Pelosi Condemns Saudi Authorities for ‘Brutal Sentencing’ of Aid Worker With Bay Area Ties

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Abdulrahman al-Sadhan in graduation cap and gown
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, right, with his sister Areej, during his 2013 graduation from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. (Courtesy of Areej al-Sadhan, via Twitter)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week condemned the Saudi Arabian government for sentencing an outspoken aid worker to 20 years in prison.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, a graduate of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, had been working in Riyadh for the Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian group. While there, he frequently commented on human rights abuses and social justice issues, expressing views critical of the government through an anonymous Twitter account that drew thousands of followers, according his sister, Areej al-Sadhan, an American citizen who lives in San Francisco.

Abdulrahman, who is not a U.S. citizen, was first detained by Saudi authorities three years ago without a warrant or charges against him, Areej said. On Monday, she learned he had been sentenced by an anti-terrorism court to the lengthy prison term, and a subsequent two-decade travel ban. It remains unclear what he was convicted of.

Areej said her family intends to appeal her brother's sentence within the allowed 30-day period.

"The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice," Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday. "This act continues Saudi Arabia’s profoundly disturbing assault on the freedom of expression and its pattern of human rights abuses, which must be condemned by all freedom-loving people worldwide."

She added, "Congress will continue to monitor this case closely throughout any appeals process, as well as any other human rights abuse in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable."

Pelosi's office and U.S. State Department officials contacted the family on Tuesday, offering their support, Areej said.

"[It] was very shocking and devastating to all of my family," she said of her brother's sentencing. "I just didn't even know how to break the details or the news to my mom. It took me like half the day until I was able to actually tell her. And she just started crying."

Pelosi, she said, has been closely following Abdulrahman's case for several years and providing the family with any available updates.

"Me and my family are deeply grateful for the speaker of the House, her standing for human rights and for especially supporting my family through this very, very difficult time," she said.

In a separate statement Tuesday, the State Department said it was "concerned by reports" of Abdulrahman's sentence.

"As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense," said Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson. "We will continue to elevate the role of human rights in our relationship with Saudi Arabia and encourage legal reforms that respect the human rights of all individuals."

That official response marks a decidedly different tone from the one taken by the Trump administration, which maintained a particularly friendly relationship with the Saudi government, and largely turned a blind eye to alleged human rights abuses — including, most notoriously, the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is widely believed to have been killed by Saudi government agents at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler.

Under his command, Saudi Arabia has carried out a sweeping crackdown on critics and dissenters, arresting scores of activists, journalists, clerics and even royal family members.

The Biden administration has already taken a notably tougher though cautiously diplomatic stance toward Saudi Arabia, which remains a strategic U.S. ally, with President Biden vowing to press its government on human rights issues.

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For Areej al-Sadhan, the administration's immediate response to her brother's imprisonment signals a major step toward improving human rights and "holding U.S. allies to the same values that we have here in the United States."

"I've been following Saudi human rights for a while since my brother's disappearance, and it's been worsening over the past few years, more than any time before," she said. "And what is really terrifying is that without real consequences to what happened to Khashoggi, cases of disappearance and torture have been increasing."

Areej said she has noticed a particular uptick in the frequency of harsh sentences given to social justice advocates like her brother.

"It's really terrifying what these human rights activists are facing in Saudi Arabia," she said. "And on a daily basis, we hear new cases of people being disappeared and imprisoned just for simply tweeting their opinions."

That threat, she added, extends to Saudi nationals who have fled the kingdom.

"My family, for example, and other dissidents and other activists are living in danger every day because they could be targeted, they could be kidnapped," Areej said. "We're living under a lot of intimidation and harassment from basically online trolls — threats of murder, threats of intimidation to try to silence us. So it is really scary, just that this is happening in the 21st century, to be honest."

Despite sharing his views through an anonymous Twitter account, Abdulrahman was identified by government authorities after a 2015 internal security breach at Twitter, Areej said. That's when several Twitter employees, acting as spies for the Saudi government, allegedly accessed more than 6,000 accounts, which authorities have purportedly used to harass or arrest dissidents, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S Justice Department.

Twitter, Areej said, needs to take more responsibility for the way its platform is being abused by autocratic regimes.

"I think Twitter is not doing enough. It's actually not giving attention to these cases," she said. "Twitter, unfortunately, is becoming a tool of oppression in countries like Saudi Arabia. The government is trying every possible way to use Twitter to track people, to trap them and to imprison them, torture them, and in some cases, kill them."

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