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Saudis sentence Leeds PhD student Salma Al-Shehab to 34 years in prison for human rights

Middle Eastern Studies Association | – Academic Freedom Committee

September 7, 2022

His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Fax: (via Home Office) +966 11 403 3125, et al.

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency:

We write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) to protest in the strongest possible terms the 34-year sentence imposed on Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student at the University from Leeds in the UK. We believe that Ms al-Shehab’s conviction and the reasons given for her cumulative total sentence – which was increased by six years after Ms al-Shehab’s appeal – are grossly disproportionate to the acts of which she was convicted. accused. and are inconsistent with the vision of change that your government claims to promote.

MESA was founded in 1966 to support scholarship and teaching about the Middle East and North Africa. A preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and has nearly 2,700 members worldwide. MESA is committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression, both in the region and in the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Salma al-Shehab was in her final year of doctoral studies at the University of Leeds Medical School, conducting research on new dentistry techniques and their application in Saudi Arabia, when she returned home in December 2020 during the holiday season. In January 2021, al-Shehab, the mother of two young children aged six and four, was arrested by Kingdom authorities and held for 285 days in solitary confinement, in violation of international standards and procedural law. your country’s criminal justice system. Ms al-Shehab was denied access to a lawyer during her long pre-trial detention, including during her interrogation.

When her case came to the Specialized Criminal Court, Ms al-Shehab was charged with “supporting those who seek to disturb public order, destabilize the security of society and the stability of the state” under various articles of the Anti-Terrorism Act. and the law against cybercrime. Ms al-Shehab was initially sentenced to a six-year prison term, which she appealed. However, a district attorney told the appeals court that his sentence ‘was minor considering his crimes’ and asked for it to be increased ‘in light of his support for those who try to stir up disorder and destabilize society, as evidenced by his follow and retweet accounts.’ On August 9, 2022, the appeals court significantly increased Ms al-Shehab’s sentence from six to 34 years, with an additional 34-year travel ban, after finding that the original sentence had failed ” restrain and deter”.

Analysis of court records by Human Rights Watch indicates that the draconian sentence imposed on Ms al-Shehab was entirely related to her peaceful (and legal) use of social media. Ms al-Shehab told the court she had retweeted messages – including calls for the release of Loujain al-Hathloul – to her 2,000 followers “out of curiosity and to observe others’ views”. However, according to court records, his 34-year sentence consisted of eight years (under the Anti-Terrorism Act) for “supporting those who incite terrorism”, 10 years for “providing support for those who seek to disrupt the ‘public order’, including ‘following and retweeting’, five years for ‘creating an online account to commit any of the acts prohibited by the Anti-Terrorism Act’, and five years for ‘spreading false and malicious rumours’ In addition, Ms al-Shehab was given a one-year sentence (under the Cybercrime Law) for “creating an online presence that disrupts public order”, as well as a additional five-year discretionary sentence imposed by presiding judge.

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, the peaceful use of social media, including Twitter, is not a crime, let alone an act of terrorism. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter usage rates in the world, and the Kingdom Holding Company is one of Twitter’s largest long-term shareholders. On August 9, 2022, the same day that Ms al-Shehab’s sentence was increased to 34 years, a federal jury in California convicted a former Twitter employee of acting as an undeclared foreign agent and ‘monitoring, viewing and transmitting private information from Twitter. users to the Saudi authorities. While the California case has no connection to Ms. al-Shehab’s conviction, we believe it demonstrates your government’s willingness to control, monitor and police legitimate social media activity. In this regard, we take note of reports that Ms al-Shehab was targeted in November 2020 – two months before her detention – by another social media user who used a crime monitoring app, Kollona Amn , to point to a tweet by Ms al-Shehab that criticized a government Twitter post regarding a public transport contract. Kollona Amn is an application developed by Saudi Arabia that describes itself on Google Play as “a utility that allows all citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia to play the role of a policeman”.

We call on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Ms al-Shehab from detention and lift the travel ban so she can return to the UK to continue and complete her education. Additionally, we urge your government to end its targeting of social media users. We express our further dismay at reports that another young woman, Nourah al-Qahtani, was given an even longer sentence of 45 years after being found guilty, again under the Anti-Terrorism Act, of “ used the internet to tear apart the social fabric” and “undermining public order” in Saudi Arabia.

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, your government has invested heavily in Vision 2030 and promoting Saudi youth as the generation of change in your country, but such phrases are woefully inconsistent with anything you claim to be trying to realise. We urge your government to take immediate action to end the targeting and criminalization of peaceful expressions of opinion.


Eve Trout Powell
President of MESA
Professor, University of Pennsylvania

Laurie Brand
Chair, Academic Freedom Committee
Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California

cc: HE Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud