The reason behind activist Manahil Al-Otaibi’s detention and prison sentence revealed

Earlier this week, Saudi activist Manahil Al-Otaibi was sentenced to 11 years in prison over her women’s rights advocacy in Saudi Arabia.

The announcement was made after 150 days of enforced disappearance, during which Manahel’s family was kept in the dark by prison officials regarding her whereabouts.

However, the prison sentence was disclosed after repeated UN requests to the Saudi regime to disclose Al-Otaibi’s fate. Saudi officials responded in a statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that Manahel Al-Otaibi was sentenced on January 9 on “terrorist charges.”

According to the court ruling, Manehel was sentenced in a secret session before the Anti-Terrorism Court on charges related to the Saudi anti-terrorism law, which criminalises the use of websites “to broadcast or publish false news, data, or rumors.” 

Manehel’s arrest, according to the indictment file, was prompted by a private image she shared on Snapchat while not donning 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.

Fawz Al-Otaibi, her sister, was also charged for failing to dress modestly, but she was able to leave Saudi Arabia before being taken into custody.

Manehel’s sister, Fawzia, broke her silence three days ago, speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian about the harassment the family is subjected to as a result of their involvement in women’s rights activism. She also disclosed the true circumstances surrounding Manehel’s arrest.

The target was originally Fawzia herself because the authorities had an old indictment file against her because of her repeated calls for women to be granted more rights and freedoms and her posting of images of herself on social media platforms wearing non-traditional clothing. As a result, the authorities arrested Fawzia in 2019 and fined her for allegedly committing an obscene act. After the fine, Fawzia left Saudi Arabia and hadn’t been back to her home country in three years. She thought the authorities had forgotten about her. She was wrong.

However, as soon as she came back in 2022, one of the officers summoned her to the police station so they could get some information, but she ran away and left the nation until today.

Manehel was arrested shortly after her family’s travel bans were imposed by the authorities as she was active on social media in women’s rights advocacy. Since then, she has endured forced disappearances, terrible and degrading treatment in prison. A few days before she was sentenced, Manehel had managed to speak to her family for the first time in more than four months, after contact had been cut off without explanation.

 Manahel al-Otaibi, a popular fitness instructor on social media in Saudi Arabia, was detained over her social media posts challenging the country’s male guardianship laws and women’s rights, despite praising some of the regime’s latest reforms in this regard. However, she was arrested after calling for further reforms in November 2022. Until today, she was neither charged nor tried.

Despite the Saudi regime’s attempts to introduce a set of social reforms granting women freedoms, including allowing women to drive, work, and travel, as part of a broader campaign to boost the Kingdom’s foreign image and improve tourism, the government continues its repressive approach against any Saudi woman calling for further reforms.

For years, the Saudi authorities have always targeted Twitter users as part of a wide campaign that included planting spies within the company to leak confidential user data about anonymous accounts criticizing the authorities.

The Saudi regime’s repressive campaign against Twitter users escalated after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) purchased – indirectly – a large share of Twitter through the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, to be the largest investor after Elon Musk and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and also controlling a $250 million (£200 million) stake in Snapchat.

According to media reports, any press inquiry sent to Twitter to comment on the repressive campaign carried out by the Saudi authorities against Twitter users faces only one response with an inappropriate emoji. The company’s automatic response to press inquiries has appeared since Musk took over the company.

Manahel is the latest Saudi victim to be arbitrarily arrested over social media posts challenging Saudi authorities. However, many have faced the same fate for the same reasons, including Salma Al-Shehab, who was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for retweeting anti-regime activists.

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