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UN experts urge Saudi Arabia to release two women detained over tweets

In a report, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the use of a vague counterterrorism law against rights activists in the kingdom.
Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani.

United Nations human rights experts condemned on Friday the “arbitrary detention” of two Saudi women over tweets critical of the kingdom’s policies, calling for their immediate release.

In a report released to the public on Friday, 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.

Shehab, a 34-year-old Ph.D. student and mother of two, 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. Shehab was called in for questioning at the Presidency of State Security facility in Dammam over tweets supporting women’s rights and activists. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison. But in early August 2022, the notorious Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) increased her sentence to 34 years in prison on charges of “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts.”

“Salma al-Shehab should never have been convicted in the first place, but to have her sentence increased from six to 34 years following an unfair trial shows that the authorities intend to use her to set an example amid their unrelenting crackdown on free speech. She must be immediately and unconditionally released,” Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s acting deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a report in 2022.

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