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Human rights defenders this week accused US President Joe Biden of empowering Saudi oppression after an activist was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweeting about the fundamentalist monarchy's repression of women.
Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi mother of two and graduate student at the University of Leeds in England, was on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was arrested, tried, and sentenced to six years behind bars for social media posts expressing support for activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned at the time for advocating for women's right to drive and an end to the kingdom's male guardianship system.
US President Joe Biden greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist-bump at the Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022. Photo: Saudi Press Agency
Last week, Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal increased al-Shehab's sentence to 34 years, plus a 34-year travel ban. According to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for wrongfully imprisoned people in the Middle East and North Africa, al-Shehab's is the longest-ever prison sentence for a women's rights activist in Saudi history.
"Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women's rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse," Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, said in a statement.
"It is unfortunately no surprise that MBS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious rights violations," she continued, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Despite vowing to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for its human rights abuses including the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden met bin Salman in Jeddah last month, where they exchanged a now-infamous fist bump. Weeks later, the Biden administration approved the sale of more than $3 billion worth of Raytheon missiles to Saudi Arabia.
"Without any real steps toward accountability, Biden's trip to Jeddah and the international community's embrace must feel like a green light," Al-Haidari added. "The Saudi authorities must release Salma and ensure that her young boys do not grow up without a mother simply because she called for freedom for human rights activists."
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at the Saudi- and London-based human rights group ALQST and sister of Loujain, said that "Saudi activists warned Western leaders that giving legitimacy to the crown prince would pave the way for more abuses, which is unfortunately what we are witnessing now."
She added that al-Shehab's "appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities' claims of reform for women and of the legal system, and shows they remain hell-bent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely." Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison weeks after al-Shehab's arrest, although she remains confined to Saudi Arabia due to a travel ban.
"It is ironic that while Loujain's release was celebrated, Salma remained behind bars on the ground that she called for that very release," said Al-Haidari. "It's a pattern for Saudi authorities to ensure that women activists can't celebrate or take credit for any of their hard-won victories."
While some supporters have touted reforms under bin Salman's de facto rule—women can now drive, get their own passports, travel abroad, and live independently without the permission of a male guardian, to name but a few developments—critics note that the kingdom remains one of the world's most repressed societies, especially for women and religious minorities.
Al-Shehab is Shia Muslim, a group that has long faced severe discrimination in the Sunni-majority kingdom. Israa al-Ghomgham, a Saudi Shia, faced execution by beheading for nonviolent activism, although she was ultimately sentenced to eight years imprisonment last year.
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