The United States’ Department of State has said it is concerned about reports on the sentencing of a Saudi aid worker by a “counterterrorism” court and is watching the case closely.
The aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who was detained by Saudi authorities in March 2018, was reportedly sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban, according to a statement from State Department spokesman Ned Price. His arrest is believed to be connected to an anonymous Twitter account he ran that satirised the Saudi government.
“We will continue to monitor this case closely throughout any appeals process. As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” Price said in a statement on Monday.
The Saudi government media did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
We are concerned by reports that Saudi aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was given a 20-year prison sentence and travel ban, pending appeal, after being held with limited contact with family for three years. Exercising human rights should never be a punishable offense.
— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) April 6, 2021
The administration of US President Joe Biden has said it will take a tougher stance on Riyadh’s human rights record, a pivot from the approach of former President Donald Trump, who maintained close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and took a permissive approach to the kingdom.
In February, the US released an intelligence report that directly linked the crown prince to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, although Washington was criticised by rights observers for not taking direct action against MBS. The crown prince has denied involvement.
Now that we're only selling him "offensive" weapons he promises to be a very good prince and only persecute Saudis inside Saudi Arabia. https://t.co/8BwYKI3VND
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) April 5, 2021
The Biden administration has urged Riyadh to release political prisoners, which Saudi authorities deny exist.
Last month, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released after nearly three years in prison, having served half of her custodial sentence.
Two Saudi activists with US citizenship have also been freed on bail pending trials on charges related to “terrorism”.
The releases were seen as an attempt to smooth friction following the Khashoggi report.
The US, which exports about 80 percent of Riyadh’s arms, has also said it would end support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen and relevant arm sales to the country, but has so far offered little clarity on concrete actions taken.
‘Brutal and unjust’
Al-Sadhan was arrested on March 12, 2018, from the Red Crescent Society offices in the capital Riyadh, where he worked.
His sister Areej, a US citizen who has been advocating for his release, has said he was detained without a warrant or charges against him. Rights group say he was seized after his anonymous Twitter account was breached.
“No words can describe how I feel! This BRUTAL & UNJUST ruling is just a reminder of the horrible situation the Saudi ppl are in,” Areej al-Sadhan tweeted after the court session on Monday.
The arrest came as part of a larger attempt by the crown prince to crush dissent in the kingdom as he simultaneously pushed social and economic reforms that sought to shore up Western support and modernise the kingdom.
The crackdowns have seen Saudi authorities detain senior royals, activists, intellectuals and clerics.