Saudi Arabia is facing a growing number of calls to lift a travel ban on a prominent Saudi American physician who has been in legal limbo since being jailed and allegedly tortured as part of a mass crackdown in the kingdom more than two years ago.
Human Rights Watch this week urged Saudi authorities to drop what it characterized as politicized charges against Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi native who obtained U.S. citizenship while studying medicine at George Washington University and Harvard University more than a decade ago.
The group also called for the kingdom to lift a travel ban imposed on eight members of Fitaihi's family, all U.S. citizens as well.
The State Department expressed concern about the case this week and vowed to work toward a resolution.
The attention to Fitaihi's case suggests Saudi Arabia will continue to face pressure from the United States, even after announcing death sentences for five Saudis in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year and prison sentences for three others.
Fitaihi's son has lobbied the Trump administration and members of Congress to intervene.
Fitaihi comes from one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia. He is known throughout the kingdom as the founder of a private hospital, a motivational speaker and a television host with millions of followers on social media. He discussed his Muslim faith in his speeches, but his message also focused on personal health and self-help.
Fitaihi was among hundreds of business executives, government officials and royal family members arrested in 2017 and imprisoned at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. He eventually was transferred to a prison and held without charges for almost two years. His family has said he was tortured while behind bars.
In late July, Fitaihi was brought to trial on charges that the courts did not specify but that Human Rights Watch said were rooted in accusations he sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist movement, and had publicly criticized Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi. Fitaihi was released from detention and is free for the time being, but the travel ban prohibits him and his relatives from leaving the country.
"For 776 days, Saudi Arabia has railroaded a U.S. citizen and has confined him and his family to the country like hostages," said Mohamed Soltan, the leader of the Freedom Initiative, which released a joint statement with Human Rights Watch on Fitaihi's case this week. "The US government should spare no measure until Fitaihi's freedom is secured," he said.
U.S. diplomats have been advocating in private for Fitaihi's release and a lift of the travel ban, but they have said little publicly beyond asserting their commitment to the welfare of U.S. citizens abroad.
Cases of U.S. citizens and residents treated unjustly in Saudi Arabia have been a sensitive issue for the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a linchpin of regional stability, despite congressional anger over civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a legal resident of the United States.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the State Department, said this week that the United States "remains concerned by the case of U.S. citizen Dr. Walid Fitaihi in Saudi Arabia."
"We will ensure that Dr. Fitaihi continues to receive consular support until the situation is resolved and he and his family are able to resume their normal lives," the official said. "The United States will continue to work with Saudi authorities to resolve this case."
Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, criticized the Trump administration for not speaking out sooner.
"The Saudi authorities should immediately drop the baseless and politically motivated charges against Dr. Fitaihi and allow him and his family members freedom of movement," Page said.
This article was written by Carol Morello, a reporter for The Washington Post.