Rights groups urge Saudi Arabia to drop charges against Saudi-US doctor


Human Rights Watch and The Freedom Initiative call on the Saudi authorities to drop politicized charges against Dr.Walid Fitaihi, 55, a Saudi-American medical doctor and former host of a popular wellness show.

Fitaihi is being tried on vague charges linked to his social media activity expressing outrage over the killing of peaceful protesters since the Arab Spring. A Saudi judge threw out the prosecutor’s allegations of “sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood” during the latest court hearing, on December 09.

“The Saudi authorities should immediately drop the baseless and politically-motivated charges against Dr.Walid Fitaihi and allow him and his family members freedom of movement,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Trump administration, which has been unwilling to denounce Saudi rights abuses, should at least be willing to act on behalf of a US citizen unjustly prosecuted.”

The Saudi authorities should also drop arbitrary travel bans imposed since November 2017 on eight members of his family, all of whom are also United States citizens. The US administration has not spoken out publicly on Fitaihi’s case beyond acknowledging his detention in March 2019 but has advocated privately for his release and for lifting the travel ban.

Saudi authorities originally arrested Fitaihi in November 2017 and held him for 21 months without charge or trial. A family member said that he was initially detained in the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh for three months, then transferred to al-Ha’ir prison south of Riyadh. In late January 2019, the authorities transferred him to Dhahban prison, north of Jeddah.

A Fitaihi family member said that in early March, the authorities raided the family’s home in Jeddah following a New York Times story alleging that Fitaihi was tortured in detention, including being slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear, bound to a chair, and shocked with electricity.

Family member said that 15 or 16 men came to the house, bringing along Fitaihi himself wearing arm and leg shackles, and seized all the computers and mobile phones in the house.

In August, Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution brought Fitaihi to trial on unclear and baseless charges, largely accusing him of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly criticizing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. They provided only a few vague tweets as evidence. Fitaihi was released from detention the next day and remains free while on trial. However, the authorities reimposed the travel ban on him and his family.

“The private advocacy of the US government for Fitiahi has resulted in his release from prison, but he should not have been in there in the first place,” said Mohamed Soltan, development director at The Freedom Initiative. “For 776 days, Saudi Arabia has railroaded a US citizen and has confined him and his family to the country like hostages. That is not acceptable, and the US government should spare no measure until Fitaihi’s freedom is secured.”

After Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi crown prince in mid-2017, he reorganized the country’s security agencies, placing them directly under the royal court’s oversight. Soon after, these agencies arrested hundreds of critics and potential critics of Saudi government policies.

Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses against the detainees, including torture and other ill-treatment, and arbitrary travel bans on family members. (Source: HRW)