August 12, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Saudi terrorism court on Monday sentenced women’s rights activist and academic Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban due to tweets she posted calling for basic rights in the country. The ruling is the longest prison sentence given to a Saudi women’s rights defender, marking an escalation in MBS crackdown on dissent.

In January of 2021, the mother of two young boys, aged 4 and 6, was detained while on vacation in Saudi Arabia days before she had planned to return to her residence in the United Kingdom, where she was a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Salma comes from the Shia Muslim minority, who have long faced discrimination in Saudi Arabia.

Responding to the news of her sentencing, Dr. Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative said:

“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. It is unfortunately no surprise that MbS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious rights violations. Without any real steps toward accountability, Biden’s trip to Jeddah and the international community’s embrace must feel like a green light 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.”

The ruling for Salma’s sentence cited her social media account, where she was supportive of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and called for her freedom. Though Salma was initially sentenced to 6-years in the first instance court, the sentence was increased to 34 years during the appeal. This is the longest known sentence for a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul, who remains wrongfully held in Saudi Arabia under a travel ban, was released from jail just weeks after Salma’s detention.

“It is ironic,” Al-Haidari adds, “that while Loujain’s release was celebrated, Salma remained behind bars on the ground that she called for that very release. 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.”

We call on Saudi authorities to free Salma, allowing her to return to care for the children and to complete her studies safely in the United Kingdom. We further call on the international community to raise her case and continue to press Saudi Arabia for true reform on women’s rights. Tweeting in solidarity with women’s rights activists is not a crime, and Saudi Arabia must be held accountable.

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