A court in Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia sentenced a Saudi woman and adherent of Shia Islam to 34 years in prison on Monday for using her personal Twitter account to “create public turmoil and destabilize civil and national security” by re-Tweeting posts demanding the Saudi government release women’s rights activists from prison, Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper reported on Wednesday.
A Saudi terrorism court sentenced Saudi citizen Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison on August 15. She was originally sentenced to six years in prison but appealed her sentence and was assigned an increased prison term of 34 years on Monday. Al-Shehab’s latest sentence includes an additional travel ban forbidding her from leaving Saudi Arabia for 34 years after she serves her prison sentence.
Al-Shehab was a doctoral student at Leeds University in the U.K. but was visiting her native Saudi Arabia on vacation in January 2021 when Saudi authorities arrested her for recent social media activity.
Detailing the charges against Al-Shehab on August 17, the U.K.’s Daily Mail wrote:
In sentencing, the court cited Al-Shebab’s [sic] social media activity where she tweeted in support of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and expressed solidarity with imprisoned women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul and called for their release [from prison].
Al-Shebab [sic] was arrested after she retweeted a post from Al-Hathloul’s sister Lina which read: ‘Freedom for Loujain Al-Hathloul … Freedom for all prisoners of conscience. Your freedom is my first wish for this New Year – Happy New Year.’
Al-Shebab [sic]would also sometimes retweet posts from dissident activists who were living in exile. She was accused of ‘providing succour to those seeking to disrupt public order and undermine the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumours on Twitter’.
Al-Shehab is a follower of Shia Islam, making her a religious minority within Saudi Arabia. Roughly 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million citizens identify as Sunni Muslims.
“Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the [Saudi] citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population,” the U.S. State Department wrote in its 2019 Religious Freedom Report for Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom’s legal system is based largely on Islamic law, or sharia, “as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence,” according to the report.
Al-Shehab’s re-Tweets denouncing Saudi dissidents’ prison sentences were illegal because Saudi law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”
The U.S. State Department in its 2019 Religious Freedom Report for Saudi Arabia detailed the following examples of Saudi government persecution of Shia minorities:
In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained.
Saudi Arabia’s official state religion is Islam, while its constitution “is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad),” according to the U.S. State Department.