A Saudi woman recently handed a 45-year prison sentence was convicted of using Twitter to “challenge the religion and justice” of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, according to a court document.
Last week, it was revealed that Nourah al-Qahtani had been convicted by the so-called Specialized Criminal Court on charges of “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric” and “violating public order” via her two anonymous Twitter accounts.
Newly revealed court records show the court ruled that Qahtani incited “the activities of those who seek to disturb public order and destabilize the security of society and the stability of the state” by “publishing false and malicious tweets.”
The sentencing document was provided to media outlets by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington-based rights group founded by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by agents of the Saudi government at the behest of MBS at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
Qahtani, a mother of five in her late 40s who suffers from “unspecified health issues,” also used Twitter to “insult state symbols and officials” and demand “the release of detainees pending security cases,” the document said, according to AFP.
Her 45-year prison sentence came to light less than a month after another Saudi woman, Salma al-Shehab, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting the critics of the kingdom.
Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children and a student at Leeds University, was detained in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was visiting home for a vacation. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.”
However, an appeals court on August 15 handed her the 34-year prison sentence followed by a 34-year travel ban, after a public prosecutor asked the court to consider other alleged crimes.
Qahtani’s sentence “is now part of a pattern,” Abdullah Alaoudh, DAWN’s director of research for the Persian Gulf region, told AFP.
“Targeting ordinary people is meant to send a shockwave of fear to the locals and Saudi public to refrain from even criticizing the Saudi government via anonymous Twitter accounts,” Alaoudh added.
Ever since bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has arrested hundreds of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others for their political activism, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnation of the crackdown.
Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedom of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied by the kingdom's authorities. Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.
Last week, in yet another act of targeting activists, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a social media activist to 18 years in prison. Muhammad al-Jedaei, better known as Jaddo, was detained nearly two and a half years ago as part of an arrest campaign, which targeted dozens of political activists, democracy advocates as well as social media activists.
The new sentences come in the immediate aftermath of US President Joe Biden’s controversial visit to Saudi Arabia, where he fist-bumped the Saudi crown prince despite his earlier promise to make the Saudis the “pariah that they are” over human rights abuses, in particular the Khashoggi killing.