Freedom Initiative, a group that fights for human rights in Saudi Arabia, said this week that US President Joe Biden does not care about Saudi oppression after an activist was given 34 years in prison for tweeting about the fundamentalist monarchy’s treatment of women.
Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi mother of two who is a graduate student studying at the University of Leeds in England, was detained, tried, and sentenced to six years in prison while on vacation in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 for posts on social media voicing support for activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was incarcerated at the time for pushing for women’s right to drive and the abolition of the country’s male guardianship system.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal increased al-Shehab’s sentence to 34 years, and as well as a 34-year travel ban. The Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that fights for those who have been wrongly imprisoned throughout North Africa and the Middle East claims that al-sentence Shehab’s is the harshest ever imposed on a women’s rights campaigner in Saudi Arabian history.
The Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, Bethany Al-Haidari, said in a statement: “Saudi Arabia has claimed to the world that they are improving women’s rights and promoting legal change, but there is no doubt with this appalling sentencing that the situation is only becoming worse.”
She said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “It is regrettably no surprise that MBS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such horrific rights breaches.
Despite pledging to declare Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its horrifying murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi and other violations of human rights, Biden visited bin Salman in Jeddah last month, where they shared a now-famous fist bump. A few weeks later, the Biden administration authorized the sale of Raytheon missiles to Saudi Arabia for more than $3 billion.
“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 added. “The Saudi authorities must release Salma and ensure that her young boys do not grow up without a mother simply because she called for freedom for human rights activists.”
According to Salma al-tweets Shehab’s and conversations, a Saudi account DM’ed her on November 15, 2020, after she responded to a Saudi government post announcing a new public transportation contract with a moderately critical tweet.
Shehab was informed by the user that he had filed a complaint against her on the Saudi app Kollona Amn, also known as “We Are All Security.” The mother, 34, was detained six weeks later; but it is unclear if the Saudi authorities made a direct response to the complaint.
While some backers of bin Salman’s de facto rule have hailed policy changes made under his leadership—women are now able to drive, obtain their own passports, travel abroad, and live independently without the need for a male guardian, to name just a few advancements—critics point out that the kingdom still ranks among the most repressive nations around the world, particularly for women and religious minorities.
Al-Shehab is a Shia Muslim, a community that has long endured harsh persecution in the monarchy with a Sunni majority. Although she was finally given an eight-year jail sentence last year, Saudi Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham feared beheading as punishment for her peaceful advocacy.