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Saudi Arabia: 29-year-old fitness instructor facing trial for championing women's rights

Manahel al-Otaibi has has been forcibly disappeared since November © Private

Manahel al-Otaibi detained for posting Snapchat selfies without an abaya and for calling for the removal of repressive male guardianship laws

Her UK-based sister Fawzia has also been targeted by the authorities

‘The authorities will go to great lengths to punish and silence outspoken women’ - Bissan Fakih  

The Saudi Arabian authorities must immediately release a 29-year-old fitness instructor, human rights defender and blogger who has been forcibly disappeared since November, said Amnesty International. 

Manahel al-Otaibi has already been in detention for a year-and-a-half and has spent the last year awaiting trial before the country’s notorious counter-terrorism court - the Specialised Criminal Court - on cybercrime law charges. 

Al-Otaibi is being tried for posting photos of herself on Snapchat in a mall without an abaya, and for social media posts in support of women’s rights and calling for the removal of Saudi Arabia’s repressive male guardianship laws.

According to court documents reviewed by Amnesty, the Riyadh Criminal Court examined her case in January 2023 and referred it to the Specialised Criminal Court on the basis that her actions “violate religious principles and social values and disrupt public order and undermine the security of the society”. Prosecutors have specifically referenced posts of hers which used the hashtag #EndMaleGuardianship. 

Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism court is notorious for conducting grossly unfair trials and handing out harsh sentences - including the death penalty - to those who have peacefully expressed themselves online. Prison officials have cut Manahel al-Otaibi off from all contact with her family and the outside world, and refused to provide her family with information about her whereabouts or wellbeing despite their repeated inquiries.

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 Saudi 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 states that a separate order would be issued for Fawzia al-Otaibi’s arrest. Fawzia is currently in the UK and cannot return to Saudi Arabia for fear of immediate arrest. Their other sister, Mariam al-Otaibi, is a prominent advocate against Saudi male guardianship. In 2017, she was detained for 104 days and charged over her women’s rights activism and is currently subject to a travel ban and restrictions on her speech. 

Manahel al-Otaibi’s sister Fawzia told Amnesty: 

“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 the authorities are trying to hide behind their image-washing in the media. 

“Any activity promoting feminism and women’s rights is criminalised.” 

Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia Campaigner, said: 

“It is outrageous that the Saudi Arabian authorities are punishing Manahel al-Otaibi for expressing her support for women’s rights online and for defying traditional dress codes.

“Her case shatters any illusion that the Saudi Arabian authorities are serious about genuine human rights reform.

“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.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities must release Manahel al-Otaibi and drop the ludicrous charges against her. She should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone subjected to enforced disappearance and prosecution.

“Pending her release, they must immediately reveal her whereabouts and allow her to contact her family.”

Six-year-long crackdown

Since 2018, the Saudi authorities have arbitrarily detained numerous human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, independent journalists, writers, activists and clerics, putting many through prolonged and unfair trials, often by the Specialised Criminal Court. In the past decade, Amnesty has documented the cases of 69 people prosecuted under the country’s counter-terror law and anti-cybercrime law for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Of those, at least 32 have been prosecuted for peacefully expressing their opinions on social media. The real number of prosecutions is likely to be much higher. A number of women’s rights activists who’ve campaigned for the end of the male guardianship system and the right to drive have been among those targeted. Women’s rights activists have reported facing sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation, and those who’ve been released are under travel bans and face restrictions over their free speech. In one very glaring case, on 25 January 2023 the Specialised Criminal Court re-sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student, to 27 years in prison. She was initially sentenced to 34 years after a grossly unfair trial for publishing tweets in support of women’s rights.

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