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UK foreign secretary urged to take action on Saudi woman jailed for 34 years over tweets

Saudi women’s rights defender Salma al-Shehab (Photo via Twitter)

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been urged to intervene in the case of Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student and Saudi women's rights activist that has been sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting the critics of the kingdom on Twitter.

Hilary Benn, a Labour MP, said in a letter to Truss on Sunday that the UK must intervene and has a “duty” to press for the release of Shehab, calling on the British foreign secretary to “make representations to the Saudi authorities” for Shehab “so that she can be freed to return to her family and to her studies.”

Benn said the case is “completely at odds with Saudi Arabia’s claim to be improving human rights,” adding, “It seems that all she has done is use her Twitter account to support women’s rights and greater freedom, and to call for the release of imprisoned activists in Saudi Arabia.”

Benn stressed, “Saudi Arabia says, ‘we’re reforming the country.’ You can’t on the one hand say, ‘we are opening up and liberalizing the country,’ and on the other hand send a woman to prison for expressing her opinions on Twitter.”

Calling the case “shocking and outrageous,” the Labour MP said, “I think we have a duty as citizens and countries to speak out wherever human rights are abused and denied in this way. The fact that she was a student in one of our universities adds to that obligation.”

Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children and a student at Leeds University, was detained in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was visiting home for a vacation. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.” 

However, an appeals court last week handed down a 34-year prison sentence followed by a 34-year travel ban, after a public prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged crimes.

Shehab has described suffering abuse and harassment behind bars, telling a Saudi court she was subjected to interrogations after being given medications that exhausted her. 

Several human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Foundation, the Freedom Initiative, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) and ALQST for Human Rights, have also condemned the ruling against the Saudi women's rights activist, and called for her release.

Ever since Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has arrested hundreds of activists, bloggers, intellectuals and others for their political activism, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnation of the crackdown.

Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedom of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied by the kingdom's authorities.

Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.

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