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Saudi woman sentenced to 45 years in prison over social media posts

Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani has been convicted of 'using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia's] social fabric', a rights group reveals
A woman uses her phone to take a picture of a lit "I LOVE RIYADH" sign at a shopping centre in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on 31 October 2020 (AFP)
A woman uses her phone to photograph an "I LOVE RIYADH" sign at a shopping centre in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on 31 October 2020 (AFP)

A Saudi court has sentenced a woman to 45 years in prison for using social media to express her opinions, a rights group said on Tuesday.

Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a Saudi citizen, has been handed the lengthy prison sentence by the notorious Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), which convicted her of "using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia's] social fabric".

The information was revealed to the UK's Guardian by Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), a Washington DC-based organisation founded by the assassinated Washington Post and Middle East Eye journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Amnesty International has accused Saudi authorities of using the SCC as a tool to punish and silence dissident voices.

Abdullah Alaoudh, Dawn's Gulf director, said Qahtani appears to have been sentenced for "simply tweeting her opinions".

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"It is impossible not to connect the dots between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's meeting with President Biden last month in Jeddah and the uptick in the repressive attacks against anyone who dares criticise the crown prince or the Saudi government for well-documented abuses," Alaoudh said.

Dawn has yet to obtain more details on Qahtani, including her age and the circumstances of her detention. It is hoping the news will help shed light on her case. 

The news comes shortly after another Saudi woman, Salma al-Shehab, was sentenced to 34 years in prison, a term denounced at the time as the longest ever sentence given to a women's rights defender in the kingdom.

Shehab is a Leeds University PhD candidate focused on healthcare and mother of two. She was on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 and had planned to return to the United Kingdom when she was detained, according to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights organisation.

Shehab was originally sentenced to six years in prison over tweets she posted calling for rights in the kingdom, but, on an appeal last week, the SCC increased the sentence to 34 years, along with a 34-year travel ban.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday said the Biden administration has raised "significant concerns" with Saudi authorities about Shehab's case.

"We have made the point to them that freedom of expression is a universal human right to which all people are entitled and exercising those universal rights should never be criminalised," Price told reporters.

On Monday, an alliance of more than 30 rights groups called on the international community to pressure Riyadh to release Shehab.

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