Salma Al-Shehab, a Saudi activist, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting

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BEIRUT – Saudi Arabia quietly sentenced a woman last week to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activism, the longest Saudi sentence ever. for a peaceful activist and unleashed a new wave of fear among government critics, three rights groups said.

The woman, Salma Al-Shehab, was arrested in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia, where she was on vacation, days before the Saudi citizen and mother of two children returned to her home in Britain, according to rights groups. The charges against the 33-year-old centered around her Twitter activity, according to court documents.

Chehab has been active on the social media platform during campaigns calling for the abolition of the country’s guardianship system, which gives men legal control over certain aspects of female relatives’ lives. It called for the release of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

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According to court records obtained by The Washington Post, Chehab was accused of using a social media site to “disturb public order, undermine the security of society and the stability of the state, and support those who have committed criminal acts in accordance with the Anti-Terrorism and Financing Act.”

The documents said that they supported these individuals “by following their accounts on social media and re-broadcasting their tweets” and that they spread false rumours. The documents went on to say that after she appealed the initial conviction, it was decided that her prison sentence was too short “considering her crimes”, and that her previous sentence had failed to “restrain and deter”.

On top of a 34-year prison sentence and a subsequent 34-year travel ban, which begins after the end of her prison sentence, the court ruled that her mobile phone be confiscated and her Twitter account “permanently closed”.

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The charges are familiar: sowing discord and destabilizing the state are frequent accusations against activists in the kingdom who speak out against the status quo. Saudi Arabia has long enforced its counter-terrorism law against citizens whose protests are deemed unacceptable, particularly if they are critical of the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In late 2021, the initial sentence against Chehab served six years in prison. However, when she appealed the sentence, it was raised to 34 – the country’s longest sentence against a peaceful activist, according to several human rights groups.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned against the government’s recent use of the anti-terror law. in April, Human Rights Watch He said laws such as the “notorious Anti-Terrorism Act and the Anti-Cybercrime Act, contain very vague and broad provisions that have been widely misinterpreted and misused.” Sentences are also often characterized by harsh and inconsistent sentences.

Lina Al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, a London-based Saudi human rights organization, said that since the ruling includes closing her Twitter account, at least one rights group is trying to make sure it is not shut down.

“We are now working with Twitter not to shut it down or alert them that at least if they are asked to shut it down, it comes from the Saudi government and not from them,” she said. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which is following the arrests in the kingdom, said in its statement on Tuesday that the decision to sentence Chehab under the anti-terrorism law “confirms that Saudi Arabia treats those who demand reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists.”

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The group said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and shows that Saudi Arabia’s widely praised efforts to modernize the kingdom and improve women’s rights “are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is carrying out to improve its human rights record.”

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Before her arrest, Shehab was a lecturer at Princess Noura University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and a doctoral student in her final year at the British University of Leeds. A colleague who worked with her in Leeds said that she was conducting exploratory research there on new technologies in oral and dental medicine and their applications in Saudi Arabia.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, described Chehab as a “wonderful” and “gracious” colleague – “the kind of person who always brings rewards.”

The colleague added that she never spoke publicly about politics, instead she talked a lot about her children and showed friends and colleagues pictures of them. I missed her family very much.

Shehab returned to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2019 and has never returned to school in Britain. At first, this did not concern anyone, given the long period of coronavirus lockdown that began in March 2020 in England. But her colleague said, eventually, people started asking, “Has anyone heard of Salma?”

“It was a shock to all of us because we thought, ‘How can someone like her be arrested?'” ‘ said the person.

A University of Leeds spokesperson told The Post via email, “We are very concerned to learn of this latest development in Selma’s condition and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her.”

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“Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family and friends among our close-knit community of graduate researchers,” the spokesperson added.

When the British Foreign Office was asked if it was monitoring Shehab’s case or was involved in any attempts to secure her release, she told The Post via email that “ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns about the detention of women’s rights defenders with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so.” .

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Shehab belongs to the Shiite minority in Islam – viewed as heretical by many hard-line Sunni Muslims and whose followers in Saudi Arabia are often automatically viewed with suspicion by Sunni authorities.

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for its treatment of the Shiite minority. New York-based Human Rights Watch said earlier this year in its annual issue Report On human rights, the kingdom “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities,” including Shiites.

Chehab’s last Twitter activity was on January 13, 2021, two days before her arrest, when she retweeted a classic Arabic song about missing a loved one’s company.

On her Twitter page, which is still active, she has a pinned tweet of a prayer asking forgiveness if she has ever transgressed against another human being without knowledge and asking God to help her renounce injustice and help those who face it.

The tweet ends with “Freedom for prisoners of conscience and for every oppressed person in the world.”

Timsit reported from France.

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