A Leeds University student jailed in Saudi Arabia for allegedly spreading “false rumours” and retweeting dissident posts is being used to “set an example” and must be “immediately released”, Amnesty International has said.
Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in a ruling issued Monday under the kingdom’s anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws, which the organization has criticized as “cruel and illegal” punishment.
The sentence against the mother of two and the activist is seen by activists and lawyers as shocking even by Saudi standards of justice, and the decision has drawn mounting global condemnation.
Amnesty has denounced the “scandalous” decision and has called for his “unconditional” release.
The 34-year-old Saudi woman, who has two young children, aged four and six, was initially given a shorter sentence for using the internet to “cause public disturbances and destabilize civil and national security”.
However, this increased after an appeals court was asked to consider other alleged crimes.
“Salma al-Shehab should never have been convicted in the first place, but the increase in her sentence from six to 34 years after an unfair trial shows that the authorities intend to use her to set an example amid their relentless crackdown on freedom of expression,” said Amnesty’s Diana Semaan.
“She must be released immediately and unconditionally. The Saudi authorities must allow her to join her family and continue her studies in the UK,” he added.
“Saudi Arabia must end its relentless crackdown on women’s rights activists and anyone else who dares to freely speak their minds.”
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) previously described Ms. al-Shehab’s sentence as establishing a “dangerous precedent for women activists and human rights defenders”.
Ms al-Shehab, who was also given a 34-year travel ban, was arrested in January 2021 while on vacation in Saudi Arabiaafter being attacked by authorities for using Twitter to follow, write to, and support Saudi women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul.
Read more: University of Leeds ‘deeply concerned’ by student sentenced to 34 years in prison
The doctoral student was held in prolonged solitary confinement for 285 days before being brought to trial, in violation of international standards and Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Procedure Law, according to Amnesty.
He was also denied access to legal representation during his pre-trial detention, including during interrogations, the organization said.
Ms. Al-Hathloul was jailed for “spying with foreign parties” and “conspiring against the kingdom”, but was paroled in 2021.
Ms al-Shehab’s sentence, which has so far not been recognized by the kingdom, comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent, even as his government gave women the right to drive. and other new freedoms in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.
Since coming to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has faced criticism for the arrests of those who do not align, including dissidents and activists, but also princes and businessmen.