Abdulrahman, an alumnus of Notre Dame de Namur University in California, went to work in Saudi Arabia in late 2014. On March 12, 2018, he was taken from his office at the Red Crescent in Riyadh as part of an aggressive sweep by the Saudi officials to crack down on peaceful activists, government critics and online commentators. After former Twitter employees allegedly spying for the Saudi government leaked his identity, Abdulrahman was targeted for peacefully and anonymously criticizing the kingdom’s repression, our family later learned from someone familiar with the U.S. investigation.
The Saudi government stole him from our lives. Now, our family’s best hope is that our elected officials in the United States speak up on his behalf.
After Abdulrahman was kidnapped, we had no idea what had happened to him. Finally, after almost two years, a relative in Riyadh received a call from him. He was barely able to share that Abdulrahman was being held at al-Ha’ir political prison before the call ended, and we endured another long period of silence.
During his forced disappearance, we received horrifying reports of my brother’s torture from the relatives of other prisoners: “electric shocks, beatings, flogging, suspension in stress-positions, sleep deprivation, threats of death, insults, verbal humiliation and solitary confinement.” We learned that he was forced to sign documents while blindfolded that were later used in his “trial.” We also learned that several other detainees experienced similar ordeals and that this was a systematic practice by Saudi authorities.
After a global campaign to demand contact with Abdulrahman, we were overjoyed to hear his voice on Feb. 22, and even more elated when he told us he would soon be released. Our joy was short-lived: He was quickly moved through an illegitimate secret trial process and handed a heavy sentence of 20 years, followed by a 20-year travel ban after his time served.
The psychological torture my family has endured has been exacerbated by the feeling that none of us are safe, anywhere. I have faced harassment and intimidation from Saudi government-affiliated online trolls while attempting to learn more about my brother’s ordeal. After attending a human rights conference in Oslo in 2019, I was followed by a man as I went to the airport early in the morning; Norwegian authorities believe he was linked to the Saudi Embassy in the city.
Our story represents only a small fraction of the human rights crisis in Saudi Arabia. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is widely known) attempts to show a modern kingdom to the world, he uses his power to crush dissent and silence every voice that might expose its reality. Rather than address legitimate concerns — such as poverty and rising unemployment — he imprisons those who raise such issues on social media.
Although the United States — my family’s country and my own — has spoken out against the murderous actions of Saudi authorities, failing to match those words with actions signals that such violations can be carried out with impunity. My brother’s verdict is a clear message to the Saudi public that those who exercise their right to free expression will face severe punishment, and it tells the world that, so long as MBS does not face sanctions, he will continue to act without any consequence.
Today, our family’s best hope for Abdulrahman’s safety and well-being — and the safety of many others like him — is that our elected U.S. officials take a strong stance in support of human rights. He is scheduled to appeal his sentence on Thursday. We are afraid this is our last chance to be reunited with him.
We need our elected representatives and the Biden administration to insist on Abdulrahman’s release so that he may be returned to our family in California. In the meantime, we ask for confirmation of his safety and well-being, and that he be allowed to communicate with our family. We implore U.S. officials to raise these concerns with their Saudi counterparts both in support of our interests as constituents and to stand on the right side of justice.
My family is exhausted. We and so many others should not have to spend days and years wondering if our beloved brother or son is safe, if he’s in pain, if he’s alive. My brother is an international aid worker and a dedicated advocate for human rights. He’s also my best friend: a kind person with a fantastic sense of humor who loves animals. He does not deserve to spend a day in prison, and our family does not deserve to endure this nightmare for 20 more years.