Saudi Arabia has sentenced a women’s rights activist to 34 years in prison. Salma Al-Shehab is a PhD candidate at Britain’s University of Leeds and a mother of two. She was handed what is said to be the longest prison sentence ever given to a Saudi women’s rights defender by the notorious Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), marking an escalation in Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s crackdown on dissent in the kingdom.
According to Washington-based human rights organisation the Freedom Initiative, Al-Shehab was detained while on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January last year, days before she had planned to return to her home in Britain. It seems that she was given a six-year sentence at the time for her social media activism on women’s rights issues.
However, after an appeal last week the SCC increased the sentence to 34 years, along with a 34-year travel ban. The ruling cited Al-Shehab’s social media account, where she was supportive of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and called for her freedom.
“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that it is improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse,” said Dr Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative. She believes that US President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Riyadh has empowered Bin Salman. “It is unfortunately no surprise that he 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.”
Al-Haidari pointed to the irony of Loujain Al-Hathloul’s release being celebrated, even while Salma Al-Shehab was kept behind bars on the grounds that she had called for the activist to be released. “It’s a pattern for the Saudi authorities to ensure that women activists can’t celebrate or take credit for any of their hard-won victories.”
The harsh sentence given to Al-Shehab raises further concerns about the SCC and western policy towards Riyadh. The ruling comes a month after Biden, who had previously vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” state after the October 2018 killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, visited Jeddah and fist-bumped the crown prince.
The Specialised Criminal Court was created in 2008 to try terrorist suspects. However, in recent years it has become notorious for rubber stamping a crackdown against critics of the Saudi regime and human rights activists. Saudi Arabia, like its key regional allies Egypt and the UAE, has been accused of weaponising the definition of terrorism, especially since the popular Arab uprising in 2011, to include political opponents and democracy campaigners. Western governments turn a blind eye to such anti-democratic moves.