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Riyadh temporarily releases two Saudi-US political prisoners

Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim were detained in April 2019 and charged with terrorism-related crimes
Salah al-Haider, right, is the son of a leading women's rights activist (Screengrab)

Saudi Arabia temporarily released two Saudi-Americans on Thursday after nearly two years of detention, campaigners and sources close to their families said, as the kingdom's rights record comes under renewed US scrutiny.

Salah al-Haidar, the son of a leading women's rights activist and Bader al-Ibrahim, a writer and doctor, were detained in April 2019 and charged with terrorism-related crimes.

Their release was reported by campaign groups Prisoners of Conscience and the Washington-based Freedom Initiative, as well as two sources close to both their families who requested anonymity.

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"This is welcomed progress, even though it is long overdue," Freedom Initiative's Bethany al-Haidari said in a statement.

"Bader al-Ibrahim and Salah al-Haider should have never been jailed in the first place and their release should certainly not be on a 'temporary' basis."

The two were released pending trial in the kingdom's Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). Their next court hearing is set for 8 March, Freedom Initiative said.

Campaigners accuse the kingdom of using the SCC, which tries suspected terrorists and human rights activists, to silence critical voices under the cover of fighting terrorism.

"We welcome and are closely monitoring the conditional release of US citizens Badr Al-Ibrahim and Salah Al-Haidar," a US State Department spokesperson told AFP on Thursday.

'Pariah' state

Saudi authorities have not officially commented on the pair's detention, charges or provisional release, which comes after Saudi Arabia accelerated political trials following US President Joe Biden's election victory late last year.

During his election campaign, Biden had pledged to make the kingdom a "pariah" over its human rights failings after it largely got a free pass under former president Donald Trump.

Last month, a Saudi appeals court upheld the conviction of prominent Saudi-American doctor Walid Fitaihi on charges that included "disobedience" against the kingdom's rulers, a source close to his family told AFP.

But the Harvard-educated doctor will effectively serve no jail time after the court reduced his six-year jail term handed down in December by half, and suspended a part of the remaining sentence, the source said.

Fitaihi, who still faces a travel ban and an assets freeze, has already served nearly two years in pre-trial detention.

The US State Department spokesperson also welcomed the reduction of Fitaihi's sentence. 

"We remain in close contact with family members and we will continue to advocate for a swift resolution" of all three cases, they added.

US support ended

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, Saudi Arabia has detained activists, clerics and royal family members in a sweeping crackdown on dissent over the last three years.

The detentions have cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

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On Thursday, Biden announced the end of US support for a Saudi-led coalition that is waging war in Yemen, in a major policy reversal from the previous administration that may alter the course of the conflict.

"This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales," Biden said in his first major foreign policy speech.

It was not immediately clear whether Biden will suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia or only weapons that may be used in offensive operations in Yemen.

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