After three years of incarceration, travel bans, and torture, prominent U.S.-Saudi physician and TV presenter Dr. Walid Fitaihi’s case has recently reached a somewhat happy ending, in what is perceived as the result of changing winds in Washington that resulted in Riyadh losing a strong ally in the White House.
In January, a Saudi appeals court nearly halved an initial sentence of six years which the Harvard-educated physician was handed in December on several charges, including “breaking allegiance with the ruler by sympathizing with a terrorist organization,” “offending other countries and their leaders,” and “obtaining a foreign [U.S.] nationality without prior permission from Saudi authorities”.
The court also suspended the remainder of his sentence, Reuters reported, which means he won’t serve more jail time. A six-year travel ban which was ordered against Dr. Fitaihi in December was also narrowed down to 38 months.
The famous motivational speaker was arrested following comments he's made on Twitter against other Arab states and their leaders.
Fitaihi was detained in November 2017 in an anti-corruption spree of arrests ordered by Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman, which included members of the ruling family and businessmen and drew global condemnation. The physician was held for 21 months without trial or charges and was tortured. Seven members of his family were banned from traveling in the meantime.
The breakthrough in his case came in tandem with two other U.S. nationals whose cases witnessed sudden and swift resolutions.
On Thursday, the State Department said the kingdom had conditionally released two dual Saudi-U.S. citizens detained in a crackdown on civil society there, and reduced a sentence for a third, Dr. Walid Fitaihi, convicted of “disobedience” to the government.
— Ellen Knickmeyer (@EllenKnickmeyer) February 5, 2021
Days after the appeals court issued its reduced sentence, Dr. Walid Fitaihi’s medical centre in Saudi received a prestigious award, triggering mockery and confused reactions on social media.
Ma’n Asharif, a Saudi with over 6,400 followers, wrote:
قصة #وليد_فتيحي :
-نوفمبر 2017: تم اعتقاله وتعذيبه لقرابة 21 شهر
(خلال هذه الفترة تم نشر مقاطع تخوينية عديدة ضده من الوطنجية)
-اغسطس 2019: تم الإفراج عنه مؤقتاً والمحاكمة مستمرة
– 9 ديسمبر 2020 : حكم بالسجن 6 سنوات
– 18 يناير 2021 : الغاء الحكم و التكريم بجائزة
عش رجبا ترى عجبا https://t.co/EHs1Vbf5v3
— معن الشريف (موشو) Mosho (@Mosho_NZ) January 18, 2021
- November 2017: He was arrested and tortured for nearly 21 months
- August 2019: He was temporarily released, and the trial continues
- December 9, 2020: Sentenced to 6 years in prison
- January 18, 2021: Decision cancellation and he is getting an award
Live longer and you witness wonders.
Another Saudi, Omar Ben Abd Al Aziz reacted humorously :
انا اخاف انام واصحى القى الدكتور فتيحي وزير الصحة .. على مهلك ياحكومة بليز
— عمر بن عبدالعزيز Omar Abdulaziz (@oamaz7) January 18, 2021
I am afraid to sleep and then wake up. Then there is Dr. Fitaihi, who became Minister of Health… O’ Government, do take it easy, please!
In recent months, particularly in the lead up to and following the election of Joe Biden as U.S.’ president, several cases of Saudi detainees that have drawn wide global sympathy, but were overlooked by the Trump administration, have seen positive developments.
Women's rights activist Loujain Al Hathloul is due to be released in March after a court in December sentenced her to nearly six years in jail, down from the maximum jail term of 20 years which the public prosecutor had demanded. Hathloul has already served the majority of her term in pre-trial detention.
More recently, three members of the Shia community who were detained as minors and were initially sentenced to death had had the penalty commuted on February 7.
Many other detainees, imprisoned for voicing opinions conflicting with Saudi leadership, remain behind bars, including distinguished cleric Salman al-Odah, Abd Al Aziz At Tarifi, Awad al Qarni, Omar Al Muqbil, among others.
The string of positive developments has been linked to the new U.S. administration, which has vowed to reassess its ties with autocratic regimes in the region, having already cut off support and weapons sales to the oil-rich kingdom over its gory war in Yemen that resulted in a humanitarian crisis.
Several observers have opined that the speedy legal endings of these cases of interest to Washington are to avoid them being used as “bargaining tools” as ties between the two historic allies are seen to dampen.