Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Civil law does not protect human rights, including freedoms of speech and of the press; only local interpretation and the practice of sharia protect these rights. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. The media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites.
The legal definition of terrorism, according to the counterterrorism law, includes “any act…intended to disturb the public order of the state…or insult the reputation of the state or its position.” Local human rights activists and international human rights organizations criticized the law for its vague definition of terrorism and complained the government could use it to prosecute peaceful dissidents for “insulting the state.”
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which legally can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, the monarchy, the governing system, or the Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.
The government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. In January local media reported that the Najran Criminal Court sentenced two Ministry of Health employees to prison terms and lashes for criticizing their hospital’s administration on Twitter. On appeal, the employees were sentenced under the anticyber crimes law to prison terms of 11 months and eight months, respectively.
In February local media reported that the Medina Criminal Court sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes on charges related to “atheistic” tweets.
In September the SCC sentenced a person to seven years in prison and a travel ban of 10 years on charges of publishing rumors via Twitter, joining an unauthorized association, not pledging allegiance, calling publicly for demonstrations, and challenging the independence of the judiciary, according to local media reports.
On December 27, the media reported that a court in Dammam sentenced a man to one year in prison and a fine of 30,000 riyals ($8,000) for “incitement to end the guardianship of women” after making statements online and hanging up posters in mosques calling for an end to the male guardianship system.
Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, refrain from communicating with foreign diplomats, refrain from communicating with outside human rights organizations, and refrain from traveling outside the country.
Press and Media Freedoms: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. The media fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Information. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the decree.
Media policy statements have urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. In 2011 a royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”
The law states that violators can face fines up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) for each violation of the law, which is doubled if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Culture and Information has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and sharia court judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which process accords with the law.
Although satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Culture and Information and could not operate freely. The government filtered and at times blocked access to internet sites it considered objectionable. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists to arrests, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.
In March the SCC sentenced Eastern Province-based journalist Alaa Brinji to five years in prison and an eight-year travel ban on charges of inciting the public against the country’s rulers, attempting to tarnish the country’s reputation, accusing security forces of killing protesters in Awamiya, and violating the 2007 anticyber crimes law. According to human rights organizations, Brinji was arrested in 2014 and held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer during pretrial detention.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored the media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material. Because of self-censorship, authorities did not frequently have reason to prosecute print and broadcast media.
All newspapers in the country must be government-licensed. The Ministry of Culture and Information must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.
The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, for example, by removing works by Palestinian novelist and poet Mamoud Darwish at the Riyadh International Book Fair in 2014.
In November multiple media reported that authorities closed the al-Rawi Cultural Cafe on the campus of South Imam University in Riyadh, pending a Ministry of Culture and Information investigation into the cafe’s compliance with book licensing requirements.
In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis as-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high-profile or controversial sessions to the media.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.
The anticyber crimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one-year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices.” In 2014 the law was amended to include social media and social networks and increases the maximum fine to 500,000 riyals ($133,000).
In June the Jeddah Criminal Court commuted a seven-year prison sentence and 2,100 lashes for an Indian man convicted of blasphemy after he converted to Islam while in prison; he was initially convicted for posting an image on Facebook of the Holy Kaaba covered with Hindu deities, according to media reports.
In February the SCC sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and a travel ban of unspecified duration for “spreading malicious rumors about the kingdom” and running a YouTube channel in which he called the country’s rulers “tyrants,” according to the local Arab Newsnewspaper.
National Security: In most cases authorities used the anticyber crimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting several individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Culture and Information or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available, and more than 70 percent of the population used the internet during the year, while 83 percent had mobile broadband subscriptions, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued implementing regulations for electronic publishing that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. Laws, including the anticyber crimes law, criminalize defamation on the internet, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as Da’esh. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications. According to a 2015 Freedom House report, social media users were increasingly careful about what they posted, shared, or “liked” online, particularly after the passage of the 2014 counterterrorism law.
Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet access providers to monitor customers and also required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.
On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.
The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including adult content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.
In October the CITC announced it blocked 2.6 million “pornographic” sites in calendar year 2015 as well 3.5 million such sites in the period from 2010 through 2015. The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).
The CITC claimed that Facebook removed materials that the CITC deemed offensive but that Twitter ignored all CITC requests. In September the CITC announced that it had not blocked any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. Users of Snapchat, a private messenger app, reported the CITC blocked the app during the year. Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp were partially accessible, with text-message features available but voice- and video-calling features blocked. In July users of FaceTime and other video-calling apps reported such services were blocked. In 2013 the CITC had announced it blocked the voice-calling app Viber and that it would “take appropriate action” against applications or services, including Skype and WhatsApp, if the proprietary services did not allow the government “lawful access” for monitoring purposes.
The CITC allows the public to submit requests to block or unblock specific sites. In 2010 the CITC stated it received more than 300,000 requests to block websites annually, citing an average of 200 requests daily to both block and unblock sites.
On July 3, the Ministry of Culture and Information blocked the website of the online news website al-Marsad. The ministry did not give a reason for the closure, and the block on the website was removed after five days.
The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. On September 25, authorities arrested a man who used the nickname “Abu Sin” after internet video exchanges with a foreign female user circulated on social media. Authorities charged him with violating the anticyber crimes law, which in part prohibits the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on the public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” He was released on bail after 10 days, according to media sources.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government censored public artistic expression, prohibited cinemas, and restricted public musical or theatrical performances other than those considered folkloric or special events approved by the government. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission. In October the Commission on Public Entertainment, established on May 7, hosted a public live dance performance in Riyadh and Jeddah and announced a series of entertainment performances as part of a new government-sponsored program under the auspices of the Vision 2030 economic reform agenda to foster live entertainment in the country.
The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces, nonetheless, allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country, despite a 2011 Ministry of Interior statement that demonstrations were banned and that it would take “all necessary measures” against those seeking to “disrupt order.” The CSS reinforced the ministry’s position, stating that “demonstrations are prohibited in this country” and explaining that “the correct way in sharia of realizing common interests is by advising.”
There were an increased number of protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in January and February following the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr (see section 1.a.). Activists reported a significant presence of security forces. YouTube videos portrayed residents, largely Shia, protesting alleged systematic discrimination and neglect in government investment in physical and social infrastructure, including education, health care, and public facilities. Protests were largely nonviolent and decreased in size and number after February.
In contrast with previous years, there were no significant protests by family members of long-term detainees in Mabahith-run prisons.
The CPVPV and other security officers also restricted mixed gender gatherings of unrelated men and women in public and private spaces (see section 1.f.).
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law does not provide for freedom of association, and the government strictly limited this right. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations. In November 2015 the cabinet passed a law authorizing the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to license NGOs. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development had registered 736 associations and 164 foundations as of April. The government previously provided licenses only to philanthropic and charitable societies; organizations that have social or research mandates required royal backing to avoid government interference or prosecution.
The few local NGOs that had operated without a license, including ACPRA, Union for Human Rights, and the Adala Center for Human Rights, ceased operating in 2013 and 2014 after authorities ordered them disbanded. By year’s end the government had sentenced all 11 ACPRA founding members to prison terms. In 2014 ACPRA effectively ceased operations because of the continued harassment, investigation, prosecution, or detention of most of its members. While ACPRA maintained a presence on social media networks such as Twitter, the government severely curtailed its operations and closed down its website. In October, HRW reported that authorities filed charges against two activists, Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, for “forming an unlicensed organization” and other charges related to establishing a short-lived human rights organization called the Union for Human Rights, which was disbanded in 2013.
Government-chartered associations observed citizen-only limitations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country, but it severely restricted the movement of female citizens. While the guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country, courts sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to an HRW report.
Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. In 2013 the ministry stated it had issued only 1.5 million NICs since 2002 to women. In December 2015 the ministry announced it began issuing NICs to widows and divorcees in possession of a death or divorce certificate. In August local media reported more than three million women over the age of 15 still did not possess a NIC. The 2015 population of women who were 15 or above was approximately 7.5 million, according to the General Authority for Statistics.
The government prohibited women from driving motor vehicles by refusing to issue licenses to them. In June authorities reportedly detained a woman for driving.
Foreign Travel: There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Women, minors (men younger than 21), and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors. In October media reported that the Ministry of Justice reached an agreement with the General Directorate of Passports to remove the requirement for a deed of support document for widows and their children and to allow them to apply for passports with the directorate directly. A noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission; if a wife’s guardian is deceased, a court may grant the permission. In June media reported that authorities granted 50 women permission to travel without a male guardian; five of the women were married to non-Saudi citizens. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children, prohibiting their travel.
Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.
The government continued to impose international travel bans as part of criminal sentences. The government reportedly confiscated passports on occasion for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to financial and real estate disputes.
During the year the government banned several individuals engaged in human rights activism or political activities from foreign travel, in addition to hundreds of other travel bans promulgated by the courts. These included ACPRA members Eissa al-Hamid, Abdulaziz al-Shobaily, and Omar al-Sa’id as well as journalist Alaa Brinji.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision or UNHCR-managed refugee and asylum matters. The government permitted UNHCR-recognized refugees to stay in the country temporarily pending identification of a durable outcome, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is not to grant refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.
The government did, however, grant six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni nationals, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. There was a nondeportation policy for Syrians and Yemenis. In May the Royal Court approved residency permits for Yemeni nationals who were in the country illegally prior to the beginning of coalition operations in Yemen. In the past year, the country normalized the status of 592,809 Yemenis, in addition to 1.5 million properly documented Yemenis, many of whom would be characterized as refugees but for the Saudi Arabian government’s practice of avoiding using that term, bringing the total population of Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia to approximately two million. The government waived the costs and fees for visas, work permits, and permanent residency status applications for 2,570,972 Syrians who entered the country since 2011 because of the security situation in Syria. These included Syrians who entered the country without proper documentation who later normalized their status as well as individuals and families on visitor visas who were transiting to other countries.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally. In February the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced it would start allowing employers to apply online for an automatic work permit to be issued free of charge to Syrians and Yemenis who possessed a temporary visa and obtained a visitor card (“za’ir”) from the Ministry of Interior. The renewable permits were valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply.
Access to Basic Services: The government reserves access to education, health care, public housing, courts and judicial procedures, legal services, and other social services to citizens only. A royal decree issued in 2012 permits all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system, and a separate decree issued in 2015 gives Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. In 2015-16 the government enrolled and funded 141,406 Syrian students and 285,644 Yemeni students in local schools and provided college scholarships to 7,950 Syrians and 3,880 Yemenis. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment following a needs assessment. Since 2015 the government provided free health care to 47,000 Yemenis and paid for treatment of more than 3,426 injured Yemenis located in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Sudan.
The country had a significant number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.
Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children may be born stateless if they were born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father, even if the father recognized the child as his, or if the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign nationals to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances such as where fathers are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if they were not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances). Daughters can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal-status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.
In 2013 the government clarified regulations governing the status of non-Saudi men married to Saudi women. Foreign male spouses of female citizens are entitled to permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they receive free government education and medical benefits. These spouses are also counted in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the “nitaqaat,” or labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must also be between the ages of 30 and 55 in order to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man than if they do not. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 in order to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear, and there was anecdotal evidence that these were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women who are married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother. In October the government issued a 17-point charter with additional regulations on marriage to non-Saudi citizens. Under the charter, a male citizen must earn 3,000 riyals ($800) per month and must own or rent an apartment or house before he can marry a non-citizen woman. The charter also states that, for female citizens, the age difference between them and any prospective non-Saudi spouse cannot exceed 10 years. On December 16, media reported that the government instituted a new policy requiring prospective foreign spouses to undergo a medical examination and drug testing prior to marriage to Saudi citizens.
UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as “bidoon” (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health-care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. In 2014 the General Directorate of Passports began to issue special identity cards to bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.
There were also some Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma, but only a portion of these communities was stateless. For example, many Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. During the year some of these individuals benefited from a program to correct their residency status; the government issued approximately 200,000 four-year residency permits by year’s end. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship. There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.