DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A Saudi Arabian court upheld the 20-year prison sentence imposed on a Saudi aid worker who criticized the government on Twitter, drawing a rare public reprimand from the United States in another sign of tension between the Biden administration and the kingdom.
The decision, confirmed on Wednesday evening, also confirmed a 20-year travel ban on Abdulrahman al-Sadhan after his release.
The case against him may have its roots in an elaborate ploy that began in Silicon Valley and sparked a federal case against two Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia. Men reportedly accessed user data from over 6,000 Twitter accounts, including nearly three dozen usernames the kingdom had wanted to disclose.
Al-Sadhan’s family said his identity appeared to have been disclosed to Saudi authorities as the person behind an anonymous Arab Twitter account that had built up a large following and criticized the government.
His case is the latest example of the continued crackdown on those who criticize the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It also shows how far the authorities have gone to silence them.
Yet al-Sadhan’s case stands out for the severity of the sentence and its possible links to an FBI investigation and a federal case in California against the two men accused of spying on behalf of the kingdom while they were working on it. Twitter with an alleged third accomplice.
Saudi appeals judges released their decision on Tuesday. They confirmed al-Sadhan’s initial 20-year sentence, followed by an equally long travel ban, meaning the 37-year-old would not be truly free until he turns 70.
Saudi authorities have not commented on the court proceedings, including the most recent ruling. The court did not make the decision public.
Al-Sadhan’s sister Areej, who has dual Saudi and US citizenship living in California, confirmed the decision to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
She says her younger brother was not an activist, but that he was keenly aware of the economic challenges facing young Saudis and young Saudis as a result of his profession as an aid worker. She says her brother went missing in March 2018 after plainclothes security forces entered the Red Crescent office in Riyadh, where he worked. The family did not hear from him for almost two years, until February 2020.
During this time, al-Sadhan’s family learned that he was being held in a secret location and the victim of abuse: beatings, electrocution, sleep deprivation, verbal and sexual assault.
Al-Sadhan was initially sentenced in April this year by Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism court.
The US State Department, which does not often comment on individual cases of Saudi human rights activists, said in a statement Wednesday that it was disappointed that the original sentence had been upheld, saying that “the peaceful exercise of human rights universal should never be a punishable offense. “
“We have been following his case closely and are concerned about the allegations that Mr. al-Sadhan was subjected to ill-treatment, that he was unable to communicate with members of his family and that his guarantees for a trial fair were not met, “State Department spokesman Ned Price said. noted.
Price said the United States will continue to “enhance the role of human rights in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” He also said the United States would continue to “encourage legal reforms that advance respect for the human rights of all individuals.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said in a Twitter post that she was “saddened that the brutal conviction” has been upheld, “especially given the allegations of torture in custody.”
“Saudi Arabia’s attack on freedom of expression and human rights violations must be condemned by all freedom-loving people,” Pelosi said.
Relations between the kingdom and the Biden administration have been difficult, despite Saudi Arabia’s early efforts to free some prominent activists from prison and reestablish ties with Qatar ahead of President Joe Biden’s swearing-in.
Even so, one of Biden’s first orders as president was end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. He also ordered the declassification of a US intelligence report which implicated the Saudi crown prince in the murder of writer and critic Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Last month, the United States missile defenses fired of the kingdom even as it continues to face scattered drone and missile attacks from the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Also this week, activists said the double Saudi-American national Salah al-Haidar, resident of Virginia, was sentenced to serve time and barred from leaving the kingdom for two years. His mother is in sight women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, one of many who were arrested during a 2018 sweep and alleged they were mistreated and assaulted while in detention.
Activists close to the family told the AP he was convicted of showing sympathy for government critics who have been labeled terrorists, for joining a group on the Telegram messaging service that allegedly targeted to break national unity, by communicating with Saudi dissidents. who aim to destabilize the nation and who use social media to promote ideologies that threaten national unity. He denied the charges, insisting that all efforts were linked to attempts to release his mother when she was detained.