Saudi Female Influencer Faces Unimaginable Penalty for Advocacy Posts

Authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested and jailed a popular female fitness instructor for her posts on social media, becoming the latest victim of the crackdown against dissent in the Muslim-majority kingdom.

The accused was identified as 29-year-old Manahel al-Otaibi, who posted fitness videos on her Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat accounts. According to court documents seen by the Associated Press, which first reported the case, she 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.

She was also accused of wearing indecent clothing and using Arabic hashtags that reportedly said “overthrow the government” in her posts. Even though al-Otaibi has been in prison since November 2022, her case gained prominence after activists in Saudi Arabia chose to go public.

Her case will be handled by the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was initially created to hear terrorism-related cases but now also hands verdicts against activists. While it remains unclear how long al-Otaibi will stay in prison for her charges, activists fear she will be given a lengthy sentence.

Al-Otaibi’s case is a testament to the strict limits in the ultra-conservative kingdom when it comes to freedom of expression and speech, even for al-Otaibi, who supported Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) decisions to introduce more liberal reforms in the country. Her social media posts included support for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the abolition of male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.

They say they welcome women and that women can wear whatever — but at the end what is happening is that it’s only for Westerners,” Lina Alhathloul, head of monitoring and advocacy at ALQST, a London-based human rights organization fighting for human rights in Saudi Arabia, said regarding al-Otaibi’s case and plans by the Saudi Crown Prince to liberalize some aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. Her sister, Loujain Alhathloul, remains in Saudi Arabia due to a travel ban after being imprisoned for her activism.

Saudi women are still oppressed, they are still subjected to the male guardianship system, and if they speak up, they get imprisoned, and no one speaks about them. It’s sad, everyone is really scared, everyone gets arrested for nothing,” Alhathloul added.

Manahel al-Otaibi’s sisters also faced accusations of flouting the kingdom’s strict rules on women. Fouz al-Otaibi faced charges similar to Manahel in 2017 but was able to leave Saudi Arabia. Maryam al-Otaibi, another sister, was arrested for living independently without her father’s permission, which violated the kingdom’s male guardianship laws. She was freed after imprisonment of 104 days but was subjected to a travel ban.

Like the al-Otaibi sisters, several Saudi Arabians have been arrested for either criticizing the kingdom’s laws or following activists that do so on social media. They include Salma al-Shehab, a former doctoral student now serving a 27-year prison sentence, and Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a Saudi-born US citizen imprisoned for the tweets he posted while abroad.

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