Saudi student sentenced to 34 years in prison over Twitter posts

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By Matthew Holroyd  & Sophia Khatsenkova
Salma al-Shehab was convicted of spreading "malicious rumours" on Twitter, among other charges.
Salma al-Shehab was convicted of spreading "malicious rumours" on Twitter, among other charges.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

A Saudi Arabian student has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting activists on Twitter.

Salma al-Shehab, 34, was studying at the University of Leeds and went home to Saudi Arabia for a vacation in December 2020. A few days before she was set to return to the UK in January 2021, the PhD student was detained.

Saudi Arabia’s special terrorist court convicted her of “causing public unrest and destabilising civil and national security".

The student had used her Twitter account -- of around 2,700 followers -- to follow, like, and share posts from Saudi activists or dissidents in exile.

"I reject injustice and support the oppressed," she wrote in a 2019 tweet.

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.