but after years-long resistance from women's rights activists, some of whom were jailed for defying the ban on female driving, they can now drive.

Photo credit: Photo | AFP

A Saudi woman has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting content from dissidents and activists accounts.

According to court documents perused by The Guardian, Salma al-Shehab ,34, a PhD student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom was charged with “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilising civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts and retweeting their tweets’’.

The Saudi student was initially sentenced to three years but an appellate court earlier this week (August 15) reviewed her sentence to 34 years in addition to a 34-year travel ban.

Ms Shehab ran a Twitter account with about 2,500 followers where she described herself as a dental hygienist, medical educator, PhD student and a lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Saudi Arabia. Her tweets ran from the Covid-19 crises, pictures of her two young children (Noah and Adam) and retweets from some Saudi dissidents living in exile.

Some of her tweets seemed to support Loujain al-Hathloul, a famous Saudi feminist activist who advocated women’s issues and in particular driving rights. Ms Hathloul is currently living under a travel ban in the kingdom.

Saudi’s special terrorist court’s sentencing comes weeks after US president Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi. Human rights activists had warned that Mr Biden’s visit would embolden the kingdom’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Ms Sehab’s case is the latest attack by the crown prince’s Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign of repression. Prince Salman also happens to indirectly control a major stake in Twitter through Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund (The Public Investment Fund).

According to The Guardian, Twitter declined to comment on the case or respond to questions on Saudi Arabia’s influence over the social media company.

The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights has condemned the punitive verdict as it is the longest prison sentence to ever be brought against any activist .The organisation also noted that many female activists  have been subjected to unfair trials and arbitrary sentencing.