(NEW YORK)–PEN America today condemned the sentencing of Salma Al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University in the U.K., who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity.

“The grotesque sentencing of  Salma Al-Shehab is yet another abhorrent restriction of free expression in Saudi Arabia,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center at PEN America. “While Saudi Arabia claims that it is committed to human rights and to  improving women’s rights, convictions like these show that free speech and human rights generally remain under serious threat in the country. We urge for the Saudi authorities to immediately release Al-Shehab and all who are jailed for exercising their right to free expression.”

Al-Shehab was first detained in January 2021 while visiting home in Saudi Arabia; she was living in the United Kingdom as a student at Leeds University. Al-Shehab was initially sentenced to six years in prison for reposting tweets critical of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. On August 9, 2022, an appeals court increased her sentence to 34 years in prison—the longest known sentence against a women’s rights defender in the country..

Al-Shehab’s sentencing appears to be  another example of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown against online speech and activists using Twitter. On her Twitter feed, Shehab  expressed support for the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Awardee Loujain al-Hathloul, an influential Saudi feminist activist who was previously imprisoned,  tortured, and is now living under a travel ban. ​​PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index, published in April 2022, identifies Saudi Arabia as the world’s second worst jailer of writers, second only to China. Twenty-nine writers are in prison because of their work.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057