Social media posts land Saudi women in prison for 45 years

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A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced a woman to 45 years in prison for social media posts, a rights group said, in the latest example of a crackdown on women activists that followed a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to the kingdom.

Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was convicted “likely within last week” by the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court on charges of “using the internet to tear the (Saudi) social fabric” and “violating public order by using social media”, Washington-based DAWN organisation said in a statement, citing court documents.

The Saudi government media office did not respond to a request for comment.

DAWN said little was known about Qahtani or what her social media posts said, and that it was continuing to investigate her case.

Qahtani’s conviction came a few weeks after Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds in Britain, was sentenced to 35 years in jail for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter.

The latest cases came after Biden cited human rights concerns, a major sore point in relations between Washington and its traditional ally Riyadh, during his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July.

Washington said last week it had raised “significant concerns” with Saudi Arabia over Shehab’s sentencing, which included a 34-year travel ban for her tweets.

The Qahtani and Shehab cases underscored a crackdown on dissent driven by Prince Mohammed, the de facto Saudi ruler, even as he has championed reforms such as allowing women to drive and pushed projects to create jobs.

Relatives of Saudi political prisoners were initially hoping Biden’s visit would help bring about the release of loved ones that have been jailed as part of the crackdown.

Abdullah al-Aoudh, Director of Research for the Gulf Region at DAWN, said that in both the Shebab and Qahtani cases, Saudi authorities used “abusive” laws to target and punish Saudi citizens for criticizing the government on Twitter.

“But this is only half the story because even the crown prince would not allow such vindictive and excessive sentences if he felt that these actions would be met by meaningful censure by the United States and other Western governments. Clearly, they are not,” Aoudh said in DAWN’s statement.

Saudi officials say the kingdom does not have political prisoners. “We have prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have committed crimes and who were put to trial by our courts and were found guilty,” the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, told Reuters last month.

“The notion that they would be described as political prisoners is ridiculous,” he added.

Tensions over oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s human rights record have strained its ties with the United States, including over women’s rights and the 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

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