A Saudi woman recently sentenced to 45 years in prison has been found guilty of using the internet and social media accounts to “spread lies through tweets”, among other alleged crimes, according to a recently obtained Saudi court document.
Noura al-Qahtani, whose case first emerged last week, is a mother of five daughters, one of whom is disabled, is nearly 50 years old and has health problems, according to court records.
The document, which outlines Qahtani’s sentencing by a special criminal court, was shared with the Guardian by Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf director at Dawn, a Washington-based pro-democracy group founded by murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Court records reveal – for the second time in weeks – a draconian sentence against a seemingly ordinary woman who took to social media to voice support for dissidents but was not personally engaged in political activity. This contradicts the public image that the Saudi government and its supporters have sought to portray of women enjoying greater personal freedom under the rule of de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman.
Last month, a Saudi appeals court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds and mother of two, to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists. Shehab was arrested and convicted after returning to Saudi Arabia for a vacation. The sentencing was widely condemned, and the US State Department said it had several discussions with its Saudi counterparts to discuss the case.
In Qahtani’s case, the court document says she used two anonymized Twitter accounts. One of the accounts @Najma097, appears to have been last active on July 4, 2021 and follows 293 Twitter accounts. Some tweets seem to criticize Prince Mohammed and support the rights of political detainees.
Qahtani was found guilty on several counts, including seeking to “smear” the Crown Prince and King Salman; that it “encouraged participation in activities that undermine the security and stability of society and the State”; that she expressed her “support” for the ideology of those who want to “destabilize” the kingdom; for joining a group dedicated to these causes on Twitter and following them on YouTube. She was also found guilty of “insulting” state symbols and officials, demanding the release of detainees, and obstructing the investigation into her use of social media by “destroying and hiding cell phone use in crime”.
She was also found guilty of being in possession of a banned book, written by Salman Alaoudh, a well-known religious reformer – and father of Dawn’s Abdullah Alaoudh – who himself is serving a life sentence in a Saudi prison. . Salman Alaoudh has been in prison since 2017 after he called for peace on Twitter following the establishment of a Saudi blockade against Qatar.
The book Qahtani allegedly owned was not one of Alaoudh’s political books. It has been described by Abdullah – who is based in the US – as a book about self-improvement and overcoming selfishness within.
“It’s a very apolitical book,” Abdullah Alaoudh said.
The court document also refers to a technical analysis carried out by state officials, but it contains no information on how Saudi authorities identified the Twitter account as being – allegedly – used by Qahtani.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The US social media company was infiltrated by Saudi state officials in 2014 and 2015. US prosecutors described how the infiltration by the officials, who were employed by Twitter but were secretly paid by senior government officials Saudi Arabia, led Saudi authorities to access information about anonymous dissidents using Twitter inside the kingdom.
The company allowed Bader al-Asaker, a senior aide to Prince Mohammed who has been described by US prosecutors as the mastermind behind the Saudi infiltration, to keep his Twitter account verified.
The court document says Qahtani was first sentenced to 13 years in prison for her “crimes”. The sentence was lengthened to 45 years after a prosecutor complained on appeal that the original sentence was too lenient.
The court document shows that Qahtani presented a defense in court, including that she was not a terrorist or planning a terrorist attack or being part of a terrorist organization. She also said she was nearly 50, had no priors, and regretted her tweets.
The appeals court, according to the document, not only increased his sentence to 45 years, but imposed a 45-year travel ban upon his release from prison, around the age of 100. Her disabled daughter is 10 years old and suffers from a genetic condition that causes developmental disabilities.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment. According to the date on the court document, the new sentence was handed down on August 9, 2022.
Revealed: Imprisoned Saudi woman found guilty of ‘spreading lies through tweets’