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Saudi student Salma al-Shehab jailed for 34 years for tweets

  • Leeds University student Salma al-Shehab was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2021.
  • She had called for reforms and the release of activists prior to her arrest.
  • A terrorism tribunal convicted her of assisting dissidents seeking to “disrupt public order” and spreading “false rumours”.

Leeds University has expressed deep concern for one of its PhD students, who has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for 34 years for critical tweets.

Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen and mother of two, was arrested in the kingdom in 2021 while on vacation.

She had called for reforms and the release of activists prior to the trip.

Human rights groups said the harsh sentence disproved Saudi claims that it was improving women’s rights and demonstrated that the situation was deteriorating.

A terrorism tribunal convicted Shebab of assisting dissidents seeking to “disrupt public order” and spreading “false rumours,” according to the report.

They warned that it would be “the longest prison sentence ever for a peaceful activist” in the Gulf state, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has presided over a five-year crackdown on dissent.

Shehab, a Shia member of Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia, describes herself on Instagram as a dental hygienist and medical educator. She claims to be a lecturer at Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, in addition to being in the final year of her PhD studies at Leeds University’s School of Medicine.

Her 2,700-follower Twitter account has not been updated since January 12, 2021, three days before she was reportedly detained in Saudi Arabia.

She tweeted or retweeted several messages at the end of the previous month calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia and the release of prominent activists, clerics, and other intellectuals.

One post praised a group of leading women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who were detained just before a ban on women driving was lifted in 2018 and were later convicted of crimes against the state as “prisoners of conscience.”

Ms Hathloul was placed on probation a month after Shehab’s arrest, but she is still subject to travel restrictions and other restrictions.

According to the US-based human rights organisation The Freedom House and the UK-based group ALQST, Shehab was initially sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of violating the country’s counter-terrorism and anti-cybercrime laws late last year.

According to court documents, on August 9, an appeals court increased her sentence to 34 years and added a 34-year travel ban that would begin upon her release.

The sentence was described as “abhorrent” by Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative.

“Saudi Arabia is boasting to the world that they are improving women’s rights and implementing legal reforms. But there is no question with this sentence that the situation is just getting worse,” he told

“We also have gotten reports that there are hundreds of young women who were detained around the same time as Salma was.”

Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of ALQST’s Loujain al-Hathloul, said the sentence demonstrated that Saudi authorities were “hellbent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely.”

“The release of Loujain al-Hathloul and other women’s rights activists came about in response to sustained international pressure. However, as the spotlight on Saudi Arabia has gradually faded, the authorities have reverted to their habitual pattern of repression,” she said in an interview with the reputed news agency.

The escalation was “connected to the growing rehabilitation” of Crown Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, she added.

A month ago US President Joe Biden met the prince in Jeddah, despite having pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its human rights record.

A Leeds University spokesperson said: “We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and we are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her.

“Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family, and her friends among our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers.”

A US state department spokesman said it was studying Shehab’s case and that “exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized”.

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