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Salma al-Shehab: British academics urge Liz Truss to free Leeds student languishing in Saudi prison

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 29/09/2022 Barney Davis
saudiaarabia.jpg © AP saudiaarabia.jpg

Hundreds of British academics have written an open letter urging Lizz Truss to intervene after a Leeds Unviersity student was jailed for 34 years in Saudi Arabia.

Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and Dental PHD student at Leeds University, was detained after visiting her family last year.

She was initially jailed for three years after being accused of using Twitter to “cause public unrest” and “destabilise national security”. That sentence was then increased to 34 years which includes a 34-year travel ban.

A total of 400 lecturers and research students from British universities have now signed an open letter calling on Liz Truss and foreign secretary, James Cleverly, to act to set the PhD student free.

“Salma should be looking forward, like us, to the new academic year, instead of languishing behind bars for the ‘crime’ of tweeting her legitimate opinions,” it read.

This included tweets “in favour of women’s rights and basic freedoms” in Saudi Arabia, as well as in support of fellow Saudi women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who has also spent time behind bars in the country.

The letter added: “[Her sentence] shows that the Saudi leadership should continue to be held at arm’s length until the authorities demonstrate genuine commitment to human rights”.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Been has already called on Ms Truss to help free Ms al-Shehab following the “shocking sentence”.

The MP wrote: “Ms al Shehab has two young sons and a husband, and I am sure you will agree with me that this is an absolutely shocking sentence which is completely at odds with Saudi Arabia’s claims to be improving human rights, in particular for women.”

In a statement, Leeds University said: “We are deeply concerned to learn of the recent development in Salma’s case and are seeking advice on whether there is anything we can do to support her.

“Our thoughts remain with Salma, her family, and her friends among our close-knit community of postgraduate researchers.”

It is understood that ministers and senior civil servants have repeatedly raised the issue over the detention of female rights defenders to the Saudi Arabian government.

A government spokesperson said: “UK ministers and senior officials have raised concerns about the case with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so.”

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