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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.
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 >> https://www.indexoncensorship.org/freesalma
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|
“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.
Earlier this morning the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20. According to comments made on Twitter they: welcomed strong trade relations and collaboration in defence and security; committed to deepening investment ties, and discussed the importance of making progress on social reforms.
While we do not know what was said in the meeting, there is no clarity as to whether this included the increasing clampdown on free expression in Saudi Arabia that has hastened under bin Salman’s leadership. The UK Government has time and time again reiterated its commitment to championing human rights both at home and across the globe but in this case the silence is deafening.
It is not as if there are a scarcity of issues that need to be addressed.
What the Prime Minister could have asked
A few questions Rishi should have asked himself (but probably didn’t) before the meeting
A couple of questions Rishi should ask himself in a darkened room when no one else is around