Saudi Arabia sentences U.S. citizen to 16 years in prison over tweets, family says

An American citizen has been arrested in Saudi Arabia, tortured and sentenced to 16 years in prison over tweets he sent while in the United States, his son said Tuesday.

U.S. State Department confirms Saad Ibrahim Almadi's detention, says it has raised 'concerns'

Saad Ibrahim Almadi sits in a restaurant in the U.S. in August 2021. Almadi, 72, who is a citizen of both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., was arrested in Saudi Arabia last November and was recently sentenced to 16 years in prison over tweets critical of the Saudi government, his son says. (Ibrahim Almadi/The Associated Press)

A U.S. citizen has been arrested in Saudi Arabia, tortured and sentenced to 16 years in prison over tweets he sent while in the United States, his son said Tuesday.

Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a 72-year-old retired project manager living in Florida, was arrested last November while visiting family in the kingdom and was sentenced earlier this month, his son Ibrahim Almadi told The Associated Press, confirming details that were first reported by the Washington Post. Almadi is a citizen of both Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials.

Speaking at a press briefing, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel confirmed Almadi's detention and said Washington first raised its concerns with Riyadh in December 2021, as soon as it was made aware of the arrest.

"We have consistently and intensively raised our concerns regarding the case at senior levels of the Saudi government ... and we will continue to do so. We have raised this with members of the Saudi government as recently as yesterday," Patel said.

He did not say what Almadi was charged with but said: "Exercising the freedom of expression should never be criminalized."

14 'mild tweets' over 7 years: son

It appeared to be the latest in a series of recent cases in which Saudis received long jail sentences for social media posts critical of the government.

Saudi authorities have tightened their crackdown on dissent following the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to open up and transform the ultraconservative kingdom but has adopted a hard line towards any criticism.

A Saudi court recently sentenced a woman, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, to 45 years in prison for allegedly damaging the country through her social media activity. A Saudi doctoral student at Leeds University in England, Salma al-Shehab, was sentenced to 34 years for spreading "rumours" and retweeting dissidents, a case that drew international outrage.

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Ibrahim says his father was detained over 14 "mild tweets" sent over the past seven years, mostly criticizing government policies and alleged corruption.

He says his father was not an activist but a private citizen expressing his opinion while in the U.S., where freedom of speech is a constitutional right.

Biden's visit marked turnaround

U.S. President Joe Biden travelled to the oil-rich kingdom in July for a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in which he said he confronted him about human rights.

Their meeting — and a widely criticized fist-bump — marked a sharp turnaround from Biden's earlier vow to make the kingdom a "pariah" over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets U.S. President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/The Associated Press)

Ibrahim said that on Oct. 3, his father was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges of supporting terrorism. The father was also charged with failing to report terrorism, over tweets that Ibrahim had posted.

He said his father was also slapped with a 16-year travel ban. If the sentence is carried out, the 72-year-old would be 87 upon his release and barred from returning home to the U.S. unless he reaches the age of 104.

Ibrahim said Saudi authorities warned his family to stay quiet about the case and to not involve the U.S. government. He said his father was tortured after the family contacted the State Department in March.

Ibrahim also accused the State Department of neglecting his father's case by not declaring him a "wrongfully detained" American, which would elevate his file.

"They manipulated me. They told me to stay quiet so they can get him out," Ibrahim said, explaining his decision to go public this week. "I am not willing to take a gamble on the Department of State anymore."

With files from Reuters