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Salma al-Shehab: Saudi woman jailed over tweets launches hunger strikes

Seven other women, who stopped eating on 23 March, join Shehab's hunger strike to protest 'sham trials' and demand their release, says advocacy group
Salma al-Shehab was on a visit to Saudi Arabia when she was arrested in January 2021 (Twitter)
Salma al-Shehab was on a visit to Saudi Arabia when she was arrested in January 2021 (Twitter)

A Saudi Arabian woman sentenced to 27 years in jail and a 27-year travel ban over her tweets has been on hunger strike for nearly a week along with seven other women, the UK-based Alqst rights group said on Tuesday. 

Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two, and the other women whose identities have not been publicly disclosed, are said to be protesting their unjust imprisonment and calling for their immediate release.

The dental hygienist, who is studying a PhD at Leeds University in the UK, made headlines last August when Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced her to 34 years, and a 34-year travel ban, after she retweeted posts in support of women's right to drive, and calling for the release of activists including Loujain al-Hathloul. 

Last month, after the Saudi Supreme Court ordered a retrial, the SCC reduced her sentence to 27 years in prison. 

Shehab's initial sentence was the longest given in Saudi Arabia to a woman human rights defender at the time, and drew attention because she was not well-known and had few followers. 

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But it was only the first of a wave of lengthy sentences handed down by the same court to Saudis with similarly non-existent profiles over their posts in the following months.

A week after Shehab's shock sentence, the same court gave Nourah al-Qahtani a 45-year sentence for "breaking the social fabric of the kingdom" and "violating the public order" over tweets from two anonymous accounts.

Qahtani is reportedly a mother of five with health issues, but very little else has been disclosed publicly about her.

In October, Saad Almadi, a 72-year-old retiree with dual Saudi-American citizenship, was sentenced to 16 years in jail, and a 16-year travel ban over his tweets, including ones referring to slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and criticising corruption inside the kingdom.

Almadi was released earlier this month, but remains in the kingdom on a travel ban, his son has said.

The SCC originally sentenced Shehab to six years in prison for using the internet to cause public unrest, but increased her sentence to 34 years and a 34-year travel ban after a public prosecutor reportedly asked the court to consider other alleged crimes.

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