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Saudi women's rights defender 'given 17 years' despite prison sentence ending

Mohammed al-Rabiah, who called for an end to guardianship laws, joins a growing list of Saudis given 'exceptionally harsh' sentences, says rights group
Rabiah has been detained since May 2018 when women rights defenders including Loujain Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef were also arrested (Twitter/Freedom Initative)
Rabiah has been detained since May 2018 and was due to be released in September (Twitter/Freedom Initiative)

Saudi Arabian women's rights activist has been sentenced to 17 years in prison, despite having already completed his sentence earlier this year, the US-based rights organisation Freedom Initiative has reported.

In April 2021, Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced Mohammed al-Rabiah to six and a half years in prison, with two years suspended, on charges related to his activism and defence of women's rights. 

He was expected to be released in late September when his prison term (including his time awaiting sentencing) expired, but his case was transferred back for a retrial to the SCC, which sentenced him to a further 17 years, Freedom Initiative tweeted on Tuesday.

"Instead of being released, al-Rabiah was retried and handed a new sentence nearly three times as long as the one he already served," the organisation said. 

Middle East Eye has asked Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry for comment.

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'Exceptionally harsh'

Rabiah called for the end to Saudi Arabia's repressive guardianship laws and was also involved in the campaign to have the longstanding ban on women driving in kingdom lifted.

He has been detained since May 2018, when a group of women's rights defenders - including Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef - were arrested shortly before authorities announced the end of the ban which they had long protested against.

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While in prison, rights groups monitoring his case say he has been brutally tortured, including being held in a small wardrobe for several days, hung upside down by his feet and beaten until he was unconscious.

MENA Rights Group and Alqst have also reported that he was starved during his first year of detention and offered empty food trays to taunt him. The groups say he was only allowed to eat snacks during monthly family visits.

The new ruling against Rabiah is only the latest of what Freedom Initiative called "exceptionally harsh" sentences handed down since August in the kingdom.

They point to Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student and mother of two, and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a mother of five, who were given 34 years and 45 years, respectively, over tweets critical of the Saudi government.

Last month, Abdullah Jelan, who tweeted anonymously about unemployment in the kingdom and is among a group of young Saudis who were arrested in spring 2021 over their social media activism, was given 10 years.

Freedom Initiative noted that the sentences were handed down following US President Joe Biden's meeting in July in the kingdom with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

"This is what happens when you appease dictators, @POTUS," the organisation tweeted.

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