A Saudi woman who expressed support for women’s rights on social media has received the longest ever prison sentence for harming the kingdom. Arrested in July last year, Noura bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a member of an influential tribe, was sentenced to 45 years by the Saudi Specialised Criminal Court. She had no record of political activism.
She was charged with breaching counter-terrorism and anti-cyber crime laws by “using the internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric” and “producing, and storing of materials impinging on public order and religious values,” according to Washington-based Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn). The organisation was founded by dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before his 2018 execution at the Saudi Istanbul consulate.
Dawn’s regional research director Abdullah Alaoudh said that following “shocking 34-year sentence of Salma al-Shehab,” on August 9th on similar charges, the latest ruling “shows how emboldened Saudi authorities feel to punish even the mildest criticism from its citizens.” He said crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, “would not allow such vindictive and excessive sentences if he felt that these actions would be met by meaningful censure by the United States and other western governments. Clearly, they are not.”
A Leeds University doctoral candidate, Ms Shehab was convicted of having a Twitter account, following the activities of dissidents and retweeting their comments. The specialised court responded to her appeal against a lower court’s six-year sentence by increasing the term of imprisonment on the ground “the original sentence did not achieve sufficient ‘restraint and deterrence’”, Dawn stated.
When arrested in January 2021, Ms Shehab, 34 — a British resident, mother of two and a dental hygienist — was on holiday in Saudi Arabia. Hours before the Qahtani ruling, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration had raised “significant concerns” with the Saudi authorities about the Shehab case.
“We have made the point to them that freedom of expression is a universal human right to which all people are entitled and exercising those universal rights should never be criminalised.”
UK-based rights association ALQST has reported the crown prince’s rise to power “has ushered in a period of unprecedented repression with the authorities brutally cracking down on free speech and any whisper of dissent.” Hundreds of activists, religious figures, writers, and critics have been arrested.
During the first half of this year, Saudi Arabia carried out 120 executions, nearly twice the number for last year. On March 12th, 81 people were executed for terrorism and “deviant beliefs.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said 41of those executed were Saudi Shias who had taken part in 2011-2012 demonstrations calling for political rights for their non-Sunni minority community.
The Irish Times received no reply to a request for comment from the Saudi foreign ministry.