A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced a social media activist to 45 years in prison over her internet activity, reportedly the longest-ever prison sentence to be handed to a peaceful activist in Saudi Arabia.
The Specialized Criminal Court ruled that the activist, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, had been “destabilizing the social fabric” and “disrupting the cohesion of society” through her social media activity.
While the judge ruled that al-Qahtani had “offended the public order through the information network,” a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit noted that Saudi Arabia uses various laws to criminalize citizens for calling out the government.
It is unclear what al-Qahtani had posted online; she has been in custody since July 4, 2021, reports the D.C. non-profit, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
“Nothing in her court documents pertains to any violence or criminal activity,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, DAWN’s research director for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “The charges against her are really broad. They are using the counter-terrorism law and the anti-cybercrime law … that can criminalize any posting that is even remotely critical of the government.”
According to the BBC, a number of other women in Saudi Arabia have been arrested over their social media activity since last year. Alaoudh is concerned that they, too, could end up serving long prison sentences.
“The Saudi government is sending a strong signal to the West that it does not care about human rights,” Alaoudh said. “This seems like the beginning of a new wave of sentences and convictions by new judges who have been placed in the Specialized Criminal Court.”
Al-Qahtani was jailed for “simply tweeting her opinions,” he said.
Alaoudh told The Guardian that “it is impossible not to connect the dots between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with President Biden last month in Jeddah and the uptick in the repressive attacks against anyone who dares criticize the crown prince or the Saudi government for well-documented abuses.”
There is no information available about al-Qahtani’s age or the circumstances of her arrest.
Two weeks ago, Saudi woman Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two and a Ph.D. student at Leeds University in England, was sentenced to 34 years in prison while visiting Saudi Arabia. Al-Shehab is believed to have been sentenced for having a Twitter account, for following Saudi dissidents and activists on Twitter and for retweeting their tweets.
Al-Shehab was accused of causing public unrest and destabilizing civil and national security, as well as “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts.”
According to the BBC, while in England, Al-Shehab “had called for reforms and the release of prominent activists and intellectuals imprisoned under a crackdown on dissent overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Al-Shehab’s and al-Qahtani’s sentencing come just weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Some human rights activists warned that Biden’s visit could bolster the undemocratic regime and prompt them to crack down even further on dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.
Three exiled Saudi Arabian dissidents, Khalid Aljabri, Lina al-Hathloul and Abdullah Alaoudh, told The Guardian in July that Biden’s visit meant that the U.S. was “normalizing” MBS’ autocratic and repressive regime.
“We talked about how MBS crushed Saudi civil society and how any government critic is forced into exile instead of being able do peaceful activism at home, safely,” Aljabri said. “We talked about how brave the Saudi diaspora are, because the price of criticizing, for Khashoggi, was death.”