RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi appeals court has nearly halved a six-year jail sentence handed to a U.S.-Saudi physician whose case has been closely followed by Washington and suspended the rest of his term, court documents showed, meaning he will not have to serve any more time in prison.
Prominent physician Walid al-Fitaihi was detained in 2017 under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption campaign, and was sentenced last month to six years in prison. U.S. senators condemned the sentencing.
Fitaihi, who was also given a six-year travel ban last month, had not yet begun his sentence as he awaited the outcome of his appeal.
The appeals court’s verdict cut his jail sentence to 3.2 years and reduced the travel ban to 38 months, according to the documents dated Jan. 14 and seen by Reuters.
The court decision comes ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden taking office this week. Biden has said he will take a firmer line regarding the kingdom’s human rights record.
Fitaihi will not have to serve any more jail time as the appeals court took into account time served and suspended the remainder, the documents showed.
Fitaihi, who was temporarily released in July 2019 pending trial, was convicted on charges that include obtaining U.S. citizenship without permission, supporting a “terrorist organisation” calling for “disobedience against the state’s rulers”, and criticising other Arab nations.
The appeals court upheld the conviction on those charges which were listed in the documents. The terrorist organisation is understood to be a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, activists and his family have said.
The Saudi government’s media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, had enjoyed a strong relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who had provided a buffer against international criticism sparked by the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of women’s rights activists.
Last month, a Saudi court sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her jail term, most already served since her arrest in May 2018, meaning she could be released by March 2021.
Foreign diplomats said at the time that the December trials aimed to send a message that Riyadh would not yield to pressure on human rights issues, but that Saudi Arabia could also use the sentences as leverage with the Biden administration.
The U.S.-trained Fitaihi ran a private hospital in the Red Sea city of Jeddah at the time of his detention and had gained prominence as a motivational religious speaker. He advised the kingdom’s health ministry on the pandemic in between hearings.
His wife and six of his children, all U.S. citizens, were also barred from travel and the family had its assets frozen, his son has said.
Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Susan Fenton
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