United Nations human rights experts condemned the “arbitrary detention” of two Saudi women over tweets critical of the kingdom’s policies, calling for their immediate release.
In a report released on June 19, and published by AFP, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, who were arrested in 2021 in separate cases, were denied basic rights, including a fair trial. The report also criticized their sentencing in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Terrorism Law.
The Working Group considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani immediately and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations in accordance with international law.
The report pointed out that Al-Shehab’s 13-day incommunicado detention and solitary confinement and the threats, insults, harassment, and improper methods used during her interrogation constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment that impaired her ability to prepare her defence.
Officers took advantage of Al-Shehab’s depression by interrogating her in the middle of the night, shortly after she had taken her antidepressant and sleeping pills.
Al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Ph.D. student, was sentenced to 34 years in jail for following retweeting Saudi rights activists.
She was arrested in 2021 while on holiday in Saudi Arabia, just a few days before she was due to return to the UK for her studies at Leeds University.
Her arrest came only a few weeks after US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Kingdom. Human rights activists warned that Biden’s visit constitutes a green light to the Saudi regime to escalate its repressive campaign against dissidents.
Al-Shehab, a mother of two kids aged 4 and 6, was first sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of “stirring up public unrest and destabilize security.”
However, the Appeal Court imposed a 34-year sentence against her followed by a 34-year travel ban.
Al-Shehab was not a prominent Saudi activist. She only has 159 followers on Instagram, where she describes herself as a dental hygienist, a medical teacher, a Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds, and a lecturer at Princess Noura Bint Abdul Rahman University.
In the appeal session, Al-Shehab indicated that she used her real name on social media and published pictures of her two children which indicate that she has a peaceful background, pointing out that she has 2000 followers which pose no security risk.
In her appeal, she stated that she had been held in solitary confinement
for 285 days before being brought before a judge, in violation of article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and requested that the Court consider her need to care for her two children and sick mother.
For her part, Noura Al-Qahtani, a mother of two, was sentenced last year to 45 years in prison for using Twitter to “challenge” King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salaman.
Al-Qahtani’s Twitter account included critical posts and calls for protests against Saudi government.
Many Saudi female activists were subjected to severe torture, including sexual harassment, unfair trials and arbitrary sentences.