In a farcical turn of events in Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), women’s rights activist Salma al-Shehab was resentenced on 25 January 2023 to 27 years in prison, reduced from a 34-year term imposed last August after she appealed her original, much shorter, sentence. The SCC also sentenced Sukaynah al-Aithan to 40 years in prison and handed down heavy jail terms to a number of other women.
Al-Shehab, 34, a PhD student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom and mother of two children, was arrested in January 2021 while on a visit to the Saudi kingdom, and underwent months of interrogation over her peaceful Twitter activity in support of women’s rights. She was then put on trial in the SCC, the special court set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases, which is notorious for its disregard of legal safeguards; it sentenced her in March 2022 to six years in prison. Al-Shehab appealed, only to have her sentence increased on appeal in August 2022 to a shocking and unprecedented 34-year term followed by a 34-year travel ban.
On 18 January 2023, the Supreme Court quashed the Appeal Court’s ruling and referred the case back to the SCC for retrial. During the retrial, al-Shehab sought to address the charges against her, but the presiding judge denied her the right to speak during the court hearings. The charges initially brought against her under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law were dropped, but the SCC once again heard charges made under the kingdom’s draconian and vaguely formulated Counter-Terrorism Law, which effectively criminalises freedom of expression.
On 25 January, the SCC resentenced al-Shehab to 27 years in jail and a travel ban of the same length; this ruling is also subject to appeal. At the same time, the court convicted and sentenced a number of other women on similar charges, including blind 35-year-old Sakeena al-Othman, who was handed a 40-year prison term.
ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy Lina Alhathloul comments: “This is yet another example of the Saudi authorities' relentless crackdown on free speech, especially since mid-2022, and exposes the farcical nature of the Saudi court system. Despite the charges against al-Shehab relating solely to her peaceful activism, she has been tried under the Counter-Terrorism Law. She and all the other women should be immediately and unconditionally released, and an end put to their sham trial.”
ALQST calls on the international community to intensify pressure on the Saudi Arabian authorities to release Salma al-Shehab and all those currently detained in the kingdom for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms.