RIYADH (Middle East Eye) – A group of more than 30 rights groups have called on the international community to pressure Saudi Arabia to release imprisoned national Salma al-Shehab, who was sentenced to 34 years in prison over a series of tweets criticizing the kingdom.
In a statement signed by ALQST, PEN International and Amnesty International, among others, the organizations said the kingdom must “immediately and unconditionally” release Shehab, whose sentence is the longest ever handed down to a Saudi Arabian women’s rights defender.
Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student from Leeds, was on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 and had planned to return to the United Kingdom when she was detained, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights organization.
Initially sentenced to six years in prison over tweets she posted calling for rights in the kingdom, an appeal by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court saw the sentence increased to 34 years, along with a 34-year travel ban.
“We strongly condemn the arbitrary arrest and unlawful sentencing of al-Shehab, which marks a further escalation in the crackdown on free speech in Saudi Arabia,” wrote the rights groups.
“In contrast to the authorities’ rhetoric on human rights, including women’s rights and legal reforms, the real drivers of reform – the activists calling for basic rights – continue to be ruthlessly targeted and silenced, with repressive laws being used to criminalize their peaceful expression and activism.”
They also noted that her sentencing came in the wake of a high profile visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron’s hosting of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris.
“Such high-level meetings, without firm preconditions being set, have only emboldened the kingdom’s leadership to commit further abuses, as many of us warned before Biden’s trip,” they added.
Since effectively taking control of the kingdom in 2017, MBS has overseen a widespread crackdown on dissent even as he pushed a number of nominally liberalizing reforms.
Hundreds have been executed, with 120 executions carried out so far in 2022 alone. In March, the kingdom executed 81 men in its largest single mass execution in decades.