Manahel al-Otaibi: Saudi women’s rights activist jailed for 11 years

Manahel al-Otaibi: Saudi women’s rights activist jailed for 11 years

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Two human rights groups have condemned an 11-year prison sentence handed to a Saudi fitness instructor and women’s rights activist by a terrorism court.

Manahel al-Otaibi, 29, was convicted of charges related to her clothing choices and expression of her views online, Amnesty International and ALQST said.

These included calls for an end to the guardianship system and videos of her shopping without an abaya, they added.

Saudi diplomats told the UN she was found guilty of “terrorism offences”.

A letter from the Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf kingdom’s mission in Geneva confirmed that Manahel al-Otaibi’s trial had concluded with her conviction in January, but it provided no further details about the case.

Dozens of people, many of them women, have been have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in the past two years in connection with social media posts.

Amnesty International and ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights organisation, said Manahel al-Otaibi was an early supporter of the social and economic reforms enacted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after he was named heir to the throne in 2017 by his father King Salman.

Two years later, she told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that she felt free to wear what she liked and express her views. She also explained that her behaviour was “based on what the crown prince has said… that I have the right to choose what I want to wear, as long as it is respectable”.

In November 2022, she was arrested on terrorism charges amid an intensified crackdown on online dissent.

ALQST said she was initially accused of violating the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, including “opposing the laws relating to women, such as the male guardianship system and the hijab law”; “participating in several hashtags opposing these laws”; “having several photos and video clips in indecent clothes on [social media] accounts”, and “going to the shops without wearing an abaya, photographing this, and publishing it on Snapchat”.

Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, a woman’s father, brother, husband or son has the authority to make critical decisions on their behalf about marriage, divorce and their children.

Her sister Fawzia faced similar charges, but fled Saudi Arabia that year after being summoned for questioning, ALQST added.

Three months after her arrest, Manahel al-Otaibi’s case was referred to the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). Rights groups say the terrorism tribunal has been used to prosecute peaceful dissidents and that it is notorious for violations of fair trial standards and handing out harsh sentences.

On 9 January, she was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison by the court, but the verdict was only publicly revealed in the Saudi mission’s letter to the UN Human Rights Office, which was dated 25 January.

The letter said the court found her guilty of “terrorism offences” under articles 43 and 44 of the Counter-Terrorism Law. They outline sentences for “any person who creates, launches, or uses a website or a program on a computer or on an electronic device to commit [a terrorism offence]”, and “any person who, by any means, broadcasts or publishes news, statements, false or malicious rumours, or the like for committing a terrorist crime”.

The letter stressed that the court “verified all the evidence against her, while fully respecting the international obligations of Saudi Arabia”.

“The government wishes to underscore the fact that the exercise and defence of rights is not a crime under Saudi law; however, justifying the actions of terrorists by describing them as exercising or defending rights is unacceptable and constitutes an attempt to legitimize terrorist crimes,” the letter added.

ALQST’s head of advocacy Lina al-Hathloul said Manahel al-Otaibi’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,” she said.

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