Fitness influencer got 11 years in prison for ‘terrorist offenses,’ Saudi Arabia confirms

Fitness influencer got 11 years in prison for ‘terrorist offenses,’ Saudi Arabia confirms

Saudi Arabia confirmed in a letter to the United Nations that a female fitness instructor who was popular online received an 11-year prison sentence but did not specify any of her alleged “terrorism offenses.”

Though the kingdom insisted the case had nothing to do with the instructor’s online presence, human rights activists say the conviction levied against Manahel al-Otaibi shows the limits of expression in Saudi Arabia.

It also highlights another side of the kingdom, now run day-to-day by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who under his 88-year-old father King Salman has dramatically liberalized some aspects of women’s lives in the country.


“Her charges related solely to her choice of clothing and expression of her views online, including calling on social media for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, publishing videos of herself wearing ‘indecent clothes’ and ‘going to the shops without wearing an abaya,’” said Amnesty International and ALQST, a London-based group advocating for human rights in Saudi Arabia that’s followed al-Otaibi’s case.

The human rights organization issued joint statements on Tuesday about al-Otaibi’s prison sentence, first revealed in a Saudi letter dated Jan. 25 and sent to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In its letter, Saudi Arabia’s permanent mission to the U.N. in Geneva did not outline any of the evidence that convicted al-Otaibi while saying there had been “unfounded and uncorroborated allegations and claims” made about her case.

Manahel al-Otaibi, a fitness influencer, is the latest of activist to be arrested for denouncing Saudi rules on social media. (AP Photo)

Al-Otaibi, who posted fitness videos on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, faced charges of “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,” according to court documents earlier seen by The Associated Press.

Her posts included advocacy for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQ+ rights and the abolition of Saudi Arabia male guardianship laws. She was also accused of appearing in indecent clothing and posting Arabic hashtags that include the phrase “overthrow the government.”

Al-Otaibi has been detained since November 2022. Her sister Fouz faced similar charges but fled Saudi Arabia, according to ALQST.


The kingdom’s letter said the Saudi government “wishes to underscore the fact that the exercise and defense of rights is not a crime under Saudi law; however, justifying the actions of terrorists by describing them as exercising or defending rights is unacceptable and constitutes an attempt to legitimize terrorist crimes.”

Since 2018, women have been allowed to drive and other restrictions have been lifted in the once-ultraconservative kingdom as it tries to rapidly diversify its oil-based economy. That came as Prince Mohammed solidified his power, partly by imprisoning members of the Saudi elite as his father retains formal control in the kingdom.

Several activists have been arrested for denouncing Saudi rules, or following dissidents who do so, on social media. This includes Salma al-Shehab, a former doctoral student at Leeds University who is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence.

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