Concerns raised as activist Manahil Al-Otaibi denied contact with external world

Together for Justice expressed deep concern after imprisoned Saudi activist Manahil Al-Otaibi was denied contact with the external world for more than two months, while prison authorities continued to refuse the family’s demands to disclose any information related to her detention conditions.

Manahil Al-Otaibi is a Saudi fitness trainer and activist. She has always used her accounts on social media, especially Snapchat, to empower women’s rights in the Kingdom. While she applauded certain recent reforms implemented by the Saudi government, her calls for additional reforms resulted in her detention in November 2022. She has not been formally charged or put on trial yet.

The indictment file stated that Manahil’s arrest was due to a personal photo she posted on Snapchat when she was not wearing the black abaya. However, since the account settings prevent outsiders from viewing the content, the authorities did not provide an explanation for how Manahil came to take this photo.

Yet, Manahil’s case was not brought before the judiciary by the Saudi authorities, and she was kept imprisoned in a small cell devoid of even the most basic rights. She was also only permitted to communicate with her family in restricted ways until approximately two months ago, when her family lost contact with her and the prison administration failed to notify them of any information about her detention conditions.

Even though the Saudi government is making an effort to give women more freedoms and to lessen restrictions on them—such as the right to drive, work, travel, and dress—as part of a larger effort to improve tourism and the Kingdom’s external image—the government is still using a repressive strategy against any Saudi woman who dared to demand more reforms and freedoms.

According to well-confirmed documents, the government of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has long targeted Twitter users as part of a broad campaign of domestic and international repression. This campaign included the recruiting of secret agents within the company to leak private user data and identify anonymous accounts critical of the government.

The Saudi regime’s repressive campaign against users of social media platforms, particularly Twitter (now known as X), intensified after MBS indirectly acquired a sizable share of Twitter through the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, of which he chairs its board of directors. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is now the largest investor in Twitter after Elon Musk, and he also owns a $250 million (£200 million) stake in Snapchat.

Since then, Twitter has automatically responded to press inquiries bout Saudi repressive campaign against online activists with an inappropriate and impolite emoji.

As for Snapchat, the government issued a warning to users not to post any critical comments about the platform in an official statement that was released earlier in the year. “Any insult to the regime is considered a criminal offense,” the statement reads, leaving open-ended interpretations up to the security or legal agencies to define what exactly constitutes an insult.

This alert was issued soon after the CEO of the California-based Snapchat app and the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture finalized a “cooperation” agreement.

Snapchat’s relationship with the Kingdom dates back to 2018, when 2.3% of the company’s shares, or $250 million, were invested by Saudi financier Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Al-Otaibi’s case is a clear example of Saudis being arrested and imprisoned for using social media accounts to promote reform or challenge the Saudi authorities. Though there are many cases before Al-Otaibi, one that stands out is Salma Al-Shehab, who was sentenced to over three decades in prison for having a Twitter account and following and retweeting rights activists.

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