Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A Saudi PhD student was given 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents.
She was accused of aiding people who want to harm national security by following them, per The Guardian.
Rights groups say this is the longest sentence for an activist and could signal greater crackdowns to come.

A Saudi Arabian PhD student was sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter, The Guardian reported, citing translated court documents.

Salma al-Shehab, 34, was studying at Leeds University in the UK and went home to Saudi Arabia for a vacation in December 2020 when she was questioned by authorities, arrested, and put on trial, The Guardian reported.

Al-Shehab, who is married with two children, was first sentenced to three years for using a website to “cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security,” The Guardian reported.

But on Monday she was sentenced to more time by an appeals court over the Twitter accounts she followed and retweeted, the report said.

She was given a total 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban, The Guardian reported.

The Washington Post also reported the sentence, as did the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights and the US-based nonprofit Freedom Initiative.

The translated court documents seen by The Guardian said al-Shehab was accused of “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts.”

According to The Guardian, she had retweeted Saudi dissidents who called for political prisoners held in Saudi Arabia to be released. The Post reported that she also advocated for women’s right to drive, a policy that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allowed in 2018, though activists were still imprisoned.

The Guardian noted that al-Shehab did not have a large online following — she reportedly had around 2,500 followers — and was not known for being an activist, with many of her tweets being about her children.

She may be able to appeal, The Guardian said.

Twitter declined to comment on al-Shehab’s the case to The Guardian. Saudi Arabia’s government holds a significant investment in Twitter, The Guardian noted. 

Both the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights and Freedom Initiative said al-Shehab’s sentence was the longest prison sentence given to an activist, and could signal more crackdowns on dissent.

Human-rights groups say Saudi Arabia frequently arrests people who voice disagreements with the government — sometimes years after they made any public criticisms.

This included the arrest of dozens of people when Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, became crown prince in 2017. He has since been considered the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Two senior Saudi were arrested in 2020 for not supporting him, sources close to the royal family told the Associated Press at the time. MBS has also imprisoned many high-profile political figures whom he considered to be a threat to his grip on power.

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