There are calls from a former international development secretary for Liz Truss to intervene after a student at Leeds University was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for 34 years for using Twitter.

Human rights activist Salma al Shehab was given the sentence for following activists and dissidents on Twitter.

Ms al Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi national and mother-of-two, had been studying for a PhD at the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds.

Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and former international development secretary under Tony Blair, sent a letter to the current foreign secretary asking for assistance.

He wrote to Ms Truss: “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.

“I would be very grateful if you could make representations to the Saudi authorities on behalf of Ms al Shehab so that she can be freed to return to her family and to her studies at the University of Leeds.”

Ms al Shehab was originally arrested in January 2021 while on holiday.

She was initially sentenced to three years in prison for using the internet to “cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security” – but was given the new sentence on 15 August after an appeals court was asked to consider other alleged crimes.

A spokesperson for the University of Leeds 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.”

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June: Truss refuses to criticize Saudi Arabia

It is understood that ministers and senior officials have repeatedly raised concerns about the detention of women’s rights defenders with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so.

Speaking earlier this year before the leadership race started, Ms Truss declined to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and said the country is an “important partner of the United Kingdom.”

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