Saudi Arabia last week sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 37-year-old aid worker for the Saudi Red Crescent, to 20 years of imprisonment followed by a 20-year travel ban for tweets criticizing the government, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s continuing crackdown on rights activists. The sentencing comes as Democrats in Washington are pushing to punish Saudi Arabia – and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – for its human rights record and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Sadhan was first arrested in March 2018 and was held for two years without being allowed to communicate with his family. In February 2020, he was permitted one call home but was denied any further contact until February 2021, when authorities falsely informed him he would not face charges and would be released soon. Sadhan was then brought before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in March and sentenced on April 5.
Sadhan’s case is part of a recent uptick in Saudi convictions of human rights activists. In February, the SCC sentenced six activists to multi-year prison terms. Mohammed al-Rabiah, an activist who supported women drivers, was arrested in May 2018 and faces the prospect of a 20-year sentence. In March, the SCC denied an appeal for a modified sentence for prominent rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who is currently facing a five-year travel ban and three years of probation. All three activists say they were tortured by Saudi authorities.
President Joe Biden has vowed to recalibrate, but not rupture, the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The alliance remains vital for several reasons – including pushing back against Iran, countering Chinese encroachment in the Gulf, balancing global energy markets, and expanding Arab-Israeli peace. In late February, the Biden administration declassified the CIA’s report on Khashoggi’s murder and imposed visa restrictions on 76 individuals for threatening Saudi dissidents abroad. The administration also halted some weapons sales to the kingdom and ended U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a six-year-long war to oust the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
While Saudi officials are reeling from these moves, some U.S. lawmakers view them as insufficient. Last month, three Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban Mohammed bin Salman from entering the United States, claiming Biden’s actions on Khashoggi did not go far enough. A recent letter signed by 76 legislators called on the administration to “publicly pressure Saudi Arabia” to lift its blockade on Yemen.
To quell the diplomatic firestorm, Saudi Arabia should commit to more significant human rights reforms. A good start would be to release all rights activists and prisoners of conscience, including Raif Badawi, who has endured eight years of imprisonment – and 50 lashes – for expressing his opinions by blogging. The kingdom should also repeal the travel bans, probation periods, and other unfair limitations it has imposed on released detainees. Additionally, Riyadh should overturn the draconian sentence and sham charges levied against Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.
U.S.-Saudi ties are at a crossroads. Congressional calls for Biden to further weaken this relationship will only grow if Saudi Arabia does not take these steps. Whether Riyadh will acquiesce under pressure remains to be seen. But a halt to the brutal treatment of rights activists is consistent with reforms that Saudi Arabia has already committed to fulfill. This should be Washington’s message, particularly as tensions continue to soar.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. For more analysis from Varsha and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.