Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two and former PhD student at the University of Leeds, who in 2021 was handed a 34-year-long jail sentence for tweeting her support for women’s human rights defenders in her native Saudi Arabia, has gone on hunger strike.
Salma was arrested in January 2021 while on a visit home from the UK to see her family. She then faced months of interrogation over her activity on Twitter.
In March 2022 she was sentenced to six years in prison by the country’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) under the vague wording of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law, but this was increased on appeal to an unprecedented 34-year term followed by a 34-year travel ban.
The SCC was originally established to try terrorism cases but its remit has widened to cover people who speak out against human rights violations in the country. Salma is one of a number of people tried by the SCC who have been handed farcically long sentences for simply expressing their human rights. The SCC is the main tool with which Saudi Arabia has effectively criminalised freedom of expression.
In January this year, Salma’s sentence was reduced to 27 years after a retrial was ordered. During the retrial, the presiding judge denied Salma the right to speak in her defence.
Salma has been joined on hunger strike by seven other prisoners of conscience, who have been handed jail terms longer than those which would be handed out to hijackers threatening to bomb a plane.
In Saudi Arabia, prisoners of conscience often go on hunger strike to protest their treatment. Those resorting to this include women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, the blogger Raif Badawi, the academic and human rights defender Mohammad al-Qahtani, the writer Muhammad al-Hudayf and the lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair.
ALQST’s head of monitoring and advocacy, Lina Alhathloul, the sister of Loujain, said: “Knowing how harshly the Saudi authorities respond to hunger strikes, these women are taking an incredibly brave stand against the multiple injustices they have faced. When your only way of protesting is to risk your life by refusing to eat, one can only imagine the inhumane conditions al-Shehab and the others are having to endure in their cells.”
ALQST says that in previous hunger strikes, prison officials often wait several days before taking any action. “When they have eventually acted, it has been to threaten the prisoners with punishment if they continue their strike, and then place them in solitary confinement in dire conditions, subjecting them to invasive medical examinations and threatening to force-feed them. Phone calls, visitors and activities are also denied, in an attempt to coerce prisoners to end their hunger strikes,” the organisation said.
Salma and her fellow hunger strikers should never have been arrested and jailed in the first place for simply exercising freedom of expression that people take for granted in countries other than Saudi Arabia. They should have their sentences quashed and released from prison immediately.