U.N. human rights experts on Friday called for the release of two Saudi Arabian women they say were arbitrarily detained and denied basic rights after tweeting criticism of the kingdom’s policies.
Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years last summer after they were arrested in separate cases in 2021. They were found guilty by a special court originally established to try terror suspects but which has broadened its mandate in recent years amid a heavy crackdown on dissent.
The kingdom’s human rights record has come under heightened scrutiny as it has made major inroads into international sports, attracting some of the world’s top soccer stars and entering into a surprise merger with golf’s PGA Tour.
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The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a panel of independent experts tasked by the U.N. Human Rights Council with investigating possible violations, said in its report that the two women had been denied due process.
The working group said there were “credible” allegations that al-Shehab was “subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” when she was held incommunicado for nearly two weeks after her arrest. It said the Specialized Criminal Court, in which both women were convicted, “cannot be considered an independent and impartial tribunal,” and that the government applied vague and overly broad provisions of its anti-terrorism and cybercime laws.
“The arrests, treatment and lengthy sentences of Ms. al-Shehab and Ms. al-Qahtani indicate that they were discriminated against for their human rights activism and for sharing their views peacefully on social media,” it said.
“The appropriate remedy would be to release (them) immediately and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.” The Saudi Ministry of Media, Ministry of Culture and Information, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
The 17-page U.N. report included a response from the Saudi government in which it said the allegations of rights abuses were unfounded and questioned the source of the information, saying the report had failed to provide supporting evidence. It also insisted the judiciary was independent.
Inès Osman, director of the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, said hers was among five human rights organizations that contributed to the report. She said the long sentences “are there to set an example.”
“It’s sending a message that here is what happens if you speak out, and if you think that you’re just going to use Twitter to share your thoughts, that’s not going to happen,” she said.
Lina Alhathloul, the head of monitoring at ALQST, a London-based rights group focused on Saudi Arabia, welcomed the U.N.’s role in publicizing the arrests. “It makes the government realize that however they try to cover up violations, however they try to cover up the arbitrary arrests, it will be known,” she said.
Alhathloul’s sister, Loujain, is a prominent women’s rights activist who had led a campaign calling for lifting a longstanding ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia lifted the driving ban in 2018, part of a raft of social reforms that have transformed daily life in the country. But that year authorities also arrested Loujain and other activists, jailing her for three years and imposing a travel ban that is still in effect.
“No one can be part of the change, no one can really criticize anything. You’re building a society in which people are muzzled, where people are blind, where people are always scared,” Alhathoul said.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler and the driving force behind the reforms, has also presided over a heavy crackdown on dissent. U.S. intelligence found that he likely approved the 2018 killing of prominent Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegations the crown prince denies.
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The two women detained in 2021 were private citizens who tweeted in their spare time.
Al-Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at Leeds University in Britain, was detained during a family vacation in January 2021. Osman said she was held in solitary confinement for over 285 days.
The Specialized Criminal Court sentenced her to 34 years in prison followed by a travel ban of the same length for “giving a wider platform for terrorist messaging by spreading ‘false information’ that threatens national security and public order,” according to court documents seen by The Associated Press.
Al-Qahtani was arrested in July 2021 for allegedly calling for the release of political detainees and criticizing human rights abuses on anonymous social media accounts. The SCC sentenced her to 45 years in prison for “preparing, sending and storing information, through the Internet, seeking to harm public order,” according to court documents.
Rights groups say that the secrecy around such trials, and people’s fear of speaking out, makes it difficult to document the extent of the crackdown.
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“Those cases are only the tip of the iceberg,” Osman. “There are many more in similar situations and cases