Saudi Arabia: Woman given lengthy prison sentence for online posts

Saudi Arabian flag
In recent years several women have been given lengthy prison sentences for expressing opinions online. (Source: IMAGO / NurPhoto)

In Saudi Arabia 29-year-old Manahel al-Otaibi was sentenced to eleven years in prison for her support of women’s rights and her choice of clothing, the human rights organizations Amnesty International and ALQST report. They demand her unconditional release.

According to Amnesty and ALQST, al-Otaibi, a fitness instructor, was sentenced by the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) on January 9. The charges against her include calling for an end to the country’s “male guardianship system” on social media. She also went “to the shops without wearing an abaya” (a traditional dress) and published videos in which she was wearing “indecent clothes.”

According to Amnesty, the authorities had charged al-Otaibi’s sister with similar offenses – but she fled the country in 2022 after receiving a summons.

Saudi Arabia confirms sentence

UN representatives requested information on both cases from the Saudi authorities in December. In their petition they described Manahel al-Otaibi as a “woman human rights defender” with an “active social media presence.” In addition to promoting women’s rights online she had also shared content promoting the rights of other marginalized groups.

Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva confirmed the sentence in January – claiming al-Otaibi had been found guilty of committing “terrorist offenses.” Amnesty International calls the accusations absurd. “Al-Otaibi’s family have not had access to her court documents, or the evidence presented against her,” the organization reports.

According to Saudi authorities, the sentence remained “under consideration before the courts” as of January 25.

Amnesty reports that the 29-year-old was first arrested in November 2022. While in prison she has faced physical and psychological abuse. For months, beginning in November 2023, she had no contact with the outside world. Only in April 2024 was she able to contact her family again and inform them that “she was being held in solitary confinement and had a broken leg as a result of physical abuse.” She had been denied health care, she said.

Sharp criticism

Al-Otaibi’s sentence is “an appalling and cruel injustice,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Saudi Arabia. “With this sentence the Saudi authorities have exposed the hollowness of their much-touted women’s rights reforms in recent years and demonstrated their chilling commitment to silencing peaceful dissent.”

According to Amnesty, some restrictions for women have been lifted in recent years. But many discriminatory features of the male guardianship system remain in place.

Lina Alhathloul, of the organization ALQST, said that the sentence demonstrates the Saudi authorities’ “continuing determination to control Saudi Arabia’s women.”

Suppressing freedom of speech

Amnesty and ALQST view the sentence against Manahel al-Otaibi as part of an “intensified crackdown” on free speech in Saudi Arabia. “In the past two years, Saudi courts have convicted and handed down lengthy prison terms on dozens of individuals for their expression on social media, including many women,” Amnesty reports.

In August 2022, for example, Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for following women’s rights activists on Twitter and sharing their posts. In an appeal hearing in early 2023 the court reduced the sentence to 27 years – but the prison term is still followed by a 27 year travel ban.

Not long after al-Shehab’s original sentence was handed down, another woman was sentenced to 45 years for sharing her opinion on Twitter.

Amnesty International mentions two more women, Fatima al-Shawarbi and Sukaynah al-Aithan, who were sentenced to prison terms of 30 and 40 years, respectively.

Last year, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced a man to death for his activities on social media. According to human rights groups, he mainly shared posts by critics of the government. (js)