I love working at Index but it isn’t always an emotionally easy place to work. Every day my team and I are exposed to some of the most heartbreaking stories of human rights abuses around the world. We routinely have to read the details of toture, persecution, detention and murder and whilst we try not to become immune to the daily horrors – sometimes that is the only way to do our jobs.
However there will always be a case that makes us collectively stop. A person’s story that makes us feel impotent. That touches our hearts. That demands even more from us. That personifies the reason why Index was established in the first place – and sometimes it won’t be the most graphic of cases – but rather one so unjust we cannot move on.
And that happened again this month.
There has been limited media coverage about Salma al-Shehab. An academic, a PhD student at the University of Leeds. A wife, a mother of two and a Saudi citizen. She also happened to occasionally use Twitter to support the plight of women in Saudi and to call on those dissidents and clerics who had been detained to be released. She isn’t a leading political activist or a leading light of a human rights organisation – her PhD is in medicine.
Last year Salma returned to Saudi on holiday and was immediately arrested, tried and convicted by a terrorism tribunal of aiding dissidents seeking to “disrupt public order” and publishing “false rumours”. Her initial sentence was six years in detention. However this month, after an appeal, her sentence has been increased to 34 years followed by a 34-year restriction on travel. For the ‘crime’ of occasionally using social media while in the UK to highlight the detention of others in Saudi Arabia, she will be held in a Saudi prison until she is 68 years old and will not be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia again until she is 102.
This is the longest sentence ever issued by a Saudi court for a peaceful activist. To all intents and purposes it is little short of a death sentence. For the crime of using social media.
Salma deserves more than the words of protest that come from Index and others, although we do protest her arrest and are horrified by her treatment. She deserves her liberty. She has been imprisoned for using her voice, when in a democratic country, to defend others who no longer are able to be heard. She acted in the best traditions of a dissident.
So from here on in, Index will seek to use its voice to raise hers. We will not let the world forget her, as she sits in a Saudi prison.
On the 15th of every month (she was initially arrested on 15 January 2021), we will tell her story. Shining a light on her plight. And in the coming months we will work with partners both in the UK and across the world to make sure her case doesn’t get forgotten as just another case of human rights abuse by Saudi Arabia.