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Saudi Arabia Sentences Fitness Influencer to 11 Years in Prison, Sparking Human Rights Concerns


Saudi Arabia has confirmed that Manahel al-Otaibi, a popular female fitness instructor and social media influencer, has been sentenced to 11 years in prison. The confirmation came in a letter to the United Nations but did not specify the exact “terrorism offenses” she allegedly committed. This case has raised significant concerns among human rights activists about the limits of freedom of expression in the kingdom.

Despite the kingdom’s insistence that the case was unrelated to al-Otaibi’s online activities, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and ALQST, argue otherwise. According to these groups, al-Otaibi’s charges were directly linked to her social media posts. She had advocated for women’s rights, including the abolition of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, and posted videos of herself in what authorities deemed “indecent clothes,” including not wearing an abaya in public.

An Amnesty International and ALQST joint statement stated that her only crimes were her clothing, calling for an end to the male guardian system in the country and shopping without proper coverage. 

Official Response and International Reaction

In a letter dated January 25, Saudi Arabia’s permanent mission to the U.N. in Geneva addressed the case, claiming that there had been “unfounded and uncorroborated allegations and claims” made about al-Otaibi. However, the letter did not provide specific evidence or details about her alleged crimes.

Court documents seen by The Associated Press indicate that al-Otaibi was charged with “defaming the kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs, and challenging the judiciary and its justice.” These charges were based on her advocacy for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQ+ rights, and the abolition of the male guardianship laws. Additionally, she was accused of using Arabic hashtags that included phrases like “overthrow the government.”

Manahel al-Otaibi’s case is the latest in a series of actions taken by Saudi authorities against activists who criticize the kingdom’s laws on social media. Since 2018, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s de facto leadership, Saudi Arabia has seen some liberalization, such as allowing women to drive and lifting certain other restrictions. However, these reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, with several activists being arrested for their online activities.

Al-Otaibi has been detained since November 2022. Her sister Fouz faced similar charges but managed to flee the country, according to ALQST. The Saudi government’s letter to the U.N. emphasized that “the exercise and defense of rights is not a crime under Saudi law,” but justified their actions by labeling them as combating terrorism.

This case highlights the ongoing struggle for human rights in Saudi Arabia, particularly regarding freedom of expression and women’s rights. While the kingdom has made some strides towards modernization and reform, the treatment of activists like Manahel al-Otaibi suggests a significant gap between policy changes and their implementation.

The international community continues to watch closely as more cases emerge, such as that of Salma al-Shehab, a former doctoral student at Leeds University, who is serving a 27-year prison sentence for her online activities.

The sentencing of Manahel al-Otaibi underscores the complex and often contradictory nature of reform and repression in Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom seeks to present a modernized image to the world, cases like al-Otaibi’s reveal the underlying challenges activists face when pushing for greater freedoms and rights. As the global spotlight continues to shine on these issues, the balance between progress and suppression in Saudi Arabia remains a contentious and closely monitored subject.

What do you think of this move by the Saudi Arabian government? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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