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US 'closely' monitoring human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia as fate of aid worker hangs in balance

Nancy Pelosi, House of Representatives Speaker, in Phoenix, Arizona, on 20 February 2018 [Gage Skidmore/Flickr]
Nancy Pelosi, House of Representatives Speaker, in Phoenix, Arizona, on 20 February 2018 [Gage Skidmore/Flickr]

US Congress will be "closely" monitoring human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said yesterday in a tweet highlighting the fate of aid worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan whose appeal hearing is today.

"The sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan in April was a grave injustice," said Pelosi who is one of most senior Democrat having been a member of Congress since 1987. The 81-year-old described Al-Sadhan's incarcerations as a continuation of "Saudi Arabia's assault on freedom of expression", before pledging that "Congress will closely monitor Abdulrahman's appeal hearing tomorrow, as well as all human rights abuses by the regime."

Al-Sadhan, a humanitarian aid worker for the Red Crescent and son of a US citizen, was arrested on 12 March 2018 from the Red Crescent Society offices in the capital Riyadh, where he worked. In April, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the kingdom's counterterrorism court. A report by Amnesty International last year warned that Saudi authorities were using the counter-terrorism court known as the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) as a weapon to systematically silence peaceful opposition in the country.

Created in 2008, the SCC was meant to try suspects of terrorism that were members of Al-Qaeda and other violent terror groups. But in recent years the court has become notorious for rubber stamping a crackdown against critics and human rights activists. Saudi Arabia, like its key allies in the region, Egypt and UAE, has been accused of weaponising the definition of terrorism, especially since the popular Arab uprising in 2011, to include opponents and democracy campaigners.

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Yesterday Amnesty echoed these concerns in another report exposing Riyadh's "relentless crackdown" following the G20 world summit. The role of the SCC as well as that of other courts were highlighted in detail, which documented the cases of 64 individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Thirty-nine are currently imprisoned, while the others were recently conditionally released after serving their sentences or are awaiting trial on charges related to their human rights work.

While many political prisoners languish in Saudi prisons, Al-Sadhan's case has drawn the attention of American politicians and media alike. Following his sentencing, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "We will continue to monitor this case closely throughout any appeals process. As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense."

Areej Al-Sadhan, Al-Sadhan's sister, has also been running a strong campaign for his release in the US. Writing in the Washington Post in May she said that hopes of ever seeing her brother again were fading and appealed to the US for help. "Our family's best hope is that our elected officials in the United States speak up on his behalf," Areej said.

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Asia & AmericasMiddle EastNewsSaudi ArabiaUS
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