The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it is monitoring the case of a Saudi woman sentenced to 34 years in prison for using Twitter to follow accounts and share posts critical of the Kingdom.
Earlier this month, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student in the U.K. and mother of two, was sentenced to the lengthy prison term, followed by a 34-year travel ban, after she appealed her initial sentence, according to The Washington Post.
Through her Twitter account, al-Shebab called for reforms in her country and for the release of well-known activists and intellectuals, according to the BBC.
This is the longest sentence given to a “peaceful activist,” according to human rights groups cited by the Post, which also reported al-Shebab’s phone was taken and her account on the social media platform will be permanently deleted. For now, her Twitter account remains online.
Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson, said the U.S. is “studying” the fact of al-Shebab’s case, according to The Hill.
“Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized. It should never be criminalized,” Price said.
Price continued: “Freedom of expression is a principle that we stand up for around the world. Anytime any government anywhere tramples on such a principle, we speak out and we seek to defend that fundamental right that is as fundamental to individuals in Saudi Arabia as it is to any country around the world.”
Al-Shebab, a Leeds University student and lecturer at the Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, was reportedly detained by Saudi authorities in January 2021, while she was visiting the Kingdom over the holidays. She remains in detention.
Her initial sentence was around six years, according to human rights groups The Freedom House and ALQST, cited by the BBC.
But during her appeal, authorities added new charges, including “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and sharing their posts, according to the Guardian.
Lina Alhathloul, the head of monitoring and communication for ALQST, a U.K.-based NGO promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia, called the sentence “appalling.”
“This appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities’ claims of reform for women and of the legal system, and shows that they remain hellbent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely,” Alhathloul said. “Saudi activists warned Western leaders that giving legitimacy to the crown prince would pave the way for more abuses, which is unfortunately what we are witnessing now.”
Dr. Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO working to secure the release of prisoners in the Middle East and North Africa, echoed Alhathloul in calling for Al-Shebab’s immediate release.
“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” for the punishments, Al-Haidari said.
President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia last month, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was behind the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden sought to justify the trip, claiming he would secure commitments from MBS to increase gas supply, therefore lowering gas prices at home, as well as better treatment of dissidents.