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UN calls on Saudis to release 2 women jailed over tweets criticizing Salman regime

U.N. human rights experts on Friday called for the release of two Saudi Arabian women they say were arbitrarily detained and denied basic rights after tweeting criticism of the kingdom’s policies.

Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years last summer after they were arrested in separate cases in 2021. They were found guilty by a special court originally established to try terror suspects but which has broadened its mandate in recent years amid a heavy crackdown on dissent.

The kingdom’s human rights record has come under heightened scrutiny as it has made major inroads into international sports, attracting some of the world’s top soccer stars and entering into a surprise merger with golf’s PGA Tour.

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“The appropriate remedy would be to release (them) immediately and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.” The Saudi Ministry of Media, Ministry of Culture and Information, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

The 17-page U.N. report included a response from the Saudi government in which it said the allegations of rights abuses were unfounded and questioned the source of the information, saying the report had failed to provide supporting evidence. It also insisted the judiciary was independent.

Inès Osman, director of the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, said hers was among five human rights organizations that contributed to the report. She said the long sentences “are there to set an example.”

“No one can be part of the change, no one can really criticize anything. You’re building a society in which people are muzzled, where people are blind, where people are always scared,” Alhathoul said.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler and the driving force behind the reforms, has also presided over a heavy crackdown on dissent. U.S. intelligence found that he likely approved the 2018 killing of prominent Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegations the crown prince denies.

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Al-Qahtani was arrested in July 2021 for allegedly calling for the release of political detainees and criticizing human rights abuses on anonymous social media accounts. The SCC sentenced her to 45 years in prison for “preparing, sending and storing information, through the Internet, seeking to harm public order,” according to court documents.

Rights groups say that the secrecy around such trials, and people’s fear of speaking out, makes it difficult to document the extent of the crackdown.

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