Saudi women’s rights advocate gets 34 years in prison for tweets

Journalist interviewing doctoral student and women's rights advocate Salma Shehab
Saudi doctoral student and women’s rights advocate Salma Shehab speaks to a journalist at the Riyadh International Book Fair in March 2014.
(Saudi state television)

A Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading rumors and retweeting dissent, according to court documents obtained Thursday, a decision that has drawn growing global condemnation.

Activists and lawyers consider the sentence against Salma Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at Leeds University in Britain, shocking even by Saudi standards of justice.

So far unacknowledged by the kingdom, the ruling comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent even as his rule granted women the right to drive and other new freedoms in the ultraconservative Islamic nation.


Shehab was detained during a family vacation in January 2021 just days before she planned to return to Britain, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights group.

Shehab told judges that she had been jailed for more than 285 days before her case was even referred to court, the legal documents obtained by the Associated Press show.

The Freedom Initiative describes Shehab as a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority, which has long complained of systematic discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Saudi Arabia says it has executed 81 prisoners, including those convicted of killings and belonging to militant groups.

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“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,” said Bethany Haidari, the group’s Saudi case manager.

Since rising to power in 2017, Mohammed has accelerated efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil with massive tourism projects — most recently plans to create the world’s longest buildings stretching for more than 100 miles in the desert. He has also faced criticism over his arrests of those who fail to fall in line, including dissidents and activists but also princes and businessmen.


Judges accused Shehab of “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” — claims stemming solely from her social media activity, according to an official charge sheet. They alleged that Shehab followed and retweeted dissident accounts on Twitter and “transmitted false rumors.”

A special court for terrorism and national security crimes handed down the unusually harsh sentence, to be followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision came this month as Shehab appealed her initial sentence of six years.

A former Twitter employee was convicted of providing personal information of anonymous users who had criticized Saudi Arabia and its royal family.

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“The [six-year] prison sentence imposed on the defendant was minor in view of her crimes,” a state prosecutor told the appeals court. “I’m calling to amend the sentence in light of her support for those who are trying to cause disorder and destabilize society, as shown by her following and retweeting accounts.”

The Saudi government in Riyadh, as well as its embassies in Washington and London, did not respond to a request for comment.

Leeds University confirmed that Shehab was in her final year of doctoral studies at the medical school.

“We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her,” the university said.

Shehab’s sentencing also drew the attention of the U.S. government, with the State Department saying Wednesday that it was “studying the case.”

“Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized. It should never be criminalized,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Last month, President Biden traveled to the oil-rich kingdom and held talks with Mohammed in which he said he raised human rights concerns.

Their meeting — and much-criticized fist bump — marked a sharp turnaround from Biden’s earlier vow to make the kingdom a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

During her appeal, Shehab said the harsh judgment was tantamount to the “destruction of me, my family, my future and the future of my children.” She has two boys, ages 4 and 6.

She told judges that she had no idea that simply retweeting posts “out of curiosity and to observe others’ viewpoints,” from a personal account with no more than 2,000 followers, constituted terrorism.