House lawmakers demand Saudis release political prisoners detained for tweeting

Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

House lawmakers sent a letter to Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday demanding that he release all political prisoners being held in his country who were detained after tweeting, days after Riyadh released a woman who was initially arrested for posting tweets critical of the top leader. 

The letter — which was first shared with The Hill — slammed bin Salman for infringing on the rights of Saudi Arabian citizens and accused him of undermining “global political freedom.” The lawmakers labeled his detainments “barbaric prosecutions.”

“When you initially came to power, you spoke of making Saudi Arabia more open and tolerant. You promised to reform harsh laws and policies preventing the country’s progress. We had high hopes you were serious,” the group wrote. “Instead, not only have you further trampled on your own citizens’ rights to free thought and free speech, but you have undermined the essential freedoms that sovereign democratic countries strive to protect for our citizens. These outrages undermine global political freedom.”

“We condemn your barbaric prosecutions and call on you immediately to order the release of every individual you have detained and incarcerated for sending tweets,” they added.

The Hill reached out to the Crown Prince for comment.

The request — led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and signed by 21 Democrats and one Republican — was sent almost one week after news broke that dual Saudi-U.S. citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi had been freed after being imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year over tweets that were critical of bin Salman. The American, however, was put under a travel ban, and it remains unclear if the kingdom will drop the prohibition and let him return to Florida.

Almadi, 72, was detained when he arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2021 for a family visit and then sentenced to 19 years in prison because of social media posts he made in the past that were critical of how the kingdom was ruled.

The lawmakers on Monday told bin Salman they were “relieved to learn Mr. Almadi has been released from this Orwellian nightmare after widespread protest,” adding that they “early await word of whether your government will lift the travel ban to let Mr. Almadi return to his home in the United States.”

Saudi Arabia has been accused of cracking down on human rights. In February 2021, the Biden administration’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report that said bin Salman had approved the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been critical of the Saudi Arabian government. He was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The letter sent on Monday cited Amnesty International in saying that 15 people were sentenced to prison for between 10 and 45 years in Saudi Arabia in 2022 “for peacefully expressing themselves online.” As of February 2023, according to the lawmakers, the organization recorded cases of 67 people who were prosecuted for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly.

“We, the undersigned Members of the United States House of Representatives, urge you to immediately release all persons whom you have imprisoned for sending tweets,” the lawmakers wrote. “Jailing people for their expression, including criticism of their nation’s political rulers, is an intolerable violation of human rights and freedom of speech.”

“No human being should spend a day — much less 19 years or 34 years — behind bars because they have displeased a government ruler with their opinions,” they continued. “The people of Saudi Arabia have a right to their own ideas and to express themselves without state agents ripping them from their families and throwing them into jail.”

The letter zeroed in on three cases of individuals who are detained in Saudi Arabia because of concerning tweets. Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi doctoral student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, was sentenced to 34 years in prison in August 2022 “for using a Twitter account to simply share posts of online critics of your regime.” When her case was retried in 2023, the sentence moved to 27 years in prison.

The lawmakers cited Freedom House, which said al-Shehab had been held in pretrial detention for 285 days — at least 13 of which were in solitary confinement — and was not allowed access to an attorney during that time.

The same day al-Shehab was sentenced, according to the lawmakers, Noura al-Qahtani — the nearly 50-year-old mother who has five children — saw her sentence grow from 13 years to 45 years in prison. The letter said her new sentence is believed to be the longest ever levied for online expression.

“Ms. al-Qahtani had fewer than 650 Twitter followers, but was nonetheless accused of ‘using the Internet to tear the social fabric’ and ‘violating the public order by using social media’ under the country’s expansive and vague counterterrorism and anti-cybercrime laws,” the letter reads.

“So a mother of five is now in prison for 45 years in Saudi Arabia for sending a tweet while some people in the country have never served even a day for committing murder,” it adds.

The third case involves Mahdia al-Marzougi, a 51-year-old Tunisian nurse and Saudi resident who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in September after posting tweets “commenting on events in Tunisia.” Her sentence was initially three years, until the Specialized Criminal Court increased it by five-fold.

The lawmakers said it is “unclearly exactly” how the Saudi government was able to single out and apprehend “these ‘dangerous’ online thought criminals,” but they noted that “their prosecutions coincide with contemporaneous revelations that Saudi Arabian authorities infiltrated Twitter.” They cited the case involving Ahmad Abouammo, who was found guilty of spying for the Saudi royal family in August 2022.

“We are also aware that, through the Kingdom Holding Company, your family is a longtime financial investor in Twitter, which makes this sequence of events all the more shocking,” they added.

Raskin was joined by 22 other letter signatories, including Reps. André Carson (D-Ind.), Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.), Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas), Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), Daniel Goldman (D-N.Y.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii), David Trone (D-Md.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Tags Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman human rights Jamal Khashoggi Mohammed bin Salman Saudi Arabia Twitter

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