Initially, the 34-year-old, a mother of two kids, was awarded a three-year jail term by the country's special terrorist court which accused Shehab of using "an internet website to cause public unrest and destabilise civil, and national security", reported The Guardian.
Subsequently, an appeals court increased her jail term to 34 years. Shehab is also required to observe a 34-year travel ban following her time in jail, as per the court order.
The sentencing by the Saudi court is reportedly the longest punishment that has ever been accorded to a Saudi women's rights defender.
As per The Guardian, the court alleged that Shehab was "assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts, and by retweeting their tweets."
In January 2021, Shehab was detained while on vacation in Saudi Arabia, days before she had planned to return to her residence in the United Kingdom, where she was a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds.
Human Rights Organisations Condemn Sentencing, Call For Shehab's Release
A number of human rights organisations have condemned the sentencing of the court.
In a statement, The Freedom Initiative said that Shehab comes from the Shia Muslim minority, who have long faced discrimination in Saudi Arabia. "The court's ruling has cited her social media account, where she was supportive of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, and called for her freedom," it said.
The Human Rights organisation further said, "Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women’s rights and creating legal reform, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse. It is unfortunately no surprise that MbS feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious rights violations."
"Without any real steps toward accountability, Biden’s trip to Jeddah and the international community’s embrace must feel like a green light The Saudi authorities must release Salma and ensure that her young boys do not grow up without a mother simply because she called for freedom for human rights activists," it added.
Calling the sentencing "unprecedented and dangerous," the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said it is the longest prison sentence issued against female or male activists and might be a step towards further escalation against them. In recent years, many women activists have been subjected to unfair trials that have led to arbitrary sentences, in addition to some of them being subjected to severe torture, including sexual harassment.
The organisation noted that the Saudi government in recent years has arrested at least 116 women, 60 of whom are still detained.
"This appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities' claims of reform for women and of the legal system, and shows that they remain hellbent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely. Saudi activists warned Western leaders that giving legitimacy to the crown prince would pave the way for more abuses, which is unfortunately what we are witnessing now," Saudi based NGO, ALQST for Human Rights noted.
(With inputs from The Guardian.)