Letter to UK Foreign Secretary on Salma al-Shehab

CIVICUS and other civil society organisations call on Rt Hon James Cleverly to address the treatment of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have been imprisoned for expressing themselves.


Rt. Hon. James Cleverly MP

Foreign Secretary

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

King Charles Street

London

SW1A 2AH

United Kingdom

Dear Foreign Secretary,

On behalf of the below signed organisations, we would like to congratulate your appointment as Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. At a time of significant global uncertainty and unrest, the UK can and must play a leading role in promoting human rights globally. While we appreciate the wide and diverse range of issues facing you and your department, we are contacting you today to draw your attention to the treatment of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have been imprisoned for expressing themselves.

The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2008 to try those suspected of acts of terrorism, has instead administered disproportionate sentences, including the death sentence, to people solely for expressing themselves online. Cloaked in the language of cybercrime, this has effectively criminalised free expression and has also been brought to bear against individuals outside of Saudi Arabia. 

You will have heard about the shameful case of Saudi national Salma al-Shehab, who was a student at the University of Leeds at the time of her alleged ‘crimes’ – sharing content in support of prisoners of conscience and women human right defenders, such as Loujain Alhathloul. For this, upon Salma al-Shehab’s return to Saudi Arabia, she was arrested and held arbitrarily for nearly a year, before being sentenced to 34 years in prison with a subsequent 34-year travel ban. The fact that the sentence is four years longer than the maximum sentence suggested by the country’s anti-terror laws for activities such as supplying explosives or hijacking an aircraft demonstrates the egregious and dangerous standard established both by the SCC and the Saudi regime to restrict free expression. It also further illustrates the Saudi government’s abusive system of surveillance and infiltration of social media platforms to silence public dissent.

But the actions aimed at Salma al-Shehab did not happen in isolation. In fact, her sentencing is the latest in a longstanding trend that has seen the Saudi judiciary and the state at-large being co-opted to target civil society and fundamental human rights. The same day that al-Shehab was sentenced, the SCC sentenced another woman, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, to 45 years in prison after using social media to peacefully express her views. Ten Egyptian Nubians were sentenced to up to 18 years in prison after they were arrested and detained – for two months they were held incommunicado and without access to their lawyers or family – after organising a symposium commemorating the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Dr Lina al-Sharif was arbitrarily detained for over a year following her social media activism after a group of agents of the Presidency of State Security raided her family home and arrested her without a warrant. A worrying dimension is the use of violence and torture to coerce confessions, as well as ongoing persecution or surveillance following a prisoner’s release, further eroding the legitimacy of the SCC and its verdicts. 

The UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia should not bind your hands to upholding human rights commitments and calling out violations when they are brought to your attention, particularly, in the case of al-Shehab, where they relate to the application of Saudi legislation for actions that took place within the territory of the United Kingdom. In fact, this relationship places you in a strong position to call for the release of all prisoners unlawfully held in Saudi Arabia without delay. 

Acting definitively so early in your tenure would be a powerful symbol both to our allies and others that the UK can be a trusted protector of human rights and the rule of law. 

We await your action on this important issue and further support the calls to action outlined by over 400 academics, staff and research students from UK universities and colleges in a letter authored to you and the Prime Minister. 

If you require any more information we would be happy to organise a briefing at a time that works best for you. 

  1. Index on Censorship
  2. ALQST For Human Rights
  3. SANAD Organisation for Human Rights
  4. CIVICUS 
  5. Electronic Frontier Foundation
  6. Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
  7. SMEX 
  8. Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
  9. Access Now
  10. Human Rights Watch
  11. PEN International
  12. English PEN
  13. Front Line Defenders
  14. IFEX

 * Photograph: Democracy Now