Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government partially respected this right. Independent media organizations noted excessive politicization of the media, corrupt financing mechanisms, and editorial policies subordinated to the former elected ruling party and owners’ interests. Reporters said their freedom of expression was also limited by restricted access to information of public interest issued by the previous government and public institutions, including expenses, contracts, or bids involving public funds, and officials’ academic records. Reporters and NGOs often had to sue state-controlled ministries, agencies, or local entities to access public information.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits denying the Holocaust and promoting or using the symbols of fascist, racist, xenophobic, or Legionnaire ideologies, the last being the nationalist, extremist, anti-Semitic interwar movement. Various government bodies, mainly the gendarmerie, continued to fine, place under temporary arrest, ban, or block individuals who protested in the streets against corruption, the government, the early release of inmates, or child abuse and for better health, education, and social services. When fines were challenged, some courts ruled in favor of the protesters. On May 5, in a high-profile case, the Bucharest Court rejected the gendarmerie’s appeal in the case of Ioan Duia, who is deaf and mute and was fined 2,000 lei ($500) by the gendarmerie for shouting slogans against the ruling party.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without overt restriction, politicians or persons with close ties to politicians and political groups either owned or indirectly controlled numerous media outlets at the national and local levels. The news and editorial stance of these outlets frequently reflected their owners’ views and targeted criticism at political opponents and other media organizations.
Violence and Harassment: Dozens of reporters throughout the country continued to be harassed, sued, or threatened by the authorities they investigated or by their proxies. On March 22, former justice minister Tudorel Toader refused to renew accreditation for private ProTV’s reporter Ovidiu Oanta and Realitatea TV’s Ionela Arcanu, both of whom covered justice issues. Toader invoked a law stating that an accreditation can be refused if the reporter “disturbs the activity of that institution.” The two journalists were known for their tough questions during his news conferences. Following NGO and independent media protests and allegations that the minister might have violated the constitution, Oanta’s accreditations were returned. Arcanu was reaccredited on May 8, after Toader left office.
On April 15, journalist Emilia Șercan, who investigated cases of plagiarism by government officials, reported that she had received death threats. She filed a criminal complaint, and on September 18, DGA prosecutors charged the former rector of the National Police Academy, Adrian Iacob, and the former deputy rector, Mihail-Petrica Marcoci, with instigating blackmail and instructing police officer Gheorghe Adrian Barbulescu to issue death threats against the reporter to stop her investigations. On December 10, Bucharest Court sentenced Barbulescu to one year in prison. Because he collaborated with prosecutors and disclosed the superiors who ordered him to issue the threats, he was not sent to jail. Instead, the court mandated that he would be monitored by the probation service for two years. The ruling in Barbulescu’s case was not final.
On June 11, reporter Diana Oncioiu of the Let There Be Light (Sa Fie Lumina) media project received death threats while she was investigating the sexual abuse of students at Husi Theological Seminary in Vaslui County. An unknown individual told the reporter that her head would be “ripped off” if she continued to document private matters of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Following the reporter’s criminal complaint, police identified the suspect as Dragos T., a former student of the Husi Seminary. In September, however, prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges against Dragos T., as the threats “were not premeditated but a spontaneous gesture” and ordered him to perform 50 days of community service. In Dela0.ro, Oncioiu published an investigation into sexual child abuse cases that found courts determined three out of four cases were considered consensual. In November the Superior Council of Magistrates chair Lia Savonea requested the Judicial Inspection to investigate whether another article by Oncioiu published in Dela0.ro affected “judicial independence” and “magistrates’ impartiality.” The Judicial Inspectorate’s investigation against the reporter and the outlet remained pending.
The government did not systematically restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. During the year, however, many individuals in various counties continued to be fined for criticizing or using derogatory language on Facebook, mainly against interior ministry employees or agencies. On January 21, the Satu Mare police told local media that they fined three individuals 200 lei ($50) each for insulting police officers for parking their cars in parking spaces designated for persons with disabilities. Following the fine, the Facebook page featuring instances of illegal parking was disabled.
On June 26, the National Union of Police Agents (SNAP) sued the members of rap and hip-hop band Parazitii and their music production house to force them to withdraw a song criticizing police. The union asked for damages of 100,000 euros ($110,000) and public apologies for using insulting language. The band’s lawyer asserted that the trial constituted censorship of an artistic act. On August 12, the Bucharest Court rejected SNAP’s complaint as groundless and asserted that it could not claim damages in the name of police as it represented only 8,000 of the 65,000 police employees. SNAP appealed the decision.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the government occasionally restricted freedom of peaceful assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, which the government has generally respected. The law provides that unarmed citizens may assemble peacefully but also stipulates that meetings must not interfere with other economic or social activities and may not take place near such locations as hospitals, airports, or military installations. In most cases organizers of public assemblies must request permits in writing three days in advance from the mayor’s office of the locality where the gathering is to occur.
In October 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that public gatherings, including protests, must be declared in advance when they are to be held in markets, public spaces, or in the vicinity of institutions “of public or private interest.” The decision was mandatory. Activists opposed these restrictions, stating that by announcing the protests, those who take to the streets will be forced to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for larger groups or for instigators to violence who may be brought there to compromise peaceful anticorruption protests. Civic organizations also warned that in Bucharest authorities granted public spaces for longer periods to NGOs with no activity only as a pretext to refuse permits to protest to legitimate organizations.
In August 2018 a protest at Victoria Square in Bucharest attracted approximately 100,000 protesters. According to the Ministry of Interior, several hundred persons allegedly attempted to get close to the cabinet office building and threw objects at gendarmes. Media and civic groups reported the number of violent protesters was much lower, amounting to several dozens of persons. Gendarmes used tear gas and water cannon indiscriminately, harming peaceful protesters, some of whom were children or elderly. NGOs, observers, and journalists noted gendarmes launched tear gas canisters in adjacent areas of the square against persons who did not pose a threat. Gendarmes also used violence against protesters who left the protest and were on adjacent streets. Numerous broadcast television reports showed members of the gendarmerie punching, kicking, and hitting peaceful protesters, with their batons. Several protesters suffered injuries caused by shrapnel from exploding tear-gas canisters.
More than 770 criminal complaints concerning violent incidents during the August 2018 protest that allegedly constituted excessive force against peaceful protesters were submitted to law enforcement. During the year investigations into alleged attacks by gendarmerie against protesters remained stalled, and the case was transferred from one prosecutor’s office to another.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits fascist, racist, or xenophobic ideologies, organizations, and symbols.
In August 2018 the government adopted an ordinance that authorizes the Ministry of Public Finances to check whether NGOs use the funds redirected by citizens from their income tax according to the organizations’ primary goals. The ADHR-HC asserted this measure would allow the government to harass NGOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The internal movement of beneficiaries of international protection and stateless persons was generally not restricted. Asylum seekers may be subject to measures limiting their freedom of movement and to detention in specific circumstances. The law and implementing regulations provide that the General Inspectorate for Immigration may designate a specific place of residence for an applicant for asylum while authorities determine his or her eligibility, or may take restrictive measures, subject to approval by the prosecutor’s office, that amount to administrative detention in “specially arranged closed areas.” According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October no such cases of asylum detention were recorded during the year. Applicants who do not qualify for asylum are treated as aliens without a right to stay in the country and may be taken into custody pending deportation. According to the law, those applying for asylum while in public custody were released from detention if granted access to the ordinary procedure. Detention in public custody centers is subject to regular review and should not exceed six months unless there are specific circumstances, in which case detention may be extended for up to 18 months. Applicants for or beneficiaries of international protection in certain circumstances, particularly those declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, may be subject to administrative detention in public custody centers.
The government may grant “tolerated status” to persons who do not meet the requirements for refugee status or subsidiary protection, but who cannot be returned for various reasons. These reasons include cases where stateless persons are not accepted by their former country of habitual residence or where the lives or well-being of returnees could be at risk. Persons with “tolerated status” have the right to work but not to benefit from any other social protection or inclusion provisions, and the government restricted their freedom of movement to a specific region of the country.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to UNHCR, several incidents of harassment, discrimination, and crimes against refugees and migrants were reported throughout the year in Bucharest and other parts of the country, although most incidents were not reported because of fear, lack of information, inadequate support services, and inefficient redress mechanisms.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, which could include irregular migrants potentially in need of international protection.
Refoulement: The law establishes exceptions to the principle of nonrefoulement and the withdrawal of the right to stay following a declaration of a person as “undesirable.” This may occur, for example, when classified information or “well founded indications” suggest that aliens (including applicants for asylum, or persons granted asylum) intend to commit terrorist acts or favor terrorism. Applicants for protection declared “undesirable” on national security grounds were taken into custody pending the finalization of their asylum procedure and then deported.
Access to Asylum: The law provides access to asylum procedures to foreign nationals and stateless persons who express their desire for protection, which may be in the form of refugee status or temporary “subsidiary protection” status. The asylum law prohibits the expulsion, extradition, or forced return of any asylum seeker at the country’s border or from within the country’s territory, but this was not without exception, particularly in cases that fell under the country’s national security and terrorism laws.
The law also refers to the concept of a safe third country. The law extends to irregular migrants who transited and were offered protection in a third country considered safe or who had the opportunity at the border or on the soil of a safe third country to contact authorities for the purpose of obtaining protection. In such cases authorities could deny access to asylum procedures if the designated safe third country agreed to readmit the applicant to its territory and grant access to asylum procedures.
Freedom of Movement: The law incorporates four “restrictive” measures under which the internal movement of applicants for asylum may be limited. The first two establish an obligation to report regularly to the General Inspectorate for Immigration or to reside at a regional reception center. A third restrictive measure allows authorities to place applicants in “specially arranged closed areas” for a maximum of 60 days, either to access the asylum procedure or if the asylum seeker is deemed to pose a danger to national security. There was no case of an asylum applicant being placed in a specially arranged closed area through October. Authorities may also place asylum applicants in administrative detention in a public custody center if they are subject to a transfer to another EU member state under the Dublin Regulations or if they have been declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, pending their removal from the country.
According to UNHCR, irregular migrants, persons declared as “undesirable,” asylum seekers deemed to pose a “risk of absconding,” as well as other categories of foreigners may face detention in public custody centers. Under provisions of the law to limit “abuse to the asylum procedure,” irregular migrants who submitted their first application for international protection while in custody were released from detention only if granted access to the ordinary asylum application procedure. The provisions raised concerns among UN agencies and civil society due to the ambiguity in the phrases “abuse of the asylum procedure” and “risk of absconding.”
The period of detention in a public custody center could be prolonged up to a maximum of 18 months.
Employment: While persons granted international protection have the legal right to work, job scarcity, low wages, lack of language proficiency, and lack of recognized academic degrees and other certifications often resulted in unemployment or employment without a legal contract and its related benefits and protections. Obtaining a legal work contract remained difficult for various reasons, including tax concerns and the reluctance of employers to hire refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Effective access by persons with refugee status or subsidiary protection to education, housing, lifelong learning and employment, public health care, and social security varied across the country, depending on the level of awareness of various public and private actors responsible for ensuring access to these services.
Recipients of subsidiary protection complained of problems regarding their freedom of movement to other countries due to the additional visa requirements. UNHCR reported that refugees saw citizenship acquisition as a cumbersome, costly, and difficult process, with some requirements, particularly related to the applicant’s financial situation, that were difficult to meet.
According to UNHCR, as of June there were 337 stateless persons with valid residence documents in the country. These included legal residents under the aliens’ regime, stateless persons of Romanian origin, as well as 112 persons granted some form of international protection. Data on stateless persons, including on persons at risk of statelessness and persons of undetermined nationality, were not reliable due to the absence of a procedure to determine statelessness, the absence of a single designated authority responsible for this purpose, and the lack of adequate identification and registration of persons with unknown or undetermined nationality.
The law includes favorable provisions for stateless persons of Romanian origin to reacquire citizenship. Nevertheless, a significant gap persisted due to the lack of safeguards against statelessness for children born in the country, who would be stateless because their parents either were themselves stateless or were foreigners unable to transmit their nationality.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of December the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,003 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 450 items from 2018. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,200 extremism cases in 2018, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
At the same time, in December 2018, President Putin signed legislation that partially decriminalized the expression of “extremist” views, stipulating that speech that “incited hatred or enmity” or denigrated a person or group be treated as an administrative misdemeanor, not a crime, for a first-time offense. Several persons were previously charged with extremism under criminal law for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. Following the amendment to the antiextremist legislation, however, courts dropped charges against some of the defendants. On January 15, for example, authorities dropped charges against Eduard Nikitin, a doctor in the Khabarovsk region who faced up to five years in prison on extremism charges. He was accused of “liking” an image condemning the country’s aggression in eastern Ukraine posted on the Odnoklassniki social network in 2015.
Although the amendment was expected to have a retroactive effect, not all individuals imprisoned on extremism charges saw charges dropped or sentences commuted. For example, on August 28, a court in the Belgorod region denied a request for parole from 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze. In February 2018, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced him to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on October 28, the Moscow branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an administrative case for suspected “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” against the producers and participants of a YouTube video in which children interviewed a gay man, Maksim Pankratov, about his life. The video contained no discussion of sex, but included questions on Pankratov’s sexual orientation, how he would like other individuals to treat him, and his vision for his life in the future. On November 2, the Moscow Region Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation into the video’s producers and participants on suspicion of “violent sexual assault of a minor” younger than age 14, a crime punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison. According to press reports, the parents of the children in the video have experienced pressure from authorities to testify against the video’s producers and received visits from child protective services, which they interpreted as a threat to terminate their parental rights. Pankratov reported receiving threats of physical violence from unknown persons following the opening of the criminal case. As of December Pankratov was in hiding in an undisclosed location in Russia, while the video’s producer, popular online celebrity Victoria Pich, had fled the country.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, on September 30, a court in Irkutsk sentenced Dmitriy Litvin to 100 hours of community service for social media postings in 2015 of caricatures that allegedly offended the feelings of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and shamanists.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” For example, on April 5, the Investigative Committee for the Chuvash Republic opened a criminal case against opposition blogger Konstantin Ishutov for material he had posted on social media in 2010 criticizing authorities’ poor maintenance of local cemeteries and contrasting it with the maintenance of cemeteries in Germany. Investigators claimed this material attempted to justify the actions of Nazis during World War II and diminish the significance of the Soviet victory. Ishutov was charged under the same statute in 2018 for posting a photo of a Nazi leaflet with the phrase, “When the Third Reich treats the Soviet people better than Putin treats the Russian people.” As he awaited trial, a court prohibited Ishutov from using the internet, traveling, or leaving his home after 10 p.m. On November 8, the Supreme Court of the Chuvash Republic started reviewing Ishutov’s case. On December 18, the Chuvash Supreme Court found Ishutov guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism” and other charges. He faces up to seven years in prison.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On July 30, a district court in St. Petersburg sentenced Fyodor Belov to five days’ administrative arrest for publicly displaying a tattoo of a swastika.
On March 18, a new law entered into force that stipulated fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, in the first six months after the law’s entry into force, authorities opened 45 cases, 26 of which dealt with insults against President Putin. For example, on April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined unemployed machinist Yuriy Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles ($471) for posting insulting comments about President Putin on social media.
On March 18, a new law, commonly characterized as a ban on “creating and spreading fake news,” also came into force. It prohibits “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and/or health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and/or public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” The fine for violating the law is up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for individuals, up to 200,000 rubles ($3,140) for officials, and up to 500,000 rubles ($7,850) for legal entities. In the event of repeated violations or violations with grave consequences, fines may go up to 1.5 million rubles ($23,600).
The law on “fake news” was applied multiple times during the year. For example, on July 29, a court in Nazran, Ingushetia, fined Murad Daskiyev, the head of the Council of Clans of the Ingush People, 15,000 rubles ($236). According to the court, Daskiyev knowingly distributed false information indicating that the head of the Republic of Ingushetia was preparing to sign a border agreement with the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia. Daskiyev maintained that the information he published was true. According to free expression watchdogs, authorities were motivated by a desire to suppress this information, following a large protest movement that emerged in Ingushetia in late 2018 after it signed a border agreement ceding land to the Republic of Chechnya.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, on August 19, Roskomnadzor threatened to block access to independent media outlet Meduza unless it deleted an August 8 article debunking myths about drug use, which Roskomnadzor claimed promoted drug use. Meduza restricted access to the article for its users in the country.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of suicide” to prosecute or threaten to block independent media outlets. In August, Roskomnadzor issued three letters threatening to block access to the independent outlet Batenka, da vy Transformer unless it deleted several articles about the problem of suicide in the country. According to Roskomnadzor, the articles, which discussed the prevalence of and motivations behind suicide, promoted suicide. The outlet complied with the demands.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, on June 27, a court in the city of Saransk fined Idris Yusupov 6,000 rubles ($94) for organizing a screening of a film about Anastasiya Shevchenko, an activist under criminal prosecution for purported “cooperation” with the Open Russia movement, which had been declared an “undesirable foreign organization.” The court considered the film screening to be evidence of Yusupov’s own “cooperation” with Open Russia.
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which were permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through funding, either directly or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of December there were 10 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
On December 2, President Putin signed a law allowing authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this situation would further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual would also have to be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the new law range from 10,000 ($157) and five million rubles ($78,500).
On August 19, the State Duma created a commission to investigate alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. On September 27, the commission determined that German media outlet Deutsche Welle violated the law by reporting on unauthorized protests in Moscow and allegedly calling on individuals to take part in them. The commission urged the government to revoke Deutsche Welle’s license to operate in Russia, although as of December it continued to operate in the country. The commission also accused other foreign media outlets, such as Radio Liberty, BBC, Voice of America, and others, of violations during the “day of silence” that preceded the Moscow City Duma elections on September 8.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included three killings, 62 attacks, 169 detentions by law enforcement officers, 28 prosecutions, 30 threats, 14 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. According to press reports, on May 5, Sergey Zaytsev, head of the Shirinskiy region of the Republic of Khakasia, shoved and body-slammed Ivan Litoman, a journalist from the state Rossiya-24 television channel. Litoman was interviewing Zaitsev and had asked him about allegedly poor-quality housing provided to persons left homeless by the 2015 wildfires. On May 27, the local Investigative Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the incident.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, during protests in Moscow on July 27 and August 3, police threatened journalists, obstructed their work, damaged their equipment, and forcefully detained them. According to freedom of assembly monitor OVD-Info, 14 journalists were detained in Moscow on August 3 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists called these detentions, “a clear attempt to intimidate journalists and censor coverage.”
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes, such as drug possession, in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. In one such incident, on June 7, Moscow police detained investigative journalist Ivan Golunov and charged him with possessing and attempting to sell illegal drugs after purportedly finding amphetamines in his backpack. Following his arrest, officers reportedly beat Golunov and denied him access to his lawyer for 14 hours. Police also purportedly found drugs in Golunov’s apartment, which they searched following his arrest. Police posted nine photos of the alleged narcotics, but then took all but one of the photos down after evidence emerged indicating that the photos were taken in places other than Golunov’s apartment. Golunov and human rights advocates maintained that the drugs were planted on him in an attempt to imprison him in retaliation for his coverage of corruption, particularly in the funeral business. Following significant public outcry, police on July 11 dropped charges, released Golunov, and announced an investigation into the fabrication of charges against him. On December 19, during his annual year-end press conference, President Putin announced that five police officers who arrested Golunov were being investigated on felony charges. According to Meduza, the outlet for which Golunov worked, the investigation began on December 18.
There were reports of journalists being fired for their political views or unfavorable reporting about powerful political figures. For example, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on May 20, the leadership of the Moscow business daily Kommersant fired journalists Maxim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov for writing an article predicting that the influential speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, would soon be replaced. Eleven other journalists at the newspaper resigned in protest, and more than 200 others issued a joint statement warning that its readers would as of then be denied unbiased coverage. The newspaper denied that its owner, progovernment oligarch Alisher Usmanov, played a role in the decision, but sources that spoke to RSF and other media outlets indicated that Usmanov had made the decision. Human Rights Watch called the firing “the latest episode in the gutting” of the country’s independent media.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, on April 18, police raided the St. Petersburg office of the independent news website Rosbalt and seized several computers. According to the newspaper’s lawyer, the search was purportedly in connection with a libel allegation made by Usmanov, although the lawyer maintained that Rosbalt had not published anything about Usmanov. The newspaper’s editor noted that the computers seized were the ones used in a continuing investigation into a crime boss named Young Shakro. Police also searched the home of Rosbalt reporter Aleksandr Shvarev the same day.
There were reports of authorities using “tax inspections” that observers believed were intended to punish or pressure independent outlets. For example, on August 1, the editor of the independent media outlet Dozhd announced that it had received a notice of an unscheduled tax inspection, which she feared may have been in retaliation for the outlet’s extensive coverage of election-related protests in Moscow on July 27.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by unknown persons. On August 9, an unknown assailant in St. Petersburg attacked photojournalist Georgiy Markov, who specialized in photographing opposition protests. The assailant sprayed him with pepper spray and hit him on his head and chest. Law enforcement officials had detained Markov several times while he was photographing opposition protests, beating him at one in May.
There were reports of unidentified individuals or groups of individuals attacking the offices of independent media outlets. For example, on April 1, unknown persons ransacked the office of the newspaper Kommersant in Yekaterinburg, smashed the computers of the chief editor and accountant, took several hard drives, and left a message containing a death threat on the desk of the director of the newspaper. The journalists believed the attack was related to a book published with the participation of the newspaper’s staff about local criminal groups.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. For example, in late February a relative of Anatoliy Popov, the head of the Dobrovskiy region administration in Lipetsk oblast, threatened local journalist Dmitriy Pashinov over his critical reporting about Popov. On May 11, Pashinov was arrested and charged with “insulting a representative of the state” for allegedly cursing at a regional prosecutor in 2017, remarks Pashinov denied making.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, on September 24, Izvestiya published online but subsequently removed an article by military reporter Ilya Kramnik critical of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Within two days the newspaper removed Kramnik from its editorial staff and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. The country’s charge d’affaires in Great Britain accused the Ministry of Defense press service of pressuring Izvestiya to fire Kramnik.
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on August 7, press reports indicated that police in St. Petersburg had distributed notices to local printing presses, informing them that it is unacceptable to fulfill orders for materials that discredit the government or political figures, that offend a person’s honor and dignity, or that promote unsanctioned demonstrations during the pre-electoral period. The printing presses were instructed to turn over orders for any such materials to police.
On January 28, after allegedly receiving information that the business was about to print “extremist” material, police arrived at the St. Petersburg printing house where activist Mikhail Borisov worked. It later became known that Borisov had been preparing to print posters criticizing acting governor Aleksandr Beglov. Police seized four computers but did not detain Borisov since he had not yet printed the posters. The printing house later fired him from his job.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread. For example, on January 21, the Yaroslavl affiliate of the radio station Ekho Moskvy canceled a planned interview with LGBTI activists after receiving threats, including from local officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on March 23, the press reported that the head of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had filed a libel complaint against two websites with the Prosecutor General’s Office, which referred the matter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministry opened a criminal libel investigation into the two websites, RusPress and Kompromat-Ural, which had alleged in late 2018 that Rogozin had used money from the Roscosmos budget to pay for public relations campaigns to burnish his personal reputation and had bribed the heads of media outlets to remove unfavorable coverage of him.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, on June 14, security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik, at his home. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. The charges carry up to a 20-year prison term. Human rights defenders emphasized that the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case, and they maintained that the case against him was fabricated. As of December Gadzhiev remained in detention awaiting trial after a court in Makhachkala extended his pretrial detention through January 13, 2020. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” On September 20, authorities charged Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva with “public justification of terrorism in the media.” She faced up to seven years in jail for comments she made on a local radio station in November 2018 about a suicide bombing at an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. Although she never voiced approval of the bomber’s actions, she suggested that the government’s restrictions on peaceful expressions of dissent may make individuals more likely to resort to violence. In July before these charges were brought, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) added Prokopyeva to its list of terrorists and extremists because of her comments, resulting in the freezing of her bank accounts and the seizure of her passport. According to press reports, in early October officials at the Pskov Investigative Committee summoned for interrogation several journalists and public figures who had spoken out in support of Prokopyeva and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements about the contents of their conversation.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
On May 1, President Putin signed a new law on internet sovereignty, the provisions of which mostly took effect on November 1. The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. Internet advocates asserted the measure would allow for greater surveillance by intelligence agencies and increase the ability of state authorities to control information and block content. Authorities in the Ural Federal District in central Russia began carrying out tests of such equipment in September (with the goal of covering the entire region by the end of the year), but media noted both that the tests resulted in network failures and slower web traffic, and that prohibited services like the Telegram messaging service remained accessible. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. Telecom operators were expected to have until January 1, 2021, to start using the country’s DNS; those who refuse would be disconnected from data exchange points.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing penalties on companies that refuse to localize Russian users’ data from 5,000 rubles ($78) to 6 million rubles ($94,200), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($283,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In April a Moscow court fined Facebook and Twitter 3,000 rubles ($47) each in separate proceedings for failing to inform authorities where they stored the personal data of users.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing fines on companies that refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. Previously the fine was up to 1 million rubles ($15,700), but the new law raised it to 6 million rubles ($94,200). The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of four million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On July 18, Roskomnadzor fined Google 700,000 rubles ($11,000) for not removing links to sites banned by the government from its search results.
The law requires owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.” On April 19, the Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge to the law brought by the human rights NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In June Roskomnadzor announced that it would block nine VPN services that refused its March demand to register with authorities. At least some of these services remained effective within the country as of September.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. For example, individuals who were detained during the August 3 protests in Moscow and whose cell phones police confiscated told Novaya Gazeta about repeated attempts to hack their email accounts in the days following their release. One protester, whose cell phone was tracking its geolocation, reported that his cell phone had apparently been transported to a location in the Moscow suburbs while he was in detention.
There were reports of the disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, authorities in Ingushetia restricted access to mobile internet on numerous occasions during mass protests in March against a land swap with the Republic of Chechnya. During the July 27 and August 3 protests over the Moscow City Duma elections, authorities switched off mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks and curricula. For example, on February 6, the press reported that economics professor Igor Lipsits was informed by his publisher that the economics textbook he had authored had been banned for use in the country’s schools. An expert review by the Russian Education Academy (a government body) had reportedly concluded that examples used in the textbook did not “promote love for the Motherland.” In order to have his book approved for use in schools, the academy suggested that Lipsits add information about the government’s “plans for the next economic breakthrough” and discuss how other government economic policies improve a person’s “sense of pride in the country.”
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, political views, or all. During the summer the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) combined the departments of political science and public administration, resulting in layoffs for a number of professors who reportedly held views sympathetic to the opposition. The university also decided not to renew contracts for several staff members; political analyst and HSE lecturer Aleksandr Kynev said he believed this was for purely political reasons. Yelena Sirotkina, another HSE professor, stated that she resigned voluntarily but under pressure from the university administration. In May the university shut down a student talk show after students invited opposition activist Lyubov Sobol to appear as a guest. According to Meduza, the university administration had made prior attempts to censor the show’s content.
There were reports that authorities restricted academic travel or contacts. On July 13, the Ministry of Education and Science issued new rules obliging academics working at institutions under the ministry to seek approval for any meetings with foreigners. The rules call for institutions to notify the ministry five days in advance of such meetings, a minimum of two academics to be present during meetings, and participants to file a written report that includes passport scans of their foreign interlocutors. Under the rules noncitizens are not allowed to use any notetaking or recording equipment during meetings without prior authorization from the state.
On February 27, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy sent a letter to the heads of the country’s regions, ordering them to ensure that exhibits at museums under their purview “embody the state’s priorities.”
During the year authorities in the Republic of Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. On July 15, the Chechen Minister of Culture announced that the songs of local singers Ayub and Askhab Vakharagov “violate the norms of Chechen culture.” In August, Chechen security forces detained and reportedly held them without charge for two weeks.
On September 24, a Moscow court returned the case against well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov to the prosecutor over errors in the indictment. The prosecutor appealed this decision, however, and submitted new materials to the court, which the court accepted. Serebrennikov had been on trial since November 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov was released on bail on April 8. As of December the date for his new trial had not been announced.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. For example, on October 7, authorities in Moscow disrupted the opening of a modern art exhibit on police violence against protesters that took place during election-related demonstrations in July and August in Moscow. Shortly before the opening, regular Moscow police, officers from Moscow’s “antiextremism” police, city authorities, the state consumer protection service, the fire department, and members of a progovernment extreme nationalist organization arrived at the gallery and blocked individuals from entering the exhibit.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, in May activists from two progovernment nationalist movements tried to disrupt the annual LGBTI film festival Side-by-Side in Moscow. They blocked the entrance to the venue, shouted homophobic slurs, and threw ammonia on a Canadian diplomat. According to festival organizers, police officers observed all the disruptions but did nothing to intervene. The venue also received multiple bomb threats over the course of the festival, which led police to evacuate the buildings and delay the start of each film screening by several hours.
There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” they cancel the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, media reported that authorities visited the music venues at which the rapper Face was to perform in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in late August, after which the organizers canceled both concerts. The venues cited low ticket sales, although the rapper’s team claimed the tickets had sold quite well. Face had performed during an August 3 opposition protest in Moscow and had also published lyrics critical of the government. Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Center, claimed that the FSB had made a “blacklist” of musicians whose concerts are supposed to be disrupted.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Penalties may be up to 300,000 rubles ($4,710) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,420) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,700) for groups or entities. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,700) or imprisoned for up to five years.
A December 2018 law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($471 to $785), 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For example, on July 27 and August 3, security forces detained an estimated 2,500 persons during unsanctioned protests in support of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma. Although the majority were detained briefly and received no criminal or administrative charges, several hundred protesters received fines, jail sentences, or both.
Following the July 27 unsanctioned protest in Moscow, authorities charged 18 individuals with “inciting and participating in mass riots.” The Investigative Committee then changed the charges in several of the cases to “causing harm to law enforcement officers.” Although the charges of “inciting and participating in mass riots” were dropped against eight of the accused, all of these eight individuals received jail sentences of up to 3.4 years after being found guilty of other charges (including “causing harm to law enforcement officers”). As of December the court had not sentenced the other individuals initially charged.
On September 5, a Moscow court sentenced computer programmer Konstantin Kotov to four years in prison for “repeated violations” of protest regulations. The court found that Kotov had “disregarded basic constitutional principles” by taking part in several unsanctioned demonstrations within a 180-day period. Kotov had been detained at several peaceful protests since March, the last being on August 10 as he was exiting a metro station to attend a protest. Memorial considered Kotov to be a political prisoner.
Authorities charged individuals with protest-related offenses for their social media posts about protests. On August 14, police charged blogger Andrey Trofimov from Sergiyev Posad with organizing an unsanctioned demonstration because he retweeted two protest announcements made by opposition leaders. Trofimov maintained he played no other role in organizing the protests.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 18, police beat protesters demonstrating against the construction of a landfill in Likino-Dulyovo in the Moscow region. Eyewitnesses claimed that at least four persons sustained serious injuries as a result, including a broken arm and fractured ribs.
Participants in demonstrations and even bystanders were at times subjected to threats and physical violence. On July 27, members of the National Guard, who had been deployed to the unsanctioned protest in Moscow, detained graphic designer Konstantin Konovalov, a local resident who had been on a run in his neighborhood before the protest began. In so doing they broke one of his legs. On September 17, a Moscow court fined Konovalov 10,000 rubles ($157) for taking part in an unsanctioned protest, despite the fact that the event was set to begin several hours after his detention.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on September 19, Omsk police briefly detained Moscow activist Vera Oleynikova, who had staged a single-person picket calling for freedom for prisoners of conscience in front of the Omsk FSB headquarters. She claimed that police took her to a police station and refused to allow a defense lawyer to see her.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of rights of free assembly. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In November 2018 the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI matters could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On August 3, police and the National Guard in St. Petersburg forcefully dispersed approximately 50 single-person picketers advocating for the LGBTI community after city authorities turned down their request to hold a pride parade. Law enforcement authorities detained 12 persons, three of whom were hospitalized due to injuries that human rights activists said were the result of police brutality.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 14th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 76 NGOs. NGOs designated “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. On December 16, President Putin signed a law raising the fine for noncompliance from 10,000 rubles ($157) to 50,000 rubles ($785) for individuals and from 500,000 rubles ($7,850) to 1 million rubles ($15,700) for legal entities. “Serious violations” may result in fines of 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for citizens and up to 5 million rubles ($78,500) for legal entities.
Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev’s three NGOs received fines totaling more than one million rubles ($15,700) for not marking their materials as originating from a “foreign agent.” On November 1, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Ponomaryov’s NGO “For Human Rights” due to purported violations of the law, including the law on “foreign agents.”
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 19 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the Free Russia Foundation, the Ukrainian World Congress, People in Need, and the Atlantic Council. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
During the year authorities began for the first time to impose criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On January 21, authorities raided the home of Open Russia activist Anastasiya Shevchenko, arrested her, and charged her with “cooperation” with an “undesirable foreign organization.” (Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017.) She faced up to seven years in prison. On January 23, she was placed under house arrest. Shevchenko was prevented from visiting her 17-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized in critical condition, until hours before she died on January 30. As of December her trial had not begun, and she remained under house arrest. Memorial considered Shevchenko to be a political prisoner. Several other Open Russia activists were also under criminal investigation.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of December, nine members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had received jail sentences of up to six years for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization, and between 200 and 300 individuals were under criminal investigation (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, the NGO Russian Socio-Ecological Union documented seven physical attacks on environmental activists the first five months of the year. On March 10, an unknown assailant stabbed environmentalist Denis Shtroo in Kaluga, who died of his wounds four days later. Shtroo had opposed the construction of a landfill in a nearby village, and his friends and relatives believed that he was attacked due to his activism. As of December his killing remained unsolved.
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 3.5 million citizens are unable to leave the country because of debts.
Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. On June 4, the Supreme Court upheld this policy.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary basis. For example, according to human rights groups, on January 29, Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant citizenship to Blagoveshchensk resident Evgeniy Kim, rendering him stateless since he had given up his Uzbek citizenship earlier. Kim was serving a 3-year, 9-month prison sentence for “extremism” for studying the works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and was considered by Memorial to be a political prisoner. Upon his release from prison on April 10, Kim was notified that he was present in the country in violation of migration law. As of September he was held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, the country of his birth, although Uzbek authorities refused to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2018. Of the 5,900 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 3,600 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the First Chechen War in 1994-96.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. Media reports indicated that not all individuals displaced by weather-related events received the assistance that the federal government initially promised them. For example, a RIA Novosti report in August concluded that authorities rejected 15 percent of the applications of those who applied for housing assistance after they were displaced by flooding in the Irkutsk region in August, leaving them with no shelter at the onset of winter.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
UNHCR reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems.
NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated within the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had a reasonable ground to fear persecution. There were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin. UNHCR reported several cases of refoulement during the year but could not provide data on its extent.
In one example of clandestine detention and repatriation, on February 14, officials arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Tajikistan opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who had been living as a refugee in the Netherlands since 2015. He traveled to Moscow to attend a conference but claimed authorities acting at the behest of the Tajik government detained him and put him on a plane to Dushanbe. According to Human Rights Watch, Tajik security services were present at his detention, and during the flight they put a bag over his head and beat him. After two weeks in Tajikistan, authorities released Gadoyev and allowed him to return to the Netherlands after the intervention of European governments and human rights activists.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($520) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. Except for Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin. Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. The NGO Civic Action Committee reported that approximately a third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection in the form of temporary asylum to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 6,000 persons during the year. A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “in conditions prescribed by the law,” but the government severely restricted this right. Journalists reported government officials questioned, threatened, and at times arrested journalists who expressed views deemed critical of the government on sensitive topics.
The Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, sometimes intervened on journalists’ behalf but was generally viewed as biased towards the government. Journalists reported most positions on the RMC board were filled in close consultation with the government and called into question the board’s independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were no official restrictions on individuals’ right to criticize the government publicly or privately on policy implementation and other issues, but broad interpretation of provisions in the penal code had a chilling effect on such criticism. The government generally did not tolerate criticism of the presidency and government policy on security, human rights, and other matters deemed sensitive.
Joseph Nkusi, a founding member of the Ishema party, remained in prison after being convicted of inciting civil disobedience and spreading rumors and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by the Kigali High Court in 2018. Nkusi moved to Norway in 2009 where he applied for asylum and started a blog that was blocked by the Rwandan government. In 2016 he was deported back to his country of origin where he was arrested and charged. On July 17, an appellate court heard his appeal, but the court had not issued a ruling as of August 15.
Laws prohibiting divisionism, genocide ideology, and genocide denial were broadly applied and discouraged citizens, residents, and visitors to the country from expressing viewpoints that could be construed as promoting societal divisions. For example, in January journalist Rene Hubert Nsengiyumva was arrested after he hosted a television program in which a speaker argued some candidates in the Miss Rwanda competition deserved to lose because they looked more like “Ethiopians” than “real Rwandans.” The National Commission for the Fight against Genocide condemned the comments, recalling that perpetrators of the 1994 genocide had often characterized their Tutsi victims as “Ethiopian” intruders. Nsengiyumva was released approximately two months after his arrest. The law prohibits making use of speech, writing, or any other act that divides the populace or may set them against each other or cause civil unrest because of discrimination. Conviction of “instigating divisions” is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and fines of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($550 to $1,100). Authorities applied the laws broadly, including to silence political dissent and to shut down investigative journalism. The law also prohibits spreading “false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause public disaffection against the government,” for which conviction is punishable by seven to 10 years’ imprisonment. The government investigated and prosecuted individuals accused of threatening or harming genocide survivors and witnesses or of espousing genocide ideology.
A revised genocide ideology law enacted in 2018 incorporated international definitions for genocide and outlined the scope of what constitutes “genocide ideology” and related offenses. Specifically, the law provides that any person convicted of denying, minimizing, or justifying the 1994 genocide is liable to a prison term of five to seven years and a fine of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($550 to $1,100). Authorities applied the statute broadly, and there were numerous reports of its use to silence persons critical of government policy.
The RNP reported fewer individuals were arrested in April during the genocide commemoration period for spreading genocide ideology than in the preceding year.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Vendors sold newspapers published in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. According to the RMC, there were 36 print media outlets registered with the government, although many of these did not publish regularly. Sporadically published independent newspapers maintained positions in support of, or critical of, the government but a lack of advertisement revenue and funds remained serious challenges to continuing operations. Most independent newspapers opted not to publish print editions and released their stories online instead. There were 34 radio stations (six government-owned community radio stations and 28 independent radio stations) and more than 13 television stations, according to the RMC. Independent media reported a difficult operating environment and highlighted the reluctance of the business community to advertise on radio stations that might be critical of the government.
Media professionals reported government officials sought to influence reporting and warned journalists against reporting information deemed sensitive or critical of the government.
The law provides journalists the freedom to investigate, express opinions, and “seek, receive, give, and broadcast information and ideas through any media.” The law explicitly prohibits censorship of information, but censorship occurred. The laws restrict these freedoms if journalists “jeopardize the general public order and good morals, an individual’s right to honor and reputation in the public eye and to the right to inviolability of a person’s private life and family.” By law authorities may seize journalists’ material and information if a “media offense” occurs but only under a court order. Courts may compel journalists to reveal confidential sources in the event of an investigation or criminal proceeding. Persons wanting to start a media outlet must apply with the “competent public organ.” All media rights and prohibitions apply to persons writing for websites.
Violence and Harassment: Media professionals reported the government continued to use threats of arrests and physical violence to silence media outlets and journalists. Journalist Jean Bosco Kabakura remained outside the country after fleeing in 2018 because of threats related to his publication of an article examining the roles of police, military, and civilian authorities in the shooting of refugees from the Kiziba refugee camp earlier in 2018. Several other journalists who fled in prior years remained outside the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law allows the government to restrict access to some government documents and information, including information on individual privacy and information or statements deemed to constitute defamation. Reporters Without Borders reported that while the number of abuses registered against journalists had fallen in prior years, censorship remained ubiquitous, and self-censorship was widely used to avoid running afoul of the regime. Reporters without Borders also reported that foreign journalists were often unable to obtain the visas and accreditation needed to report in Rwanda.
Radio stations broadcast some criticism of government policies, including on popular citizen call-in shows; however, criticism tended to focus on provincial leaders and local implementation of policies rather than on the president or ruling party leadership. Some radio stations, including Radio 1, Radio Isango Star, and Radio Salus, had regular call-in shows that featured discussion of government programs or policies. For example, Radio Flash and Radio Isango Star hosted a number of debates in which participants criticized government policies on human rights and social issues.
Libel/Slander Laws: On April 24, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional provisions of the penal code that made it illegal to use words, gestures, writings, or cartoons to humiliate members of parliament, members of the cabinet, security officers, or any other public servant. The court upheld a provision stating that conviction of insulting or defaming the president is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of five million to seven million Rwandan francs ($5,490 to $7,690). In response the Office of the President issued a statement taking issue with the court’s decision to uphold that provision and called for continued debate of the issue, explaining that the president believed this should be a civil matter, not a criminal matter. Parliament began considering revisions to the penal code to reflect the Supreme Court decision and the president’s views, but it had not completed those deliberations as of October 1. Defamation of foreign and international officials and dignitaries remains illegal under the law, with sentences if convicted of three to five years’ imprisonment. The penal code does not contain provisions criminalizing public defamation and public insult in general.
National Security: Under media laws, journalists must refrain from reporting items that violate “confidentiality in the national security and national integrity” and “confidentiality of judicial proceedings, parliamentary sessions, and cabinet deliberations in camera.” Authorities used these laws to intimidate critics of the government and journalists covering politically sensitive topics and matters under government investigation.
The media law includes the right of all citizens to “receive, disseminate, or send information through the internet,” including the right to start and maintain a website. All provisions of media law apply to web-based publications. The government restricts the types of online content that users can access, particularly content that strays from the government’s official line, and continued to block websites. The government continued to monitor email and internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views online, including by email and social media, but were subject to monitoring. There were reports that some individuals were arrested based in part on information obtained from email and internet monitoring. In May the minister of information and communications technology and innovation announced the government planned to impose regulations on social media content so as to combat misinformation and protect citizens.
According to a 2010 law relating to electronic messages, signatures, and transactions, intermediaries and service providers are not held liable for content transmitted through their networks. Nonetheless, service providers are required to remove content when handed a takedown notice, and there are no avenues for appeal.
Government-run social media accounts were used to debate and at times intimidate individuals who posted online comments considered critical of the government.
The government blocked access within the country to several websites critical of its policies, including websites of the Rwandan diaspora.
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom or cultural events, but students and professors practiced self-censorship to avoid accusations of engaging in divisionism or genocide ideology. Local think tanks deferred to government officials in selecting subjects for research, and authorities often prevented or delayed the publication of studies that cast the government in a negative light. The government requires visiting academics to receive official permission to conduct research.
The constitution, law, or both provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government did not always respect this right. The penal code states it is illegal to demonstrate in a public place without prior authorization. Conviction of violating this provision is punishable by a prison sentence of eight days to six months or a fine of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($550 to $1,100) or both. The penalties are increased for illegal demonstrations deemed to have threatened security, public order, or health. Even with prior written authorization, public meetings were subject to disruption or arbitrary closure.
While the constitution provides for freedom of association, the government limited the right. The law requires private organizations to register. Although the government generally granted licenses, it impeded the formation of political parties, restricted political party activities, and delayed or denied registration to local and international NGOs seeking to work on human rights, media freedom, or political advocacy (see section 3). In addition the government imposed burdensome NGO registration and renewal requirements, especially on international NGOs, as well as time-consuming requirements for annual financial and activity reports (see section 5). The law requires faith-based organizations to obtain legal status from the government before beginning operations. It also calls for their legal representatives and preachers with supervisory responsibilities to hold academic degrees.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government accepted former Rwandan combatants who returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Rwandan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, with international support, placed adult former combatants in a three-month re-education program at the Mutobo Demobilization Center in Northern Province. After completion, each adult former combatant was enrolled automatically in the RDF Reserve Force and received a cash allowance. On May 28, 569 adults were discharged from the center under this program. The Musanze Child Rehabilitation Center treated former child combatants.
Foreign Travel: The law allows a judge to deprive convicted persons of the right to travel abroad as a stand-alone punishment or as punishment following imprisonment. Government officials must obtain written permission from the Office of the Prime Minister or the president before traveling abroad for official or personal reasons. The government restricted the travel of existing and former security-sector officials. In March the government advised citizens to avoid traveling to Uganda due to safety concerns. The minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation told press the government did so because some Rwandan citizens had been harassed and arrested without cause in Uganda. The government characterized the travel warning as an advisory rather than a prohibition, but there were reports authorities prevented some Rwandans from traveling to Uganda and Burundi.
The government 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. As of August the government hosted more than 72,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers and more than 76,000 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers. The government continued to grant prima facie refugee status to Burundian refugees fleeing instability after Burundi’s 2015 presidential election. For other nationalities significant delays existed in the application of individual refugee status determinations; UNHCR reported working with the government to improve the process.
UNHCR supported the Mahama Camp for Burundian refugees and five camps primarily for Congolese refugees with international and national NGOs, providing for basic health, water, sanitation, housing, food, and educational needs, in coordination with the government. Authorities sometimes restricted access to the camps. The government continued to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2016, and UNHCR reported good cooperation with the government and local community. The government continued to work with UNHCR on expanding the integration of refugees into the national education system, as well as on increasing livelihood opportunities. The government also collaborated with UNHCR on an exercise to verify the refugee status of presumed refugees in urban areas and in the six camps, issue refugees identification cards, and enroll refugees in social service programs.
UNHCR, under an agreement with the government and 14 host countries, recommended in 2015 the invocation of the “ceased circumstances” clause for Rwandans who fled the country between 1959 and 1998 with an agreement with African states hosting Rwandan refugees that refugees were to be assisted in returning to Rwanda or obtaining legal permanent residency in host countries by the end of 2017. The cessation clause forms part of the 1951 Refugee Convention and may be applied when fundamental and durable changes in a refugee’s country of origin, such that they no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution, remove the need for international protection. As of September more than three million exiled Rwandans had returned. The government worked with UNHCR and other aid organizations to assist the returnees, most of whom resettled in their districts of origin.
Authorities generally provided adequate security and physical protection within refugee camps. The RNP worked with UNHCR to maintain police posts on the edge of and station police officers in refugee camps. Refugees were free to file complaints at both camp and area police stations. In March a court acquitted 12 refugees of charges related to their involvement in a February 2018 clash with police that resulted in at least 10 deaths and multiple injuries; the confrontation had erupted after approximately 500 refugees left Kiziba refugee camp and marched to the UNHCR office in Kibuye to protest ration cuts and discrimination in the local labor market and to voice other grievances. Three other refugees were convicted. Their appeals of their convictions remained pending as of October 1.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. UNHCR, with government and donor support, assisted approximately 149,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Burundi and the DRC. An interagency committee that makes individual refugee status determinations in cases where claimants are not eligible for prima facie refugee status met infrequently.
Freedom of Movement: The law does not restrict freedom of movement of asylum seekers, but refugees continued to experience delays in the issuance of identity cards and convention travel documents. As part of the joint verification exercise the government conducted with UNHCR, eligible refugees received identity cards allowing them to move around the country and open bank accounts.
Employment: No laws restrict refugee employment, and in 2016 the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs launched a livelihoods strategy with UNHCR aimed at increasing the ability of refugees to work on the local economy. As of August implementation continued, but many refugees were unable to find local employment. A World Bank study published during the year found that local authorities and businesses often were unaware of refugees’ rights with respect to employment.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees had access to public education through grade nine, public health care, housing within the refugee camps, the law enforcement system, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance. A limited number of refugees completed secondary education and were enrolled in universities. Kepler, a nonprofit higher education program, collaborated with UNHCR and Southern New Hampshire University to operate a campus in the Kiziba camp.
Refugees in the camps received basic health care from humanitarian agencies and had access to secondary and tertiary care coordinated by UNHCR. Some refugee children in urban areas had access to government health-care services, as did elderly urban refugees. On June 25, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with UNHCR to extend government health-care services to urban refugees of all ages, as well as refugees studying at boarding schools and universities.
Durable Solutions: The government assisted the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their countries of origin and sought to improve local integration of refugees in protracted stays by permitting them to accept local employment and move freely in the country and by establishing markets to facilitate trade between refugees and local citizens. On September 10, the government, UNHCR, and the African Union signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a transit mechanism for evacuating refugees from Libya. UNHCR announced on September 11 that Rwandan authorities planned to receive as many as 500 persons at one time, and that these individuals would eventually be resettled in third countries, helped to return to countries where asylum had previously been granted, helped to return to their home countries, or granted permission to remain in Rwanda. On September 26, the first group of 66 refugees and other persons of concern arrived in Rwanda under the transit mechanism.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. 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. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.
The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.
Freedom of 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 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, monarchy, governing system, or 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.
Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.
The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. From September to November, human rights groups and foreign media reported that authorities detained at least six persons, including an academic, poet, and tribal chief, for allegedly criticizing the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).
On October 10, Omar al-Muqbil, an academic at Qassim University, was allegedly arrested over a video criticizing the GEA’s recent policy of hosting concerts by international artists. In the video he accused the GEA of “erasing society’s original identity.” On October 21, poet Safar al-Dughilbi was summoned for questioning regarding a poem he wrote that referred to the “ill-practices” of the GEA. On October 22, the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account announced a chief of the Otaiba tribe, Faisal Sultan Jahjah bin Humaid, was detained and questioned following a tweet criticizing the GEA and calling for “reasonable forms of entertainment.”
On November 12, the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al al-Sheikh, warned on Twitter the government would “take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”
Between November 16 and November 20, authorities detained at least 11 persons, mostly journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs, according to the ALQST. A few days later, authorities released at least eight of those detained.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. 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 law.
Media policy statements 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 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.
Although unlicensed 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 Media and could not operate freely. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.
On March 3, local media reported that authorities temporarily suspended a talk show hosted by journalist and Saudi Broadcasting Corporation president Dawood al-Shirian after it showed episodes on the guardianship system, the shortage of driving schools for women, and Saudi women seeking asylum abroad. The show returned a week later on March 10, according to Okaz daily newspaper.
On June 11, local media reported the GEA banned Kuwaiti artist Mona Shadad from appearing on local radio and television channels after Shadad appeared in a video praising Qatar.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.
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.
All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media 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, extremist, racist, or offensive or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. In June 2018 the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism or harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties. On July 10, the Shura Council called on the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to intensify efforts to prevent the broadcast of content that contravenes the country’s laws, customs, traditions, and public decorum or harms the reputation of the kingdom and its people. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the council underlined the need to enhance control of the electronic games market through surveillance of stores, markets, and websites in accordance with local and international regulations.
In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-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 cybercrimes 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,” including social media and social networks.
National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Media 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.
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. In May 2018 then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, 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 ISIS.
The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order. The NGO Citizen Lab reported that NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, provided spyware to the government to monitor activists’ communications on web-based applications.
Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet service providers to monitor customers and 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.
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).
In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. On March 12, WhatsApp users reported the unblocking of its calling feature, but the service was reblocked hours later. Other video-calling apps, including Viber, reported services were still blocked.
The government has blocked Qatari websites such as al–Jazeera since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.
In 2017 a government official stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.
The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. 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 (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
During the year there was an increase in the number of concerts, sports competitions, and cultural performances available to the public. In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the GEA and the General Authority for Culture with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the GEA sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance. In June 2018 King Salman issued a royal order creating the Ministry of Culture, separating it from the Information Ministry and appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud as its minister. The country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened in April 2018, and additional cinemas opened across the country during the year.
The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.
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 at times allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country.
The law provided for limited freedom of association; however, the government strictly limited this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government, however, 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.
On August 20, local media reported the issuance of new government regulations that obligate members of the Shura Council and university professors to disclose membership in foreign institutions and associations. These individuals must obtain approval from the relevant authorities before joining any foreign organization.
In 2013 and 2014, the few local NGOs that had operated without a license ceased operating after authorities ordered them disbanded. In the years since banning the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) in 2013, the government pursued criminal charges against ACPRA affiliates. In February 2018 the SCC sentenced lawyer and ACPRA-member Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison, based on charges of “infringing on the public order and religious values,” “opposing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen,” and related charges. Prisoners of Conscience reported in August that al-Nukheifi was facing additional charges and a new trial.
Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. 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 (see section 6, Women). Courts, however, 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. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.
In June 2018 the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women, which resulted in waiting lists for driving classes, since a driving school certificate is a requirement to obtain a license. Another obstacle was the high cost of driver’s education for women, which international media reported was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees, reportedly because women’s schools had better technology and facilities.
Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. On June 20, Okaz reported that married Saudi men younger than 21 no longer require guardian consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, 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. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children by reporting them as “disobedient,” prohibiting their travel.
On August 1, the government published Royal Decree 134/M, which stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission. The travel regulations entered into effect on August 20. On October 14, local media reported that as many as 14,000 adult women had obtained their passports since August without seeking the consent of their legal guardian.
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 reportedly confiscated passports 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 corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists were also reportedly under travel bans.
The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging in July.
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. Generally, there is not a codified asylum system for those fleeing persecution, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government permitted refugees recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stay in the country temporarily, pending identification of a durable solution, 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 to refuse 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 granted six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni citizens, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. On January 8 and July 11, the General Directorate of Passports announced renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens in accordance with royal directives. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, however, that during the year more than 30,000 Yemenis were deported due to their immigration status (see section 7.e., Acceptable Conditions of Work). In April 2018 then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that, since the start of the Syrian conflict, the country had taken in approximately two and one-half million Syrians and treated them as its own citizens, providing them with free health care, work, and education. He added that the country’s universities and schools had more than 140,000 Syrian students.
The IOM reported that as of August an estimated 300,000 Ethiopians had returned to Ethiopia since the government launched a campaign titled “A Nation without Violations” in 2017. HRW reported that a number of these migrants came to Saudi Arabia after experiencing persecution by the Ethiopian government and that deportations may have returned individuals to potentially harmful circumstances. HRW also noted migrants had faced abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia.
The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in foreign countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in foreign countries, according to multiple sources (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). In January an 18-year-old Saudi citizen, citing fear for her life, was granted refugee status in Canada after fleeing from her family to Bangkok. Rahaf Mohammed claimed the Saudi embassy in Bangkok tried to force her to return to Saudi Arabia.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni citizens who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these persons to work. The renewable permits are 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. In 2017 the General Directorate of Passports allowed Yemeni men to convert their visitor identification card to a residency permit if their Yemeni passport and visitor identification card were valid.
Access to Basic Services: The government provides preferential access to education, health care, public housing, and other social services to citizens and certain legal residents. A royal decree issued in 2012 permitted all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system and a separate decree issued in 2015 gave Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. The Ministry of Education modified these decisions in February 2018, announcing that Syrian and Yemeni students holding visitor identification cards were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools and universities and would have to enroll in private ones at their own expense. 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, also following a needs assessment.
The country had a 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 born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, 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 citizens to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances, such as fathers who 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 not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances); daughters in such cases 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.
Foreign male spouses of female citizens can obtain permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they can receive free government education and medical benefits, although in general they cannot apply for citizenship on the basis of their marriage and residence. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must be between the ages of 30 and 50 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. 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; there was anecdotal evidence that they 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 past years 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]). Updated information on stateless persons was not available. 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. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identification 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.
Very small numbers of Baloch, West African, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma resident in Saudi Arabia were stateless. Some Rohingya had expired passports that their home government had refused to renew, or they had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. Many of them had been held in detention for years following their entry into the country under fake passports. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. Some of these individuals benefited from a prior program to correct their residency status; in 2014 the government issued nearly 200,000 four-year residency permits to Rohingya who entered the country prior to 2008. Rohingya who arrived in the country after 2008 were not eligible for residency permits, although NGOs reported that Rohingya, including those without legal residency, were generally not subject to deportation prior to 2018. Upon the expiration of Rohingya residency permits in 2018, media reported more than 100 Rohingya faced deportation to Bangladesh at year’s end, and hundreds more were in detention at Shumaisi Detention Center near Mecca. In January the activist group Free Rohingya Coalition said Saudi Arabia continued to deport dozens of Rohingya to Bangladesh and was planning to deport 250 more. On January 26, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, criticized Saudi Arabia for mistreatment of the Rohingya. In April a report indicated that nearly 650 Rohingya refugees at Shumaisi detention center in Jeddah went on a hunger strike, resulting in a number of deaths. 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.