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Saudi Arabia: Release forcibly disappeared woman facing trial for supporting women’s rights online


February 21, 2024


Credits @FFHR.CZ



Authorities in Saudi Arabia must immediately release 29-year-old fitness instructor, human rights defender and blogger Manahel al-Otaibi who has been forcibly disappeared since November 2023, Amnesty International said today. Prison and other officials have cut off all of her contact with her family and the outside world and refused to provide her family with information about her whereabouts and wellbeing despite their repeated inquiries.


Manahel al-Otaibi has been in detention for a year and a half and has spent the last year awaiting her trial before Saudi Arabia’s notorious counterterrorism court, the Specialized Criminal Court, on cybercrime law charges. She is being tried for posting photos of herself on Snapchat in a mall without the abaya (a traditional robe) and for social media posts in support of women’s rights and calling for the removal of Saudi Arabia’s repressive male guardianship laws. 


Saudi Arabia’s authorities must release Manahel al-Otaibi and drop the ludicrous charges against her. Pending her release, they must immediately reveal her whereabouts and allow her to contact her family. Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Saudi Arabia

“It is outrageous that Saudi Arabia’s authorities are punishing Manahel al-Otaibi for expressing her support for women’s rights online and for defying traditional dress codes. She should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone subjected to enforced disappearance and prosecution. Her case shatters any illusion that Saudi Arabia’s authorities are serious about genuine human rights reform,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Saudi Arabia. 


“What is even more outrageous is that her case has been referred to the counter terrorism court – notorious for punishing brave Saudi dissidents for their peaceful expression or assembly. Saudi Arabia’s authorities must release Manahel al-Otaibi and drop the ludicrous charges against her. Pending her release, they must immediately reveal her whereabouts and allow her to contact her family.”


According to court documents reviewed by Amnesty International, the Riyadh Criminal Court examined her case in January 2023 and then referred it to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), because her actions “violate religious principles and social values and disrupt public order and undermine the security of the society”. Saudi Arabia’s counter-terror court is known for carrying out grossly unfair trials and handing out harsh sentences, including the death penalty, to individuals peacefully expressing themselves online. 


Manahel al-Otaibi’s sister, Fawzia, told Amnesty International: 

“Shortly before we lost contact with her, Manahel told us that she had been beaten violently by a fellow prisoner… I am worried about my sister’s fate facing such an unjust court. This is the reality of how Saudi women are being treated that authorities are trying to hide behind their image washing in the media. Any activity promoting feminism and women’s rights is criminalized”. 


The charges against Manahel al-Otaibi include “publishing and spreading content that contains committing public sins and inciting individuals and girls in society to renounce religious principles,” which stand in stark contrast to the narrative of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who stated in a television interview in March 2018 that “the decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear” and that while the law stipulates “decent, respectful clothing” it “does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover”. 


This is the reality of how Saudi women are being treated that authorities are trying to hide behind their image washing in the media. Any activity promoting feminism and women’s rights is criminalized. Fawzia, Manahel al-Otaibi’s sister

The Riyadh Criminal Court document also lists other charges against Manahel al-Otaibi based on social media content that prosecutors deemed was “opposed to regulations and laws that relate to women” referring to posts in which she used the “EndMaleGuardianship” hashtag. 


In March 2022, Saudi Arabia’s first Personal Status Law was issued. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman touted this legislative development as a major “leap” toward “women’s empowerment,” Amnesty International published an analysis of the law finding that it perpetuates the male guardianship system and codifies discrimination against women in most aspects of family life.


Both of Manahel al-Otaibi’s sisters have also faced investigation for criminal charges for campaigning for women’s rights. 


In Manahel al-Otaibi’s hearing, the Public Prosecutor noted that her sister, Fawzia al-Otaibi, “leads a propaganda campaign to incite Saudi girls to denounce religious principles and rebel against customs and traditions in the Saudi culture” for using the #society_is_ready hashtag which “promotes liberation and the fall of male guardianship”. The court document reviewed by Amnesty International, states that a separate order would be issued for Fawzia al-Otaibi’s arrest. She is currently in the United Kingdom and cannot return to Saudi Arabia for fear of arrest and prosecution. 


Their other sister, Mariam al-Otaibi, is a prominent advocate against male guardianship in the Kingdom. She was previously charged and detained in 2017 for 104 days for her women’s rights activism and is currently subjected to a travel ban and restrictions on her speech. 


“The authorities have touted their women’s rights reforms, including reforms to the male guardianship system and the relaxing of dress codes for women, as a sign of progress in the Kingdom. But this trial is proof that these reforms are not genuine and that the authorities will go to great lengths to punish and silence outspoken women with prolonged arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and grossly unfair trials,” said Bissan Fakih.



Background


Since 2018, Saudi authorities have arbitrarily detained Saudi women’s rights activists who campaigned for the end of the male guardianship system and the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights activists reported facing sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation. Those released are under travel bans and face restrictions on their freedom of expression.


Numerous human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, independent journalists, writers, activists and clerics in the country have been arbitrarily detained, put through prolonged and unfair trials – often by the SCC. Amnesty International has so far documented the cases of 69 individuals prosecuted in the past decade for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly under the counter-terror law and anti-cybercrime law. Of those, at least 32 have been prosecuted for peacefully expressing their opinions on social media. The real number of such prosecutions is likely much higher.


On 25 January 2023, the SCC re-sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student, to 27 years in prison followed by a 27-year travel ban upon appeal. She was initially sentenced to 34 years in prison after a grossly unfair trial for publishing tweets in support of women’s rights.




Source: amnesty.org


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