The Biden Administration Can and Must Help Save Abdulrahman al-Sadhan
The sentencing of a political dissident in Saudi Arabia has presented a major test for a U.S. administration promising to put “human rights at the center of foreign policy.”
37-year-old Abdulrahman al-Sadhan has been sentenced to 20 years in prison after a sham trial in Saudi Arabia. His crime? Al-Sadhan is alleged to be behind a satirical Twitter account mocking the Saudi ruling family.
His lawyer has until Wednesday, May 5 to file an appeal, but this case is most likely to be resolved politically, after strong intervention from Washington.
The month before Joe Biden won last year’s presidential election, he promised that, if elected, he would “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] … and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
And the White House readout of the February 25, 2021 call between President Biden and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”
Sounds good. But for this to be more than empty rhetoric, the Biden administration needs to do much, much more to publicly advocate for the release of al-Sadhan.
Although he never applied for an American passport, al-Sadhan is the son of an American; both his mother and sister are Americans. He went to middle school in Port Hueneme, California, and played on the school baseball team. He graduated from Notre Dame De Namur University, the third oldest college in California. As a Californian boy, he loved going to the beach, flying kites, and roller-skating with his sisters. He's a big San Francisco 49ers fan.
The State Department made a bewilderingly tepid response to his April 5, 2021 conviction, saying it was “concerned by reports that a Saudi counterterrorism court sentenced Saudi aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban.”
In the face of this outright attack on a political dissident, the State Department needs to do better than expressing concern. Al-Sadhan represents a key test of the Biden administration’s intent on a new relationship with Saudi, and its State Department must unmute itself in response to this gross injustice.
Al-Sadhan was arrested three years ago at the local Red Crescent offices in Saudi Arabia, where he was a humanitarian aid worker. His treatment in jail has been as horrific as you might imagine from the violent Saudi dictatorship. “It’s absurd and mad,” his sister Areej told me. “Torturers regularly walk in and out of his cell any time. He’s been flogged, electrocuted, and forced to sign false confessions while blindfolded.”
Areej lives in Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA)’s Congressional district, and Pelosi has publicly condemned Abdulrahman’s treatment, saying “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”
In February 2021, California Senator Dianne Feinstein joined with seven other Democratic members of Congress in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, bringing to his attention a number of cases of American citizens and people with close U.S. connections jailed in Saudi Arabia. Their letter called for al-Sadhan’s release.
Over the last decade, Human Rights First has been prominent in criticizing Washington’s muted criticism of the Saudi government in Riyadh, and in pushing for the release of many prisoners wrongly jailed in various Gulf countries. Some were either U.S. citizens or, like Abdulraham, had gone to university in the U.S. All were released - Kamal and Mohamed Al Darat in the United Arab Emirates; Zainab Al Khawaja, Maryam Al Khawaja, and Rula Al Saffar in Bahrain; but only after persistent and vocal campaigns.
The State Department and the White House need to speak out forcefully and repeatedly on behalf of all those wrongly jailed in Saudi Arabia. They should raise these cases with the Saudi government at every possible opportunity - privately and, more importantly, publicly. They should start now, this week, with Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.