DUBAI (AP) – A Saudi humanitarian aid worker’s anonymous Twitter account used for satire about Saudi Arabia’s economy landed him in prison in the kingdom over three years ago.
But the story may have roots in an elaborate ploy that began in Silicon Valley and sparked a federal case against two Twitter employees accused of spying for the kingdom.
The case, spanning from San Francisco to Riyadh, reveals Saudi Arabia’s continued efforts at suppressing criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and shines a spotlight on the lengths to which the kingdom has gone to target perceived critics.
For Areej al-Sadhan, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen living in California, the saga began on March 12, 2018, when plain-clothed security forces entered the office of the Red Crescent in Riyadh, where her younger brother, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, was working.
The men took her brother away, without any explanation.
“It was like he disappeared off the face of the earth ... there was no trace of him at all,” she said.
That same year, the crown prince oversaw an unprecedented crackdown against activists, rivals and perceived critics as he amassed power. The year culminated in the gruesome killing of Washington Post contributing columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in late 2018.
As months went by, word reached al-Sadhan’s family that he was being held in a secret location and subjected to abuse: beatings, electrocution, sleep deprivation, verbal and even sexual assault.
Then, in February 2020, nearly two years after his disappearance, a relative’s phone rang. It was al-Sadhan. He confirmed he was alive and being held in al-Ha’ir Prison on the outskirts of the Saudi capital. A year later, he called again to tell them he would be released soon.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commented on Tuesday on Twitter that al-Sadhan’s sentencing “was a grave injustice, continuing Saudi Arabia’s assault on freedom of expression.” She said Congress is closely monitoring Abdulrahman’s appeal efforts and “all human rights abuses by the regime.”
This week, al-Sadhan appealed the ruling; his next appeal hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.
Charges against al-Sadhan are unclear, but they are related to Saudi cybercrime laws and national security matters in connection to an anonymous Twitter account he purportedly ran that was critical of the kingdom’s economic policies. Twitter is a key space for Saudis to express their views, and millions of Saudis are active users.
How the Saudi government linked al-Sadhan to the Twitter account remains a mystery.
His sister says someone close to an FBI investigation told the family that his account is believed to be among a list of accounts whose identities were leaked to the Saudi government by spies planted in the U.S. tech company.