ALQST is concerned to learn that the husband of women’s rights activist Salma al-Shehab, currently serving a 27-year prison sentence for her peaceful activity on Twitter, has unexpectedly filed for divorce. The case is due to come to court on 1 June 2023. ALQST does not yet know the background to this distressing development, but is aware of cases in the past where the Saudi authorities have coerced spouses and family members of imprisoned human rights defenders to divorce or disown them.
This news comes amid a deterioration in al-Shehab’s physical and mental health, after more than two years in detention since her January 2021 arrest. In March 2023 al-Shehab, along with seven other detained Saudi women, undertook a hunger strike in protest against their unjust detention and trial, and to demand their release. She ended it several weeks later in order to be able to take medication.
Al-Shehab was sentenced to prison by Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) solely on the basis of exercising her right to freedom of expression. The SCC was originally established to try terrorism cases and is notorious for its disregard of legal safeguards. Al-Shehab was initially charged under the kingdom’s draconian Anti-Cyber Crime Law and sentenced in March 2022 to six years in jail, increased on appeal to an astonishing 34 years. After the Supreme Court quashed this ruling and sent the case back to the SCC for retrial, this time under the equally draconian Counter-Terrorism Law, al-Shehab was re-sentenced on 25 January 2023 to 27 years. Her case is currently pending before the Supreme Court.
In a further, bizarre, turn of events, the Saudi authorities recently offered al-Shehab the opportunity to study for a diploma in business management while serving her sentence. At the time of her arrest al-Shehab was studying for a PhD in dental hygiene at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy Lina AlHathloul comments: “If the Saudi authorities are serious about al-Shehab pursuing her studies she should be released from prison and allowed to travel back to the UK to complete her PhD. In any case, she should not be in prison at all for peacefully expressing her support for women’s rights, and ALQST once again calls for her immediate and unconditional release.”