An American citizen has been sentenced to 16 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for tweeting critically about the Saudi regime, in another sign of the kingdom’s aggressive crackdown on any whiff of dissent posted on social media.
Saad Ibrahim Almadi, 72, a dual US-Saudi national, was arrested in November 2021 upon landing in Riyadh for what was supposed to be a two-week stay in his native country for a work and personal trip.
The case is now the second known incident of a Saudi who was living abroad being arrested upon their return for using social media.
Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student living in the UK and attending Leeds University, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and following and retweeting dissidents and activists. She was arrested and convicted after returning home for a holiday.
In Almadi’s case, prosecutors focused on 14 tweets that the American published over a seven-year period while he was living in Florida, including posts that referenced Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
In an interview with the Guardian, Almadi’s son, Ibrahim, said Saudi agents kidnapped his father from the airport and held him in a hotel while they searched his phone, which contained photographs of caricatures of Saudi officials, such as a cartoon of a bloated and fat Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince.
Almadi was detained for 11 months without a trial and eventually sentenced to 16 years in prison followed by 16 years house arrest. He was convicted of harboring a terrorist ideology and for trying to destabilize the kingdom. According to his son, US officials have confirmed to the family that Almadi has also been tortured.
Saad Almadi’s story was first reported in a column in the Washington Post.
His two Twitter accounts show Saad felt at home in America. Ibrahim said his father was simply exercising his freedom of speech when he published critical tweets. While he was aware of the Saudi crackdown on dissent, Ibrahim said his father felt safe traveling back to Saudi for a short visit, both because of his American citizenship and because he was part of a tribe that was considered well-connected in Saudi society.
“Untouchable. That’s what he thought. But no one is untouchable under MBS. Not even God,” Ibrahim said. “He was trapped.”
Speaking to the Guardian from Florida, Ibrahim expressed intense frustration with the US government’s handling of his father’s case. After months of maintaining his silence – he claims at the US government’s behest – he accused the US of poorly managing the crisis. The US government has also not designated Almadi’s case as involving an American being “wrongfully detained”, a designation that would give the case a higher priority within the US bureaucracy.
“They are waiting for my father to die in prison until they recognize him….then build a statue for him,” he said.
Like the case of Salma al-Shehab, Ibrahim said he believed that his father – who had less than 2,000 followers on Twitter – was outed by an individual who snitched on his politically sensitive tweets using an app called Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security. The app can be downloaded on Apple and Android phones. The companies have previously not responded to questions about their hosting of the app and its apparent use in violations of free expression.
Citing the high poverty rate in Saudi, Ibrahim Almadi said: “People do snitching as a side hustle to collect money on the side. That’s what the government has made its people do.”
The state department did not immediately return a request for comment.