Saudi activist sentenced to 11 years in prison 'over choice of clothing'

A women's rights activist and fitness influencer from Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to 11 years in prison over her choice of clothes, human rights groups have claimed.

Manahel al-Otaibi was sentenced in January but details of her case only recently emerged in Saudi Arabia's formal reply to a United Nations human rights request after the country claimed she was jailed for "terrorist offences".

In the letter, the conservative nation outlined their case for arresting and charging the 29-year-old.

They claimed she was arrested over "terrorist offences" - a narrative challenged by Amnesty International and Al Qst, a Saudi human rights group based in London.

The human rights groups warned that Ms Al-Otaibi was actually jailed over her choice of clothing and social media posts where she posted the hashtag "abolish male guardianship".

Ms Al-Otaibi wore what were deemed to be "indecent clothes" in videos and went shopping without an abaya, a long robe, the groups said.

Saudi Arabia claimed that Ms Al-Otaibi was "convicted of terrorist offences that have no bearing on her exercise of freedom of opinion and expression or her social media posts".

Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism law, under which Ms Al-Otaibi was convicted, has been criticised by the United Nations as an overly broad tool to stifle dissent.

Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International's campaigner on Saudi Arabia, said: "Manahel's conviction and 11-year sentence is an appalling and cruel injustice.

"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."

Lina Alhathloul, Al Qst's head of monitoring and advocacy, said: "Manahel's confidence that she could act with freedom could have been a positive advertisement for Mohammed bin Salman's much-touted narrative of leading women's rights reforms in the country.

"Instead, by arresting her and now imposing this outrageous sentence on her, the Saudi authorities have once again laid bare the arbitrary and contradictory nature of their so-called reforms, and their continuing determination to control Saudi Arabia's women."

Saudi Arabia denied allegations from the well established human rights groups in its letter to the UN.

Saudi Arabia's international media office and the UN Human Rights Office have been approached for comment.

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Ms Al-Otaibi was first arrested on 16 November 2022 and detained in a women's prison in Riyadh, according to Saudi Arabia.

She was eventually found guilty of "having committed terrorist offences" and handed her sentence on 9 January 2024.

However, the charity groups said that Ms Al-Otaibi "forcibly disappeared" from November 2023 until April 2024, when she was able to contact her family again. She told them she was being held in solitary confinement and had a broken leg following alleged physical abuse.

Her sister, Fawzia al Otaibi, also faced similar charges but fled Saudi Arabia after being summoned for questioning in 2022, fearing arrest.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, came to power in 2017 promising widespread social and economic reforms.

He eased some curbs in male guardianship laws, and allowed women to drive cars, get a passport, travel alone, register births, deaths and divorces. However, the laws still make it more difficult for women to obtain a divorce than a man.

The kingdom still faces scrutiny over its human rights record and rights activists have said that Saudi Arabian women continue to face restrictions.