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Twitter in Saudi Arabia: Retweeting is Terrorism, UK Student Sentenced to 34 Years for Retweeting Dissidents

Salma al-Shehab, 34, was looking forward to bringing her husband and two children back to the UK after her family holiday in their home in Saudi Arabia in December 2020. However, during her stay the Leeds University PhD student was called for questioning by Saudi authorities and arrested in January 2021 - just days before she was due to return to the UK to complete her studies. 



Sometime in 2021, al-Shehab was sentenced to six years in prison by Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) for unspecified crimes. However, in August 2022, the SCC resentenced al-Shehab to 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban, which would prevent her from returning to the UK. She was sentenced this time under internationally-condemned terrorism laws, which accuse al-Shehab of supporting, promoting, aiding, abetting, and conducting terrorist activities, as well as using the internet to spread false rumours and information with the intent to commit terrorism, among other crimes. 




The SCC, upon its foundation in 2008, was tasked with cases involving people charged with terrorism offenses linked to al-Qaeda in the country, but after the Arab-Spring-inspired protests of 2011-12 began to handle cases of peaceful protestors, including activists against the State. 




Cases such as that of al-Shehab involve two laws that have both received international condemnation: the 2014 Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing; and Saudi Arabia’s cybercrime laws. 




In 2016, the UN Committee Against Torture said that the 2014 terrorism law broadened the definition of terrorism “to enable the criminalisation of acts of peaceful expression considered as endangering ‘national unity’ or undermining ‘the reputation or position of the State.’” 




The international community has also expressed concern over the cybercrime law, which includes the offense of “the production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, or privacy, through an information network or computer.” 




It was under these laws which al-Shehab was sentenced for using Twitter to express support for and propagate the message of Saudi dissidents living outside the country. The tweets she was prosecuted for include ones that she posted while outside of Saudi Arabia. 




In a separate case, Noura al-Qahtani, a 50-year-old mother-of-five was sentenced to 45 years in prison for similar offenses, as well as being in possession of a banned book. Documents obtained by the Guardian describe how she used two anonymized Twitter accounts, one of which she used to retweet tweets critical of the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed and in support of the rights of political detainees. 




Human Rights Watch called for the abolition of the SCC in 2012, arguing that Trying Saudi political activists as terrorists merely because they question abuses of government power demonstrates the lengths the Saudi government will go to suppress dissent.” 




The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said, in relation to al-Shehab's and al-Qahtani's cases, “The SCC imposes harsher sentences than other Saudi criminal courts for similar offenses, routinely denies defendants access to legal counsel, and delays issuing judicial decisions. The court’s convictions are sometimes based on confession obtained through torture.” 




The CEO of the Index on Censorship, which seeks to inform the public about cases involving freedom of expression, Ruth Smeeth, said “Courts are not weapons to be used to equate free expression with acts of terror. The weaponizing of the SCC to target free online expression corrupts the judiciary against the public and ultimately turns the state against its citizens. The number of people who have been sentenced, imprisoned and even executed due to the opaque actions of this court is a shocking indictment of the modern Saudi state, the hollowing out of its judiciary and its disregard for human rights.” 




The cases raise questions for Twitter and social media companies at large about how they are being used by authoritarian states to crack down on voices of dissent against the State who choose to exercise their right to freedom of expression. 




Twitter has so far refused to comment on the cases and does not respond to questions about Saudi Arabia’s influence over the company. 




A prominent Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns over 5% of Twitter through a company called Kingdom Holdings.  




In May of this year, Kingdom Holdings announced that it had sold around 17% of its company to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) for $1.5bn. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed is chairman of the PIF, thus making the ruling family and Saudi government a significant indirect investor in Twitter, which has emphasised that investors play no role in the company's day-to-day affairs. 




At a similar time as the transactions was the accusation and conviction of a Twitter employee charged with spying for Saudi Arabia, along with six other counts including disguising a payment from the Saudi government. 




Ahmad Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese citizen employed as a manager at Twitter responsible for overseeing relationships with Middle-Eastern and North African journalists and celebrities, was recruited by a close adviser to the crown prince, Bader al-Asaker, to obtain personal information about Saudi dissidents held by Twitter. Abouammo used insider knowledge and clearances to access this information and pass it to Saudi authorities. 




Prosecutors claim that Abouammo was paid at least $300,000 and a $20,000 luxury watch for his work, money that was paid through relatives in Lebanon in order to disguise its origin as it reached his home in the US. 




US Attorney Stephanie Hinds said in a statement, “The government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter’s customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government.” 




A colleague of Abouammo, Ali Alzabarah, was also accused of accessing Twitter accounts on behalf of Saudi Arabia but left the US before being charged. 




With regards to the detention of al-Shehab, the UK’s new Prime Minister and foreign secretary when the arrest and sentencing took place Truss, has been urged to intervene in the case following concerns being raised by Leeds Labour MP Hilary Benn and Leeds University. However, the UK Foreign Office did not respond to questions from the Guardian and PM Truss has not given an indication of whether she will act. 




 




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