The court records reveal – for a second time in weeks – a draconian sentence against a seemingly ordinary woman who used social media to voice support for dissidents but was not personally engaged in political activity. It contradicts the public image the Saudi government and its supporters have sought to foster of women enjoying more personal freedom under the rule of the de facto Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman.
Last month, a Saudi appeals court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student 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 she had returned home to Saudi Arabia for a holiday. The sentence was widely condemned and the US state department said it had several discussions with Saudi counterparts to discuss the case.
In Qahtani’s case, the court document states that she used two anonymised Twitter accounts. One of the accounts, @Najma097, appears to have last been active on 4 July 2021 and follows 293 Twitter accounts. Some tweets appear to be critical of Prince Mohammed and support the rights of political detainees.
Qahtani was convicted of several charges, including that she sought to “besmirch” the crown prince and King Salman; that she “encouraged participation in activities that damage the security and stability of society and the state”; that she expressed “support” for the ideology of those who wish to “destabilise” the kingdom; for joining a group dedicated to these causes on Twitter and following them on YouTube. She was also convicted of “insulting” state symbols and officials, seeking the release of detainees, and obstructing the investigation into her social media use by “destroying and hiding the mobile phone use in the crime”.
She was also convicted of being in possession of a banned book, which was written by Salman Alaoudh, a well-known reformist cleric – and father of Abdullah Alaoudh of Dawn – who is himself 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 implementation of a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar.
The book Qahtani is alleged to have possessed was not one of Alaoudh’s political books. It was described by Abdullah – who is based in the US – as a book about self improvement and fighting selfishness within one’s self.
“It is a very apolitical book,” Abdullah Alaoudh said.