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Salma Al-Shehab. © 2022 Democracy Now

(Beirut) – A Saudi appeals court in early August 2022 dramatically increased the prison sentence of a Saudi doctoral student from 6 years to 34 years based solely on her Twitter activity, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence is believed to be the longest ever imposed on a Saudi woman for her peaceful online expression.

In late 2021, the Special Criminal Court, the country’s counterterrorism tribunal, sentenced Salma al-Shehab to six years in prison for her tweets. She appealed the sentence contending that she did not know that her Twitter activity amounted to a crime and that her following base of about 2,000 was too small to “disrupt the order and fabric of society.” On August 9, 2022, the appeals court ruled, instead, to increase her sentence, finding that the original sentence failed to achieve “restraint and deterrence.”

“Even for Saudi Arabia, the 34-year sentence imposed on al-Shehab for peaceful expression is preposterous,” said Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities clearly feel empowered to crush any dissent and Saudi women in particular. The United States, France, and other governments that have diplomatically embraced the kingdom should promptly and publicly condemn this ruling.”

Court documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that al-Shehab was sentenced under Saudi’s counterterrorism law to 8 years in prison for “supporting those who incite terrorism,” 10 years for “providing support to those who seek to disrupt the public order, undermine the security of the society, and the stability of the state by following and retweeting,” 5 years for “creating an online account to commit any of the acts outlawed by the counterterrorism law,” and 5 years for “broadcasting false and malicious rumors.”

The court sentenced her to another year in prison under the anti-cybercrime law for “creating an online presence that disrupts public order.” The presiding judge also added a discretionary 5-year sentence. In addition to the combined 34-year-sentence, the court issued a subsequent travel ban for 34 years that would begin after her prison term, and an order to confiscate her devices and close her Twitter account.

The authorities detained al-Shehab in January 2021 while she was visiting Saudi Arabia and a few days prior to her planned return to the United Kingdom, where she was a PhD candidate in her final year at the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds studying new techniques in oral and dental medicine. Al-Shehab has two children, ages 6 and 4.

The appeals court did not clarify which tweets prompted al-Shehab’s arrest. Human Rights Watch reviewed al-Shehab’s current Twitter account and found that most tweets over the past four years related to her family and women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia, none of which advocated or endorsed violence.

The Saudi government is notorious for repressing public dissent and has a well-established record of attempting to infiltrate technology platforms and use advanced cyber surveillance technology to spy on dissidents. Earlier in August, a court in California in the United States convicted a former Twitter employee of failing to register as an agent for Saudi Arabia alongside other charges relating to his accessing of users’ private data. Given this context, Human Rights Watch previously has also called for Google to halt its decision to establish a new Cloud region in Saudi Arabia until it can clearly outline steps to mitigate adverse human rights abuses.

The Saudi government has also encouraged other citizens to engage in online surveillance through the Saudi phone app Kollona Amn (We Are All Security). The app is described as a tool for citizens to report any kind of criminal activity, including any online “attacks,” “defamation,” or “penetration of social media accounts.” An article in The Guardian found that al-Shehab may have been reported on Kollona Amn, which may have prompted her arrest. In November 2020, she posted screenshots of her interactions with another Saudi account that claimed to have reported her on the app after she posted a mildly critical tweet about a new Saudi public transportation contract.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the Saudi government’s flagrant abuse of the vague provisions in its counterterrorism law and anti-cybercrime law to silence dissent. The broad definition of terrorism allows for targeting peaceful criticism. Furthermore, the counterterrorism law undermines due process and fair trial rights because it grants the agencies of the Public Prosecution and the Presidency of State Security the authority to arrest and detain people, monitor their communications and financial data, search their property, and seize assets without judicial oversight.

A statement by the University of Leeds expressed “deep concern” about the recent development in al-Shehab’s case.

Human rights groups expressed concern that governments such as the US Biden administration and the government of President Emmanuel Macron in France have given Saudi Arabia a blank check to repress human rights. Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom tweeted in condemnation of the ruling and criticized the lack of UK government action to hold a “friend and ally” accountable on human rights.

The US State Department spokesperson said that it is “studying” the case and commented in a news conference that “exercising the freedom of expression to advocate for rights of women should not be criminalized.” However, President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July was seen by many as a victory for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a failure to secure a commitment to halt the clampdown on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

In late July, President Macron hosted Mohammed bin Salman for a meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris, another indication of the end of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic isolation for human rights violations.

“A 34-year prison term for a Saudi woman for a small social media presence is a clear indicator that the Saudi leadership is ramping up repression as it emerges from its diplomatic isolation. Al-Shehab’s outrageous sentence signals that the Saudi authorities are now going full steam to crush any and all dissent,” said Yager.

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