Saudi Arabia gives schoolgirl 18-year prison sentence over tweets: Rights group

In this file photo, Saudi men walk outside the General Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (By Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has sentenced a secondary schoolgirl to 18 years in prison and a travel ban, accusing her of supporting political prisoners in her X (formerly Twitter) posts, a rights group says.

The rights advocacy group ALQST, which documents human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, revealed on Friday that the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court passed the sentence for 18-year-old Manal al-Gafiri in August.

She was only 17 at the time of her arrest, ALQST added.

The latest ruling comes as the Saudi judiciary, under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has issued several extreme sentences over accusations of cyber activism and the use of social media to criticize Riyadh.

Last month, Mohammed al-Ghamdi, a retired Saudi teacher, was given the death penalty for comments made on Twitter and YouTube.

Evading responsibility for the hardline Saudi court rulings and the regime’s stringent repression of dissent and free speech, the Saudi crown prince on Wednesday confirmed al-Ghamdi’s death penalty and blamed it on “bad laws” that he claimed he cannot change.

“We are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that. But [under] the jury system, you have to follow the laws, and I cannot tell a judge [to] do that and ignore the law, because... that's against the rule of law.”

The list of activists given prison sentences over cyberactivism can go on.

Leeds University doctoral candidate Salma al-Shehab also received a 34-year jail sentence over her tweets in support of women’s right to drive last year.

Saudi human rights defenders and lawyers, however, disputed the crown prince’s allegations and said the crackdown on social media users was correlated with his ascent to power and the introduction of new judicial bodies that have since overseen a crackdown on his critics.

“He is able, with one word or the stroke of a pen, in seconds, to change the laws if he wants,” said Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer and legal consultant with the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.

Rights groups also said the 2017 overhaul of the kingdom’s security apparatus has significantly enabled the repression of Saudi opposition voices, including those of women rights defenders and opposition activists.

“These violations are new under MBS, and it’s ridiculous that he is blaming this on the prosecution when he and senior Saudi authorities wield so much power over the prosecution services and the political apparatus more broadly,” said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch, using a common term for the prince.

Ever since MBS became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has ramped up arrests of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others perceived as political opponents, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.

Muslim scholars and activists have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedoms of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied.

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

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