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Saudi Arabia frees American imprisoned over critical tweets

In this photo provided by Ibrahim Almadi, Saad Ibrahim Almadi sits in a restaurant in an unidentified place, in the United States, on August 2021.  (Ibrahim Almadi via AP) In this photo provided by Ibrahim Almadi, Saad Ibrahim Almadi sits in a restaurant in an unidentified place, in the United States, on August 2021. (Ibrahim Almadi via AP)
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WASHINGTON -

A 72-year-old American imprisoned more than a year in Saudi Arabia over tweets critical of the Saudi crown prince was back with family members in Riyadh on Tuesday, but it remained unclear whether the kingdom would drop a travel ban to allow him to return home to Florida.

Saudi Arabia on Monday freed Saad Almadi, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who had been a retiree living in Florida until Saudis detained him when he arrived for a 2021 family visit to the kingdom. Saudi courts subsequently sentenced Almadi to 19 years in prison over his years of past posts on social media.

A State Department spokesman, Vedant Patel, on Tuesday welcomed the news of Almadi's release, but would not comment on the ban Saudi Arabia had imposed earlier to keep the Florida man from returning home after he finished his prison sentence for the tweets. "Each country is going to have its own sovereign laws and each case is different, so I'm not going to speak about this," Patel said.

Almadi is now at home with family members who live in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said his son, Ibrahim Almadi. Saudi officials dropped all charges against the elder Almadi, Ibrahim Almadi and advocates familiar with the case said.

The Florida man's imprisonment over tweets had been one of several alleged human rights abuses that had soured relations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden. That included Saudi officials' killing of a U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and prison sentences and travel bans that Saudi Arabia under the crown prince's tenure has given Saudi rights advocates and perceived rivals and critics of the powerful crown prince.

Both Prince Mohammed and the Biden administration recently have taken steps toward restoring better relations. The two countries are partners in a decades-old security arrangement in which the U.S. provides security for Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich kingdom keeps global markets supplied with oil.

Saudi Arabia had sentenced Almadi last year to 16 years in prison, saying his critical tweets about how the kingdom was being governed amounted to terrorist acts against it.

As U.S. officials worked to win his release, and after Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia last summer in an attempt to improve relations with the oil-rich nation, a Saudi appeals court tacked an additional three years on to his sentence.

Ibrahim Almadi had campaigned hard and publicly for his father's freedom. The son had pushed the Biden administration to formally declare his father as wrongfully detained by the kingdom, and had accused U.S. officials of holding back on criticism in the case in the interest of mending relations with the oil giant.

"Now we have to fight travel ban," he added.

Saudi Arabia did not acknowledge Almadi's release. However, the kingdom routinely pardons prisoners ahead of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which could begin as soon as Tuesday night.

A retired project manager in the United States, Almadi was arrested in 2021 when he arrived for what was to have been a two-week visit to see family in the kingdom. Once in custody, he was confronted by Saudi authorities with tweets he had posted over several years from his home in Florida, his son says.

Almadi's tweets included one noting Prince Salman's consolidation of power in the kingdom and another that spoke of Khashoggi's killing. U.S. intelligence officials earlier concluded the crown prince authorized the hit team that killed Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"We are relieved that Saad Almadi has been released, but he should have never spent a day behind bars for innocuous tweets," said Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director for the Freedom Initiative, a U.S.-based group that advocates for those it considers unjustly detained in the Middle East.

Alaoudh urged the U.S. to continue to press for the release of all rights advocates and others detained in Saudi Arabia.

Freedom Initiative says at least four U.S. citizens and one legal permanent resident already were detained in Saudi Arabia under travel bans, and that at least one other older U.S. citizen remains imprisoned. Many of the travel bans targeted dual citizens advocating for greater rights in the kingdom, such as Saudi women's right to drive.

Ibrahim Almadi said his father had lost extensive weight in prison and that his health had worsened drastically.

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Jon Gambrell contributed from Dubai and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee from Washington.

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