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“RT =/= Approval” Defense Fails In Saudi Arabia


People used to argue over this on twitter all the time, whether retwitting something meant you agreed with it or approved of it, the implication being that why would anyone amplify anything with which they didn’t agree or approve? The answer would often be it was interesting or thought-provoking. People disinclined to believe it tended not to believe it. And that was the case for Salma al-Shehab.

She told judges she had no idea that simply retweeting posts “out of curiosity and to observe others’ viewpoints,” from a personal account with no more than 2,000 followers, constituted terrorism.

Terrorism? Maybe not in Leeds, where al-Shehab was a graduate student, but she was in Saudi Arabia, where the mother of two and researcher at Leeds University in London went for a family vacation.

Judges accused al-Shehab of “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” — claims stemming solely from her social media activity, according to an official charge sheet. They alleged al-Shehab followed and retweeted dissident accounts on Twitter and “transmitted false rumors.”

After al-Shehab’s conviction, she was initially sentenced to six years in prison. When she appealed her sentence, prosecutors argued that it was too lenient, and the appellate court agreed.

A special court for terrorism and national security crimes handed down the unusually harsh 34-year sentence, to be followed by a 34-year travel ban. The decision came earlier this month as al-Shehab appealed her initial sentence of six years.

“The (six-year) prison sentence imposed on the defendant was minor in view of her crimes,” a state prosecutor told the appeals court. “I’m calling to amend the sentence in light of her support for those who are trying to cause disorder and destabilize society, as shown by her following and retweeting (Twitter) accounts.”

There are quite a few things wrapped in this case which may well range from outrageous to shocking, as none of this comports with our understanding of rights, crimes, due process or proportionality.  And that’s very much the point. While some dance in the street in celebration of other people’s culture, this is other people’s culture, Saudi Edition. You can’t merely pick and choose the bits and pieces you like, that serve your interest, and ignore the rest that comes with it.

While the rights of a grad student in Leeds on social media may seem remarkably pedestrian to most of us, at least for the moment as the competition for criminalizing social media heats up on the right and left in their zeal to appropriate Saudi culture, al-Shehab wasn’t a grad student in Leeds when she crossed the border into Saudi Arabia to see her family, but a person within its sovereign jurisdiction subject to its laws, no matter how unfair, harsh or contrary they were to what were considered basic rights in nations like United Kingdom or the United States.

But the same twitter that we see on our screen here can be seen on screens around the world, including in Saudi Arabia. And while we might argue over whether it’s cool, hip or edgy, they can argue over whether it’s terrorism.

“Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized, it should never be criminalized,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

No doubt that statement strongly influenced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who didn’t seem to have much of an issue with the dismemberment of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which didn’t even cost him a fist bump with Biden. Free speech is a huge issue, for women (and everyone else) and shouldn’t be criminalized (unless you’re a law prof named Maryanne Franks) and protected by the First Amendment. Except that’s the American First Amendment, and not the British or Saudi or any other nation’s First Amendment. Some nations have similar laws and protections, but because we’re the center of the universe, we forget that they’re not us (and we’re not them).

Activists and lawyers consider the sentence against Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and a researcher at Leeds University in Britain, shocking even by Saudi standards of justice.

Having no familiarity with Saudi standards of justice, I lack any qualification to have an opinion on this issue, even as the idea of a 34 year sentenced for twitting things bin Salman doesn’t like seems absurd. But then, the Saudi judges don’t really care what “activists and lawyers consider” about the sentence, or what Leeds University or our state department spokesmanperson has to say. That’s the thing about being a sovereign nation. We do it. The Russians do it. The UK does it and the Saudis do it too.

Perhaps the “answer” for Salma al-Shehab, having gotten out of Saudi Arabia and made it to graduate school at Leeds University where she could twit “rumors” and retwit dissidents as much as she liked, never should have crossed the border into a jurisdiction where they were neither as fair nor as kind as they were in London, whether to women, to Shiite Muslims or to anyone who spoke ill of the regime.

While some are so busy adoring other cultures, it slips their mind that those cultures come with the occasional issue that puts a woman in prison for 34 years because, while in a country where it was entirely permissible, she twitted some things that “disturbed public order” and “destabilized the social fabric.” Wait, you don’t think that’s true? But this is Saudi Arabia and you don’t get a vote, anymore than they get a vote here.

As for al-Shehab’s defense that she didn’t realize her retwits “out of curiosity and to observe others’ viewpoints” would constitute terrorism, it’s unclear that any defense would have save her. While our culture might value a legitimate defense, does the Saudi?



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