Saudi Arabia is accelerating trials of so-called dissidents, including a high-profile Saudi-American doctor, who fear becoming bargaining tools in a potential early showdown with Joe Biden's incoming administration.
The US president-elect has pledged to make the kingdom a “pariah” over its human rights failings after it largely got a free pass under President Donald Trump.
The trials, following a years-long crackdown on dissent, potentially put Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a collision course with Biden, who has also vowed to suspend US arms sales to the kingdom over its catastrophic five-year war in neighbouring Yemen.
After activist Loujain al-Hathloul was recently handed a nearly six-year prison term, with a suspended sentence making her release in early 2021 a possibility, Harvard-educated doctor, Walid Fitaihi, faces re-arrest after a long pre-trial detention.
In a shock court ruling last month, Fitaihi, the founder of a prominent hospital in the Red Sea city of Jeddah and a motivational speaker hailed by his supporters as the “Deepak Chopra of the Middle East”, was sentenced to six years in jail.
The 56-year-old remains free pending the outcome of his court appeal, which he filed this week.
Fitaihi, a household name with nearly two million Twitter followers, was released in 2019 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 the Saudi capital.
Campaigners and sources close to his family told AFP that Fitaihi was 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 uprisings, a source close to his family said Saudi Arabia could end up using such cases as a “negotiating tool” to temper Biden's position.
Through such political trials, “Saudi is telling Biden: 'Come, let's negotiate',” the source said.
'New red lines'
Separately on trial are two other imprisoned Saudi-Americans — Salah al-Haider, the son of a leading women's rights activist and Bader al-Ibrahim, a writer and physician.
Saudi authorities have not officially commented on their detention or charges.
The kingdom ended a more than three-year blockade of neighbouring Qatar on Tuesday, but it is pushing ahead with the trial in an anti-terrorism court of Salman al-Awdah, a prominent cleric who was detained in 2017 after he urged reconciliation in a tweet.
Alongside dozens of detained activists and royals, Saudi Arabia is also 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 into solitary confinement despite his frail 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 limits.”
A source close to the kingdom's leadership said Saudi rulers were “determined not to be pressured on this issue, so I don't see room for bargaining here”.
The trials, the source told AFP, were being speeded up now in order to simply “close the files”.
“I'm not sure that the Saudis fully understand the depth of the problem they're going to face with the new Biden administration,” said Hussein Ibish, a Washington-based Gulf expert.
“The Saudis are taking this aggressive attitude towards internal political prisoners when they know that this is a sore point with the US Democrats.”
Meanwhile, Fitaihi remains in limbo as he appeals his sentence, which the US State Department described as “disappointing”.
His personal assets are frozen, forcing him to accrue US taxes and penalties since 2017. A letter from a US tax attorney seen by AFP shows Fitaihi now owes $10.9 million.
His wife and six children — all US citizens — are barred from travelling outside the kingdom.
Fitaihi declined to be interviewed by AFP. Some political prisoners have previously been charged with contacting international media, though it remains unclear why that constitutes a crime.
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 in the fight against Covid-19 — and as a motivational speaker and television host made him a household name in the kingdom.
“'Why do you have so many followers?' his interrogators kept asking him in detention,” the source said. “They (Saudi authorities) want to destroy him. “