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Saudi Arabia: Tech activist pulls out of conference over rights concerns

Yeshimabeit Milner said she would not be speaking at the Global AI Summit in Riyadh over the arrest of Saudi student Salma al-Shahab
Guests attend the Global AI (Artificial Intelligence) 2020 Summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 21 October 2020 (AFP)

A prominent tech activist has announced her withdrawal from the Global AI (Artificial Intelligence) Summit in Saudi Arabia, citing the treatment of imprisoned student Salma al-Shahab.

Yeshimabeit Milner had been set to speak at the conference, which is taking place in the capital Riyadh between 13 September and 15 September, on Wednesday evening on a panel called "AI Through the Lens of Equality".

However, in a statement, she said she would be joining a boycott organised by the SumOfUs website over Shahab's imprisonment.

'No platform is worth it if it means our integrity, dignity, and ability to stand fully in our truth'

Yeshimabeit Milner, Data for Black Lives

"I initially agreed to participate months ago because I saw the event as an opportunity to speak honestly and candidly to an audience of more than 3,000 researchers, scientists, policymakers, and world leaders about algorithmic violence and D4BL's (Data for Black Lives) work," Milner said.

"But tonight/this morning, I will not be speaking as planned. Nor will I be in attendance."

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According to pro-government media, over 200 speakers representing 90 countries have reportedly come together for the conference, which is organised by the Saudi Data and AI Authority, a government agency.

Milner, who is executive director and co-founder of the US-based Data for Black Lives - an organisation that advocates using data science to improve the well-being of Black people - said she and other activists refused to "sanitise or rebrand violence for the purpose of access, power, or profit".

"No platform is worth it if it means our integrity, dignity, and ability to stand fully in our truth. As we have learned with inflation the value of money is fleeting – but the true human cost of losing sight of our core mission is incalculable," she wrote.


Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student from Leeds, 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 DC-based human rights organisation.

Initially sentenced to six years in prison over her tweets calling for rights in the kingdom, an appeal by Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court saw the sentence increased to 34 years, along with a 34-year travel ban.

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

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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.

Observers say the ruling in Shehab's case is a marked escalation in the crown prince's crackdown and reflects a worsening situation for women's rights, despite headline-grabbing reforms in recent years.

Shehab, who has sons aged four and six, said during a 2014 interview she gave at the Riyadh International Book Fair that young people should consider how they could best serve their country with their studies.

"Don't just think how you can serve yourself. Think how you can serve society based on what society needs," said Shehab, who was studying for a master's degree in dentistry at the time.

More recently, she was supportive on social media of women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was released from prison in February 2021, shortly after Shehab was detained.

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