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Saudi Arabia

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

The government or its agents engaged in arbitrary or unlawful killings. On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who lived abroad in “self-exile,” was killed by government agents during a visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The government initially claimed he had left the consulate in good health but changed its story as facts came to light. On November 15, the PPO announced the indictment of 11 suspects in Khashoggi’s killing and that it would seek the death penalty for five of them charged with murder. The PPO added that an additional 10 suspects were under investigation in connection with the case. The PPO did not name the suspects. Previously, on October 19, the government announced the dismissal of five senior officials, including Royal Court advisor Saud al-Qahtani and Deputy Chief of the General Intelligence Presidency Ahmad al-Asiri, in connection with Khashoggi’s killing. In 2016 authorities reportedly banned Khashoggi from writing, appearing on television, and attending conferences due to remarks he made that were interpreted as critical of foreign and Saudi government officials, according to multiple media sources.

On March 12, the New York Times reported that unnamed sources said 17 detainees–among them princes, businessmen, and former and current government officials–held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh in November 2017 had required hospitalization for physical abuse and that one had died in custody.

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 often reduced on appeal. The government, however, frequently implemented capital punishment for nonviolent drug trafficking offenses. According to the governmental Saudi Press Agency, the country carried out 145 executions as of December 19, 57 of which were for drug-related offenses. Three of those executions were carried out in public.

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. 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 a lesser sentence to the death penalty.

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.).

Many of those executed during the year had been convicted in trials that did not meet international minimum fair trial standards, according to NGOs such as Amnesty International. Amnesty noted that “those sentenced to death are often convicted solely on the basis of ‘confessions’ obtained under torture and other mistreatment, denied legal representation in trials which are held in secret, and are not kept informed of the progress of the legal proceedings in their case.”

In August the public prosecutor charged six Eastern Province activists with offenses that potentially could lead to death sentences based on the sharia principle of ta’zir, or “discretionary” punishments, according to HRW. The judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and the sentence. The activists had initial hearings before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases, on charges including “participating in violent protests” in the Qatif area of Eastern Province. Local and international human rights organizations noted the hearings before the SCC lacked transparency and did not adhere to minimum fair trial standards.

On March 15, seven UN experts issued a statement expressing concern over the pending death sentence of Abbas Haiji al-Hassan and 14 others, whom the SCC convicted of spying for Iran, financing terrorism, and illegally proselytizing in 2016. The experts called on the government to annul the death sentences, which had been upheld by further court rulings in July and December 2017. Al-Hassan was later transferred to the State Security Presidency (SSP), and his sentence was, at year’s end, subject to ratification by the king. The UN report commented: “We are concerned that these individuals were subjected to torture during their interrogation to obtain confessions and that the death sentences may be based on evidence obtained under these conditions.”

The government also imposed death sentences for crimes committed by minors. According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at year’s end eight individuals on death row were minors when detained, or at the time they committed offenses. The new Juvenile Law (approved by Royal Decree No. M/113, dated August 1, 2018), however, sets the legal age at 18 based on the Hijri calendar and in some cases permits detention of minors in a juvenile facility for up to 15 years if the crime is otherwise punishable by death.

At year’s end the government had not carried out the execution of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, sentenced to death in 2014 for crimes he allegedly committed when he was 17. Al-Nimr 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 was the nephew of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, executed in 2016.

There were terrorist attacks in the country during the year. A police officer, a Bangladeshi national, and two attackers were killed in a terrorist attack claimed by ISIS that targeted a security checkpoint in Buraidah, Qassim Province, on July 8.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.

On May 29 and June 13, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Liz Throssell and HRW, respectively, urged authorities to disclose the whereabouts of Nawaf al-Rasheed, a citizen with dual Qatari nationality, whom Kuwait authorities stated had been deported to Saudi Arabia on May 12 at the kingdom’s request.

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.

Multiple human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties noted numerous reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. In November HRW and Amnesty International reported that some female right-to-drive activists arrested in May and June were subjected to torture and sexual harassment while in detention at Dhahban Prison near Jeddah. Human rights organizations and Western media outlets reported the women had been subjected to electric shocks, whipping, and forced kissing.

In a September SCC hearing attended by diplomatic representatives, three defendants reported their confessions had been forced after they were subject to abuse including beatings, sleep deprivation, being forced to stand for long periods, and food deprivation. In a June report, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson called on authorities to investigate allegations of the torture of detainees. While noting the country had “suffered numerous terrorist acts” and had a duty to protect its citizens, Emmerson said he had “well-documented reports” of torture and mistreatment by law enforcement officials against individuals accused of terrorism, as well as the use of coerced confessions. Emmerson also said authorities had widened their use of the broad antiterrorism law since his visit in April-May 2017. Authorities denied officials committed torture and stated they afforded all detainees due process and properly investigated credible complaints of mistreatment or torture.

On March 11, The New York Times reported that businessmen and princes arrested and detained during the government’s November 2017 anticorruption campaign were required to wear ankle bracelets that tracked their movements after their release. It added that at least 17 detainees were hospitalized for physical abuse, and one later died in custody with his body bearing signs of torture.

Amnesty, HRW, and other organizations also reported cases in which the SCC based its decisions on confessions allegedly obtained through torture and then admitted as evidence.

Former detainees in facilities run by the General Investigations Directorate (the country’s internal security forces, also known as Mabahith) alleged that abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.

Officials from the Ministry of Interior, PPO, and Human Rights Commission (HRC) claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system. The ministry said it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations regularly occurred, such as the General Investigations Directorate/Mabahith prison facilities. There were reports that defendants who requested copies of video footage from the ministry’s surveillance system to provide as evidence of torture did not receive it.

Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment, usually in the form of floggings, whippings, or lashings, a common punishment that government officials defended as punishment dictated by sharia. According to human rights activists, police conducted the floggings according to a set of guidelines determined by local interpretation of sharia. The police official administering the punishment must place a copy of the Quran under his arm that prevents raising the hand above the head, limiting the ability to inflict pain or injury on the person subjected to the punishment, and instructions forbid police from breaking the skin or causing scarring when administering the lashes. Human rights organizations disputed that officials implemented floggings according to these guidelines for all prisoners and characterized flogging as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

There were no reported cases of judicially administered amputation during the year.

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: In May the HRC reported that the most common problems observed during prison visits conducted in 2017 included overcrowding as well as insufficient facilities for inmates with disabilities.

Juveniles constituted less than 1 percent of detainees and were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information.

Violations listed in National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) reports following prison visits documented shortages of properly trained wardens and lack of prompt access to medical treatment and services, including medication, when requested. Some prisoners alleged prison authorities maintained cold temperatures in prison facilities and deliberately kept lights on 24 hours a day to make prisoners uncomfortable.

Human rights activists reported that deaths in prisons, jails, or pretrial detention centers were infrequent (see section 1.a.).

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.

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 General Investigations Directorate/Mabahith administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers for security prisoners. Article 37 of the law of criminal procedure gives members of 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” (see section 1.d., Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees).

No ombudsmen were available to register or investigate complaints made by prisoners, although prisoners could and did submit complaints to the HRC and the NSHR for follow up. Article 38 of 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].” Under the law there is no right to submit complaints directly to judicial authorities or to challenge the legality of an individual’s detention before a court of law (habeas corpus). 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 December 17, the Wall Street Journal reported the HRC was investigating alleged abused of detained women’s rights activists.

On July 6, security authorities arrested human rights defender Khaled al-Omair after he had filed a complaint with the Royal Court against an officer of the General Directorate of Investigation who allegedly tortured him during a prior imprisonment, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). Al-Omair was previously released in April 2017 after serving an eight-year sentence for inciting demonstrations and calling for them via the internet, according to the GCHR.

Recordkeeping 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 differentiated between violent and nonviolent prisoners, sometimes pardoning nonviolent prisoners to reduce the prison population. Certain prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.

Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once every 15 days. 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). Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason.

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 to visit some prison facilities to view general conditions in nonconsular cases. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats visited individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may have differed from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.

The government permitted the HRC and domestic quasi-governmental organizations, such as the NSHR, to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. In December the HRC reported it had conducted more than 1,200 prison visits in 2017, including visits to Mabahith prisons, criminal investigation prisons, and some military prisons, as well as “social surveillance centers” and girls’ welfare institutions. The NSHR reportedly monitored health care in prisons and brought deficiencies to the attention of the PPO.

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, except pursuant to a written order from a public investigator. Authorities must inform the detained person of the reasons for detention. Regardless, 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. Authorities held persons for months and sometimes years without charge or trial and reportedly failed to advise them promptly of their rights, including their legal right to be represented by an attorney. Under the law of criminal procedure, detentions can be extended administratively for up to six months at the discretion of the PPO.

The Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee, formed by Royal Order No. (A/38) in November 2017, was granted broad powers, including the authority to issue arrest warrants and travel bans, freeze accounts and portfolios, and take whatever measures deemed necessary to deal with those involved in public corruption cases.

In January the public prosecutor stated the committee summoned 381 persons for questioning, of whom 56 suspects were still held on graft charges. On April 8, the public prosecutor began investigations and opening arguments for the remaining 56 suspects. In an October 5 interview with Bloomberg News, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared only eight suspects remained.

The PPO may order the detention of any person accused of a crime under the 2017 counterterrorism law for up to 30 days, or successive periods not exceeding 30 days each, and in total not more than 12 months. The SCC must authorize periods of detention of more than 12 months. In practice the United Nations and international human rights organizations documented numerous cases of detention that reportedly exceeded the maximum allowable period under the law.

By law defendants accused of any crime cited in the law are entitled to hire a practicing lawyer to defend themselves before the court “within an adequate period of time to be decided by the investigatory body.”

Since May 15, authorities arrested at least 30 prominent activists, and imposed travel bans on others, in connection with these activists’ advocacy for the right of women to drive. On June 1, Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Mu’jab stated authorities temporarily released eight of the detainees (five women and three men). An additional activist was released in December.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

In July 2017 King Salman issued a royal decree that established the State Security Presidency (SSP), a new entity reporting directly to the king, to consolidate “the counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services” and “all matters related to state security, … combatting terrorism, and financial investigations,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency. The royal decree moved the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, Special Emergency Forces, General Security Aviation Command, General Directorate of Technical Affairs, and the National Information Center from the Ministry of Interior to the SSP. Police, traffic authorities, and the General Directorate of Passports remained under the Ministry of Interior, according to the Ministry of Information’s website.

The king, SSP, and Ministries of Defense, Interior, and National Guard are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The SSP and Ministry of Interior exercise primary control over internal security and police forces. The civil police and the internal security police have authority to arrest and detain individuals. Ministry of Interior and SSP police and security forces were generally able to maintain order.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), which monitors public behavior to enforce strict adherence to official interpretation of Islamic norms, reports to the king via the Royal Diwan (royal court) and to the Ministry of Interior. In 2016 the cabinet issued regulations severely curtailing the CPVPV’s enforcement powers. The new regulations prohibit CPVPV officers from investigating, detaining or arresting, or requesting the identification of any individual. The regulations also limit their activities to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police or other authorities. Evidence available since the end of 2017 indicated that CPVPV officers were less visibly present and active after implementation of the new strictures. Mabahith officers also have broad authorities to investigate, detain, and forward “national security” cases to judicial authorities–which ranged from terrorism cases to dissident and human rights activist cases–separate from the PPO.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces, and the government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. Military and security courts investigated abuses of authority and security force killings. The Board of Grievances (“Diwan al-Mazalim”), 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. Citizens may report abuses by security forces at any police station or to the HRC or NSHR. The HRC and NSHR maintained records of complaints and outcomes, but privacy laws protected information about individual cases, and information was not publicly available. The HRC said in February that it received 2,646 human rights-related complaints during fiscal year 2016-17. 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.

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.

The Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee, established in November 2017, 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. 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.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

In June 2017 King Salman issued two royal decrees that created the Public Prosecutor’s Office, (formerly the Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecution or BIPP), establishing Saud bin Abdullah bin Mubarak al-Mu’jab as its head attorney general. The decrees directed the newly named agency to report directly to the king (rather than the Ministry of Interior, to which the BIPP had reported). Officials stated these changes would increase the independence and effectiveness of the lead prosecutorial office.

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. There were also reports that authorities did not allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Judicial proceedings begin after authorities complete a full investigation, which in some cases took years.

The law of criminal procedure specifies procedures required for extending the detention period of an accused person beyond the initial five days. Authorities may approve official detentions in excess of six months in “exceptional circumstances,” effectively allowing individuals to be held in pretrial detention indefinitely. Authorities may also extend from three months to six months the deadline for the PPO to gather evidence against the accused and issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest, summons, or detention.

There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal 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 prove their inability to pay for their legal representation. The law contains no provision regarding the right to be informed of the protections guaranteed under the law.

Incommunicado detention was a problem. 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.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrest and detention. During the year authorities detained security suspects, persons who publicly criticized the government, Shia religious leaders, and persons who violated religious standards, without charge.

On January 2, a group of UN human rights experts deplored what they said was “a worrying pattern of widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests and detention” following the arrests of religious figures, writers, journalists, academics, and civic activists, along with members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) since September 2017. The experts denounced the use of the 2014 Counterterrorism Law (as amended in 2017) and other security-related laws against human rights defenders, urging the government to end repression and release those detained for peacefully exercising their rights. In September the SCC opened trials against some of the clerics, academics, and media figures arrested in September 2017. The SCC saw a significant increase in the number of cases and judicial rulings between September 2017 and March 2018, compared with the same period in the previous 12-month period. On April 22, local media reported an increase of 132 percent in the number of cases referred to the SCC and a 182 percent increase in the number of defendants.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem.

In August 2017 the PPO found during inspections of prisons and detention centers across the country that more than 2,000 individuals remained in detention without charge or trial since 2014. The attorney general ordered the cases immediately examined, and the majority of detainees were reportedly released on bail. The attorney general also asked the courts to find an appropriate legal remedy for the affected individuals.

Nonetheless, in a May 6 statement, HRW noted that authorities had detained thousands of persons for more than six months, in some cases for more than a decade, without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings, and that the number held for excessively long periods had apparently increased dramatically in recent years.

There was no current information available on the percentage of the prison population in pretrial detention or the average length of time held. Local human rights activists and diplomatic representatives reportedly received regular reports from families claiming authorities held their relatives arbitrarily or without notification of charges.

During the year the SSP stated it had detained numerous individuals for terrorist acts. On May 9, local media reported there were 5,342 detainees in five intelligence prisons across the country, of whom 83 percent were Saudis.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Under the law detainees are not entitled to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. In the case of wrongful detention, the law of criminal procedure, as well as provisions of the counterterrorism law, provide for the right to compensation if detainees are found to have been held unlawfully.

Amnesty: The law of criminal procedure stipulates that the king may issue a pardon “on pardonable matters” for public crimes only. The law of criminal procedure also states that a victim’s heirs may grant a pardon for private crimes. The Ministry of Interior publishes the conditions for royal pardons annually, and these generally exclude specific crime categories such as murder or drug smuggling, or those convicted of crimes involving state security. Under the country’s interpretation of sharia, there are three broad categories of offenses: (1) huddud or “boundary” crimes, which are explicitly enumerated in the Quran and whose corresponding punishments are also prescribed; these are considered crimes against God and thus not pardonable; (2) qisas or “legal retribution crimes,” which involve murder or intentional bodily harm and give the victim’s family or legal heirs the private right to legal retribution; the victim’s family or legal heirs may grant a pardon in exchange for financial compensation (diya or “blood money,); and (3) crimes that do not reach the level of huddud or qisas and which are left to the discretion of the state (judge). Ta’zir or “discretionary” punishments are issued for crimes against public rights; this is the most frequently used basis for conviction.

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 did not detain some individuals who had received prison sentences. 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.

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, PPO, and 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.

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 is expanding a project first started in 2007 to encapsulate and distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application. The law states that defendants should be treated equally in accordance with sharia. The Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), 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 its first 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 CSS, 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. Through mid-October foreign diplomatic missions were able to obtain permission to attend some nonconsular court proceedings (cases to which neither the host country nor any of its nationals were a party; diplomatic missions are generally allowed to attend consular proceedings of their own nationals). To attend, authorities required diplomats to obtain advance written approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In October, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suspended diplomatic access to court proceedings. Authorities sometimes did not permit entry to such trials to individuals other than diplomats who were not the legal agents or family members of the accused. SCC officials sometimes banned female relatives or diplomats from attending due to the absence of women officers to conduct security inspections of the women upon entry to the courtroom. 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.

Amendments to the law of criminal procedure in 2013 strengthened provisions stating that authorities will offer defendants a lawyer at government expense. In August 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, however, reported the process for applying for a court-appointed lawyer was difficult and cumbersome. Many said they 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; however, activists reported SCC judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a PPO-appointed investigator questions 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, Shia, and persons of other religions. Although exceptions exist, a woman’s testimony before a court counts as only half that of a man’s. Judges may 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.

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 that authorities detained persons for peaceful activism or political opposition, including nonviolent religious figures, imams deemed to have strayed from the official religious line, Shia activists, women’s rights defenders, other activists, and bloggers who the government claimed posted offensive or antigovernment comments on websites.

In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. Those who remained imprisoned after trial, including persons who were political activists openly critical of the government, were often convicted of terrorism-related crimes. During the year the SCC tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state.

International NGOs, the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism prerogatives 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. Authorities restricted attorneys’ access to all detainees, and no international humanitarian organizations had access to them.

On May 25, authorities arrested ACPRA founding member Mohammed al-Bajadi, along with almost a dozen women rights defenders, some of whom were later released. Al-Bajadi was previously released from prison in 2016 after serving a four-year prison sentence on charges stemming from his work with ACPRA. Among other rights defenders arrested in May was lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimeegh, who previously represented activists including Waleed Abu al-Khair and Lujain al-Hathloul. Al-Mudaimeegh was reportedly released on December 21.

At least 120 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Samar Badawi, and clerics including former Grand Mosque Imam Salih al-Talib, Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.

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.

In August 2017 the Ministry of Justice issued a press release stating that “…the accused 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 [of Justice] pays the lawyer’s fees when the accused is not able to settle them.” Security detainees held in accordance with the 2017 Counterterrorism Law are entitled “to seek the assistance of a lawyer or legal agent,” but the Public Prosecutor may restrict this right during the investigation “whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” The United Nations and international NGOs reported security detainees were denied access to legal counsel during pretrial detention during the year.

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 law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary.

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.

The 2017 Counterterrorism Law allows the Ministry of Interior/SSP to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications as well as banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.

The CPVPV monitored and regulated public interaction between members of the opposite sex, though in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed and mixed-gender events this year.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedom 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.

On March 27, security forces arrested 32 citizens and referred them to the public prosecutor for illegally gathering in front of Taif governorate headquarters to protest the removal of unlicensed housing structures built on government land, according to the Ministry of Interior.

CPVPV and other security officers also restricted mixed gender gatherings of unrelated men and women in public and private spaces (see section 1.f.).

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provided for limited freedom of association, however, the government strictly limited this right. In 2016 a law came into effect known as the Law on Associations and Foundations (Civil Society Organizations Law), which for the first time provided a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government, however, prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations.

On January 25, the SCC sentenced Mohammad al-Otaiby and Abdullah al-Attawi, founding members of the Union for Human Rights (known in Arabic as “al-Ittihad”) to 14 and seven years in prison, respectively, for “participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting an authorization,” “spreading chaos, inciting public opinion and publishing statements harmful to the kingdom and its institutions,” and “publishing information about their interrogations despite signing pledges to refrain from doing so,” according to media and NGO reporting.

In 2013 and 2014, the few local NGOs that had operated without a license ceased operating after authorities ordered them disbanded. While ACPRA maintained a presence on social media networks such as Twitter, the government severely curtailed its operations and closed down its website. On February 28, the SCC sentenced lawyer and ACPRA member Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison (three years under the anti-cybercrimes law and three years under ta’zir, or “discretionary” sentencing), followed by a six-year ban on social media and travel outside of the country, based on charges of “infringing on the public order and religious values,” “communicating with members of ACPRA,” “opposing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen,” and related charges. Al-Nukheifi was detained in 2016 and charged in August 2017 under provisions of both the 2014 Counterterrorism Law and the 2008 Anti-Cybercrimes Law.

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

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

The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country, but it severely restricted the movement of female citizens. While the guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country, courts sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to a HRW report.

In April 2017 King Salman issued a royal decree ordering all government agencies to review their guardianship laws and to provide, within three months, their understanding of the legal basis for withholding services to women. The stated goal was to avoid denying government services to women who do not present a male guardian’s consent except when law or regulations explicitly require it. At year’s end the results of the government’s review of its guardianship laws had not been announced.

Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.

On June 24, the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women and the high cost of driver’s education for women, which was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees. As a result, there were waiting lists for driving classes.

Foreign Travel: There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Females of any age, males younger than 21, and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors. A noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel, unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. If a wife’s guardian is deceased, a court may grant the permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children, prohibiting their travel. In December the General Directorate of Passports announced that divorced Saudi women older than 21 who possess a NIC with at least three months’ validity may travel to other Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) without the consent of a male guardian.

Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.

The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption; state security concerns; or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign, as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists, were also reportedly under travel bans.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country, but it severely restricted the movement of female citizens. While the guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country, courts sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to a HRW report.

In April 2017 King Salman issued a royal decree ordering all government agencies to review their guardianship laws and to provide, within three months, their understanding of the legal basis for withholding services to women. The stated goal was to avoid denying government services to women who do not present a male guardian’s consent except when law or regulations explicitly require it. At year’s end the results of the government’s review of its guardianship laws had not been announced.

Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.

On June 24, the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women and the high cost of driver’s education for women, which was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees. As a result, there were waiting lists for driving classes.

Foreign Travel: There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Females of any age, males younger than 21, and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors. A noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel, unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. If a wife’s guardian is deceased, a court may grant the permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children, prohibiting their travel. In December the General Directorate of Passports announced that divorced Saudi women older than 21 who possess a NIC with at least three months’ validity may travel to other Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) without the consent of a male guardian.

Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.

The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption; state security concerns; or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign, as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists, were also reportedly under travel bans.

STATELESS PERSONS

The country had a number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.

Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, even if the father recognized the child as his, or if the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign nationals to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances such as fathers who are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances); daughters in such cases can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.

Foreign male spouses of female citizens are entitled to permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they receive free government education and medical benefits. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the nitaqaat, or labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must be between the ages of 30 and 50 in order to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 in order to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear; there was anecdotal evidence that they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women who are married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother.

In past years UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as Bidoon (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Updated information on stateless persons was not available. Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, Bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues Bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health-care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identification cards to Bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.

There were also some Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma, but only a small portion of these communities was stateless. Many Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew, or had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. Some of these individuals benefited from a prior program to correct their residency status; in 2014 the government issued nearly 200,000 four-year residency permits to Rohingya who entered the country prior to 2008. Rohingya who arrived in the country after 2008 were not eligible for residency permits, although NGOs reported that Rohingya, including those without legal residency, were generally not subject to deportation prior to 2018. Upon the expiration of Rohingya residency permits in 2018, media reported more than 100 Rohingya faced deportation to Bangladesh at year’s end and hundreds more were in detention at Shumaisi Detention Center near Mecca. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship. There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.

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 (shura). 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 four-year terms. Women were allowed to vote and run as candidates for the first time. The voting age was also lowered universally to 18 years. 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. In November 2017 implementing regulations for the 2017 counterterrorism law were published; however, implementation regulations for the 2014 counterterrorism law (issued by the Ministry of Interior in March 2014) remain in place, as they explicitly and specifically banned 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 Minorities: Gender discrimination excluded women from many aspects of public life. Women slowly but increasingly participated in political life, albeit at a disadvantage, in part due to guardianship laws requiring a male guardian’s permission for legal decisions, restrictions on women candidates’ contact with male voters in the 2015 elections, and the ban on women driving, which the government lifted in June. In the 2015 municipal elections, women made up less than 10 percent of the final list of registered voters, according to HRW.

In 2013 former king Abdullah issued a royal decree changing the governance of the Consultative Council, the 150-person royally appointed body that advises the king and may propose but not pass laws. The changes mandate that women constitute no less than 20 percent of the membership of the Consultative Council. In accordance with the law, in 2013 the council inducted 30 women as full members.

Women were routinely excluded from formal decision-making positions in both government and the private sector, although some women attained leadership positions in business and served in senior advisory positions within government ministries. 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. The Ministry of Justice, however, announced in February that it was planning to hire 300 women as social, legal, and sharia researchers and administrative assistants in the first stage of its female employment program, following a decision by Minister of Justice Walid Al-Samaani to find vacancies for Saudi women in four sectors. As of November 14, the ministry appointed at least 213 female employees. On February 12, the PPO announced it would recruit women as lieutenant investigators for the first time. Furthermore, women lawyers were granted the right to obtain a notarization permit that allows them to assume some of the functions of public notaries effective March 12.

In August the General Authority of Civil Aviation issued five licenses to Saudi female pilots, permitting them to work as captains on Saudi Arabian Airlines aircraft.

On September 10, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques appointed 41 female employees to leadership positions in the women’s public administration.

During the year the most senior position held by a woman in government was Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Development Tamadur Al-Rammah. She was also appointed supervisor of the Social Welfare and Family Agency.

The country had an increasing number of female diplomats. Bureaucratic procedures largely restricted women working in the security services to employment in women’s prisons, at women’s universities, and in clerical positions in police stations, where they were responsible for visually identifying other women, for example wearing niqabs, for law enforcement purposes.

In February the General Directorate of Public Security allowed women to apply to join the military in the enlisted ranks.

No laws prevent citizen males from minority groups from participating in political life on the same basis as other male citizens. Societal discrimination, however, marginalized the Shia 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 cabinet-level position, and Bedouins can only reach the rank of major general in the armed forces. All cabinet members from tribal communities were members of urbanized “Hamael” tribes, rather than Bedouin tribes. While the religious affiliation of Consultative Council members was not known publicly, the council included an estimated seven or eight Shia members. In contrast with previous years, the cabinet contained one religious minority member. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia were concentrated, had large proportions of Shia 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 with impunity, and perceptions of corruption persisted in some sectors. Government employees who accept bribes face 10 years in prison or fines up to one million riyals ($267,000).

Nazaha, established by former king Abdullah in 2011, is responsible for promoting transparency and combating all forms of financial and administrative corruption. The relationship between Nazaha and the newly established Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee was unclear. Nazaha’s ministerial-level director reported directly to the king. In 2015 the Shura Council criticized Nazaha for its failure to refer for investigation a sufficient number of corruption cases. The council also stated the public did not believe Nazaha could handle its responsibility to investigate and punish corruption. The Control and Investigation Board remains responsible for investigating financial malfeasance, and the PPO has the lead on all criminal investigations. The HRC also responded to and researched complaints of corruption.

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. Nazaha reportedly received 15,000 reports during the year.

On January 28, local media reported that the Supreme Judicial Council had established two criminal units in the criminal courts of Riyadh and Jeddah to review cases of detainees arrested in the November 2017 anticorruption campaign who did not reach financial settlements with the government. On March 11, King Salman ordered the establishment of specialized departments in the PPO to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. According to the public prosecutor, corruption cases were handled by the PPO’s Public Office Crimes Circuit before the creation of the new criminal court units.

On March 5, local media reported that administrative investigation authorities arrested 8,874 suspects in administrative corruption cases in the previous year, including 6,374 Saudis and 2,473 foreigners. On February 5, local media reported that the PPO received 977 cases of misuse of public funds in a single week.

On July 10, authorities arrested a defense ministry official on charges of receiving a one million riyal ($267,000) bribe and abusing his position. The public prosecutor declared the official sought to facilitate irregular procedures for the disbursement of financial dues to a company, taking advantage of his professional influence. At year’s end there were no further updates.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials were not subject to financial disclosure laws.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations 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 access to the country for visits. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported that 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 HRC stated that the government welcomed visits by legitimate, unbiased human rights groups but added the government could not act on the “hundreds of requests” it received, in part because it was cumbersome to decide which domestic agencies would be their interlocutor.

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 viewed unlicensed local human rights groups with suspicion, frequently blocking their websites and charging their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: 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 well-resourced HRC was effective in highlighting problems and registering and responding to the complaints it received, but its capacity to effect change was more limited. The HRC worked directly with the Royal Diwan and the cabinet, with a committee composed of representatives of the Consultative Council and the Ministries of Labor and Social Development and Interior, and with Consultative 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, prison conditions, and cases of individuals detained beyond their prescribed prison sentences. They avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists or reformers that would require directly confronting government authorities. The HRC board’s 18 full-time members included four women and at least three Shia; they received and responded to complaints submitted by their constituencies, including problems related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights. The Consultative 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.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia 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 courts often 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, but press reports and observers indicated rape was a serious problem. Moreover, most rape cases were likely unreported because victims faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanction up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia.

The law against domestic violence provides a framework for the government to prevent and protect victims of violence in the home. The law defines domestic abuse broadly and criminalizes domestic abuse with penalties of one month to one year of imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 riyals ($1,330 to $13,300), unless a court provides a harsher sentence.

Researchers stated it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of the problem, which they believed to be widespread. The National Family Safety Program (NFSP), a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, was founded in 2005 to spread awareness of and combat 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. Some activists also claimed that authorities often did not investigate or prosecute cases involving domestic violence, instead encouraging victims and perpetrators to reconcile in order to keep families intact regardless of reported abuse. There were reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.

On March 8, a woman from Sabya Governorate in the southwestern Jazan Province appeared in a video pleading for help after her older brother and his family allegedly beat her and threw her out of a house she shared with them, along with her ill mother and her two children. She explained that when she went to report the abuse to police, they asked her to bring her male guardian. When the video went viral on social media, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced its Social Protection Unit in Jazan intervened and was studying her case. At year’s end there were no known updates to this case.

The government made efforts to combat domestic violence. During the year the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue held workshops and distributed educational materials on peaceful conflict resolution between spouses and within families. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters. The HRC received complaints of domestic abuse and referred them to other government offices. The HRC advised complainants and offered legal assistance to some female litigants. The organization provided services for children of female complainants and litigants and distributed publications supporting women’s rights in education, health care, development, and the workplace.

Saudi 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 contacts.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was not a common practice in the country, as the official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice.

Sexual Harassment: The extent of sexual harassment was difficult to measure, with little media reporting and no government data. The government’s interpretation of sharia guides courts on cases of sexual harassment. On May 29, the Council of Ministers passed the antisexual harassment law, which carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 300,000 riyals ($80,000). No statistics were available on the incidence of sexual harassment due to past reluctance to report violations. On August 8, the public prosecutor stated that the number of reported harassment cases was low and claimed the law was effective in limiting this crime. Employers in many sectors maintained separate male and female workspaces where feasible, in accordance with law.

On July 14, authorities arrested a young woman who jumped on stage to hug a male singer during a concert in the western city of Taif. Prosecutors announced that the woman would face charges pursuant to the antisexual harassment law, under which she could face two years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 riyals ($26,700) if convicted.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women continued to face significant discrimination under law and custom, and many remained uninformed about their rights.

The law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and since there is no codified personal status law, judges made decisions regarding family matters based on their interpretations of Islamic law. Although they may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their guardian, women have fewer political or social rights than men, and they often are not treated as equal members in the political and social spheres. The guardianship system requires that every woman have a close male relative as her “guardian” with the legal authority to approve her travel outside of the country. In September a personal status court in Jeddah ordered a father to obtain a passport for his 24-year-old daughter so that she could resume her studies abroad. Women also require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.

Women, however, can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. Women can work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required women to have such permission, even though the law prohibits the practice. On February 15, the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced women no longer need their male guardian’s permission to start a business.

On June 24, the government lifted its ban on women driving. The New York Times reported long delays in placement of female students in driving schools due to a limited number of teaching facilities and female staff for gender-segregated programs, and long delays obtaining driver’s licenses. On July 4, two men were arrested in Mecca for setting fire to a female motorist’s car. The motorist, Salma Al-Sherif, subsequently posted a widely circulated video on social media documenting the incident, claiming that her car was deliberately set alight by men “opposed to women drivers,” and that she had been repeatedly threatened and harassed by young men from her village of Samad in Mecca Province. On October 28, the Mecca Criminal Court acquitted the two defendants for lack of sufficient evidence. Al-Sherif appealed the verdict. On December 17, arsonists reportedly set fire to another car of a Jeddah woman, Nurhan Bassam, who was reportedly burned by arsonists.

Nationality law discriminates against women, who cannot directly transmit 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 women from marrying non-Muslims, but men may marry Christians and Jews. 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 Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chad, and Burma. 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.

Widespread societal exclusion enforced by, but not limited to, state institutions restricted women from using many public facilities. The law requires women to sit generally in separate, specially designated family sections in public places. They frequently cannot consume food in restaurants that do not have such sections. Women risk arrest for riding in a private vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee (such as a hired chauffeur or taxi driver) or a close male relative. Cultural norms enforced by state institutions require women to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length cloak) in public. The CPVPV also generally expected Muslim women to cover their hair and non-Muslim women from Asian and African countries to comply more fully with local customs of dress than non-Muslim Western women.

In June a female television presenter, Shireen al-Rifaie, fled the country after authorities launched an investigation into claims that she wore an outfit deemed “indecent” by the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media. Al-Rifaie was reporting on the end of the ban on women driving when her white abaya was blown open by the wind, revealing her clothes underneath.

Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of one man equals that of two women. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities). 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 government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints designed to provide women, such as those wearing a niqab, more access to courts.

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 adjudicated as many as 72 adhl cases and executed marriage contracts for women whose male custodians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media.

Courts often 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 March Justice Minister Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani directed all courts to drop the requirement for divorced women to file a lawsuit in order to gain custody of their children. Provided there were no disputes between the parents, mothers may now simply submit a request to the relevant court, without the need for legal action.

Inheritance laws also discriminate against women, since daughters receive 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 drove 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.

On March 12, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged the country to end discriminatory practices against women, including its system of male guardianship, and give women full access to justice.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, and only the father 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. In 2016 the NFSP started a Child Helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse. The helpline provided counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. In January NFSP official Maha al-Muneef reported that the child helpline received 270,000 calls annually, including 2,990 cases of abuse and neglect, 2,589 cases related to family violence, and 1,050 cases of school violence. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development had 17 Social Protection Units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 and vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse.

On July 17, authorities arrested a Saudi-based Yemeni mother who beat and tortured her six-month-old twin girls on camera for money. Video footage of the two babies being slapped and strangled went viral and sparked outrage.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law does not specify a minimum age for marriage, although Ministry of Justice guidelines referred marriage applications to sharia courts to determine the validity of a marriage when the bride was younger than 16. Families sometimes arranged such marriages to settle family debts without the consent of the child. 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. Media reports quoted judges as saying the majority of child marriage cases in the country involved Syrian girls, followed by smaller numbers of Egyptians and Yemenis. There were media reports that some men who traveled abroad to find brides sought to marry minors. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation. The government reportedly instructed marriage registrars not to register marriages involving children.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The anti-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 fine of 1.5 million riyals ($400,000) if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex.

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.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was 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 give all sermons delivered in mosques in the country. They must deliver sermons 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.

Anti-Semitic material remained in school textbooks and online in private web postings, and some journalists, academics, and clerics made anti-Israel comments that sometimes strayed into anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

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. Children with disabilities could attend government-supported schools.

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. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development was responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.

On June 12, Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Development Tamadur al-Rammah stated the government was working on a national strategy for persons with disabilities, including 23 initiatives designed to serve them, adding that a special commission was established to oversee the affairs of persons with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although racial discrimination is illegal, societal discrimination against members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities was a problem. There was also discrimination based on tribal or nontribal lineage. 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. On February 5, the NSHR said it had noted several instances of racial discrimination on the basis of nationality at some service facilities where some customers were denied services based on their nationality. A tolerance campaign by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue sought to address some of these problems, and it provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups.

The government’s multi-year Tatweer project to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods to promote tolerance and remove content disparaging religions other than Islam began in 2007. In November the Anti-Defamation League issued a report asserting that Saudi textbooks still contained anti-Semitic language.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, 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 acted to limit reports of incidents of abuse.

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.).

On January 8, police reported they arrested and referred to prosecutors several young men who appeared in a video described as a “gay wedding scene.” No updates on the case were publicly available.

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 fight 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 run by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue for police and other law enforcement officers (see section 6, Other Societal Violence and Discrimination).

In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a Saudi man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in the southern city of Najran.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join independent unions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining or the right to conduct legal strikes. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. There were no labor unions in the country, and workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for union activities.

The government allowed citizen-only labor committees in workplaces with more than 100 employees, but it placed undue limitations on freedom of association and was heavily involved in the formation and activities of these committees. For example, the ministry approves the committee members and authorizes ministry and employer representatives to attend committee meetings. Committee members must submit the minutes of meetings to management and then transmit them to the minister; the ministry can dissolve committees if they violate regulations or are deemed to threaten public security. Regulations limit committees to making recommendations to company management regarding only improvements to working conditions, health and safety, productivity, and training programs. In October 2017 the NSHR said it registered 289 labor-related complaints in 2016-17 that it sought to resolve through settlements.

On April 15, Riyadh Governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud warned against illegal assemblies by workers to protest delayed salaries. He advised that foreign workers should seek recourse from the offices of provincial governors and legal processes, and he reiterated the importance of both employers’ and employees’ abiding by their contractual obligations.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce legal protections for migrant workers. Forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers–notably domestic servants. Conditions indicative of forced labor experienced by foreign workers included withholding of passports, nonpayment of wages, restrictions on movement, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Labor law prohibits the confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages. Violations of labor laws resulted in fines of up to one million riyals ($267,000), prison terms up to 15 years, and restrictions on the entity’s ability to recruit foreign workers. Many noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees not covered under the labor law, were unable to exercise their right to end their contractual work. An employer may require a trainee to work for him or her upon completion of training for a period not to exceed twice the duration of the training or one year, whichever is longer.

Restrictive sponsorship laws increased workers’ vulnerability to forced labor conditions and made many foreign workers reluctant to report abuse. The contract system does not allow workers to change employers or leave the country without the written consent of the employer under normal circumstances. If wages are withheld for 90 days, a ministerial decree permits an employee to transfer his or her sponsorship to a new employer without obtaining prior approval from the previous employer. There were reports, however, that the Ministry of Labor and Social Development did not always approve petitions to transfer sponsorship due to withheld wages, including some cases in which wages had been withheld for more than three months. During the year numerous migrant workers reported being laid off, sometimes after months of nonpayment of salaries. Some remained stranded in the country because they were unable to pay required exit visa fees. A few countries that previously allowed their citizens to migrate to the country for work prohibited their citizens from seeking work there after widespread reports of worker abuse.

The government continued implementation of the Wage Protection System (WPS), which requires employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the ministry to track whether workers were paid appropriately. All employers with more than 10 employees were required to comply with WPS regulations as of August 2017. WPS covers 6.4 million employees. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development fined companies 3,000 riyals ($800) for delaying payment for employees’ salaries on the first occurrence and blocked companies from accessing government services if a company delayed salaries for two or more months.

Throughout the year the government strictly implemented measures to limit the number of noncitizen workers in the country. The government also penalized Hajj tourist agencies that engaged in human trafficking and local companies that abused the country’s visa laws to bring individuals into the country for reasons other than to employ them directly. A smaller number came as religious pilgrims and overstayed their visas. Because of their undocumented status, many persons in the country were susceptible to forced labor, substandard wages, and deportation by authorities.

On February 17, the public prosecutor warned that involvement in trafficking-in-persons crimes carries a fine of up to one million riyals ($267,000), a prison term up to 15 years, or both.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law provides that no person younger than 15 may legally work unless that person is the sole source of support for the family. Children between the ages of 13 and 15 may work if the job is not harmful to health or growth and does not interfere with schooling. The law provides that hazardous operations or harmful industries may not employ legal minors, and children younger than 18 may not be employed for shifts exceeding six hours a day. There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-owned businesses or other areas considered extensions of the household, such as farming, herding, and domestic service.

The HRC and NSHR are responsible for monitoring enforcement of child labor laws. There was little information on government efforts to enforce relevant laws or actions to prevent or eliminate child labor during the year. Authorities most commonly enforced the law in response to complaints of children begging on the streets.

Most child labor involved children from other countries, including Yemen and Ethiopia, forced into begging rings, street vending, and work in family businesses.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or HIV-positive status. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred with respect to all these categories.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development explicitly approved and encouraged the employment of women in specific sectors, particularly in government, but women faced many discriminatory regulations. The first-quarter Labor Market Report by the General Authority for Statistics found that Saudi girls and women (15 years of age and above) constituted 8 percent of the country’s total labor force (Saudi and non-Saudi, 15 years of age and above). The same report estimated that women and girls, both Saudi and foreign, represented 21 percent of all employed persons (15 years of age and above) in the country. Most non-Saudi women were employed as domestic workers. Rules limited the type of work women were allowed to perform and required them to wear a veil. In practice gender segregation continued to take place in the workplace.

There is no regulation requiring equal pay for equal work. In the private sector, the average monthly wage of Saudi women workers was 58 percent of the average monthly wage of Saudi men. Labor dispute settlement bodies did not register any cases of discrimination against women.

Regulations ban women from 24 professions, mostly in heavy industry, but create guidelines for women to telework. Nevertheless, some factories and manufacturing facilities, particularly in Eastern Province, employed men and women, who worked separate shifts during different hours of the day. The law grants women the right to obtain business licenses without the approval of their guardians, and women frequently obtained licenses in fields that might require them to supervise foreign workers, interact with male clients, or deal with government officials. It is illegal for a potential employer to ask a female applicant for her guardian’s permission when she applies for a job. In medical settings and the energy industry, women and men worked together, and in some instances women supervised male employees. Women who work in establishments with 50 or more female employees have the right to maternity leave and child care.

Discrimination with respect to religious beliefs occurred in the workplace. Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions. Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police, municipalities, and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities). Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

Discrimination against Asian and African migrant workers occurred (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). The King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue continued programs that sought to address some of these problems and provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups. There were numerous cases of assault on foreign workers and reports of worker abuse.

Informal discrimination in employment and occupation occurred on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation or gender identity.

In November 2017 the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Passports announced a national campaign to identify, arrest, fine, and deport individuals found in violation of the country’s residency laws under the title of “Nation Without Violators.” The campaign began with a 90-day grace period or general amnesty to allow irregular migrants to depart the country “without penalty,” after which authorities extended the grace period in coordination with international organizations. In September the Ministry of Interior stated more than 1.77 million foreign nationals were arrested between November 2017 and September 2018 for violating work, residence, and entry rules. Approximately 449,220 violators were deported during the cited period, according to the ministry. The Human Rights Committee reported that law enforcement agencies had been trained in screening vulnerable populations for human trafficking indicators and the campaign was being carried out in accordance with protections against trafficking in persons.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was 3,000 riyals ($800) which is above the estimated poverty income level. There was no private-sector minimum wage for foreign workers; as of November 2017, the government did not mandate a general minimum private-sector wage for citizens.

By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours but can extend to 60 hours, subject to payment of overtime, which is 50 percent more than the basic wage.

An estimated 10 million noncitizens, including approximately 947,000 noncitizen women, made up approximately 76 percent of the labor force, according to the General Authority for Statistics first-quarter Labor Market Report. Legal workers generally negotiated and agreed to work conditions prior to their arrival in the country, in accordance with the contract requirements contained in the labor law.

The law provides penalties of between 500 and 1,000 riyals ($133 and $267) for bringing foreigners into the country to work in any service, including domestic service, without following the required procedures and obtaining a permit.

The labor law provides for regular safety inspections and enables ministry-appointed inspectors to examine materials used or handled in industrial and other operations and to submit samples of suspected hazardous materials or substances to government laboratories. The Ministry of Health’s Occupational Health Service Directorate worked with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development on health and safety matters. Regulations require employers to protect some workers from job-related hazards and disease, although some violations occurred. These regulations did not cover farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, or workers in family-operated businesses. Foreign nationals privately reported frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards. The ministry employed nearly 1,000 labor inspectors.

The law requires that a citizen or business must sponsor foreign workers in order for them to obtain legal work and residency status, although the requirement exempts Syrian and Yemeni nationals who overstayed their visas. On May 9, however, IOM said 17,000 Yemenis were turned back between January and May due to their immigration status. The ministry-implemented measures allowing noncitizen workers to switch their employer to a new employer or company that employed a sufficient quota of Saudi nationals. Despite these revised measures, some workers were unaware of the new regulations and had to remain with their sponsor until completion of their contract or to seek the assistance of their embassy to return home. There were also instances in which sponsors bringing noncitizen workers into the country failed to provide them with a residency permit, which undermined the workers’ ability to access government services or navigate the court system in the event of grievances. Sponsors with commercial or labor disputes with foreign employees also could ask authorities to prohibit employees from departing the country until the dispute was resolved; however, authorities would not jail or forcibly return fleeing workers who sought to exit the country within a 72-hour period or to coordinate with their embassy for repatriation as long as the employees did not have criminal charges or outstanding fines pending against them.

Bilateral labor agreements set conditions on foreign workers’ minimum wage, housing, benefits including leave and medical care, and other topics. These provisions were not drafted in line with international standards, and they varied depending on the sending country’s relative bargaining power. The labor law and the law against trafficking provide penalties for abuse of such workers.

The government engaged in news campaigns highlighting the plight of abused workers, trained law enforcement and other officials to combat trafficking in persons, and worked with the embassies of labor-sending countries to disseminate information about labor rights to foreign workers. As in previous years, during Ramadan the HRC broadcast a public awareness program on television emphasizing the Islamic injunction to treat employees well.

The government did not always enforce the laws protecting migrant workers effectively. There were credible reports that some migrant workers were employed on terms to which they had not agreed and experienced problems, such as delays in the payment of wages, changes in employer, or changed working hours and conditions. Migrant workers, especially domestic workers, were vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and conditions contravening labor laws, including nonpayment of wages, working for periods in excess of the 48-hour workweek, working for periods longer than the prescribed eight-hour workday, and restrictions on movement due to passport confiscation. There were also reports of physical and verbal abuse. On July 15, local media reported that approximately 50 percent of the companies in the construction sector, which employs an estimated 3.5 million expatriates, failed to pay salaries due to stalled projects dating back to 2016, in addition to the government’s failure to pay money it owed to the companies working on government projects.

There were credible reports that some noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees, were unable to exercise their right to remove themselves from dangerous situations. Some employers physically prevented workers from leaving or threatened them with nonpayment of wages if they left. Sponsoring employers, who controlled foreign workers’ ability to remain employed and in the country, usually held foreign workers’ passports, a practice prohibited by law. In some contract disputes, a sponsor asked authorities to prevent the employee from leaving the country until resolution of the dispute to coerce the employee into accepting a disadvantageous settlement or risking deportation without any settlement.

On July 18, the ESOHR called on authorities to resolve a five-year labor dispute between Tunisian citizen Jannat bint Shubail bin Nahila and the Ministry of Health and allow her and her family to leave the country. According to ESOHR, the ministry arbitrarily fired Bin Nahila from her job as a nurse at a government health-care center in al-Baha Province, withheld her passport, and banned her from travel until the labor dispute was resolved.

Foreign workers could contact the labor offices of their embassies for assistance. During the year hundreds of domestic workers, the majority of whom were female, sought shelter at their embassies, some fleeing sexual abuse or other violence by their employers. Some embassies maintained safe houses for citizens fleeing situations that amounted to bondage. The workers usually sought legal help from embassies and government agencies to obtain end-of-service benefits and exit visas.

In addition to their embassies, domestic servants could contact the NSHR, HRC, governmental Inter-ministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department, which provided services to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and protect them from abuse. Workers could also apply to the offices of regional governors and lodge an appeal with the Board of Grievances against decisions by those authorities.

Venezuela

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

Although the government did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and government-supported colectivos, carried out such killings during the year.

There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.” The NGO Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989 (COFAVIC) continued to report there was no publicly accessible national registry of reported cases of extrajudicial killings.

On January 15, approximately 400 government security forces, including the National Guard (GNB), Special Actions Force (FAES), Venezuelan National Police (PNB), National Antiextortion and Kidnapping Command, and Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), raided a home in El Junquito, a residential community less than an hour from the nation’s capital, and killed seven persons, including Oscar Perez, a former officer in the National Police Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC). Perez, according to government reports, had stolen a military airplane and dropped four hand grenades at a government building in July without causing structural damage or injury. According to information presented in the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) June report on human rights violations in the country, “[a]lthough the group had initiated negotiations with commanders of the GNB to surrender, officers received counterorders from the Strategic Operational Command to use lethal force and execute all members of the group once they had been subdued.” Perez had released a series of videos on social media during the siege in which the group’s negotiations with security forces could be heard. Death certificates revealed all seven individuals were shot in the head and killed. Many local NGOs termed the raid a massacre.

According to investigative journalists, 147 individuals younger than age 20 were killed in the Caracas metropolitan area between January and August. Of those deaths, 65 were committed by police. FAES, a specialized CICPC unit created by President Maduro in 2017 to quash “terrorist gangs” participating in large-scale countrywide protests, continued to be one of the deadliest. Between May and November 2017, FAES committed 31 percent of homicides by security forces. FAES tactics resembled the government’s nationwide anticrime strategy begun in 2015, the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), which was characterized by large-scale raids conducted by hundreds of government security agents in neighborhoods allegedly harboring criminals. NGOs reported that during OLP operations, officials committed grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, blackmail, torture, and destruction of property.

There were no developments in the cases of protesters killed in 2017. Government and NGO sources estimated at least 125 persons were killed in protests from April through July 2017. The Public Ministry reported 65 percent were victims of government repression. The NGO Foro Penal put the number at 75 percent, with colectivos responsible for half the deaths and the remainder divided between PNB and GNB forces. The NGO Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Action and Education (PROVEA) estimated that 83 percent of regime victims died from gunshot wounds. On numerous occasions security forces also used nonlethal ammunition at close range, severely injuring and in some cases killing protesters. Following the four months of antiregime protests, in September 2017 the government appointed a new attorney general, Tarek William Saab, who reopened investigations conducted during his predecessor’s tenure to undo the previous findings that held government security forces and colectivos responsible for widespread, violent repression.

According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal.

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

Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were credible reports that security forces tortured and abused detainees. There were no reports of any government officials being charged under the law.

The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups reported the government continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No data was available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal.

Press and NGO reports of beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were reported during the year. Cruel treatment frequently involved authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs also published reports that authorities generally mistreated, sexually abused, and threatened to kill detainees.

NGOs detailed reports from detainees whom authorities allegedly sexually abused, threatened with death, and forced to spend hours on their knees in detention centers. Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in government custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, detainees were interrogated by security officials. The executive director of the Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America, Tamara Suju, and human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Gutierrez denounced 357 cases of physical abuse, alleged torture, and violence by security forces against political prisoners before the International Criminal Court. Among the 357 cases, there were 190 allegations of rape or sexual abuse.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure. Armed gangs effectively controlled some prisons in which they were incarcerated. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails.

Physical Conditions: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 51,693 inmates in the country’s 41 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated 33,000 inmates in police station jails in 2017. NGOs reported records for detainees were not properly maintained and often contained incomplete information. According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), the capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent.

There were two women’s prisons, one in Miranda State and the other in Zulia State. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that in practice male and female prisoners intermingled. Security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, even though separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.

The CICPC and police station jails and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A 2017 UVL study of 89 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 432 percent overcrowding. According to the study, more than 80 percent of facilities provided no medical services, recreational areas, designated visiting areas, or laundry facilities. More than 60 percent did not have potable water, and more than 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms.

The GNB and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The government failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with only one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. The OVP reported 173 prisoner deaths and 268 serious injuries in 2016, the most recent year for which information was available. The OVP assessed that 90 percent of prison deaths were violent, resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner altercations, riots, and fires. The OVP reported some inmates also succumbed to the generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons. During the March 2017 renovation of Guarico State’s central prison, the construction team discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave. The case remained under investigation at year’s end but highlighted uncertainty over the true number of annual prison deaths.

During the year prison and detention center riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. For example, on March 28, a fire erupted in an overcrowded police station in Valencia, Carabobo State, killing 66 male prisoners and two female visitors; more than 100 persons received burns in the fire. Media reported that after an argument with a guard, a group of prisoners lit their bed linens on fire. Many NGOs called the fire a massacre, noting some prisoners died from the fire itself, while others died of physical trauma or gunshot wounds.

A 2016 law limiting cell phone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity remained unimplemented. Minister of Penitentiary Affairs Iris Varela admitted communicating with inmates by cell phone immediately before and during the 2017 Puente Ayala prison riot. There were credible reports that Varela may have had a hand in directing the violence, including her own admission to that effect during a media interview.

The UVL reported authorities required family members to provide food for prisoners at police station jails throughout the country due to inadequate provisioning of food by the prison administration. According to a UVL report, in 2017 at least 28 inmates died from complications associated with malnutrition and preventable disease such as tuberculosis. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates.

On February 24, Vista Hermosa prison inmate Alejandro Manuel Mago Coraspe was admitted into a local Bolivar state hospital after he fell ill, apparently from eating poisoned rodents. Vista Hermosa prisoners customarily ate wild birds and rodents to survive, according to Mago Coraspe. After undergoing surgery, he explained to journalists that he customarily killed and cooked rats but had most recently eaten rats he found in the prison garbage that were potentially poisoned. According to reports from Mago Coraspe’s family, prison guards beat him severely upon his return to the prison, allegedly for having spoken to media members. According to media reports, a judge ordered Mago Coraspe to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. Prison authorities disregarded the order, and Mago Coraspe died in prison on April 24.

The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases or from lack of medical care. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules regarding the classification of inmates resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for their medical attention.

Administration: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes or violent uprisings.

Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, but in some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. Prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits to political prisoners. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.

Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers continued to experience lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. Authorities had not approved requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit penitentiary centers and interview inmates in confidentiality since 2013. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal means to present their petitions. Authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The GNB–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the CICPC, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad, and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. SEBIN maintained its own detention facilities separate from those of the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The PNB reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.

Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force.

Impunity remained a serious problem in the security forces. The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office of Fundamental Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials.

According to the Public Ministry’s 2016 annual report (the most recent one available), the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,343 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 320 with violations. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman provided information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel.

State and municipal governments also investigated their respective police forces. By law the national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council that takes action against security officials who commit abuses. The National Assembly also may investigate security force abuses.

The government at both the local and national levels took few actions to sanction officers involved in abuses. According to the NGO Network of Support for Justice and Peace, the lack of sufficient prosecutors made it difficult to prosecute police and military officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses. In addition NGOs reported the following problems contributed to an ineffective judicial system: long procedural delays, poor court administration and organization, lack of transparency in investigations, and impunity of government officials. In June 2017 Human Rights Watch reported the then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz had opened investigations in more than 600 cases of injury caused during the protests that began in April 2017. In at least 10 cases, her office charged security forces with unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders. After her removal, her successor did not pursue the cases.

NGOs and police noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in the police and that the actual occurrence was likely far higher than what was reported.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals without a warrant. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. Authorities routinely ignored these requirements.

Although the law provides for bail, it is not available for certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings.

Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 498 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and November 15, compared with 5,462 protest-related cases of arbitrary detention from April through December 2017. Opposition politicians and human rights NGOs attributed the reduction largely to a significant decrease in large-scale protests following National Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections in July 2017.

Caracas municipal councilmember Fernando Alban died on October 8 while in SEBIN custody. SEBIN officials had arrested Alban upon his return from a foreign trip on October 5 and held him in detention as a suspect in the August 4 drone attack believed to have been a presidential assassination attempt. Attorney General Tarek William Saab reported via social media and press statements that Alban jumped from a 10th-floor bathroom window, while Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol stated Alban jumped from a 10th-floor waiting room. NGOs and members of the opposition denounced these conflicting stories and alleged Alban was murdered.

Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Public Ministry, in 2016 only 21 percent of trials concluded or reached sentencing. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges (4.7 penal judges per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the latest date for which information was available).

Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events giving rise to the cause of action. An automated scheduling system was ineffective at streamlining case logistics. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend.

According to the Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report (the most recent available), the ministry pressed charges in 9.7 percent of the 556,000 cases involving common crimes. The ministry reported the closure of the remainder of the complaints but did not indicate final outcomes. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed and hearings postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the government at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the International Commission of Jurists, 66 to 80 percent of all judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the TSJ Judicial Committee. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence from various ministries and the newly appointed attorney general to make progovernment determinations. There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent rate of impunity for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights violations.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them, but the requirement was often ignored and, even when respected, involved dubious allegations, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,500 public defenders in 2017, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected because of attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.

Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal.

Trial delays were common. Trials “in absentia” are permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender that the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”

At the January 31 hearing of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, the judge did not set a date for the next phase of her trial, when it was expected a verdict would be announced. Afiuni was accused of corruption and abuse of authority for her 2009 decision conditionally to release a businessman who had been held in pretrial detention beyond the maximum time prescribed by law. Afiuni continued to be subjected to protective measures in place since her release to house arrest in 2011 that mandate she may not leave the country, talk to media, or use social media, although the law states such measures may not last more than two years.

The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of less than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” community service, or any other condition imposed by the court.

The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the Organic Code of Military Justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern with the government’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, military courts processed at least 35 civilians between January 1 and August 1.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

The government used the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute individuals critical of government policies or actions. The regime reportedly continued the policy it began in 2012 of denying the ICRC access to prisons. Foro Penal reported 286 political prisoners in government custody as of November 18, down from 676 political prisoners reported at the height of 2017’s wave of political protests but well above averages recorded in 2015 and 2016. The government routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.

On June 2, the government provisionally released opposition coalition leader Roberto Picon and former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos. The two, like many others released immediately following the May 20 elections, were prohibited from leaving the country or speaking to media, and they were required to appear before a judge on a monthly basis. Ceballos was released from the Ramo Verde military detention facility, where prison authorities routinely held him in solitary confinement and denied him visitation. Picon was released from house arrest, which the government granted in December 2017, as part of a larger “good will” pardon. According to media reports and NGO representatives, SEBIN arrested Picon in June 2017 without an arrest warrant. At a military hearing on charges of rebellion and theft of items belonging to the military, NGO representatives claimed the prosecution entered evidence that included a paperweight and a reference to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The government increased its attack against civil liberties after an alleged failed presidential assassination attempt on August 4. On August 7, masked men abducted National Assembly Deputy Juan Requesens from his home during a nationally televised presidential address in which Maduro accused Requesens of involvement in the alleged August 4 attack. On August 9, the government released a video of a disheveled Requesens admitting he had information on one of the assassination plotters. On August 10, a second video appeared on social media showing Requesens, visibly weak and naked aside from his notably soiled underwear. Despite daily requests from his lawyer and family members, government authorities granted Requesens only two visits–September 21 and October 7–following his detention on August 7. According to reports, Requesens was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. As of December 6, his detention conditions had improved slightly under new SEBIN leadership. Nevertheless, Requesens was not receiving medical attention in a timely fashion, and due process had yet to be afforded in his case.

As of October 1, jailed opposition party leader and former Chacao municipality mayor Leopoldo Lopez remained under house arrest and barred from communicating with individuals outside his home.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to bring lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations.

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

The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the government generally did not respect these prohibitions. In some cases government authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, or interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted indiscriminate household raids.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for this right, but the government generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the government to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the government to criminalize organizations that were critical of the government. Protests and marches require government authorization in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.”

Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic services such as water and electricity. The government generally refrained from using the widespread, violent, and in some cases fatal responses they used to quash the 2017 protests, but NGOs reported cases of arbitrary detention and heavy-handed police tactics to quell protests.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the government did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.

A 2016 presidential decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.” There were no reports the government implemented the decree during the year.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government did not respect these rights.

On October 5, the government announced the creation of a special migration police unit. Although some NGOs expressed concern the government would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the government asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The government declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed Venezuelan migratory crisis.

The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.

On September 24, CONARE announced it would approve refugee applications for 54 Colombians who were awaiting approval. CONARE president Juan Carlos Aleman remarked the commission had more than 1,100 active requests for refugee status and that CONARE would respond to all of the requests in the next few months.

Arbitrary detentions continued but were reduced during the year. Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia.

While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

In-country Movement: The government restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on government-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.

Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports even after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The government repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and National Assembly deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.

Exile: There were new cases of citizens denied the right to return during the year. For example, the government released jailed University of Los Andes student leader Villca Fernandez on June 14, requiring that he leave the country as a condition of his release. SEBIN officials had arrested Fernandez in 2016 after he sent a tweet defending himself after then PSUV first vice president Diosdado Cabello threatened Fernandez on his weekly televised show. SEBIN officials reportedly tortured Fernandez, refused him medical attention, and kept him in solitary confinement, releasing him for less than 15 minutes at a time to use the bathroom.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. UNHCR estimated there were 7,860 recognized refugees and 173,000 persons in need of international protection in the country in 2017. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Despite the increased migration of Venezuelans to neighboring countries, NGOs supporting displaced Colombians noted many chose to remain in Venezuela despite the economic crisis, citing a cost of living comparatively lower than in Colombia, fear of violence, or the ease with which they could travel between the two nations without relocating. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.

Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant challenges to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The 1999 constitution, the country’s 26th since independence in 1811, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but government interference, electoral irregularities, and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the May 20 presidential elections.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The CNE executed deeply flawed presidential elections on May 20 that elicited historically low participation and undermined public faith in the democratic process. The elections took place on a remarkably short timeline–announced on February 7, they were originally scheduled for April 22, less than 75 days later–effectively preventing a nationwide opposition campaign. The CNE banned the leading opposition parties, using the ad hoc explanation that they had given up their stature by boycotting December 2017 municipal elections. Furthermore, leading opposition politicians were prohibited from running, including Henrique Capriles (Primero Justicia) and Leopoldo Lopez (Voluntad Popular).

In September the CNE extended its ban to the oldest surviving opposition party, Accion Democratica (AD), declaring it would be prohibited from running candidates in municipal council elections scheduled for December. The ostensible reason the CNE gave for the ban was AD’s decision not to participate in a “recertification” process called abruptly in August. AD leaders noted they had successfully completed a similar process in January and no legal basis existed for the new requirement.

During the May 20 presidential elections, national media noted various irregularities, including financial benefits offered to PSUV voters, government vehicles used to transport PSUV voters to voting centers, opposition party observers blocked from polling centers, media blocked from covering events at polling centers, and distribution of food coupons to progovernment voters. There were no reports the government forced government workers or benefit recipients to vote, as had been customary in the most recent national elections.

Even though there had been no referendum to approve efforts for constitutional reform, in July 2017 at the president’s direction, the CNE held fraudulent and violently protested elections to choose representatives for the ANC that would reportedly rewrite the constitution. Observers claimed the CNE was used to usurp the authority of the National Assembly and legitimize unconstitutional acts of the regime.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties operated in a restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access.

During the year the government expanded the carnet de la patria program, introduced in 2017 as a multipurpose identification card, so that it was required to access government-funded social services. In September the government announced gasoline, largely subsidized by the government, would be sold only at higher international prices to those without a carnet de la patria. Cardholders were reportedly also granted exclusive access to educational scholarships, subsidized food, and other government support. The government set up carnet de la patria check-in points outside of voting centers during national elections and urged cardholders to “register” their votes. According to the government, as of October more than 17 million of the 30 million residents had registered for the card. To qualify for the card, applicants must provide proof of political affiliation and respond to a number of questions regarding the social service benefits they receive. Government opponents asserted the card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The ruling party had a number of high-level female politicians and ministers, while the opposition lacked female and minority representation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Some officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The government frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.

Corruption: On August 4, Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced the Public Ministry’s reportedly successful efforts to fight corruption during his first year in office. According to Saab, 616 persons were convicted of corruption-related charges; however, the government did not provide information regarding the alleged cases or persons convicted.

Corruption was a major problem in all police forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. There was no information publicly available about the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials, as well as all directors and members of the boards of private companies, to submit sworn financial disclosure statements. By law the Public Ministry and competent criminal courts may require such statements from any other persons when circumstantial evidence arises during an investigation.

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

A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their requests. Domestic NGOs reported fear the government would use the 2017 Law against Hate to justify widespread repression of their activities, jailing of the participants and organizers, and threats against family members. Some domestic NGOs reported government threats and harassment against their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to government raids and detentions, but they were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. Some human rights activists reported authorities barred them from traveling abroad or that they feared not being able to return to the country if they traveled. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community about alleged violations and key human rights cases.

NGOs asserted the government created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. The PSUV first vice president and ANC president, Diosdado Cabello, used his weekly talk show to intimidate NGO staff from Espacio Publico, PROVEA, and Foro Penal. Several organizations, such as the OVP, PROVEA, Foro Penal, and Citizen Control, reported their staffs received both electronic and in-person threats. Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their email privacy.

The law prohibits domestic NGOs from receiving funds from abroad if they have a “political intent”–defined as the intent to “promote, disseminate, inform, or defend the full exercise of the political rights of citizens” or to “defend political rights.” The government threatened NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various government officials accused human rights organizations on national television and media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors.

For violations the law stipulates monetary penalties, a potential five- to eight-year disqualification from running for political office, or both. The law defines political organizations as those involved in promoting citizen participation, exercising control over public offices, and promoting candidates for public office. Although there was no formal application or enforcement of the law, it created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.

In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of security forces.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which last visited the country in 2002. The government also repeatedly refused to grant access to the OHCHR to investigate the human rights situation.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the government gave its 2016 human rights plan minimal attention.

The TSJ continued to hold the National Assembly in “contempt” status, which diminished the purview and operational effectiveness of the assembly’s subcommission on human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, making it punishable by a prison term of eight to 14 years. A man legally may avoid punishment by marrying (before he is sentenced) the person he raped. The law allows authorities to consider alternative forms of punishment, including work release, for those convicted of various crimes, including rape, if they have completed three-quarters of their sentence.

The law criminalizes physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the home or community and at work. The law punishes perpetrators of domestic violence with penalties ranging from six to 27 months in prison. The law requires police to report domestic violence to judicial authorities and obligates hospital personnel to notify authorities when admitting patients who are victims of domestic abuse. Police generally were reluctant to intervene to prevent domestic violence and were not properly trained to handle such cases. The law also establishes women’s bureaus at local police headquarters and tribunals specializing in gender-based violence, and two-thirds of states had specialized courts. The Public Ministry’s Women’s Defense Department employed a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, and other experts who dealt exclusively with cases of femicide, gender-related violence, and other crimes against women.

Many advocates observed there was a lack of public awareness among women regarding resources and support available to prevent and combat domestic violence. The government offered some shelter and services for victims of domestic and other violence, but NGOs provided the majority of domestic abuse support services.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by fines and a prison sentence of one to three years. Although allegedly common in the workplace, sexual harassment cases were rarely reported.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men under the constitution. Women and men are legally equal in marriage, and the law provides for gender equality in exercising the right to work. The law specifies that employers must not discriminate against women with regard to pay or working conditions. According to the Ministry of Labor and the Confederation of Workers, regulations protecting women’s labor rights were enforced in the formal sector, although according to the World Economic Forum, women earned 36 percent less on average than men doing comparable jobs.

The law provides women with property rights equal to those of men.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory. According to UNICEF, 81 percent of children younger than age five were registered at birth, based on 2011 statistics provided by the government.

Child Abuse: According to UNICEF and NGOs working with children and women, child abuse, including incest, occurred but was rarely reported. The government made efforts to detain and prosecute some perpetrators of child abuse. Although the judicial system acted to remove children from abusive households, the press reported public facilities for such children were inadequate. According to NGOs, in many cases children were returned to their homes without proper reintegration measures or follow-up.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for women and men, but with parental consent, the minimum age is 16.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law sexual relations with a minor younger than age 13, with an “especially vulnerable” person, or with a minor younger than age 16 when the perpetrator is a relative or guardian, are punishable with a mandatory sentence of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits the forced prostitution and corruption of minors. Penalties range from 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment in the case of sex trafficking of girls, although the law requires force, fraud, or coercion in its definition of sex trafficking of children. The law prohibits the production and sale of child pornography and establishes penalties of 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Displaced Children: Children’s rights advocates noted an increase of up to 40 percent in the number of children living on the street, compared with 2017, when leading advocates and the press estimated 10,000 children lived on the streets. As parents fled the country’s economic crisis, many left their children behind with family members, many of whom also struggled with the country’s economic downturn. State-run facilities already filled to capacity were unable to support the influx of children in need. The government did not provide additional resources to support these centers, and at least four centers closed in the first quarter of the year due to a lack of resources. Private institutions denounced the government’s refusal to provide subsidized food benefits to support their population. NGOs noted young girls made up close to half of the children living on the streets, a significant increase. The significant shift posed particular challenges for shelters, which historically managed predominantly male populations. With institutions filled to capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions, such as curfew violations, were confined in inadequate juvenile detention centers.

International Child Abductions: The country is 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.html.

Anti-Semitism

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, including anti-Semitism.

The Confederation of Israelite Associations in Venezuela estimated there were 9,000 Jews in the country. Jewish community leaders expressed concern about anti-Semitic statements made by high-level government officials and anti-Semitic pieces in progovernment media outlets. They said government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of President Maduro’s comparing migrant Venezuelans to Jews persecuted by Hitler. The community leaders noted many other anti-Semitic incidents occurred during the year.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, but the government did not make a significant effort to implement the law, inform the public of it, or combat societal prejudice against persons with disabilities. The law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access, but persons with disabilities had minimal access to public transportation, and ramps were almost nonexistent. Many persons with disabilities expressed concerns that public transportation workers often were unwilling to transport them and forced them to find taxis, which were often out of their financial reach and also frequently not equipped to support patrons with disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities also complained they were forced to wait in long lines for services rather than provided preference in line as is afforded by law. Online resources and access to information were generally available to persons with disabilities, although access to closed-captioned or audio-described online videos for persons with sight and hearing disabilities was limited. Separately, leading advocates for persons with hearing disabilities lamented difficult access to public services due to a lack of government-funded interpreters in public courts, health-care facilities, and legal services, as well as a lack of other public accommodations.

The National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, an independent agency affiliated with the Ministry for Participation and Social Development, advocated for the rights of persons with disabilities and provided medical, legal, occupational, and cultural programs. According to the commission, less than 20 percent of persons with disabilities who registered with government health programs were fully employed.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race. The law prohibits all forms of racial discrimination and provides for a maximum of three years’ imprisonment for acts of racial discrimination. As mandated by law, signage existed outside commercial and recreational establishments announcing the prohibition against acts of racial discrimination. Beyond signage the government did little to enforce the laws against discrimination or prosecute cases of discrimination.

There were no reports the government arrested or prosecuted suspects regarding 2017 attacks by demonstrators that killed two Afro-Venezuelan men, despite videos of the attacks circulating widely on social media.

Indigenous People

The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin. The constitution provides for three seats in the National Assembly for deputies of indigenous origin to “protect indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation,” but some indigenous communities had been without representation in the national legislature since the TSJ annulled the 2015 election of Amazonas State’s indigenous representative.

NGOs and the press reported local political authorities seldom took account of indigenous interests when making decisions affecting indigenous lands, cultures, traditions, or allocation of natural resources. Indigenous groups continued to call for faster implementation of the demarcation process.

Indigenous groups and NGOs expressed concern regarding mining in the growing “Arco Minero,” an area that extends between the states of Bolivar and Amazonas. Indigenous communities reported the government developed and expanded mining zones without consulting those native to the region. Armed groups, including Colombian guerrillas, had a considerable presence in the area, increasing the level of violence and insecurity in the communities. There was also an unprecedented influx of diseases, as well as prostitution and other illegal activities, in the mining areas, putting indigenous communities at risk.

Indigenous groups regularly reported violent conflicts with miners and cattle ranchers over land rights. There were reports of harassment, attacks, and forced evictions against indigenous persons living in areas included as part of government mining concessions.

Border disputes with Colombia affected indigenous groups living in border regions. While the president proclaimed indigenous persons on the border could cross freely, there were many reported cases in which movements of indigenous groups were restricted.

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

The constitution provides for equality before the law of all persons and prohibits discrimination based on “sex or social condition,” but it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a TSJ ruling, no individual may be subjected to discrimination because of sexual orientation, but the ruling was rarely enforced.

Credible NGOs reported incidents of bias-motivated violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Reported incidents were most prevalent against transgender individuals. Leading advocates noted that law enforcement authorities often did not properly investigate to determine whether crimes were bias-motivated.

Local police and private security forces allegedly prevented LGBTI persons from entering malls, public parks, and recreational areas. NGOs reported the government systematically denied legal recognition to transgender and intersex persons by preventing them from obtaining identity documents required for accessing education, employment, housing, and health care. This vulnerability often led transgender and intersex persons to become victims of human trafficking or prostitution.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law provides for the equal rights of persons with HIV/AIDS and their families. Nevertheless, leading advocates alleged discrimination against such persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that all private- and public-sector workers (except members of the armed forces) have the right to form and join unions of their choice, and it provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights, and the government deployed a variety of mechanisms to undercut the rights of independent workers and unions. Minimum membership requirements for unions differ based on the type of union. Forming a company union requires a minimum of 20 workers; forming a professional, industrial, or sectoral union in one jurisdiction requires 40 workers in the same field; and forming a regional or national union requires 150 workers. Ten persons may form an employees association, a parallel type of representation the government endorsed and openly supported.

The law prohibits “any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise” of workers’ right to unionize. The law requires all unions to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster that includes the full name, home address, telephone number, and national identification number for each union member. The ministry reviews the registration and determines whether the union fulfilled all requirements. Unions must submit their registration application by December 31 of the year the union forms; if not received by the ministry or if the ministry considers the registration unsatisfactory, the union is denied the ability to exist legally. The law also requires the presence of labor inspectors to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions before the Ministry of Labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns about the ministry’s refusal to register trade union organizations.

By law employers may negotiate a collective contract only with the union that represents the majority of its workers. Minority organizations may not jointly negotiate in cases where no union represents an absolute majority. The law also places a number of restrictions on unions’ ability to administer their activities. For example, the CNE has the authority to administer internal elections of labor unions, federations, and confederations. By law elections must be held at least every three years. If CNE-administered and -certified elections are not held within this period, the law prohibits union leaders from representing workers in negotiations or engaging in anything beyond administrative tasks. The ILO repeatedly found cases of interference by the CNE in trade union elections, and in 1999 it began calling for the CNE to be delinked from the union election process.

The law recognizes the right of all public- and private-sector workers to strike, subject to conditions established by law. By law workers participating in legal strikes receive immunity from prosecution, and their time in service may not be reduced by the time engaged in a strike. The law requires that employers reincorporate striking workers and provides for prison terms of six to 15 months for employers who fail to do so. Replacement workers are not permitted during legal strikes. The law prohibits striking workers from paralyzing the production or provision of essential public goods and services, but it defines “essential services” more broadly than ILO standards. The ILO called on the government to amend the law to exclude from the definition of “essential services” activities “that are not essential in the strict sense of the term…so that in no event may criminal sanctions be imposed in cases of peaceful strikes.”

The minister of labor may order public- or private-sector strikers back to work and submit their disputes to arbitration if a strike “puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population.” Other legal provisions establish criminal penalties for exercising the right to strike in certain circumstances. For example, the law prohibits specified actions and makes punishable with five to 10 years in prison anyone who “organizes, supports, or instigates the realization of activities within security zones that are intended to disturb or affect the organization and functioning of military installations, public services, industries and basic [mining] enterprises, or the socioeconomic life of the country.” The law also provides for prison terms of two to six years and six to 10 years, respectively, for those who restrict the distribution of goods and for “those…who develop or carry out actions or omissions that impede, either directly or indirectly, the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods.” There was no information on whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

The government restricted the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through administrative and legal mechanisms.

The ILO raised concerns about violence against trade union members and government intimidation of the Associations of Commerce and Production of Venezuela. ILO member countries voted to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry against Venezuela to investigate longstanding complaints first lodged in 2015 of labor rights violations of ILO Conventions No. 26, 87, and 144, which pertain to minimum-wage fixing, freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and tripartite consultation, respectively. The ILO had recommended that the government allow a tripartite delegation to provide technical assistance to mediate unresolved complaints between the government, employers, and workers. The government continued to refuse access to the ILO High-Level Tripartite delegation to address complaints of labor rights violations.

Organized labor activists continued to report that the annual requirement to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster was onerous and infringed on freedom of association. They alleged the ministry removed member names from the rosters for political purposes, particularly if members were not registered to vote with the CNE. Labor leaders also criticized the laborious and costly administrative process of requesting CNE approval for elections and subsequent delays in the CNE’s recognition of such union processes. In addition there reportedly was a high turnover of Ministry of Labor contractors, resulting in a lack of timely follow-through on union processes. Labor unions in both the private and public sectors noted long delays in obtaining CNE concurrence to hold elections and in receiving certification of the election results, which hindered unions’ ability to bargain collectively.

The government continued to support many “parallel” unions, which sought to dilute the membership and effectiveness of traditional independent unions. In October, Labor Minister Eduardo Pinate announced the expansion of the ministry’s Youth Worker Program (Chamba Juvenil), which independent union leaders claimed was a government mechanism to displace independent workers with government-aligned workers and also to suppress wages, since youth are paid less than experienced workers. In general these government-supported unions were not subject to the same government scrutiny and requirements regarding leadership elections. The government excluded from consideration other, independent union federations, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, General Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela, and National Union of Workers.

The government continued to refuse to adjudicate or otherwise resolve the cases of 19,000 employees of the state oil company (PDVSA) who were fired during and after the 2002-03 strike. The Ministry of Labor continued to deny registration to the National Union of Oil, Gas, Petrochemical, and Refinery Workers.

The concept of striking, demonized since the 2002 national security law, was used periodically as a political tool to accuse government opponents of coup plotting or other destabilizing activities. Some companies, especially in the public sector, had multiple unions with varying degrees of allegiance to the ruling party’s version of the “socialist revolution,” which could trigger interunion conflict and strife. In August striking regional union leaders of Corpoelec (a state-owned electricity operator) complained national union leaders failed to negotiate in good faith on behalf of striking workers demanding wage increases. Corpoelec regional union leaders alleged national union leaders were progovernment “chavistas” and therefore beholden to the government for political reasons.

In June Maduro provisionally released former University of Carabobo professor Rolman Rojas, former president of the Carabobo College of Nurses Julio Garcia, former president of Fetracarabobo Omar Escalante, and former secretary general of the National Federation of Retirees and Pensioners Omar Vasquez Lagonel but required weekly reports to a judge as a condition of their release. SEBIN detained the group in August 2017 for their participation in the national labor strike against the ANC election.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits some forms of forced or compulsory labor but does not provide criminal penalties for certain forms of forced labor. The law prohibits human trafficking by organized crime groups through its law on organized crime, which prescribes 20 to 25 years’ imprisonment for the human trafficking of adults carried out by a member of an organized-crime group of three or more individuals. The organized-crime law, however, fails to prohibit trafficking by any individual not affiliated with such a group. Prosecutors may employ other statutes to prosecute such individuals. The law increases penalties from 25 to 30 years for child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor. There was no comprehensive information available regarding the government’s enforcement of the law. The labor group Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Wages, and Unions (FADESS) reported that public-sector worker agreements included provisions requiring service in the armed forces’ reserves.

There were reports of children and adults subjected to human trafficking with the purpose of forced labor, particularly in the informal economic sector and in domestic servitude (see section 7.c.). According to FADESS, more than 60,000 Cubans worked in government social programs (such as the Mission Inside the Barrio) in exchange for the government’s provision of oil resources to the Cuban government. FADESS noted Cubans worked in the Ministries of Education, Registrar, Notary, Telecommunications, and Security. FADESS also cited that the G-2 Cuban security unit was present in the armed forces and in state enterprises. Indicators of forced labor reported by some Cubans included chronic underpayment of wages, mandatory long hours, limitations on movement, and threats of retaliatory actions against workers and their families if they left the program. According to the Global Slavery Index, the estimated absolute number of victims in the country was 174,000.

The law does not sufficiently prohibit the trafficking of boys and requires proof of the use of deception, coercion, force, violence, threats, abduction, or other fraudulent means to carry out the offense of trafficking of girls, including for commercial sexual exploitation.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum employment age at 14. Children younger than 14 may work only if granted special permission by the National Institute for Minors or the Ministry of Labor. Such permission may not be granted to minors who are younger than the legal age for work in hazardous occupations that risk their life or health or could damage their intellectual or moral development. According to the ILO, the government had not made publicly available the list of specific types of work considered hazardous. Children ages 14 to 18 may not work without permission of their legal guardians or in occupations expressly prohibited by law, and they may work no more than six hours per day or 30 hours per week. Minors younger than age 18 may not work outside the normal workday.

Anyone employing children younger than age eight is subject to a prison term of between one and three years. Employers must notify authorities if they hire a minor as a domestic worker.

No information was available on whether or how many employers were sanctioned for violations. The government continued to provide services to vulnerable children, including street children, working children, and children at risk of working. There was no independent accounting of the effectiveness of these and other government-supported programs.

Most child laborers worked in the agricultural sector, street vending, domestic service, or in small and medium-size businesses, most frequently in family-run operations. There continued to be isolated reports of children exploited in domestic servitude, mining, forced begging, and commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits employment discrimination for every citizen. The law prohibits discrimination based on age, race, sex, social condition, creed, marital status, union affiliation, political views, nationality, disability, or any condition that could be used to lessen the principle of equality before the law. No law specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV/AIDS status. Media and NGOs, such as PROVEA and the Human Rights Center at the Andres Bello Catholic University, reported the government had a very limited capacity to address complaints and enforce the law in some cases and lacked political will in some cases of active discrimination based on political motivations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Nominal wages increased 43,273 percent through the first nine months of the year, but accumulated inflation over the same period reached 81,043 percent, according to a monthly study conducted by the National Assembly Finance Committee, which conducted its work without official Central Bank data.

In January workers in the health, petroleum, transportation, and electricity began holding protests, work stoppages, and strikes denouncing “hunger salaries”–wages insufficient to afford the basic food basket and unable to keep pace with hyperinflation. Additionally, they decried the lack of adequate equipment, supplies, and safe working conditions. Emblematic was the nurses’ strike, which began in June and continued as of October. Nurses demanded a salary increase on par with those of military officials: Nurses earned 2.2 million, compared with military officials earning 240 million bolivares, a 100-fold salary disparity. Striking nurses also demanded hospital supplies and medicines to counteract severe shortages, rendering them unable to provide adequate patient care. In response President Maduro unilaterally issued a decree in August raising the national minimum wage to 1,800 bolivares soberanos ($11), a 60-fold increase from the previous minimum wage. Labor experts noted the unilateral nature of the decision countered ILO Convention No. 26 requiring the government to consult with employers and workers prior to enacting wage increases. Legislators noted the decree violated the law, since it supplanted collective bargaining agreements. Union leaders from the petroleum, health, telecommunications, and electricity sectors highlighted that the decree did not include wage adjustments to keep up with hyperinflation and thus remained insufficient to afford the basic food basket. It also violated the law by nullifying previously signed collective bargaining agreements, including wage tables that scaled salaries accounting for seniority and merit pay.

The president of CONINDUSTRIA, the trade union of the industrial sector, stated that of the 15,000 industries existing in 2000, only 3,500 remained as of October.

The law sets the workweek at 40 hours (35 hours for a night shift). The law establishes separate limits for “shift workers,” who may not work more than an average of 42 hours per week during an eight-week period, with overtime capped at 100 hours annually. Managers are prohibited from obligating employees to work additional time, and workers have the right to two consecutive days off each week. Overtime is paid at a 50 percent surcharge if a labor inspector approves the overtime in advance and at a 100 percent surcharge if an inspector does not give advance permission. The law establishes that, after completing one year with an employer, a worker has a right to 15 days of paid vacation annually. A worker has the right to an additional day for every additional year of service, for a maximum of 15 additional days annually.

The law provides for secure, hygienic, and adequate working conditions. Workplaces must maintain “protection for the health and life of the workers against all dangerous working conditions.” The law obligates employers to pay workers specified amounts for workplace injuries or occupational illnesses, ranging from two times the daily salary for missed workdays to several years’ salary for permanent injuries. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The law covers all workers, including temporary, occasional, and domestic workers. There was reportedly some enforcement by the Ministry of Labor of minimum wage rates and hours of work provisions in the formal sector, but 40 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, where labor laws and protections generally were not enforced. The government did not enforce legal protections on safety in the public sector. According to PROVEA, while the National Institute for Prevention, Health, and Labor Security required many private businesses to correct dangerous labor conditions, the government did not enforce such standards in a similar manner in state enterprises and entities. There was no publicly available information regarding the number of inspectors or the frequency of inspections to implement health and safety, minimum wage, or hours of work provisions. Ministry inspectors seldom closed unsafe job sites. There was no information on whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

Official statistics regarding workplace deaths and injuries were not publicly available.

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