One day in November 2015, Saad Almadi typed out a 14-word post on Twitter about Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince.
“Mohammed bin Salman has taken over the economy, defense and everything under the king,” he wrote, replying to a professor who is a fierce critic of the kingdom’s monarchy.
A Saudi-American dual citizen living in Florida, Mr. Almadi had little reason to believe his post would attract attention. He was a retired project manager, not an activist, and his words were largely factual — Prince Mohammed had taken control of many of the levers of power since his father became king that year. By 2017, he would push aside a cousin to become heir to the throne.
Yet the tweet resurfaced as evidence seven years later when Mr. Almadi, 72, was arrested during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Along with other Twitter posts he wrote that were critical of the Saudi government — and an “insulting picture” of Prince Mohammed saved on his phone — the tweet was cited as proof that he had “adopted a terrorist agenda by defaming symbols of the state” and “supported terrorist ideology,” according to court documents.
His prosecutor requested a severe punishment, “to rebuke him and deter others.” In October, Mr. Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison, lengthened on Feb. 8 to 19 years after he appealed.
Saudi Arabia has always been an authoritarian monarchy with limited freedom of speech. But 10 years ago, Mr. Almadi’s Twitter account, which has fewer than 2,000 followers, might have prompted a warning or an interrogation. Under Prince Mohammed, now prime minister, harsher punishments are being meted out to citizens who criticize their government, while the defendants on trial have become increasingly less prominent.
“My father is nowhere near being a dissident,” said Mr. Almadi’s son, Ibrahim Almadi, describing him as an open-minded man who spent his retirement traveling, hiking and wine tasting. Now he is being held in Al-Ha’ir prison, a facility in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that houses members of Al Qaeda alongside political activists. [Continue reading…]