‘Where’s my father?’: Prominent Saudi activist’s family plead with US to secure his freedom


More than four months after his 10-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia ended without release, the family of Mohammed al-Qahtani has posted a public message pleading with the Biden administration for help in securing his freedom.

The IS video, posted Friday, after months of frustration from the family, who say the Biden administration is not doing nearly enough to press for Riyadh Qahtani’s release. The US State Department was tagged in the video posted to Twitter.

“As a US citizen, I ask the US administration and the international community to help us save my father and release him immediately and unconditionally,” Omar al-Qahtani, Mohammed’s son, said in the video.

“Where is my father? Free my father from the Saudi prison,” Omar said loudly to conclude the video.

The Qahtani family had been debating for weeks about whether or not to release the video. But after learning from a reliable source that Qahtani was last seen in hospital due to a hunger strike and was being held in solitary confinement, they felt there was no other option.

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“We have been thinking about this video for a long time,” Maha, Mohammed Qahtani’s wife, told Middle East Eye.

Maha said she had been in contact with the Biden administration since Qahtani’s sentence ended, but every time she raised the issue of his detention, the State Department would only say they were working on the issue but could not she made no promises.

‘They can change, completely change. But they don’t care’

– Maha al-Qahtani

“They are just aware of the situation. They will keep trying and pushing but that’s it. There are no promises,” she said. “They can make a change, a complete change. But they don’t care.”

The State Department told MEE it was “concerned about the welfare of the human rights activist Mr al-Qahtani” and that his family had not spoken to him since October, but did not add anything else about the detention.

Middle East Eye also contacted the Saudi embassy in Washington, which did not respond at the time of publication.

The public message appears to represent a break away from the Biden administration’s approach to dealing with keeping Americans abroad.

On the State Department’s website, it says about its section on foreign detention that it is “always a good idea for families to discuss your social media plans and public statements” with US officials.

The reason is that Washington’s strategy for dealing with detention cases is to decide whether to publicly or privately label the case as “wrongful detention”.

“Most of the time they respond with things like ‘we are aware, we are concerned about the situation’. To be honest with you, nothing has been done. Nothing,” said Maha of the US administration.

“You should support human rights, you should support right, not wrong. You should stand for what is right, not what is in your interest?”

‘It’s like we’re not there’

Qahtani, a leading human rights activist in the kingdom, was arrested in 2012 for his role in co-founding the now-disbanded Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). He was charged with creating an unlicensed organization and criticizing state policy, according to the human rights group ALQST.

Along with other members of the group, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013. When he was not released on the day his sentence ended in November 2022, human rights organizations and his family became increasingly concerned about his fate.

“We are holding the Saudi government responsible for any physical or mental harm or damages [to him],” Omar said in the Friday morning Twitter post.

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In response to an inquiry by the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders in January, the Saudi government said Qahtani had committed “several criminal offenses” inside the prison at the end of his sentence and is being held as is. investigated.

They added that Qahtani “receives the necessary medical care” and that his health conditions are monitored.

But the Qahtani family, who used to speak to him on a daily basis, have not heard from him since October 2022, and no information has been given by the Saudi authorities on Qahtani’s status.

“That’s not the message we got. So I don’t know what’s going on. To be honest with you I don’t trust what they say either,” said Maha.

“We are trying to communicate with them, but they completely ignore us. It is like we are nothing, because we do not exist,” she said of the Arab authorities.

US negligence

This is not the first time that Arab Americans have expressed frustration with the Biden administration over the handling of the detention of their loved ones in the kingdom.

In 2021, the Biden administration was accused of dragging its feet in the killing of Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz, who is among a small group of US citizens believed to be held by the Syrian government or allied forces. with Damascus.

‘Speaking is the solution when it comes to dealing with the kingdom of silence’

– Ibrahim Almadi

“It seems that the Biden administration does not consider Syria to be at the top of their list [of priorities] at this time,” Kamalmaz’s daughter Maryam told MEE at the time.

Last year, when Saad Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for tweets he wrote, his son Ibrahim told the Washington Post that the State Department was lax in its approach to the case, including the US embassy in Saudi Arabia Saudi without visiting Almadi. until six months after his arrest.

Ibrahim told the Post that the State Department had told him not to speak publicly about the case, but he said he no longer believed his father’s freedom would be secured if he remained silent.

In March, the charges against Almadi were dropped and he was released from prison but remains under a travel ban.

Ibrahim told MEE that with the many cases of Americans being detained abroad, speaking out publicly is the only path left for their desperate families.

“Many American citizens are missing their parents because of travel bans or increased sentences without fair trials,” Ibrahim said. “The solution is to speak up when it comes to dealing with the kingdom of silence.”

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