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Saudi Arabia releases US citizen Dr Walid al-Fitaihi after 20 months in detention

US lawmakers had been pushing for release of Fitaihi, who had been held without charge
Fitaihi was detained along with prominent royals and businessmen in November 2017 (Screenshot)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Walid al-Fitaihi, a Saudi-American doctor who had been detained for 20 months without charge in Saudi Arabia, has been released, a family friend has confirmed to Middle East Eye.

The source, who chose to remain anonymous, did not elaborate on the conditions of Fitaihi's release on Thursday. 

Prisoners of Conscience, a Twitter account that tracks political detainees in Saudi Arabia, first reported Fitaihi's release early on Thursday.

A US State Department spokesperson told MEE that Washington is aware of reports that Fitaihi was freed without confirming the news. 

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Fitaihi was detained along with prominent Saudi royals and businessmen in November 2017 during a massive purge led by the country's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. 

The Saudi authorities presented the wave of arrests as a campaign against corruption, but critics and rights groups accused the young leader of locking up powerful figures and perceived dissidents as he sought to tighten his grip on power.

The arrest of Fitaihi, who also addressed public health matters in the media, was widely condemned.

"What happened to us? How can someone like Dr Walid al-Fitaihi get arrested and what are the justifications for that? Everyone is feeling confused and hopeless," former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi wrote on Twitter early in 2018.

"There is no one you can turn to and plead with... God help us."

Khashoggi's murder at the hands of Saudi government agents last October brought added attention and concern in Washington to Fitaihi's plight, as US lawmakers and rights groups questioned the US-Saudi relationship.

Reports also emerged that the Saudi-American doctor had been tortured in prison, drawing wide condemnation.

No charges

Fitaihi was initially held at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh along with the high profile detainees of the 2017 purge, including global investor and Saudi royal Alwaleed bin Talal. 

After most of the detainees reached financial settlements with the Saudi government and were released from the Ritz, Fitaihi was transferred to al-Hair maximum security prison, south of Riyadh, MEE reported last year.

For months, US lawmakers and Fitaihi's supporters called on US President Donald Trump to intervene with Saudi authorities to free him.

In March, prominent Democratic senators sent a letter to Saudi Arabia's King Salman urging the "immediate and unconditional release" of Fitaihi and raising concerns about his treatment in prison.

"We will not tolerate this treatment of an American citizen and implore you to act swiftly to resolve the case of Dr Fitaihi," the letter said.

At an event in Washington that same month, Congressman Tom Malinowski called Fitaihi's detention an insult to the US.

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"It is a direct offence, an affront, to the United States of America," Malinowski said at the time.

"And no country that has ever dared to call itself an ally of the United States should be forgiven for one second for engaging in that kind of behaviour."

Fitaihi was never formally charged with a crime in Saudi Arabia, his US lawyer told MEE earlier this year.

Howard Cooper also called on Trump and his top aides to push for his client's release. 

"President Trump, his son-in-law and daughter [Ivanka] have a personal relationship with the crown prince, who is responsible for Dr Fitaihi's imprisonment without charge, without any process whatsoever," Cooper told MEE in March.

Ahmad Fitaihi, the doctor's son, has been leading an advocacy campaign for his father in the US.

In a meeting with lawmakers on 14 March, Ahmad stressed that his dad had not committed any crime.

"This whole situation of my father in prison really doesn't make any sense whatsoever," Ahmad said.

"We're talking about the most law-abiding citizen you'll ever meet. He's never done as much as a parking ticket. He's devoted his entire life to the betterment of people around him."

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