The phone call to the family lasted just one minute. It came 23 months after aid worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan had been arrested at the offices of the Red Crescent in Riyadh, where he worked co-ordinating rescue operations and emergency relief. He was held incommunicado despite numerous efforts by the family to speak with him and to see him. They were told repeatedly, "He is still under investigation." No visitors and no phone calls allowed.
Then on 12 February last year, the phone rang at the family home. It was Abdulrahman. He couldn't say anything other than that he was being held in the notorious Al Ha'ir Prison, a maximum-security centre for political prisoners just south of Riyadh. "My family could tell from his tone that he didn't want to scare us," his sister Areej told me. "He's always thinking about others, about protecting others."
A voice in the background was heard telling Abdulrahman, "Your minute is up." Then the phone line went dead with no chance even to say goodbye or to ask when they might expect another call.
Since then there has been nothing; just a terrible, painful silence. In almost three years, there has been that one phone call that lasted for one minute.
The family has been given no reason for Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan's arrest. No charges have been made against him. The Saudi Arabian authorities keep repeating, "He is still under investigation." The family's letters to the prison and to the Interior Ministry go unanswered. "We are faced with nothing but silence," Areej told me on the phone from San Francisco where she lives. "All the doors are shut in our face."
She remembers the harrowing two weeks when the family heard nothing after her brother vanished on 12 March 2018. "He always stayed in touch and let us know his plans. We tried to call him and message him for days, but calls and messages were not going through." The family was desperate for some word of him but people were afraid to speak. Finally, eyewitnesses to his arrest at the Red Crescent said that he had been taken by the security police.
Areej said that their fears about Abdulrahman being tortured had been confirmed by several witnesses. They know that he, like others caught up in the brutal Saudi security system, has suffered terrible abuse.
After Abdulrahman graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University in California, he decided to return to Saudi Arabia. "He wanted to go back to work there," explained Areej. "He wanted to contribute, to help build the country." What neither could know was that the country he went back to was, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, sliding rapidly into the sort of police state that Josef Stalin would have approved of.
Critics in the kingdom are arrested, held without charge for lengthy periods of time, abused, then brought to court and convicted on confessions obtained under torture; they are sentenced to long jail terms or beheaded. Abroad, those who have the temerity to criticise the crown prince are placed under surveillance, harassed, kidnapped, and, in the case of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered.
The web of terror that Bin Salman has woven is an intricate one. It includes the prince's charitable foundation MiSK, which he established in 2011 with a stated goal of "creating opportunities to develop society and unleash individuals' potential." That's a noble objective, and a visit to the MiSK website will show many worthwhile projects. However, as with so much to do with the crown prince there is a dark side to his foundation, one that emerges from a lawsuit filed by Saad Al-Jabri, a former senior Saudi intelligence officer who fled the kingdom in May 2017 a month before his boss Mohammed Bin Nayef was deposed and replaced as crown prince by Bin Salman.
In a civil lawsuit filed in Washington DC, Al-Jabri alleges that in addition to sending a hit squad to Canada to try and kill him a week or two after Khashoggi's murder (the gang was turned away by Canadian border officials), the crown prince used his foundation more or less as a front in the US to recruit Saudi citizens and others to spy on dissidents. Two of those who were recruited worked for Twitter and supplied to the Saudi security service and Bin Salman's right-hand man, Saud Al-Qahtani, the details of Saudi citizens inside the kingdom who were anonymously criticising aspects of the regime. It is Al-Qahtani who is heavily implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. He also ran a global malware surveillance operation and troll campaign that earned him the nickname Lord of the Flies.
Areej believes that her brother was one of those whose identity was revealed by the Twitter moles recruited by MiSK: "I was told by a person familiar with the US investigation that my brother's [Twitter] account was targeted." She told me that he was concerned about the levels of poverty in Saudi Arabia, the difficulties for young people finding jobs; Abdulrahman was troubled, too, by the prisoners of conscience being detained by the regime. "He doesn't have an interest in politics, he just cares about people." Caring about people was enough to make Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan an enemy of the state. MiSK, insisted Areej, "puts itself about as an organisation doing good things when it is doing creepy, unethical work."
She hopes and believes that new US President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken will follow through on their stated commitment to defend human rights and challenge the impunity that has allowed abuse to flourish in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. She said that as she worries for her brother and her family in the kingdom, she herself is in fear. "It is strange for me not to feel safe in America but you never know if they are sending someone after you." This, though, will not silence her. "I am not going to stop until my brother is safe and free."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.