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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia sentences female student to prison

August 19, 2022

The ruling is part of an ongoing clampdown on dissent and minorities in the kingdom. But so far, it's unlikely to have an effect on the kingdom's newly polished image as a global oil provider in times of crisis.

Saudi woman Salma al-Shehab speaks to a journalist five years ago at a book fair
Salma al-Shehab, seen here in a screen grab from TV, was sentenced to 34 years in prisonImage: Saudi state television/AP Photo/picture alliance

Shortly after Saudi Arabia returned into the global fold after four years of being widely shunned following the murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, a new verdict yet again puts the Middle Eastern kingdom in the spotlight, this time for cracking down on a female PhD student who supports human rights groups. 

Earlier this week, Riyadh's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) has sentenced 34-year-old Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in jail, and imposed a further 34-year travel ban, a sentence considered harsh even by Saudi standards.

The PhD student, who had been enrolled at the University of Leeds in the UK, was detained during a visit in her home country in December 2020.

She has now been found guilty of "assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts," according to the court papers which were obtained and translated into English by UK daily The Guardian.

For the mother of two young boys the verdict came as a shock since she had appealed a much shorter six-year sentence for "causing public unrest and destabilizing civil and national security on an internet website."  

Al-Shehab was neither particularly outspoken in her criticism nor did she reach a wide audience. During her two years abroad, she had shared and liked social media posts that called for the release of the then-detained human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, and had supported calls for gender equality in Saudi Arabia.

And yet, according to US newspaper The Washington Post, a Saudi Twitter user called Faisal OTB, informed her on Twitter that he had submitted her activity to the Saudi security authorities.  

"The fact that Salma al-Shehab was blackened by the Saudi state's surveillance apparatus shows that Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, is using and professionalizing digital solutions to establish a surveillance regime," Sebastian Sons, an expert with the Germany-based CARPO think tank, told DW.

Moreover, the country's latest verdict against al-Shehab, who belongs to the Saudi Shiite minority, could also be a warning for Saudi Arabia's arch enemy Iran, which is mostly Shiite.

"Furthermore, the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia has been the victim of discrimination and marginalization for decades, and is often used as a political scapegoat to promote Saudi nationalism. In this context, the arrest is certainly also, but not only, a signal against the Saudi Shiites," Sons added. 

A photo of the Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul who was released in May 2021
Women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released after three years in prison in February 2021, while Salma al-Shahab was sentenced for her support of al-Hathloul in August 2022.Image: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Fueling fear

While Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been spearheading the kingdom's modernizing program "Vision 2030" — which includes more rights for women, opening the country for tourism and diversifying from oil — the ambitious 36-year-old's rule is equally linked to an iron fist when it comes to critical opinions including calls for gender quality.

"The rise to power of MBS in 2017 was accompanied by the adoption of draconian laws such as the 2017 counter-terrorism law, and the establishment of the Presidency of State Security and the Public Prosecution Office," Ramzi Kaiss, MENA Rights Group's Legal and Policy Officer, told DW. 

According to the Geneva-based human rights watchdog, both of these bodies have been responsible for committing widespread violations of human rights ahead of legal trials.

Their judicial arm is the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh, the one that sentenced al-Shehab this week. 

"However, this court is neither independent nor impartial, in light of the undue influence by the King of Saudi Arabia and MBS on the selection of the judges," Kaiss added. 

For him, al-Shehab's unprecedented harsh sentence confirms the observation "that the Saudi authorities feel emboldened in using the SCC as a tool of repression to prosecute and punish any form of speech that is deemed to be critical of the authorities."

This view is strongly echoed by Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of women's activist Loujain al-Hathloul. "This appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities' claims of reform for women and of the legal system," she wrote in a statement in her role as Head of Communications and Monitoring of the London-based human rights watchdog Alqst. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden in Jeddah in July 2022.
Joe Biden's visit served as a huge boost to the Kingdom's image following years of being shunnedImage: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/REUTERS

Timing no coincidence

The shortfall of gas after Russia's invasion of Ukraine has boosted the kingdom's self esteem as a global fuel provider to a new level.

In turn, MBS has been travelling again, and was yet again visited by European state leaders. Also, about a month ago, even US President Joe Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia to revive bilateral relations. Biden in particular had shunned MBS as a "pariah" after the murder of the Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

A poster of the murdered Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi
The killing and gruesome dismembering of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi led to Saudi Arabia being largely isolated until this year. Image: Osman Orsal/REUTERS

Therefore, Lama Fakih, Director Middle East at Human Rights Watch, had high hopes that the US government would apply  pressure in the case of al-Shehab. "But the administration's failure to critique the sentencing to date speaks volumes," she told DW. 

Only, Lina al-Hathloul doesn't seem to be surprised. "Saudi activists warned Western leaders that giving legitimacy to the crown prince would pave the way for more abuses, which is unfortunately what we are witnessing now," she wrote in the statement.  

Meanwhile, Salma al-Shehab's lawyer has 30 days to appeal the sentence, while supporters are calling for her release on Twitter under the hashtag #freeSalmaAlShehab.

According to the human rights organization The Freedom Initiative, her lawyer has already filed a request for clemency from the 34-year sentence, which is legal option for judges to review a sentence. 

Biden's fist bump with MBS draws anger

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa