Saudi woman faces 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter to advocate for human rights

Salma al-Shehab tweeted support for women's driving advocate Loujain al-Hathloul.
Salma al-Shehab tweeted support for women's driving advocate Loujain al-Hathloul. Photo credit: Getty Images

For many, social media is technology mostly used for sharing photos, jokes and memes; but for some around the world it's much more serious than that.

A woman has been jailed for 34 years in Saudi Arabia over tweets that called for basic human rights in the country.

Salma al-Shehab was on holiday from her home in the UK, where she was studying for a PhD at the University of Leeds, when she was arrested.

She has also been handed a 34-year travel ban that kicks in after she is released from prison.

Shehab, the mother to two young boys aged four and six, was first detained in January 2021 and sentenced to six years.

However that was appealed and earlier this month increased to an astonishing 34-year term.

Her crime was to demand freedom for activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was incarcerated and tortured for supporting women's rights to drive.

According to the Washington Post, Shehab has questioned why she was a security risk. She pointed out she had used her real name, had posted photos of her children and had just 2000 followers.

She had also complained about being held in solitary confinement for 285 days.

The response from prosecutors showed no mercy - instead they argued she should be charged under both Saudi's counterterrorism laws and cybercrime statute.

Dr Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, described the sentence as "abhorrent".

The Freedom Initiative is a non-profit organisation that advocates for prisoners wrongly detained in North Africa and the Middle East.

"Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women's rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse," Al-Haidari said.

"The Saudi authorities must release Salma and ensure that her young boys do not grow up without a mother simply because she called for freedom for human rights activists."

According to the organisation, the ruling is the longest prison sentence ever handed to a women's rights advocate in the kingdom.

It also revealed that al-Hathloul was released from jail weeks after Shebab was arrested, although remains in Saudi Arabia under a travel ban.

"It is ironic that while Loujain's release was celebrated, Salma remained behind bars on the ground that she called for that very release," Al-Haidari said.

"It's a pattern for Saudi authorities to ensure that women activists can't celebrate or take credit for any of their hard-won victories."