Saudi women jailed for Twitter use should be freed: UN panel

Saudi women jailed for Twitter use should be freed: UN panel
An independent expert panel in the UN has called for the release of two Saudi women held in prison over social media posts.
3 min read
Saudi Arabia said the judicial process had been fair and denied Salma al-Shehab had been mistreated [Getty/archive]

Two Saudi women sentenced to decades in prison over social media use have been held arbitrarily and should be released, according to UN expert findings seen Saturday by AFP.

The lengthy jail terms handed down last year to Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani, primarily over Twitter posts criticising the government, have heightened global scrutiny of repression under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is trying to rebrand the Gulf kingdom as open for business and tourism.

In a report dated June 19 and shared with AFP, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, an independent expert panel, determined the women had been held arbitrarily and that "the appropriate remedy would be to release" them.

They should be given "an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law," it said.

The UN experts also said there was credible evidence Shehab had faced "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" while in custody.

The alleged abuses against her include "threats, insults, harassment and improper methods used during her interrogation," such as taking "advantage of (Shehab's) depression by interrogating her in the middle of the night, shortly after she had taken her antidepressant and sleeping pills".

Sources for the report included five groups representing the two women, among them the rights organisation ALQST, Democracy for the Arab World Now and MENA Rights Group.

In its response to the expert panel, Saudi Arabia rejected the findings as "unfounded" and said they lacked "supporting evidence".

The kingdom said the judicial process had been fair and denied Shehab had been mistreated.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment from AFP on Saturday.

Shehab, a member of the Shia minority in the majority Sunni kingdom, had been studying for a doctorate in Britain when she was arrested in January 2021 while on holiday.

She has said she was held for 285 days in solitary confinement before being convicted in March 2022 by a court that tries terrorism cases.

The evidence against her included posts championing women's rights and retweets of a prominent Saudi women's rights activist.

In August, she was sentenced to 34 years in prison and banned from travelling abroad for a further 34 years.

Qahtani received a 45-year sentence last year for using Twitter to "challenge" Prince Mohammed and his father King Salman.

A court document seen last year by AFP described an anonymous account in which Qahtani criticised the government and retweeted posts warning of attempts to arrest those behind public protests, which are not tolerated in Saudi Arabia.