Saudi women’s rights activist secretly sentenced to 11 years in prison for ‘choice of clothing’

Manahel-al-Otaibi was arrested in November 2022 after she called for reforms around women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Namita Singh
Wednesday 01 May 2024 07:19 BST
This undated photo made available by ALQS, shows Manahel al-Otaibi
This undated photo made available by ALQS, shows Manahel al-Otaibi (AP)

Saudi Arabia secretly sentenced a 29-year-old women’s rights activist to 11 years in prison for “her choice of clothing and support for women’s rights”.

Arrested in November 2022 for her social media posts advocating for liberal reforms in the country, Manahel al-Otaibi was found guilty of “terrorist offences” in a secret hearing on 9 January this year. The anti-terror law in Saudi Arabia criminalises the use of social media for broadcasting or publishing “news, statements, false or malicious rumours, or the like for committing a terrorist crime”.

The sentencing was revealed in late January in a reply to UN Special Rapporteurs about her case, even as her family are yet to have access to her court documents or the evidence presented against her.

A fitness instructor, Al-Otaibi posted videos on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat calling for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, which requires women to seek men’s permission for travel, marriage, and living arrangements.

She was also charged for publishing videos of herself wearing “indecent clothes”, and “going to the shops without wearing an abaya”. Her sister Fawzia al-Otaibi faces similar charges, but fled Saudi Arabia fearing arrest after being summoned for questioning in 2022.

Criticising the sentence, Amnesty International called it an “appalling and cruel injustice”.

“Since the moment she was arrested, Saudi Arabia’s authorities have subjected her to a relentless catalogue of abuses, from unlawful detention for supporting women’s rights to enforced disappearance for over five months while she was being secretly interrogated, tried and sentenced and subjected to repeated beatings by others in the prison,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Saudi Arabia.

“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.”

Criticising the arrest, Lina Alhathloul, member of rights group ALQST, said: “Manahel’s confidence that she could act with freedom could have been a positive advertisement for Mohammed bin Salman’s much-touted narrative of leading women’s rights reforms in the country.

“Instead, by arresting her and now imposing this outrageous sentence on her, the Saudi authorities have once again laid bare the arbitrary and contradictory nature of their so-called reforms, and their continuing determination to control Saudi Arabia’s women.”

Amnesty and ALQTS pointed at the irony in Al- Otaibi’s arrest, saying she had been an early believer in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promises of reform.

In a 2019 TV interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, she described the “radical changes” taking place in the Saudi kingdom, including the dress code reforms, and said she felt free to express her views and wear what she liked on the basis of the Crown Prince’s declarations. She was arrested for exercising these freedoms, the groups said.

Her case follows the arrest of several activists who were held for denouncing Saudi rules, or following dissidents who do so, on social media. This includes Salma al-Shehab, a former doctoral student at Leeds University who is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence.

Another is US citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison over tweets he posted while abroad. Saudi Arabia freed him in March 2022 though he faced a travel ban preventing him from returning home to Florida.

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