Publication date: 26/03/2024

Three hundred and forty academics, students and employees at the University of Leeds have signed a letter calling on its leaders to take a stronger stand in support of PhD student Salma al-Shehab, who is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for her peaceful social media activity advocating for women’s rights.

The open letter, coordinated by the university’s University and College Union (UCU) branch, urges Vice Chancellor Hai-Sui Yu and Pro-Chancellor Alastair Da Costa to join calls for al-Shehab’s immediate release. It also urges the UK Government to use its longstanding and close ties with the Saudi authorities to press for her freedom and safe return to the UK to resume her studies. 

This follows previous action in September 2022, when 400 academics from more than 50 UK universities and colleges, including the University of Leeds, signed an open letter calling on the UK government to take urgent action in al-Shehab’s case. To date, the University of Leeds has only issued a statement expressing deep concern.

Al-Shehab, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, is a dental hygienist and PhD student at the University of Leeds, where she was living before her detention, and belongs to Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim minority, who have long suffered from the authorities’ repression.

She was arrested on 15 January 2021 while on holiday in Saudi Arabia, and subjected to solitary confinement and lengthy sessions of questioning over a period of nine and a half months before finally being brought to court. She was tried under counter-terrorism legislation in the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), a court routinely used as a means of silencing dissent in the kingdom, for tweeting about women’s rights. In April 2022, after a grossly unfair trial, she was sentenced to six years in prison. Following an appeal in the SCC Court of Appeal, her sentence was extended on 9 August 2022 to 34 years, to be followed by a 34-year travel ban. On 25 January 2023, the SCC resentenced al-Shehab to 27 years in jail and a travel ban of the same length. Her case is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

During her time in detention, which has been ruled by UN experts to be arbitrary, al-Shehab’s physical and mental health has deteriorated. In March 2023, along with seven other detained Saudi women, she undertook a hunger strike in protest against their unjust detention. She ended it after several weeks in order to be able to take medication.

Al-Shehab’s case is emblematic of the Saudi authorities’ intensifying crackdown on free speech. Over the past two years the Saudi courts, notorious for their abuses and their disregard for legal safeguards, have handed down a series of decades-long prison sentences to peaceful activists and even private individuals, in an increasingly brazen and irrational manner. 

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