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Academics call on British government to help release Saudi women's rights activist

Salma al-Shehab is a well-known activist who was sentenced to 34 years in prison followed by a travel ban in August
Salma al-Shehab, 34, is a well-known activist who called for women's rights in Saudi Arabia (Social media)

Hundreds of academics and research students in UK universities have sent a letter to Prime Minister Liz Truss, calling on her to help release Saudi student Salma al-Shehab, who was a British resident when she was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Shehab, 34, is a well-known activist who has called for women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

She was arrested in January 2021 and sentenced in August to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban, for her peaceful activity on Twitter, supporting women’s rights, basic freedoms and prisoners of conscience in the country.

Almost 100 individuals from the University of Leeds, where Shehab was doing a PhD in dental hygiene, have signed the letter to Truss.

"Despite their constant rhetoric of reform and support for women’s rights, the Saudi authorities have shown themselves to be hellbent as ever on crushing any form of peaceful dissent – and western leaders’ embrace of Mohammed bin Salman makes them feel empowered to do so," the letter said, referring to the Saudi de-facto ruler, known as MBS, who was appointed as prime minister this week.

The academics asked Truss to help secure British consular access to Shehab and help secure her immediate release, nulling her conviction and condemning her imprisonment by the Saudi authorities.

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"Salma should be looking forward, like us, to the new academic year, instead of languishing behind bars for the ‘crime’ of tweeting her legitimate opinions. She must be freed, reunited with her family, and allowed to finish her PhD in the UK," the letter added.

Shehab is the mother of two young children.

ALQST, a Saudi rights group based in London, said that Saudi authorities should "immediately and unconditionally release Salma al-Shehab and other prisoners of conscience detained for their peaceful activism, and to drop all charges against them."

In August, an alliance of more than 30 rights groups called on the international community to pressure Saudi authorities to release Shehab, days after a court imposed a prison sentence on her. 

Since taking de-facto control of the kingdom in 2017, MBS has overseen a widespread crackdown on dissent, even as he pushed a number of nominally liberalising reforms.

Hundreds have been executed, with 120 executions carried out so far in 2022 alone. In March, the kingdom executed 81 men in its largest single mass execution in decades.

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