Join our Twitter storm of protest against Salma al-Shehab’s 34-year sentence

This Sunday, followers of our social media feeds will note that we are only posting about a single subject – the University of Leeds PhD student Salma al-Shehab. Salma is currently serving a 34-year jail sentence in her native Saudi Arabia simply for tweeting her support for prisoners of conscience in the country and calling for better women’s rights. Following the jail sentence, Salma will also be prevented from travel for another 34 years.

Salma, who was studying for a PhD in oral and human health, was arrested on 15 January 2021 after going back to Saudi Arabia to spend the holiday with her husband and two children, Adam and Noah. It is understood she was planning to return to the UK with her family.

Salma was questioned for almost a year before being charged by the Specialised Criminal Court under various parts of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law for “supporting those seeking to disrupt public order, undermining the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumours on Twitter”.

She was initially handed a six-year sentence last year but on appeal this was increased to 34 years, including a discretionary five years added by the judge. She has also been slapped with a travel ban for a further 34 years following her sentence.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR) says the sentence is the longest ever given to a peaceful activist.

Index on Censorship is working with ALQST for Human Rights to re-focus international attention on Salma’s case.

In September, ALQST sent an open letter signed by NGOs and 400 academics to then-prime minister Liz Truss and foreign secretary James Cleverly to raise awareness of this inhumane sentence. Index on Censorship sent a further letter to the UK Foreign Secretary signed by other human rights organisations in October 2022. 

Salma was arrested and sentenced for standing in solidarity with imprisoned human rights defenders, such as Loujain al-Hathloul. Now we must stand in solidarity with her. This Sunday, 15 January, marks the two-year anniversary of her arrest. On that day, the two organisations will initiate a Twitter storm. There are two ways to take part.

The first is to tweet the following from your own account, attaching the campaign graphic here

Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting in support of women human rights defenders in #SaudiArabia. Two years on from her arrest we stand in solidarity with her and demand her release #FreeSalma. Join the campaign >>

The second is to quote-tweet Salma’s texts. It is our belief that what she published in her posts does not constitute a crime and we encourage you to post her original words along with a quote tweet to stand in solidarity with her.

To quote-tweet, click on the tweet link in the table below, click on the retweet button and choose to do a quote-tweet. You can use our suggested covering text from the table below or use your own. Please remember to include the hashtag #FreeSalma.

Remember that we are running this campaign on Sunday 15 January. It is possible to schedule your quote tweet by clicking the calendar icon in Twitter. Thank you for your support in this important campaign.

Salma’s original tweet Suggested quote tweet

Translation : #Free_Loujain_Alhathloul

Context: Salma quote-tweeted a tweet supporting Saudi human rights defender Loujain Alhathloul

Salma al-Shehab was arrested two years ago today for tweeting her support for prisoners of conscience including Loujain al-Hathloul. I believe no crime has been committed and I call on #SaudiArabia to release her without delay #FreeSalma

Translation: Godmothers of the 6th of November 1990: Aziza Al-Youssef, Hessa Al-Sheikh, Aisha Al-Manea. Manal al-Sharif, leader of the “I will drive my own car” movement. All Saudi women prisoners of conscience – or those who have been previously arrested – the free, virtuous women: Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nassima Al-Sada, Iman Al-Nafjan, Mia Al-Zahrani, Nof Abdulaziz, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi.

Context: Salma quote-tweeted a feminist account in which they ask people to name respected women rights activists. Salma tweeted the names of some of those who flouted the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting in support of the 47 women of the 6 Nov 1990 driving ban protest in #SaudiArabia. Two years on from her arrest I stand in solidarity with her and demand her release #FreeSalma

Translation: Yes, it is true, all feminist movements throughout history are offensive movements. Not for subtraction and not for argument. All feminist movements are aimed at extracting stolen female rights and destroying the patriarchal system. And whoever stands in front of it to reject or disrupt is called the masculine or the misogynistic. All of your words are correct, the difference is that we don’t see anything wrong with it.

In these words, #SaudiArabia sees a crime. I do not, I see someone standing up for basic human rights. Salma al-Shehab was arrested two years ago today and should be released immediately #FreeSalma

Translation: Human rights constitute a single concept, and cannot be distinguished as Islamic or non-Islamic rights; accepting and adopting this distinction in the name of cultural relativity means annihilating these rights.” – Sherine Ebadi [Iranian lawyer and activist]

In these words, #SaudiArabia sees a crime. I do not, I see someone standing up for basic human rights for women. Salma al-Shehab was arrested two years ago today and should be released immediately #FreeSalma

Translation: Thank you, Lord, for a beautiful year. O Lord, may this year be better, and may it bring good news to all prisoners of conscience. Lord bring them safely close to their beloved ones.

In 2018, Salma al-Shehab tweeted to wish the families of imprisoned women human rights defenders joy and safety. Now she is imprisoned for speaking out I wish her the same and call for her release #FreeSalma

The Saudi problem: can human rights ever trump trade?

“Are you proud of being Foreign Secretary of a country that trades with a country that actually crucifies people in public?”

Interviewer Jayne Secker had a point when she asked James Cleverly this on a Sky TV show last weekend.

The Foreign Secretary was quick to respond to the allegation.

“I have spoken with the Saudis about our long-standing principled position on the death penalty as I do with pretty much all countries around the world that maintain the death penalty. Saudi is…an important, influential country in the Middle East and it’s incredibly important that we maintain an ongoing bilateral relationship with Saudi. Some of that includes trade but also in terms of security counter-terrorism work…We have seen real changes over the last decade [but] I want to see those changes go further and faster.”

In its recently released 2021 Report, the FCDO points to progress in the country’s application of the death penalty – “only” 65 individuals were executed in 2021 and the FCDO reports this is a decrease from 184 executions in 2019. The FCDO suggested this may be related to death penalty reforms announced in 2020, including a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offences and ‘discretionary’ crimes committed by juveniles.

This ‘leniency’ has not lasted. In the year to the end of November 2022, 144 people had been executed including 81 on a single day in March.

Many argue that Saudi’s growing importance to the UK, particularly during the war in Ukraine is blinding the UK government to human rights abuses in the country – or at least giving them cover for their current level of inaction. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s 25th largest trading partner, accounting for £13.7 billion of imports and exports of goods and services. The figure is up 25.9% year on year, meaning that there will be pressure from the Treasury and the Prime Minister to keep relations cordial.  

The FCDO clearly has concerns about Saudi. In the report, it says of the country that “political space and freedom of expression remained severely restricted, and there remained a culture of self-censorship and fear”.

However, it recognised progress on women’s rights, citing the lifting of restrictions on female employment, the reform of guardianship laws and the release of prominent women’s rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

One woman who has not been released is University of Leeds student Salma al-Shehab. It is now 23 months to the day since Salma was arrested when she returned from the UK, where she was studying for a PhD in dental hygiene, to Saudi to visit her family.

Salma had infuriated the Saudi regime solely for tweeting her support for Saudi women’s rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul. So while the release of Loujain al-Hathloul gave the Saudi regime a few positive lines in the FCDO report, other people, like Salma, remain in prison.

Salma was later sentenced by Saudi’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) under various parts of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law for “supporting those seeking to disrupt public order, undermining the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumours on Twitter.

Her sentence is 34 years in prison, longer than the sentence that would be applied to a terrorist bomber or hijacker. Like other Saudi women who fall foul of the regime, Salma has also been slapped with a travel ban for a further 34 years following her sentence.

The FCDO promises it will do more.

In the report, it says: “The UK will continue to engage closely with the Saudi authorities, particularly in areas where there is real Saudi appetite for change such as judicial reforms, women’s rights and the death penalty. The UK will continue to raise individual cases of human rights concerns with Saudi counterparts at ministerial and official level and attempt to attend these trials.” Confirming that UK engagement will be potentially guided by “areas where there is real Saudi appetite for change” enables the regime to dictate terms and raises the obvious question – what will the UK do to increase that appetite to other areas of importance, such as reform of the SCC and ending the criminalisation of online free expression?  

The signs are not great.  A letter we sent to James Cleverly in October along with 13 other human rights organisations elicited a weak response from the Foreign Secretary’s office. Others are also not convinced by the FCDO’s promises to press the Saudis further. The London-based NGO ALQST, established in 2014 by Saudi Arabian human rights defender Yahya Assiri, has issued its own report, Human Rights and the UK-Saudi Relationship, in the past week.

In it, ALQST says the FCDO’s report gives “an unduly generous account of the Saudi leadership’s reform programme, and accepted several claims by the authorities that observers on the ground have strongly challenged”.

It goes on to make 17 recommendations to the UK government, including exerting public and private pressure on the Saudi Arabian authorities to improve their human rights record, including on thematic issues and, crucially, individual cases of concern.

It also calls for consular and embassy officials to continue to request access to relevant trial hearings such as those involving prisoners of conscience, and the UK government should press the Saudi authorities on the issue of court access in support of the right to a fair and open trial. The likelihood of this happening is remote. In a response to a written question tabled by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt on 19 March 2020, relating to the trial of Saudi women’s rights activists in particular, the Government said “The UK attends trials of international importance in all countries where permitted. The UK, along with other embassies in Saudi Arabia, has requested and been denied access to each and every trial we have been aware of since October 2018, with the exception of the trials for those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”  

It has also called for the UK government to designate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is on the shortlist for Index’s Tyrant of the Year poll, as an individual target for financial sanctions under the UK Global Human Rights regime.

However, the US Government’s decision to grant the prince sovereign immunity in the civil case over the murder of Khashoggi makes this recommendation seem like an exercise in wishful thinking as opposed to something with a genuine chance of success.

According to Cleverly, the UK government will not comment on incidents, instead prioritising actions. In his words “Britain has agency and leverage and we are using it to shape the course of events.” He is saying this at a time where a significant number of British citizens, or those connected to the UK, have been persecuted and detained by authoritarian states. This includes Alaa abd el-Fattah, imprisoned in Egypt, Jimmy Lai who is charged under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, as well as Index award-winner, Sophia Huang Xueqin, who, while not a British citizen, was selected for a Chevening Scholarship prior to her arrest and disappearance in China. While it was hoped that the UK government had learnt lessons from what happened to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose detention in Iran was arguably prolonged by UK government actions, this frailty at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy sends a powerful signal to those seeking to silence British citizens – you can do so with very little resistance from the UK government. It also tells British journalists, researchers, academics or anyone who expresses themselves online, please do not depend on us.

If there is a single case where the UK government could really prove its intention to hold Saudi Arabia and others to account when it comes to human rights, it is that of Salma al-Shehab. It is a case where the alleged crime took place in the UK. If James Cleverly really wants to send a message to the country’s leaders that the relationship between the two countries isn’t just about trade, he should call for her immediate release.

World leaders will have “blood on their hands” if Alaa Abd El-Fattah dies

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27 as it is better known, opens this Sunday, 6 November, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

As has become customary, COP27 will become the focus of protest. Yet not all protests at COP27 will be about the environment.

One protester at the event, Sanaa Seif, says that the world leaders attending will have “blood on their hands” if they do not secure the release of her brother, the British-Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah. Abd El-Fattah is a pro-democracy activist and founder, with his wife Manal Hassan, of the Arabic blog aggregator Manalaa.  He has been held in the country’s prisons on and off for nine years for his part in the 25 January protests that rocked the country in 2011.

In 2013, the writer was jailed by the government of Egypt’s military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and has been in prison most of the time since where he has been both tortured and offered only limited communication with his family.

In order to bring attention to his plight, Abd El-Fattah went on a partial hunger strike on 2 April this year, limiting his intake to just 100 calories a day, sipping tea with a spoonful of honey. After six months on hunger strike, his body is seriously weakened and his health is in a precarious state. Four days ago, he stopped even that meagre daily allowance and is now taking only water.

On the opening day of COP27, he will stop even that.

Since 18 October, Sanaa and her sister Mona, have been holding a sit-in as part of their Free Alaa campaign outside the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office to draw the attention of incoming Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to their brother’s plight.

On Wednesday this week, Cleverly finally spoke to the pair and vowed that the Government would “continue to work tirelessly for his release”.

In a Facebook post, the sisters said: “We were so relieved to finally get to speak to James Cleverly and hear his assurance that Alaa’s safe release is top priority. I hope this translates to tangible action that actually saves Alaa before it is too late.”

At a press conference on the street outside the FCDO the following day, Sanaa said: “Alaa will escalate his hunger strike as he stops taking water as world leaders head to Egypt to attend COP27. I want to tell these officials that if you don’t save him you will have blood on your hands. I want to call on Rishi Sunak – you are going to be in the same land as a British person dying and if you don’t show that you care then it will be interpreted as a green light to kill him.”

Sanaa’s sister Mona added: “Alaa is in a very critical state but he is not desperate to die. These are the actions of a man who is desperate to end this ordeal he has been sucked into for nine years and desperate to be reunited with his family.”

The British-Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah in happier times with his wife and baby son Khalid

Speaking to Index, Mona said: “In the eyes of the Egyptian regime Alaa is one of the symbols of 25 January [2011 revolution] and therefore one of those calling for an end to the leadership of the military regime. In some people’s minds he is a British national. For others he is a writer, or an activist. Most importantly, he is an amazing brother and a son. And most importantly of all what seems to be forgotten is that he is a father to a 10-year-old, Khalid.”

She added: “Khalid and his father have a unique and extraordinary relationship. Khalid is on the autistic spectrum and is non-verbal. We found out his diagnosis back in 2014 when Alaa was serving his first five sentences. Alaa was briefly released in 2019, although he had to spend every night in a police cell, and Alaa and Khalid formed an amazingly strong bond. We were worried about how Khalid would receive his father because he was not used to him in his life. We were honestly surprised. He and Khalid bonded immediately. He flourished under Alaa’s presence and Khalid’s doctors and teachers all noted a massive difference.”

“When Alaa was taken again in September 2019, the one hit the hardest was Khalid. When Alaa appeared before the state security prosecution, Khalid was angry with his father for disappearing. Since then, it has been particularly difficult to sustain Alaa’s presence in Khalid’s life. A very big part of why Alaa has taken such extreme measures is that he feels Khalid has been orphaned.”

Mona and family will hold a candlelit vigil for Alaa outside Number 10 Downing Street at 4pm on 6 November. Meanwhile, Sanaa will fly out to Egypt to take part in an event with the German climate envoy, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International at COP27 next Tuesday.

“This will serve as an embarrassing reminder to everyone,” Sanaa said.

Mona has another message to the leaders attending COP27. In another Facebook post this week, she wrote the following.

“Regardless of how it ends Alaa has already won this battle. If he makes it out alive and joins us, his family, in safety. Then he would have done it using only his body and words. If he doesn’t make it and dies in prison, his body will tell the whole world what a bunch of liars you all are, ruthless inhumane creatures that should not be trusted with one plant let alone people and the future of this planet.

Letter to UK Foreign Secretary on Salma al-Shehab

Rt. Hon. James Cleverly MP

Foreign Secretary

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

King Charles Street



United Kingdom

15 October 2022

Dear Foreign Secretary,

On behalf of the below signed organisations, we would like to congratulate your appointment as Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. At a time of significant global uncertainty and unrest, the UK can and must play a leading role in promoting human rights globally. While we appreciate the wide and diverse range of issues facing you and your department, we are contacting you today to draw your attention to the treatment of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have been imprisoned for expressing themselves.

The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2008 to try those suspected of acts of terrorism, has instead administered disproportionate sentences, including the death sentence, to people solely for expressing themselves online. Cloaked in the language of cybercrime, this has effectively criminalised free expression and has also been brought to bear against individuals outside of Saudi Arabia. 

You will have heard about the shameful case of Saudi national Salma al-Shehab, who was a student at the University of Leeds at the time of her alleged ‘crimes’ – sharing content in support of prisoners of conscience and women human right defenders, such as Loujain Alhathloul. For this, upon Salma al-Shehab’s return to Saudi Arabia, she was arrested and held arbitrarily for nearly a year, before being sentenced to 34 years in prison with a subsequent 34-year travel ban. The fact that the sentence is four years longer than the maximum sentence suggested by the country’s anti-terror laws for activities such as supplying explosives or hijacking an aircraft demonstrates the egregious and dangerous standard established both by the SCC and the Saudi regime to restrict free expression. It also further illustrates the Saudi government’s abusive system of surveillance and infiltration of social media platforms to silence public dissent.

But the actions aimed at Salma al-Shehab did not happen in isolation. In fact, her sentencing is the latest in a longstanding trend that has seen the Saudi judiciary and the state at-large being co-opted to target civil society and fundamental human rights. The same day that al-Shehab was sentenced, the SCC sentenced another woman, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, to 45 years in prison after using social media to peacefully express her views. Ten Egyptian Nubians were sentenced to up to 18 years in prison after they were arrested and detained – for two months they were held incommunicado and without access to their lawyers or family – after organising a symposium commemorating the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Dr Lina al-Sharif was arbitrarily detained for over a year following her social media activism after a group of agents of the Presidency of State Security raided her family home and arrested her without a warrant. A worrying dimension is the use of violence and torture to coerce confessions, as well as ongoing persecution or surveillance following a prisoner’s release, further eroding the legitimacy of the SCC and its verdicts. 

The UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia should not bind your hands to upholding human rights commitments and calling out violations when they are brought to your attention, particularly, in the case of al-Shehab, where they relate to the application of Saudi legislation for actions that took place within the territory of the United Kingdom. In fact, this relationship places you in a strong position to call for the release of all prisoners unlawfully held in Saudi Arabia without delay. 

Acting definitively so early in your tenure would be a powerful symbol both to our allies and others that the UK can be a trusted protector of human rights and the rule of law. 

We await your action on this important issue and further support the calls to action outlined by over 400 academics, staff and research students from UK universities and colleges in a letter authored to you and the Prime Minister. 

If you require any more information we would be happy to organise a briefing at a time that works best for you. 

Kind regards,

Index on Censorship

ALQST For Human Rights

SANAD Organisation for Human Rights


Electronic Frontier Foundation

Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)


Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State

Access Now

Human Rights Watch

PEN International

English PEN

Front Line Defenders