A court in Saudi Arabia upheld a 20-year prison term imposed on a Saudi aid worker who had criticized the government on Twitter, drawing a rare public rebuke from the US in another sign of tension between the Biden administration and the kingdom.
The ruling, confirmed late Wednesday, also upheld a 20-year travel ban on Abdulrahman al-Sadhan after his release. The case against him may have 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. The men allegedly accessed the user data of over 6,000 Twitter accounts, including nearly three dozen usernames the kingdom had wanted disclosed.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan's family has said his identity appears to have been among those leaked to Saudi authorities as the person behind an anonymous Arabic Twitter account that had amassed a large following and was critical of the government. His case is the latest example of the continued crackdown against those who criticize the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It also shows the lengths to which the authorities have gone to silence them.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan's case stands out because of the severity of the sentence and its possible links with an FBI investigation and federal case in California against the two men accused of spying on behalf of the kingdom while working at Twitter with an alleged third accomplice. The Saudi appellate judges handed down their ruling Tuesday. Saudi authorities have not commented on the legal proceedings, including the most recent ruling. The court did not make the decision public.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan's sister Areej al-Sadhan, a dual Saudi-US citizen, talked to The World's host Marco Werman about the situation.
Marco Werman: Areej al-Sadhan, what exactly was a crime Saudi authorities charged your brother with?
Areej al-Sadhan: Basically for expressing his opinions on Twitter. It was a list of vague charges that don't make any sense, and it's all basically under the umbrella of what the Saudi call "fighting terrorism." And if you look closely at what the Saudi government considers terrorism: it's criticizing the Saudi rulers will be considered terrorism.
And you were saying the two of you have been out of touch for the entire time he's been in prison thus far?
For me, here in the States, even for my mom, who is also an American, we couldn't get to speak to him or see him at all. He's completely barred from any calls or visits. And even during the hearings, he was limited from contacting his lawyer.
Abdulrahman's sentence of 20 years has now been augmented with a 20-year travel ban, which means your brother will be well into his 70s before he can leave the kingdom. How are you and your family taking this news?
It's just crazy. It's inhumane. Unbelievable. Why would they do that for criticism, for tweets, you know, over tweets? It's just crazy. And of course, we're very upset. It's very painful. My mom has been suffering a lot as a result of this. She hasn't spoken to her son, and my brother was very close to my mom. He always checks on her. He's very loving and caring to all of us, but especially to our mother. This is very hard to be deprived from, you know, speaking to her son or seeing him. And on top of that, hearing all the details of torture and forced disappearance and mistreatment, it is just terrible and nobody should accept that.
The US State Department says it is concerned about the mistreatment your brother was subjected to and that his fair trial guarantees were not respected. How has your family been dealing with the lack of transparency in Abdulrahman's case? How do you get accurate information?
Luckily, there are different witnesses from the earliest of days, like when Khashoggi got assassinated in the Saudi consulate — Jamal Khashoggi. During that time, there was a lot of fear going on. There was a lot of news getting leaked of prisoners being tortured and being mistreated. During that time, my brother was disappeared for six months already, and the news I was receiving that my brother was being brutally tortured, that he might die from torture. And their brutality had reached to the point that they broke his hand and smashed his fingers, saying, "This is the hand you tweet with," or "This is the hand you write with."
How did you find out about his injuries?
There are several witnesses, and also it's confirmed by several human rights organizations that he was really abused in prison, and he was brutally tortured.
So you yourself took to Twitter, the same platform your brother used, to express your outrage about the whole situation. What was the response there?
Oh, I get threats all the time. I get threats of murder. I get threats of retaliation. As we're speaking right now, I've been receiving a lot of attacks and threats from Saudi-backed Twitter accounts, and some of them are, clearly, they are linked to the government.
You've been getting these as we've been speaking just now.
What about the possibility of your traveling to Saudi Arabia to see your brother in prison? I mean, is that even on your mind?
Unfortunately, I cannot travel to Saudi Arabia while MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) is actually in power. You can all imagine what would happen to me. They are already calling me a terrorist. They are calling me a traitor. They're calling me a spy and all sorts of crazy stuff. Just because I'm speaking up against the abuses to my brother and to many others in Saudi Arabia.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.