A Saudi woman recently jailed for 45 years was sentenced for using Twitter to “challenge” the country’s king and crown prince, according to a court document seen Tuesday by AFP.
The harsh sentence for Nourah al-Qahtani, which came to light last week and drew swift international condemnation, was issued less than a month after US President Joe Biden voiced concern about human rights abuses during a controversial visit to Saudi Arabia.
The sentencing document was provided to AFP by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington-based rights group founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
AFP could not independently verify it, and Saudi authorities have not responded to requests for comment on the case.
The document describes Qahtani as a mother of five in her late 40s who suffers from unspecified health issues.
She does not have a large public profile and it is not clear how her anonymous Twitter account, which has fewer than 600 followers, attracted the attention of Saudi authorities.
The court found that Qahtani had used Twitter “to challenge the religion and justice” of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, according to the document.
It also says she incited “the activities of those who seek to disturb public order and destabilise the security of society and the stability of the state” by “publishing false and malicious tweets”.
Qahtani also used Twitter to “insult state symbols and officials” and demand “the release of detainees pending security cases”, the document says, without providing further details.
Qahtani’s account, as identified in the court document, features numerous posts criticising the government, and its banner picture includes a hashtag calling for an anti-government protest coinciding with last year’s hajj pilgrimage.
The account also retweeted posts warning of attempts to arrest those behind public protests, which are not tolerated in Saudi Arabia.
– ‘Part of a pattern’? –
Its last post is dated July 2021, the same month Qahtani was taken into custody.
A court had initially sentenced her in February to six and a half years in prison, followed by a travel ban for the same amount of time.
The prosecution then appealed for a harsher sentence, resulting in the 45-year term.
The court document said Qahtani’s lawyer stressed that she had no criminal record and had done nothing but tweet.
“There is no evidence that she communicated with any terrorist entity,” the lawyer is quoted as saying, while describing Qahtani as “repentant”.
Prince Mohammed has touted an expansion of women’s rights under his rule that saw them being given the right to drive, while also overseeing a crackdown on women activists.
Earlier in August, rights groups publicised the case of Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral candidate at Britain’s University of Leeds who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for aiding dissidents seeking to “disrupt public order” by retweeting their posts.
Qahtani’s sentence “is now part of a pattern”, said Abdullah Alaoudh, DAWN’s director of research for the Gulf region.
“Targeting ordinary people is meant to send a shockwave of fear to the locals and Saudi public to refrain from even criticising the Saudi government via anonymous Twitter accounts.”