a camera view of inside a jail cell, with a twitter bird logo being shown through the bars

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Saudi government gives journalist 15-year prison sentence for tweeting

The Twitter accounts were anonymous.

 

Claire Goforth

Tech

Published Dec 21, 2021   Updated Dec 21, 2021, 11:47 am CST

A journalist has been handed a lengthy sentence for allegedly tweeting from two anonymous Twitter accounts.

According to Human Rights Watch, a court in Saudi Arabia found that Ali Abu Luhum’s tweets promoted “apostasy, unbelief, and atheism.”

Abu Luhum, 38, is Yemeni and lives in Saudi Arabia. He was executive director at Alwadi TV channel and a presenter on Yemen Times radio. Per Human Rights Watch, his employer called him into the office for a meeting in August.

He never returned. His family later learned he’d been arrested and charged with numerous crimes associated with blasphemy and apostasy. The Saudi government alleges that the two Twitter accounts were registered to his phone number. It says he used these accounts to mock god, Islam, and Muhammad. It’s not clear what he is accused of tweeting specifically.

Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.

Sources told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors coerced Abu Luhum into signing a confession by threatening to also arrest his wife.

The court reportedly declined to sentence him to death after he retracted this confession in court. It sentenced him to 10 years under a law the gives judges discretion to assign penalties and an additional five years for cybercrimes.

The court ordered the Twitter accounts shut down. It’s not known to whom the order applied—Abu Luhum or Twitter. According to Reporters Without Borders, one of the accounts was @humanhmmb. It’s now suspended. The other alleged account’s handle is unknown.

Twitter’s policies state that it may comply with such requests in totality or it may withhold access to content deemed illegal in the jurisdiction where the law or ruling applies. Under the policy, the platform informs users of the requested action and gives them an opportunity to object unless it’s prohibited to do so.

“For example, if we receive a legal request that has been sealed by a judge, we are not permitted to communicate about the request until the confidentiality obligation expires,” the policy explains.

Twitter declined to comment on the Daily Dot’s inquiry Tuesday morning.

News of Abu Luhum’s imprisonment, which he has appealed, was met with horror and condemnation. Journalist Sam Kestenbaum tweeted that he worked with Abu Luhum at Yemen Times and said he is “kind and talented.”

Reporters Without Borders is calling for Abu Luhum’s immediate release. It ranks Saudi Arabia 170th out of 180 countries for press freedom. Abu Luhum is one of several journalists imprisoned in the country.

The organization reports that Sabrina Bennoui, who heads its Middle East desk, said, “His arrest and conviction show that use of the internet and social media by journalists and bloggers as a space for debate and for exchanging information is still subject to draconian surveillance in Saudi Arabia.”

The Daily Dot was unable to reach the Saudi government for comment. Reuters reports that the case hasn’t been mentioned by media in the country.

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*First Published: Dec 21, 2021, 11:37 am CST