The authorities in Saudi Arabia have ignored appeals from the US administration and sentenced a prominent dual nationality Saudi American doctor to six years in prison on charges that included illegally obtaining US citizenship, the New York Times and Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
Walid Fitaihi was educated at George Washington University and Harvard, and is well known in the Kingdom as the founder of a private hospital. He faced what many believe to be politically-motivated charges, including the acquisition of US citizenship without the approval of the Saudi authorities. As a motivational speaker and a television host with millions of followers on social media, it's believed that he was seen as a threat by Riyadh.
In an interview this year with a Washington Post columnist, Fitaihi suggested that his popularity was one of the reasons that he had been targeted by the Saudi government. "They kept asking me, 'Why do you have so many followers?' " he said.
Fitaihi was first arrested in November 2017 as part of the so-called "Ritz Carlton purge" that saw the detention of dozens of Saudi royals and businessmen. He was released temporarily last year pending trial, but the authorities imposed a travel ban on him and his family. Saudi prosecutors accused him of sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly criticising Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. They only provided a few vague tweets as evidence.
During his 21 months detention without charge, Fitaihi was alleged to have been beaten and tortured in Saudi jails. The "Prisoners of Conscience" twitter account – in charge of documenting the news of detainees in Saudi prisons – said that Fitaihi was transferred to the Dhahban Prison hospital after his health was reported to have deteriorated "physically and psychologically" as a result of torture behind bars.
US lawmakers were on his case and called for his release. In March last year, House Foreign Affairs Committee lead Republican Michael McCaul and Chairman Eliot Engel demanded Fitaihi's release in a statement raising concerns about his torture. "We are deeply concerned by reports that Dr Walid Fitaihi, a dual US-Saudi citizen in Saudi custody, has been tortured," they said.
In February, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was urged to press for a resolution to Fitaihi's case during his visit to the region. As recently as October, he raised the case in public during a joint news conference with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. According to the Washington Post, Pompeo said that they "discussed our concerns about American citizens, and we asked for lifting the travel ban on Dr Fitaihi."
Commenting on the sentence, a spokeswoman for the State Department said, "We are disappointed to hear of the sentencing of Dr Walid Fitaihi and are seeking a full understanding of the ruling against him."
As well as the prison sentence, the court also imposed an additional six-year travel ban on Fitaihi, his wife and six children, all of whom are US citizens. He has 30 days in which to appeal against his sentence.