NEW YORK (October 28, 2022) — This week, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), MENA Rights Group, The Freedom Initiative, and ALQST for Human Rights submitted a joint petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) on behalf of the Ph.D. student and women’s rights activist Salma Al-Shehab. In 2021, Salma was arrested in Saudi Arabia for tweeting in support of women’s rights and against wrongful detentions of human rights defenders. In August 2022, she was sentenced to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban — one of the longest sentences ever handed down in Saudi Arabia for a women’s rights activist.
“After the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, few can question the brutality and determination of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to quash dissent by any means necessary. Ms. Al-Shehab’s case is, unfortunately, another appalling milestone in MBS’ regime,” said HRF Chief Advocacy Officer Roberto González. “No amount of sportswashing, concerts by obtuse Hollywood celebrities, or ‘hyped’ economic initiatives can launder the Orwellian reality suffered by activists such as Ms. Al-Shehab. She must be released along with countless other activists who remain wrongfully detained in Saudi Arabia.”
“Salma has been sentenced to 34 years in prison solely based on her use of Twitter and the exercise of her right to freedom of opinion and expression. Her trial was a grave miscarriage of justice, and we hope that an Opinion by the UNWGAD will highlight the arbitrary nature of her detention and call for her long-overdue, immediate, and unconditional release,” said MENA Right Group Legal and Policy Officer Ramzi Kaiss.
“Salma’s cruel sentencing is indicative of the Saudi authorities’ pervasive crackdown on free speech, which has escalated even further in recent months. It is vital that we now see significant global pressure put on the authorities to release her immediately, along with other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia,” said ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Communications Lina Alhathloul.
Salma was arrested on January 15, 2021. At that time, she was a medical Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds and was on holiday in Saudi Arabia. In the months before her arrest, Salma had criticized Saudi Arabia on Twitter for wrongfully detaining human rights defenders, including women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
On the day of her arrest, the State Security Presidency called in Salma for “questioning.” During the interrogation, five officers tried to coerce her into a confession and verbally abused her for belonging to the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. The excessive interrogation techniques, insults, and abuse continued throughout Salma’s detention.
Salma was denied any form of due process: the regime did not inform her of the charges against her until ten months after her initial arrest, denied her assistance and communication with an attorney, and tried her in closed-door trials before courts lacking independence. At trial, the only evidence presented against her was her Twitter activity and some statements she had made during the interrogations. Salma was ultimately sentenced to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban, based on the vaguely-worded Saudi Counter-Terrorism Law and Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which the Saudi regime has repeatedly weaponized to silence dissent.
Today, Salma is still held in prison, in poor health, and suffering from depression.
The submitting organizations call on the UNWGAD to investigate Salma’s case, determine that her detention was arbitrary and violated international law, and request that Saudi Arabia release her immediately.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
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