Riyadh: A Saudi university student who had returned home for a vacation was sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on her personal Twitter account.
The sentence was handed down by Saudi Arabia's so-called "special terrorist court" just weeks after US President Joe Biden's visit to the Kingdom, which human rights activists warned could give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) a green light to intensify his crackdown on dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.
The case poses evidence of how MBS has targeted Twitter users in his repression campaign, while also controlling a significant indirect stake in the US social media company through Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
In MBS' Playbook, Tweeting Is A Crime
Salma Al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two, aged four and six, was initially sentenced to three years in prison for the "crime" of using an internet website to "cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security."
However, an appeals court handed down the new sentence on Monday - 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban - after a public prosecutor requested that the court consider other alleged crimes.
Shehab was not a prominent or particularly vocal Saudi activist, neither in Saudi Arabia nor in the United Kingdom.
On Instagram, where she had only 159 followers, she described herself as a dental hygienist, medical educator, PhD student at Leeds University, lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, wife, and mother to her sons, Noah and Adam.
Her Twitter profile listed 2,597 followers. She regularly shared pictures of her young children and tweets about Covid burnout.
Shehab rarely retweeted posts from Saudi dissidents in exile calling for the release of political prisoners in the Kingdom.
The PhD student appeared to support the case of Loujain Al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was previously imprisoned and tortured for advocating for women's driving rights, and is now subject to a travel ban.
Someone who knew Shehab said she couldn't stand injustice. She was described as well-educated and a voracious reader who had moved to the UK in 2018 or 2019 to pursue her PhD at the University of Leeds.
She had returned to Saudi Arabia for a vacation in December 2020, intending to bring her two children and husband with her. Saudi authorities then summoned her for questioning, and she was eventually arrested and tried for her tweets.
Of Secret Torture And Oppressed Revelations
In further detail, a person who followed her case revealed that Shehab had been held in solitary confinement at times and had sought to privately tell the judge details about how she had been treated that she did not want to reveal in front of her father during the trial.
She was not permitted to communicate the message to the judge, as per the source. Three judges signed the appeals verdict, but their signatures were illegible.
On its account, Twitter declined to comment on the case and did not respond to specific questions about Saudi Arabia's influence over the company, according to the Guardian.
It is worth noting that Twitter previously did not respond to questions about why a senior aide to MBS, Bader Al-Asaker, was allowed to keep a verified Twitter account with more than 2 million followers, despite US government allegations that he orchestrated an illegal infiltration of the company, leading to the identification and imprisonment of anonymous Twitter users by the Saudi government. A former Twitter employee has been convicted in the case by a US court.
The Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns more than 5% of Twitter through his investment company, Kingdom Holdings, is one of Twitter's most significant investors.
While bin Talal remains the company's chairman, his authority over the company was called into question by the US media, including the Wall Street Journal, after it was revealed that the Saudi royal - a cousin of the crown prince - had been held captive at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh for 83 days.
The incident was part of a larger purge led by MBS against other members of the royal family and businessmen, which involved allegations of torture, coercion, and the expropriation of billions of dollars from Saudi Arabian coffers.
In May, Kingdom Holding announced that it had sold approximately 17% of its company to the PIF, of which bin Salman is chairman, for $1.5 billion. As a result, the Saudi government is a significant indirect investor in Twitter. According to Twitter, investors have no influence over the company's day-to-day operations.
"MBS's Ruthless Repression Machine"
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights condemned Shehab's sentence, which it said was the longest ever imposed on an activist. It was noted that many female activists had been subjected to unfair trials that resulted in arbitrary sentences, as well as "severe torture," including sexual harassment.
Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi living in exile whose sister and brother are detained in Saudi Arabia, said the Shehab case demonstrated Saudi Arabia's view that dissent equals terrorism.
"Salman's draconian sentencing in a terrorism court over peaceful tweets is the latest manifestation of MBS's ruthless repression machine," he said.
"Just like [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi's assassination, her sentencing is intended to send shock waves inside and outside the kingdom - dare to criticize MBS and you will end up dismembered or in Saudi dungeons."
While the case has received little attention, the Washington Post published a sarcastic editorial about Saudi Arabia's treatment of the Leeds student on Tuesday, stressing that her case demonstrated that the "commitments" the US President received on reforms were "a farce."
"At the very least, Mr. Biden must now speak out forcefully and demand that Ms. Shehab be released and allowed to return to her sons, 4 and 6 years old, in the United Kingdom, and to resume her studies there," it read.