Saudi academic sentenced to 34 years in prison after expressing support for women's rights

Saudi academic sentenced to 34 years in prison after expressing support for women's rights
Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, was detained by Saudi authorities when visiting the kingdom for a holiday in early 2021.
3 min read
15 August, 2022
Salma al-Shahab's sentence is reportedly the longest given to any women's rights defender in the country [Getty]

A Saudi academic and women’s rights activist was sentenced to 34 years in prison in what observers say is the longest such sentence given to a women’s rights defender in the kingdom. 

Salma al-Shehab is a mother of two boys and a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. She was detained in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 days before she was meant to return to the United Kingdom for tweets expressing solidarity with other women’s rights activists in the country, according to a press release by the Freedom Initiative, a Washington DC-based rights group. 

Al-Shehab is a Shia Muslim, a minority in Saudi Arabia who have long faced discrimination in the hardline Sunni kingdom. 

Most recently, she expressed her support for fellow women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul on social media, who was released from prison in February last year shortly after Al-Shehab was detained. 

“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse,” said Dr Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative.

“It is ironic that while Loujain’s release was celebrated, Salma remained behind bars on the ground that she called for that very release. It’s a pattern for Saudi authorities to ensure that women activists can’t celebrate or take credit for any of their hard-won victories,” she added. 

Dozens of people have expressed their outrage at Al-Shehab’s sentence over social media. 

“This is irrational, heartbreaking, and disastrous for the hundreds of women detained or to be detained in similar charges of supporting rights or freedom” tweeted Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi Arabian scholar and women’s rights activist. 

“This is also reflective of an increased regime insecurity, both domestically and abroad,” she added in another tweet. 

Other users pointed out the hypocrisy of major sports brands and personalities for receiving sponsorship from Saudi Arabia, downplaying the kingdom’s claims that it is becoming a freer place as a facade. 

Yashar Ali of New York Magazine tweeted “Here’s your LIV golf tournament!” in reference to the Saudi-backed golf tournament meant to rival the PGA, while Hazel Southwell added that “the Saudi state can't claim to be making any progress while doing this.”

Saudi Arabia has detained dozens of dissidents and activists for calling for basic rights in the kingdom, including the now-released Loujain al-Hathloul and Raif Badawi - a Saudi blogger and activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 50 lashes a week for twenty weeks in 2014. 

The New Arab has contacted the Saudi embassy in London for comment but has yet to receive a response.