Saudi court sentences U.S.-Saudi citizen to 6 years in prison despite U.S. pressure - sources

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Saudi court on Tuesday sentenced prominent U.S.-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi to six years in prison and an additional six-year travel ban despite U.S. pressure to release him, his family and two sources familiar with the case said.

Dr. Walid Fitaihi and his daughter Mariam Fitaihi are seen in this 2017 handout photo, obtained December 8, 2020. Courtesy of Ahmad Fitaihi/Handout via REUTERS

Fitaihi was convicted on charges that include obtaining U.S. citizenship without permission and criticizing other Arab nations on Twitter in violation of the cyber crime law, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

He was also convicted for supporting and sympathising with a terrorist organization, understood to be a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist group that Saudi Arabia considers to be a terrorist organization but that the United States does not. One charge related to terror financing was dropped by the court.

Rights groups have described the case as politically motivated.

Fitaihi was detained in 2017 under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption campaign, which netted hundreds of royals, ministers and businessmen and held them in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“It was not enough that they disappeared, imprisoned and tortured my dad for no reason at all,” Fitaihi’s son Ahmad said. “The Saudi leadership wanted to further inflict pain on us by sentencing our dad.”

“We are outraged by this unjust sentencing and call on President Trump and congressional leaders to urgently intervene.”

Fitaihi was charged then released from detention in July 2019, but the kingdom barred him from leaving the country as his trial continued. His wife and six of his children, all U.S. citizens, were also barred from travel and the family has had its assets frozen, his son said.

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, a family source said.

The Saudi government’s media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Two U.S. diplomats were present at the sentencing hearing, the family source said. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “We are disappointed to hear of the sentencing of Dr. Walid Fitaihi and are seeking a full understanding of the ruling against him.”

In October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had discussed the case with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, and asked for the travel ban to be lifted.

U.S. senators condemned the sentencing.

“The Saudi authorities have once again shown their willingness to trample on fundamental rights,” Democrat Patrick Leahy tweeted.

The kingdom, an oil exporting giant and major buyer of American arms, faces greater scrutiny of its human rights record following the Nov. 3 election defeat of Trump, a strong supporter of the crown prince.

Their relationship had provided a buffer against international criticism sparked by the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of women’s rights activists.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he will take a firmer line.

Reporting by Raya Jalabi in Beirut; additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by Raya Jalabi and Marwa Rashad, Editing by Tom Brown