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Brunei

Executive Summary

Brunei Darussalam is a monarchy governed since 1967 by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Emergency powers in place since 1962 allow the sultan to govern with few limitations on his authority. The Legislative Council, composed of appointed, indirectly elected, and ex officio members, met during the year and exercised a purely consultative role in recommending and approving legislation and budgets.

The Royal Brunei Police Force and the Internal Security Department have responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country and come under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, respectively. For crimes that fall under the Sharia Penal Code, which the government fully implemented in April 2019, both entities are supported by religious enforcement officers from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Departments of Labor and Immigration in the Ministry of Home Affairs also hold limited law enforcement powers for labor and immigration offenses, respectively. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security matters but maintain some domestic security responsibilities. The secular and sharia judicial systems operate in parallel. The sultan maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports of security force abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: cases of degrading treatment or punishment (caning and, in law although not in practice, stoning and amputation); arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship and criminal libel laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; trafficking in persons; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although the law was not enforced.

There were no reports of official impunity for violations of the law by government officials.

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 the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law does not specifically prohibit torture. Caning may be ordered for certain offenses under both secular and sharia law, and it is mandatory for some offenses. The Sharia Penal Code (SPC) includes offenses punishable by corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. The SPC prohibits caning persons younger than 15. Secular law prohibits caning for women, girls, boys younger than eight, men older than 50, and those ruled unfit for caning by a doctor. Juvenile boys older than eight may be caned with a “light rattan” stick. Canings were conducted in the presence of a doctor, who could interrupt the punishment for medical reasons. The government generally applied laws carrying a sentence of caning impartially; the government sometimes deported foreigners in lieu of caning. The sharia court did not hand down any sentences imposing corporal or capital punishments.

There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse.

Administration: A government-appointed committee composed of retired government officials monitored prison conditions and investigated complaints concerning prison and detention center conditions.

The prison system has an ombudsperson’s office through which judicial officials, Legislative Council members, community leaders, and representatives of public institutions visit inmates on a monthly basis. A prisoner may complain to a visiting judge, the superintendent, the officer in charge, or, in the case of female prisoners, the matron in charge. “Spiritual rehabilitation” programs were compulsory for Muslim inmates.

“Spiritual rehabilitation” programs were compulsory for Muslim inmates.

Sharia convicts were kept in the same prison facilities but separated from inmates convicted in the secular courts. Sharia convicts were subject to the same regulations as secular convicts.

Independent Monitoring: There were no reports of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitoring prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons arrested for secular (not sharia) offenses to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions but may supersede them by invoking emergency powers.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

A magistrate must endorse a warrant for arrest, except when police are unable to obtain an endorsement in time to prevent the flight of a suspect or when a suspect is apprehended in the act of committing a crime. After an arrest, police may detain a suspect for a maximum of 48 hours for investigation before bringing the suspect before a magistrate or sharia judge. Secular and sharia law enforcement agencies respected and upheld this right. Police stations maintained a policy of no access to detained individuals during the 48-hour investigative period, including by attorneys. Authorities may hold detainees beyond the initial 48 hours with a magistrate’s or sharia judge’s approval.

Authorities reportedly informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. Authorities made information on detainees public after the 48-hour investigative period. Police may deny visitor access after the 48-hour investigative period in exceptional cases, such as probable cause to suspect witness tampering.

The law allows for bail at the discretion of the judge overseeing the case. There is no provision to afford pro bono legal counsel to poor defendants, except in capital offenses. In noncapital cases, indigent defendants may act as their own lawyers. Some civil society organizations provided pro bono legal service to indigent defendants in noncapital cases before secular courts. There were no reports of suspects being held incommunicado or without access to an attorney after the initial 48-hour investigative period.

Authorities may detain persons without a hearing in cases of detention or arrest under the Internal Security Act, which permits the government to detain suspects without trial for renewable two-year periods. In these cases, the government convenes an independent advisory board consisting of senior security and judicial officials to review individual detentions and report to the minister of home affairs. The minister is required to notify detainees in writing of the grounds for their detention and of relevant allegations of fact. The advisory board must review individual detentions annually.

Sharia law operates in parallel with the country’s common law-based courts. In cases involving offenses covered by both the SPC and secular law–such as murder, rape, and theft–an “assessment committee” including a secular law prosecutor, a sharia prosecutor, a regular police officer, and a religious enforcement officer determines whether the secular or sharia court system should try the case. If a dispute arises, the attorney general acts as final arbiter.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law does not provide specifically for an independent judiciary, and both the secular and sharia courts fall administratively under the Prime Minister’s Office, run by the sultan as prime minister and the crown prince as senior minister. The government generally respects judicial independence, however, and there were no known instances of government interference with the judiciary. In both judicial systems, the sultan appoints all higher-court judges, who serve at his pleasure. Deliberations by the assessment committee of secular and sharia officials convened to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court were not public, nor did the government make public the grounds for the committee’s decisions.

Trial Procedures

Secular law provides for the right to a fair, timely and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The Internal Security Act, which is part of secular law, allows for preventative detention in cases of subversion and organized violence. Sharia procedures do not specifically provide for the right to a fair trial.

Defendants in criminal proceedings are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges. Trials are public and conducted by a judge or panel of judges. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials, although the law does allow for trial in absentia, and to counsel of their choice. There were no reports of defendants who were not allowed adequate time or facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants had access to an interpreter (if needed) free of charge and have the right to confront accusers, to cross-examine and call witnesses, to present evidence, to not testify or confess guilt, and to appeal. Lawyers have access to the accused, although not during the initial 48-hour investigatory period unless the investigation is concluded and charges are filed.

In general, defendants in sharia proceedings have the same rights as defendants in criminal cases under secular law.

While sharia courts have long had jurisdiction in certain civil matters when at least one party is Muslim, many SPC elements apply to all persons in the country, regardless of nationality or religion; some sections of the law have specific applicability to Muslims. In October the sharia court prosecuted its first case involving a non-Muslim citizen who was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for theft.

The Internal Security Act establishes significant exceptions to the rights granted in secular law. Individuals detained under the act are not presumed innocent and do not have the right to legal counsel. Those detained are entitled to make representation against a detention order to an advisory board, either personally or through an advocate or attorney.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law does not provide for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations, and there is no provision for judicial review of any action of the government. By customary practice, individuals may present written complaints about rights violations directly to the sultan for review.

Property Restitution

The law bans noncitizens (including foreign investors, permanent residents, and stateless individuals) from owning land outright or holding land via a power of attorney or trust deeds, and when implemented retroactively it declared all such contracts null and void. The law does not provide for financial compensation or restitution. These elements of the law, however, were not implemented.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law permits government intrusion into the privacy of individuals, families, and homes. The government reportedly monitored private email, mobile telephone messaging, and internet chat-room exchanges suspected of being subversive or propagating religious extremism. An informant system was part of the government’s internal security apparatus to monitor suspected dissidents, religious minorities, or those accused of crimes. Persons who published comments on social media critical of government policy, both on public blogs and personal sites such as Facebook, reported that authorities monitored their comments. In some cases, persons were told by friends or colleagues in the government they were being monitored; in other cases, it appeared critical comments were brought to the attention of authorities by private complainants.

Longstanding sharia law and the SPC permit enforcement of khalwat, a prohibition on the close proximity of a Muslim and a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse or close relative. Non-Muslims may be arrested for violating khalwat if the other accused party is Muslim. Not all suspects accused of violating khalwat were formally arrested; some individuals received informal warnings.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Speech: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the Legislative Council may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or to “wound religious feelings.”

The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. SPC sections provide, in certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments or stories on these subjects.

The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including publicly displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. Foreign newspapers generally were available. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.

The government owns the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels are also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a significant fine and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences.

Observers reported prohibitions against covering a variety of topics, such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and not being able to report on topics such as crime until there has been an official press release by the relevant government agency. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets, reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events, and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.

The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.

Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a significant fine, a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted access to the internet, censored online content, and had the capability to monitor private online communications. The government monitored private email and internet chat-room exchanges it believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforce the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for the Infocommunications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to the public interest, national harmony, and social morals.

Internet companies self-censored content and reserved the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government continued awareness campaigns warning citizens about the misuse of and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy. The government maintained a hotline for reporting fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Although there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, government authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars, and the sultan serves as chancellor of all major universities.

Academics reported practicing self-censorship. In recent years, some researchers published overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain topics would not be well received by the authorities. Religious authorities reviewed publications to verify compliance with social norms.

There were government restrictions on cultural events. All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The board determines the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. Although the Censorship Board rarely required changes in performances, delays associated with the censorship process posed logistical hurdles for performing arts organizations. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government’s emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events but has in recent years occasionally used its authority to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private rather than apply for permits or practiced self-censorship at public events.

Freedom of Association

The law does not provide for freedom of association. The law requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. Applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including for example a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized-crime networks). The government reported it accepted the majority of applications to form associations, but some new organizations reported delaying their registration applications after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act to be in the public interest.

Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising activity requires a separate permit. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurship, and women in business.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.

Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone, and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but the government enforced this policy inconsistently. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.

Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government. The sultan rules through hereditary birthright. While the country is a constitutional sultanate, in 1962 the then ruler invoked an article of the constitution that allows him to assume emergency powers. The sultan continued this practice and in December 2018 renewed the state of emergency for an additional two years. As of December 15, the sultan had not renewed the state of emergency for another two years.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Political authority and control rest entirely with the sultan. The Legislative Council, composed primarily of appointed members with little independent power, provided a forum for limited public discussion of proposed government programs, budgets, and administrative deficiencies. It convenes once per year in March for approximately two weeks. Council members serve five-year terms at the pleasure of the sultan.

Persons age 18 and older may vote by secret ballot in village consultative council elections. Candidates must be Muslim, approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and have been a citizen or permanent resident for more than 15 years. The councils communicate constituent wishes to higher authorities through a variety of channels, including periodic meetings chaired by the minister of home affairs. The government also meets with groups of elected village chiefs to allow them to express local grievances and concerns.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The National Development Party is the only registered political party. The party pledged to support the sultan and the government and made no criticisms of the government.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The constitution requires that all ministers be of Malay ethnicity and Muslim except as permitted by the sultan. The cabinet included an ethnic Chinese minister, and members of tribal minorities also held senior government positions. Women accounted for more than half of civil service employees, and many held senior positions, including at the deputy minister level. Women are subject to an earlier mandatory retirement age than men (55 versus 60 years), which may inhibit their career progression. The law requires that elected village heads be Malay Muslim men.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices.

Corruption: Although corruption was not pervasive, the sultan publicly criticized police, the military, and the immigration and labor departments for corrupt activities, including visa fraud, among other shortcomings. In a high-profile criminal case, the common law High Court convicted a husband-and-wife duo of former judges in January on charges of misappropriating and laundering more than 11.5 million dollars in government funds. They were sentenced to five and 10 years, respectively. The case was particularly noteworthy because the couple was very well connected–one was the son of the minister of religious affairs and the other the daughter of a retired high ranking military officer.

Financial Disclosure: Government officials are not subject to routine financial disclosure reports, but by law officials must declare their assets if they are the subject of an investigation. The government did not make these declarations public. The Anticorruption Bureau also issued a public warning to all government workers that it is empowered to investigate any official who maintains a standard of living above or disproportionate to his or her past or present emolument.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Neither domestic nor international human rights groups could operate freely due to government restrictions. No registered civil society organizations dealt directly with human rights, mostly due to self-censorship. A few domestic organizations worked on humanitarian issues, such as assistance for victims of domestic violence or provision of free legal counsel for indigent defendants. They generally operated with government support, and the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, although they reported practicing self-censorship and avoiding sensitive issues. Regional and other international human rights organizations occasionally operated in the country but faced the same restrictions as all unregistered organizations. In December 2019 the UN resident coordinator visited the country noting that UN agencies already had some roles there, including the International Labor Organization’s work with the Ministry of Home Affairs on labor standards and the World Health Organization’s work with the Ministry of Health on public-health issues.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Secular law stipulates imprisonment from eight to 30 years plus caning with a minimum of 12 strokes as punishment for rape. The SPC provides stoning to death as the maximum punishment for rape. The law does not criminalize rape against men or spousal rape and explicitly states that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife is not rape as long as she is not younger than 14 (15 if she is ethnic Chinese). There is no specific domestic violence law, but authorities arrested individuals in domestic violence cases under the law related to protection of women and girls. The criminal penalty under the law is one to two weeks in jail and a fine for a minor assault; an assault resulting in serious injury is punishable by caning and a longer prison sentence. Islamic family law provides protections against spousal abuse and for the granting of protection orders, and it has been interpreted to cover sexual assault. The penalty for violating a protection order is a significant fine, maximum imprisonment of six months, or both.

Police investigated domestic violence only in response to a report by a victim but reportedly did respond effectively in such cases.

The government reported rape cases, but there were no data available on the prevalence of the crime. All rape cases are tried under the secular civil law. However, if a rape case were to be tried under the Sharia Penal Code the high evidential standards may discourage reporting of the crime. A special police unit staffed by female officers investigated domestic abuse and child abuse complaints.

The Department of Community Development in the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided counseling for women and their spouses. Some female and minor victims of domestic violence and rape were placed in protective custody at a government-sponsored shelter while waiting for their cases to be scheduled in court. Islamic courts staffed by male and female officials offered counseling to married couples in domestic violence cases. Islamic courts recognized assault as grounds for divorce.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No law criminalizes FGM/C for women of any age. There were no statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C, but international media and contacts reported that in general Type 4 FGM/C was done within 40 days of birth based on religious belief and custom and that the practice was widespread. Contacts also reported that the procedure was sometimes performed outside of a medical setting. The Ministry of Religious Affairs declared “circumcision” for Muslim girls (sunat) to be a religious rite obligatory in Islam and described it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification).

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and states that whoever utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object intending to insult the modesty of a woman shall be punished by up to three years in prison and a fine. The law also stipulates that whoever assaults or uses criminal force, intending thereby to outrage, or knowing the act is likely to outrage the modesty of a person, shall be punished by caning and a maximum imprisonment of five years. There were reports of sexual harassment, but there were no data available on the prevalence of the crime.

Reproductive Rights: Couples have the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and they have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Social, cultural, and religious pressures may have affected some women’s access to contraception or health care for sexually transmitted infections. Unmarried Muslim women had difficulty obtaining contraception from government clinics, turning to private clinics or reproductive services abroad instead. Women seeking medical assistance for complications arising from illegal abortions were reported to police after being given care. The government provides access to health services for sexual violence survivors.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: In accordance with the government’s interpretation of the Quran, Muslim women and men are accorded different rights, particularly as codified in sharia law, applicable to Muslims. Secular civil law permits female citizens to own property and other assets, including business properties. Noncitizen husbands of citizens may not apply for permanent resident status until they reside in the country for a minimum of seven years, whereas noncitizen wives may do so after two years of marriage. Although citizenship is automatically inherited from citizen fathers, citizen mothers may pass their nationality to their children only through an application process in which children are first issued a certificate of identity (and considered stateless).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, or, following an application process, the mother. Citizenship is not derived by birth within the country’s territory. Birth registration is universal and equal for girls and boys. Stateless parents must apply for a special pass for a child born in the country. Failure to register a birth is against the law and later makes it difficult to enroll the child in school.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is a crime and was prosecuted but did not appear prevalent. The Royal Brunei Police Force includes a specialized Woman and Child Abuse Crime Investigation Unit, and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided shelter and care to victims.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 14 years and seven months with parental and participant consent, unless otherwise stipulated by religion or custom under the law, which generally sets a higher minimum age. The Islamic Family Act sets the minimum marriageable age at 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim men and makes it an offense to use force, threat, or deception to compel a person to marry against his or her own will. Ethnic Chinese must be 15 or older to marry, according to the Chinese Marriage Act, which also stipulates sexual intercourse with an ethnic Chinese girl younger than 15 is considered rape even if with her spouse. Observers reported that, although permitted by the law, marriages involving minors were rare and generally prohibited by social custom.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 14 (15 if ethnically Chinese) constitutes rape and is punishable by imprisonment of from eight to 30 years plus a minimum of 12 strokes of the cane. The law provides for protection of women, girls, and boys from commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution and “other immoral purposes,” including pornography. The government applied the law against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to prosecute rape of male children. The minimum age for consensual sex outside of marriage is 16.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish community in the country. Comments disparaging Jewish persons collectively were occasionally posted online and on social media.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or mandate accessibility or the provision of most public services to them. Access to buildings, information, transportation, and communications for persons with disabilities was inconsistent. The law does not specifically address access to the judiciary for persons with disabilities. All persons regardless of disability, however, receive the same rights and access to health care.

Although not required by law, the government provided inclusive educational services for children with disabilities who attended both government and religious schools alongside nondisabled peers. Persons with disabilities may participate in local village elections.

During the year the Department for Community Development continued its outreach programs promoting awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities.

By a decree from the sultan, all children with disabilities younger than age 15 are eligible to receive a monthly disability allowance of Brunei Dollars (BND) 450 ($330). Nine registered NGOs worked to supplement services provided by the three government agencies that supported persons with disabilities. The government introduced alternative methods of payment to ensure that persons with disabilities received disability allowance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The government favors ethnic Malays in society through the national Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy. Under the constitution, ministers and most top officials must be Malay Muslims, although the sultan may make exceptions. Members of the military must be Malay. The government pressured both public- and private-sector employers to increase hiring of Malay citizens. There were no known incidents of violence against members of ethnic minority groups, but the government continued policies that favored ethnic Malays in employment, health, housing, and land ownership.

Indigenous People

Some indigenous persons were stateless. Indigenous lands were not specifically demarcated, and there were no specially designated representatives for indigenous groups in the Legislative Council or other government entities. Indigenous persons generally had minimal participation in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, and traditions and in the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, or other natural resources on and under indigenous lands.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Secular law criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” understood to mean sex between men. In 2017 legal amendments increased the minimum prison sentence for such carnal intercourse to 20 years. The amendments were intended to apply in cases of rape or child abuse wherein both attacker and victim are male, because existing law covered only assault of a woman by a man. The SPC bans liwat (anal intercourse) between men or between a man and a woman who is not his wife, with a maximum penalty of death by stoning. The SPC also prohibits men from dressing as women or women dressing as men “without reasonable excuse” or “for immoral purposes.” Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that the Ministry of Religious Affairs summoned transsexual individuals to their offices and demanded that they agree to maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of these reported cases.

At a private Pride gathering, members of the LGBTI community reported societal discrimination in public and private employment, housing, recreation, and in obtaining services including education from state entities. Members said the absence of online or in-person support injured their mental health but that they were reluctant to seek counseling at government health centers. Members of the LGBTI community reported the government monitored their activities and communications. Like all events in the country, events on LGBTI topics were subject to restrictions on assembly and expression. The LGBTI community reported that the government would not issue permits for community events or other occasions on LGBTI topics.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

HIV and HIV-related stigma continued and discrimination occurred. By law foreigners infected with HIV are not permitted to enter or stay in the country, although no medical testing is required for short-term tourists.

The Ministry of Health reported more than 70 persons were infected with HIV between 2018 and 2019, of whom 90 per cent were men. In response, on October 7, the Brunei Darussalam AIDS Council, a government-linked NGO, provided free HIV testing and anonymous counseling for all men, an initiative to encourage infected men to seek resources and assistance without fear of scrutiny over the cause or source of infection.

Eswatini

Executive Summary

Eswatini is an executive monarchy. King Mswati III and Queen Mother Ntfombi, the king’s mother, rule as comonarchs and exercise varying levels of authority over the three branches of government. There is a bicameral parliament consisting of the Senate and House of Assembly, each composed of appointed and elected members. The king appoints the prime minister. Political power remains largely vested with the king and his traditional advisors. International observers concluded the 2018 parliamentary elections were procedurally credible, peaceful, and well managed.

The Royal Eswatini Police Service is responsible for maintaining internal security as well as migration and border crossing enforcement, and reports to the prime minister. The Umbutfo Eswatini Defense Force is responsible for external security but also has domestic security responsibilities, including protecting members of the royal family. The Umbutfo Eswatini Defense Force reports to the principal secretary of defense and the army commander. His Majesty’s Correctional Services is responsible for the protection, incarceration, and rehabilitation of convicted persons and keeping order within corrective institutions. His Majesty’s Correctional Services personnel sometimes work alongside police during demonstrations and other large events, such as national elections, that call for a larger complement of personnel. The king is the commander in chief of the Umbutfo Eswatini Defense Force, holds the position of minister of defense, and is the titular commissioner in chief of the Royal Eswatini Police Service and His Majesty’s Correctional Service. Traditional chiefs supervise volunteer rural “community police,” who have the authority to arrest suspects concerning minor offenses for trial by an inner council within the chiefdom. For serious offenses suspects are transferred to police for further investigation. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression and the press; restrictions on political participation; and serious acts of corruption.

The government was inconsistent in its investigation, prosecution, and punishment of officials who committed human rights abuses.

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. On June 9, however, prison guards allegedly beat and killed a 25-year-old inmate at the Sidwashini prison when the guards intervened in a gang-related fight among inmates. Several other prisoners were injured. The commissioner general of His Majesty’s Correctional Services (HMCS) referred the case to the Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS), where the investigation continued. To investigate whether security force killings were justifiable, civilian security forces (REPS and HMCS) refer cases to REPS for investigation and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. The military conducts its own internal investigations of military security force killings, followed by referrals for prosecution before military tribunals.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were occasional reports that government officials employed them. The law prohibits police from inflicting, instigating, or tolerating torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. It also establishes a disciplinary offense for officers who use violence or unnecessary force, or who intimidate prisoners or others with whom they have contact in the execution of their duties. In February, Bongani Kunene of Moyeni alleged that during an interrogation police beat him and placed a plastic bag over his head. During the year there were scattered reports of police brutality towards those alleged to have violated COVID lockdowns. In one pending case, a police officer was arrested and charged with attempted murder for shooting a teenager in the arm after having fired his weapon to disperse a group of teens who were contravening COVID regulations by playing soccer during the partial lockdown.

There were isolated reports throughout the country of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by “community police”–untrained, volunteer security personnel who exist outside the country’s formal legal structures and are empowered by rural communities to act as vigilantes, patrolling against rural crimes such as cattle rustling. In November 2019 a group of community police severely beat five suspected thieves on their buttocks and paraded them naked through the street as punishment.

Impunity remained a concern but was not a significant problem in the security forces. The HMCS had strong internal mechanisms to investigate alleged wrongdoing and apply disciplinary measures. The reliability of such internal mechanisms within REPS and the military forces remained less clear, although members of these forces have been investigated, prosecuted, and convicted in recent years. Where impunity existed, it generally was attributable more to inefficiency than politicization or corruption, although the latter remained legitimate concerns. In recent years security forces have added training modules to help promote respect for human rights. In October the national commissioner of police publicly condemned police brutality and called on officers to refrain from cruel or degrading treatment.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions varied and did not always meet international standards due to overcrowding and, in certain locations, facilities that required repair or modernization.

Physical Conditions: In September the HMCS reported a total prison population of 3,796, exceeding the prison system’s designed capacity by 958 inmates. Facilities were of mixed quality: some were old and dilapidated, while others such as the women’s prison were newer and well maintained. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence remained a concern due to increased gang activity among inmates as prison populations expanded and diversified. In June members of a prison gang attacked a group of prisoners in an effort to force them to join their ranks, resulting in a skirmish in which one inmate died, allegedly after a severe beating by prison guards (see section 1.a.).

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment and held prison officials accountable through appropriate disciplinary measures–primarily suspensions without pay. During the year the HMCS met quarterly with the Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration Integrity (CHRPAI) to review prison conditions, individual cases, and prisoner needs (such as legal counsel).

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring of prison conditions by independent nongovernmental observers such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the African Union, local nongovernmental organizations, and diplomatic missions. Independent monitoring groups generally received broad access to prison facilities and were able to conduct unchaperoned interviews of inmates and prison guards.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires warrants for arrests, except when police observe a crime being committed, believe a person is about to commit a crime, or conclude evidence would be lost if arrest is delayed. The law requires authorities to charge detainees with the violation of law within a reasonable time, usually within 48 hours of arrest or, in remote areas, as soon as a judicial officer is present to assume responsibility. Authorities sometimes failed to charge detainees within this time period, sometimes taking up to a week. There is a bail system, and suspects may request bail at their first appearance in court, except in serious cases such as those involving murder or rape charges. In general detainees could consult with lawyers of their choice, to whom they were generally allowed prompt access. Lawyers may be provided to indigent defendants at public expense in capital cases or if conviction of a crime is punishable by life imprisonment.

The director of public prosecutions has the legal authority to determine which court should hear a case. The director delegated this responsibility to public prosecutors. Persons convicted in the traditional courts may appeal to the High Court.

Arbitrary Arrest: In September the Supreme Court held that the arrest and five-week detention of robbery suspect Sibongiseni Khumalo had been unlawful because, shortly after the arrest, police realized that most or all of the allegedly stolen items they seized belonged, in fact, to the suspect. Nevertheless, the government detained the suspect for more than five weeks, even after the suspect was granted bail on the second day of his detention but lacked sufficient funds to pay it. The Supreme Court concluded that the arrest and detention of the suspect had been unlawful and awarded him damages and costs.

Pretrial Detention: CHRPAI stated lengthy pretrial detention was common, with the majority of pretrial detainees incarcerated due to shortages of judges, prosecutors, and courtrooms; a weak case management and coordination system; and a lack of access to legal representation. As of December the 845 pretrial detainees was approximately 21 percent of the total prison and detainee population. A 2018 survey of detainees by CHRPAI concluded that 245 of them had been awaiting or undergoing trial for 12 or more months.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government with some limitations respected judicial independence and impartiality in nonpolitical criminal and civil cases not involving the royal family or government officials. The king appoints Supreme Court and High Court justices on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, which is chaired by the chief justice and consists of other royal appointees.

Judicial powers are based on two systems: Roman-Dutch law and a system of traditional courts that follows traditional law and custom. Neither the Supreme Court nor the High Court that interprets the constitution have jurisdiction in matters concerning the Offices of the King or Queen Mother, the regency, chieftaincies, the Swati National Council (the king’s advisory body), or the traditional regiments system. Unwritten traditional law and custom govern all these institutions. Traditional courts were unwilling to recognize many of the fundamental rights provided for in the constitution and instead relied on customary laws that often reduce or disregard these rights.

Most citizens who encountered the legal system did so through the 13 traditional courts. Each court has a presiding judicial officer appointed by the king. These courts adjudicate minor offenses and violations of traditional law and custom. Authorities generally respected and enforced traditional, as well as magistrate, High Court, and Supreme Court rulings.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law generally provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and the right to be informed of charges promptly, in detail, and with free interpretation if necessary. The constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial without undue delay, except when exclusion of the public is deemed necessary in the “interests of defense, public safety, public order, justice, public morality, the welfare of persons younger than 18, or the protection of the private lives of the persons concerned in the proceedings.” Although the judiciary generally enforced rights to a fair public trial, prolonged delays during trials in the magistrate courts and High Court were common. Court-appointed counsel is provided to indigent defendants at government expense with free assistance of an interpreter for any defendant who cannot understand or speak English or SiSwati, and conviction of the crime is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Defendants and their attorneys have access to relevant government-held evidence, generally obtained from the Public Prosecutor’s Office during pretrial consultations. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants may question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and prosecutors have the right of appeal up to the Supreme Court. The law extends the foregoing rights to all persons.

The traditional courts operate under traditional authorities, including local chiefs. In general chiefs preside over traditional courts as court presidents. Traditional courts hear both civil and minor criminal matters. By law traditional courts may only impose token monetary fines and no prison sentences longer than 12 months.

Traditional courts are empowered to administer customary law only “insofar as it is not repugnant to natural justice or morality” or inconsistent with the provisions of any civil law in force, but some traditional laws and practices violate civil laws, particularly those involving women’s and children’s rights. Defendants in traditional courts are not permitted formal legal counsel but may speak on their own behalf, call witnesses, and be assisted by informal advisors. Traditional law and custom provide for an appeals process, but the process is long and cumbersome. Under the constitution the High Court has review and appellate jurisdiction over matters decided in traditional courts. Judicial commissioners within the traditional legal system may adjudicate appeals themselves or refer appeals to a court within the civil judicial system on their own volition. Those making or receiving an appeal also have the right to seek High Court review of traditional court decisions.

Military courts are not allowed to try civilians. They do not provide the same rights as civilian criminal courts. For example, military courts may use confessions obtained under duress as evidence and may convict defendants based on hearsay.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were two reports of persons detained in lengthy pretrial detention for criticism of the king. In May the government withdrew the sole remaining charge against activist Goodwill Sibiya, who was arrested in May 2019 and charged with violating the law after having accused the king of embezzlement and lawlessness. The government dismissed one charge against Sibiya in September 2019 and dismissed the remaining charge against him in May. Sibiya was released on the same day the government dismissed his charge.

Also in May police arrested Ncamiso Ngcamphalala, the president of the political party Economic Freedom Fighters-Swaziland and charged him with violating a section of law that was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court in 2016. Although Ngcamphalala was released on bail in June, his charge remained pending.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses, including appeal to international courts or bodies. Administrative remedies are also available under civil service rules and regulations.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions except “in the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, town and country planning, use of mineral resources, and development of land in the public benefit.” There were isolated reports of unlawful interference by the government. The wife of a blogger wanted by police in connection with various alleged crimes claimed that police officers visited her home without a warrant, harassed her, and compelled her to accompany them to a police station for questioning regarding her husband’s whereabouts. The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a magistrate before searching homes or other premises, but officers with the rank of subinspector or higher have authority to conduct a search without a warrant if they believe delay might cause evidence to be lost.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted this right, particularly with respect to press freedom and matters concerning the monarchy.

Freedom of Speech: In one case an activist was arrested for criticizing the king in a civil court case (see section 1.e, Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law empowers the government to ban publications it deems “prejudicial or potentially prejudicial to the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health.”

Daily independent newspapers criticized government corruption and inefficiency but generally avoided criticizing the royal family. Independent online media and an independent monthly magazine were more likely to criticize the royal family as well as government. After the new government took office in November 2018, government officials became far more communicative, with official spokespersons appointed to every ministry, the launch of an official government Twitter page, and quarterly, on-the-record press briefings for all editors with the prime minister and other cabinet members.

Broadcast media remained under state control. Most persons obtained their news from radio broadcasts. Access to speak on national radio was generally limited to government officials, although the University of Eswatini, religious organizations, and the country’s first community radio station have received radio licenses.

Violence and Harassment: Zweli Martin Dlamini, editor of Swaziland News, fled to South Africa after police harassed and allegedly physically abused him for criticizing the king. On at least one other occasion, editors of the two daily newspapers were pressured and threatened by senior government officials to refrain from printing articles that criticized the royal family for its lavish lifestyle and spending practices. In one instance government officials admonished editors for having failed to defend the king when someone criticized the royal family’s practices while in the editors’ presence.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although journalists have become more willing to speak out against the government in recent years, criticism of the king was strongly discouraged by government and traditional leaders. Most journalists and broadcast media felt compelled to avoid criticizing the palace due to fear of reprisals, such as being professionally ostracized or losing paid government advertising. Self-censorship was widespread in relation to the king, but virtually nonexistent in relation to the government. Government officials and security personnel repeatedly made it clear that criticism of the king could result in serious consequences.

National Security: Although the country has no formal criminal libel or slander laws and has no laws forbidding criticism of the monarchy, the government prosecuted one individual for criticizing the king, using provisions of antiterrorism and other laws (see section 1.e, Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Several national demonstrations and community meetings and rallies occurred without incident, although such gatherings were far less widespread during the year in view of the COVID pandemic and health-related restrictions on large gatherings. In September police violated existing law by prohibiting a proposed peaceful gathering by members of the political party SWADEPA. Throughout the year there were isolated reports of violence by both demonstrators and security forces, although there were no reports of serious injury or death.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for the right of freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Although several political parties competed in elections, the constitution requires candidates for public office to run as independents; their parties may not offer slates of candidates, so their affiliation does not appear on ballots. In 2019 the registrar of companies refused to register a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) nongovernmental organization on the grounds the constitution and domestic laws do not protect against discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation and prohibit same-sex relations. The LGBTI organization challenged the government’s stance as being unconstitutional in a lawsuit that remained pending (see also section 6).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: By traditional law and custom, chiefs have the power to decide who may reside in their chiefdoms; evictions sometimes occurred due to internal conflicts, alleged criminal activity, or opposition to the chief.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Political rights were restricted, although citizens could choose 59 of the 69 members of the House of Assembly in procedurally credible, periodic elections held by secret ballot.

Legislation passed by parliament requires the king’s consent to become law. Under the constitution the king selects the prime minister, the cabinet, two-thirds of the Senate, 10 of 69 members of the House of Assembly, the chief justice and other justices of the superior courts, members of commissions established by the constitution, and the heads of government offices. On the advice of the prime minister, the king appoints the cabinet from among members of parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: International observers described the 2018 parliamentary elections as credible, peaceful, and well managed. The system of nominations in the country organizes nominations for members of parliament by chiefdoms. Traditional chiefs convene nominating meetings for candidates to parliament and other offices and in a few cases confirm whether nominees are members of the chiefdom. Candidates for each chiefdom are then chosen in a primary election conducted by secret ballot. Although some chiefs may exercise influence through lobbying, there was little evidence their influence was widespread or decisive in the formation of electoral lists.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides for freedom of association but does not address how political parties may operate, and there was no legal mechanism for them to contest elections. The constitution also requires that candidates for public office compete on their individual merit, which courts have interpreted as blocking competition based on political party affiliation.

Participation in the traditional sphere of governance and politics takes place predominantly through chiefdoms. Chiefs are custodians of traditional law and custom, report directly to the king, and are responsible for the day-to-day running of their chiefdoms and maintenance of law and order. Although local custom mandates that chieftaincy is hereditary, the constitution, while recognizing that chieftaincy is “usually hereditary and is regulated by Swati law and custom,” also states the king “may appoint any person to be chief over any area.” As a result, many chieftaincies were nonhereditary appointments, a fact that provoked land disputes, especially at the time of the death and burial of chiefs.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The constitution provides for five of the king’s 10 appointed seats in the House of Assembly to be held by women and for the appointed members to represent “interests, including marginalized groups not already adequately represented in the House.” The king appointed only three women to the House of Assembly following the 2018 elections, in which only two women were elected. If, after an election, women constitute less than 30 percent of the total membership of parliament, the constitution and law require the House to elect four additional women, one from each region. The House complied with this requirement.

The king appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, and the House of Assembly elects the other 10. The constitution requires that eight of the 20 members appointed by the king be women and that five of the 10 members elected by the House be women. The House of Assembly complied by electing five women to the Senate, but the king appointed only seven women.

Widows in mourning (for periods that may extend up to two years) were prevented from appearing in certain public places or being in proximity to the king or a chief’s official residence. Widows were sometimes excluded from running for office or taking active public roles in their communities during those periods.

There were very few ethnic minorities in the country, and they were represented in government at a commensurate ratio.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and, in contrast with previous years, the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption continued to be a problem, most often involving personal relationships and bribes being used to secure government contracts on large capital projects. In contrast with previous years, prosecutors pursued corruption charges against several officials, including a prominent member of parliament, and a handful of senior current and former government officials. In March, Director of Social Welfare Moses Dlamini in the deputy prime minister’s office was arrested and charged with corruption, sexual harassment, and indecent assault after allegedly demanding sexual favors from a female subordinate as a quid pro quo for approving her participation in a training course in South Africa. In May the director of public prosecutions enrolled eight additional corruption cases, including one alleging that a prominent member of parliament had misappropriated more than six million emalangeni ($360,000) of public funds.

There were credible reports that a person’s relationship with government officials influenced the awarding of government contracts; the appointment, employment, and promotion of officials; recruitment into the security services; and school admissions. In contrast with previous years, authorities took action on some nepotism cases. In May, Thembinkosi Mamba, former principal secretary in the Ministry of Justice, was charged with corruption for allegedly awarding a contract valued at more than one million emalangeni ($60,000) to his fiancee.

Although parliament’s Public Accounts Committee was limited in its authority to apply and enforce consequences except by drawing public attention to potential corruption, it continued to pursue investigations, particularly those related to public spending, and received broad media attention for its efforts.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution prohibits government officials from assuming positions in which their personal interests are likely to conflict with their official duties. The constitution requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets and liabilities to CHRPAI. The commission is mandated to monitor and verify disclosures. There are criminal and administrative sanctions for noncompliance. Sanctions for failure to disclose assets and conflicts of interest include removal from office, disqualification from holding a public office for a period determined by a court, and confiscation of any property illegitimately acquired during tenure in office. According to the commission, the majority of those required to declare assets and liabilities did so, but the commission suspected underreporting in some cases. The commission did not make this information public.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Several domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative but only sometimes responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: CHRPAI is empowered by the constitution to investigate complaints of corruption, abuse of power, human rights abuses, and mismanagement of public administration. During the year CHRPAI investigated dozens of complaints, made findings of fact, appeared in court on behalf of aggrieved parties, issued recommendations to judicial and governmental bodies, and provided human rights training to law enforcement officers. Topics CHRPAI addressed included evictions, corporal punishment in schools, police torture, and prolonged detentions. CHRPAI increased cooperation and collaboration with the HMCS and REPS on human rights matters, including investigation of human rights abuses, and secured seconded staff from the HMCS and REPS to help it conduct human rights investigations.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes domestic violence and rape, including rape of a spouse or intimate partner. The penalties for conviction of rape are up to 30 years’ imprisonment for first offenders and up to 40 years’ imprisonment for repeat offenders. The penalty for conviction of domestic violence is a substantial fine, up to 15 years’ imprisonment, or both. Several convicted perpetrators received sentences of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment, and one man was sentenced in August to a total of 55 years’ imprisonment after repeatedly raping his daughter and niece (30 years for rape and 25 for other offenses). In March prosecutors charged the director of the children’s unit in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, Lucky Ndlovu, with rape of a minor. Although men remained the primary perpetrators, women have also been arrested and convicted under the law.

Rape remained common, and domestic violence against women sometimes resulted in death. There were few social workers or other intermediaries to work with victims and witnesses to obtain evidence of rape and domestic violence.

Rural women who pursued prosecution for domestic violence in traditional courts often had no relief if family intervention failed, because traditional courts were less sympathetic to women and less likely than courts using Roman-Dutch-based law to convict men of spousal abuse.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Accusations of witchcraft were employed against women in family or community disputes that could lead to their being physically attacked, driven from their homes, or both.

Sexual Harassment: The law establishes broad protections against sexual harassment, with penalties if convicted of a monetary fine, 10 years’ imprisonment, or both.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children free from discrimination, coercion, or violence, but they often lacked the information and means to manage their reproductive health.

There was wide access to contraception, including in health facilities, retail stores, public restrooms, and workplaces throughout the country, and most persons had access to reproductive health and contraception information free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The UN Population Division estimated 68 percent of girls and women ages 15-49 used a modern method of contraception during the year.

According to the World Health Organization, the maternal mortality ratio was 437 deaths per 100,000 live births. This high ratio resulted from a host of factors, one of which was the quality of medical care, but others were patient-dependent factors such as not seeking antenatal care, late presentation to facilities, and home deliveries.

The government provided reproductive health services to victims of gender-based violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women occupied a subordinate role in society. The dualistic nature of the legal system complicated the protection of women’s rights. Since unwritten customary law and custom govern traditional marriage and certain matters of family law, women’s rights often were unclear and changed according to where and by whom they were interpreted. Couples often married in both civil and traditional ceremonies, creating problems in determining which set of rules applied to the marriage and to subsequent questions of child custody, property, and inheritance in the event of divorce or death.

In 2019 the High Court ruled common law “marital power” that formerly denied married women the right to act without their husband’s consent in many instances is unconstitutional. The High Court in 2019 also struck down sections of the law that allowed marital power and spousal property rights to be governed by Swazi law and custom.

Women faced employment discrimination and were prevented from working in some industries (see section 7.d.). The constitution provides for equal access to land, and civil law provides for women to register and administer property, execute contracts, and enter into transactions in their own names.

Girls and women in rural areas faced discrimination by community elders and authority figures. Boys received preference in education. Although customary law considers children to belong to the father and his family if the couple divorce, custody of the children of unmarried parents typically remains with the mother, unless the father claims paternity. When the husband dies, tradition dictates the widow must stay at the residence of her husband’s family in observance of a strict mourning period for one month. Media reported widows heading households sometimes became homeless and were forced to seek public assistance when the husband’s family took control of the homestead. Women in mourning attire were generally not allowed to participate in public events and were barred from interacting with royalty or entering royal premises. In some cases the mourning period lasted up to two years. No similar mourning period applied to men.

Children

The law sets the age of majority at 18. It defines child abuse and imposes penalties for abuse; details children’s legal rights and the responsibility of the state, in particular with respect to orphans and other vulnerable children; establishes structures and guidelines for restorative justice; defines child labor and exploitative child labor; and sets minimum wages for various types of child labor.

Birth Registration: Birth on the country’s territory does not convey citizenship. Under the constitution children derive citizenship from the father, unless the birth occurs outside marriage and the father does not claim paternity, in which case the child acquires the mother’s citizenship. If a Swati woman marries a foreign man, even if he is a naturalized Swati citizen, their children carry the father’s birth citizenship.

The law mandates compulsory registration of births. According to the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 50 percent of children younger than five were registered, and 30 percent had birth certificates. Lack of birth registration may result in denial of public services, including access to education.

Education: The law requires that parents provide for their children to complete primary school. Parents who do not send their children to school through completion of primary education were required to pay fines for noncompliance. Education was tuition-free through grade seven. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister received an annual budget allocation to subsidize school fees for orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC) in both primary and secondary school. Seventy percent of children were classified as OVC and so had access to subsidized education through the secondary level.

Child Abuse: The law provides broad protections for children against abduction, sexual contact, and several other forms of abuse. The penalty for conviction of indecent treatment of children is up to 20 or 25 years’ imprisonment, depending upon the age of the victim. Child abuse remained a serious problem, especially in poor and rural households, although authorities have increased prosecutions of such abuse.

Corporal punishment was banned in schools in 2015, and the last reported incident occurred in 2019.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls, but with parental consent and approval from the minister of justice, girls may marry at 16. The government recognizes two types of marriage, civil marriage and marriage under traditional law. In March prosecutors charged director of the children’s unit in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office Lucky Ndlovu with rape of a minor whom he attempted to marry when she was age 16. Prosecutors argued that the marriage was invalid since the minor lacked the legal capacity to consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering, and procuring of children for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography; conviction of these acts carries a substantial fine, up to 25 years’ imprisonment, or both. Children were occasional victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. The law criminalizes “mistreatment, neglect, abandonment, or exposure of children to abuse” and imposes a statutory minimum of five years’ imprisonment if convicted. Although the law sets the age of sexual consent at 16, a 2018 law provides for a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for conviction of “maintaining a sexual relationship with a child,” defined as a relationship that involves more than one sexual act with a person younger than 18. The government enforced the law effectively, charging at least 163 individuals between January and September, prosecuting dozens of individuals, and sentencing multiple perpetrators to jail for more than 50 years in the most egregious cases.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community is very small, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law protects the rights of persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The law mandates access to health care for persons with disabilities and accessibility to buildings, transportation, information, communications, and public services.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office is responsible for upholding the law and for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Persons with disabilities complained of government neglect and a significantly lower rate of school attendance for children with disabilities. Little progress has been made to date in expanding accessibility and access to public services for persons with disabilities, although some newer government buildings, and those under construction, included various improvements for persons with disabilities, including access ramps. Public transportation was not easily accessible for persons with disabilities, and the government did not provide any alternative means of transport.

There were only minimal services provided for persons with disabilities, and there were no programs in place to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. There was one private school for students with hearing disabilities and one private special-education school for children with physical or mental disabilities. The hospital for persons with mental disabilities, located in Manzini, was overcrowded and understaffed.

By custom, persons with disabilities may not be in the presence of the king, because they are believed to bring “bad spirits.” Persons with disabilities were sometimes neglected by families.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Governmental and societal discrimination sometimes occurred against nonethnic Swatis, primarily persons of South Asian descent. Nonethnic Swatis sometimes experienced difficulty in obtaining official documents, including passports, and suffered from other forms of governmental and societal discrimination, such as delays in receiving building permits for houses, difficulties in applying for bank loans, and being required to obtain special permits or stamps to buy a car or house.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

While there are colonial-era common law prohibitions against sodomy, no penalties are specified, and there has never been an arrest or prosecution for consensual same-sex conduct. The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. Societal discrimination against LGBTI persons, although gradually lessening, remained a concern, and LGBTI persons often concealed their sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTI persons who were open regarding their sexual orientation and relationships faced censure and exclusion from the chiefdom-based patronage system. Some traditional, religious, and government officials criticized same-sex sexual conduct as neither morally Swati nor Christian. Despite these barriers, LGBTI persons conducted several well publicized public events during the year, including a virtual pride celebration and various organized dialogues, all of which occurred without incident. In contrast to prior years, the government invited outspoken LGBTI rights advocates to participate in government-hosted workshops and dialogues designed to improve public policy, promote inclusion, and develop better economic opportunities for the youth.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although HIV-related stigma and discrimination appeared to be in decline, discriminatory attitudes and prejudice against persons with HIV persisted. Individuals with HIV reported it was difficult or uncomfortable for them to disclose their HIV status and that frequently their status was revealed to others without their permission. The armed forces encouraged testing and did not discriminate against active military members testing positive. Persons who tested HIV-positive, however, were not recruited by the armed forces.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is an authoritarian state led by the Kim family since 1949. Shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, his son Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the country and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. His titles also include chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Worker’s Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and supreme representative of the Korean People. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, remains “eternal president.” The most recent national elections, held in March 2019, were neither free nor fair.

The internal security apparatus includes the Ministries of Social Security and State Security and the Military Security Command. A systematic and intentional overlap of powers and responsibilities existed between these organizations to prevent any potential subordinate consolidation of power and assure that each unit provides a check and balance on the other. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; no judicial independence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; the outlawing of independent trade unions; the worst forms of child labor; the use of domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system; and the imposition of forced labor conditions on overseas contract workers.

The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Furthermore, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported that COVID-19 preventive measures limited international presence in the country and reduced escapee arrivals. As of year’s end, the government had not accounted for the circumstances that led to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in unjust and unwarranted detention by authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem.

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 that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. The government had no functioning investigative mechanism.

Defector reports noted instances in which the government executed political prisoners, opponents of the government, forcibly returned asylum seekers, government officials, and others accused of crimes. The law prescribes the death penalty upon conviction for the most “serious” cases of “antistate” or “antination” crimes. These terms are broadly interpreted to include: participation in a coup or plotting to overthrow the state; acts of terrorism for an antistate purpose; treason, which includes defection or handing over state secrets; providing information regarding economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere; and “treacherous destruction.” Additionally, the law allows for capital punishment in less serious crimes such as theft, destruction of military facilities and national assets, distribution of narcotics, counterfeiting, fraud, kidnapping, distribution of pornography, and trafficking in persons. Defectors and media also reported that the government carried out infanticide or required mothers to commit infanticide if they were political prisoners, persons with disabilities, raped by government officials or prison guards, or forcibly repatriated from the People’s Republic of China.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and press reports indicated that those attempting to leave the country without permission could be killed on the spot or publicly executed, and guards at political prison camps were under orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape.

The state also subjected private citizens to public executions. A 2016 survey found that 64 percent of defectors had witnessed public executions. Defectors reported going to public executions on school field trips. The 2019 edition of the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, a report based on interviews with recent escapees and published annually by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, reported that testimonies recounted continued public and secret executions. Escapees declared the purpose of the executions was to punish offenses including drug dealing, watching and disseminating South Korean videos, and violent crimes such as murder and rape. One defector said he witnessed the public execution of a man who shared South Korean movies in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, in 2014. Two others said they saw the execution of another Hyesan man on the same charges and the killing of an estimated 20 South Hwanghae Province residents for drug dealing and distributing South Korean videos in 2017. Testimonies also stated executions were carried out for possession of Bibles, circulating antiregime propaganda material, and superstitious activities. KINU noted, however, that public executions might have become less frequent in recent years.

In March 2019 the Malaysian prosecutor dropped charges against one woman accused of assassinating Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Later that month a second woman charged in the case accepted a plea deal and received early release in Malaysia. Four government agents, including Ri Ji U and Hong Song Hac, returned to the country from Malaysia immediately following the attack without standing trial.

As of year’s end, the government still had not accounted for the circumstances that led to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in unjust and unwarranted detention by authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017.

Killings by security forces did not appear to vary depending on race or ethnicity.

b. Disappearance

NGO, think tank, and press reports indicated the government was responsible for disappearances.

South Korean media reported the government dispatched Ministry of State Security agents to cities in China near the country’s border to kidnap and forcibly return refugees. According to international press reports, the government may have also kidnapped defectors traveling in China after relocating to South Korea. In some cases the government reportedly forced these defectors’ family members to encourage the defectors to travel to China in order to capture them. According to the Committee for Human Rights Committee in North Korea (HRNK), as political prison camps in border areas near China closed, thousands of inmates reportedly disappeared in the process of their transfer to inland facilities, amounting to enforced disappearance.

During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the government in the 1970s and 1980s.

South Korean government and media reports noted the government also kidnapped other foreign nationals from locations abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. The government continued to deny its involvement in the kidnappings. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported South Korea officially recognized 516 South Korean civilians abducted by regime authorities since the end of the Korean War with thousands more unaccounted for. South Korean NGOs estimated that 20,000 civilians abducted by the government during the Korean War remained in the country or had died.

Authorities took no steps to ensure accountability for disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The penal code prohibits torture or inhuman treatment, but many sources reported these practices continued. Numerous defector accounts and NGO reports described the use of torture by authorities in several detention facilities. Methods of torture and other abuse reportedly included severe beatings; electric shock; prolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small “punishment cells” in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; water torture; and being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, including “pumps,” or being forced to repeatedly squat and stand up with their hands behind their back.

Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes. Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see section 7.b.).

A report released on July 28 from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) catalogued numerous allegations of beatings, torture, and sexual violations against women who were forcibly repatriated after seeking to flee the country to find work, usually in neighboring China. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that children repatriated from China underwent torture, verbal abuse, and violence including beatings, hard labor, and hunger.

Impunity for acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by members of the security forces was endemic.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. NGO, defector, and press reports noted the government operated several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and camps for political prisoners. NGO reports documented six types of detention facilities: kwanliso (political penal-labor camps), kyohwaso (correctional or re-education centers), kyoyangso (labor-reform centers), jipkyulso (collection centers for low-level criminals), rodong danryeondae (labor-training centers), and kuryujang or kamok (interrogation facilities or jails). According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers.

According to a March report by the HRNK, the government operated six kwanliso–Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, and 25, as well as Choma-bong Restricted Area. According to KINU’s most recent estimate in 2013, there were between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in the kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. KINU identified the five kwanliso facilities as Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Gaechon (Camp 18), and Cheongjin (Camp 25). In addition the HRNK reported that the Choma-bong Restricted Area, constructed between 2013 and 2014, had not been confirmed by eyewitness reports, but it appeared to be operational and bore all the characteristics of a kwanliso.

Kwanliso camps consist of total-control zones, where incarceration is for life, and may include “revolutionary” or re-education zones from which prisoners may be released. Those whom the state considered hostile to the government or who committed political crimes reportedly received indefinite sentencing terms in political prison camps. In many cases the state also detained all family members if one member was accused or arrested. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, children were allowed to leave the camp after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire defector families to political prison camps. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

Reports indicated the state typically sent those sentenced to prison for nonpolitical crimes to re-education prisons, where authorities subjected prisoners to intense forced labor.

Defectors noted they did not expect many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors, prisoners received little to no food or medical care in some places of detention. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing. The South Korean and international press reported that the kyohwaso re-education through labor camps held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. A March HRNK report entitled North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 1, Kaechon postulated that the government may have operated more than 20 kyohwaso. That report, which relied on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, estimated the population of Kyohwaso Number 1, located near Kaechon in South Pyongan Province, at 2,000 to 6,000 prisoners.

A September report by the HRNK entitled North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 12, Jongori stated the kyohwaso held both political and nonpolitical prisoners. According to the HRNK, based on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, Kyohwaso Number 12, located near Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, held approximately 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom were accused of illegal border crossings into China. The HRNK described frequent deaths within Kyohwaso Number 12 from injury, illness, and physical and mental abuse by prison officials, and included first-hand accounts of crematorium operations designed to dispose of prisoners’ bodies surreptitiously.

In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Koreas An-Jeon-Bu Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment and forced labor and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.”

Physical Conditions: Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) 2019 White Paper on Human Rights stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. Reports from previous years attributed rape to the impunity and unchecked power of prison guards and other officials. OHCHR reporting noted that, contrary to international human rights standards that require women prisoners to be guarded exclusively by female prison staff to prevent sexual violence, female escapees reported they were overseen almost exclusively by male officers. In the same report, victims alleged widespread sexual abuse at holding centers (jipkyulso) and pretrial detention and interrogation centers (kuryujang) by secret police (bowiseong) or police interrogators, as well as during transfer between facilities.

An October report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled Worth Less Than An Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea stated the pretrial detention system was opaque, arbitrary, violent, and lacked any semblance of due process. Individuals in pretrial detention reportedly endured brutal conditions and to be routinely subjected to systematic torture, sexual violence, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor.

Nutrition, hygiene, and the medical situation inside prison camps were dire, according to KINU’s 2019 white paper. There were no statistics for deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) report cited an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.

Political prisoners faced significantly harsher conditions than the general prison population. KINU’s 2019 white paper noted political prisoners were often forced into hard labor, which one defector of Camp 18 said led to 10 deaths a year at the camp from overwork. Defectors reported that in Camp 14, prisoners worked 12 hours a day during the summer and 10 hours a day during the winter, with one day off a month. The camps observed New Year’s Day and the birthdays of Kim II Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children ages 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than age 65. According to the 2016 HRNK report Gulag, Inc., three political prison camps and four re-education camps contained mines where prisoners worked long hours with frequent deadly accidents. One prisoner reported suffering an open foot fracture and being forced to return to the mine the same day. Prisoners were forced to work even when they were sick. Prisoners who failed to meet work quotas reportedly faced reduced meals and violence. Those caught stealing faced arbitrary and serious violence.

By law the state dismisses criminal cases against a person younger than age 14. The state applies public education in case of a crime committed by a person older than 14 and younger than 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was applied. Authorities often detained juveniles along with their families and reportedly subjected them to torture and abuse in detention facilities.

Administration: There was little evidence to suggest prisoners and detainees had reasonable access to visitors. Refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment than others. According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons whom prison authorities found were practicing religion within detention facilities. No information was available regarding whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse. There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2019 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Pokchong-ni Lab noted officials, especially those within the military and the internal security organizations, continued to camouflage and conceal activity at prison camps.

Independent Monitoring: The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but according to defectors, media, and NGO reports, the government did not observe these prohibitions.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law limits detention during prosecution and trial, requires arrest by warrant, and prohibits forced confessions. The application of these provisions was not verified.

Members of the security forces arrested and reportedly transported citizens suspected of committing political crimes to prison camps without trial. According to one South Korean NGO, the Ministry of Social Security handles criminal cases directly without the approval of prosecutors, reportedly to bypass prosecutorial corruption. An NGO reported that, by law, investigators could detain an individual for investigation for up to two months. The HRNK reported Ministry of State Security or Ministry of Social Security units nonetheless interrogated suspects for months on end. No functioning bail system or other alternatives for release pending trial exists.

There were no restrictions on the government’s ability to detain and imprison persons at will or to hold them incommunicado. Family members and other concerned persons reportedly found it virtually impossible to obtain information on charges against detained persons or the lengths of their sentences. According to defector reports, families were not notified of arrest, detention, or sentencing. Judicial review or appeals of detentions did not exist in law or practice. According to an opinion adopted in 2015 by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, family members have no recourse to petition for the release of detainees accused of political crimes, as the state may deem any such advocacy for political prisoners an act of treason against the state and could result in the detention of family members. No information on detainees’ access to a lawyer was available.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests reportedly occurred. According to the 2019 report of the UN secretary-general on the situation of human rights in the country, arbitrary arrests appeared to be carried out in a widespread and systematic manner. According to KINU’s 2019 white paper, arbitrary arrest commonly occurred for political crimes, attempting to enter South Korea, and engaging in religious activities, as well as for watching or distributing foreign media.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to defectors there was no mechanism for persons to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution states courts are independent and must carry out judicial proceedings in strict accordance with the law; however, an independent judiciary did not exist. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, there were many reports of bribery and corruption in the investigations or preliminary examination process and in detention facilities, as well as by judges and prosecutors in the trial stage. In October, HRW reported treatment of individuals in pretrial detention often depended on access to connections and money.

Trial Procedures

Little information was available on formal criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside access to the legal system was limited to trials for traffic violations and other minor offenses.

The constitution contains elaborate procedural protections, providing that cases should be public, except under circumstances stipulated by law. The constitution also states the accused has the right to a defense, and when the government held trials, they reportedly assigned lawyers. Some reports noted a distinction between those accused of political, as opposed to nonpolitical, crimes and claimed the government offered trials and lawyers only to the latter. The Ministry of State Security conducted “pretrials” or preliminary examinations in all political cases, but the court system conducted the trial. Some defectors testified that the ministry also conducted trials. KINU’s white paper for 2019 cited defector testimony that imprisonment in political prison camps is decided exclusively by the ministry, regardless of trial. There was no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers existed. There were no indications authorities respected the presumption of innocence. According to the 2014 UNCOI report, “the vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.”

Political Prisoners and Detainees

While the total number of political prisoners and detainees remained unknown, KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the kwanliso political penal-labor camps. Incarceration in a kwanliso is in most cases for life and in many cases includes three generations of the prisoner’s family. NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees. The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including attempting to defect to South Korea or contacting family members who had defected to South Korea, sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s or Kim Jong Il’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims. The 2014 UNCOI report noted that many “ordinary” prisoners were, in fact, political prisoners, “detained without a substantive reason compatible with international law.”

Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports that for political purposes the regime attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country to repatriate refugees. According to the UN secretary-general, several UN member states, as well as OHCHR and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, expressed concern that forcibly returned defectors, including children, faced a significant risk of human rights violations, including torture. Additionally, the government attempted to target, harass, and threaten defectors and other perceived enemies resident outside of the country.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

According to the constitution, “citizens are entitled to submit complaints and petitions. The state shall fairly investigate and deal with complaints and petitions as fixed by law.” By law citizens are entitled to submit complaints to stop encroachment upon their rights and interests or seek compensation for the encroached rights and interests. Reports noted government officials did not respect these rights. For example, when individuals submitted anonymous petitions or complaints regarding state administration, the Ministry of Social Security and the Ministry of State Security sought to identify the authors and subject them to investigation and punishment.

Individuals and organizations do not have the ability to appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution provides for the inviolability of person and residence and the privacy of correspondence; however, the government did not respect these provisions. The regime subjected its citizens to rigid controls. According to a December 2019 HRNK report entitled Digital Trenches: North Koreas Information Counter-Offensive, the regime relied upon a massive, multilevel system of informants called inminban, which may be loosely translated as “neighborhood watch unit,” to identify critics or political criminals. Authorities sometimes subjected entire communities to security checks, entering homes without judicial authorization.

The government appeared to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and other digital communications. Private telephone lines operated on a system that precluded making or receiving international calls; international telephone lines were available only under restricted circumstances.

The Ministry of State Security strictly monitored mobile telephone use and access to electronic media in real time. Government authorities frequently jammed cellular telephone signals along the Chinese border to block use of the Chinese network to make international telephone calls. Authorities arrested those caught using cell phones with Chinese SIM cards and required violators to pay a fine, bribe, or face charges of espionage or other crimes with harsh punishments, including lengthy prison terms. An HRNK October report entitled Eroding the Regimes Information Monopoly: Cell Phones in North Korea stated the number of both illegal Chinese-made cell phones and legally registered cell phones had risen sharply in recent years. Mobile networks were said to reach approximately 94 percent of the population, although only 18 percent of the population owned a cell phone. The Ministry of State Security and other organs of the state actively and pervasively surveilled citizens, maintained arresting power, and conducted special purpose nonmilitary investigations.

The government divided citizens into strict loyalty-based classes known as songbun, which determined access to employment, higher education, place of residence, medical facilities, certain stores, marriage prospects, and food rations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.

Freedom of Speech: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government. In June 2019 Australian citizen Alek Sigley was detained and deported after the government cited “antistate incitement” in articles Sigley published in international publications. In its September 2019 report entitled North Koreas Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial, the HRNK asserted that all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically may be punished, including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported that expression of political opinion differing from that of North Korean authorities, negative reference to the Kim family, and positive reference to South Korea constituted “misspeaking” and often resulted in extrajudicial detention in a kwanliso political prisoner camp.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government sought to control virtually all information; independent media do not exist. Domestic journalists had no freedom to investigate stories or report freely. The government tightly controlled print media, broadcast media, book publishing, and online media through the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Within the department, the Publication and Broadcasting Department controls all media content, including content used on television, in newspapers, and on the radio. The law allows for up to one-year sentences to a labor camp for individuals who access or disseminate unapproved broadcasts or content and up to five years for multiple offenses.

The government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists, and at times expelled or denied foreign journalists’ entry to the country. During visits by foreign leaders, authorities permitted groups of foreign journalists to accompany official delegations and file reports. In all cases the state strictly monitored journalists. Government officials generally prevented journalists from talking to officials or to persons on the street.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Strict enforcement of domestic media censorship continued, with no toleration for deviation from official messages. The government prohibited listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators were subjected to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, received only domestic programming; radios obtained from abroad were altered for the same end. Elite citizens and facilities for foreigners, such as hotels, had access to international television broadcasts via satellite. The government continued attempts to jam all foreign radio broadcasts, but the HRNK’s Digital Trenches: North Koreas Information Counter-Offensive noted a proliferation of foreign broadcasting transmitters had in recent years begun to overwhelm the jamming effort. Officials imprisoned and punished citizens for listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts and, in some cases, for simply owning radio or television sets able to receive nongovernment broadcasts.

National Security: Defector and NGO reports included accounts of individuals detained and punished, including by execution, for antistate crimes such as criticism of the government and Kim Jong Un.

Internet Freedom

Internet access was limited to high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including selected university students. In December 2019 the HRNK reported that the government maintained complete visibility of all network traffic. The Korea Computer Center, which acts as the government’s gatekeeper to the internet, granted access only to information it deemed acceptable, and employees constantly monitored users’ screens.

A tightly controlled and regulated intranet was reportedly available to a growing group of users centered in Pyongyang, including an elite primary school; selected research institutions, universities, and factories; and a few individuals. The NGO Reporters without Borders reported some email access existed through this internal network. Government employees sometimes had limited, closely monitored access to email accounts. The 3G cell phone network was described by the HRNK in an October report as antiquated and limiting users’ access to an internal intranet. The HRNK separately reported that the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that, among other things, log every webpage visited and randomly take undeletable screenshots.

The government continued its attempt to limit foreign influence on its citizens. Individuals accused of viewing or possessing foreign films were reportedly subjected to imprisonment and possibly execution. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, defectors reported varying penalties for consuming South Korean media ranging from three to 10 years in a correctional labor prison, as well as proclamations stating that those caught would be sentenced to death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the number of persons executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content increased in recent years, with additional reports of correctional labor punishment. In December 2019 the HRNK reported the government’s introduction of a file watermarking system on Android smartphones and on personal computers that adds a user- or device-specific data string to the end of the filename of any media file each time it is shared.

Based on defector interviews conducted in 2015, InterMedia estimated as many as 29 percent of defectors listened to foreign radio broadcasts while inside the country and that approximately 92 percent of defectors interviewed had seen foreign DVDs while in the country. The HRNK reported that younger individuals preferred foreign digital video content to foreign radio broadcasts.

The government maintained efforts to prevent the import of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas. According to media and NGO reports, police could search homes to enforce restrictions on foreign films. According to the HRNK, the government added a software-based censorship program known as the “signature system” to all domestic mobile telephones. This system makes it impossible to view foreign media on mobile phones. Mobile phones were randomly inspected physically for illegal media, and a history of all activity on the device was available for export upon inspection through monitoring software called TraceViewer. In October 2019 NW News reported that Kim Jong Un created a special police unit to restrict and control the flow of outside information into the country.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled artistic works. School curricula were highly controlled by the state. The government severely restricted academic travel. The primary function of plays, movies, operas, children’s performances, and books was to buttress the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and support of the regime.

The state carried out systematic indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations. Such indoctrination involved mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this provision and continued to prohibit public meetings not previously authorized and not under government control.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government failed to respect this provision. There were no known organizations other than those created by the government. Professional associations existed primarily to facilitate government monitoring and control over organization members.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for the “freedom to reside in or travel to any place”; however, the government did not respect this right.

In-country Movement: The government restricted freedom of movement for those lawfully within the state. Those who violated travel regulations were subject to warnings, fines, or forced labor. Only members of a very small elite class and those with access to remittances from overseas reportedly had access to personal vehicles. Security checkpoints on main roads at entry and exit points from every town hampered movement. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province as the use of bribery as a means to circumvent the law became more widespread. An increasing number of persons traveled without a permit, only to pay a bribe when caught.

The government strictly controlled permission to reside in, or even to enter, Pyongyang, where food availability, housing, health, and general living conditions were much better than in the rest of the country. Foreign officials visiting the country observed checkpoints on the highway leading into Pyongyang.

Due to fears regarding the spread of COVID-19, media and NGOs reported the government tightened in-country movement restrictions, making internal movement extremely difficult since March. NGOs, foreign diplomats, and UN agency personnel were not allowed to leave Pyongyang. This severely hampered foreign observers’ already extremely limited ability to monitor human rights and humanitarian aid conditions in the country.

Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government limited issuance of exit visas for foreign travel to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers. Short-term exit papers were available on a very limited basis for some residents to visit relatives, undertake short-term work opportunities, or to engage in small-scale trade.

The government did not allow emigration, and media and NGOs reported that due to fears of importing COVID-19, it continued to tighten security on the border, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China with and without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols and surveillance of residents of border areas and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes.

The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in a third country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases the state subjects asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, most repatriated defectors were detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyeong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyeongan Province.

Many would-be refugees who returned involuntarily from foreign states were imprisoned under harsh conditions. OHCHR reporting included the accounts of several forcibly repatriated escapees who said authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners or religious groups or who had spent time in South Korea, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.

Media reported in 2018 that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors to pressure them to return home. Defectors reported that family members in the country contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from government officials. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification website, the number of defectors leaving the country remained nearly the same from 2017 (188) to 2018 (168), rose slightly in 2019 (204), and fell to 39 as of March.

Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced only to a few months of forced labor or in some cases merely issued a warning) and persons who crossed repeatedly for “political” purposes (who were sometimes sentenced to harsher punishment), including those who had alleged contact with religious organizations based near the Chinese border. The law stipulates a sentence of up to two years of “labor correction” for illegally crossing the border.

Exile: The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens. In the past it forcibly resettled thousands of persons from Pyongyang to the countryside. Sometimes this occurred as punishment for offenses and included those judged to be politically unreliable based on their family’s songbun, or loyalty-based class.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government peacefully.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national elections to select representatives to the Supreme People’s Assembly occurred in March 2019. These elections were neither free nor fair. The government openly monitored voting, resulting in a reported 100 percent participation rate and 100 percent approval of the preselected government candidates. Local elections in 2015 were likewise neither free nor fair. The government reported a 99.97 percent turnout, with 100 percent approval for the government candidates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government has created several “minority parties.” Lacking grassroots organizations, the parties existed only as rosters of officials with token representation in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although the law affords women equal right to vote and hold political office, few women were elected or appointed to senior government positions. As of 2016 women constituted approximately 3.1 percent of members and 2.8 percent of candidate members of the Central Committee of the WPK and held few key WPK leadership positions. In August media reported the appointment of a woman, Pak Myong Sun, to the WPK Central Committee Political Bureau, the party’s highest-level body, and as director of a WPK Central Committee department. With her appointment, the country had only two women in the 31-member Political Bureau, the other being Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Among approximately 20 party departments and offices, only one was headed by a woman. The 2014 UNCOI report indicated only 10 percent of central government officials were women.

The country is racially and ethnically homogenous. There are officially no minorities.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Verifiable information was not available on whether criminal penalties for official corruption were actually applied. International organizations widely reported senior officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption was reportedly widespread in all parts of the economy and society and endemic in the security forces. A 2016 meeting chaired by Kim Jong Un marked the first public recognition of systemic abuse of power and reportedly addressed the practice of senior officials who sought privileges, misused authority, abused power, and manifested “bureaucratism” in the party. Defectors interviewed for the OHCHR 2019 report, The Price Is Rights, said workers paid off guidance officers at government factories so that they would not have to report to work and could engage in outside commercial activity.

Reports of diversion of food to the military and government officials were further indicators of corruption.

Multiple ministries and party offices were responsible for handling issues of corruption.

Financial Disclosure: Information was not publicly available on whether the state subjects public officials to financial disclosure laws and whether a government agency is responsible for combating corruption.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

There were no independent domestic organizations to monitor human rights conditions or comment on the status of such rights. The government reported many organizations, including the Democratic Lawyers’ Association, General Association of Trade Unions, Agricultural Workers Union, and Democratic Women’s Union, engaged in human rights activities, but observers could not verify the activities of these organizations.

The international NGO community and numerous international experts continued to testify to the grave human rights situation in the country. The government decried international statements regarding human rights abuses in the country as politically motivated interference in internal affairs. The government asserted criticism of its human rights record was an attempt by some countries to cover up their own abuses and that such hypocrisy undermined human rights principles.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government emphasized it had ratified a number of UN human rights instruments, but it continued to refuse to cooperate with UN representatives. The government prevented the UN special rapporteur from visiting the country to carry out his mandate, which it continued to refuse to recognize. In October the special rapporteur reported that COVID-19 preventative measures made it impossible for diplomats and international organizations to continue operating inside the country and lamented the resultant decline in the amount of first-hand knowledge available to the international community concerning the human rights situation in the country. He further stated that the number of escapees from the country who arrived in South Korea during the year declined significantly.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has not visited the country since 2017. The visit did not focus on allegations of human rights abuses, and the government continued to resist the special rapporteur’s mandate.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government’s Association for Human Rights Studies denied the existence of any human rights violations.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The government criminalized rape of women. Conviction of Rape is punishable by reform through labor for up to five years; if the assailant “commits a grave offense,” a term of more than 10 years; and if the rape was “particularly grave,” a life term or the death penalty. No information was available on how effectively the law was enforced. The 2014 UNCOI report found the subjugation of inmates and a general climate of impunity created an environment in which guards and other prisoners in privileged positions raped female inmates. This was reconfirmed in OHCHR reporting on women who attempted to flee the country, were forcibly repatriated, and finally escaped for good. The women testified they had been subjected to widespread, systemic sexual violence while detained after repatriation. The 2018 HRW report You Cry at Night but Dont Know Why reported endemic sexual and gender-based violence and detailed cases of sexual assault or coerced sexual acts by men in official positions of authority between 2011 and 2015. When cases of rape came to light, the perpetrator often escaped with mere dismissal or no punishment. For example, HRW reported a 2009 case in which a woman arrested for illegally fleeing the country was raped by a police chief. After she told her lawyer, the lawyer refused to mention it during her trial and said nothing would be done and the woman could be punished more severely for bringing it up. As noted in the KINU white paper for 2019, the law prohibits domestic violence, but the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that the government was not taking any protective or preventive measures against such violence. Defectors continued to report violence against women was a systematic problem both inside and outside the home. According to the KINU white paper, in a survey of defectors conducted from 2013 to 2017, more than 75 percent of respondents believed domestic violence was “common.” It also stated that spousal rape was not considered a crime.

Sexual Harassment: Despite the law defectors reported the populace generally accepted sexual harassment of women due to patriarchal traditions. They reported there was little recourse for women who had been harassed. Defectors also reported lack of enforcement and impunity enjoyed by government officials made sexual harassment so common as to be accepted as part of ordinary life. According to the 2019 KINU white paper, authorities repeatedly stated there was no sexual harassment issue in workplace, suggesting willful ignorance on the part of the government.

Reproductive Rights: Obtaining accurate information regarding reproductive rights was difficult, as data supplied by the government is impossible to verify and international presence in country is severely limited. Although the country’s 2002 report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women claimed couples and individuals made their own decisions on the spacing of children, independent sources were not able to substantiate this claim.

According to the 2014 Socio-demographic Health Survey, 92 percent of demand for family planning was reportedly satisfied, but contraceptive choice and access to counseling services were limited. According to the UN Fund for Population, the lack of essential medical supplies, equipment, and skills is the main barrier to quality reproductive health services. A 2020 white paper by the South Korean Institute of National Unification reported that, according to health personnel who worked in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, more than half of patients in North Korea sought abortion and the most common cause of maternal death during childbirth was excessive bleeding. There was no information on what sexual and reproductive health services, if any, the government provided to survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: NGOs and defectors reported state security officials subjected women to forced abortions for political purposes, to cover up human rights abuses and rape in particular, and to “protect” ethnic purity, and not population control. KINU’s white paper for 2019 stated that officials had in some cases prohibited live births in prison and ordered forced abortions as recently as 2013. According to a July OHCHR report on women detained who were forcibly returned, detainees were denied maternity protections mandated in legislation to protect women’s rights. Detainees reported being sent for forced abortions as recently as 2015 and that prison officials sought to force abortion through beatings and hard labor. Cases of infanticide were also reported.

Discrimination: The constitution states, “women hold equal social status and rights with men”; however, few women reached high levels of the party or the government, and defectors said gender equality was nonexistent. KINU reported discrimination against women emerged in the form of differentiated pay scales, promotions, and types of work assigned to women, in addition to responsibility for the double burden of labor and housework, especially considering the time and effort required to secure food.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one’s parents and, in some cases, birth within the country’s territory.

Education: The law provides for 12 years of free compulsory education for all children. Many NGO reports indicated that authorities denied some children educational opportunities and subjected them to punishment and disadvantages as a result of the songbun loyalty classification system and the principle of “collective retribution” for the transgressions of family members. NGO reports also noted some children were unable to attend school regularly because of hidden fees or insufficient food. NGOs reported that children in the total-control zones of political prisons did not receive the same curriculum or quality of education available to those outside the total-control zones.

Foreign visitors and academic sources reported that from the fifth grade, schools subjected children to several hours a week of mandatory military training and that all children received political indoctrination. In its 2019 report The Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Koreas Children, 1990-2018, the HRNK characterized the national curriculum as prioritizing political indoctrination and unswerving loyalty to the regime, while punishing those who deviate from the curriculum.

Medical Care: There was no verifiable information available on whether boys and girls had equal access to state-provided medical care. Access to health care largely depended on loyalty to the government. In a December 2019 report on broader health and well-being trends in the country, the NKDB, using publicly available data and interviews of defectors who arrived in the South Korea during the year, documented widespread inadequacies in medical care for children.

Child Abuse: Information regarding societal or familial abuse of children remained unavailable. The law states that a man convicted of having sexual intercourse with a girl younger than age 15 shall be “punished gravely.” There was no reporting on whether the government enforced this law.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Because many girls and young women attempted to flee repressive conditions, poverty, and food shortages for their own survival or the betterment of their families, 2019 international media reports and the 2014 UNCOI report noted they were often subjected to sexual exploitation by traffickers. Traffickers promised these young girls jobs in other parts of the country or in China but then exploited them in forced marriages or domestic servitude or made them work in prostitution after being smuggled out of the country. In its November 2019 publication Inescapable Violence: Child Abuse within North Korea, the Seoul-based NGO People for Successful Corean Unification documented endemic child abuse, including child sexual abuse, in schools, homes, camps, orphanages, and detention centers.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Displaced Children: According to NGO reports, there were numerous street children. The HRNK reported in 2019 that while not all were orphans, some were abandoned due to economic difficulties or escaped abusive family situations. Displaced children were forced to survive by begging and stealing at local markets or in front of train stations.

Institutionalized Children: Guards subjected children living in prison camps to torture if they or a family member violated the prison rules. Reports noted authorities subjected children to forced labor for up to 12 hours per day and did not allow them to leave the camps. Prisons offered them limited access to education.

Daily NK, a defector-run online newspaper operating in South Korea, reported children at boarding schools for orphans received inadequate nutrition and that staff stole food to pay school debts.

In addition to children in detention facilities, the number of children living in orphanages and other institutions drastically increased following the famines of the 1990s. In 2019 the HRNK reported that Kim Jong Un directed that 40 child-protection facilities, including orphanages, elementary academies, and middle academies, be modernized to accommodate these children. The HRNK’s interviews of those who had lived in these facilities reported substandard conditions, including lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter. As a result many were malnourished and in poor physical condition. While living in orphanages, children often received only one meal a day, leading them to compete and fight for food or run away from the orphanage to survive. Children living in orphanages were often subjected to forced labor instead of attending school. Several respondents explained how children were forced to perform “simple work” such as carrying stones rather than being cared for and protected in orphanages.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Although the government claims the law meets the international standards of rights for persons with disabilities, in a 2016 National Human Rights Commission of Korea survey, 89 percent of defectors said there was no consideration for persons with disabilities.

While the law mandates equal access to public services for persons with disabilities, the government did not provide consistent support for them. Traditional social norms condone discrimination against persons with disabilities, including in the workplace (also see section 7.d.). NGO reports, including KINU’s 2019 white paper, stated that while the government on balance treated veterans with disabilities well, escapees often described support for veterans with disabilities as inconsistent and only at a perfunctory level. The government reportedly provided no support to other persons with physical and mental disabilities. In some cases authorities sent persons with disabilities from Pyongyang to internal exile, quarantined them within camps, and forcibly sterilized them. Persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in accessing public life.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities visited the country for the first time in 2017 and noted most infrastructure, including newly constructed buildings, was not accessible to persons with physical disabilities.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child repeatedly expressed concern, most recently in 2017, regarding de facto discrimination against children with disabilities and insufficient measures taken by the state to ensure these children had effective access to health, education, and social services. KINU’s 2019 white paper evaluated the provision of special education to children with disabilities as poor.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There are no laws against consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults, but little information was available on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs expressed concern that decency and obscenity laws could be used legally to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014 the Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency, denied the existence of consensual same-sex sexual activity in the country. According to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights group Equaldex, no legal mechanisms exist for LGBTI individuals to protect against discrimination in housing and employment. Same-sex adoption is illegal. Equaldex characterized legal protections toward same-sex sexual activity, the right to change legal gender, and gay and lesbian persons serving openly in the military as ambiguous.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy ruled since January by Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al Said; Haitham was the designated successor of Qaboos Al Said, who had ruled since 1970. The sultan has sole authority to enact laws through royal decree, although ministries and the bicameral Majlis Oman (parliament) can draft laws on non-security-related matters, and citizens may provide input through their elected representatives. The Majlis Oman is composed of the Majlis al-Dawla (upper house or State Council), whose 85 members are appointed by the sultan, and the elected 86-member Majlis al-Shura (lower house or Consultative Council). In October 2019 nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Council; there were no notable claims of improper government interference.

The Royal Office, Royal Oman Police (ROP), Internal Security Service, and Ministry of Defense comprise the security apparatus. The Royal Office is responsible for matters of foreign intelligence and security. The ROP, which includes Civil Defense, Immigration, Customs, and the Coast Guard, performs regular police duties as well as many administrative functions more similar to a Ministry of Interior in other countries. An inspector general serves as the head of the ROP, which is a ministerial-level position that reports directly to the sultan. Formerly under the Royal Office, the Internal Security Service is now an independent body headed by an official with ministerial-level rank. The Internal Security Service investigates matters related to domestic security. Sultan Haitham appointed his brother as deputy prime minister for defense affairs, although the sultan remains the supreme commander of the armed forces. The sultan, as well as the senior civilian and military authorities who reported to him, maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; required exit permits for foreign workers; restrictions on political participation; and criminalization of consensual lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex conduct.

Authorities generally held security personnel and other government officials accountable for their actions. The government acted against corruption during the year, with cases proceeding through the court system.

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.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices. In May 2019 Amnesty International reported allegations that authorities physically abused defendants from the al-Shehhi tribe who criticized the government’s policies in the Musandam governorate in order to extract confessions, which resulted in life sentences for the six defendants. The government-funded Oman Human Rights Commission (OHRC) examined the allegations in this report and did not find any abusive treatment of the defendants, the commission concluded in September.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

While prison and detention center conditions generally met international standards, there were some allegations of abuse and life-threatening conditions.

Physical Conditions: In a March 2019 report, Amnesty International described the conditions in Samail Central Prison as “poor.” According to the report, the prison did not provide appropriate meals or prescribe medications to inmates with diabetes or other illnesses, and it supplied prisoners with one uniform per year. At least one diplomatic observer noted that prisoners’ difficulties in obtaining medications were generally due to misunderstandings or translation issues. The OHRC said that an OHRC delegation visited Samail Central Prison in 2019, met with male and female prisoners, and observed that sick prisoners had access to medical care and appropriate food.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, there were reports of infections among inmates in some of the country’s prisons. Following prison visits during the year, the OHRC reported that prison and detention center officials were working to protect inmates and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by isolating and monitoring new prisoners for 14 days in separate areas before transferring them to their cells, and educating inmates on health and virus-prevention best practices.

Administration: There was no established prison authority to which prisoners could bring grievances concerning prison conditions. The OHRC conducted prison and detention center site visits and reviewed written complaints in conjunction with prison administrators. There was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees; this responsibility falls under the public jurisdiction of the public prosecution, which maintained an office in Samail Central Prison. Prisoners and detainees did not always have regular access to visitors.

Independent Monitoring: The OHRC reported on human rights conditions to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC investigated claims of abuse, conducted prison and detention center site visits, and published a summary of its activities in an annual report. The law permits visits by international human rights observers, yet no such groups were based in the country, and there were no reports of independent, nongovernmental observers from abroad requesting to visit the country. Consular officers from some diplomatic missions reported difficulties in meeting with prisoners or delayed notification about detained citizens.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The government generally observed these requirements. Persons arrested or detained are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis of their detention.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law does not allow the ROP to arrest or detain a person “without an order to this effect from a concerned legal authority.” The law stipulates that police must either release the person or refer the matter to the public prosecution within 48 hours. For most crimes the public prosecution must then order the person’s “preventive detention” or release the person within 24 hours; preventive detention is warranted if “the incident is an offense or an act of misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment.” A preventive detention order shall not exceed 30 days, or 45 day in offenses involving public funds, narcotics, and psychoactive drugs. The law requires those arrested be informed immediately of the charges against them. The government generally observed these requirements. There was a functioning bail system. Detainees generally had prompt access to a lawyer of their choice. The state provided public attorneys to indigent detainees, as required by law. Authorities generally allowed detainees prompt access to family members. In cases involving foreign citizens, police sometimes failed to notify the detainee’s local sponsor or the citizen’s embassy.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The government generally observed these requirements.

The Internal Security Service arrested and detained Ghazi al-Awlaki, a political activist and Omani citizen, for his peaceful activities on social media, human rights observers reported in August. In September observers said that authorities had released al-Awlaki without charge after 50 days in detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the sultan may act as a court of final appeal and exercise his power of pardon as chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s highest legal body, which is empowered to review all judicial decisions. The country has civil courts though principles of sharia (Islamic law) inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes. The law allows women to serve as judges; none presently do. Civilian or military courts try all cases. There were no reports judicial officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys faced intimidation or engaged in corruption.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair trial and stipulates the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Citizens and legally resident noncitizens have the right to a public trial, except when the court decides to hold a session in private in the interest of public order or morals; the judiciary generally enforced this right. The government reserved the right to close sensitive cases to the public. The government did not uniformly provide language interpretation or document translation for non-Arabic speakers.

Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. The law provides defendants the right to be informed promptly of charges. There is no provision for adequate time for defense attorneys to prepare, but in practice most court dates provide ample time. The law states that an interpreter shall assist litigants and witnesses who do not know Arabic to submit their statements, but there is no provision for free interpretation. Courts provide public attorneys to indigent detainees and offer legal defense for defendants facing prison terms of three years or more. The prosecution and defense counsel direct questions to witnesses through the judge. Defendants have the right to be present, submit evidence, and confront witnesses at their trials. There is no known systemic use of forced confession or compulsion to self-incriminate during trial proceedings in the country. Those convicted in any court have one opportunity to appeal a jail sentence longer than three months and fines of more than 480 rials ($1,250) to the appellate courts. The judiciary enforced these rights for all citizens; some foreign embassies claimed these rights were not always uniformly enforced for noncitizens, particularly migrant workers.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The number of political prisoners was unknown. Political prisoners were afforded the same rights as other prisoners and could ask to speak with representatives from the OHRC or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Amnesty International reported in March 2019 that a court sentenced six members of the al-Shehhi tribe to life imprisonment in verdicts issued in 2018 for “infringement of the country’s independence or unity or the sanctity of its territory.” In a subsequent report in May 2019, Amnesty International described one of those convicted as a “prisoner of conscience” and noted that it had not been able to review the full list of charges against the other five individuals involved. According to the report, all six individuals had criticized the government’s policies in the Musandam governorate and claimed that the prosecution had portrayed them as plotters of a secessionist conspiracy. Four of the defendants were citizens and two were Emirati nationals. According to the OHRC, the defendants had the right to secure legal representation and communicate with their family members.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Civil laws govern civil cases. Citizens and foreign residents could file cases, including lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations, but no known filings occurred during the year.

The Administrative Court reviews complaints regarding the misuse of governmental authority. It has the power to reverse decisions by government bodies and to award compensation. Appointments to this court are subject to the approval of the Administrative Affairs Council. The court’s president and deputy president are appointed by royal decree based on the council’s nomination. Citizens and foreign workers may file complaints regarding working conditions with the Ministry of Labor for alternative dispute resolution. The ministry may refer cases to the courts if it is unable to negotiate a solution.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law does not allow public officials to enter a private home without first obtaining a warrant from the public prosecution. The government monitored private communications, including cell phone, email, and social media exchanges. The government blocked most voice over internet protocol (VoIP) sites, but in March the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) lifted its ban on platforms such as Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, and WebEx during what TRA called the “exceptional period” of COVID-19. Authorities blocked the import of certain publications, for example, pornography and religious texts, without the necessary permit. Shipping companies claimed customs officials sometimes confiscated these materials.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. In January 2018 the government issued a new penal code that generally increased maximum penalties for crimes related to “undermining the state.” International human rights organizations expressed concern that the penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.

Authorities reportedly used intimidation to discourage some activists from calling for reforms or writing about the country’s political situation following the death of Sultan Qaboos, a human rights organization said in January. According to the report, one activist living in exile said that he and members of his family in Oman received threats from Omani officials, who instructed his family to prevent him from posting anything on social media.

In July the sultan reportedly pardoned four exiled Omani political activists, social media and press sources said, although no official government channel released information regarding these pardons. Two of the reported pardon recipients returned to Oman and professed loyalty to the sultan in social media videos. Press reports alleged that the activists who returned also agreed to limit their social media engagement.

In April authorities postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 the trial of Musallam al-Ma’ashani, according to a human rights organization that reported on this matter. In November 2019 human rights organizations reported that authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani at the Sarfait border crossing upon his return from Yemen. These groups and social media users claimed authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar, which he intended to submit to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair. According to social media posts, authorities later released al-Ma’ashani in November on bail after approximately two weeks in detention.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.

Courts issued fines and prison sentences and ordered the confiscation of several individuals’ phones for disseminating rumors and messages violating public order, the Supreme Committee on COVID-19 announced in April.

Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.

Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products including books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. There was only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials. The government confiscated or prohibited more than 20 books during the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair, human rights organizations said in February.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment.

National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”

Internet Freedom

The law restricts free speech exercised via the internet, and the government enforced these restrictions. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message that “violates public order and morals” sent via any medium. The law details crimes that take place on the internet that “might prejudice public order or religious values” and specifies a penalty of between one month and a year in prison. Authorities could apply the law against bloggers and social media users who insult the sultan. Authorities placed individuals who abused social media in custody for up to two weeks and provided them with “advice and guidance,” the OHRC said in September.

In June police arrested and detained Awadh al-Sawafi, an activist and blogger, for social media posts in which he criticized the government for threatening citizens, according to human rights organizations. Reports said that a court issued al-Sawafi a suspended one-year prison sentence and banned him from using social media for one year.

In June a court of appeals sentenced a citizen to three years’ imprisonment, confiscated the defendant’s phone, and closed his Twitter account for “provoking and inciting hatred and division among the country’s population,” according to the Public Prosecution.

Human rights observers expressed concern that the country’s new Cyber Defense Center, established in June under the Internal Security Service, would further compromise internet freedom and freedom of expression.

Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most VoIP technologies, but in March the TRA lifted its ban on VoIPs such as Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, and WebEx during what the TRA called the “exceptional period” of COVID-19.

Social media users exercised self-censorship and shared warnings exhorting users to follow local laws and regulations.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Academics largely practiced self-censorship. Colleges and universities were required to have permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Higher Education before meeting with foreign diplomatic missions or accepting money for programs or speakers.

The government censored publicly shown films, primarily for sexual content and nudity, and placed restrictions on performances in public venues. The law also forbids dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Under the penal code, gatherings of 10 or more persons in a public place are unlawful if they “endangered the public security or order” or “influenced the function of authorities.”

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association for undefined “legitimate objectives and in a proper manner.” Examples of such associations include registered labor unions and social groups for foreign nationalities.

The government limited freedom of association by prohibiting associations whose activities it deemed “inimical to the social order” or otherwise inappropriate. Citizens joining groups deemed harmful to national interests could be subject to revocation of citizenship.

Associations must register with their corresponding ministries, which approve all associations’ bylaws and determine whether a group serves the interest of the country. The time required to register an association ranged from two months to two years. Approval time varied based on the level of preparedness of the applying organization, the subject matter of the organization, its leadership, and the organization’s mission. The law limits formal registration of nationality-based associations to one association for each nationality and restricts activities of such associations. The government sometimes denied permission for associations to form.

The penal code forbids associations from conducting any kind of fundraising without government approval, including for charitable causes. Individuals convicted of accepting unlawful funding for an association may receive up to one year in jail. Foreign diplomatic missions are required to request meetings with nongovernmental associations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by diplomatic note. Associations may not meet with foreign diplomatic missions and foreign organizations without prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government enforced this law, and all foreign-funded educational and public diplomacy programs required prior government review.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although this right is not codified.

In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic employees had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice.

Employers have a great amount of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers generally cannot work for a new employer in the country within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans. In May, however, the ROP issued a decision that as of January 1, 2021, expatriates would no longer require a “no-objection certificate” to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts.

Foreign Travel: Foreign workers must obtain exit permits from their employer to leave the country legally. Exit permits may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. In theory courts provided recourse to workers denied exit permits, but the process was opaque with domestic workers consistently alleging that existing dispute resolution mechanisms were inadequate to protect them.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. The sultan retains ultimate authority on all foreign and domestic issues. With the exception of the military and other security forces, all citizens who have reached 21 years of age have the right to vote for candidates for the Majlis al-Shura and the provincial councils.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In October 2019 nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Council, or lower house of parliament. Electoral commissions reviewed potential candidates against a set of objective educational and character criteria (at least a high school education and no criminal history or mental illness) before they allowed candidates’ names on the ballot. The Ministry of Interior administered and closely monitored campaign materials and events. There were no notable or widespread allegations of fraud or improper government interference in the voting process. The government did not allow independent monitoring of the elections, but it invited some international journalists to the country to report on election day events. The OHRC said it was a member of the Main Elections Committee and a key partner in overseeing the electoral process.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in May the sultan postponed quadrennial municipal council elections, last held in 2016. The government did not set a date for when these elections would take place.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not allow political parties, and citizens did not attempt to form them.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. During the Majlis al-Shura elections in October 2019, voters elected two women as representatives. The sultan appointed 15 women to the Majlis al-Dawla in November 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. The Financial and Administrative State Audit Institution (FASAI) submitted an annual report to the sultan and the Majlis Oman. The Majlis al-Shura had the authority to summon and question ministers.

Corruption: There were reports of government corruption, including in the police, ministries, and state-owned companies. Political and social favoritism were widespread in public and private institutions.

Authorities detained a local broadcaster for his social media activity regarding possible corruption in the country, releasing him one day later, human rights observers reported in March. Authorities reportedly also arrested four other citizens who reposted the tweet, including a former member of the Majlis al-Shura.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. When selected for disclosure, officials are required to list their finances, business interests, and property, as well as that of their spouses and children. These records are made public, and there are fines associated with noncompliance. The FASAI monitors this process.

In July the state investment authority removed ministers and undersecretaries from the boards of directors of state-owned companies.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

No independent, officially sanctioned, domestic human rights organizations existed in the country. There were civil society groups that advocated for persons protected under human rights conventions, particularly women and persons with disabilities. These groups were required to register with the Ministry of Social Development.

The law permits domestic and international actors to request permission to engage in human rights work, but none did because they believed the government was not likely to grant permission.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The OHRC, a government-funded commission made up of members from the public, private, and academic sectors, reported on human rights to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC also published an annual report summarizing the types of complaints it received and how it handled those complaints.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. The law does not criminalize spousal rape explicitly, but it does criminalize all “sex without consent.” The government generally enforced the law when individuals reported cases. Foreign nationals working as domestic employees occasionally reported that their sponsors had sexually assaulted them. According to diplomatic observers, police investigations resulted in few rape convictions.

The law does not specifically address domestic violence, and judicial protection orders prohibiting domestic violence do not exist. Charges could be brought, however, under existing statutes outlawing assault, battery, and aggravated assault, which can carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Allegations of spousal abuse in civil courts handling family law cases reportedly were common. Victims of domestic violence may file a complaint with police, and reports suggested that police responded promptly and professionally. The government operated a hotline for reporting incidents of domestic violence and a shelter for victims.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits health practitioners from conducting “traditional practices” that are harmful to a child’s health, and the 2019 Executive Regulations for the Child Law introduced “disfiguring female genital organs” as one of these harmful practices. There are no national statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, it has been prosecuted using statutes prohibiting offensive language and behavior.

Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the right of married couples to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Married couples have access to family planning and information, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Health clinics disseminated information on family planning under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. Some forms of birth control, including condoms, were available at pharmacies and supermarkets, although doctor-prescribed birth control medication was generally not available for unmarried women. The government provided free childbirth services to citizens within the framework of universal health care. Prenatal and postnatal care was readily available and used. While survivors of sexual violence could seek medical treatment at public healthcare facilities, the government did not provide dedicated sexual and reproductive health services to victims.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law prohibits gender-based discrimination against citizens, but the government did not appear to enforce the law effectively. Local interpretations of Islamic law and practice of cultural traditions in social and legal institutions discriminated against women. In some personal status cases, such as divorce, a woman’s testimony is equal to half that of a man. The law favors male heirs in adjudicating inheritance.

The Ministry of Interior requires both male and female citizens to obtain permission to marry foreigners, except nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council countries, whom citizens may marry without restriction; authorities do not automatically grant permission, which is particularly difficult for Omani women to obtain. Citizen marriage to a foreigner abroad without ministry approval may result in denial of entry for the foreign spouse at the border and preclude children from claiming citizenship and residency rights. It also may result in a bar from government employment.

Despite legal protections for women from forced marriage, deeply embedded tribal practices ultimately compel most citizen women towards or away from a choice of spouse.

The law provides for transmission of citizenship at birth if the father is a citizen, if the mother is a citizen and the father is unknown, or if a child of unknown parents is found in the country. Women married to noncitizens may not transmit citizenship to their children and cannot sponsor their noncitizen husband’s or children’s presence in the country. Children from a marriage between an Omani woman and a non-Omani man are not eligible for citizenship and are at risk of statelessness.

The law provides that an adult may become a citizen by applying for citizenship and subsequently residing legally in the country for 20 years or 10 years if married to a male citizen.

Government policy provided women with equal opportunities for education, and this policy effectively eliminated the gender gap in educational attainment. Although some educated women held positions of authority in government, business, and media, many women faced job discrimination based on cultural norms. The law entitles women to paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The government, the largest employer of women, observed such regulations, as did many private sector employers.

The Ministry of Social Development is the umbrella organization for women’s issues. The ministry provided support for women’s economic development through the Oman Women’s Association and local community development centers.

Authorities suspended a women’s rights Twitter account, a women’s rights advocate said in an anonymous Twitter post in February. A human rights organization said that the Internal Security Service was responsible for the suspension because account commentators were calling for more freedom for female university students.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from the father. Women married to noncitizens may not transmit citizenship to their children, and there were a few reported cases of stateless children based on this law. Children of unknown parents are automatically eligible for citizenship. Government employees raised abandoned children in an orphanage. Such children receive free education through the university level and a job following graduation. Citizen marriage to a foreigner abroad without ministry approval may preclude children from claiming citizenship rights.

Child Abuse: According to the law, any concerned citizen must report child abuse, and each governorate had an interagency committee that would meet to discuss the allegations and possibly take the child out of the parent’s custody until the allegations were investigated. The government operated a child abuse hotline, which reported 707 calls in 2019. The government reported that the main complaint was negligence, followed by physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The age of legal marriage for men and women is 18, although a judge may permit a person to marry younger when the judge or family deemed the marriage was in the minor’s interest. Child marriage occurred in rural communities as a traditional practice.

In August reports of marriages of some minor girls and births among juvenile mothers as young as 15 prompted a local Arabic press outlet to publish an article clarifying that Islam and civil law prohibit marriage under 18 years of age, except in special cases that a judge permits.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography are punishable by no fewer than five years’ imprisonment. The penal code stipulates a punishment of life imprisonment for rape of a child younger than 15 years. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. All sex outside of marriage is illegal, but sex with a minor younger than 15 carries a heavier penalty (up to 15 years’ imprisonment). Authorities do not charge minors. There were no known reports of child prostitution; soliciting a child for prostitution is prohibited.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was no indigenous Jewish population. One Arabic-language newspaper featured at least one cartoon critical of the Israeli government in which a man wearing the Star of David represented the state of Israel.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law provides persons with disabilities the same rights as other citizens in employment, education, access to health care, and the provision of other state services. Persons with disabilities, however, continued to face discrimination. The law mandates access to public transportation and buildings for persons with disabilities, but many older buildings, including government buildings and schools, did not conform to the law.

The government provided alternative education opportunities for citizen children with disabilities, including overseas schooling when appropriate.

Additionally, the Ministry of Education collaborated with the International Council for Educational Reform and Development to operate a curriculum for students with intellectual disabilities within the standard school system. The ministers of education and of health crafted a broad-based, prioritized strategy for various ministries to coordinate the issue of child autism in the country, including early autism diagnosis and intervention. The Ministry of Education also coordinated with UNICEF to improve its alternative education systems.

The Ministry of Social Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Directorate General of Disabled Affairs within the Ministry of Social Development creates and implements programs for persons with disabilities in coordination with relevant authorities. The directorate was authorized further to supervise all of the ministry’s rehabilitation and treatment centers for persons with disabilities.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct with a jail term of six months to three years, but it requires a spouse or guardian complaint to initiate prosecution. The government did not actively enforce this law.

The penal code identifies “crossdressing” (defined as males dressing in female clothing) as a criminal act punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment.

Public discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity remained a social taboo. There were no known lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations active in the country; however, regional human rights organizations focused on the human rights of LGBTI citizens. Authorities took steps to block LGBTI-related internet content.

Information was not available on official or private discrimination in employment, occupation, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There were no government efforts to address discrimination.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Foreigners seeking residency in the country are tested for HIV/AIDS. If tested positive, the residency permission is denied, and foreigners must leave the country, but there were no known occurrences of this.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud). In 2015 the country held its most recent municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats in the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers did not identify significant irregularities with the elections.

The State Security Presidency, National Guard, and Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The State Security Presidency includes the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of Yemeni government institutions and facilities. Houthi militants conducted missile, rocket, drone, and artillery attacks aimed at Saudi territory on an almost weekly basis. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. In June the UN secretary-general noted a “sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. The Joint Incident Assessment Team, an independent investigative body, reviewed allegations of civilian casualties against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and referred incidents for potential action. (See the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).

During the year a royal decree abolished discretionary (tazir) death penalty sentences for crimes committed by minors, although the death penalty can still be applied to minors in instances specified by Islamic law (including for murder when the victim’s family seeks the death penalty). The decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years. The Supreme Court instructed courts to end flogging as a discretionary sentence and replace it with prison sentences or fines, which could eliminate flogging in most cases. Authorities continued to expand women’s rights, including a court ruling that a woman living independently did not constitute a criminal act and the Ministry of Education’s decision to drop the requirement that women studying abroad on a government scholarship be accompanied by a male guardian.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and engaging in harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; violence and discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, including prohibition of trade unions and collective bargaining.

In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. In September the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. All five defendants previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison, following a pardon from the Khashoggi family. Three others had their prison sentences upheld. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions called the verdicts a “parody of justice” and stated high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”

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 (tazir) 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.)

b. Disappearance

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.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

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

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 Maakom, 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.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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).

Detainees 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.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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.

Trial Procedures

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.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

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.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

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.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

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.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. Media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.

The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.

Freedom of Speech: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.

The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. On February 27, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and review convictions of activists, religious leaders, and journalists.

ALQST reported that authorities arrested Hezam al-Ahmari on February 10 for filming and publishing a video complaining about the opening of a nightclub in his neighborhood in Jeddah. It said he was charged with “inciting public opinion,” under Article 6 of the cybercrimes law.

In March the PPO stated it ordered the arrest of “three people who exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.” The arrestees, including Quran reciter Khaled al-Shahri, preacher Ibrahim al-Duwaish, and health worker Khaled Abdullah, tweeted or appeared in a video claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from Allah (God),” according to Prisoners of Conscience.

On April 8, the PPO announced that the dissemination of misinformation related to COVID-19 would be punishable under the cybercrimes law, adding that the PPO’s Social Media Monitoring Unit would track offensive and illegal social media content and report violations to authorities. Several persons were reportedly arrested and charged for “rumor mongering” and “disrupting order” for comments related to COVID-19. The PPO stated it ordered “the arrest of a person who appeared in a video mocking the COVID-19 crisis and giving misleading information about the current situation.”

On April 1, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested a number of social media personalities, including Rakan al-Assiri, Mohammed al-Fawzan, Majed al-Ghamdi, and Mohammed al-Jedaie, over old tweets and videos expressing personal views, while Ministry of Interior spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Talal al-Shalhoub stated they were arrested for breaking COVID-19 curfew restrictions.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.

Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. A 2011 royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

The law states that violators can face substantial fines for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.

Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Some privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). NGOs, academics, and the press claimed the government targeted dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances.

On July 19, writer and journalist Saleh al-Shehi died in the hospital two months after his early release from prison due to poor health. Al-Shehi had served more than two years of a five-year sentence for insulting, defaming, and offending the royal court and its staff after accusing the royal court of corruption. Local media reported COVID-19 as the cause of death. According to the GCHR, his health deteriorated while in prison. Reporters without Borders, the GCHR, and ALQST called for an independent international inquiry into al-Shehi’s death.

On July 21, ALQST reported that in late April authorities arrested journalist Aql al-Bahili, writer Abdulaziz al-Dukhail, and activist Sultan al-Ajmi, among other journalists and intellectuals, for tweeting condolences following the death of reformer and rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid (see section 1.a.).

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material.

All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.

The government censored published online and print material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, offensive, or inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order, as well as criticism of the royal family or its allies among the Gulf Arab states.

On April 6, local media reported that the governor of Asir Province, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ordered the suspension of two episodes of a drama series deemed offensive to the population of Asir.

Online self-censorship was pervasive, as social media users were extremely cautious about what they post, share, or “like” due to the threat of harassment or prosecution under broadly worded antiterrorism and other laws. The government closely monitored and often targeted users who expressed support for liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reform, in addition to those who exposed human rights violations. Questioning religious doctrine was strictly taboo, particularly content related to the Prophet Muhammed. Twitter users were fearful of expressing support for outspoken activists who were detained or received prison sentences. Such pressures reportedly led many users to join social media networks that offer more privacy, such as Snapchat and Path.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions.

Libel/Slander Laws: The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.

National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.

Internet Freedom

The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.

The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order.

Multiple rights groups reported that at least six individuals who had anonymous Twitter accounts critical of the government were arrested subsequent to a breach of Twitter user data.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers (ISPs). The government required ISPs to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.

On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through private channels, including official complaint processes.

The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.

The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including sexual content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.

The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by ISPs to block banned sites can result in a substantial fine.

Several voice-over-internet-protocol call services, including WhatsApp, remained blocked and only accessible using a virtual private network.

Authorities blocked websites of some news and advocacy groups deemed critical of the government, including London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the global advocacy organization Avaaz. Authorities also blocked the website of the Islamic Umma Party, which operated underground because political parties are illegal (see section 3).

The government blocked Qatari websites, such as al-Jazeera, since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia. In April the government blocked access to the websites of the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency and the Turkish public broadcaster TRT’s Arabic edition. Writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

On April 14, local media reported that Umm al-Qura University suspended a staff member and a student following their circulation of “deviant ideologies” on Twitter.

In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Entertainment Authority and the General Authority for Culture with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the General Entertainment Authority sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance; however, programs were scaled down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

On February 20, Mecca regional authorities tweeted that the governor had ordered the arrest of female rapper Ayasel al-Bishi, calling the music video of her song “Bint Mecca” (Girl from Mecca) offensive to the customs and traditions of the holy city. Al-Bishi’s Twitter account was suspended, and the video was removed from YouTube. Local media reported that the PPO questioned al-Bishi over filming without a permit and then released her.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces at times allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country.

In May security authorities arrested Egyptian national Hossam Magdy after he allegedly threatened to protest in front of his country’s embassy to demand a seat on a repatriation flight.

Freedom of Association

The law provided for limited freedom of association, but the government strictly restricted this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations. The government also harassed and detained Saudi-based family members and associates of Saudi citizens living abroad who were outspoken critics of the government (see sections 1.b., Disappearances and 1.f., Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence, for more details).

In September, Abdullah al-Maliki, an Islamic intellectual who defended the banned association ACPRA, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system no longer requires a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). On July 14, a court ruled in favor of a woman, whose trial lasted three years, after being charged with absenteeism, or taghayyub, under a law that allows guardians to report the unapproved absence of anyone under their guardianship. The court ruled that living independently did not constitute a criminal act subject to “discretionary” punishment (see section 6, Women).

Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card.

Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. Royal Decree 134/M of August 2019 stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission.

The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes.

The Washington Post alleged the government increased the use of travel bans as part of a broader effort to suppress dissent within the royal family and business elite. Media estimated that thousands of Saudis were placed under travel restrictions, including relatives of citizens detained in the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists. The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging. Fitaihi was sentenced December 8 to six years in prison; as of year’s end he was out of prison pending appeal.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage; it establishes an absolute monarchy led by the Al Saud family as the political system. The Allegiance Council, composed of up to 34 senior princes appointed by the king, is formally responsible for selecting a king and crown prince upon the death or incapacitation of either. Only select members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system.

The law provides citizens the right to communicate with public authorities on any matter and establishes the government on the principle of consultation (Shoura). The king and senior officials, including ministers and regional governors, are required to be available through majlis, open-door meetings where in theory any male citizen or noncitizen may express an opinion or a grievance without an appointment.

Most government ministries and agencies had women’s sections to interact with female citizens and noncitizens, and at least two regional governorates hired female employees to receive women’s petitions and arrange meetings for women with complaints for, or requests of, the governor.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2015 elections were held for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats on 284 municipal councils; the government appointed the remaining third. Council members serve until an intervening election–nominally for four-year terms–but there was no active discussion of holding municipal elections during the year. Women were allowed to vote and run as candidates for the first time in 2015. The voting age was also lowered universally to 18. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs actively encouraged women’s participation in the municipal elections. Election regulations prohibited candidates from contesting under party affiliation. Twenty-one women won seats and 17 were appointed to seats, totaling approximately 1 percent of all available seats.

The NSHR observed the elections, and select international journalists were also permitted to observe. Independent polling station observers identified no irregularities with the election. Prior to the election, several candidates reported they were disqualified for “violating the rules and regulations” without further explanation. They had the right to appeal, and some were reinstated in time for the elections. Uniformed members of the security forces, including the military and police, were ineligible to vote.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were no political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups. The government continued to regard human rights organizations, such as ACPRA, as illegal political movements and treated them accordingly.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The government changed laws and regulations to open new social and economic opportunities for women, but societal and institutional gender discrimination continued to exclude women from some aspects of public life. Political participation remained restricted, and authorities arrested and abused women’s rights activists perceived as critical or independent of the government. Nevertheless, women served in senior advisory positions within government ministries.

In October a royal decree appointed academic Hanan al-Ahmadi to serve as deputy speaker of the Shoura Council, making her the third-ranking official in the Shoura Council and the first woman in that leadership role. Thirty women were members of the Shoura, or Consultative Council, the 150-person royally appointed body that advises the king and may propose but not pass laws.

On January 28, Shorooq bint Mohammed al-Jadaan was appointed as the first woman to assume a leadership position at the country’s Alimony Fund. On February 24, the Saudi Sports for All Federation announced the creation of a female soccer league. On June 7, HRC president Awad Alawad appointed Norah bint Mohammed al-Haqbani as the first spokeswoman for the HRC. On July 3, King Salman issued a royal decree appointing 13 women as members of the HRC’s council, giving them half of the 26 seats.

On August 10, the governor of Tabuk Region, Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, appointed Khulood Mohammed al-Khamis as the secretary general of Tabuk’s regional council, making her the first woman to hold the role in the kingdom. On August 15, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques appointed 10 female officials to leadership positions for the first time, naming Munira bint Awad al-Jamihi to head the General Directorate for Women’s Affairs.

No laws prevent male citizens from minority groups from participating in political life on the same basis as other male citizens. Societal discrimination, however, marginalized the Shia Saudi population, and tribal factors and longstanding traditions continued to dictate many individual appointments to positions. Unofficially, government authorities will not appoint a Bedouin tribesman to a high-ranking ministerial-level position, and Bedouins can reach only the rank of major general in the armed forces. All Council of Ministers members from tribal communities were members of urbanized “Hamael” tribes, rather than Bedouin tribes. While the religious affiliation of Shoura Council members was not known publicly, the council included an estimated seven or eight Shia members. The Council of Ministers contained one religious minority member, Mohammad bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who had held the position of minister of state for Shoura affairs since 2014. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis resided, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption. Some officials engaged in corrupt practices, and perceptions of corruption persisted in some sectors. Government employees who accepted bribes faced 10 years in prison or substantial fines.

The Supreme Anticorruption Committee, the National Anticorruption Commission (Nazaha), the PPO, and the Control and Investigation Board are units of the government with authority to investigate reports of criminal activity, corruption, and “disciplinary cases” involving government employees. These bodies are responsible for investigating potential cases and referring them to the administrative courts. Nazaha’s ministerial-level director reported directly to the king.

Legal authorities for investigation and public prosecution of criminal offenses are consolidated within the PPO; the Control and Investigation Board is responsible for investigation and prosecution of noncriminal cases. Financial audit and control functions are vested in the General Auditing Board. The HRC also responded to and researched complaints of corruption.

In December 2019 King Salman issued three royal decrees consolidating anticorruption responsibilities under a single entity, the new Control and Anticorruption Commission. The decrees consolidate the Control and Investigation Board, Mabahith’s Administrative Investigations Directorate (within the General Investigation Directorate) and Nazaha into the new commission, led by Mazen bin Ibrahim al-Khamous. The consolidated agency is intended to have criminal investigation and prosecutorial authorities that its predecessors lacked. As with Nazaha, the new Control and Anticorruption Commission reports directly to the king. Local press reported in November that the new Control and Anticorruption Commission had launched more than 150 criminal investigations. On July 27, a royal decree approved a Council of Ministers decision that brought the General Auditing Bureau, the country’s oldest audit institution, under the authority of the king.

Provincial governors and other members of the royal family paid compensation to victims of corruption during weekly majlis meetings where citizens raised complaints.

Corruption: Nazaha continued operations and referred cases of possible public corruption to the PPO. On February 12, Nazaha announced it would refer to court the cases of 386 persons accused of financial and administrative corruption. On March 15, Nazaha announced it had criminally investigated 674 state employees and ordered the detention of 298, including eight military officers and two judges, for “financial and administrative corruption, consisting of bribery crimes, embezzlement and waste of public money, misuse of employment powers, and administrative misuse” involving a total of 379 million riyals ($101 million). On May 4, Nazaha stated a court sentenced 14 individuals, including several court employees, to 22 years and 10 months in prison and substantial fines for abuse of power and bribery.

On July 6, Nazaha announced it initiated 105 cases in crimes such as bribery and abuse of power. On August 11, Nazaha stated it had initiated 218 corruption cases involving a current Shoura member, a judge, and a number of security officers, among others, for fraud, bribery, and financial and professional corruption. On August 21, a royal decree fired a number of officials on suspicion of corruption. On August 31, King Salman dismissed high-ranking officials, including the commander of the Joint Forces, Prince Fahd Bin Turki Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and deputy emir of al-Jouf region, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Fahd Bin Turki Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, over corruption charges.

In February 2019, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab announced the launch of the Financial Reports Office, part of the General Auditing Bureau. Al-Mu’jab noted the office would monitor state spending and help sustain the fight against corruption after the end of the anticorruption campaign in January 2019.

Human rights organizations criticized the government for using anticorruption campaigns as a pretext to target perceived political opponents and for arbitrarily detaining and abusing individuals targeted in the crackdown (see sections 1.c. and 1.d., Pretrial Detention). On March 17, HRW voiced concern over the arrest of 298 government employees on suspicion of corruption, warning of possible “unfair legal proceedings” in the judicial system.

Financial Disclosure: The government had a uniform schedule of financial disclosure requirements for public officials. These disclosures were not made public.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The law provides that “the State shall protect human rights in accordance with Islamic sharia.” The government restricted the activities of domestic and international human rights organizations. The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to be based in the country and restricted their access to the country for visits. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported the government was at times unresponsive to requests for information and did not establish a clear mechanism for communication with NGOs on both domestic human rights issues and issues relating to the conflict in Yemen. There were no transparent standards governing visits by international NGO representatives.

The government often cooperated with and sometimes accepted the recommendations of the NSHR, the sole government-licensed domestic human rights organization. The NSHR accepted requests for assistance and complaints about government actions affecting human rights.

The government blocked websites of unlicensed local human rights groups and charged their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. The HRC is part of the government and requires the permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before meeting with diplomats, academics, or researchers with international human rights organizations. The HRC president has ministerial status and reports to the king. The HRC worked directly with the Royal Court and the Council of Ministers, with a committee composed of representatives of the Shoura Council and the Ministries of Labor and Social Development and Interior, and with the Shoura Council committees for the judiciary, Islamic affairs, and human rights.

During the year the HRC and NSHR were more outspoken in areas deemed less politically sensitive, including child abuse, child marriage, and trafficking in persons. While they avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists that would require directly confronting government authorities, they did inquire into complaints of mistreatment by some high-profile political prisoners, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Raif Badawi. The HRC board’s 18 full-time members included nine women, making up half of the board members for the first time, and at least three Shia members; they received and responded to complaints submitted by their constituencies, including problems related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights. The Shoura Council’s Human Rights Committee also actively followed cases and included women and Shia among its members; a woman served as chairperson of the committee.

The HRC and NSHR maintained records of complaints and outcomes, but privacy laws protect information about individual cases, and information was not publicly available. On August 12, the HRC said it monitored 243 human rights-related cases in 2019. On September 8, local media reported the HRC received 4,211 complaints in 2019. The NSHR stated it received 3,739 complaints in 2019. Topics of complaints included labor, abuse, citizenship, social welfare, health, and education.

The Board of Grievances, a high-level administrative judicial body that hears cases against government entities and reports directly to the king, is the primary mechanism to seek redress for claims of abuse. During the year the Board of Grievances held hearings and adjudicated claims of wrongdoing, but there were no reported prosecutions of security force members for human rights violations. Military and security courts investigated an unknown number of abuses of authority and security force killings. Citizens may report abuses by security forces at any police station or to the HRC or NSHR. The HRC, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, provided materials and training to police, other security forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the CPVPV on protecting human rights.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia law with a wide range of penalties, from flogging to execution. The law does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. The government enforced the law based on its interpretation of sharia, and, in some cases, courts punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal “mixing of genders,” even when there was no conviction for rape. Victims also had to prove that the rape was committed, and a woman’s testimony in court was not always accepted.

Due to these legal and social obstacles, authorities brought few cases to trial. Statistics on incidents of, and prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for rape were not available. Most rape cases were likely unreported because victims faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanctions up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia.

The law against domestic violence defines domestic abuse broadly and criminalizes domestic abuse with penalties of one month to one year of imprisonment or a fine, unless a court provides a harsher sentence.

Researchers stated it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of domestic abuse, which they believed to be widespread. Recent studies varied widely, finding the rate of domestic abuse to be anywhere between 15 to 60 percent. The National Family Safety Program, a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, is charged with spreading awareness of and combatting domestic violence, including child abuse, and continued to report abuse cases.

Officials stated the government did not clearly define domestic violence and procedures concerning cases, including thresholds for investigation or prosecution, and thus enforcement varied from one government body to another. Some women’s rights advocates were critical of investigations of domestic violence, claiming investigators were hesitant to enter a home without permission from the male head of household, who may also be the perpetrator of violence. Activists reported the situation had improved in recent years, with greater awareness of resources for domestic violence victims, such as the domestic violence hotline managed by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. They also noted, in the previous two years, increased willingness from authorities to investigate and prosecute domestic violence perpetrators, but they expressed concern that some police departments continued to neglect domestic violence cases.

On May 4, a Riyadh police spokesperson stated security authorities arrested and referred to the PPO a man for allegedly abusing his two sisters, adding that all legal measures were taken against him.

On June 19, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab ordered the arrest of a man for physically abusing his wife and locking her up along with their three children in al-Baha Province.

The government made efforts to combat domestic violence. On March 14, the HRC branch in the Northern Borders Province held a workshop on domestic violence that included participants from government ministries as well as from civil society organizations. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters. Women reported that remaining in the shelters was not always voluntary.

Women reported that domestic abuse in the form of incest was common but seldom reported to authorities due to fears over societal repercussions, according to local sources.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice; however, some studies indicated up to 18 percent of women reported having undergone some type of FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: The extent of sexual harassment was difficult to measure, with little media reporting and no official government data. No statistics were available on the incidence of sexual harassment due to past reluctance to report violations.

The 2018 sexual harassment law, passed by the Council of Ministers, carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a substantial fine. On August 30, the HRC explained that a legal punishment against sexual harassment is irreversible, even if the victim renounced his or her own rights or did not file a legal complaint.

In May 2019 the PPO issued a statement on its Twitter page explaining the legal definition of harassment, noting that the law provides for penalties of up to two years in prison and substantial fines. Local media reported a number of incidents of harassment during the year. On February 29, the PPO ordered the arrest of a number of individuals who appeared in a video harassing girls outside a mall in Jeddah and filed a criminal lawsuit against the individuals.

Reproductive Rights: Married couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, and to have access to the information and means to do so is generally free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Premarital sex is illegal under Sharia law, however, and hospitals and health centers may report extramarital pregnancies to police. Sterilization for health reasons was allowed and required spousal consent and a hospital committee’s approval. Sterilization is not a common procedure in the country, and young, healthy women reportedly had a harder time receiving approval for the procedure than older women with health problems.

Although no legal barriers prevent access to contraception, lack of awareness, cultural and religious beliefs, and social pressure for large families likely affected many women, especially those in rural areas.

Almost all women had access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth; however, some women in rural areas had to travel to the closest medical facility to receive treatment, while others in rural communities received health services from Ministry of Health-sponsored mobile health clinics.

Government and quasi-government agencies provided social, medical, and psychological care to survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women continued to face discrimination under law and custom. Regulations issued in 2019 and during the year, however, granted women many of the same rights enjoyed by men pertaining to travel abroad, civil status, and employment.

In August 2019 most restrictions under the guardianship system, which had required women to have permission from close male relatives to conduct certain actions, were eliminated. There were reports, however, that government and nongovernment entities, primarily in rural areas, continued to require women to obtain guardian permission prior to providing services.

Amendments to the Civil Status Regulation, which entered into effect in September 2019, grant women older than 18 the right to perform several actions pertaining to civil status that were previously limited to men. These include registering the birth of a child; registering the death of a spouse or close relative; registering a marriage or divorce (whether initiated by the husband or wife); and being designated “head of household,” thereby allowing women to serve as the guardian of their minor children. Women can also obtain from the Civil Status Administration a “family registry,” which is official documentation of a family’s vital records that verifies the relationship between parents and children. This reform allows mothers to perform administrative transactions for their children, such as registering them for school or obtaining services at a hospital.

On July 14, a court ruled in favor of Maryam al-Otaibi after her family filed a complaint that she was living and traveling in Riyadh. She was charged with absenteeism, or taghayyub, under a law that allows guardians to report unauthorized absence of anyone under their guardianship, which could lead to the arrest, detention, or forcible return of the individual. The court ruled that living independently did not constitute a criminal act subject to discretionary punishment, adding that al-Otaibi was “a sane adult who has the right to decide where she wants to live,” according to court documents.

Women may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their guardian. They can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. In 2018 the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced women no longer need their male guardian’s permission to start a business. Women still require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.

The law prohibits women from directly transmitting citizenship to their children, particularly if the children’s father is a noncitizen (see section 2.d. and section 6, Children). The country’s interpretation of sharia prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, but Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women. Women require government permission to marry noncitizens; men must obtain government permission if they intend to marry citizens from countries other than Gulf Cooperation Council-member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Regulations prohibit men from marrying women from Bangladesh, Burma, Chad, and Pakistan. The government additionally requires Saudi men wishing to marry a second wife who is a foreigner to submit documentation attesting to the fact that his first wife was disabled, had a chronic disease, or was sterile.

Societal pressures restricted women from using some public facilities. Some but not all businesses still required or pressured women to sit in separate, specially designated family sections in public places.

Cultural norms selectively enforced by state institutions require women to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length cloak) in public. Female foreigners were only required to dress modestly.

In July a Saudi woman was barred from entering a private park in Hail because park employees believed she was not dressed modestly. In a video posted to social media, the woman said she called police who came to the scene and told her the park owner could decide whether to allow her to enter.

Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law (see section 1.e., Denial of Fair Public Trial). In divorce proceedings women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause, citing “irreconcilable differences.” In doing so, men must pay immediately an amount of money agreed at the time of the marriage that serves as a one-time alimony payment. Men may be forced, however, to make subsequent alimony payments by court order. The Ministry of Justice reported it compelled 7,883 fathers to pay alimony in 2018. The government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints, designed to provide women more access to courts, even if they chose to cover their faces with the niqab covering.

In February, Justice Minister Sheikh Walid al-Samaani issued a decision binding both spouses to appear in court to complete their divorce, ending the so-called secret divorce, whereby men could divorce their wives without the woman’s consent or knowledge. In February the Ministry of Justice also canceled an article in the marriage law that gave a husband the right to force his wife to return to her home against her will.

Women faced discrimination under family law. For example, a woman needs a guardian’s permission to marry or must seek a court order in the case of adhl (male guardians refusing to approve the marriage of women under their charge). In such adhl cases, the judge assumes the role of the guardian and may approve the marriage. During the year courts executed marriage contracts for women whose male guardians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media. On February 7, local media reported that courts considered an average of 750 cases annually.

In February local media reported that a male guardian can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined for forcing a woman under his charge to marry against her will. In January media reported that the Personal Status Court in Dammam issued an unprecedented ruling granting a woman in her fifties the right to marry without her guardian’s approval after her son, who was her male guardian, refused to approve her marriage. On May 30, however, the Judicial Committee at the Shoura Council rejected a proposal to allow women to contract their marriage without requiring the permission of a male guardian.

Courts routinely award custody of children when they attain a specified age (seven years for boys and nine years for girls) to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family. In numerous cases, former husbands prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children. In 2018 Justice Minister Sheikh Walid al-Samaani directed all courts to drop the requirement for divorced women to file a lawsuit to gain custody of their children. Provided there were no disputes between the parents, mothers may simply submit a request to the relevant court, without the need for legal action.

On February 16, the Ministry of Justice added an article to the regulations of legal proceedings ordering that resolution of custody, alimony and visitation issues in divorce cases be resolved prior to the finalization of a divorce and within 30 days of the initial hearing.

Sharia-based inheritance laws discriminate against women, giving daughters half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.

According to recent surveys, women constituted 52 percent of public education and higher education students. Segregated education through university level was standard. The only exceptions to segregation in higher education were medical schools at the undergraduate level and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level research university, where women worked jointly with men, were not required to wear an abaya, and have long driven cars on campus. Other universities, such as al-Faisal University in Riyadh, offered partially segregated classes with students receiving instruction from the same teacher and able to participate together in class discussion, but with the women and men physically separated by dividers.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, and both the father and mother may register a birth. There were cases of authorities denying public services to children of citizen parents, including education and health care, because the government failed to register the birth entirely or had not registered it immediately, sometimes because the father failed to report the birth or did not receive authorization to marry a foreigner. Children of women who were married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons).

Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. The National Family Safety Program operated a child helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse, providing counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development had 17 social protection units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 as well as other vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse.

In April the spokesperson of Asir Province police said a man was arrested for abusing his 15-year-old daughter, which reportedly led her to take her own life.

In September the ministry’s Domestic Violence Center announced that authorities opened an investigation based on a video, which went viral on social media, showing a father beating his two-year-old son. The Family Protection Unit managed to locate the toddler, and the father was referred to authorities to take legal action against him in line with the child protection law.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: In March the Ministry of Justice set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and stipulated that girls and boys younger than 18 can only marry with court approval. According to local media, the court would ensure several conditions are met before approving a marriage contract for a bride or groom younger than 18, including assessing their psychosocial development and hearing statements from the potential bride, groom, and guardians to determine consent. Previously, marriage officials had the authority to endorse marriage contracts; this reform ended their authority in cases where the potential bride and groom are younger than 18. The HRC and NSHR monitored cases of child marriages, which they reported were rare or at least rarely reported, and took steps to prevent consummation of the marriage. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The cybercrimes law stipulates that punishment for such crimes, including the preparation, publication, and promotion of material for pornographic sites, may be no less than two-and-one-half years’ imprisonment or a substantial fine if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex. On January 14, the Riyadh Criminal Court sentenced a man to 40 days in prison and 70 lashes, to be administered in two rounds, for sexually harassing a 12-year-old boy online.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There were no known data on Jewish citizens and no statistics available concerning the religious denominations of foreigners.

Cases of government-employed imams using anti-Jewish language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed imams to deliver all sermons in mosques in the country. Sermons are vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.

Some NGOs reported that anti-Semitic material remained in school textbooks and online in private web postings and that some journalists, academics, and clerics made anti-Israel comments that sometimes strayed into anti-Semitism, including at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Speaking on the sidelines of the November G20 Summit, Education Minister Hamad Al al-Sheikh claimed the ministry revised school curricula to remove extremist ideas and promote the concept of moderation and tolerance.

Saudi Council of Senior Scholars member and Muslim World League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa condemned anti-Semitism and intolerant speech. On January 23, al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the Muslim World League and the American Jewish Committee. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli rabbi David Rosen, becoming the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

On September 5, shortly after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews and emphasized that the Prophet Muhammad was good to his Jewish neighbors.

In April, Umm Haroun, a Ramadan television series that aired on the state-controlled MBC network, centered around the story of a Jewish midwife in an unspecified multireligious Gulf state. Experts said the series was a sign of shifting discourse on Jews and Israel.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, or the provision of other state services or other areas. The law does not require public accessibility to buildings, information, and communications. Newer commercial buildings often included such access, as did some newer government buildings. On July 19, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs ordered all stores and shopping malls to install ramps for persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. Children with disabilities could attend government-supported schools. In June 2019 the Ministry of Education stated it had taken measures to integrate disabled students, including special education programs in regular schools, training faculty members who work with students with disabilities, and providing technological instruments for students with disabilities free of charge.

Persons with disabilities could generally participate in civic affairs, and there were no legal restrictions preventing persons with disabilities from voting in municipal council elections. Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shoura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Although racial discrimination is illegal, societal discrimination against members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities was a problem. Descendants of former slaves in the country, who have African lineage, faced discrimination in both employment and society. There was formal and informal discrimination, especially racial discrimination, against foreign workers from Africa and Asia. There was also discrimination based on tribal or nontribal lineage. A tolerance campaign by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue sought to address discrimination, and it provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups.

On September 3, a video widely circulated on social media showed black Saudi model Ziad al-Mesfer being assaulted by a group of young men on a street in Riyadh, with some hurling racial slurs during the attack. The video sparked an online debate, with many defending al-Mesfer’s right to dress as he chooses and calling on authorities to hold the attackers accountable. Others said his choice of dress and modeling activities went against customs and traditions.

The government continued its multiyear Tatweer project to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods to promote tolerance and remove content disparaging religions other than Islam.

Local sources claimed that Saudi citizens received preferential access to COVID-19 testing and treatment, with some foreign residents reportedly being refused admittance to hospitals during periods of high rates of infection.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Under sharia, as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case. It is illegal for men “to behave like women” or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTI rights advocacy events of any kind. There were reports of official and societal discrimination, physical violence, and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, and health care. Stigma or intimidation limited reports of incidents of abuse. Saudi clerics condemned homosexuality during government-approved Friday sermons at some mosques, most notably at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on August 14.

There were no government efforts to address discrimination. In 2016 newspapers quoted PPO officials as stating the bureau would seek death sentences for anyone using social media to solicit homosexual acts. There were no reports, however, that the PPO sought death sentences in LGBTI cases during the year (see section 1.a.).

During the year local newspapers featured opinion pieces condemning homosexuality and calling on authorities to punish harshly individuals engaging in same-sex relations.

A conversation about homosexuality in a comedy series broadcast on MBC during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked controversy. In a scene from the series, Exit 7, a man and his teenage daughter discussed the topic of homosexuality, with the daughter defending the rights of the LGBTI community.

On April 8, authorities arrested Mohamad al-Bokari, a Yemeni blogger living in Riyadh, for posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for gay men. On July 20, a court sentenced him to 10 months in prison and a fine, followed by deportation to Yemen, according to HRW. HRW reported that al-Bokari was charged with violating public morality by promoting homosexuality online and “imitating women.” A source in contact with al-Bokari told HRW that before his trial he was held in solitary confinement for six weeks in al-Malaz Prison in Riyadh, where he was subjected to torture, including beatings and a forced anal exam, an internationally discredited practice used to seek “proof” of homosexual conduct.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. By law the government deported foreign workers who tested positive for HIV/AIDS upon arrival or who tested positive when hospitalized for other reasons. There was no indication that HIV-positive foreigners failed to receive antiretroviral treatment or that authorities isolated them during the year. The Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS program worked to counter stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Social, legal, economic, and political discrimination against the country’s Shia minority continued. HRW claimed that some state clerics and institutions “incited hatred and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Shia Muslim minority.”

To address the problem, the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard included antidiscrimination training in courses offered by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue for police and other law enforcement officers.