A Saudi woman has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting activists through her Twitter account and sharing posts that spoke in favor of the right of women to drive. Salma al-Shehab was a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds in the UK and was detained in January 2021 after returning to Saudi Arabia for a vacation.
Shehab was initially sentenced to six years for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state,” based on having reshared tweets from Saudi activists living in exile who called for the release of political prisoners in the kingdom.
The incident was reported in an editorial board piece from The Washington Post, which called it “yet another glimpse at the brutal underside of the Saudi dictatorship under its crown prince and de facto head of state, Mohammed bin Salman.”
Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was found by US intelligence services to have directly approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The Post reports that prosecutors in the appeal to Shehab’s case argued for a more severe punishment under Saudi cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws, leading to a drastically increased sentence of 34 years, handed down on August 8th. The Freedom Initiative nonprofit, which advocates for the rights of prisoners detained in the Middle East, states that this is the longest known sentence for a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia.
The draconian punishment is another reminder of the ongoing threats facing Saudi activists, particularly those who publicly advocate for change. In July, President Joe Biden drew strong criticism from human rights groups for his trip to Saudi Arabia — a trip that he justified in his own Post op-ed as being necessary to secure access to energy resources and strategic trade routes in the region. On the trip, Biden claimed to have told Saudi officials that he held MBS responsible for the assassination of Khashoggi — although various sources disputed this claim.
Reporting on Shehab’s case in The Guardian notes that MBS indirectly controls a large stake in Twitter through the Saudi nation’s sovereign wealth investment fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Twitter has not currently issued any statement on the case.
Other notable Twitter shareholders also have ties to Saudi wealth: text messages disclosed as part of a Tesla shareholder lawsuit revealed that Elon Musk believed the PIF would help him take Tesla private in 2018.