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Saudi court reduces sentence for US doctor ahead of Biden presidency

Walid al-Fitaihi, who was sentenced to six years last month, will no longer serve time in prison due to time served
Walid al-Fitaihi is a Saudi-American physician and wellbeing expert with a large social media following.
Walid al-Fitaihi, a prominent US-Saudi doctor and motivational speaker, will no longer serve time in prison (AFP)

A Saudi court has halved a six-year prison sentence handed to prominent US doctor Walid al-Fitaihi and suspended the remainder of his term, Reuters reported on Monday.

The 56-year-old, who was sentenced to six years last month, had his sentence cut to just over three years, according to court documents seen by the news agency.

The charges against him included obtaining US citizenship without official permission and tweeting in support of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Saudi Arabia sentences US doctor Walid Fitaihi to six years
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According to the documents, Fitaihi will no longer serve time in prison and had his six-year travel ban reduced to 38 months.

A Saudi-American physician and wellbeing expert with a large social media following, Fitaihi was detained in 2017 under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's anti-corruption campaign.

After initially being placed in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel, he was later moved to the notorious Al-Ha'ir prison near Riyadh.

After nearly two years of detention, during which he was allegedly tortured, including with electric shocks, the doctor was temporarily released in 2019 pending trial. US lawmakers condemned the detention and described it as politically motivated.

A source close to his family said such cases could be used as a "negotiating tool" by bin Salman, also known as MBS, to temper the position of US President-elect Joe Biden, who has sought to take a firmer stance on rights abuses in the kingdom.

Biden needs to keep promises

In documents seen by Reuters, the court upheld the original conviction on the charges, which also included support for a "terrorist organisation", understood to be a reference to the Muslim brotherhood.

Fitaihi's personal assets have been frozen, forcing him to accrue US taxes and penalties since 2017. A letter seen by the AFP news agency showed him owing some $10.9 million in US taxes. His wife and six children – all US citizens – have been banned from travelling outside the kingdom.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing corruption charges against dozens of detained activists, royals, and political dissidents, including deposed former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Authorities have threatened to send bin Nayef back to solitary confinement despite his ailing health if he does not "release funds" related to unproven allegations of corruption. A British parliamentary fact-finding panel described the tactic last month as extortion.

The Washington Post editorial board has urged the coming Biden administration to "withhold normal relations" with the kingdom until all rights activists and political prisoners are released, the bombing of Yemen ceases, and there is full accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In February, US government lawyers will be required to submit arguments in two separate lawsuits related to the Khashoggi case, brought under the Freedom of Information Act by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

"Shielding evidence that reveals the role of Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi regime in killing a US resident will only encourage them and other autocrats to believe that the US government will cover for them," Michael Eisner, the general counsel of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), wrote in FP on Monday.

"The Biden administration should keep its promise for accountability for Khashoggi's killing and release the relevant information with or without the specter of a lawsuit to force its hand."