U.S. says raised concerns to Saudi Arabia over activist's sentencing

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, U.S. March 10, 2022. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON, Aug 22 (Reuters) - The United States has raised "significant concerns" with Saudi Arabia over a 34-year prison sentence imposed on women's rights activist Salma al-Shehab, the State Department said on Monday.

"We have raised our significant concerns with Saudi authorities," State Department spokesman Ned Price said of the sentence given to the Saudi woman for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter.

"We have made the point to them that freedom of expression is a universal human right to which all people are entitled," Price said, adding that it should "never be criminalized or punished."

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Saudi court earlier this month imposed on Shehab the 34-year jail term and a 34-year travel ban for her tweets, according to a Washington-based human rights group, The Freedom Initiative.

The prison sentence imposed on the mother of two and doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds in Britain is the longest given to a Saudi women's rights activist, the group said.

A member of the kingdom's Shiite Muslim minority, Shehab was detained in January 2021 while vacationing in Saudi Arabia, days before she was to return to Britain, the group said.

Tensions over oil-rich Saudi Arabia's human rights record have dogged its ties with the United States, including over women's rights and the 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

The U.S. intelligence community's assessment is that the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was behind the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post.

Riyadh denies the allegation.

U.S. President Joe Biden faced criticism for visiting Saudi Arabia in June. During the visit, he said he told the crown prince that he held him responsible for Khashoggi's murder. read more

Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis; Editing by Leslie Adler and Deepa Babington

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