In News & Reports

By FT-

A US-based advocacy group said a Saudi Arabian court had sentenced a woman to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric”, weeks after another citizen was imprisoned over her tweets.

The Washington-based Dawn group, which promotes democracy in the Middle East, said Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani probably received the sentence last week. Qahtani, about whom little is known, was also accused of “producing, and storing of materials impinging on public order and religious values”.

Dawn cited a court document. There has been no statement by Saudi authorities, and the government media office did not respond to an emailed query after business hours. A court in the kingdom sentenced Leeds university student Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison this month for tweeting support of jailed activists. She had been arrested during a visit to her native country.

The conservative kingdom is undergoing a transformation, with day-to-day ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rolling back decades of religious strictures while shaking up its oil-reliant economy. The reforms have won him support among many Saudis, but they have been accompanied by repressive measures. Saudi authorities view calls for democracy in the kingdom as an attempt to overturn the monarchy.

Dawn was founded by Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder at the hands of Saudi agents in 2018 drew widespread condemnation in western countries.

US president Joe Biden had come to office vowing to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s murder, after the CIA assessed that Prince Mohammed had ordered a “capture or kill mission” against the journalist. The prince has denied any involvement and said the perpetrators, who were members of a security team, were tried and imprisoned in the kingdom.

Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July this year in an attempt to thaw the relationship as he pushed for more oil production to offset rising global energy prices and inflation. Recommended Maya Foa Joe Biden needs Saudi oil but must not ignore its human rights record Prince Mohammed has quickly transformed the country since assuming his position in 2017 with a series of decrees, including allowing women to drive and ending the role of religious police in public life.

But he has faced scrutiny over the arrests of activists, dissidents and bloggers. A Twitter account purported to belong to al-Shehab had retweeted pleas for the release of activists, including women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul.

Al-Hathloul, who had campaigned for the right to drive for women in the kingdom before it was allowed in 2018, was released in 2021. She remains under a travel ban, however. Other activists and critics remain jailed.

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