Read More Atheist Republic Social media users in Saudi Arabia are being sentenced to extreme prison sentences over posts critical of the Kingdom.
Social media crackdown: Saudi Arabia may spy on #Twitter users http://t.co/Q6R9341bzK
— RT (@RT_com) March 30, 2013
On August 16, Salma al-Shehab was given a 34-year sentence for following and retweeting posts by activists and dissidents. The thirty-four-year-old mother of two and a student at Leeds University in West Yorkshire, England, had recently returned home for a holiday. Reports from the Guardian indicate that she was initially sentenced to three years for the crime of “causing public unrest and destabilizing civil and national security.” An appeals court added the charge of “assisting those who seek to cause public arrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts and re-tweeting,” resulting in the new sentence, which also tacked on a thirty-four-year travel ban.
Salma is a dental hygienist and university lecturer working on her Ph.D. She is by no means an activist herself, sharing photos of her two young sons and complaining of Covid burn-out. She sometimes shared tweets of exiles demanding the release of political prisoners. She supports Loujian al-Hathloul, a feminist activist who was allegedly tortured during imprisonment for supporting driving rights for women.
An acquaintance told the Guardian that she had returned home in December 2020, intending to bring her husband and children back to the UK, when she was called in for questioning and arrested. Reports say that she was intermittently held in solitary confinement and sought to speak to the judge privately, away from her family, but was denied. It is reported that the appeals verdict was signed by three judges whose handwriting was all suspiciously illegible.
A second woman, Nurah bint Saeed Qahtani, was reported on August 31st to have been sentenced to 45 years. The court document obtained by the Associated Press stated a charge of “damaging the country through her social media activity.” Again, the sentence was handed down by an appeals court. The details of her case are very much unclear. It is alleged that she had been detained since July 4, 2021. Saudi officials have not responded to requests for comment.
“It seems like the beginning of a new wave of sentences and convictions by new judges who have been placed in the specialized criminal court,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, regional director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). “You always fear that it’s just at the tip of anybody’s finger to report you,” he added.
While the actual posts of these women that drew such a backlash from authority have not been released, rights groups believe that they had been reported by other citizens using the app Kollona Amn, a government app created to report emergencies such as road accidents. A screenshot shared by Thompson Reuters Foundation revealed a comment on Shehab’s account: “I went into your account, and I found it to be pitiful and full of trash, so I took several pictures, and I sent them to Kollona Amn.”
Kollona Amn has been offered in the Google Play Store since 2017 and has been downloaded more than a million times. It translates to “we are all security” in Arabic. Activists say that the app is used defensively to distance oneself from dangerous views, in case someone else informs. Citizen Lab, which investigates digital threats to free expression, said, “It is very concerning. When people start losing trust, they oppress each other.” Noura Aljizawi, a Citizen Lab researcher, said, “ We don’t have political representatives in the country. We don’t have any kind of political life. So, Twitter really is our Parliament.”
“The problem in Saudi Arabia is that their understanding of a crime is much wider than what is recognizable under international law,” says Human Rights Watch women’s researcher Rathna Begum. “It is so broad and vague; anything could be a crime, she added.
Head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, an independent Saudi NGO, Lina al-Hathloul, said she had documented the tagging of Kollona Amn in eight other instances of activist tweets. “They don’t want people to exist, not even online,” she said.
In July 2020, a Twitter worker accused of spying for the Kingdom was arrested. Ahmad Abouammo, who worked at Twitter between 2013-2015, allegedly gathered the personal information of Saudi dissidents in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was found guilty last month in a Californian Court of conspiracy, wire fraud, international money laundering, and falsification of records in a federal investigation. The evidence presented at trial included correspondence with the Saudi royal family and documentation of bribes to access, monitor, and convey the private information of Twitter users critical of the monarchy.