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Saudi Arabia sentences Salma al-Shehab to "unprecedented" 34-year jail term over tweets, rights groups say

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President Biden faces criticism after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman 07:16

Saudi Arabia has sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison and an additional 34 years under a travel ban for sharing her views on Twitter, according to rights groups. Salma Al-Shehab's prison sentence was longer than any previously given to an activist or dissident in Saudi Arabia, male or female, and might indicate an escalation in the Saudi government's crackdown against people who challenge its narrative, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said.

"The sentence issued against Salma Al-Shehab is unprecedented and dangerous," said ESOHR in a statement. The rights group is based in Europe and relies on contacts within the conservative Islamic kingdom, where journalists are not permitted to work freely.

Salma al-Shehab is shown in this undated photo. ESOHR

"In recent years, many women activists have been subjected to unfair trials that have led to arbitrary sentences, in addition to some of them being subjected to severe torture, including sexual harassment," ESOHR said.

It's unclear whether Al-Shebab, a specialist in dental medicine and lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, considered herself a political or rights activist. She was studying for a PhD in the United Kingdom, according to The Guardian newspaper, when she traveled from the city of Leeds back to Saudi Arabia in December 2020 for a vacation.

During that visit, she was detained and questioned over a number of tweets, including some in which she called for the release of Saudi prisoners of conscience like prominent women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul. She also called for an end to Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, which requires women to be overseen by men if they want to do virtually anything outside of their homes.

Before she was able to travel back to the U.K., she was formally arrested and tried for her tweets, The Guardian said. 

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According to ESOHR, she was accused of "undermining the security of society and the stability of the state, spreading sedition, providing aid to those who seek to disrupt public order, and spreading false and malicious rumors on Twitter."

She was initially sentenced in 2021 to six years in prison by Saudi Arabia's secretive Specialized Criminal Court, which is dedicated to hearing cases on terrorism charges. Despite all the charges against her being related to tweets, an appeals court later increased her sentence to 34 years, invoking "the counterterrorism regime and its financing to justify the harsh ruling," ESOHR said.

"Sentencing Salma under the counter-terrorism and financing system confirms that Saudi Arabia deals with those who demand reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists," ESOHR said.

The harsh sentence came to light just weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia, which human rights activists and critics warned could embolden the country's crackdown on activists and dissidents.

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"The ruling against Salma Al-Shehab reveals that the recent steps taken by the Saudi government in the file of women's rights are not serious and fall within the whitewashing campaigns it is carrying out to improve its poor human rights record," ESOHR said. "The Saudi government continues to practice its grave violations against women activists without any hesitation."

Another rights group, the Washington D.C.-based Freedom Initiative, also reported the 34-year sentence for Al-Shehab. The group's Saudi Arabia case manager blasted the kingdom and its powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, for allowing the harsh punishment while it has "boasted to the world that they are improving women's rights and creating legal reform."

"There is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse," said the group's Dr. Bethany Al-Haidari in a statement published last week. "It is unfortunately no surprise that MbS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious rights violations. Without any real steps toward accountability, Biden's trip to Jeddah and the international community's embrace must feel like a green light."

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