WASHINGTON – U.S. citizens Salah al-Haidar and Bader Ibrahim have finally returned home to the United States after 673 days of wrongful imprisonment and two years under arbitrary travel bans in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East Democracy Center (MEDC) said today.

“We are relieved that Salah al-Haidar and Bader Ibrahim have finally reunited with their loved ones in the United States, but they should have never been unjustly detained nor forced to serve out two years under arbitrary travel bans merely for exercising their fundamental freedoms, ” said Abdullah Alaoudh, MEDC’s senior director of Countering Authoritarianism.

“The fact that it took years of international pressure for them to be fully free and allowed to reunite with their family in the United States shows just how dire the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains,” Alaoudh added.

Al-Haidar, a journalist, was able to leave Saudi Arabia in February 2024 and Ibrahim, a physician and writer, returned to the United States in April 2023. Saudi authorities, who routinely use arbitrary travel bans to silence dissent, often do not tell affected individuals when or if their travel bans will be lifted and many human rights defenders have been denied their right to freedom of movement even after their official travel bans have ended. Both al-Haidar and Ibrahim, who completed two years under travel bans in February 2023, only learned their bans had been lifted when they attempted to travel. 

The two U.S. citizens were swept up in a wave of arrests of women’s rights defenders in April 2019. Al-Haidar’s detention also came several days after his mother, U.S. lawful permanent resident and women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousuf, was released from prison. Al-Yousuf was jailed in May 2018 alongside Loujain Alhathloul and several other women’s rights activists, who advocated for women’s right to drive in the kingdom. Al-Yousuf remains banned from travel and unable to reunite with her family in the United States. Alhathloul, who was released from prison in 2021, continues to be prevented from traveling outside Saudi Arabia despite completing a five year travel ban in September 2023.

“Salah al-Haidar was forced to leave behind his elderly mother, who was on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen before she was wrongfully detained and tortured for bravely standing up for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration should do more to demand Aziza’s full freedom, as well as the freedom of Loujain Alhathloul and all the other courageous human rights defenders imprisoned or banned from travel in the country. Freedom of expression should be afforded to all and not conditional on citizenship or race,” said Alaoudh.

The Freedom Initiative, which merged with the Project on Middle East Democracy to form MEDC in January, worked to secure the freedom of al-Haidar and Ibrahim. While imprisoned, both men were subjected to ill-treatment and solitary confinement and denied contact with their families and lawyer during their more than 600 days of detention.

Al-Haidar remained forcibly disappeared for several weeks following his arrest. His family was not informed of the charges against him until 13 months after his arrest. Al-Haidar and Ibrahim faced charges related to their peaceful expression on social media. Both men were referred to trial before Saudi Arabia’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which is tasked with trying terrorism-related crimes and has handed down unjust, lengthy sentences against numerous activists and dissidents.

Al-Haidar and al-Ibrahim were provisionally released on February 4, 2021, and immediately placed under two-year travel bans. Saudi authorities also released ten others arrested at the same time and placed them under travel bans.

At least three U.S. citizens remain under arbitrary travel bans in Saudi Arabia: Saad Almadi, Walid Fitaihi and another person whose name has been withheld due to security concerns. A report published last year by the Freedom Initiative, documented rising transnational repression at the hands of Saudi Arabia, highlighting the use of wrongful detention and travel bans within Saudi Arabia in order to silence dissent in the United States. MEDC, a U.S.-based nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization, continues to work to free the unjustly detained and persecuted across the Middle East and North Africa.

For more information or to set up an interview, contact kristen.mctighe@mideastdc.org.