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Saudi terror court sentences Red Crescent aid worker to 20 years in prison

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan's arrest was reportedly linked to an anonymous Twitter account that voiced concerns over human rights in the kingdom
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and his sister Areej al-Sadhan, prior to his detention (Courtesy of Areej al-Sadhan)

A Saudi terrorism court sentenced a local aid worker to 20 years in prison, weeks after his family reported that his release was imminent.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in addition to a two-decade travel ban, his sister announced on a series of Twitter posts on Monday. 

Abdulrahman was detained in March 2018 from the Red Crescent offices in Riyadh, where he worked. He was arrested without a warrant or charge and his family initially knew nothing of his whereabouts.

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Areej al-Sadhan, Abdulrahman's sister who is based in the United States where she is a citizen, said the hearing on Monday was the seventh to take place in his case.

In February, Areej tweeted that Abdulrahman had been permitted to make a call to the family - the second communication they had received from him during the course of his detention - to let them know he would soon be released. 

"No charges against him. Saudi officials told him he'll be released soon. We can't wait to see him! I will keep fighting for him till I see him free & back with us," his sister posted at the time. 

The news had come just days after Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison, spurring hope for other detainees, particularly given US President Joe Biden's vow to "reassess" relations with Riyadh and prioritise human rights.

'A sham trial'

On 10 March, however, Areej announced the family had been notified that Abdulrahman would face "a secret trial" at the same Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) that had initially sentenced Hathloul to nearly six years in prison before commuting her sentence, conditionally. 

It is unclear what changed in his situation during those weeks that lead to an SCC trial, but on Monday, the family received news of the outcome.  

"THIS IS INSANE!!!," Areej tweeted in response to her brother's sentencing.

The day before Monday's hearing his sister recounted the toll his detention has taken on her family, in addition to what Abdulrahman himself has been through. 

"No family should suffer what we suffered!" she said.

Mena Rights Group, a collection of regional human rights lawyers, called Abdulrahman's sentencing appalling and accused the Saudi government of holding "a sham trial" in its notorious terror court. 

"Cruelty beyond words. Abdulrahman, who should have never spent a day behind bars, is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a sham court for 'terrorism'," the group's co-founder and director, Ines Osman, said on Twitter, adding that 200 pages of printed posts from the social media platform had been used as the government's sole evidence against him.  

Saudi Arabia's embassy in Washington did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment. 

Twitter spies

Abdulrahman's detention, and now conviction, is believed to be linked to an anonymous Twitter account he ran, from which he commented on human rights and social justice issues in Saudi Arabia. 

"It's not funny when a humanitarian worker, accused of satirising the Saudi government, is sentenced to 20 years in prison," Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN human rights group told MEE. 

"The real criminals are the Saudi authorities who arrested al-Sadhan three years ago and held him incommunicado for 23 months, because he allegedly criticised the repressive regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."

The use of unnamed profiles on social media is a common practice in the kingdom, where free speech is heavily curtailed. 

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In 2015, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, two former employees of Twitter, were accused of accessing and passing the details of more than 6,000 users critical of Riyadh to a Saudi official with close ties to the royal family.

Bloomberg reported in August that Sadhan's disappearance was a direct result of the actions of the alleged Twitter spies. 

"To reach a point where they hack foreign companies, use spyware, bribe spies to leak information from a company based in a country that is an ally of Saudi Arabia, is really shocking," Abdulrahman's sister told MEE earlier this year.

Former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani used his verified Twitter account to boast in August 2017 that Riyadh had "technical ways" and a "secret I'm not going to say" to track down anonymous accounts. 

"Does a pseudonym protect you from the blacklist?" Qahtani tweeted at the time. "No."

The former adviser's profile has since been permanently banned for violating Twitter's manipulation policies. He served as a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman until he was removed, after being implicated in Khashoggi's murder.