As social media censorship increases, authoritarian governments imprison people for expressing their political beliefs against their regime.
Back in 2021, Salma al-Shehab was back in her native country, Saudi Arabia, for a holiday. She is a dental hygienist, medical educator, and Ph.D. student at Leeds University’s School of Medicine. She also belongs to the Chii minority and is a mother of two. But her return home ended badly, as she was jailed for 34 years by the Saudi government.
According to her social media, Salma was not dedicated to activism, but she did tweet and retweet posts asking for the release of political prisoners such as intellectuals, clerics, and activists. One of the messages included the liberation of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights campaigner who was arrested just before the women driving ban was lifted. And even though she was released on probation, she was under restrictions like a travel ban. What Salma did not imagine is that only a couple of months later she would be facing the same struggle, by being accused of disrupting public order and publishing false rumors by a terrorism tribunal.
Freedom House reported that she was initially sentenced to six years in prison for violating the counter-terrorism and anti-cybercrime laws of the country. But her appeal resulted in a longer sentence, as the prosecution office requested a harsher punishment. The final verdict is 34 years in prison with a travel ban of the same length after her release.
The case manager from Freedom House told BBC that they have reported on hundreds of young women who were detained under the same charges around the same time as Salma was. For her, Saudi Arabia is trying to sell an image of improving women’s rights to the world, while worsening conditions within their borders. So far, the government has not given any comment on the matter.
Even so, her case happened back in 2021, but the concern over her security is just now being brought to popular knowledge. The release of women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul happened because there was international pressure on the country, but as the focus slowly shifted to other international problems, the laws were reinforced even more harshly. Having her University in the United Kingdom probably helped to give a spotlight to Salma’s case, as it is now shown that she is not the only woman suffering from this regime.
Taking all of this into consideration, Amnesty International reports that people all over the country are afraid to raise their voices against these cases because of similar consequences. For them, it is important to give recognition and protection to the women that are trying to express their opinions openly. Freedom of speech should not be punished by comparing it to terrorism, especially by changing or accommodating legislation that actively goes against international human rights laws. It is now time to protect women because speaking out should never end at the risk of losing your liberty, your rights, or your life.