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Saudi Arabia releases US citizen Almadi jailed over tweets

Saad Ibrahim Almadi was released after 16 months in prison but remains in Riyadh under a travel ban, according to his son.
An undated image of Saad Ibrahim Almadi.

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia has released a 72-year-old US citizen imprisoned for more than a year over tweets critical of the Saudi government, his son told Al-Monitor early Tuesday.

Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a retired project manager from Florida who also holds Saudi citizenship, faced 19 years behind bars for tweets he wrote while in the United States. His son, Ibrahim Almadi, said Tuesday that all charges against his father were dropped, but that he remains in Riyadh with family under a travel ban imposed as part of his original sentence.

The younger Almadi met with State Department officials in Washington last week, and said he has been given no indication that the travel ban will be lifted.

“I was hoping he would be released, and in a few hours jump into a plane like they promised,” Almadi said in a phone interview. “But they told me it's now a different fight.”

Almadi was arrested in November 2021 at Riyadh's King Khalid Airport when he arrived for a two-week visit with family living in Saudi Arabia. After nearly a year in detention, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Almadi in October to 16 years in prison over Twitter activity that Saudi prosecutors said constituted terrorism. 

The tweets, some of which date back seven years, referred to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other contentious topics in the kingdom. 

Almadi has diabetes and high blood pressure, and he lost more than 80 pounds during his detention in Al Ha’ir prison, according to his son. Last month, an appeals court increased his sentence to 19 years. 

State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Tuesday that the United States was aware of Almadi’s reported release and welcomed the news. A spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.

Rights groups say Saudi Arabia has only intensified its crackdown on dissent since US President Joe Biden’s controversial meeting in July 2022 with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based group that advocates for political prisoners, at least six US persons are currently detained or trapped under politically motivated travel bans in the kingdom. 

Physician Walid Fitaihi, epidemiologist and writer Bader al-Ibrahim, and journalist Salah al-Haidar are among the Americans barred from leaving Saudi Arabia. Carly Morris, a California native who criticized Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws on Twitter, told Al-Monitor she was placed under a 10-year travel ban last month. 

Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director at the Freedom Initiative, described Almadi’s release as the result of tireless campaigning by his son and international pressure.  

“There are far too many people in Saudi detention who don’t have the benefit of US citizenship to draw attention to their cases,” Alaoudh said in a statement. “Almadi’s release shows that strategic pressure works, and US officials should continue to press for release of prisoners and lifting of travel bans.”

His release comes less than a week after Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a privileged resolution that would require the State Department to produce a report on Riyadh’s domestic human rights practices as well as its involvement in Yemen’s civil war. If the resolution passes the Senate, the department would be required to submit a report within 30 days or Saudi Arabia’s security assistance would come to a halt.

In its annual human rights report released Monday, the State Department outlined serious human rights abuses in the kingdom, including the detention of individuals for peaceful activism, government criticism and political opposition. The Saudi government claims it holds no political prisoners, but monitoring groups estimate there are hundreds or more.

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