Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been urged to intervene in the “scandalous” case of a Leeds University student jailed in Saudi Arabia for 34 years for her use of Twitter.
Hilary Benn, Labor MP for Leeds Central, said the UK had a “duty” to press for the release of Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen living in Britain who was detained after returning to visit her family. last year.
Shehab, who has two young children, was initially jailed for three years for “causing public disturbances” and “destabilizing civil and national security” after appearing to support activists and dissidents on Twitter.
But last week, an appeals court handed down a new sentence: 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban, after a prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged crimes. She has described suffering abuse and harassment behind bars from her, and she told a Saudi court that she was subjected to interrogations after she was given drugs that exhausted her. Amnesty International has called for her “immediate and unconditional release”.
In a letter to Truss, Benn says the UK must intervene, asking her to “make arrangements with the Saudi authorities” for Shehab “so that she can be released to return to her family and her studies.” He says the case is “completely at odds with Saudi Arabia’s claim to improve human rights,” writing, “It seems all you’ve done is use your Twitter account to support women’s rights and greater freedom, and call for the release of imprisoned activists in Saudi Arabia.”
Adds Benn: “Saudi Arabia says, ‘We are reforming the country.’ You cannot on the one hand say, ‘we are opening and liberalizing the country’, and on the other hand send a woman to prison for expressing her opinions on Twitter.
“I think we have a duty as citizens and countries to speak out wherever human rights are abused and denied in this way. The fact that he was a student at one of our universities adds to that obligation.” He calls the case “shocking and outrageous.”
The University of Leeds said: “We are deeply concerned to learn of recent developments in Salma’s case and are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her. Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family and her friends among our tight-knit community of postgraduate researchers.”
Shehab was in the last year of doctoral studies at the School of Medicine, focusing on improving dental treatment for patients with disabilities.
Saudi Arabia has sought to enhance its global reputation in recent years through tourism campaigns and the staging of major sporting events, including golf championships and boxing matches.
This weekend, it took center stage when it hosted a heavyweight title fight between British boxer Anthony Joshua and Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday night. The fighters are reported to have been paid four times more to fight at the Jeddah Superdrome than they would have received at Wembley.
Critics say the events are part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to “wash its reputation” and distract attention from its poor human rights record, a strategy dubbed “sports laundering.”
In an interview on the This day program on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who represents Joshua, appeared to dismiss the criticism. He said there were “a lot of people who have opinions who don’t really go and see things with their own eyes,” and that Jeddah today is “completely unrecognizable” from what it was three years ago. “People talk about sportwashing. If people want to use sport, want to use boxing to make changes, then I’m all for it,” he said.
Bethany Al-Haidari, a Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, a US-based human rights group, said Shehab’s case was “shocking” but “one among hundreds.” “She is just the one the world gets to see. But this is a bigger problem,” she said.
“There has been a worldwide campaign by the Saudi government to say that things are changing and the country is reforming, but that is not true. In fact, it is the opposite of what we have seen on the ground.”
She said the cases of abuse were not limited to Saudi citizens, adding that those who travel there for sporting and other events could be at risk. “Last year alone, there was a case where a US citizen was taken off a flight and detained. You never know what can happen, especially if you have ever spoken about human rights or are from a minority. It is not a predictable regimen.”
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office did not respond to requests for comment.