UCU: Liz Truss must call on Saudis to scrap 34 year prison sentence given to Leeds student

Salma al-Shehab was arrested while on holiday in connection with her Twitter activity

The University and College Union (UCU) is calling on foreign secretary Liz Truss to demand that the Saudi government overturns a 34-year prison sentence given to Salma al-Shehab

The Leeds University PhD student was arrested back in 2020 while on holiday in Saudi Arabia, after she was alleged to have retweeted posts from notable dissidents and activists.

She was originally sentenced to three years in prison for what the authorities claimed was her using Twitter to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security”.

On Monday, an appeals court handed down a new sentence of 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban for other alleged crimes.

UCU tweeted: “Foreign Secretary Liz Truss must call on the Saudi authorities to overturn this brutal sentence.”

The Tab understands that officials at the British Embassy in Riyadh have expressed their concerns about this case to Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission.

Salma al-Shehab, 34, is a PhD student at Leeds University, a lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, a wife and a mother to two sons, Noah and Adam.

She has around 150 followers on Instagram and 2.5k on Twitter, often uploading posts about Covid burnout along with snaps of her young kids.

Buried among these posts, are occasional retweets calling for the release of political prisoners, others express support for prominent feminist activists.

According to her friends Shehab could not stomach the very injustice she was shortly to fall victim to.

In December 2020, Shehab hoped to return home from a family holiday in Saudi Arabia with her two kids, but was hauled into questioning by the Saudi authorities. She was later put on trial for her Twitter activity.

Her sentence was initially three years, hiked up to 34 with a 34-year travel ban just this week.

Documents seen by The Guardian say the new charges include the claim that Shehab was “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts”.

Following the announcement of Shehab’s new sentence, the University of College Union (UCU) wrote to foreign secretary Liz Truss demanding action.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “We call on the UK government to condemn this cruel and unjust verdict and for you to urge the Saudi authorities to immediately overturn Salma al-Shehab’s conviction and to release her unconditionally.”

Labour MP for Leeds central Hilary Benn also wrote to Liz Truss, saying: “Ms al-Shehab has two young sons and a husband, and I am sure you will agree with me that this is an absolutely shocking sentence which is completely at odds with Saudi Arabia’s claims to be improving human rights, in particular for women.

“I would be very grateful if you could make representations to the Saudi authorities on behalf of Ms al-Shehab so that she can be freed to return to her family and to her studies at the University of Leeds.”

The University of Leeds tweeted: “We are deeply concerned to learn of the recent development in Salma’s case and are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her.

“Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family, and her friends among our close-knit community.”

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