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Riyadh appeals court slashes sentence of US-Saudi doctor days ahead of Biden inauguration

The halving of Fitaihi's sentence comes ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration [Youtube]

Date of publication: 18 January, 2021

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Walid al-Fitaihi, a prominent US-Saudi doctor and motivational speaker, will no longer serve time in prison. Last month, he was sentenced to six years.
An appeals court in Saudi Arabia has almost halved a six-year prison sentence handed to a prominent US-Saudi doctor and suspended the remainder of his term, Reuters report.

Walid al-Fitaihi, who was sentenced last month, had his sentence cut to 3.2 years and a six-year travel ban reduced to 38 months, according to court documents seen by Reuters.

He will no longer serve time in prison since the appeals courts considered time served and suspended the remainder, the documents dated show.

Fitaihi, a household name with nearly two million Twitter followers, was temporarily released in 2019 pending trial, after nearly two years of detention - first in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel in a so-called anti-corruption swoop, and later in the notorious Al-Ha'ir prison near Riyadh.

Fitaihi was allegedly tortured, including with electric shocks. US lawmakers describe his detention as politically motivated.

Following his sentence over charges including obtaining US citizenship without official permission and tweeting in support of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, a source close to his family said such cases could be used as a "negotiating tool" by Saudi Arabia to temper the position of US President-elect Joe Biden.

Washington's incoming administration has indicated it will take a firmer stance against Saudi Arabia's human rights record, undoing years of policy under Donald Trump, who had provided a buffer against international criticism sparked by the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Fitaihi was sentenced to six years last month.

The appeals court upheld the conviction on charges listed in the court documents seen by Reuters, which also referenced support for a "terrorist organisation", understood to be a reference to the Muslim botherhood.

Alongside dozens of detained activists and royals, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing corruption charges against deposed former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a longtime CIA ally who has been held since March.

Authorities have threatened to send him back to solitary confinement despite his ailing health if he does not "release funds" related to the unproven allegations, a British parliamentary fact-finding panel said last month, describing the tactic as extortion.

"It is striking to see Prince Mohammed doubling down on these domestic cases,” Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told AFP.

"He could be tightening up with an eye to negotiations with Biden. Or he could be setting new red lines: internal Saudi affairs are off limit."

Read more: Saudi Arabia hands American doctor six-year prison sentence despite US appeals

Fitaihi's personal assets are frozen, forcing him to accrue US taxes and penalties since 2017. A letter from a US tax attorney seen by AFP had showed Fitaihi owing some $10.9 million.

His wife and six children – all US citizens – are banned from travelling outside the kingdom.

Known to pepper his talks with quotes from Paul Coelho and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the wiry-framed doctor continues to show up every day at the sprawling International Medical Center in Jeddah.

His work at the hospital – now on the frontline against Covid-19 – as well as a motivational speaker and television host, made him a household name in the kingdom.

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