Saudi Arabia frees U.S. citizen imprisoned over critical tweets of the kingdom’s crown prince

The case was one of many alleged human rights abuses that had soured relations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden

Saad Ibrahim Almadi
In this photo provided by Ibrahim Almadi, Saad Ibrahim Almadi sits in a restaurant in the United States, on August 2021.Ibrahim Almadi (AP)

A 72-year-old American imprisoned more than a year in Saudi Arabia over tweets critical of the Saudi crown prince was back with family members in Riyadh on Tuesday, but it wasn’t clear whether the kingdom will drop a travel ban to allow him to return home to Florida.

Neither Saudi nor U.S. officials by early Tuesday had spoken publicly after Saudi Arabia on Monday released Saad Almadi, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen and, until his arrest, a retiree living in Florida.

Almadi is now at home with family members who live in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said his son, Ibrahim Almadi. Saudi officials dropped all charges against the elder Almadi, Ibrahim Almadi and advocates familiar with the case said. But it was not immediately clear whether the kingdom would maintain a travel ban it had imposed to follow the prison sentence.

The Florida man’s imprisonment over tweets had been one of several alleged human rights abuses that had soured relations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden. That included Saudi officials’ killing of a U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and prison sentences and travel bans that Saudi Arabia under the crown prince’s tenure has given Saudi rights advocates and perceived rivals and critics of the powerful crown prince.

Both Prince Mohammed and the Biden administration recently have taken steps toward restoring better relations. The two countries are partners in a decades-old security arrangement in which the U.S. provides security for Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich kingdom keeps global markets supplied with oil.

Saudi Arabia had sentenced Almadi last year to 16 years in prison, saying his critical tweets about how the kingdom was being governed amounted to terrorist acts against it.

As U.S. officials worked to win his release, and after Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia last summer in an attempt to improve relations with the oil-rich nation, a Saudi appeals court increased Almadi’s prison sentence to 19 years.

Ibrahim Almadi had campaigned hard and publicly for his father’s freedom. The son had pushed the Biden administration to formally declare his father as wrongfully detained by the kingdom, and had accused U.S. officials of holding back on criticism in the case in the interest of mending relations with the oil giant.

“Now we have to fight travel ban,” he added.

Saudi Arabia did not acknowledge Almadi’s release. However, the kingdom routinely pardons prisoners ahead of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which could begin as soon as Tuesday night.

A retired project manager in the United States, Almadi was arrested in 2021 when he arrived for what was to have been a two-week visit to see family in the kingdom. Once in custody, he was confronted by Saudi authorities with tweets he had posted over several years from his home in Florida, his son says.

Almadi’s tweets included one noting Prince Salman’s consolidation of power in the kingdom and another that spoke of Khashoggi’s killing. U.S. intelligence officials earlier concluded the crown prince authorized the hit team that killed Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“We are relieved that Saad Almadi has been released, but he should have never spent a day behind bars for innocuous tweets,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director for the Freedom Initiative, a U.S.-based group that advocates for those it considers unjustly detained in the Middle East.

Alaoudh urged the U.S. to continue to press for the release of all rights advocates and others detained in Saudi Arabia.

Freedom Initiative says least four U.S. citizens and one legal permanent resident already were detained in Saudi Arabia under travel bans, and that at least one other older U.S. citizen remains imprisoned. Many of the travel bans targeted dual citizens advocating for greater rights in the kingdom, such as Saudi women’s right to drive.

Ibrahim Almadi said his father had lost extensive weight in prison and that his health had worsened drastically.

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