A student from Saudi Arabia who followed and retweeted activists on Twitter was given a 34-year prison term.
In December 2020, 34-year-old Salma al-Shehab, who was a student at the University of Leeds, took a vacation to her native Saudi Arabia. The PhD candidate was imprisoned a few days before she was scheduled to return to the UK in January 2021.
She was found guilty of “creating public discontent and destabilizing civil and national security” by Saudi Arabia’s special terrorist court.
The student had followed, liked, and shared tweets from activists or Saudi dissidents in exile using her Twitter account, which had about 2,700 followers.
She wrote in a 2019 tweet;
I reject injustice and support the oppressed.
Initially, the mother of two young children was sentenced to serve six years in prison — three of which were suspended — but prosecutors requested that she face new charges, including for “spreading false and malicious rumours on Twitter”.
On Monday, an appeals court handed down the new sentence of 34 years in prison, as well as a 34-year travel ban after her release.
Al-Shebab comes from the Shia Muslim minority, who have long been discriminated against in Saudia Arabia. Her 34-year prison sentence has been widely condemned by activists and politicians.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights described the verdict as a “mockery of justice” and a “message of threats and intimidation from Crown Prince Mohamed Bin-Salman”.
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights said the judgement set a “dangerous” precedent for female activists in the country, who they say are already subjected to “unprecedented arrest campaigns,” “severe torture”, and sexual harassment.
According to human rights organisations, the 34-year sentence is the longest term ever to be handed down in Saudi Arabia to an activist.
The case also marks the latest example of how the Saudi regime has targeted Twitter users in its campaign of repression.