(Washington, DC) – Saudi authorities should drop politicized charges against a Saudi-American medical doctor and former host of a popular wellness show, Human Rights Watch and The Freedom Initiative said today.
Dr. Walid Fitaihi, 55, is being tried on vague charges linked to his social media activity expressing outrage over the killing of peaceful protesters since the Arab Spring. A Saudi judge threw out the prosecutor’s allegations of “sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood” during the latest court hearing, on December 9, 2019.
The Saudi authorities should also drop arbitrary travel bans imposed since November 2017 on eight members of his family, all of whom are also United States citizens. The US administration has not spoken out publicly ono Fataihi's case beyond acknowledging his detention in March 2019 but has advocated privately for his release and for lifting the travel ban.
“The Saudi authorities should immediately drop the baseless and politically-motivated charges against Dr. Walid Fitaihi and allow him and his family members freedom of movement,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Trump administration, which has been unwilling to denounce Saudi rights abuses, should at least be willing to act on behalf of a US citizen unjustly prosecuted.”
Saudi authorities originally arrested Fitaihi in November 2017 and held him for 21 months without charge or trial. A family member said that he was initially detained in the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh for three months, then transferred to al-Ha’ir prison south of Riyadh. In late January 2019, the authorities transferred him to Dhahban prison, north of Jeddah.
The family member said that in early March, the authorities raided the family’s home in Jeddah following a New York Times story alleging that Fitaihi was tortured in detention, including being slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear, bound to a chair, and shocked with electricity. The family member said that 15 or 16 men came to the house, bringing along Fitaihi himself wearing arm and leg shackles, and seized all the computers and mobile phones in the house.
In August, Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution brought Fitaihi to trial on unclear and baseless charges, largely accusing him of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly criticizing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. They provided only a few vague tweets as evidence. Fitaihi was released from detention the next day and remains free while on trial. However, the authorities reimposed the travel ban on him and his family.
“The private advocacy of the US government for Fitiahi has resulted in his release from prison, but he should not have been in there in the first place,” said Mohamed Soltan, development director at The Freedom Initiative. “For 776 days, Saudi Arabia has railroaded a US citizen and has confined him and his family to the country like hostages. That is not acceptable, and the US government should spare no measure until Fitaihi’s freedom is secured.”
After Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi crown prince in mid-2017, he reorganized the country’s security agencies, placing them directly under the royal court’s oversight. Soon after, these agencies arrested hundreds of critics and potential critics of Saudi government policies. Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses against the detainees, including torture and other ill-treatment, and arbitrary travel bans on family members.
The Saudi authorities continue to carry out arbitrary arrests and detention. Saudi rights activists have reported that the authorities detained eight Saudi writers, bloggers, and activists in mid-November. On November 16, they arrested Bader al-Rashed, a journalist and intellectual, Suleiman al-Saikhan, a banker and intellectual, Wa’ad al-Muhaya, a writer and intellectual, Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi, a writer and entrepreneur, and Musab Fuad, a small-business owner. Activists said that al-Buluwi and al-Rashed have been involved in projects associated with Vision 2030, the crown prince’s ambitious roadmap for economic and developmental growth that aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil.
The Saudi human rights group ALQST reported that between November 18 and 20 the Saudi authorities also detained Abdulaziz al-Hais, a writer and journalist, Abdulrahman al-Shehri, a writer and journalist, and Fuad al-Farhan, formerly a well-known blogger. Saudi activists said that al-Farhan was among the first generation of Saudi bloggers and had previously advocated political reforms. Saudi authorities arrested him in 2007 and detained him for more than four months for his writings. In 2013, he discontinued his blog and writing and founded the educational startup Rwaq.
The eight men were released by the end of November, but their legal status has not been made public.
ALQST reported on December 12 that the prominent human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair began a hunger strike in late November after the authorities suddenly transferred him to a high-security unit of Dhahban prison and confiscated his books. A Saudi court had convicted Abu al-Khair in 2014 following an unfair trial on charges based solely on his human rights work and public criticism of government abuses. He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.
“The Saudi government should halt the sweeping crackdown on public dissent and end the nightmare imposed on hundreds of critics of the government and their family members,” Page said.