Publication date: 30/04/2024

Saudi Arabia’s authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old fitness instructor and women’s rights activist, who has been sentenced to 11 years in prison because of her choice of clothing and support for women’s rights, Amnesty International and ALQST said today. The decision directly contradicts the authorities’ narrative of reform and women’s empowerment.

Manahel al-Otaibi was sentenced in a secret hearing before the country’s notorious counter-terrorism court, the Specialized Criminal Court, on 9 January 2024, but the decision was only revealed weeks later in the Saudi government’s formal reply to a request for information in a Joint Communication by UN Special Rapporteurs about her case.

Her charges related solely to her choice of clothing and expression of her views online, including calling on social media for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, publishing videos of herself wearing “indecent clothes”, and “going to the shops without wearing an abaya” (a traditional dress). Her sister Fawzia al-Otaibi faces similar charges, but fled Saudi Arabia fearing arrest after being summoned for questioning in 2022.

Yet, according to Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, Manahel al-Otaibi was found guilty of absurd "terrorist offences" under articles 43 and 44 of the kingdom's draconian Counter-Terrorism Law, criminalizing “Any person who creates, launches, or uses a website or a program on a computer or on an electronic device … or to publish information on the manufacture of incendiary devices, explosives, or any other devices used in terrorist crimes”, as well as “Any person who, by any means, broadcasts or publishes news, statements, false or malicious rumors, or the like for committing a terrorist crime”. Al-Otaibi’s family have not had access to her court documents, or the evidence presented against her.

“Manahel’s conviction and 11-year sentence is 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. 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.

“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,” said Lina Alhathloul, ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy.

Although the authorities have removed some of the restrictions women face under the male guardianship system, many discriminatory features remain in place. The long-awaited 2022 Personal Status Law, which was supposed to be a major reform, in fact serves to codify rather than abolish many restrictive elements of the system, including matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. 

Manahel al-Otaibi had, ironically, 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. Yet she was arrested on 16 November 2022 for exercising exactly these freedoms.

Following her arrest, Manahel al-Otaibi was subjected to physical and psychological abuse in Riyadh’s Malaz Prison, and she was forcibly disappeared for five months from 5 November 2023 until April 2024. On 14 April 2024, when she was finally able to contact her family again, she told them she was being held in solitary confinement and had a broken leg as a result of physical abuse. She also said she was denied health care. 

“The Saudi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Manahel al-Otaibi and all those currently detained in the kingdom for the peaceful exercise of their human rights. Pending al-Otaibi’s release, the authorities must ensure her safety and access to adequate health care,” said Lina Alhathloul, ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy.

“It is time that Saudi authorities amended the discriminatory provisions in the Personal Status Law and abolished the male guardianship system in its entirety,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Saudi Arabia.

Background

According to the Saudi government’s response to the UN, as of 25 January 2024 Manahel al-Otaibi’s sentencing was subject to appeal and her case remained “under consideration before the courts”.
 
Al-Otaibi’s sentencing comes amid an intensified crackdown on free speech in Saudi Arabia, including online expression. In the past two years, Saudi courts have convicted and handed down lengthy prison terms on dozens of individuals for theie expression on social media, including many women, such as Salma al-Shehab (27 years), Fatima al-Shawarbi (30 years), Sukaynah al-Aithan (40 years) and Nourah al-Qahtani (45 years).

In 2019, as part of a drive to open up the country for tourism, the authorities announced a relaxation of dress codes for foreign women visiting the country. However, this concession has not been extended to female citizens and residents, who instead face legal uncertainty for dressing freely in public. Later in 2019, in a promotional video published by the state security agency, the authorities even categorised feminism as a form of “extremist” thinking, but they were forced to quickly backtrack and the Saudi Human Rights Commission had to clarify that feminism was “not a crime”.

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