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 Online Safety Bill must be completely overhauled

Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
22 September 2022

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your new role.

We are a coalition of independent organisations committed to protecting freedom of expression. We are writing to you following your appointment as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to request a meeting to discuss the Online Safety Bill. We  believe that, in order to prevent serious damage being done to our rights and freedoms, the Online Safety Bill must be completely overhauled.

In particular, we would like to set out concerns we have about provisions in the Bill which we believe would be damaging to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. We believe that the following areas must be addressed as a minimum:

The law should be upheld online as it is offline, but as currently drafted, the Bill would impose a two-tier system for freedom of expression, with extra restrictions for categories of lawful speech, simply because they appear online. During the Conservative leadership contest, the new Prime Minister Liz Truss committed to protecting freedom of speech in the Bill. She also said that her “fundamental principle is the rules should be the same online as they are in real life”. In its current form, the Bill does not live up to this principle,as it specifically seeks to regulate and restrict categories of free expression which the state labels as “harmful”.

We believe that Clause 13 of the Bill regarding so called “legal but harmful” speech must be dropped.

It has been widely observed that the Bill gives the Secretary of State excessive executive powers to define categories of lawful speech to be regulated and influence the limitations of our online expression. We believe that these powers would be vulnerable to politicisation by a future government.

We believe that executive powers granted to the Secretary of State, including those which would give the post-holder undue influence over communications regulator, Ofcom, must be dropped.

The Bill also poses serious threats to the right to privacy in the UK by creating a new power to compel online intermediaries to use “accredited technologies” to conduct mass scanning and surveillance of all citizens on private messaging channels. These measures also put at risk the underlying encryption that protects private messages against being compromised by bad actors. The right to privacy is deeply entwined with the right to freedom of expression and these proposals risk eroding both, with particularly detrimental effects for journalists, LGBTQ+ people, and other communities.

The Bill must not compel online intermediaries to scan the content of our private messages.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these points with you in more detail and would be happy to meet with you virtually or in person at a time of your choosing.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Johnson – Big Brother Watch
Barbora Bukovská – ARTICLE 19
Daniel Gorman – English PEN
Sam Grant – Liberty
Dr Monica Horten – Open Rights Group
Jacqueline Rowe – Global Partners Digital
Ruth Smeeth – Index on Censorship