The Saudi woman who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for a tweet appears to have been denounced to Saudi authorities through a crime-reporting app that users in the kingdom can download to Apple and Android phones.

A review of Leeds PhD student Salma al-Shehab’s tweets and interactions shows she was messaged by a person using a Saudi account on 15 November, 2020 after she posted a mildly critical tweet in response to a Saudi government post about a new public transportation contract.

The user told Shehab that he had reported her on the Saudi app, which is called Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security. It is not clear whether the Saudi officials responded directly to the report, but the 34-year-old mother was arrested two months later.

Shehab’s case has been condemned by human rights groups and other pro-democracy outlets who said the draconian sentence against her was more evidence of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relentless crackdown on dissent.

A University of Leeds spokesperson on Wednesday said: “We are deeply concerned to learn of this recent development in Salma’s case and we 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.” Shehab’s research focused on improving dental treatment for patients with disabilities.

Shehab was still working on completing her PhD in the UK in December 2020 when she returned home to Saudi to visit her family. A few weeks into her visit, she was summoned to report to Saudi authorities who arrested and tried her for her use of Twitter.

Her alleged crimes including using a website to “cause public unrest” and “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and by retweeting their tweets.

Shehab had about 2,000 followers. An examination of her account’s activity shows that on 8 October 2019, Shehab responded to a tweet by a verified Saudi account that reports on developments in the kingdom’s infrastructure projects. When the account tweeted about the launch of a new network of buses, she tweeted the word “finally!”.

More than a year later, on 15 November 2020, a Saudi account with about 200 followers – which shows a man’s face and uses the name Faisal OTB – responded to her tweet with abuse. The user wrote that he had been intrigued by Shehab’s Twitter account because it displayed both the Saudi and Palestinian flags and denounced her for posting “rubbish”. The account user then said he had taken screenshots of some of Shehab’s Twitter activity and reported it on Kollona Amn – adding that he hoped she would be deported to Palestine.

Shehab’s response – which was posted shortly before she left the UK to return to Saudi – was defiant. She said in a short response that it would not be that bad to go to Palestine, where she could visit the Holy Mosque in Jerusalem and that he should do as he wished.

On official Saudi websites, Kollona Amn – which also has a Twitter account – is described as an app that allows citizens and expatriates to submit security and criminal reports related to personal life attacks, threats, impersonation, extortion, penetration of social media accounts, defamation, fraud and other criminal offences and security reports.

Noura Aljizawi, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which identifies digital threats against civil society, said the use of such applications – which can be downloaded via app stores for iPhone and Android users – represented a “new phase of digital authoritarianism”.

“It used to be that this kind of censorship was conducted by security intelligence forces, but now having these applications and encouraging citizens to report on each other, is opening the door to massive censorship,” she said.

“It is very concerning because people who post something cannot predict the risk or who is going to report them, and who is going to go back and search their feed for posts that don’t align with government propaganda,” Aljizawi said. Recalling her own experience in Syria, Aljizawi described the phenomenon of citizens being unable to trust their own neighbours.

“Sometimes people find themselves in trouble. They need a promotion or need to prove their loyalty to the state, so they do something like this. It’s enough to just take a screenshot and report it,” she said.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to questions by the Guardian about whether they would review allowing Kollona Amn to be downloaded in light of Shehab’s sentence.

Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, a US-based human rights group, said Saudi Arabia had used technology to violate human rights and track targets of the government for decades.

“Now we see Kollona Amn may be connected to the detention of a women’s rights defender. Technology has a wonderful power to transform and develop a society. However, in the hands of a dictatorship targeting human rights defenders, technology transforms into a terrifying tool which fast tracks repression, and the consequences are grave,” she said.

A friend of Shehab’s in the UK said they were worried that she had been targeted by the government because she was a PhD student.

The friend, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted themselves, said Shehab would regularly tweet to support the rights of others but believed it went unnoticed because she did not have many Twitter followers.

“She [would] always stand with all human rights in Saudi or outside of Saudi. She has a very kind personality and you cannot see her without a lovely smile on her face.”

The person said Shehab, who has been studying in the UK since 2017, was not especially critical of the government and was a supporter of Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and towards services such as health and tourism.

The person said: “She was happy with small steps towards women’s rights, like driving.”

The Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn said he was “shocked” to read about Shehab’s case and he would be raising the issue of her sentence with the government.

“She should be freed to return to her small children and husband, and to her studies in Leeds,” he said.

Source: The Guardian