DUBAI, United Arab Emirates —
A Saudi court has sentenced a woman to 45 years in prison for allegedly damaging the country through her social media activity, according to a court document obtained Wednesday. It was the second such sentence that has drawn scrutiny of the oil-rich kingdom this month.
Little is known about Nourah bint Saeed Qahtani, who hails from one of the biggest tribes in Saudi Arabia and has no apparent history of activism. An official charge sheet seen by the Associated Press and human rights groups describes her case as involving her social media use, though Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The sentence follows international outcry over a 34-year prison sentence handed down to Salma Shehab, a Saudi doctoral student at Leeds University in England.
Earlier this month, a specialized criminal court delivered Qahtani’s 45-year sentence under the kingdom’s broad counter-terrorism and cybercrime laws. That court, which normally handles political and national security cases, issued the sentence during Qahtani’s appeal of her conviction.
Judges accused Qahtani of “disrupting the cohesion of society” and “destabilizing the social fabric,” according to the charge sheet, citing her activity on social media. They alleged that Qahtani “offended the public order through the information network.”
It remains unclear what Qahtani posted online or where her hearing was held. She was taken into custody July 4, 2021, according to the Washington-based human rights watchdog Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, which is critical of Saudi Arabia.
“This 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, DAWN’s regional director.
The Freedom Initiative, another Washington-based human rights group, also denounced Qahtani’s “outrageously long” prison sentence.
“It’s very hard to ignore the fact that we are seeing these sentences as [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] has received increased legitimacy in the international realm,” said Allison McManus, the group’s research director.
The social media sentences have renewed attention on the crown prince’s crackdown on dissent, even as the ultraconservative Islamic nation has granted women new freedoms like the right to drive.
President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia in July for a meeting with the prince, and later said he confronted him about human rights. Biden came to office vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.