U.S. expresses concern over sentencing of Saudi aid worker

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is concerned about reports on the sentencing of a Saudi aid worker by a counterterrorism court and is watching the case closely, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who was detained by Saudi authorities in March 2018, was reportedly sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban, according to a statement from State Department spokesman Ned Price.

"We will continue to monitor this case closely throughout any appeals process. As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense," he said.

The Saudi government media office CIC did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Sadhan was arrested on March 12, 2018, from the Red Crescent Society offices in the capital Riyadh, where he worked.

His sister Areej, a U.S. citizen who has been advocating for his release, has said he was detained without a warrant or charges against him. Rights group say he was seized after his anonymous Twitter account was breached.

"No words can describe how I feel! This BRUTAL & UNJUST ruling is just a reminder of the horrible situation the Saudi ppl [people] are in," Areej al-Sadhan tweeted after the court session on Monday.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has moved to crush dissent while introducing social and economic reforms to modernise the kingdom. Saudi authorities have detained senior royals, activists, intellectuals and clerics.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, which has taken a tough stance over Saudi's human rights record, has urged Riyadh to release political prisoners. Saudi officials deny there are any political prisoners in the kingdom.

Diplomats have said Riyadh appeared to be acting to address potential friction with the Biden administration, which in February released an intelligence report implicating Prince Mohammed in the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The prince denies any involvement.

Last month, women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released after nearly three years in prison, having served half of her custodial sentence.

Two Saudi activists with U.S. citizenship have also been freed on bail pending trials on terrorism-related charges

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Paul Simao)