Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO), which reports to the King, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions.
On April 13, media reported that security forces shot and killed tribal activist Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti in the northwestern town of al-Khuraybah, Tabuk region. Al-Huwaiti reportedly refused to leave his home, which was slated for demolition in preparation for the construction of a new high-tech city to attract foreign investors. He was killed following a clash with authorities at his home. Hours before his death, al-Huwaiti posted YouTube videos in which he criticized the project and claimed his neighbors had been forcibly removed after facing pressure from the government and rejecting financial compensation to move.
An August 13 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Saudi border guards of killing several dozen Ethiopian migrants in April as they crossed over the border from Yemen illegally, fleeing Houthi forces who were forcibly expelling migrant workers.
Under the country’s interpretation and practice of sharia (Islamic law), capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for such offenses were rare and usually reduced on appeal. As of December 31, five of the 25 executions during the year were for crimes not considered “most serious” (drug related). The total number of executions during the year was considerably less than the 185 executions carried out in 2019.
Since the country lacks a comprehensive written penal code listing criminal offenses and the associated penalties for them (see section 1.e.), punishment–including the imposition of capital punishment–is subject to considerable judicial discretion.
On September 7, the Riyadh Criminal Court issued a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul in 2018. All five government agents who were previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Three other defendants had their sentences of seven to 10 years’ imprisonment upheld. The court’s ruling came after Khashoggi’s sons announced in May they would exercise their right to pardon the five individuals who had been sentenced to death. On September 7, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, called the final verdict a “parody of justice” and asserted that the high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”
In April a royal decree abolished discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The 2018 Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18 based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted in qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudud, crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, could still face the death penalty, according to HRW. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.
On April 8, government authorities in al-Bahah region carried out a qisas death sentence against Abdulmohsen al-Ghamdi, who had been charged with intentional homicide when he was a child, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR). Al-Ghamdi was reportedly arrested in 2012, at the age of 15, after he had shot and killed a classmate at a high school.
On August 26, the governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) ordered a review of the death sentences of three Shia activists, Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Ali al-Nimr, who were minors at the time of arrest. The statement indicated that the review order was an implementation of the April royal decree and applied retroactively.
In November a judge in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) ruled to overturn al-Marhoon and al-Zaher’s death sentences, and resentenced them to 10 years. Al-Zaher and al-Marhoon were 16 and 17, respectively, at the time of their arrests in 2012. Both were charged in connection with their involvement in antigovernment protests.
As of December, al-Nimr’s case remained under review. Al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014 for crimes allegedly committed when he was 17. He was charged with protesting, aiding and abetting fugitives, attacking security vehicles, and various violent crimes. Human rights organizations reported due process concerns relating to minimum fair-trial standards for his case. Al-Nimr is the nephew of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, executed in 2016.
There was also no update by year’s end as to whether the April royal decree would be applied retroactively in the case of the death sentence against Mustafa al-Darwish for his involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012. On February 26, Nashet Qatifi, a Shia activist group, claimed the Supreme Court had upheld al-Darwish’s death penalty.
In November the rights group Reprieve expressed concern for 10 minors who remained on death row, including Muhammad al-Faraj. The group reported that prosecutors continued to seek the death penalty in a trial against al-Faraj, who was arrested in 2017 for protest-related crimes when he was 15.
In February a court issued a final verdict reducing Murtaja Qureiris’ sentence from a 12-year prison term handed to him in June 2019 to eight years, followed by a travel ban for a similar period, according to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST). According to rights groups including Amnesty International, Qureiris was detained in 2014 for a series of offenses committed when he was between 10 and 13 years old, and the public prosecution had sought the death penalty in his case.
There were terrorist attacks in the country during the year. Iranian-backed Houthis continued to target Saudi civilians and infrastructure with missiles and unmanned aircraft systems launched from Yemen. There were no civilian casualties during the year.
The United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and humanitarian and other international organizations reported what they characterized as disproportionate use of force by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi militants, and other combatants. The Group of Experts concluded that four airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) between June 2019 and June 2020 were undertaken without proper regard to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution to protect civilians and civilian objects. A UN report released in June documented 395 instances of killing and 1,052 instances of maiming of children in Yemen between January and December 2019, of which 222 casualties were attributed to the SLC. The UN secretary-general noted this was a “sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the SLC from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.)
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
In early March authorities reportedly detained four senior princes: Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother; his son, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, a former head of army intelligence; Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, former crown prince and interior minister; and his younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef. The detentions were not announced by the government, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “conducting contacts with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” The Wall Street Journal reported that at the same time, security forces detained dozens of Interior Ministry officials, senior army officers, and others suspected of supporting the alleged coup attempt. In August lawyers representing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said they were increasingly concerned about his well-being, alleging that his whereabouts remained unknown five months after he was detained and stating that he had not been allowed visits by his personal doctor. Prince Nawaf’s lawyers stated he was released in August, but there were no updates on the other three as of year’s end.
On March 16, authorities arrested Omar al-Jabri, 21, and Sarah al-Jabri, 20, in Riyadh and held them in incommunicado detention, according to HRW. They are the children of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri, who has lived in exile in Canada since 2017. Prisoners of Conscience reported that the first trial hearing against Omar and Sarah occurred on September 10. They remained in detention at year’s end.
On March 27, authorities reportedly detained Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, son of the late king Abdullah and former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, and have since held him incommunicado and refused to reveal his whereabouts, according to HRW. The authorities previously detained Prince Faisal during a November 2017 anticorruption campaign.
On March 5, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions contacted the Foreign Ministry to urge the release of Princess Basmah bint Saud, 56, a daughter of the late king Saud. On April 15, a verified Twitter account owned by Princess Basmah issued a series of tweets stating that she and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif were being held without charge in al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh and that her health was deteriorating, according to HRW. The tweets apparently disappeared after several hours. On May 5, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that family members had received no further information about her well-being or status. On April 6, the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council reported it sent a communication to the government alleging that authorities prevented Princess Basmah and her daughter from traveling to seek medical attention for her daughter’s health condition, that they were subsequently detained and held incommunicado for a period of approximately one month, and that they were being held at the al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh without charge, according to the ESOHR.
On May 17, State Security Presidency (SSP) officers arrested internet activist Amani al-Zain in Jeddah; her whereabouts remained unknown, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and Prisoners of Conscience. They added that al-Zain was arrested after she apparently referred to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “Abu Munshar,” meaning “father of the saw,” while on a live video chat with Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim in October 2019.
On June 28, the Geneva-based Organization for Rights and Liberties (SAM) called on the government to disclose the fate of five Yemenis it said were being held in its prisons. On June 10, Prisoners of Conscience confirmed Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Zubayri, a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform or al-Islah Party had been in Saudi detention since May 20 for participating in an online meeting hosted by Yemeni students in Turkey.
In February disappeared humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was permitted to call his family briefly, at which time he stated he was being held in al-Ha’ir Prison. His family has not heard from him since.
The law prohibits torture and makes officers, who are responsible for criminal investigations, liable for any abuse of authority. Sharia, as interpreted in the country, prohibits judges from accepting confessions obtained under duress. Statutory law provides that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony.
Human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties noted numerous reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. ALQST alleged that authorities continued to use torture in prisons and interrogation rooms. Amnesty International assessed in a February statement that one of the most striking failings of the SCC in trials was “its unquestioning reliance on torture-tainted ‘confessions.’” It alleged at least 20 Shia men tried by the SCC have been sentenced to death on the basis of confessions obtained by torture since 2016, with 17 of them already executed. Former detainees in facilities run by the Mabahith alleged that abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Shia teenager Murtaja Qureiris (see section 1.a.), expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.
On July 11, the ESOHR stated the government continued to hold 49 women activists in detention, including several human rights advocates, and claimed they were subjected to torture and mistreatment.
On August 13, SAM alleged in Middle East Monitor that Jizan Prison authorities subjected hundreds of Yemeni detainees to torture and mistreatment. It said former Yemeni detainees claimed that prison officials subjected them to severe torture including electrocutions, crucifixions, being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, denial of health care, and being denied outside contacts, including with lawyers and family. According to the group, at least one detainee died.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, the PPO, and the HRC, which is responsible for coordinating with other government entities to investigate and respond to alleged human rights violations (see section 5), claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system. The Ministry of Interior stated it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations allegedly occurred.
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment, but in April the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a discretionary (ta’zir) criminal sentence and replace it with prison sentences, fines, or a mixture of both. Flogging still could be included in sentences for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery. The Supreme Court stated the reform was intended to “bring the Kingdom in line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment.”
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. The ongoing crackdown on corruption, including the investigation of security services personnel, and the announced reform of the legal code indicate efforts to address impunity.
Prison and detention center conditions varied, and some did not meet international standards; reported problems included overcrowding and inadequate conditions.
Physical Conditions: Juveniles constituted less than 1 percent of detainees and were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information.
Authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. They separated persons suspected or convicted of terrorism offenses from the general population but held them in similar facilities. Activists alleged that authorities sometimes detained individuals in the same cells as individuals with mental disabilities as a form of punishment and indicated that authorities mistreated persons with disabilities.
Authorities differentiated between violent and nonviolent prisoners, sometimes pardoning nonviolent prisoners to reduce the prison population. Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.
Certain prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.
In a June 7 report, the Guardian newspaper quoted rights groups as saying that al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh has long been associated with physical abuse. An ALQST representative alleged the general criminal area of al-Ha’ir was overcrowded and had poor sanitation and that denial of medical treatment and temporary transfer of political prisoners into the overcrowded general criminal prison were used as punishment.
On March 26, the HRC announced that authorities released 250 foreign detainees held on nonviolent immigration and residency offenses as part of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
On April 24, human rights defender Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died in detention. Prisoners of Conscience, which tracks human rights-related cases in the country, asserted his death was due to “intentional health neglect” by prison authorities. According to ALQST and HRW, al-Hamid’s health deteriorated after authorities delayed a necessary heart operation. ALQST and HRW also reported that authorities took steps to prevent him from discussing his health condition with his family. Al-Hamid, cofounder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA), was serving an 11-year prison sentence following his conviction in 2013 on charges related to his peaceful political and human rights activism. On June 2, UN experts sent the government a letter expressing deep concern over al-Hamid’s death in detention.
Administration: There were multiple legal authorities for prisons and detention centers. The General Directorate of Prisons administered approximately 91 detention centers, prisons, and jails, while the Mabahith administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers for security prisoners. The law of criminal procedure gives the PPO the authority to conduct official visits of prisons and detention facilities “within their jurisdictional areas to ensure that no person is unlawfully imprisoned or detained.”
No ombudsmen were available to register or investigate complaints made by prisoners, although prisoners could and did submit complaints to the HRC, which has offices in a number of prisons, and the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) for follow up. The law of criminal procedure provides that “any prisoner or detainee shall have the right to submit, at any time, a written or verbal complaint to the prison or detention center officer and request that he communicate it to a member of the [former] Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecution [renamed the PPO].” Inmates, however, required approval from prison authorities to submit complaints to an HRC office. Under the law there is no right to submit complaints directly to judicial authorities. There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit complaints to prison or prosecutorial authorities without censorship or whether authorities responded or acted upon complaints.
On January 13, the PPO launched Ma’akom, an electronic service that allows citizens and residents to submit complaints in case of any violation of the rights of detainees. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Muqbel, the PPO’s assistant undersecretary for prison supervision and enforcement of sentences, declared, “The PPO will follow up on the case, go to where the detainee is held, conduct the necessary investigations, order the detainee’s release if there are irregularities in his arrest, and take necessary measures against perpetrators of the illegal arrest.” There were no updates on implementation of the system by year’s end.
Record keeping on prisoners was inadequate; there were reports authorities held prisoners after they had completed their sentences.
A Ministry of Interior-run website (Nafetha) provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information about the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates. Activists said the website did not provide information about all detainees.
Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once or twice a month. Prisoners were typically granted at least one telephone call per week. There were reports that prison, security, or law enforcement officials denied this privilege in some instances, often during investigations. The families of detainees could access the Nafetha website for applications for prison visits, temporary leave from prison (generally approved around post-Ramadan Eid holidays), and release on bail (for pretrial detainees). Some family members of detained persons under investigation said family visits were typically not allowed, while others said allowed visits or calls were extremely brief (less than five minutes). Authorities at times reportedly denied some detainees weekly telephone calls for several months. Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason. Since March human rights groups reported that in-person visitation in prisons was suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform religious observances such as prayers.
Independent Monitoring: Independent institutions were not permitted to conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture. During the year the government permitted some foreign diplomats restricted access to some prison facilities in nonconsular cases. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats were granted consular visits to individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may differ from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.
The government permitted the HRC and quasi-governmental NSHR to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. On July 9, local media reported the HRC conducted 2,094 prison visits during the fiscal year 2019-20, including visits to public prisons, security prisons, and various detention centers, as well as “social observation centers” and girls’ welfare institutions.
Improvements: On April 7, King Salman ordered the temporary suspension of execution of final verdicts and judicial orders related to the imprisonment of debtors involved in private rights-related cases in an effort to reduce the prison population and limit the spread of COVID-19. He also ordered the immediate, temporary release of prisoners already serving time for debt-related convictions.
The law provides that no entity may restrict a person’s actions or imprison a person, except under the provisions of the law. The law of criminal procedure provides that authorities may not detain a person for more than 24 hours, but the Ministry of Interior and the SSP, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family.
On May 11, the Council of Ministers established a new system for the PPO and amended Article 112 of the law of criminal procedure, giving the PPO “complete and independent powers” to identify major crimes that require detention, according to local media. On August 21, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab issued a list of 25 major crimes that mandate arrest and pretrial detention, including types of border crimes, corruption, homicide, and offenses against national security, among others.
According to the law of criminal procedure, “no person shall be arrested, searched, detained, or imprisoned except in cases provided by law, and any accused person shall have the right to seek the assistance of a lawyer or a representative to defend him during the investigation and trial stages.” By law authorities may summon any person for investigation and may issue an arrest warrant based on evidence. In practice authorities frequently did not use warrants, and warrants were not required under the law in all cases.
The law requires authorities to file charges within 72 hours of arrest and hold a trial within six months, subject to exceptions specified by amendments to the law of criminal procedure and the counterterrorism law (see section 2.a.). Authorities may not legally detain a person under arrest for more than 24 hours, except pursuant to a written order from a public investigator. Authorities reportedly often failed to observe these legal protections, and there was no requirement to advise suspects of their rights.
The law specifies procedures required for extending the detention period of an accused person beyond the initial five days. Authorities may approve detentions in excess of six months in “exceptional circumstances,” effectively allowing individuals to be held in pretrial detention indefinitely in cases involving terrorism or “violations of state security.” There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal charges. The PPO may order the detention of any person accused of a crime under the counterterrorism law for up to 30 days, renewable up to 12 months, and in state security cases up to 24 months with a judge’s approval.
By law defendants accused of any crime cited in the law are entitled to hire a lawyer to defend themselves before the court “within an adequate period of time to be decided by the investigatory body.” In cases involving terrorism or state security charges, detainees generally did not have the right to obtain a lawyer of their choice. The government provided lawyers to defendants who made a formal application to the Ministry of Justice to receive a court-appointed lawyer and proved their inability to pay for their legal representation.
There were reports authorities did not always allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Authorities indicated a suspect could be held up to 12 months in investigative detention without access to legal counsel if authorized by prosecutors. Judicial proceedings begin after authorities complete a full investigation.
The king continued the tradition of commuting some judicial punishments. Royal pardons sometimes set aside a conviction and sometimes reduced or eliminated corporal punishment. The remaining sentence could be added to a new sentence if the pardoned prisoner committed a crime subsequent to release.
Authorities commuted the sentences of some who had received prison terms. The counterterrorism law allows the PPO to stop proceedings against an individual who cooperates with investigations or helps thwart a planned terrorist attack. The law authorizes the SSP to release individuals already convicted in such cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: Rights groups received reports from families claiming authorities held their relatives arbitrarily or without notification of charges. During the year authorities detained without charge security suspects, persons who publicly criticized the government, Shia religious leaders, individuals with links to rights activists, and persons accused of violating religious standards.
On September 4, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced six academics and journalists detained in 2017, including Abdullah al-Maliki, Fahd al-Sunaidi, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Yousef al-Qassem, to prison sentences of three to seven years. Saudi rights activist Yahya al-Assiri stated the men were arbitrarily detained and that their convictions were based on solely on tweets.
Pretrial Detention: In August, ALQST and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group lodged a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva over the “arbitrary” detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father. In 2018 Prince Salman was detained along with 11 other princes after they staged what the PPO called a “sit-in” at a royal palace in Riyadh to demand the state continue to pay their electricity and water bills. Sources told AFP that the prince and his father have never been interrogated or charged since their detention began more than two and a half years ago.
Incommunicado detention was also a problem (see section 1.b.). Authorities reportedly did not always respect a detainees’ right to contact family members following detention, and the counterterrorism law allows the investigatory body to hold a defendant for up to 90 days in detention without access to family members or legal counsel (and the SCC may extend such restrictions beyond this period). Security and some other types of prisoners sometimes remained in prolonged solitary detention before family members or associates received information of their whereabouts, particularly for detainees in Mabahith-run facilities.
On September 6, HRW stated authorities denied some prominent detainees, including former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Muslim scholar Salman al-Odah, contact with their family members and lawyers for months. After almost three months in incommunicado detention, according to HRW, family members of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul said authorities allowed her parents to visit on August 31, following her six-day hunger strike; she started another hunger strike October 26 in protest of prison conditions (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Under the law detainees are not entitled to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. In the case of wrongful detention, the law of criminal procedure, as well as provisions of the counterterrorism law, provide for the right to compensation if detainees are found to have been held unlawfully.
The law provides that judges are independent and not subject to any authority other than the provisions of sharia and the laws in force. Nevertheless, the judiciary, the PPO, and the SSP were not independent entities, as they were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, with the king and crown prince as arbiters. Although public allegations of interference with judicial independence were rare, the judiciary reportedly was subject to influence, particularly in the case of legal decisions rendered by specialized judicial bodies, such as the SCC, which rarely acquitted suspects. Human rights activists reported that SCC judges received implicit instructions to issue harsh sentences against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents not engaged in violent activities. Activists also reported that judicial and prosecutorial authorities ignored due process-related complaints, including lack of access by lawyers to their clients at critical stages of the judicial process, particularly during the pretrial investigation phase.
Women’s ability to practice law was limited; there were no women on the High Court or Supreme Judicial Council and no female judges or public prosecutors. On June 17, the Shoura rejected a proposal to study appointing women as judges in personal status courts. In August 2019, however, the PPO announced the appointment of 50 women as public prosecution investigators, marking the first time that women had held this position. On June 4, the PPO appointed an additional 53 women as public prosecution investigators.
Defendants are able to appeal their sentences. The law requires a five-judge appellate court to affirm a death sentence, which a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court must unanimously affirm. Appellate courts may recommend changes to a sentence, including increasing the severity of a lesser sentence (up to the death penalty), if the trial court convicted the defendant of a crime for which capital punishment is permitted.
Defendants possess the right under the law to seek commutation of a death sentence for some crimes and may receive a royal pardon under specific circumstances (see section 1.d.). In some prescribed cases (qisas), the families of the deceased may accept compensation from the family of the person convicted in an unlawful death, sparing the convicted from execution.
On February 6, Amnesty International reported that authorities were using the SCC “to systematically silence dissent.” Amnesty accused the SCC of using overly broad counterterror and anticybercrime laws in unfair trials to hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years as well as the death penalty to human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, religious clerics, reformists, and political activists, particularly from the Shia minority. Amnesty asserted that “every stage of the SCC’s judicial process is tainted with human rights abuses, from the denial of access to a lawyer, to incommunicado detention, to convictions based solely on so-called ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.”
On April 17, HRW reported 68 Palestinians and Jordanians on trial before the SCC on the charge of links with an unnamed “terrorist organization” were subjected to a range of abuses, including forced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture, according to their family members, and that their trial raised serious due process concerns.
In the judicial system, there traditionally was no published case law on criminal matters, no uniform criminal code, no presumption of innocence, and no doctrine of stare decisis that binds judges to follow legal precedent. The Justice Ministry continued to expand a project started in 2007 to distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application, and as recently as August 2019, the ministry published judicial decisions on its website. The law states that defendants should be treated equally in accordance with sharia. The Council of Senior Scholars, or the ulema, an autonomous advisory body, issues religious opinions (fatwas) that guide how judges interpret sharia.
In the absence of a formalized penal code that details all criminal offenses and punishments, judges in the courts determine many of these penalties through their interpretations of sharia, which varied according to the judge and the circumstances of the case. Because judges have considerable discretion in decision making, rulings and sentences diverged widely from case to case.
Several laws, however, provide sentencing requirements for crimes including terrorism, cybercrimes, trafficking in persons, and domestic abuse. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice issued a compilation of previous decisions that judges could refer to as a point of reference in making rulings and assigning sentences.
Appeals courts cannot independently reverse lower-court judgments; they are limited to affirming judgments or returning them to a lower court for modification. Even when judges did not affirm judgments, appeals judges in some cases remanded the judgment to the judge who originally authored the opinion. This procedure sometimes made it difficult for parties to receive a ruling that differed from the original judgment in cases where judges hesitated to admit error. While judges may base their decisions on any of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, all of which are represented in the Council of Senior Scholars, the Hanbali School predominates and forms the basis for the country’s law and legal interpretations of sharia. Shia citizens use their legal traditions to adjudicate family law cases between Shia parties, although either party can decide to adjudicate a case in state courts, which apply Sunni legal traditions.
While the law states that court hearings shall be public, courts may be closed at the judge’s discretion. As a result, many trials during the year were closed. Since 2018 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs barred foreign diplomatic missions from attending court proceedings at the SCC as well as trials related to security and human rights issues. Diplomatic personnel were generally allowed to attend consular proceedings of their own citizens. Some family members of prisoners complained that neither they nor the legal representatives of the accused were permitted access to trials or notified about the status of trial proceedings. In a number of cases, family members were given only 24 hours’ notice before an SCC trial hearing.
According to the Ministry of Justice, authorities may close a trial depending on the sensitivity of the case to national security, the reputation of the defendant, or the safety of witnesses. Representatives of the HRC sometimes attended trials at the SCC.
According to the law, authorities must offer defendants a lawyer at government expense. In 2017 the Ministry of Justice stated that defendants “enjoy all judicial guarantees they are entitled to, including the right to seek the assistance of lawyers of their choosing to defend them, while the ministry pays the lawyer’s fees when the accused is not able to settle them.” Activists alleged that many political prisoners were not able or allowed to retain an attorney or consult with their attorneys during critical stages of the investigatory and trial proceedings. Detained human rights activists often did not trust the courts to appoint lawyers for them due to concerns of lawyer bias.
The law provides defendants the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial. The counterterrorism law, however, authorizes the attorney general to limit the right of defendants accused of terrorism to access legal representation while under investigation “whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to discovery, nor can defendants view their own file or the minutes from their interrogation. Defendants have the right to call and cross-examine witnesses under the law. Activists reported, however, that SCC judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a PPO-appointed investigator question the witnesses called by the defendant during the investigation phase before the initiation of a trial. The investigator may also hear testimony of additional witnesses he deems necessary to determine the facts. Authorities may not subject a defendant to any coercive measures or compel the taking of an oath. The court must inform convicted persons of their right to appeal rulings.
The law does not provide for a right against self-incrimination.
The law does not provide free interpretation services, although services were often provided in practice. The law of criminal procedure provides that “the court should seek the assistance of interpreters,” but it does not obligate the court to do so from the moment the defendant is charged, nor does the law specify that the state will bear the costs of such services.
While sharia as interpreted by the government applies to all citizens and noncitizens, the law in practice discriminates against women, noncitizens, nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and persons of other religions. In some cases the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. Judges have discretion to discount the testimony of nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, or persons of other religions; sources reported judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
The government maintained there were no political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge, while local activists and human rights organizations claimed there were “hundreds” or “thousands.” Credible reporting by advocacy groups and press suggested authorities detained persons for peaceful activism or political opposition, including nonviolent religious figures, women’s rights defenders, and human rights activists, and those who the government claimed posted offensive or antigovernment comments on social media sites.
In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. During the year the SCC tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state. Authorities restricted attorneys’ access to detainees on trial at the SCC.
International NGOs, the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism legal authorities to detain or arrest some dissidents or critics of the government or royal family on security-related grounds, who had not espoused or committed violence. At least 192 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders or policies, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Naimah Abdullah al-Matrod, Maha al-Rafidi, Eman al-Nafjan, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Nassima al-Sadah; clerics including former grand mosque imam Salih al-Talib; and Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.
Between January and March, the Riyadh Criminal Court resumed trials against 11 women activists, including several arrested in 2018. Among them were Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi, and Loujain al-Hathloul–all of whom remained detained and faced charges related to their human rights work and contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. The women were accused of violating the cybercrimes law, which prohibits production of materials that harm public order, religious values, or public morals, and carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On November 25, all five appeared in criminal court, where the judge referred al-Hathloul’s case to the SCC. There was no information about the outcome of the hearing for al-Sadah, Badawi, al-Zahrani and al-Jerawi.
On August 26, media reported authorities severed contact between some detainees and their families, including Loujain al-Hathloul (see section 1.d.), Princess Basmah bint Saud, and Salman al-Odah.
On December 22, the Riyadh Criminal Court dismissed al-Hathloul’s complaint that she had been tortured during the first months of her detention. On December 28, the SCC found al-Hathloul guilty of violating the antiterrorism law, specifically by “seeking to implement a foreign agenda and change the Basic Law of Governance,” through online activity. She was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison with two years and 10 months of that suspended and credit for time served since her May 2018 arrest.
In August, Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking Saudi intelligence official who fled the country in 2016, filed a suit in Canada alleging that a hit squad (Tiger Squad) had been sent to track and kill him in 2018. The team was reportedly stopped by Canadian border services and refused entry, around the same time that Saudi officials killed Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The suit also alleged al-Jabri’s family members were held hostage in Saudi Arabia and that spyware was implanted on his smartphone. According to media reports, INTERPOL lifted a Red Notice that Saudi Arabia filed against him in 2017 on the basis that it was politically motivated.
Complainants claiming human rights violations generally sought assistance from the HRC or the NSHR, which either advocated on their behalf or provided courts with opinions on their cases. The HRC generally responded to complaints and could refer cases to the PPO; domestic violence cases were the most common. Individuals or organizations may petition directly for damages or government action to end human rights violations before the Board of Grievances, except in compensation cases related to state security, where the SCC handles remediation. The counterterrorism law contains a provision allowing detainees in Mabahith-run prisons to request financial compensation from the Ministry of Interior/SSP for wrongful detention beyond their prison terms. In some cases the government did not carry out judicially ordered compensation for unlawful detentions in a timely manner.
The law prohibits unlawful intrusions into the privacy of persons, their homes, places of work, and vehicles. Criminal investigation officers are required to maintain records of all searches conducted; these records should contain the name of the officer conducting the search, the text of the search warrant (or an explanation of the urgency that necessitated the search without a warrant), and the names and signatures of the persons who were present at the time of search. While the law also provides for the privacy of all mail, telegrams, telephone conversations, and other means of communication, the government did not respect the privacy of correspondence or communications and used the considerable latitude provided by the law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary.
Authorities targeted family members of activists and critics of the government. On May 12, security officers raided the home of Saad al-Jabri’s brother, Abdulrahman, a professor at King Saud University, and detained him without explanation, according to HRW. On August 24, authorities arrested Saad al-Jabri’s son-in-law, Salem Almuzaini. His family said he was arrested without charge or justifiable cause, alleging the detention was in retaliation against and aiming to intimidate Saad al-Jabri for filing a lawsuit against Saudi government officials in a foreign court.
There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile telephone or internet usage. The government strictly monitored politically related activities and took punitive actions, including arrest and detention, against persons engaged in certain political activities, such as calling for a constitutional monarchy, publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name, forming a political party, or organizing a demonstration (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. In some areas, Ministry of Interior/SSP informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.
Encrypted communications were banned, and authorities frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks. Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. Media outlets reported that authorities gained access to dissidents’ Twitter and social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the Ministry of Interior/SSP to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is charged with monitoring and regulating public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years.
For information on Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen previously found in this section, please see the executive summary and section 1.a. of this report and the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.
United Arab Emirates
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
All emirate-level general directorates of police enforced their respective emirate’s laws autonomously. They also enforced federal laws within their emirate in coordination with each other under the federal ministry.
The United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and some Yemeni observers expressed concerns regarding Saudi-led coalition activities in Yemen, alleging some coalition air strikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate and appeared not to sufficiently minimize impact on civilians. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.)
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution prohibits such practices, but there were some reports of occurrences during the year. Based on reports of released prisoners and their family members, diplomatic observers, and human rights organizations, UN human rights experts believed that some individuals imprisoned for suspected state security and nonstate security violations were subjected to torture or mistreatment. Human rights groups alleged these abuses took place during interrogations and as inducement for signed confessions. UN human rights experts and those released from detention in recent years alleged that authorities used techniques including beatings, forced standing, and threats to rape or kill.
Sharia (Islamic) courts, which adjudicate criminal and family law cases, may impose flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage, defamation of character, and drug or alcohol charges. In October the Federal Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 100 lashes in an adultery case involving an unmarried Muslim man and woman who confessed to having illicit sex before the prosecution in one of the northern emirates. The court stated, “Article 1 of the Penal Code under the provisions of Islamic Sharia law stipulates giving 100 lashes and expatriation or distancing for a period of one year to an unmarried person.” Although the pair challenged the ruling, both the appellate court and the Federal Supreme Court based in Abu Dhabi upheld the flogging sentence. The government announced a series of legal reforms in November modifying the penalties for some of these crimes but had not published text of the reforms by year’s end.
Prison conditions varied widely among the individual emirates and between regular prisons, which hold those accused of nonpolitical crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and killings, and state security detention facilities, which hold political activists or those the government defines to be terrorists. There were instances of overcrowding, long waits for health-care access, and poor sanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: The government did not release statistics on prison demographics and capacity. Diplomatic observers and UN human rights experts reported that in Abu Dhabi, some prisoners complained of overcrowding, particularly in drug units, poor temperature control, retaliation for raising complaints to their embassies, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
There were reports that individuals in state security detention facilities were mistreated, abused, and tortured. Prisoners complained to Western embassy representatives that they witnessed routine abuse of fellow prisoners, stating that prison guards claimed they were able to erase footage from security cameras.
In March human rights organizations reported on the attempted suicide of prisoner Amina al-Abdouli after she was reportedly subjected to mistreatment, denied adequate medical care, and placed in solitary confinement for approximately three weeks. Al-Abdouli said that new charges of spreading false information and harming the country’s reputation were introduced after she shared information of her detention conditions with the United Nations.
According to Western embassy officials, overcrowding was at times a problem in prisons in Dubai and the northern emirates. In particular, prisoners awaiting transfer to Abu Dhabi for federal prosecution experienced longer stays in police holding cells equipped only for short-term incarceration. In May, to reduce population density in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dubai Central Prison released inmates being held for minor offenses, reducing the prison population by approximately 35 percent. Prisons also implemented stringent COVID-19 prevention measures throughout the country. Dubai and other emirates implemented virtual court systems more widely, which allowed detainees and prisoners to participate in hearings and trials remotely and afforded continued access to the justice system through pandemic-related government office closures. In December 2019 the Ministry of Interior announced its system to allow electronic tagging devices as an alternative to imprisonment for convicts of minor crimes would be introduced in Sharjah, following successful implementation of the program in Abu Dhabi and Ras al-Khaimah. In February the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department announced that 302 convicts in Abu Dhabi had been fitted with electronic tagging devices since 2018.
Some prisoners were not permitted exercise or reading materials. There were reports some prisoners did not have access to outside areas and exposure to sunlight. According to human rights organizations, imprisoned activist Mohammed al-Mansoori was held in solitary confinement at al-Razeen prison in Abu Dhabi and denied visiting and contact rights for more than a year. In Abu Dhabi there were also reports of dangerously hot conditions when air conditioners broke during periods of extreme high temperatures.
While medical care was generally adequate in regular prisons, HIV-positive noncitizen detainees reported not being given regular and uninterrupted access to antiretroviral treatment and other forms of discrimination, such as being held in segregated units or solitary confinement. Other prisoners reported prolonged delays in receiving medical treatment and difficulty obtaining necessary medication, including insulin for diabetics. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least four HIV-positive prisoners in Dubai’s al-Awir Central Jail were allegedly denied medication for periods as long as five months. There were reports of poor food handling and inadequate general hygiene in special detention facilities for drug offenders. Media reports and NGOs stated some detainees in State Security Department custody did not receive adequate access to medical care.
In April human rights organizations expressed their concern regarding the safety of prisoners after rumors emerged of an inmate at al-Wathba Prison testing positive for COVID-19. According to HRW, family members of inmates said prisoners had exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and that some inmates with chronic health conditions were being denied sufficient medical attention. Human rights organizations called on authorities to provide adequate medical care, health supplies, and sterilization to protect prisoners, prison staff, and visitors from COVID-19.
Prisons attempted to accommodate persons with disabilities based on their specific needs, such as placing wheelchair users on a lower floor. Some reports alleged inconsistencies in providing support for prisoners with mental disabilities. In Dubai and to some extent in Abu Dhabi, prison officials worked with mental health professionals to provide support and administer needed medication. Training and capabilities to accommodate prisoners with mental health disabilities were allegedly less well developed in the other emirates. It was reportedly common for authorities to grant a humanitarian pardon in cases where a person with a disability had been convicted of a minor offense.
Administration: Some state security detainees did not have access to visitors or had more limited access than other prisoners. Although prisoners had a right to submit complaints to judicial authorities, details about investigations into complaints were not publicly available, and there were no independent authorities to investigate allegations of poor conditions. Inmates reported retaliation from authorities after raising issues regarding prison conditions with diplomatic missions. According to UN experts, several prisoners, including Maryam al-Balooshi and Amina al-Abdouli, faced reprisals, including months in solitary confinement, and intimidation after testimonies of their detention and health situation were shared with the Special Procedures of the UN’s Human Rights Council–independent human rights experts tasked with reporting and advising on human rights issues.
Dubai maintained a website where individuals could obtain basic information about pending legal cases, including formal charges and upcoming court dates. Western embassies reported a similar website in Abu Dhabi but said, in many instances, cases could not be located in the system or the site would not function. There were standard weekly visiting hours in regular prisons, but unmarried and unrelated visitors of the opposite sex had to receive permission from a prosecutor. As a result of COVID-19, some prisons throughout the country used teleconferencing measures in lieu of in-person visitations. In April the Dubai Police launched a remote visual communication service between inmates at the General Department of Punitive and Correctional Institutions in Dubai and their families inside and outside the country.
Within prisons the authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam. In some of the emirates, Christian clergy were not able to visit Christian prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted charitable NGOs to visit prisons and provide material support on a limited basis. In the past members of the government-sanctioned Emirates Human Rights Association (EHRA) met with prisoners during regular visits to detention facilities and reported their findings to federal Ministry of Interior officials. Their reports were not publicly available. Authorities did not grant regular consular access for State Security Department detainees.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The government, however, reportedly often held persons in custody for extended periods without charge or a preliminary judicial hearing. The law permits indefinite detention, including incommunicado detention, without appeal. In some cases authorities did not allow detainees contact with attorneys, family members, or others for indefinite or unspecified periods. Some detainees reported being monitored during meetings with family members and consular officials, as well as being prevented from discussing their cases or detention conditions.
In cases of foreign nationals detained by police, which in view of the country’s demographic breakdown were the vast majority of cases, the government often did not notify the appropriate diplomatic officials. For state security detainees, notification was exceptionally rare, and information about the status of these detainees was very limited.
Authorities treated prisoners arrested for political or security reasons differently from other prisoners, including placing them in separate sections of a prison. The State Security Department handled these cases and, in some instances, held prisoners and detainees in separate undisclosed locations for extended periods prior to their transfer to a regular prison.
According to HRW, during the year authorities continued to hold two activists who completed their sentences in 2017. Khalifa al-Rabea and Ahmad al-Mulla were charged with joining a secret organization. Both activists were allegedly affiliated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organization, which is designated by the government as a terrorist organization. According to the Emirates Center for Human Rights, authorities continued to hold activist Mansoor al-Ahmadi past the completion of his seven-year prison sentence in October 2019. Al-Ahmadi, one of the signatories of a petition demanding political reforms, was arrested as part of the UAE 94, a mass trial of 94 political activists accused in 2012 of sedition and membership in a secret organization.
Police stations received complaints from the public, made arrests, and forwarded cases to the public prosecutor. The public prosecutor then transferred cases to the courts. The law prohibits arrest or search of citizens without probable cause. Within 48 hours police must report an arrest to the public prosecutor, and police usually adhered to the deadline. The public prosecutor must then question the accused within 24 hours of notification of arrest. Authorities did not consistently provide consular notification for arrests.
Police investigations can regularly take up to three months, during which time detainees are often publicly unaccounted. The law requires prosecutors to submit charges to a court within 14 days of police report and to inform detainees of the charges against them. Judges may grant extensions to prosecutors, sometimes resulting in extended periods of detention without formal charges. Multiple detainees complained that authorities did not inform them of the charges or other details of their case for months at a time. Noncitizen detainees reported that when the prosecutor presented the charges, they were written in Arabic with no translation, and no translator was provided. There were also reports of authorities pressuring or forcing detainees to sign documents before they were allowed to see attorneys.
Public prosecutors may order detainees held as long as 30 days without charge and this can be extended by court order. Judges may not grant an extension of more than 30 days of detention without charge; however, with charge, they may renew 30-day extensions indefinitely. As a result, pretrial detention sometimes exceeded the maximum sentence for the crime charged. Public prosecutors may hold suspects in terrorism-related cases without charge for six months. Once authorities charge a suspect with terrorism, the Federal Supreme Court may extend the detention indefinitely. The counterterrorism law provides the legal framework for establishing rehabilitation centers called the Munassaha program, which aims to reform persons deemed to pose a terrorist threat or those convicted of terrorist offenses by using psychosocial attitude adjustment. The counterterrorism law stipulates that program administrators provide reports on the convicts’ status every three months and that the public prosecution submit a final opinion on the outcome of rehabilitation to inform the court’s decision on whether to release the individual. Diplomatic sources reported detentions of more than two years without charges for crimes not related to state security.
Authorities may temporarily release detainees who deposit money, a passport, or an unsecured personal promissory statement signed by a third party. Abu Dhabi and Dubai utilize an electronic travel ban system, which allows authorities to prevent individuals involved in pending legal proceedings from departing the country without physically confiscating their passport. Nonetheless, law enforcement officials routinely held detainees’ passports until sentencing. Authorities may deny pretrial release to defendants in cases involving loss of life, including involuntary manslaughter. Authorities released some prisoners detained on charges related to a person’s death after the prisoners completed diya (blood money) payments. Once an accused is found guilty of causing a death under criminal procedure, judges may grant diya payments as compensation to the victim’s family in an amount determined to be in accordance with sharia. For example, in September a Sharjah court awarded 200,000 dirhams (AED) ($54,400) to the family of an Indian citizen who died after an adverse drug reaction while seeking care at a Sharjah medical clinic.
A defendant is entitled to an attorney after authorities complete their investigation. Authorities sometimes questioned the accused for weeks without permitting access to an attorney. The government may provide counsel at its discretion to indigent defendants charged with felonies punishable by provisional imprisonment. The law requires the government to provide counsel in cases in which indigent defendants face punishments of life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Authorities held some persons incommunicado, particularly in cases involving state security.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports the government carried out arrests without informing the individual of the charge, notably in cases of alleged violations of state security regulations. In these cases, authorities did not give notice to the individual or to family members regarding the subject of the inquiry or arrest.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention occurred, especially in cases involving state security. The speed with which these cases were brought to trial increased, as it did in the previous year, with a higher number of State Security Court acquittals and convictions in comparison with recent years. As a result of COVID-19, the government increased its use of video teleconferencing measures for litigation procedures. In December 2019 the Ministry of Interior announced the nationwide implementation of an electronic police surveillance system to track low-risk offenders as an alternative to pretrial detention and imprisonment, following earlier pilot programs in Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah, and Sharjah. There was no estimate available of the percentage of the prison population in pretrial status. In December 2018 the State Security Court at the Federal Supreme Court upheld a 10-year prison sentence and significant fine issued in May 2018 against citizen and human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor spent more than one year in pretrial detention leading to the initial verdict. Mansoor was convicted under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and of seeking to damage the country’s relationship with its neighbors by publishing information critical of those governments on social media. According to human rights organizations, Mansoor was held in solitary confinement without access to a mattress or other basic necessities or to lawyers and granted only a limited number of family visits. In December the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation refuted allegations of Mansoor’s ill health and physical abuse. The ministry asserted the government had afforded Mansoor all legal and constitutional rights, as well as access to necessary medical care and regular visits from family members. Mansoor remained in prison at year’s end.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports authorities sometimes delayed or limited an individual’s access to an attorney and did not give prompt court appearances or afford consular notification, both for the average prisoner and in state security cases. There were no reports of courts finding individuals to have been unlawfully detained and eligible for compensation. Diplomatic observers reported this was a particular problem for foreign residents who were vulnerable to loss of job, home, and accrual of debt due to unlawful detention.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, court decisions remained subject to review by the political leadership. Authorities often treated noncitizens differently from citizens. The judiciary consisted largely of contracted foreign nationals subject to potential deportation, further compromising its independence from the government.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.
The law presumes all defendants innocent until proven guilty. By law a defendant enjoys the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges. The law requires all court proceedings be conducted in Arabic. Despite the defendant’s procedural right to an interpreter, there were reports authorities did not always provide an interpreter or that quality was sometimes poor. In October the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department announced that Russian would be an official language used in the Abu Dhabi court system, alongside Arabic, English, and Hindi.
Defendants’ rights were circumscribed in national security cases or cases the judge deemed harmful to public morality. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and have a right to legal counsel in court for cases that carry punishment other than a fine. While awaiting a decision on official charges at a police station or the prosecutor’s office, a defendant is not entitled to legal counsel. In cases involving a capital crime or possible life imprisonment, the defendant has a right to government-provided counsel after charges have been filed. The government may also provide counsel, at its discretion, to indigent defendants charged with felonies punishable by provisional imprisonment. The law provides prosecutors discretion to bar defense counsel from any investigation. Defendants and their attorneys may present witnesses and question witnesses against them. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess. Some defendants said they did not have adequate time to prepare a defense, sometimes due to limited telephone access, and requested additional time. Diplomatic observers noted cases where the time defendants spent waiting for a court date surpassed the maximum sentence for the crime. Verdicts were announced in open court, even if the case was heard in a closed session.
Both local and federal courts have an appeals process. The appeals process consists of up to two stages: Appeals are first heard by each emirate’s court of appeals and can be escalated to a higher court if necessary. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ras al-Khaimah, appeals are escalated to the respective emirate’s court of cassation. For those emirates that lack a court of cassation (Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah), appeals are escalated to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. Convicted defendants may also appeal death sentences to the ruler of the emirate in which the offense was committed or to the president of the federation. In murder cases, the victim’s family must consent to commute a death sentence. The government normally negotiated with victims’ families for the defendant to offer diya payments, compensation in accordance with sharia, in exchange for forgiveness and a commuted death sentence. The prosecutor may appeal acquittals and provide new or additional evidence to a higher court. An appellate court must reach unanimous agreement to overturn an acquittal.
In state security cases, the Federal Court of Appeals serves as a court of first instance. State security cases may be appealed to the higher Federal Supreme Court.
When authorities suspected a foreigner of crimes of “moral turpitude,” authorities sometimes deported the individual without recourse to the criminal justice system. At the judge’s discretion, foreigners charged with crimes may be granted bail and allowed to remain in the country to defend themselves. In January an amendment to the penal code stated that immediate relatives of Emirati citizens may not be sentenced to deportation. Previously, a deportation order was mandatory in cases where an expatriate was convicted of a crime and sentenced by a court. The amendment does not apply to expatriates charged with a crime that endangers national security.
The penal code also requires all individuals to pay diya to victims’ families in cases where accidents or crimes caused the death of another person, and media reported multiple cases of courts imposing this punishment. Diya was granted by the judge in criminal cases at the time of sentencing. In October the president issued a directive instructing that standard diya payments be set at 200,000 AED ($54,400), regardless of gender, in criminal courts across the country. Previously, it was common practice for the families of female victims to receive only half of the 200,000 AED ($54,400) given to families of deceased males. In some cases, sharia courts imposed more severe penalties during the month of Ramadan.
In May the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals sentenced 21-year-old Omani citizen Abdullah al-Shamsi to life in prison for conspiring against the UAE after he was detained for allegedly establishing a Qatari spy cell. Human rights organizations and Omani media outlets reported that al-Shamsi was allegedly subjected to incommunicado detention, prolonged solitary confinement, and torture. According to HRW, al-Shamsi’s family said the trial was marred by lack of due process. Al-Shamsi was allegedly denied access to a lawyer during the investigation and was not informed of the charges or evidence against him until one month before his trial.
Women faced legal discrimination because of the government’s interpretation of sharia (see section 6).
During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations. Since 2011 the government has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and government-designated terrorist organization, and others critical of the government.
In 2019 the president issued a pardon for the former leader of al-Islah, Abdulrahman bin Subaih, accused of plotting to overthrow the government in 2013. Prior to his release, bin Subaih appeared on local television condemning al-Islah and Qatari attempts at utilizing the group to destabilize domestic politics. According to a May article from the Gulf Center for Human Rights, bin Subaih and three other activists pardoned at the same time, Osama al-Najjar, Osman al-Shehi, and Bader al-Bahri, remained under house arrest wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet and were not allowed to leave the country.
As part of its security and counterterrorism efforts, the government applied restrictive laws–such as the 2014 antiterrorism law and the 2012 cybercrime law–and monitored and blocked activities, including the use of the internet and social media. Numerous observers criticized these laws as extending beyond security concerns by also outlawing activities and speech of a political nature. According to HRW, government authorities targeted dozens of relatives of political prisoners detained in the country and dissidents living abroad, allegedly subjecting them to arbitrary punishment and harassment in reprisal for their relatives’ activism.
During the year human rights organizations continued to call for the government to release Mohammed al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith. Al-Roken is a lawyer, academic, and human rights defender whom authorities allegedly arbitrarily detained in 2012. Bin Ghaith was an economist, professor, and activist who was allegedly held incommunicado for one year and a half after being arrested for harming the reputation of the country in tweets that criticized UAE officials and the Egyptian government. Al-Roken and bin Ghaith were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 and 2017, respectively.
Citizens and noncitizens had access to the courts to seek damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. The civil courts, like all courts, lacked full independence. In some cases, courts delayed proceedings. In October 2019 the government issued an order identifying 28 minor crimes to be punished with fines instead of a court trial, a decision intended to speed up procedures and alleviate pressure on the legal system.
The constitution prohibits entry into a home without the owner’s permission, except when police present a lawful warrant. Officers’ actions in searching premises were subject to review by the Ministry of Interior, and officers were subject to disciplinary action if authorities judged their actions irresponsible.
The constitution provides for free and confidential correspondence by mail, telegram, and all other means of communication. There were reports, however, that the government monitored and, in some cases, censored incoming international mail, wiretapped telephones, and monitored outgoing mail and electronic forms of communication without following appropriate legal procedures. According to media reports, the government engaged in systematic campaigns to target journalists and activists using spyware and hackers. Some of those whom the government reportedly targeted in online surveillance campaigns, such as the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, were subsequently arrested and allegedly abused in detention (see also section 2.a., Internet Freedom).
Local interpretation of sharia prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims and Muslim men from marrying women “not of the book,” generally meaning adherents of religions other than Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The country employs judicial supervision for individuals considered at risk from relatives threatening to commit honor crimes against or otherwise harming them. Judicial supervision typically included providing housing to individuals for their safety and well-being and family mediation and reconciliation.
For information on the United Arab Emirate’s involvement in the conflicts in Libya and Yemen previously found in this section, please see the executive summary and section 1.a. of this report and the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Libya and Yemen.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports of existing or former members of the ROYG security forces committing arbitrary or unlawful killings. Politically motivated killings by nonstate actors, including Houthi forces, militant secessionist elements, and terrorist and insurgent groups claiming affiliation with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or ISIS, also continued during the year (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict).
In June unidentified gunmen killed Nabeel al-Quaiti, an Agence France Presse photojournalist, in front of his home in Aden. He had been reporting on the clashes between the ROYG and Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces in Abyan.
The ROYG Human Rights Ministry reported in April that sporadic Houthi attacks in the al-Ghail district of al-Jawf governorate killed and injured 16 persons and displaced several families.
In August several ROYG media and local human rights organizations reported that a Houthi sniper in Ta’iz shot a nine-year-old girl, Rawida Saleh Mohammed, on her way to fill her jerrycan with water. Also in August the Yemeni Coalition for Monitoring Human Rights Violations (Rasd Coalition) issued a report stating that Houthi elements in Ta’iz shot three other children between February and August, in addition to Rawida.
On December 30, an attack attributed to the Houthis killed 17 persons, according to a Ministry of Interior report, including three International Committee of the Red Cross staffers, and wounded more than 100 others at the Aden airport. The attack occurred as a plane carrying the newly formed government’s ministers and other officials landed from Saudi Arabia, prompting concerns that its purpose was to destabilize the new government.
In September the UN Human Rights Council Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (UN Group of Experts) report stated it believed that parties to the conflict were continuing to engage in enforced disappearances. There were reports of politically motivated disappearances and kidnappings by both ROYG and Houthi forces of individuals associated with political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media outlets critical of the ROYG or the Houthi movement (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict). The Houthis and their allies sometimes detained civilian family members of ROYG security officials. The Houthis targeted and detained foreigners, including those believed to be working for foreign diplomatic missions. There were also reports of disappearances carried out by other parties to the conflict.
From August 2019 to July 31, the ROYG’s National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations to Human Rights (NCIAVHR) documented 1,298 cases of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances committed by various parties to the conflict, a 400 percent increase over the previous year.
According to a July report by Sana’a-based Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, from May 2016 to April, the ROYG was responsible for 90 incidents of enforced disappearance; the Houthis were responsible for 353 incidents of enforced disappearance; and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces and UAE-aligned armed groups, including the STC, were responsible for 327 incidents of enforced disappearance.
In a March report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 16 cases of arbitrary detentions of citizens by Saudi and allied Yemeni forces in al-Mahrah between June 2019 and February. Saudi security forces transferred 11 of the 16 detainees to Saudi Arabia and eventually released the five others. Five detainees were reportedly transferred in June to a prison in Abha, the capital of Asir province in Saudi Arabia; the families of these detainees were unaware of their whereabouts for five months until the detainees were registered at the prison in Abha. The other six detainees were reportedly men from the northern part of the country who were arrested while crossing the border from Oman into the country after receiving medical treatment in Oman.
The Aden branch of the Mothers of the Abducted Association issued a statement in August stating that association members continued searching for 38 forcibly disappeared individuals; their fate and medical condition and those responsible for their disappearances were unknown. The association conducted a protest in September in Aden, which was then under STC control, to demand that security forces disclose their sons’ whereabouts.
During the year, the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict reported 22 child abduction cases.
The constitution prohibits torture and other such abuses. Although the law lacks a comprehensive definition of torture, there are provisions allowing prison terms of up to 10 years for acts of torture.
The UN and human rights organizations continued to report that torture and other forms of mistreatment were common in ROYG-, Houthi-, and Emirati-controlled detention facilities. The UN Group of Experts reported abuses in detention included sexual violence, prolonged solitary confinement, electric shock, burning, and other forms of torture (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict.).
According to the July report by the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, from May 2016 to April, the ROYG was responsible for 65 incidents of torture; the Houthis were responsible for 138 incidents of torture, including 27 deaths in detention centers; and UAE forces and UAE-aligned armed groups, including the STC, were responsible for 141 incidents of torture, including 25 deaths in detention centers. In June gunmen, allegedly from a ROYG-appointed brigade, reportedly stormed the house in Ta’iz of ROYG Colonel Abdul Hakim al-Jabzi, the Operations Commander of the 35th Brigade, and kidnapped and tortured his son Aseel to death before throwing Aseel’s body on a road. The motive was reportedly an internal political dispute.
According to several reports in August by Ma’rib-based Erada Organization against Torture and Forced Disappearance, Houthi militia forces in al-Bayda captured, tortured, and killed a ROYG soldier, Abdul Hafidh Abd al-Rab al-Tahiri. On August 25, Erada reported that Houthis in Dhammar captured Ahmed Ali al-Saqhani, a ROYG soldier, and tortured him to death while in detention.
Impunity remained a significant problem in the security forces. Civilian control of security agencies continued to deteriorate as regional efforts to promote national reconciliation stalled. Exacerbating the problem of impunity, interest groups–including former president Saleh’s family and other tribal and party entities–expanded their influence over security agencies, often through unofficial channels rather than through the formal command structure.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening and did not meet international standards. The ROYG exercised limited control over prison facilities. Government officials and NGOs identified overcrowding, lack of professional training for corrections officials, poor sanitation, inadequate access to justice, intermingling of pretrial and convicted inmates, lack of effective case management, and deteriorating infrastructure as problems within the 18 central prisons and 25 reserve prisons (also known as pretrial detention centers). Lacking special accommodations, authorities held prisoners with physical or mental disabilities with the general population. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported conditions of detention facilities continued to deteriorate, including with respect to overcrowding, damaged buildings, and shortages of food and medicine.
Tribes in rural areas operated unauthorized “private” detention centers based on traditional tribal justice. Tribal leaders occasionally placed “problem” tribesmen in private jails, which sometimes were simply rooms in a sheikh’s house, to punish them for noncriminal actions. Tribal authorities often detained persons for personal reasons without trial or judicial sentencing.
According to the OHCHR, Houthi-affiliated tribal militias, known locally as popular committees, operated at least eight detention facilities in Sana’a, including Habra in the al-Shu’aub district, Hataresh in the Bani Hashaysh district, and al-Thawra and the house of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in Haddah.
Reports from human rights organizations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicated authorities and smugglers continue to detain migrants throughout the country, often in inhuman conditions and subject to repeated abuses of human rights including indiscriminate violence and rape (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Physical Conditions: The armed conflict negatively affected the condition of prisons. Observers continued to describe most prisons, particularly in rural areas, as overcrowded with poor sanitary conditions, inadequate food and access to potable water, and inadequate medical care. Limited information was available on prison populations during the year. Political prisoners reportedly faced torture, abuse, and other forms of mistreatment, while all prisoners experienced harsh physical conditions.
Media and international NGO reporting in past years found squalid conditions in Houthi detention facilities, including food infested with cockroaches, widespread torture, and absence of any medical care.
According to several reports from HRW and the OHCHR, individuals in detention facilities faced serious health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic. In July relatives of five detainees in Bir Ahmed Prison, an overcrowded, informal detention facility in a military camp controlled by the STC, told HRW that authorities in early April transferred 44 detainees into a room of only approximately 100 square feet that had previously held four persons. The detainees lacked masks, gloves, and hygiene products to protect themselves from COVID-19, as well as lacking basic healthcare services.
No credible statistics were available on the number of inmate deaths during the year.
Administration: Limited information was available on prison administration since the Houthi takeover in 2014. Poor recordkeeping and a lack of communication between prisons and the government made it difficult for authorities to estimate accurately the size of the prison population.
There was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. ROYG authorities generally allowed visitors to see prisoners and detainees when family members knew a detainee’s location but granted limited access to family members of those accused of security offenses. Family visits were arbitrarily halted in some cases. Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to engage in Islamic religious observances but prevented religious minorities from practicing their faiths.
Independent Monitoring: The continuing conflict prevented substantial prison monitoring by independent human rights observers.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the UN Group of Experts found that all parties to the conflict continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals accused of crimes. Persons arrested were frequently denied their constitutional right to be charged within 24 hours. They were frequently held incommunicado for periods of time, and subjected to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman treatment. (See section 1.c, Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict.) The law prohibits arrests or serving subpoenas between sundown and dawn, but local NGOs reported authorities, including but not limited to the ROYG, the Houthis, and STC, took some persons suspected of crimes from their homes at night without warrants.
According to the July report by Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, from May 2016 to April, the ROYG was responsible for 282 incidents of arbitrary or abusive detention; the Houthis were responsible for 904 cases of arbitrary or abusive detention; and UAE forces and UAE-aligned armed groups, including the STC, were responsible for 419 incidents of arbitrary or abusive detention.
Since the capital’s temporary relocation in 2015 to Aden, the ROYG lost control of most state institutions, including the court and prison systems, and both have deteriorated. The law provides that authorities cannot arrest individuals unless they are apprehended while committing a criminal act or being served with a warrant. In addition, authorities must arraign a detainee within 24 hours or release him. The judge or prosecuting attorney, who decides whether detention is required, must inform the accused of the basis for the arrest. The law stipulates authorities may not hold a detainee longer than seven days without a court order. The law prohibits incommunicado detention, provides detainees the right to inform their families of their arrest, and allows detainees to decline to answer questions without an attorney present. The law states the government must provide attorneys for indigent detainees. UN, NGO, and media reporting concluded that all parties to the conflict frequently ignored these stipulations during the year. The law contains provisions for bail, and Houthi authorities in particular were accused of allowing bail only if they received a bribe. Tribal mediators commonly settled cases in rural areas without reference to the formal court system.
Detainees often did not know which investigating agency arrested them, and the agencies frequently complicated matters by unofficially transferring custody of individuals between agencies.
Arbitrary Arrest: In September the UN Group of Experts report stated it had “found reasonable grounds” to believe that parties to the conflict engaged in arbitrary detention. Two boys, one age 14 and the other age 16, were arrested in Khubar village in Shabwah in February by ROYG Special Security Forces. They were detained on the basis of their reported affiliation to the STC and Shabwani Elite Forces.
In April the Specialized Criminal Court in the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a sentenced four journalists to death and six others to jail on charges of “publishing and writing news, statements, false and malicious rumors and propaganda with the intent to weaken the defense of the homeland, weaken the morale of the Yemeni people, sabotage public security, spread terror among people and harm the country’s interest.” The OHCHR stated in an August 6 press release that despite a pending appeal of the conviction to the appellate division of the court, concerns were growing that the Houthi authorities might carry out the death sentence against the journalists. During their five-year detention, the journalists have been denied family visits, access to their attorney, and health care. According to the OHCHR, they have also been tortured and subjected to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press–Violence and Harassment.).
In April the Specialized Criminal Court ordered that another six detained journalists be released and placed under police surveillance. Only one has since been released, according to the OHCHR. There were no updates as of year’s end.
Houthi authorities continued to detain Levi Salem Marhabi, a Yemeni Jew who has been arbitrarily detained for more than four years despite a court ordering his release in September 2019.
Other nonstate actors also arbitrarily detained persons, including migrants.
Pretrial Detention: Limited information was available on pretrial detention practices during the year, but prolonged detentions without charge or, if charged, without a public preliminary judicial hearing within a reasonable time were believed to be common practices despite their prohibition by law. Staff shortages, judicial inefficiency, and corruption caused trial delays.
In July the Mothers of Abductees Association stated that detainees had been held at Bir Ahmed, which is controlled by the STC, without charge or trial for up to two years.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Information was limited on whether persons arrested or detained were entitled to challenge the legal basis of their detention in court. The law provides that authorities must arraign a detainee within 24 hours or release him. It also provides that the judge or prosecuting attorney must inform the accused of the basis for the arrest. The ROYG, however, lacked the capacity to enforce the law.
The OHCHR reported the criminal justice system had become largely defunct in the areas where progovernment forces retained or reclaimed control, with Saudi coalition-backed forces filling the void. In most cases, as documented by the OHCHR, detainees were not informed of the reasons for their arrest, were not charged, were denied access to lawyers or a judge, and were held incommunicado for prolonged or indefinite periods.
In areas under Houthi control, the judiciary was weak and hampered by corruption, political interference, and lack of proper legal training. Judges’ social and political affiliations, as well as bribery, influenced verdicts.
The ROYG’s lack of capacity to enforce court orders undermined the credibility of the judiciary. Criminals threatened and harassed members of the judiciary to influence cases.
The Baha’i International Community reported that on July 30 the Houthis released six Baha’is who had been detained because of their beliefs. The Houthis continued to prosecute more than 20 Baha’is for apostasy and espionage.
The law considers defendants innocent until proven guilty. Trials were generally public, but all courts may conduct closed sessions “for reasons of public security or morals.” Judges, who play an active role in questioning witnesses and the accused, adjudicate criminal cases. Defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Defendants can confront or question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. The law provides for the government to furnish attorneys for indigent defendants in serious criminal cases; in the past the government did not always provide counsel in such cases. The law allows defense attorneys to counsel their clients, address the court, and examine witnesses and any relevant evidence. Defendants have the right to appeal and could not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. There was limited information available regarding respect for due process during the year.
A court of limited jurisdiction considers security cases. A specialized criminal court, the State Security Court, operated under different procedures in closed sessions and did not provide defendants the same rights provided in the regular courts. Defense lawyers reportedly did not have full access to their clients’ charges or court files. The lack of birth registration compounded difficulties in proving age, which reportedly led courts to sentence juveniles as adults, including for crimes eligible for death sentences (see section 6, Children).
In addition to established courts, there is a tribal justice system for noncriminal matters. Tribal judges, usually respected sheikhs, often also adjudicated criminal cases under tribal law, which usually involved public accusation without the formal filing of charges. Tribal mediation often emphasized social cohesion more than punishment. The public often respected the outcomes of tribal processes more than the formal court system, which was viewed by many as corrupt and lacking independence.
The UN Group of Experts reported in September that the Specialized Criminal Court operating in Houthi-controlled areas, particularly in Sana’a, was being used to suppress dissent, intimidate political opponents, and develop political capital to be used in negotiations. The Group of Experts noted that the rights of the accused were regularly denied and that security and political leadership exercised significant control. For example, the court sentenced 35 members of parliament to death in absentia on March 4 for “having taken actions threatening the stability of the Republic of Yemen, its unity, and security of its territory.” The charges were brought against members of parliament who supported the ROYG.
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees.
Following their takeover of state institutions, the Houthis detained activists, journalists, demonstration leaders, and other political figures representing various political groups and organizations opposed to the Houthis. The Houthis did not charge detainees publicly, and severely restricted or barred information to and access by local or international human rights organizations. NGOs claimed that, absent public charges, it was often difficult to determine whether authorities held detainees for criminal or political activity.
The Mwatana Organization for Human Rights released a report in June describing the regular mistreatment of detainees in secret prisons, taken from interviews with detained civilians, including journalists, activists, lawyers, and students.
Mwatana also reported in September that the parties to the conflict prioritized the exchange of military detainees over civilian detainees following the Stockholm Agreement in 2018.
The law provides a limited ability to pursue civil remedies for human rights abuses as tort claims against private persons. There were no reports of such efforts during the year. Citizens cannot sue the government directly but may petition the public prosecutor to initiate an investigation.
The law prohibits these actions, but Houthi authorities continued such interference. According to human rights NGOs, Houthi authorities searched homes and private offices, monitored telephone calls, read personal mail and email, and otherwise intruded into personal matters without legally issued warrants or judicial supervision.
The law requires the attorney general personally to authorize telephone call monitoring and reading of personal mail and email, but there was no indication the law was followed.
Citizens may not marry a foreigner without permission from the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Bureau, and, in some instances, the Political Security Organization under regulations authorities enforced arbitrarily. The ministry typically approved marriages to foreigners if they provided a letter from their embassy stating the government of the non-Yemeni spouse had no objection to the marriage and presented a marriage contract signed by a judge. There was no available information on existing practice.
The UN Group of Experts reported the Houthis threatened and harassed relatives of disappeared detainees who were searching for the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The ROYG Ministry of Human Rights condemned a July raid by the Houthis on the home of Abdurrazaq al-Hagri, a Sana’a-based member of parliament, during which they stole personal belongings and threatened his family, including women and children, while forcing them to evacuate their home.
The UN Group of Experts concluded that the ROYG, Houthis, Saudi-led coalition, and STC were “responsible for human rights violations including arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the recruitment and use in hostilities of children, the denial of fair trial rights, violations of fundamental freedoms, and economic, social and cultural rights.” The United Nations, NGOs, media outlets, as well as humanitarian and international organizations reported what they characterized as disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by all parties to the continuing conflict, causing civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure from shelling and airstrikes. UNICEF reported that 2,000 children have been killed since the beginning of the conflict. The conflict resulted in at least 1,318 civilian casualties, including 511 deaths, from January through August, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project.
In 2014 the Houthis took control of the capital and occupied many government offices. The conflict that ensued in 2015 continued during the year. The UN-led peace process included renewed attempts to bring about cessation of hostilities, despite limited implementation of the agreements reached during peace talks in Stockholm in 2018. Since 2015 Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to the Houthi rebels and proliferated weapons that exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. Houthi rebels used Iranian funding and weapons to launch attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure both within the country and in Saudi Arabia. Throughout the year the Saudi-led coalition continued military operations against the Houthis (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran).
The ROYG re-established a presence in Aden and additional areas in the south in 2016. While the president, vice president, and foreign minister remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, the remainder of the cabinet moved to Aden in 2018 and remained there until August 2019, when the STC seized control of the city. The STC remained in full control of Aden throughout the year until the newly formed government returned to Aden on December 30 under the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement.
In a Yemeni Network for Rights and Freedoms report focused on one indicative month of Houthis abuses from July 15 through August 15, the report documented 141 Houthi abuses of civilians. The network’s field team documented 26 killings and 21 injuries, including to women and children, resulting from Houthi bombing of residential neighborhoods, sniper shootings, and landmines. They also recorded 49 cases of kidnapping, including of women, enforced disappearance, torture, and humiliation of detained abductees by the Houthis. According to the report, the Houthi militia established nine new secret prisons, most of them in confiscated civilian homes or educational facilities. The team also investigated 27 cases of attacks against civilian targets by Houthi gunmen, particularly the homes of civilians, during the same period.
Because of damage to health facilities and water and sanitation infrastructure, as well as a lack of effective public measures to mitigate disease transmission, the country continued to experience several major communicable disease outbreaks, including cholera, COVID-19, polio, diphtheria, and other diseases. Between January and August, there were more than 180,000 cholera cases, which resulted in 55 deaths countrywide, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO). More than 2,030 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 587 associated deaths were recorded in the country between early April and late September, although WHO reported that cases were significantly underreported. Furthermore, the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in decreased utilization of other health care services due to COVID-19-related fear and stigma, including cholera detection and treatment interventions.
Killings: The ROYG-based NCIAVHR reported 928 civilian casualties (comprising both injuries and deaths) during the year, which included 326 killed by the Houthis, 321 by the Saudi-led coalition, and 65 by unspecified other parties. (See section 1.a., Arbitrary Deprivation of Life.)
On January 18, the Houthis launched a drone attack on a mosque in a military camp in Ma’rib during evening prayers, killing more than 100 soldiers while they were praying, according to press reports.
On January 22, a missile hit Member of Parliament Hussein Bin Hussein al-Sawadi’s home in Ma’rib, killing his daughter-in-law and two of his granddaughters and wounding five others, including al-Sawadi.
On February 15, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported that as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others were wounded as a result of Saudi-led airstrikes conducted in al-Jawf governorate. The Saudi-led coalition claimed it conducted a search-and-rescue operation in the vicinity of a downed Saudi fighter jet and referred the incident to the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) for investigation.
The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported in April that six women and a child were killed and at least 11 others were injured when shells hit the women’s section of the Central Prison in al-Mudhaffar district in Ta’iz.
During his July 28 briefing to the UN Security Council, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock reported that at least 12 civilians were killed in a June 15 air strike of unknown origin on a vehicle in Sa’ada. Lowcock also described an air strike that killed nine civilians in Hajjah on July 12, and another that killed 11 civilians in al-Jawf on July 15.
On August 7, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported that as many as nine children were killed and seven others were injured during Saudi-led strikes that occurred while the children were traveling by road in al-Jawf governorate. The report stated it was the third attack in less than a month to cause multiple civilian casualties.
The government of Saudi Arabia established the JIAT in 2016 to identify lessons and corrective actions, and to implement national accountability mechanisms, as appropriate. The Riyadh-based group, consisting of military and civilian members from coalition member states, investigated allegations by international organizations and individuals regarding civilian casualties and targeting of humanitarian aid convoys and infrastructure. The JIAT hosted press conferences throughout the year publicizing the results of more than two dozen investigations, which largely absolved the coalition of responsibility for civilian deaths in the incidents reviewed. The Saudi government has not prosecuted any cases based on JIAT findings to date. The OHCHR and others asserted the JIAT’s investigations did not provide sufficient transparency on the targeting process for strikes. In 2018 HRW stated the JIAT’s public conclusions raised serious questions regarding the ways in which the JIAT conducted investigations and applied international humanitarian law.
Other deaths resulted from attacks and killings by armed groups including the terrorist groups AQAP and ISIS-Yemen. The two groups carried out several deadly attacks against civilians, Houthi combatants, members of southern movements, and other actors. According to several reports, including from the ROYG, the designated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia (an alias for AQAP) killed and crucified dentist Motthar al-Youssoufi on August 15 at a health center in Assowma’a district in al-Bayda governorate. The terrorist group 10 days later bombed the health center where the victim worked, accusing the center of debauchery because it allowed mixing of the sexes.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Torture and other forms of mistreatment were common in all detention facilities. The UN Group of Experts found reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict engaged in torture, including sexual violence (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.).
The UN Group of Experts documented detention-related abuses. They also reported cases of torture in ROYG-controlled facilities at the Ma’rib Political Security Prison, including one case involving five men and two boys who were subjected to torture by “suspension in painful positions, crawling on broken glass and screws, beating and electric shock to genitals with threats of sterilization, and burning of genitals.”
The UN Group of Experts reported that the Houthis tortured and mistreated detainees in detention facilities under their control, including at Sana’a Central Prison, unofficial facilities such as the security and intelligence detention center, and in secret detention facilities. They reported similar cases of torture at al-Saleh Prison in Ta’iz, particularly in the national security section operated by the Houthis. Methods of torture included “repeated and severe beating with sticks, electric cables, iron bars; electrocution; removal of fingernails; electrocution and beating of the genitals with threats of sterilization; forced nudity; sexual violence; and solitary confinement.”
In August the Defense Foundation for Rights and Freedoms (DFRF), a local NGO, reported that Saeed Arif Saeed Moqbel Jalijal had been forcibly disappeared by UAE officers and tortured in al-Wadah Hall in Aden for four years. According to his statements, an Emirati officer tortured him by burning and electric shock.
Also in August the DFRF stated that pro-STC forces in Aden unlawfully and repeatedly detained and tortured three youths from rival factions.
Child Soldiers: Although the law and ROYG policy expressly forbid the practice, HRW found that one-third of all combatants were minors. The UN Group of Experts assessed that during the year both coalition-backed forces and Houthi forces conscripted or enlisted children younger than age 18 into armed forces or groups and used them to participate actively in hostilities, with cases of recruitment and use of boys as young as seven years old. The Yemeni Armed Forces, Houthi-affiliated resistance groups, and the different southern forces, including but not limited to the STC, have all been documented as having recruited children, according to the UN Group of Experts.
Most cases of child soldiers were attributed to Houthi forces. The UN Group of Experts reported that the Houthis used the education system to indoctrinate students in Houthi ideology, incite violence, and recruit children from 34 schools across six governorates (Amran, Dhamar, Raymah, Sa’ada, Sana’a, and Ta’iz). The group also documented the recruitment of girls by the Houthis into the Zainabiyat forces, the female Houthi security apparatus. Since 2015, 12 girls aged 13-17 allegedly survived sexual violence as well as forced and early marriage directly linked to their recruitment.
Tribes, primarily affiliated with the Houthis, but also including some tribes armed and financed by the ROYG to fight alongside its regular army, used underage recruits in combat zones, according to reports by international NGOs such as Save the Children. Combatants reportedly included married boys between the ages of 12 and 15 in fighting in the northern tribal areas; tribal custom considered married boys as adults who owe allegiance to the tribe. As a result, according to international and local human rights NGOs, one-half of tribal fighters were youths younger than age 18. Other observers noted tribes rarely placed boys in harm’s way but used them as guards rather than fighters.
The lack of a consistent system for birth registration compounded difficulties in proving age, which at times contributed to the recruitment of minors into the military. The United Nations also documented the deprivation of liberty of boys by armed forces and groups for their alleged association with opposing parties.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: All parties to the conflict routinely imposed severe restrictions on the movement of persons, goods, and humanitarian assistance. Continued clashes, worsening macroeconomic conditions, fuel shortages, damage to civilian infrastructure, and lack of access for and bureaucratic constraints on humanitarian organizations to reach vulnerable populations contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation. The United Nations reported that 24.3 million individuals needed humanitarian assistance as of November. As of November, the United Nations reported that there were more than 40 front lines where relief workers must negotiate passage with various armed groups, which complicated and delayed aid delivery.
The United Nations reported that since 2019, parties to the conflict increasingly impeded humanitarian operations. Continued Houthi interference in relief operations had resulted in the disruption of humanitarian activities in the north, affecting an estimated 9 million persons as of November. Houthi officials issued more than 310 directives between January 2019 and November to control organizations providing humanitarian assistance.
Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council in October that humanitarian staff in the south also faced challenges due to insecurity, including harassment by armed groups.
There were reports of attacks on health-care facilities and health-care workers. The WHO recorded 142 attacks on health facilities from March 2015 to March.
On February 7, a number of international NGOs released a joint statement that described an attack on Ma’rib’s main hospital, which serves up to 15,000 patients. In addition, a nearby hospital and mobile clinic were also structurally damaged. The Group of Eminent Experts found reasonable grounds to believe that these attacks were, at a minimum, prohibited indiscriminate attacks due to the imprecise nature or deployment of the weapons used.
On March 13, the al-Thawra hospital, supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was struck multiple times by shelling by an unknown group. A week earlier, on March 5, the hospital’s general laboratory was damaged and a medical staff member was wounded by shelling. Since 2018 MSF recorded at least 40 incidents of violence against the hospital, its personnel, and patients, including shootings inside or near hospital premises. Hospital buildings and structures were hit more than 15 times by small arms fire and shelling, and there were several incidents of medical staff being harassed and attacked. An MSF-supported hospital in Ta’iz was also affected by shelling in October.
There were reports of the use of civilians to shield combatants. Houthi forces reportedly used captives as human shields at military encampments and ammunition depots under threat of coalition airstrikes.