Activists of Amnesty International demonstrate in front of the Saudi embassy in Brussels in January 2021 for the release of blogger Raif Badawi

Washington (AFP) - The United States said Tuesday it was raising with Saudi Arabia a prison sentence handed to a US citizen over tweets critical of the kingdom, another source of tension between the historic allies.

The State Department confirmed the detention of Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a US citizen of Saudi origin, and said the United States brought up his case starting in December and as recently as Monday.

Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the tweets, his son Ibrahim confirmed to AFP.

“We have consistently and intensively raised our concerns regarding the case at senior levels of the Saudi government, both through channels in Riyadh and Washington,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.

“Exercising freedom of expression should never be criminalized,” he said.

The Washington Post reported that Almadi, who lives in Florida and had gone to visit family, was detained in November at the airport regarding 14 tweets he wrote over the previous seven years.

The newspaper, quoting the son Ibrahim, said that Almadi, who is 72, was sentenced on October 3 to 16 years in prison with a travel ban of another 16 years after that.

The son told the newspaper that his father had expressed only “mild” opinions with tweets mentioning corruption in Saudi Arabia and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based columnist who was dismembered in 2018 after being lured into the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

Almadi was charged in part with supporting and funding terrorism and trying to destabilize the kingdom, said his son, who confirmed the Post’s reporting to AFP.

The State Department said no US representative was present at the sentencing as Saudi Arabia originally gave a later date for the hearing before moving it up.

“We did not hear back from the Saudi government until after the October 3 date” of the sentencing, Patel said, without confirming the details of the decision.

The death of Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post, triggered outrage in Washington although then president Donald Trump boasted of saving the powerful crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, from major repercussions.

President Joe Biden declassified intelligence that showed that the crown prince ordered the killing and vowed to get tougher, including over Saudi Arabia’s deadly offensive in Yemen.

Biden in July nonetheless traveled to Saudi Arabia and was photographed in a fist-bump with the crown prince on a trip seen as seeking the kingdom’s help to lower gas prices by pumping more oil.

But OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia, on October 5 announced a major cut in production just ahead of US congressional elections, outraging Biden who vowed consequences.

Saudi Arabia has long faced criticism over human rights. Blogger and rights activist Raif Badawi served 10 years in prison through March and was publicly lashed 50 times for charges over content on his website.