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Saudi Arabia activist sentenced to 11 years in prison for ‘support’ of women’s rights

Manahel al-Otaibi, who promoted female empowerment on social media, was arrested under anti-terror laws



By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

May 2, 2024


Credits @FFHR.CZ



A young women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia was secretly sentenced to 11 years in prison by an anti-terrorism court after being arrested for “her choice of clothing and support for women’s rights”.


Saudi officials confirmed in a statement to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights that Manahel al-Otaibi was sentenced on 9 January for what the Saudi government called “terrorist offences”.


Al-Otaibi, who was sentenced in a secret hearing before the counter-terrorism court, was found guilty of charges related to a Saudi anti-terror law that criminalises the use of websites to “broadcasts or publishes news, statements, false or malicious rumors, or the like for committing a terrorist crime”.


Al-Otaibi, a certified fitness instructor and artist who frequently promoted female empowerment on her social media accounts, was arrested in November 2022.


Among other charges, Otaibi was accused by Saudi authorities of using a hashtag – translated to #societyisready – to call for an end to male guardianship rules. Her sister, Fouz al-Otaibi was also accused of not wearing decent clothing but was able to flee Saudi Arabia before her arrest.


Another sister, Maryam, is a known women’s rights advocate who was detained, held, and eventually released in 2017 for protesting guardianship rules.


Amnesty International and ALQST, a rights group, called on Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release al-Otaibi and said her imprisonment “directly contradicts authorities’ narrative of reform and women’s empowerment”.


“With this sentence the Saudi authorities have exposed the hollowness of their much-touted women’s rights reforms in recent years and demonstrated their chilling commitment to silencing peaceful dissent,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Saudi Arabia.


Amnesty and ALQST pointed to an irony in Al-Otaibi’s case: the activist had been a vocal supporter of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “radical changes”, including the alleged relaxation of dress code for women, and said in a 2019 interview that she felt free to express her views and wear what she likes thanks to the prince’s declarations. She was arrested a few years later.


Otaibi’s social media accounts on X and Snapchat portrayed her as a young and progressive woman who loves fitness, art, yoga, and travel, while also promoting women’s rights.


Rights groups say al-Otaibi has been subjected to severe abuse, beginning with her forcible disappearance for five months from November 2023 to April 2024. Once she was back in contact with her family, she said she was held in solitary confinement and had broken a leg after being subjected to physical abuse. Saudi officials denied the claims.


Her case follows a slew of similar cases in which Saudi women, in particular, have been subjected to draconian sentences for using social media accounts to express themselves.


They include women such as Salma al-Shehab, sentenced to 27 years, Fatima al-Shawarbi, sentenced to 30 years, Sukaynah al-Aithan, sentenced to 40 years, and Nourah al-Qahtani, sentenced to 45 years.




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