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Saudi woman sentenced to 30 years over tweets, as crackdown deepens

Fatima al-Shawarbi defended political prisoners from an anonymous account and is latest Saudi to be handed a decades-long sentence over online activity
Saudi Arabian courts have handed down a series of extreme rulings to individuals who have expressed dissent on social media (AFP/File photo)

A Saudi woman has been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for anonymously tweeting about political prisoners, women's rights and unemployment, the UK-based rights group Alqst has told Middle East Eye.

Fatima al-Shawarbi, who is from Al-Ahsa province and believed to be under 30, was sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) during an appeal hearing, sources inside the kingdom with knowledge of her case told Alqst.

The court also handed her a 30-year and six-month travel ban. 

Shawarbi is reported to have used her anonymous Twitter account to highlight the plight of the Howeitat - a tribe whose members have been forcibly displaced for the Neom megaproject - women's rights, and calling for a constitutional monarchy.

MEE understands that she told friends whom she met online to sound the alarm if she stopped tweeting for more than a month but had not shared her real name or photo so they could campaign if she disappeared.

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Sources told Alqst that Shawarbi was arrested in November 2020 and is believed to have been sentenced by the SCC earlier this year.

In March, the same sources said she participated in a hunger strike along with Leeds University PhD candidate Salma al-Shehab and six other women, in protest against their imprisonment and calling for their immediate release.

'Everything has become a red line'

Lina al-Hathloul, Alqst

Shehab, meanwhile, has learned from prison that her husband is divorcing her, Alqst said, underlining cases in the past where authorities have coerced spouses of human rights defenders to divorce them.

"As information is coming out of prisons, and the authorities have confirmed imprisoning people over tweets, nobody can deny it now," Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications for Alqst, told MEE.

"It is time for the world to speak up on behalf of them all and to urge for their release immediately and unconditionally."

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond immediately to MEE's request for comment.

'Doubling down on repression'

Shawarbi is the latest Saudi to receive a lengthy sentence over social media posts.

The trend began last August with the sentencing of Shehab to 34 years in prison and a 34-year travel ban, later reduced to 27 years, for retweets in support of women's right to drive and for calling for the release of activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

Nourah al-Qahtani, a mother of five, was sentenced a week later to 45 years in prison over tweets from two anonymous accounts.

And there have been others since: Saad Almadi, a dual Saudi-American citizen, was sentenced to 16 years over his tweets, which was increased to 19 years by an appeals court before he was released in March. A 16-year travel ban, however, remains in place.

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Abdullah Jelan, a university graduate who dreamed of becoming a health educator for the Saudi government, was handed 10 years in prison, plus a 10-year travel ban, over anonymous tweets which largely focused on unemployment.

Other Saudis continue to face criminal charges over their social media activity, including most recently, sisters and well-known social media influencers, Manahel and Fouz al-Otaibi.

According to charging documents seen by Alqst, the two are accused, in part, of breaking the kingdom's cybercrime law for tweets about feminist causes, including calling for the end of the kingdom's repressive guardianship rules and urging authorities to close state-run shelters where women and girls have been abused.

Manahel, 29, was arrested in November 2022, while Fouz fled the kingdom to an undisclosed location.

Falah Sayed, human rights officer with the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, said the sisters' case is a further example in an emerging pattern of Saudi activists getting imprisoned "for merely tweeting". 

In addition to Shehab and Qahtani's sentences, Sayed also pointed to Lina Alsharif, a doctor working in Riyadh who was forcibly disappeared in May 2021.

Alsharif is one of at least 14 Saudis - one of whom is Jelan - who were picked up that month and in early June 2021 by special forces that report directly to the Royal Court over their social media activism online. 

Their lawyers and supporters have previously told MEE they believe many others may have been arrested during the same period, but because they were using pseudonyms and their friends and family may fear reprisal if they speak out, no one actually knows.

After two months forcibly disappeared, it emerged that Alsharif was being held at Al-Ha'ir prison near the capital where, as far as her supporters know, she has remained. But details about her legal situation and those of other 'May Detainees'  - as the group is sometimes referred to -  remains murky.

"The Saudi authorities are doubling down on repression. We have recently learned of many more cases of unprecedented prison sentences for tweets or Snapchat videos," said Hathloul from Alqst. 

"Reading the charges, everything has become a red line, even expressing opinions in line with the authorities' policies. Nobody should be talking about anything else than applauding their policies." 

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