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US lawmakers slam Saudi court's move to jail Dr Walid Fitaihi, charges dubbed 'baseless, politically motivated'

5 Democratic senators issued a statement saying they were 'appalled by the decision' to send US-Saudi doctor, Walid Fitaihi, to six years in prison
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia is one of America’s most tested allies in the international fraternity but there have been episodes that did not augur well for the bilateral relations. The latest addition in the list of irritants has been the decision of a court in Saudi Arabia, which was taken on Tuesday, December 8, to jail a noted Saudi-US doctor for six years on vague charges, mostly related to peaceful political views, the Human Rights Watch and The Freedom Initiative said on Thursday, December 10, which also happens to be the World Human Rights Day. 

The Saudi authorities have restricted Dr Walid Fitaihi, 56, from travelling since November 2017, along with seven members of his family – all citizens of the US. The Saudi government has also frozen the assets of Fitaihi’s family since 2017.

Five Democratic senators issue statement

The incident did not go down well with US lawmakers who have slammed the Middle Eastern regime, saying the charges against the doctor were “baseless and politically motivated”. On Thursday, five Democratic senators issued a statement to call on the Saudi officials to immediately drop the charges and release Fitaihi, who was brought to trial in August last year on the charges of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly speaking against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with a few vague Twitter posts offered as evidence. In March 2019, Fitaihi had alleged that he was tortured in detention by being slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his undergarments and even electric shock, The New York Times reported. The senators also sought lifting of the travel restrictions against Fitaihi’s family.

“We are appalled that Walid Fitaihi has been sentenced to six years in prison by a Saudi court on politically motivated charges,” the senators said in their statement. “The Saudi government should immediately release Dr. Fitaihi, lift the travel ban on his family, and drop these baseless and politically motivated charges.”

US lawmakers and officials of the Donald Trump administration have repeatedly asked Riyadh for Fitaihi’s release. The doctor, who is a dual citizen and based in Boston, was one of the many who were rounded up in a 2017 anti-corruption initiative that was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Fitaihi’s son Ahmed also requested the US lawmakers last year to help get his father freed. “I’m sure you understand how confusing it is to see this man being dragged and beaten and electrocuted. This doesn’t make any sense at all,” Ahmed Fitaihi said, adding: “He’s dedicated his entire life to making peoples’ lives better.”

People take part in a candlelight vigil to remember journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate on October 25, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Getty Images)

The Trump administration, however, has been a strong defender of Saudi and MBS despite calls from various rights groups to hold Riyadh responsible for its human rights records. The kingdom faced a massive international backlash in 2019 for its human rights records, including repression of dissidents and activists and the failure to provide transparency for the brutal murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018. The Trump administration also faced flak for not being able to put enough pressure on Saudi over the assassination of the man who was a critic of the regime. 

Human Rights groups slam Saudi and US

Adam Coogle, the Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said: “Saudi authorities’ railroading of Dr Walid Fitaihi under broad charges shows that the government has no intention of loosening its clampdown on peaceful critics. The message to Saudi citizens is clear that any expressed view that contradicts official Saudi domestic or foreign policy will lead straight to prison."

"Though the advocacy of the US government advocacy for Fitaihi resulted in his release from prison, it fell drastically short of securing his freedom,” Mohamed Soltan, president of The Freedom Initiative, said. "Fitaihi’s sentencing is a dangerous step in the wrong direction, and the US government should spare no effort to get it reversed and his case resolved once and for all. Dr. Fitaihi and his family should be allowed to return to the US without further reprisals."