Saudi Arabian Phd student, Salma al-Shebab has been sentenced to 34 years in jail followed by a travel ban of a further 34 years upon her release. Al-Shebab, a student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, was arrested and tried after returning home for a holiday in December 2020. She was hoping to return to her studies with her husband and two young sons.
Her crime, prosecuted under cyber-crime and anti-terrorism laws, is that she followed, liked, and retweeted content posted by Saudi activists and dissidents. Al-Shebab belongs to the much-persecuted Shia religious minority in Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia. Subsequent to her sentencing, allegations of solitary confinement, sectarian harassment, and threats of violence to induce false confessions have been levelled against Saudi authorities.
Reports allege that she came to the attention of the authorities via a Saudi Arabian app that allows citizens to report social media content that goes against the hard-line Islamist Kingdom’s ideals. As of the time of writing, both Google and Apple App stores host this “snitching” app that has been described as representing “a new phase of digital authoritarianism”
Her sentencing comes amidst the backdrop of a rapprochement between western leaders and the Kingdom’s de facto ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Relations between bin Salman and his western allies had chilled after the murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, However, the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have put matters like the persecution of women and the dismembering of journalists to one side as western leaders scramble to wean themselves off Russian fossil fuels.