- A Saudi terror court sentenced aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison on Tuesday.
- His sister says it shows Biden’s plan to punish Saudi Arabia for rights abuses is having little effect.
- Saudi Arabia freed several activists in the face of US pressure, but continues to prosecute others.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced an aid worker to 20 years in prison for running a Twitter account that he used to mock Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known also as MBS – and his government.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was seized by Saudi secret police in March 2018 at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent, an aid agency where he worked in Riyadh. He was sentenced by a specialist Saudi terror court but the specific charges remain undisclosed.
He also faces a 20-year travel ban after imprisonment.
His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen who works in the Bay Area tech industry, told Insider that her brother’s sentencing is a clear sign that MBS is testing President Joe Biden’s promise to bring the Saudi leadership to heel over human-rights abuses.
In the two years leading up to his election, Biden talked tough on Saudi Arabia, promising in late 2019 to make the country’s leaders “the pariah they are” for silencing opposition and violating human rights.
But Areej al-Sadhan told Insider her brother’s sentence shows Saudi Arabia has no intention of letting the US dictate its internal affairs.
“Clearly the Saudis are testing President Biden’s commitment to the human rights first approach in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
“It just shows that the Saudi government are not serious about improving human rights at all.”
Insider contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Saudi Center for International Communication for comment.
Areej al-Sadhan went on to call on Biden and his administration to act.
“I ask President Biden to look at this seriously. We seriously need his help with human-rights activists, and to stand up for human rights as he promised. Just dismissing those abuses will lead to more abuses,” she told Insider.
‘They are feeling emboldened’
She added that Saudi Arabia is feeling untouchable because of the Biden administration’s failure to punish those responsible for the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident who often criticized the Saudi government.
The Biden administration in February released a US intelligence report that said that MBS approved the hit on Khashoggi, but did not include the crown prince on a list of 76 Saudi officials sanctioned over the murder.
“Without consequences to Khashoggi’s murder, they are feeling emboldened to commit more human-rights abuses,” she said.
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have yet to comment on al-Sadhan’s sentence, but, on Tuesday, the US State Department expressed concern.
“As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement slamming the kingdom’s treatment of al-Sadhan, saying: “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”
“Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable,” she added.
How al-Sadhan got caught
The exposure of al-Sadhan’s Twitter account is thought to be linked to a 2016 Twitter hack conducted by two Saudi spies employed by Twitter in San Francisco.
The hack saw Saudi authorities unmask scores of accounts that had been critical of the crown prince and Saudi state.
One dissident who had his account hacked, the Gulf analyst Ali al-Ahmed, previously told Insider the breach led to several of his contacts in Saudi Arabia being disappeared. He is suing Twitter for damages.
Areej al-Sadhan told Insider that her brother’s Twitter account was accessed by Saudi authorities, but that it’s unclear whether it was a result of the hack of al-Ahmed’s Twitter account.
Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to pressure Saudi Arabia into reigning in its human-rights abuses, and the move has come alongside some advancements.
In February, the US ended support for the Saudi-led Yemen war and Blinken called on his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, to remedy the kingdom’s poor human-rights record. The White House also made a petty dig at MBS, announcing that Biden’s counterpart in the kingdom was King Salman rather than the crown prince.
Several prominent rights activists were partially freed in 2021, most notably the women’s-right-to-drive activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
In February, Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released. They were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offenses.
They all remain under travel bans.
Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan was educated in the US, graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in California in 2013.