On August 9, Salma al-Shehab, an activist and PhD candidate at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, was sentenced to 34 years in prison, along with a 34-year travel ban, by a Saudi Arabian appeals court. The decision was based solely on al-Shehab’s political comments on Twitter, which included following and retweeting the cases of Saudi Arabian political prisoners and exiles, such as that of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian feminist activist who had been previously imprisoned and currently lives under a travel ban.
Al-Shebab had returned to Saudi Arabia from the United Kingdom in January 2021 when she was called in for questioning by Saudi authorities and then subsequently arrested and tried for her social media activity. The appealed decision came after an initial 6-year sentence in late 2021. The latest sentence she has received is the longest given to any activist or dissident in Saudi Arabia and, according to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), indicates “an escalation in the Saudi government's crackdown against people who challenge its narrative.”
The draconian sentence against her is one of many that evidence Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “relentless crackdown on dissent,” especially through social media sites like Twitter. According to The Guardian, the targeting of users who have expressed political criticism online has been made possible through applications like Kollona Amn, which enables Saudi Arabian citizens to report any kind of criminal activity, including any online “attacks,” “defamation,” or “penetration of social media accounts.” The article relays that an app user reported al-Shebab’s account only two months before her arrest.
Organizations like Human Rights Watch have been outspoken against what they describe as the “flagrant abuse” of provisions in Saudi counterterrorism laws that violate rights to free expression and perpetuate the surveillance systems exacerbated by instruments like Kollona Amn. Human rights groups have been critical of the lack of punitive action taken by the United States and France, both of whom in recent months have welcomed exchanges with the Crown Prince.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) adamantly calls for the Saudi Arabian government to immediately release and drop these egregious and unjust charges against Salma al-Shehab. ESW is deeply concerned about the ongoing exaggerated detentions of academics, students, and activists in Saudi Arabia that continue to deprive citizens of their rights to free expression and free association, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. ESW urges all international organizations, academic and professional associations, and other groups and individuals devoted to the promotion and defense of human rights to write to the following representatives and to the diplomatic missions of Saudi Arabia in your respective countries urging the Saudi government to drop the charges and immediately release Salma al-Shehab.
Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud
Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 403 0645
Walid bin Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Samaani
Minister of Justice
PO Box 58889, Bldg. 373
King Fahad Road
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 4612061