Opinion | Saudi Arabia sentences U.S. citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi to 16 years in prison for tweets

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The Saudi government has sentenced a 72-year-old US citizen to 16 years in prison for posting tweets in the United States, some of which were critical of the Saudi regime. His son, speaking publicly for the first time, claims the Saudi government tortured his father in prison and says the State Department mishandled the case.

Many dictatorships unjustly imprison Americans. But while the Biden administration has made significant efforts to secure the release of high-profile Americans from Russia, Venezuela and Iran, it has been less public and less successful in securing the release of US citizens held in Saudi Arabia. In fact, although Saudi Arabia is said to be a US ally, the Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is tougher than ever on its US citizens’ critics. The most recent and most egregious example concerns Saudi-American Saad Ibrahim Almadi.

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Almadi is not a dissident or an activist; He’s just a project manager from Florida who chose to exercise his right to free speech in the United States. But when he traveled to Riyadh to visit his family last November, he was arrested for 14 tweets posted on his account over the past seven years. One of the tweets cited referred to Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Other tweets criticized the Saudi government’s policies and corruption in the Saudi system.

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“He had what I would call a mild opinion of the government,” his son Ibrahim told me. “They picked him up from the airport.”

Almadi has been accused of harboring a terrorist ideology, trying to destabilize the kingdom, and supporting and financing terrorism. He was also accused of failing to report terrorism, a charge related to tweets Ibrahim sent on a separate account.

On October 3, Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He was also given a 16-year travel ban. If he serves his entire sentence, he will leave prison at the age of 87 – and would have to live to be 104 before he could return to the United States.

“I feel empty inside. I feel dead inside. I feel betrayed,” Ibrahim said. “He’s not just my father, he’s my best friend. He is everything for me.”

Since the arrest, Ibrahim had been working behind the scenes to urge the US government to help get his father released. But now, frustrated and desperate, he wants the American public to know his father’s story. Almadi was tortured in prison, forced to live in squalor and sit with real-life terrorists – while his family was threatened by the Saudi government that they would lose everything if they did not remain silent, Ibrahim said.

The State Department told Ibrahim not to speak publicly about the case, but he no longer believes silence will keep his father free. And he says the state has treated his father’s case with neglect and incompetence.

No one from the US Embassy in Riyadh visited Almadi until May, six months after his arrest. At that meeting, Almadi refused to ask the US government to intervene. Ibrahim said Saudi prison guards are threatening to torture prisoners who involve foreign governments in their cases. At a second consular meeting in August, Almadi asked for the Foreign Ministry’s support in his case. He was then tortured, Ibrahim said.

That same month, Ibrahim came to Washington to urge action on his father’s case. His main demand was for Almadi to be labeled as a “wrongfully detained” US citizen. This classification would elevate Almadi’s case in the eyes of the US government, moving the file from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), which has a greater range of tools to authorize the release ensure Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

Under US law, an American citizen can be “unjustly imprisoned” if they meet one of 11 specific criteria, at least six of which appear to apply to Almadi’s case. For example, Women’s National Basketball Association star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia in February on drug possession charges and three months later found himself “unlawfully detained.” Ibrahim was told for 11 months that his father’s case was under review. And when Almadi arrived for sentencing on October 3, no one from the US Embassy in Riyadh showed up.

“I have told the State Department that his hearing is scheduled for October 3 and that they should attend. After that, on the phone they said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry we forgot to tell the embassy,'” Ibrahim said. “I feel like they’re just careless.”

A senior State Department official confirmed that the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington did not notify the embassy when the hearing date was brought forward, although Ibrahim did notify them.

“Unfortunately, this information was not passed on [to the embassy]’ said the officer. “We deeply regret that.”

The Biden administration has raised Almadi’s case with the Saudi government at a high level, the official said. The State Department’s process to determine whether to call Almadi “unlawfully detained” is ongoing, the official said.

“We have consistently and regularly expressed to Saudi officials our grave concern about the charges against Mr. Almadi and other American citizens for exercising what should be fundamental freedoms,” the official told me. “Freedom of expression should never be criminalized.”

The State Department insists that each case be judged on its merits, regardless of geopolitical considerations. But prisoners, who get a lot of media coverage, seem to get a lot of attention from the White House. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has taken a calm approach, refusing to confront Riyadh on such cases, which has emboldened the Saudi regime, said Ali al-Ahmed, founder and director of the Gulf Affairs Institute.

“MBS acts as if it believes or knows that the Biden administration will not pressure them on American prisoners, let alone oil and other issues,” he said. “The Biden White House’s inaction on American hostages in Saudi jails resulted in the harshest punishment against an American abroad.”

The very least the State Department can do now is give Almadi the “wrongly detained” status, which he clearly deserves. Until then, officials’ claims that they are doing whatever they can will continue to ring hollow to Almadi’s family – and the Saudi government will continue to prosecute American citizens with impunity.

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