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Bahrain

Executive Summary

Bahrain is a hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa is the head of state and holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The king appoints the prime minister, the head of government, who is not required to be a member of parliament. In November 2020 the king appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as prime minister, following the death of the incumbent. The prime minister proposes ministers, who are appointed and dismissed by the king via royal decree. The cabinet, or Council of Ministers, consists of 22 ministers, of whom seven are members of the ruling Al Khalifa family. The parliament consists of an upper house appointed by the king, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and an elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, most recently in 2018. Representatives from two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, could not participate in the elections due to their court-ordered dissolution in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded authorities administered the elections without significant procedural irregularities.

The king is supreme commander of the armed forces, and the crown prince is deputy commander. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for internal security and oversees the civilian security force and specialized security units responsible for maintaining internal order. The Coast Guard is also under its jurisdiction. The Bahrain National Guard is responsible for internal threats. The chief of the National Intelligence Agency (previously the National Security Agency) is appointed by royal decree and reports to the prime minister. The agency has arrest authority, but reportedly did not conduct arrests during the year. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

The government prosecuted some low-level security force members responsible for human rights abuses, following investigations by government institutions. The government took steps to investigate allegations of corruption. Nongovernmental human rights organizations claimed investigations were slow and lacked transparency.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution prohibits “harm[ing] an accused person physically or mentally.” Domestic and international human rights organizations, as well as detainees and former detainees, maintained that torture, abuse, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government security officials continued during the year.

Human rights groups alleged security officials beat detainees, placed detainees in stress positions, humiliated detainees in front of other prisoners, and insulted detainees’ religious beliefs. Detainees reported that security forces committed abuses during searches, arrests at private residences, and during transportation. Detainees reported intimidation, such as threats of violence, took place at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) headquarters facility. Some detainees at the CID reported security officials used physical and psychological mistreatment to extract confessions and statements under duress or to inflict retribution and punishment.

Human rights groups reported authorities subjected children, sometimes younger than age 15, to various forms of mistreatment, including beating, slapping, kicking, and verbal abuse. On August 18, the criminal age of majority was raised from 15 to 18, although the law has been inconsistently applied.

Human rights organizations reported that four prison detainees, convicted on terrorism, illegal assembly, and rioting charges, began a hunger strike in November to protest prison mistreatment and denial of contact with their families. The four ranged in age from 17 to 20. Several of the juvenile detainees reported they were held in solitary confinement and were subject to abuse during their interrogations.

Human rights organizations and families of inmates also reported authorities denied medical treatment to injured or ill detainees and prisoners of conscience (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In June, 73-year-old Hasan Mushaima, a prominent leader of a dissolved political society sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges related to his role organizing protests in 2011, issued a recorded message from Jaw Prison to complain of his deteriorating health and prison authorities’ refusal to refer him to outside medical specialists. The government offered to release Mushaima on house arrest under the alternative sentencing law, but he declined, reportedly refusing to accept restrictions on his activities (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The government stated that all prisons, detention facilities, and interrogation rooms at local police stations and the CID were equipped with closed-circuit television cameras that monitored facilities at all times. The Ministry of Interior police code of conduct requires officers to abide by 10 principles, including limited use of force and zero tolerance for torture and mistreatment. The Royal Academy of Police included the police code of conduct in its curriculum, required all recruits to take a course on human rights, and provided recruits with copies of the police code of conduct in English and Arabic. The ministry reported it took disciplinary action against officers, although it did not publish details of which principles the officers violated and what disciplinary steps were taken.

According to its eighth annual report released in December, the Interior Ministry’s Office of the Ombudsman received 209 complaints and 691 requests for assistance between May 2020 and April 30. Alleged victims or their families submitted multiple complaints regarding police mistreatment, along with human rights organizations and other international organizations. The complaints were levied against a variety of police directorates, Reform and Rehabilitation Centers (prisons), and other Ministry of Interior units. The Ombudsman rejected some cases as being outside of its jurisdiction and referred several more to other investigative bodies. The majority of cases investigated by the Ombudsman were considered resolved at the time of the report’s release, although several were still considered pending.

The Special Investigation Unit (SIU), an element of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) that reports to the king-appointed attorney general, is responsible for investigating security force misconduct, including complaints against police. The SIU investigated and referred cases of misconduct to the appropriate court, including civilian criminal courts, the Ministry of Interior’s Military Court, and administrative courts. The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct. The SIU did not provide detailed reports regarding the nature of police misconduct, abuse, or excessive use of force. According to compiled local media reports during the year, the SIU received 68 formal complaints, questioned 107 who were tied to those complaints, and prosecuted 16 members of the security forces in the criminal court on police misconduct charges. Three police officers faced trials in military courts, and at least 11 former police officers were referred to psychological evaluations.

The Ministry of Interior organized various human rights training programs for its employees, including a year-long human rights curriculum and diploma at the Royal Police Academy. The academy regularly negotiated memoranda of understanding with the government-linked National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) to exchange expertise. The academy included a unit on human rights in international law in the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics program.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Human rights activists reported conditions in prisons and detention centers were harsh and sometimes life threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.

Physical Conditions: Human rights organizations and prisoners reported gross overcrowding in pretrial detention facilities that placed a strain on prison administration and led to a high prisoner-to-staff ratio.

Authorities held detainees younger than age 15 at the Juvenile Care Center; criminal records are expunged after detainees younger than 15 are released. The government housed convicted male inmates ages 15 to 17 and those 18 to 21 in separate buildings located on the grounds of the Dry Dock Facility. Upon reaching 21, prisoners enter the general population at Jaw Prison. The Ministry of Interior reserved one ward in the pretrial detention center for elderly and special needs detainees. Officials reported they offered these detainees special food, health care, and personal services to meet their needs.

The government reported detention centers were staffed with experienced medical specialists and outfitted with modern equipment, but prisoners needing medical attention reported difficulty in alerting guards to their needs. Some prisoners reported delays in scheduling offsite treatment or very short stays in the hospital, especially those needing follow-up care for complex or chronic conditions. Some prisoners spent extended periods at external hospitals, with prison guards posted to monitor them.

In response to complaints that prisoners were not receiving appropriate medical attention, the Ministry of Interior stated that all inmates received full health-care services and medication under the law and in line with humanitarian standards. After calls from human rights groups to investigate the death of 50-year-old inmate Abbas Hassan Ali, the ministry confirmed he died of a heart attack April 6. Separately, the NIHR reported it found no evidence prison guards deliberately denied medical services to Ali.

The government announced on February 17 that COVID-19 vaccines were available for detainees. The Ministry of Interior later stated that most detainees received vaccines and that detainees could choose which version. Nonetheless, both prisoner families and human rights organizations raised concerns regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers. On March 25, families of detainees protested in front of the Ombudsman’s office and Jaw Prison against “the spread of COVID-19 in prison” and called for the release of their relatives. After reviewing Ministry of Health data, human rights groups reported that more than 39 positive cases had been detected in Jaw prison as of March. The human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Salam for Democracy and Human Rights published the names of detainees who tested positive, calling for their immediate release.

On June 8, Hussain Barakat, who was serving a life sentence for terrorism due to his alleged participation in the “Zulfiqar Brigades,” an allegedly Iran-linked militant group, died in prison from COVID-19 complications. Human rights activists alleged that prison authorities had failed to properly implement COVID-19 mitigation measures. The Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Reformation and Rehabilitation stated it disinfected cells daily and provided prisoners with medical kits and hygiene products. New inmates were quarantined for 14 days before joining the general prison population.

According to the government, six prisoners died during the year for reasons unrelated to COVID-19; the causes of three of these deaths were deemed by the government to be the result of chronic diseases, one was due to an overdose, and two were reported suicides. On July 25, Hasan Abdulnabi Mansoor, age 35, died from sickle cell anemia complications while serving a three-month sentence at Dry Dock Detention Center. Human rights groups accused prison authorities of delaying his medical treatment; authorities denied the allegations.

Human rights organizations reported food was adequate for most prisoners; however, prisoners with medical conditions had difficulty obtaining special dietary provisions. During the year some prisoners submitted complaints regarding the quality and quantity of food, allegedly after the prison contracted with a new catering company. Prisoners complained outdoor activities were limited to one hour and a half per day.

The ministry operated a center for rehabilitation and vocational training, including various educational, drug addiction, and behavioral programs.

Administration: Authorities generally allowed prisoners to file complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, and officials from the Ombudsman’s Office were available to respond to complaints. Human rights groups reported that it was sometimes necessary to file multiple complaints to receive assistance. Prisoners had access to visitors at least once a month, often more frequently. Authorities permitted 30 minutes of phone calls each week in principle, but at times prevented prisoners from communicating with family members and others. In-person family visits remain suspended at year’s end after a March 2020 decision by the General Directorate of Reformation and Rehabilitation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Detainees were permitted to hold video conferences with their families in lieu of in-person visits.

The NIHR stated Shia inmates were given additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas, adding that religious rituals were not allowed in prison cells as a matter of general policy.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted access for the NIHR and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), as well as the Ombudsman’s Office and the SIU (see section 5). The Ombudsman also serves as the chair of the PDRC, which maintained an office at Jaw Prison to conduct regular investigations and privately meet with inmates and their families. The PDRC also conducted a formal monitoring visit to Jaw Prison August 30-31.

International human rights organizations questioned the independence and effectiveness of these organizations.

In April inmates in Building 17 of Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike to protest mistreatment, including religious discrimination, lack of access to medical facilities, and limits on family visitation. On April 17, human rights groups reported prison officials violently assaulted inmates after an extended sit-in and protest in Jaw Prison. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement the same day claiming that the prisoners had “blocked the hallways and obstructed the services inside the facility.” A delegation from NIHR visited Jaw Prison and disputed the ministry’s claims in an April 18 statement. Human rights NGOs reported that 33 prisoners were held in solitary confinement following the prison assault, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights called on the government to launch an investigation into the “violent repression of the sit-in at Jaw Prison.”

Separately, in response to a request for assistance for prisoner Sayed Mahmood al-Alawi from a human rights organization, the Ombudsman’s Office confirmed it facilitated a family visit in November and stated it would investigate allegations of mistreatment. No public information on the status of the investigation was available by year’s end.

In May, Interior Ministry officials invited senior diplomatic representatives to view prison conditions at Jaw Prison facilities and speak with prison officials regarding prisoner treatment. The Interior Ministry stated it was seeking to address prison overcrowding, including through early releases of inmates, and adequate medical care for prisoners. The government facilitated a second visit for diplomats in September to the Nasser Vocational Training Center in Jaw Prison. Diplomats were allowed to speak freely with prisoners concerning prison conditions, their treatment in the prison, and vocational training and courses offered by the prison.

Improvements: On January 30, the Ministry of Interior’s undersecretary stated that the ministry offered inmates video calls, e-court hearings, e-documentation, and online medical consultations in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The undersecretary cited safety measures, such as social distancing between inmates, repurposing an empty building to a field hospital, moving inmates to other buildings to alleviate overcrowding, opening new prison buildings, and quarantining incoming inmates to isolate COVID-19 cases. The official also stated the inmates underwent random COVID-19 tests, and the prison provided masks, gloves, and sanitizers.

The government released prisoners under the alternative sentencing law, and on September 9, the king issued a royal decree further expanding the use of alternative sentencing (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures).

In February the king issued the Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment, which came into effect August 18 (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures and section 6, Children). The law, which raised the criminal age of majority from 15 to 18, mandates alternative noncustodial sentences for juvenile offenders.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Local and international human rights groups reported that individuals were detained without being notified at the time of the arrest of the legal authority of the person conducting the arrest, the reasons for the arrest, and the charges against them. Human rights groups claimed Ministry of Interior agents conducted many arrests at private residences without presenting an arrest warrant or presenting an inaccurate or incomplete one. Government officials disputed these claims.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law stipulates law enforcement officers may arrest individuals without a warrant only if they are caught in the act of committing certain crimes and there is sufficient evidence to press charges. Additionally, the code of criminal procedure requires execution of an arrest warrant before a summons order to appear before the public prosecutor. Human rights activists reported that police sometimes made arrests without presenting a warrant, and that the PPO summoned political and human rights activists for questioning without a warrant or court order.

By law the arresting authority must interrogate arrested individuals within seven days following their arrest. A lower criminal court judge may extend detention of a suspect for no more than 30 days or release the suspect. The PPO may extend the suspect’s detention for 30 days, if the investigation is still pending, in coordination with the higher criminal court. Suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months, after which the case is referred to the attorney general. Pretrial detention should not exceed six months, according to the law. The High Criminal Court must authorize any extensions beyond that period, and any renewals at 30-day intervals. Detained suspects have the right to legal counsel during questioning. A functioning system of bail provides maximum and minimum bail amounts based on the charges; however, judges often denied bail requests without explanation, even in nonviolent cases. The law allows the presiding judge to determine the bail amount within these parameters on a case-by-case basis.

Attorneys reported difficulty in gaining access to their clients in a timely manner through all stages of the legal process. They reported difficulty registering as a detainee’s legal representative because of arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles and lack of official government notaries; arbitrary questioning of credentials by police; lack of notification of clients’ location in custody; arbitrary requirements to seek court orders to meet clients; prohibitions on meeting clients in private; prohibitions on passing legal documents to clients; questioning of clients by the PPO on very short notice; lack of access to clients during police questioning; and lack of access to consult with clients in court. While the state provides counsel to indigent detainees, there were reports detainees never met with their state-appointed attorney before or during their trial.

According to reports by local and international human rights groups, authorities held some detainees for a week or more with limited access to outside resources. The government sometimes withheld information from detainees and their families regarding detainees’ whereabouts for as long as two weeks.

Arbitrary Arrest: Human rights groups reported that the Ministry of Interior sometimes arrested individuals for activities, such as calling for and attending protests and demonstrations, expressing their opinion in public or on social media (see sections 2.a. and 2.b.), and associating with persons of interest to authorities. Some detained individuals reported that arresting forces did not show them warrants.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports that authorities sometimes delayed or limited an individual’s access to an attorney. There were no reports of courts finding individuals to have been unlawfully detained and recommending compensation.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political opposition figures asserted the judiciary was vulnerable to political pressure, especially in high-profile cases. The judiciary is divided into civil law courts that deal with commercial, civil, and criminal cases, and family matters of non-Muslims, and family law courts that handle personal status cases for Muslims. Under the Unified Family Law, there are separate family courts for Sunni and Shia sharia-based proceedings. Some judges were foreign citizens, serving on limited-term contracts and subject to government approval for renewal and residence. The Supreme Judicial Council reported working with the Judicial Legal Studies Institute to prepare 10 new local judges per year, in an effort to increase their number. The Supreme Judicial Council is responsible for supervising the work of the courts, including judges, and the PPO.

Trial Procedures

The constitution presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. By law authorities should inform detainees of the charges against them upon arrest. Civil and criminal trial procedures provide for a public trial. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney of their choice within 48 hours (unless the government charges them pursuant to counterterrorism legislation); however, there were reports that defendants and their lawyers had difficulty getting police, public prosecutors, and courts to recognize or register legal counsel. The government provides counsel at public expense to indigent defendants. Plaintiffs are required to provide their own interpreters, except in labor dispute cases, when the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments may provide assistance.

Defendants have the right to present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. While defendants have the right to question witnesses against them, judges may declare questions to be irrelevant and prohibit a line of questioning without providing reasoning. Prosecutors rarely present evidence orally in court but provide it in written and digital formats to judges in their chambers. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or to confess guilt, and they have the right to appeal. The government may try defendants in their absence; during the year some defendants with terrorism-related charges were convicted and sentenced in absentia.

On January 31, the Supreme Criminal Court sentenced eight defendants to life imprisonment on terrorism charges for reportedly forming an Iran-backed terrorist cell, known as the “Qassem Soleimani Brigades.” According to a January 2020 Ministry of Interior statement, the cell planned to carry out terrorist activities in retaliation for the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The court convicted 10 other members in absentia, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from five to 15 years. Local human rights defenders criticized the lack of transparency of court hearings and questioned how the group could have planned retaliatory terrorist activities months before Soleimani’s death in January 2020.

In August the government launched an e-courts platform to streamline judicial proceedings.

Family status law varied according to Shia or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, especially for women (see section 6).

On September 9, the king issued a royal decree expanding the use of alternative sentencing. The decree allows the Ministry of Interior to recommend an alternative sentence before sentencing, removing the requirement that prisoners serve at least half of their prison term to be eligible for noncustodial sentences. On September 12, more than 30 prisoners had their punishments converted to noncustodial sentences under the new rules. Prisoner advocates asserted that the requirement that prisoners not pose a threat to public security was sometimes used to limit the eligibility of prisoners of conscience or political prisoners for alternative noncustodial sentences.

According to the minister of justice, Islamic affairs, and endowments, inmates released provisionally under the alternative sentencing law were allowed to work at government offices, both in service and administrative positions, to complete the remainder of their prison sentences. Officials in 21 government offices were providing jobs and vocational training to prisoners released on alternative sentences, as well as seven private sector companies and civil society institutions.

In February the king issued the Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment (see section 1.d., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and section 6, Children). The law, which came into effect August 18, mandates alternative noncustodial sentences for juvenile offenders. In addition to raising the criminal age of majority from 15 to 18, the law also established children’s courts, a child protection center, and a special children’s judicial committee to review criminal cases involving juveniles. The law also imposes harsher penalties on adults who incite or coerce children to commit crimes.

On August 7, the attorney general issued an order to define the PPO’s Family and Child Prosecution Unit’s procedures for investigating complaints involving children, to align it with the provisions of the new juvenile justice law and better protect children’s basic rights. The order instructs the PPO to examine victims’ social and psychological reports from the Child Protection Center before requesting their testimony. Children may request that an adult accompany them to any questioning. The order also requires the PPO to question children in their preferred language or dialect and in a manner that focuses on the child’s needs and protects the child’s privacy. The attorney general also directed the PPO to coordinate with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s Child Protection Center on complaints related to children and offer support and aftercare for victims.

On March 11, a court sentenced four defendants ages 16 and 17 to a six-month prison term for illegal assembly and planning to attack security forces. The judge provisionally released the four on alternative noncustodial sentences. They were accused of burning tires, blocking the streets, and possessing and using Molotov cocktails in Karrana village in February 2020.

On August 29, a special judicial committee issued its first ruling against a child younger than age 15. The child, who was accused of misuse of a mobile phone, was placed under judicial supervision for a year. On August 31, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced having received six law-enforcement orders from the special judicial committee. The ministry enrolled juveniles implicated in criminal activity in training and volunteer programs through the Child Protection Center, in lieu of prison sentences.

NGOs have expressed concerns regarding some terms of alternative noncustodial releases from prison. Volunteer work requirements as part of the alternative sentence could limit the released prisoner’s ability to work for an income and juveniles’ ability to attend school.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners or detainees.

According to NGOs the government held numerous political prisoners. The government released several under the alternative sentencing law during the year, although most remained in prison. The government did not permit access to such persons by independent humanitarian organizations. Charges against individuals identified by NGOs as political prisoners included terrorism, treason, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

On April 2, Shia religious figure Abdulnabi al-Sammak was released from prison under an alternative sentence. Al-Sammak was arrested in 2020 for reciting a Shia prayer during the first 10 days of Muharram and charged with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.

On April 9, Mohammad Jawad Barweez (“Parweez”), age 75, was provisionally released on April 9 after completing most of a 15-year sentence for conspiracy and sedition related to his participation in the 2011 antigovernment protests. The same day, Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi was released under an alternative sentence after serving most of his three-year prison term for criticizing the government.

A former Bahrain Defense Force officer, Ali al-Ghanimi, was released on April 9 after serving 10 years of a 12-year sentence for protesting in uniform.

On April 26, Zakiya al-Barbouri was released after serving nearly three years of a five-year sentence on terrorism charges related to the transport of explosives. Activists alleged that the charges were politically motivated and based solely on her confession, which they allege was obtained under duress.

On May 10, Abdulhadi Mushaima’a, the father of a young protester killed by police in 2011, was released under an alternative sentence. Mushaima’a was arrested in 2019 after protesting his son’s death and calling for increased police accountability.

On August 5, Mohamed al-Aali, age 29, a prisoner with lung cancer, was released on an alternative sentence due to deteriorating health. He spent 20 days at a military hospital prior to his release. He had been sentenced to life in prison and had his citizenship revoked after being convicted on terrorism charges.

On September 13, Kumeel Juma, age 19, was released after serving two years in prison. Juma was convicted on 15 charges and sentenced in 2019 to consecutive sentences totaling 29 years in prison. Juma’s case was cited in a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report. International human rights NGOs considered his imprisonment a case of family reprisal due to his mother’s political activities and imprisonment. NGOs alleged that the terms of Juma’s alternative noncustodial release were exceedingly restrictive, including a travel ban and banning him from cultural and religious activities.

Human rights groups have called for the release of other imprisoned political opposition figures, including Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad and Abdulwahab Husain, who were sentenced to life in prison in 2011, and Sheikh Ali Salman who received a life sentence in 2018. On May 9, relatives of Jaw prisoners marched in Karzakan, Sanabis, A’ali, Diraz, Bani Jamra, Sitra, and Hamala calling on authorities to release political prisoners. While some individuals were questioned by authorities, there were no reported arrests due to “illegal gatherings.”

Prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, remained imprisoned on a life sentence. A military court tried and convicted al-Khawaja in 2011 on charges related to terrorism and attempting to overthrow the government. His family formally requested an alternative sentence in September but, according to his relatives, the government has not formally responded to the request. Al-Khawaja was the former president and cofounder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

Political prisoner Abduljalil al-Singace began refusing solid food in April to protest prison authorities confiscating his manuscript discussing Arabic dialects. He has been serving a life sentence since 2011, after being convicted of attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

On April 16, the family of Shia scholar Sheikh Abdullah Isa al-Mahroos reported he had started a hunger strike due to not receiving proper medical care and being prevented from seeing his son, who is also incarcerated in Jaw Prison. Al-Mahroos was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 along with 20 other opposition activists. His family said he should be eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical problems.

On April 20, Jaw Prison authorities granted Sheikh Abduljalil al-Meqdad temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral. Sheikh al-Meqdad was arrested in March 2011 and charged with attempting to overthrow the government; he was sentenced to life in prison. At least five of his relatives, including his brother Sheikh Habib al-Meqdad, were serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.

In June a prominent leader of a dissolved political society, Hasan Mushaima, reportedly refused to accept the conditions of an alternative sentence offered due to his deteriorating health. He has been serving a life sentence on terrorism charges since 2011.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens may submit civil suits before a court seeking cessation of or damages for some types of human rights abuses. In many such situations, however, the law prevents citizens from filing civil suits against security agencies.

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

Although the constitution prohibits such actions, the government reportedly violated prohibitions against interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Human rights organizations reported security forces sometimes entered homes without authorization and destroyed or confiscated personal property. The law requires the government to obtain a court order before monitoring telephone calls, email, and personal correspondence. Many citizens and human rights organizations believed police used informant networks, including ones that targeted or used children younger than age 18.

Reports also indicated the government used computer and mobile phone programs to surveil political activists and members of the opposition inside and outside the country. At least 13 activists were specifically targeted using Pegasus spyware by the Israeli company NSO Group, according to cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab, with at least one of the individuals residing in the United Kingdom when the hacking occurred.

According to local and international human rights groups, security officials sometimes threatened a detainee’s family members with reprisals for the detainee’s unwillingness to cooperate during interrogations and refusal to sign confession statements.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and for members of the press and other media, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” This constitutional provision, however, does not extend protection to social media. The government limited freedom of expression and press freedom through prosecutions of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted both professional and citizen journalists.

Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech was curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.”

On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after a one-year prison sentence. Al-Jamri was convicted of delivering a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the PPO.

On July 8, retired military officer and social media activist Mohamed al-Zayani was sentenced to a two-year noncustodial sentence after posting a video criticizing the PPO and the judiciary. Al-Zayani was an outspoken critic on sensitive topics, such as political prisoners and corruption.

International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three clerics in August during the days leading up to, and following, the Ashura religious rites. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated them for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held two of them overnight; the third cleric remained in police custody as of year’s end.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.

The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and English from stations based outside the country, including by satellite. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments also reviewed those books that discussed religion.

Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists.

In June authorities detained a Sunni former member of parliament, Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical on social media and in parliament of the ruling family and the treatment of prisoners. He was in the hospital for medical treatment at the time of his arrest. On June 27, he posted a message from prison, accusing authorities of penalizing his family by laying off his siblings from their government jobs, expelling his children from school, conducting multiple raids on his house, and vandalizing his property. Al-Tamimi also accused authorities of seizing his assets, freezing his local bank accounts, and injecting him with toxic substances. He remained in prison without charges at year’s end.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion may be banned from publication by a ministerial order.” In November, after a movie studio refused to edit out certain scenes, the Ministry of Information banned the screening of a film due to its portrayal of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) character and a same-sex relationship.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine. Application of the slander law was selective.

National Security: National security laws provide for substantial fines and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization without prior government approval, publishing reports that adversely affect the value of the dinar (BHD), the local currency, saying anything offensive against a head of state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning accredited representatives of foreign countries.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but several laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations for the sixth year, stating the ban was intended to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. According to the government, no applications were submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.

The law outlines the locations where public gatherings are prohibited, including areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent any public meeting it deems to threaten security or public order, or for any other “serious” reason. According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify its approval or denial of permits for demonstrations.

The law prohibits mourners from turning funeral processions into political rallies and allows security officials to be present at any public gathering, including funerals.

The penal code penalizes any gathering of five or more individuals that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Authorities prohibit the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.

The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two other members who are responsible for its supervision and for preventing any illegal acts during the function. Organizers of unauthorized gatherings face prison sentences of three to six months. Sentences for participating in an illegal gathering range from one month to two years in prison. Judicial authorities pronounced longer sentences in cases where demonstrators used violence during illegal gatherings.

The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious halls), or other religious sites for political gatherings.

On April 8, a criminal court sentenced five individuals to a 1,000 BHD ($2,652) fine each for violating a ministerial decree banning gatherings of more than five persons in public places to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

On October 17, the Ministry of Interior released 10 protesters arrested while protesting against normalization of relations with Israel on October 8. Social media reports suggested that as a condition of their release, the detainees were required to sign pledges to refrain from participating in any protests.

The government did not routinely prevent small, nonviolent opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up at least one of these protests with tear gas during the year. Groups participating in these protests normally posted photographs on social media, but photographers and participants were careful to hide their faces to avoid retribution.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all civil society groups and labor unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, and political society groups to register with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. The government decided whether a group was social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society group, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. Some unlicensed society groups were active in the country (see section 3).

A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Labor and Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the group’s services unnecessary, already provided by another group, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved civil society group. Associations whose applications are rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court.

NGOs and civil society activists asserted the ministry routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Local NGOs asserted that officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources and sometimes did not authorize it.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

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

Foreign Travel: The law provides that the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities blocked them from leaving over unpaid debts or other fiduciary obligations to private individuals or lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website enabling individuals to check their status before travel, although some persons claimed the website’s information was unreliable. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. The government sometimes prevented civil society activists and others who publicly criticized the government from leaving the country, including for travel to Geneva and other western capitals that host UN agencies. Reports alleged that four minor children were denied issuance of passports in retaliation for their exiled family members’ activities.

Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals it considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it had formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.

Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if the head of household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and adult and minor children, reported difficulties renewing or obtaining their own passports, residence cards, and birth certificates. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number at more than 900 since 2012, with the government reinstating more than 55 percent of revoked citizenships as of 2019.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens have limited ability to choose their government and do not have the ability to choose their political system. The constitution provides for an elected Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. The constitution permits the king to dissolve the Council of Representatives after consulting the chairpersons of the upper and lower houses of parliament and head of the Constitutional Court. The king may not dissolve the Council of Representatives for the same reasons more than once. The king has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The government did not permit international election monitors for the 2018 parliamentary elections. Domestic monitors generally concluded that authorities administered the elections without significant irregularities. Some observers expressed broader concerns regarding limitations on freedom of expression and association, as well as continued concerns over voting district boundaries. According to Human Rights Watch, a number of measures created a political environment that was not conducive to free elections, including the dissolution of the country’s principal opposition political groups and laws restricting their former members from running for office; the absence of an independent press; and the criminalization of online criticism.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not allow the formation of political parties, but some existing “political societies” developed political platforms, held internal elections, and hosted political gatherings. In 2016 and 2017 the government dissolved the two most prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, through legal actions.

To apply for registration, a political society must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, a list of all members and copies of their residency cards, and a financial statement identifying the society’s sources of funding and bank information. The society’s principles, goals, and programs must not run counter to sharia or national interest, as interpreted by the judiciary, nor may the society base itself on sectarian, geographic, or class identity.

The government authorized registered political societies to nominate candidates for office and to participate in other political activities. The law bans practicing clerics from membership in political societies (including in leadership positions) and involvement in political activities, even on a voluntary basis.

Political societies are required to coordinate their contacts with foreign diplomatic or consular missions, foreign governmental organizations, or representatives of foreign governments with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which may send a representative to the meeting. Although this requirement was enforced in the past, there were no reports of the government enforcing the order during the year.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. In the 2018 elections, six women won seats in the 40-member Council of Representatives, doubling the number of women, and the body elected its first female speaker in that year. The royal court appointed nine women that same year to the Shura Council, the appointed 40-member upper house, and the prime minister appointed a woman to the 26-seat cabinet. Approximately 9 percent of judges were women, including the deputy chief of the Court of Cassation. Two women in the police force held the rank of brigadier general and general director.

Shia and Sunni citizens have equal rights before the law, but Sunnis dominated political life, although the majority of citizens were Shia. In 2018 11 Shia candidates were elected to the Council of Representatives. The appointed Shura Council included 19 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member. Four of the 22 appointed cabinet ministers were Shia citizens, including one of four deputy prime ministers.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government.

Domestic human rights groups were restricted by the government, with some activists imprisoned, exiled, or coerced into silence, according to international human rights organizations. Domestic human rights groups included: the Bahrain Human Rights Society, a licensed human rights organization in the country; the Bahrain Center for Human Rights which, although dissolved by the government in 2004, continued to operate and maintain an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization, Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs.

The government imposed restrictions on domestic human rights groups, and they faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. Although there were no reports of the government depriving local NGO leaders of due process, local leaders and activists did report other types of harassment, including police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships, and restricting their ability to travel internationally. Activists reported forgoing travel, in particular to international human rights events, fearing a reimposition of international travel bans.

Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused their visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the PPO, and the PDRC worked with each other throughout the year. The Ombudsman’s Office maintained a hotline for citizens to report police abuse via telephone, email, WhatsApp, or in person. The National Intelligence Agency Office of the Inspector General, created as a result of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, worked with the Ombudsman’s Office. While both offices were responsible for addressing allegations of mistreatment and abuses by the security forces, there was little public information available regarding the activities of the agency’s parent Office of the Inspector General.

The PDRC monitored prisons, detention centers, and other places where persons may be detained, such as hospital and psychiatric facilities. The PDRC was empowered to conduct inspections of facilities, interview inmates or detainees, and refer cases to the Ombudsman’s Office or SIU. The Ombudsman also concurrently served as the PDRC chair. The NIHR conducted human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred complaints to the PPO. It also operated a hotline for citizens and residents to file human rights-related complaints and offered a walk-in option for filing complaints.

On February 22, NIHR launched an online introductory meeting regarding its human rights training program, Foras (opportunities). The training was open to citizen students in local universities and abroad.

Many human rights groups asserted that investigations into police abuse were slow and ineffective, and they questioned the independence and credibility of investigations by government-sponsored organizations.

Local and international observers and human rights organizations continued to express concern the government had not fully implemented recommendations from the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia citizens into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, although the penal code allows men accused of rape to marry female survivors to avoid punishment. The law does not address spousal rape. Penalties for rape include life imprisonment or execution when the survivor is younger than age 16, the rapist is the survivor’s custodian or guardian, or the rape causes death.

The law states violence against women is a crime. Nevertheless, domestic violence against women was common, according to several women’s rights organizations. Although government leaders and some members of parliament participated in awareness-raising activities during the year, including debates on additional legislation, authorities devoted little attention to supporting public campaigns aimed at the problem. The government maintained a shelter for women and children who were survivors of domestic violence. The law provides that local police officials should be contacted in cases of domestic violence and that the public prosecutor may investigate if information is passed from police to them. Survivors of domestic violence, however, reported difficulty knowing whom to contact or how to proceed when filing a complaint.

The government did not provide statistics on documented instances or prosecutions physical or sexual abuse of women.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was rarely practiced. No specific law prohibits the practice, although legal experts previously indicated the act falls under criminal code provisions that prohibit “permanent disability to another person.”

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: By law “honor” killings are charged as a homicide and punishable with life in prison or a death sentence. The penal code provides a prison sentence for killing a spouse caught in an act of adultery, whether male or female. There were no cases of honor killings reported during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including insulting or committing an indecent act towards a woman in public, with penalties of imprisonment and fines. Although the government sometimes enforced the law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem for women, especially foreign female domestic workers.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

There are no known legal barriers or penalties for accessing contraception. Health centers did not require women to obtain spousal consent for provision of most family planning services but did require such consent for women seeking sterilization procedures. Mothers giving birth out of wedlock in public or government-run hospitals often faced challenges in obtaining birth certificates for their children.

Contraceptives were available without prescription throughout the country regardless of nationality, gender, age, or marital status. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, although emergency contraception was not available.

Discrimination: Women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings in family courts, but unlike for men, both Shia and Sunni religious courts may refuse the request. In divorce cases the courts routinely granted custody of daughters younger than age nine and sons younger than age seven to Shia mothers, with Shia fathers typically gaining custody once girls and boys reached the ages of nine and seven, respectively. Sunni women were able to retain custody of daughters until age 17 and sons until age 15. Regardless of custody decisions, the father retains guardianship, or the right to make all legal decisions for the child, until age 21. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father “without just cause.” Any divorced woman who remarries loses custody of her children from a prior marriage.

The basis for family law is sharia, as interpreted by Sunni and Shia religious experts. In 2017 King Hamad ratified the Shia portion of the Unified Family Law codifying the rights of Shia citizens, in particular women, according to the civil code on issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia and Sunni family law is enforced by separate judicial bodies composed of religious authorities charged with interpreting sharia. The revised civil law provides access to family courts for all women, providing the standardized application of the law and further legal recourse, since decisions made by family court judges are subject to review by the Supreme Judicial Council. In instances of mixed Sunni-Shia marriages, families may choose which court hears the issue.

Lawyers expressed concern regarding the long waiting periods for final judgments in Shia courts, particularly in divorce cases.

Women may own and inherit property and represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shia women may inherit all of their husband’s property, while Sunni women inherit only a portion, with the brothers or other male relatives of the deceased also receiving a share. The government respected wills directing the division of assets according to the deceased.

Children

Birth Registration: Individuals derive citizenship from their father or by decree from the king. Women do not transmit their nationality to their children, rendering stateless some children of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers (see section 2.d.).

Authorities do not register births immediately. From birth to the age of three months, the mother’s primary health-care provider holds registration for the children. When a child reaches three months, authorities register the birth with the Ministry of Health’s Birth Registration Unit, which then issues the official birth certificate. Children not registered before reaching their first birthday must obtain a registration by court order. The government does not provide public services to a child without a birth certificate.

Education: Schooling is compulsory for children until age 15 and is provided free of charge to citizens and legal residents through grade 12. Authorities segregated government-run schools by gender, although girls and boys used the same curricula and textbooks. Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim public school students and are optional for non-Muslim students.

Child Abuse: The Family Courts have jurisdiction over child abuse matters.

There were reports police approached children outside schools and threatened or coerced them into becoming police informants.

In February the king issued the Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment, which came into effect August 18 (see sections 1.d., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies). The law raised the criminal age of majority from 15 to 18 and established children’s courts, a child protection center, and a special children’s judicial committee to review criminal cases involving juveniles. The law also mandates alternative noncustodial sentences for juvenile offenders.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to the law, the minimum age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys, but special circumstances allow marriages before reaching these ages with approval from a sharia court.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits exploitation of a child for various crimes, including in commercial sex and child pornography. The Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment, which came into effect August 18, imposes harsher penalties on adults who sexually exploit children or incite or coerce children to commit crimes, including increasing the mandatory minimum prison sentence for child pornography crimes to two years.

The age of consent is age 21 and there is no close-in-age exemption.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to community members, there were between 36 and 40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country. On August 22, a former ambassador announced the celebration of the first Shabbat minyan (traditional service with a quorum of 10 adult Jewish males) in the country since 1947. Diplomats, members of Jewish communities throughout the Gulf, and local and Emirati Muslims also attended.

In October the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities organized the first Jewish wedding in the country in 52 years. The event, done under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, was the first strictly kosher wedding in the kingdom’s history.

In response to Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid’s September 30 visit to inaugurate Israel’s new embassy and sign memoranda of understanding on expanding bilateral cooperation, opposition and pro-Iran factions posted antinormalization statements on social media and organized several small street protests. Protesters burned an Israeli flag, chanted “Death to Israel,” and carried posters of the Palestinian flag.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

The law does not criminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults at least age 21, but it allots fines, imprisonment, deportation, or any of them for persons engaging in “immoral behavior,” and this provision has been used against individuals suspected of being LGBTQI+ or cross-dressing.

The law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQI+ individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity occurred, including in employment and obtaining legal identity documents. In some cases, however, courts permitted transgender individuals to update identity documents if they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution and labor code recognize the right to form and join independent trade unions, as well as the right to strike, but with significant restrictions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining. The government did not effectively enforce all applicable laws, including prohibitions on antiunion discrimination. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

The law prohibits trade unions in the public sector. Public sector workers may join private sector trade unions and professional associations, although these entities may not bargain on their behalf. The law also prohibits members of the military services and domestic workers from joining unions. Foreign workers, composing nearly 80 percent of the civilian workforce, may join unions if they work in a sector that allows unions, although the law reserves union leadership roles for citizens. The law prohibits unions from engaging in political activities.

The law specifies that only an official trade union may organize or declare a strike, and it imposes requirements for legal strikes. The law prohibits strikes in 12 “vital” sectors, the scope of which exceeds international standards, including the oil, gas, education, telecommunications, transportation, and health sectors, as well as pharmacies and bakeries. The law makes no distinction between “vital” and “nonvital” employees within these sectors. Workers must approve a strike with a simple majority and provide 15 days’ notification to the employer before conducting a strike.

The law allows multiple trade union federations but prohibits multisector labor federations. The law bars individuals convicted of violating criminal laws that lead to trade union or executive council dissolution from holding union leadership posts. The law gives the labor minister, rather than the unions, the right to select the federation to represent workers in national-level bargaining and international forums. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, independent unions faced government resistance. The law does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Some workers and union affiliates complained union pluralism resulted in company management interfering in union dues collection and workers’ chosen union affiliation. They stated that management chose to negotiate with the union it found most favorable to the detriment of collective bargaining agreements and the legitimate voice of workers.

In 2020 the government reported that it considered completed efforts at reinstatement, which had been required by a 2014 tripartite agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO). Union representatives reported that nearly all the roughly 5,000 cases of arbitrary dismissal or labor discrimination had been resolved through either reinstatement or by financial compensation. Human rights organizations and activists questioned the government’s claims and reported continuing, systemic labor discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor except in national emergencies; however, the government did not enforce the law effectively. The antitrafficking law prescribes penalties ranging from three to 15 years’ imprisonment, a significant fine, and the cost of repatriating the victim(s), which were sufficiently stringent, and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

There were reports of forced labor in the construction and service sectors. The labor law covers foreign workers other than domestic workers. Enforcement was lax, and cases of debt bondage were common. There were also reports of forced labor practices among domestic workers and others working in the informal sector; labor laws did not protect most of these workers. Domestic workers from third countries have the right to see the terms of their employment contract before leaving their home countries or upon arrival. The law requires domestic workers hired through employment offices to have a tripartite contract, with the signature of the employer, recruitment office, and employee. In the case of direct hiring of a domestic worker, the employer must submit a pledge of the employer’s obligations to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

According to reports by third-country labor officials and human rights organizations, employers withheld passports illegally, restricted movement and communication, substituted contracts, or did not pay wages. Some employers also threatened workers and subjected them to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

In 2016 the ministry instituted procedures that allow workers to change the employer associated with their visa without permission from their former employer or without their passport, under certain conditions including abuse or withheld wages. The ministry threatened employers who withheld passports with criminal and administrative violations and prohibited at-fault employers from hiring new workers. The PPO did not prosecute any individuals for withholding their employees’ passports. During the year the government shut down recruitment agencies and revoked licenses of others for infringing on workers’ rights. Recruitment agencies complicit in illegal practices may be subject to license revocation, legal action, shutdown of business operations, or a forfeit of license deposits.

The ministry’s Protective Inspection Directorate (PID) employed 70 inspectors who were responsible for enforcement of employment violations, immigration violations, and worksite inspections. The PID reported conducting 2,264 inspections during the reporting year, 152 of those for recruitment agencies. Through these inspections the government permanently shut down six companies and suspended one recruitment agency. It also suspended 15 additional companies due to noncompliance with regulations and having workers without legal status employed in the establishments.

The ministry employed inspectors who were sworn officers of the court, with the authority to conduct official investigations. Inspector reports may result in fines, court cases, loss of work permits, and termination of businesses. These inspectors focus on the legal and administrative provisions under which individuals fall, including work permits, employer records, and licenses.

In July the Ministry of Interior launched two new hotlines – one to report human trafficking cases and another to report sponsors who demand money from workers before transferring sponsorship. Complaints from both hotlines fed into the National Referral Mechanism for trafficking victims.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Laws and regulations related to child labor generally meet international standards. After thorough consultations with local government officials, diplomats of labor-sending countries, representatives from local civil society organizations, and the International Organization for Migration, experts determined that child labor occurred but was not a prevalent problem in the country. The government generally enforced the law. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

The minimum age for employment is 15, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than 18 may not work in industries the Ministry of Health deems hazardous or unhealthy, including construction, mining, and oil refining. They may work no more than six hours a day and no more than four consecutive workdays and may not be present on the employment premises more than seven hours a day. Child labor regulations do not apply to family-operated businesses in which the only other employees are family members.

The law requires that before the Ministry of Labor makes a final decision on allowing a minor to work, the prospective employer must present: documentation from the minor’s guardian giving the minor permission to work; proof the minor underwent a physical fitness examination to determine suitability; and assurance from the employer the minor would not work in an environment the ministry deemed hazardous.

There was evidence that children continued to engage in domestic work and sell items on the street. The government did not conduct research to determine the nature and extent of child labor in the country.

The law does not allow expatriate workers younger than 18 to work in the country.

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: There is no national private sector minimum wage law. A standardized government pay scale covers public sector workers, with a set minimum monthly wage. While the minimum wage for citizens is generally considered a living wage, there is no minimum wage for foreign workers in the public sector; however, the government issued “guidelines” advising employers in the public and private sectors to pay a minimum monthly wage. There was no official poverty level.

Subject to the provisions of the private-sector law, employers may not employ a worker for more than 48 hours per week without including contract provisions for overtime pay. Employers may not employ Muslim workers during the month of Ramadan for more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

On May 1, the government launched the Wage Protection System (WPS) for employees working in the private sector. The government implemented WPS in phases, which required wages be paid through licensed commercial banks, based on the number of workers employed by businesses. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, WPS secures workers’ rights, combats trafficking in persons, protects employers’ rights by documenting money transfers, and provides documentation to settle labor disputes. The ministry stated it would penalize employers who fail to pay monthly salaries on time and per contractual obligations.

Occupational Safety and Health: Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were not appropriate for the main industries in the country; the government did not effectively enforce existing OSH standards. Workers risked jeopardizing their employment for refusal to work in hazardous conditions or if they took legal action against employers who retaliated against them for exercising their right to remove themselves from such conditions.

The Ministry of Labor sets occupational safety and health standards. The labor law and relevant protections apply to citizens and noncitizens alike, with the exception of domestic workers. The law stipulates that companies in violation of occupational safety standards may be subject to fines. Penalties for violations of occupational, safety, and health laws were not commensurate with those for similar crimes such as negligence.

The Ministry of Labor employed general inspectors and occupational safety inspectors. Their roles are to inspect workplaces, occupational health and safety conditions, and the employer/employee work relationship. The ministry used a team of engineers from multiple specialties primarily to investigate risks and standards at construction sites, which were the vast majority of worksites. Inspectors have the authority to levy fines and close worksites if employers do not improve conditions by specified deadlines. A judge determines fines per violation, per worker affected, or both. A judge may also sentence violators to prison. For repeat violators, the court may double the penalties. NGOs expressed concern that resources for enforcement of the laws would be inadequate for the number of worksites and workers, that worksites would not be inspected, and that violations would continue despite the new regulations.

A ministerial decree prohibits outdoor work between noon and 4 p.m. during July and August because of heat conditions. Authorities enforced the ban with regard to large firms, but according to local observers, violations by smaller businesses were common and without consequences. Employers who violate the ban are subject to up to three months’ imprisonment, fines, or both, but enforcement was inconsistent. The ministry documented 27 companies that violated the summer heat ban during the year.

On February 25, a criminal court sentenced an official found guilty of causing the death of construction workers at a sewage treatment plant to three years in prison and a fine.

The government and courts generally worked to rectify labor abuses brought to their attention. The government published pamphlets on foreign workers’ rights in several languages and provided manuals on these rights to local diplomatic missions. Workers could file complaints with the government via email, in person, or through government hotlines. The Ministry of Interior reported it received 450 calls to its hotline since its establishment in July. There were 6,769 combined and individual labor-related complaints during the year, including complaints filed by domestic workers. The vast majority of cases involving abused domestic workers, however, did not reach the ministry or the public prosecutor. The government provided victims with a range of services, including shelter, food, clothing, medical and psychological care, legal counsel, and grants from the Victim Assistance Fund. The National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons provided shelter and services to victims and potential victims on a case-by-case basis.

Local organizations reported that they visited unregistered camps and accommodations, including accommodations of irregular “free visa” workers, who they observed often lived in overcrowded apartments with poor safety standards.

Informal Sector: Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in sectors employing informal foreign workers, such as construction, automotive repair, and domestic service. Unskilled foreign workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, constituted approximately 60 percent of the total workforce, and many were employed informally. These workers were vulnerable to dangerous or exploitive working conditions. According to NGOs workplace safety inspection and compliance were substandard.

The labor law does not fully protect domestic workers, and this group was particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to the difficulties of oversight and access to private residences. Additionally, NGOs report employers and recruitment agencies provided employees contracts with differing terms in different languages.

The Ministries of Labor and Interior acknowledge severe underreporting of abuse and labor exploitation. NGOs and activists provided credible reports that employers forced many of the country’s 86,000 domestic workers, most of them women, to work 12- to 16-hour days, and illegally seized their passports and cell phones. Some domestic workers reported that their employers permitted very little time off, left female workers malnourished, and subjected them to verbal and physical abuse, including sexual molestation and rape. The press, embassies, and police received numerous reports of abuse of domestic workers. As a response the National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons provided workers with shelter. Most women in these cases sought assistance with unpaid wages and complaints of physical abuse.

On October 11, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs reported that 91 distressed Filipino workers had been repatriated, including minors, pardoned prisoners, individuals without residency status, pregnant women, medical patients, and others who had sought refuge in the Philippines Embassy.

The Flexi Permit, a renewable one- or two-year permit that allows foreign workers to remain in the country and work without a sponsor, authorizes previously out-of-status workers to legalize their residency; the government issues these permits as an alternative to the kafala work sponsorship system. In December an NGO noted that its high cost precludes many from enrolling in the program.

According to NGOs the construction sector employed more Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis than other nationalities. Worker deaths generally were due to a combination of inadequate enforcement of standards, violations of standards, inadequate safety procedures, worker ignorance of safety procedures, and inadequate safety standards for equipment. The level of freedom foreign workers enjoyed directly related to the type of work they performed.

A Ministry of Labor order requires employers to register any living accommodations provided to employees. The order also mandates minimum housing standards for employer-provided accommodations. Of the 14,000 labor accommodations, 62 percent of them were in unauthorized areas. Many migrant workers lived in unregistered accommodations that included makeshift housing in parking garages, apartments rented by employers from private owners, family houses modified to accommodate many persons, and single beds for rent. Conditions in the many unregistered or irregular worker camps were often squalid and overcrowded. Inspectors do not have the right to enter houses or apartment buildings not registered as work camps to inspect conditions.

Finland

Executive Summary

The Republic of Finland is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral parliament (Eduskunta). The prime minister heads a five-party coalition government approved by parliament and appointed by the president in 2019. The parliamentary election in 2019 and the presidential election in 2018 were considered free and fair.

The national police maintain internal security. Both Finnish Customs and the Border Guard have law enforcement responsibilities related to their fields of responsibility. The Border Guard has additional law enforcement powers to maintain public order when it operates in joint patrols and under police command. The Defense Forces are responsible for safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity and providing military training. The Defense Forces also have some domestic security responsibilities, such as assisting the national police in maintaining law and order in crises. The national police and Border Guard report to the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for police oversight, law enforcement, and maintenance of order; the Ministry of Defense oversees the Defense Forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant issues included the existence of criminal libel laws.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse. In its most recent report on May 5 on prison and detention center conditions in the country, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted insufficient lighting in remand cells in the Espoo, Haukipudas, Pasila, and Ylivieska police stations and poor states of repair in some cells in the Espoo, Kemijarvi, and Pasila police stations.

Reported incidences of inmate violence increased over the previous two years. Some cases of inmate prisoner violence remained unresolved due to a lack of human resources and out-of-date security equipment. A review of instances of prisoner violence by the public broadcaster Yle in July revealed long delays in preliminary investigation of prisoner violence, often resulting in insufficient evidence being available to investigators. Prisoners fearful for their own safety were held in conditions often approaching solitary confinement, the CPT stated.

The Finnish branch of Amnesty International highlighted that availability of COVID-19 vaccines in prisons and detention centers, and visitation rights were both limited during the pandemic. The World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe stated that as of July, the country’s vaccination rate among prisoners was 34.4 percent. Approximately 42 percent of the general population was fully vaccinated at the same time.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring visits by independent human rights observers. On May 5, the CPT released the report on its most recent visit to the country in September 2020.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires police to have a warrant issued by a prosecutor to make an arrest. Police must obtain a warrant within three days if an individual is arrested while committing a crime. Arrested persons must receive a court hearing within three days of arrest, and police must promptly inform detainees of the charges against them. Authorities respected most of these rights. Before trial most defendants awaiting trial are eligible for conditional release on personal recognizance. Detainees generally have access to a lawyer promptly after arrest. Persons detained for “minor” criminal offenses, however, do not have a right to an attorney from the outset of detention or prior to interrogation. The government must provide lawyers for the indigent. The May 5 CPT report noted that delays in notification of custody were “frequent and widespread” and could be delayed up to 96 hours, especially if the detainee was a foreigner. It reported that the placement of pretrial detainees in police custody instead of prison decreased since 2014 but remained a concern.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Authorities generally informed detainees promptly and in detail of the charges against them. Trials are public and take place without undue delay. Defendants have a right to a fair trial, to be present at their trial, and to consult an attorney of their choice in a timely manner before trial. The government provides attorneys at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Authorities give defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are provided free interpretation as necessary from the moment an individual is charged through all appeals. They may confront and question witnesses for the prosecution and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies through domestic courts for human rights violations. After they exhaust all avenues of appeal in national courts, persons and organizations may appeal court decisions involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights.

Property Seizure and Restitution

The government reports Finland did not confiscate property belonging to Jews during the Holocaust era, that Holocaust-era restitution has not been an issue, and that no litigation or restitution claims were pending before authorities regarding real or immovable property covered by the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which the government endorsed. While there were no known claims for movable Judaica or Jewish cultural property confiscated during the Holocaust era, journalists and representatives of the Finnish Jewish community stated they have no information as to the current whereabouts of movable property of the Central European Jews whom Finnish security services deported.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions. In September the Office of the Deputy Data Protection Ombudsman reprimanded the Police Board over the use of facial recognition software by the National Bureau for Investigation’s Child Sexual Exploitation Unit. The ombudsman’s report stated that the use of the facial recognition program Clearview AI did not comply with data security and data protection legislation. In response the National Bureau for Investigation said it would stop using the application.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: Public speech intended to incite discrimination against any national, racial, religious, or ethnic group is a crime. Hate speech is not a separate criminal offense but may constitute grounds for an aggravated sentence for other offenses. On October 4, a court convicted Finns Party member of parliament Sebastian Tynkkynen on the charge of ethnic agitation in connection with Facebook posts he made in 2017 as part of a municipal election campaign. In the posts Tynkkynen published several pictures and texts implying that Muslim asylum seekers and immigrants were criminals preying on women and children. The court sentenced Tynkkynen to fines totaling 4,410 euros ($5,070) and demanded he delete the posts from his Facebook account.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The distribution of hate material intended to incite discrimination against any national, racial, religious, or ethnic group in print or broadcast media, books, or online newspapers or journals is a crime.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On October 29, the deputy state prosecutor filed charges of disclosure of state secrets and attempted disclosure of state secrets against the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat’s reporters Laura Halminen and Tuomo Pietilainen, and editor of the political news department Kalle Silfverberg for an in-depth report on an intelligence facility located in Central Finland which was published in 2017. If convicted, the employees face a minimum of four months and maximum of four years in prison. The pretrial investigation found that the newspaper did not illegally acquire the documents, but police launched a separate investigation into how Helsingin Sanomat obtained the classified information.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and aggravated defamation laws carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment and a monetary fine. The law has a section relating to breaches of the sanctity of religion (blasphemy) that includes publicly blaspheming against God and for the purpose of offending, publicly defaming, or desecrating what is held to be sacred by a church or religious community. Conviction carries a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a monetary fine.

Nongovernmental Impact: On October 1, a law came into force that facilitates the prosecution of illegal threats made against journalists and researchers without the victim’s first filing a complaint. The legislative change is meant to protect journalists and public officials from targeted harassment and to expand freedom of expression for members of the media.

Journalists who covered sensitive topics, including immigration, far-right organizations, Russia, and terrorism, reported harassment by private entities, including being targeted for defamation.

Journalist Jessikka Aro, who was the target of harassment for her reporting of Russian disinformation efforts, stated that she moved abroad for reasons of personal safety.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

In October 2020, during a demonstration in Helsinki, police used pepper spray on peaceful protesters of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion Finland. In June the special prosecutor stated that an investigation of the officers for breach of duty and assault was nearing completion. In October, after additional demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion Finland led to arrests and contradictory reports about the security threat posed by the demonstrators, the National Police Board announced it would launch a second investigation of the actions of the Helsinki police.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government continued to accept returned asylum seekers who had first entered in the country but then moved on to other European countries according to the Dublin III Regulation.

Exile: In July authorities confirmed the repatriation of a woman and her two children from the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. From 2019 through July 2021, the government repatriated six women and 20 children from Syria who were displaced when ISIS collapsed. According to reports, at least four women and 11 children of those repatriated had left the al-Hol camp on their own without government assistance. A special envoy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated an additional five women and 10 children were in Syria, most of them in al-Hol. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, an estimated 22 Finnish nationals were in Syrian refugee camps as of May 26.

Temporary Protection: From January to August, the government provided subsidiary protection to 102 individuals who did not qualify as refugees but who were deemed to qualify for subsidiary protection. During the same period, the government also offered humanitarian residence permits to 125 individuals based on “other grounds,” including medical and compassionate grounds.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law 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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country’s national parliamentary election in 2019 and the presidential election in 2018 were considered free and fair. After an inspection revealed that procedures at a drive-in polling station had deviated from guidelines to ensure election secrecy, the parliamentary ombudsman asked the city of Espoo for a statement on ensuring election secrecy in exceptional voting arrangements.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

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

The parliamentary ombudsman enjoyed the government’s cooperation, operated without government or party interference, and had adequate resources. The parliamentary ombudsman investigates complaints that a public authority or official failed to observe the law, to fulfill a duty, or appropriately to implement fundamental human rights protections.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Center is an autonomous, independent institution administratively connected to the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The center’s functions include promoting the implementation of human rights, reporting on the implementation of human rights obligations, and cooperating with European and international bodies on human rights matters. The center does not have authority to investigate individual human rights abuses. A delegation of representatives from civil society who participated in promoting and safeguarding human rights frequently cooperated with the center.

The parliamentary Constitutional Law Committee analyzes proposed legislation for consistency with international human rights conventions. The committee deals with legislation relating to criminal and procedural law, the courts, and the prison system.

The law requires the ombudsman for children, the nondiscrimination ombudsman, and the ombudsman for equality impartially to advance the status and legal protection of their respective reference groups. These ombudsmen operate under the Ministry of Justice. Responsibility for investigating employment discrimination rests solely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Responsibility for developing antidiscrimination policies and legislation as well as for the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations resides with the Ministry of Justice’s Unit for Democracy, Language Affairs, and Fundamental Rights. The Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations advocates for policy changes to improve integration.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman also operated as an independent government-oversight body that investigates discrimination complaints and promotes equal treatment within the government. The nondiscrimination ombudsman also acted as the national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings and supervised the government’s removal of foreign nationals from the country.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both women and men, including spousal rape, and the government enforced the law effectively. Rape is punishable by up to six years’ imprisonment. If the offender used violence, the offense is considered aggravated, and the penalty may be up to 10 years. All sexual offenses against adults, except sexual harassment, are subject to public prosecution. Sexual offenses against a defenseless person (such as because of unconsciousness, intoxication, or a disability) are considered as severe as rape.

Authorities may prosecute domestic abuse under various criminal laws, including as rape, assault and battery, harassment, and disturbing the peace. The penalty for physical domestic violence ranges from a minimum of six months to a maximum of 10 years in prison.

The legal definition of rape emphasizes intentional violence, which civil society organizations alleged leads courts to find assailants not guilty in cases where coercion was less explicit. In addition police must inquire about a party’s willingness to participate in reconciliation, which is usually engaged in before the case proceeds to the prosecutor. Reconciliation may be grounds for the prosecutor not to press charges, but even reconciliation where a mutual agreement has been reached does not prevent the prosecutor from pressing charges.

Gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, continued to be a problem. The Finnish branch of Amnesty International estimated that more than 100,000 persons experienced violence annually in the country and that 76 percent of the victims were women. According to Amnesty International, only 10 percent of these incidents were reported to authorities and most of those reported did not lead to prosecution. While police are obligated to investigate domestic violence cases, many of the cases are referred to a mediator after which police do not closely track the cases. According to the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), 36.3 percent of intimate partner violence cases were directed to mediation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of intimate-partner violence reported to police increased by 6 percent, and utilization of the online services of the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters grew by 11 percent over the same period. A government-funded provider of telephone support services for victims of violence against women and domestic violence also reported a 31 percent increase in individuals seeking assistance in 2020. From January through July, 160 cases of rape were reported to police or border guards, a 24 percent increase over the same period in 2020. The ombudsman for equality at the Ministry of Justice highlighted problems with access to domestic violence shelters in remote rural areas.

The government funded shelters specifically for victims of domestic violence. There were 29 shelters for victims of domestic violence, and the number of places available in shelters throughout the country increased to 231 from 179 in 2018. The Finnish branch of Amnesty International stated that 550 places were needed to support the number of victims properly and that some rural areas had very few shelters and insufficient space in those shelters. The Human Rights Center acknowledged the problem. A survey of shelter services published by the THL during the year found a decrease in the number of shelter clients since 2019. The use of social welfare and health care services that refer clients decreased during COVID-19 lockdowns, which contributed to a decrease in the use of shelters. The THL estimated that the total required number of family places in shelters varied between 262 and 367. The ombudsman for equality at the Ministry of Justice highlighted problems with access to domestic violence shelters in remote rural areas. Funding of support services for survivors of violence were predominantly provided from the revenue of a state-owned company operating slot machines and gambling.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C is treated as aggravated assault under the law and may be punished with imprisonment or deportation. Taking a girl living in the country abroad for FGM/C is also considered a crime. The government generally enforced the law. A school health survey released by the THL in June 2020, the most recent data available, found that 0.2 percent of girls attending high school or vocational school had undergone FGM/C and that at least 10 girls who answered the questionnaire were mutilated in Finland. The population that most reported having undergone FGM/C were Somali-born residents.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment as a specific, punishable offense with penalties ranging from fines to up to six months’ imprisonment. Employers who fail to protect employees from workplace harassment are subject to the same penalties. The prosecutor general is responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints. The government generally enforced the law.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

In 2019 a group of parents, midwives, and doulas (nonmedical professionals who provide comfort and support to women during pregnancy and childbirth) organized a public campaign against alleged obstetric violence based on reports of episiotomies being performed during birth without informing or obtaining the consent of the mother and medical personnel pressuring pregnant women to consent to interventions and performing “violent internal examinations” on female patients.

The law requires that a transgender person present a medical certificate of infertility before the government may legally recognize their gender identity (see Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, below, for additional information.)

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, and emergency contraception was available as part of the clinical management of rape.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. The government enforced the law effectively. Pregnant women experienced difficulties in finding a job, returning from leave, and renewing fixed-term contracts. The equality ombudsman estimated that half of all calls relating to workplace discrimination concerned discrimination based on pregnancy or issues involving return from parental leave (see also section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: A child generally acquires citizenship at birth through one or both parents. A child may also acquire citizenship at birth if the child is born in the country and meets certain other criteria, such as if the parents have refugee status in the country or if the child is not eligible for any other country’s citizenship. A local registration office records all births immediately.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, defining children as individuals younger than 16. Child neglect and physical or psychological violence carry penalties of up to six months in prison and up to two years in prison, respectively. Sexual abuse of a child carries a minimum penalty of four months’ imprisonment and a maximum of six years. The law defines rape of a minor (younger than 18) as aggravated rape. Rape of a child carries a minimum penalty of two years’ and a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. Aggravated rape of a child carries a minimum penalty of four years’ and a maximum of 12 years’ imprisonment. In October a man was sentenced to four months in prison for physically assaulting his six-year-old son during a summer vacation. The boy’s older brother was a witness to the assault. The man had two previous convictions for assaulting the mother of the child. The prison sentence was converted to 120 hours of community service.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18; the law disallows marriage of individuals under that age. In the first half of the year, the National Assistance System for Victims of Human Trafficking reported 19 new cases of forced marriage. In 2020 the system assisted 45 women and girls, a slight decrease from 2019, considered to have been subjected to forced marriage. Many of these marriages occurred when the victim was underage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The country prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography and the sale, offering, or procuring of children for commercial sex. The law prohibits purchase of sexual services from minors and covers “grooming” (enticement of a child), including in a virtual environment or through mobile telephone contacts. Authorities enforced the law effectively.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The law regards a person whose age cannot be determined, but who may reasonably be assumed to be younger than 18, as a child.

From January to June, there were 993 reported cases of child exploitation, compared with 838 cases reported during the same period in 2020. In June police passed to prosecutors a case involving a man suspected of multiple counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, aggravated child rape, and the possession and dissemination of indecent images of children. As of September all of the more than 30 victims identified were girls between the ages of eight and 14.

In June a man was sentenced to four years and six months in prison for aggravated child sexual abuse, rape, and attempted rape committed against two minors, ages seven and nine, in 2019 and 2020. The perpetrator’s self-reporting the crimes and cooperating with the prosecution reduced the sentence by six months.

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/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

Government statistics and Jewish leaders place the size of the Jewish population between 1,500 and 2,500 individuals, most living in the Helsinki area.

Stickers and posters with anti-Semitic images and messages were placed on the synagogue of Helsinki’s Jewish congregation, in neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations, and on public property throughout the year. The vandalism ranged from targeted to apparently random, and similar incidents had occurred numerous times over the previous three years. Some of the anti-Semitic graffiti and stickers claimed to be from the banned NRM. Stickers specifically targeted Jewish community members at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) pride events. Representatives of the Jewish community reported that, despite available video and photographic evidence of the perpetrators, police made no arrests in the incidents.

Debates on religious practices of animal slaughter with respect to kosher products and on nonmedical male circumcision often used direct or veiled anti-Semitic language (see Other Societal Violence or Discrimination, below).

The government provided funding for the security of the Helsinki synagogue, but the Central Council of Finnish Jewish Communities reported that funding had recently been cut in half. Representatives of the Jewish community reported feeling under threat and specifically targeted due to their beliefs.

On August 30, the Helsinki District Court ruled that the men who carried swastika flags in the 2018 Independence Day demonstrations of the Finnish neo-Nazi organization Toward Freedom! were not guilty of ethnic agitation. The court found that the defendants had not directly threatened or insulted a specific ethnic group.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

The law requires that a transgender person present a medical statement affirming the individual’s gender identity and a certificate of infertility before the government may legally recognize their gender identity. To obtain the medical statement that includes an affirmation of gender, transgender persons must first undergo a psychiatric monitoring process and receive a psychiatric diagnosis, a process that organizations, activists, and transgender persons criticized as causing significant harm, distress, and humiliation. Access to specialized treatment services is only available after a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria,” which lasts for at least two years, thereby creating barriers to gender affirming procedures.

In addition to the requirement that an individual submit to sterilization, activists criticized the duration of the legal process, stating it could take up to three years to obtain identity documents with the new gender markers. In April a citizens’ initiative to reform laws for obtaining legal gender recognition, to extend legal redress opportunities to juvenile minors, and the abolition of a centralized database on past gender transitions garnered 50,000 signatures. Trafficking authorities and civil society stated they had no specialized services for transgender victims of trafficking in persons and were unaware of their status among the trafficking-victim population.

While the law prohibits “conversion therapy” in medical settings, it continued to be practiced privately, most commonly in religious associations. According to local activists, children in the Pentecostal Church community continued to be provided material that encourages sexual orientation conversion.

The law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services, and the government enforced the law. Stickers for the banned NRM targeted LGBTQI+ pride events, inter alia.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The government effectively enforced all applicable laws regarding the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Workers without permanent residence may not be eligible to join voluntary unemployment insurance funds. Employers who violate the rights of employees to organize and retain employee representatives may face administrative measures, legal proceedings, and fines. The penalties were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes. Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and there were no reports of violations. All workers, regardless of sector union membership or nationality, are entitled to the same wages negotiated between employers and trade unions via generally applicable collective agreements.

The law does not permit public-sector employees who provide “essential services,” including police officers, firefighters, medical professionals, and border guards, to strike. An official dispute board may make nonbinding recommendations to the cabinet on ending or limiting the duration of strikes when they threaten national security. Employees prohibited from striking may use arbitration to provide for due process in the resolution of their concerns.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties for forced or compulsory labor depend on the severity of the crime and were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes. Despite strong penalties for violations, some cases of persons subjected to conditions of forced labor in the country were reported.

Men and women working in the restaurant, cleaning, construction, and agriculture industries were the most likely to face conditions of forced labor. The sexual services sector, legal in certain circumstances, also saw incidences of sex trafficking and forced labor. From January 1 through June 30, Victim Support Finland, an NGO, supported 545 clients, including 98 new clients, who had been the victims of human trafficking, labor exploitation, or related crimes.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor but allows persons between the ages of 15 and 18 to enter into a valid employment contract as long as the work does not interrupt compulsory education. It provides that workers between the ages of 15 and 18 may not work after 10 p.m. or under conditions that risk their health and safety, which the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health defined as working with mechanical, chemical, physical, or biological hazards or bodily strain that may result from lifting heavy loads.

Penalties for violations of child labor regulations are commensurate with those for other similar crimes. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment effectively enforced child labor regulations. There were no reports of children engaged in work outside the parameters established by law.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law broadly prohibits employment discrimination. Penalties for violations are commensurate with those for other similar crimes. The government effectively enforced applicable laws against employment discrimination.

The Occupational Safety Administration (OSHA) received 600 reports of workplace discrimination in 2020. Of the 140 reports that resulted in further inspection, 28 percent concerned ethnicity, nationality, language, or religion, 14 percent concerned age discrimination, and 5 percent concerned disability. OSHA highlighted that age was one of the most common reasons for workplace discrimination.

According to the Human Rights Center and the nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office, discrimination in job recruitment was a significant problem, especially in cases where applicants had “non-Finnish” names. In October, Helsingin Sanomat reported that the University of Helsinki was under investigation for suspicions of discrimination. Three students stated that interviews for a position to teach Islam at a school in southern Finland were restricted to students who had a Finnish surname. The Faculty of Theology acknowledged and apologized for the incident on Twitter, and the dean of the faculty said an internal investigation was underway.

In June the government adopted a four-year gender equality action plan, which is designed to advance women’s rights and empowerment by reducing the gender pay gap, promoting female entrepreneurship, raising gender equality awareness in schools, and reducing segregation in education and the labor market (see also section 6, Women).

A report from the equality ombudsman’s office published in June detailed a case where a painter’s fixed-term contract had been extended continuously until she revealed her pregnancy to her employer. The equality ombudsman found that the woman’s occupational safety was not an acceptable reason for not extending her fixed-term contract, and the employer’s actions were in violation of the law.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wages and Hour Laws: While there is no national minimum wage law, the law requires all employers, including nonunionized employers, to pay the minimum wages stipulated in collective bargaining agreements. Authorities adequately enforced wage laws.

The standard workweek established by law is no more than 40 hours of work per week with eight hours work per day. Because the law does not include a provision regarding a five-day workweek, regular work hours may, at least in principle, span six days. The regular weekly work hours may also be arranged so that the average is 40 hours during a period of no more than 52 weeks. Persons in certain occupations, such as seamen, household workers, road transport workers, and workers in bakeries, are subject to separate workweek regulations. The law entitles employees working shifts or during the weekend to one 24-hour rest period per week. The law limits a worker to 250 hours of overtime per year and 138 overtime hours in any four-month period.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is responsible for labor policy and implementation, drafting labor legislation, improving the viability of working life and its quality, and promoting employment. Authorities adequately enforced wage and overtime laws.

According to a service and restaurant industry trade union, there were 800 cases of wage and hour disagreements between employees and employers in 2020, and 35 percent of these cases were from the service, restaurant, and leisure industry.

Occupational Safety and Health: The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is responsible for enforcement of labor laws and regulations. In addition, OSHA enforces appropriate safety and health standards and conducts inspections at workplaces. Individuals who commit work safety or working hours’ offenses are subject to penalties commensurate with similar crimes. The center informs employers of inspections in advance unless a surprise inspection is necessary for enforcement purposes. A subsequent inspection report gives employers written advice on how to remedy minor defects. In the case of serious violations, the inspector issues an improvement notice and monitors the employer’s compliance. When necessary, OSHA may issue a binding decision and impose a fine. If a hazardous situation involves a risk to life, an inspector can halt work on the site or issue a prohibition notice concerning the source of risk. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The law requires employees to report any hazards or risks they discover in working conditions, including in machinery, equipment, or work methods. The law also requires employees, where possible, to correct dangerous conditions that come to their attention. Such corrective measures must be reported to the employer.

Foreign seasonal berry pickers do not always have the same legal employment protections as other workers. In some cases berry pickers and wild produce pickers were classified as entrepreneurs, not employees. They can also be charged for training and recruitment services and face difficult work conditions. During the summer, COVID-19 outbreaks disproportionately impacted seasonal berry pickers, most of whom were from Thailand. In Rovaniemi, 180 of 262 foreign seasonal berry pickers were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Government resources, inspections, and penalties were adequate to deter most violations.

Iceland

Executive Summary

Iceland is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The president is the head of state, and a prime minister, usually the leader of the largest party, is head of government. There is a unicameral parliament (Althingi). Parliamentary elections held on September 25 were considered free and fair, but procedural issues in one electoral district (constituency) prompted two subnational recounts and a change in election outcome. In June 2020 voters reelected Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson president in a free and fair election.

The national police maintain internal security. In addition, the Icelandic Coast Guard carries out general law enforcement duties at sea. The national police, the nine regional police forces, and the Coast Guard fall under the purview of the Ministry of Justice. The country has no military. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and the Coast Guard. There were no reports of abuses committed by members of security forces.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who commit human rights abuses or engage in corruption.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

Physical Conditions: Men and women were held in different cellblocks in the prison in Reykjavik. There was a special block for women at Holmsheidi (Reykjavik) prison but common areas for work. Female prisoners were permitted to serve their sentences in open prisons with men, if they so wished. The law states the government must accommodate juvenile offenders in establishments managed by the Government Agency for Child Protection unless there are special grounds for accommodating them in prison.

The parliament’s ombudsman (who is entrusted with monitoring the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture) publicly released periodic reports on assessments of detention facilities including police holding cells, psychiatric wards, and prisons. The reports, which were based on interviews with prisoners and prison staff, described generally good conditions.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring of prison conditions by media and independent local and international human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police may make arrests when they believe a prosecutable offense has been committed, to prevent further offenses or destruction of evidence, to protect a suspect, or when a person refuses to obey police orders. The law explicitly requires warrants only for arresting individuals who fail to appear in court for a hearing or a trial or at a prison to serve a sentence.

Authorities must promptly inform a person under arrest of their rights and bring them before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and authorities respected this right. There is no functioning bail system. A judge determines whether a suspect must remain in custody during an investigation. The judge may grant conditional release, subject to assurances that the accused will appear for trial. Upon arrival at a police station, the law entitles detainees to legal counsel, which the government provided for the indigent.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are presumed innocent. Authorities must inform defendants of the charges against them promptly and in detail. Trials took place without undue delay. They are generally public, but judges may close them at the defendant’s request or when minors are involved. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to have access to legal counsel of their choosing. The government covers the attorneys’ fees of indigent defendants, but the law requires defendants found guilty to reimburse the government. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, and they can avail themselves of the free assistance of an interpreter if they cannot understand or speak Icelandic. Defendants can confront the prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. At the discretion of the courts, prosecutors may introduce evidence that police obtained illegally. Defendants and their immediate families have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

Defendants have the right to appeal to the Appellate Court that was established in 2018. In most instances, the judgment of the Appellate Court is the final decision, although it is possible to refer special cases for final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals may seek damages for, or cessation of, a human rights abuse through domestic courts. They can appeal decisions involving alleged abuses by the government of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights. Administrative remedies are also available for alleged wrongs.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Immigration law allows authorities to conduct house searches without a prior court order when there is a significant risk that delay would jeopardize an investigation of immigration fraud. Immigration law also allows authorities to request DNA tests without court supervision in cases of suspected immigration fraud.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for members of the media.

Freedom of Expression: The law establishes fines and imprisonment for up to two years for “[a]nyone who publicly mocks, defames, denigrates, or threatens a person or group of persons by comments or expressions of another nature, for example, by means of pictures or symbols for their nationality, color, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, or disseminates such materials.”

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law 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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The September 25 parliamentary elections were considered free and fair, but procedural issues in one constituency led to a recount and change of election outcome. In June 2020 voters re-elected Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson president in a free and fair election.

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats are constituency seats, while another nine are supplementary seats. Parties must exceed the 5 percent threshold nationally to be eligible for a supplemental seat. The number of supplementary mandates in each of the six constituencies is dictated by law. The supplementary seats are distributed to candidates who received the most votes but failed to win a constituency mandate.

Due to a difference of only 10 votes between two parties, both of which were eligible to receive the supplemental seat in the Northwest constituency, the regional electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. Party representatives raised concerns about the legality of the commission initiating a recount and the safekeeping of the ballots. The ballot boxes had not been sealed but were locked in the room where counting took place. The updated results following the recount did not affect the overall number of seats won by each party, but they shifted which supplemental seats each party won. There were no credible reports of political interference or corruption, but the legal process through the Parliamentary Credentials Committee remained pending. The regional electoral commission in the Southern constituency, at the request of several government and opposition parties, initiated a recount, but it found no discrepancies and did not impact the outcome.

The current parliament includes 33 men and 30 women.

Voters re-elected the incumbent president in elections in 2020 that were considered free and fair. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Justice authorized candidates to collect candidacy petitions electronically.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The parliament’s ombudsman, elected by parliament for a period of four years, secures the rights of the citizens to equal and impartial treatment in their dealings with public authorities. The ombudsman is independent from any governmental authority, including parliament, when exercising his or her functions. The ombudsman is party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and conducts periodic site visits to prisons and psychiatric hospitals. While the ombudsman’s recommendations were not binding on authorities, the government generally adopted them.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Judicial Affairs and Education was responsible for legislative oversight of human rights in the country. The committee was generally considered effective.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Conviction for rape, including of men, carries a maximum penalty of 16 years in prison. Judges typically imposed sentences of two to three years. The law does not explicitly address spousal rape.

The law criminalizes domestic violence and specifies a maximum penalty of 16 years in prison for violations.

Survivors of domestic violence can request police to remove perpetrators physically from the home for up to four weeks at a time. Police can also impose a 72-hour restraining order to prevent abusers from coming into proximity with the victim, and courts can extend this restraining order for up to a year. The law entitles survivors of sex crimes to a lawyer to advise them of their rights and to help them pursue charges against the alleged assailants. As of August 26, approximately 74 women and 64 children had sought temporary lodging during the year at shelters for women in Reykjavik and Akureyri.

The police procedure for handling domestic violence states that law enforcement should report to the location of the incident. If responding officers are unable to enter the premises and have reasonable suspicion that the life of an individual inside might be threatened, they are allowed to use force to enter. If a child is present, an official from the child protective services must be called to the scene. All parties present are questioned, and the case is entered into the police database. If the situation warrants, the responding officers can arrest the perpetrator and assist the survivor in seeking medical care and offer guidance on legal recourse. The victim can request a temporary restraining order be imposed on the perpetrator. In some cases officers, child protective services, or the family of the victim can request the restraining order. If officers deem the survivor to be in danger following the imposed restraining order, they provide an emergency services call device.

The government helped finance the women’s shelters in Reykjavik and Akureyri, the Counseling and Information Center for Survivors of Sexual Violence, the rape crisis center of the national hospital, and other organizations that assisted victims of domestic or gender-based violence. These organizations offered services free of charge, regardless of the victim’s citizenship. In addition, the government assisted immigrant women in abusive relationships, offering emergency accommodation, counseling, and information on legal rights.

Sexual Harassment: Under the general penal code, sexual harassment is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. In addition, the law on equal status defines sexual harassment more broadly as any type of unfair or offensive physical, verbal, or symbolic sexual behavior that is unwanted, affects the self-respect of the victim, and continues despite a clear indication that the behavior is undesired. The law requires employers and organization supervisors to make specific arrangements to prevent employees, students, and clients from becoming victims of gender-based or sexual harassment. The law establishes fines for violations, but more severe penalties could be applicable under other laws.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The government provides access to sexual and reproductive services for sexual violence survivors, both on-site at hospitals, and via government-funded nongovernmental organizations that provide free counselling and psychiatric services. Emergency contraception was available as part of clinical management of rape.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status and rights as men according to the constitution and the law. Although the government enforced the law effectively, employment discrimination occurred.

Children

Birth Registration: A child acquires the country’s citizenship at birth if both parents are citizens, if the mother is a citizen, or if the father is a citizen and is married to the child’s foreign mother. If a mixed-nationality couple had obtained a judicial separation at the time when the child was conceived, the child acquires the mother’s citizenship. A stateless child can become a citizen at the age of three. By law all children have access to social services regardless of citizenship. If a child is not legally domiciled in the country or is living in the country without legal guardians, a child protection committee in the municipality where the child is physically located assumes care if needed and takes measures to secure his or her best interests. Registrations of births were prompt.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The government is legally mandated to provide services for children, including a safe residence for children as well as specialized services. Under the law the general public has a duty to notify authorities if suspicion of any form of child abuse arises. The Government Agency for Child Protection is responsible for implementation of the law. The agency operated a diagnostic and short-term treatment center for abused and troubled minors and was responsible for one short-term treatment center in Reykjavik and two centers in other locations. The government maintained a children’s assessment center to secure their well-being, lessen the trauma experienced by children, coordinate victim protection, and accelerate prosecution in child sexual abuse cases. The prime minister appoints the ombudsman for children, who acts independently of the government. While the ombudsman’s recommendations are not binding on authorities, the government generally adopted them.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18 for both sexes. There were no reports of forced marriages during the year.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the payment or promise of payment or consideration of another type for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child younger than 18. Violations may be punished with fines or imprisonment for up to two years. The law punishes child pornography by up to two years in prison. The law criminalizes statutory rape with incarceration of one to 16 years. The government effectively enforced these laws.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 15. The law includes a requirement for explicit consent for sexual acts, meaning that consent is not considered to be given freely if obtained through violence or the threat of violence, any kind of force, or the use of drugs or alcohol.

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/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The resident Jewish community was estimated at approximately 300-400 individuals. Jewish community leaders noted an uptick in anti-Semitism during the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in May, including one physical assault against a man wearing a Star of David necklace at a Reykjavik bar.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

While the constitution does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it does so implicitly. The law prohibits anyone from denying a person goods or services based on that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It also prohibits denying a person access to a public meeting place or other places open to the public on the same footing with others on grounds of that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The law further prohibits incitement to hatred against persons based on sexual orientation or gender identity and the dissemination of hateful material.

In January the Gender Autonomy Act (passed in 2019) went into effect. Within the first week, 12 persons registered to change their legal gender to nonbinary.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists reported generally positive conditions. Nevertheless, the same activists continued to note the lack of explicit protections for LGBTQI+ individuals based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, in hate crime laws.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. It is silent on whether workers fired for union activity should be reinstated, but it allows for fining employers who engage in this practice. The law permits the government to pass a provisional law to impose mandatory mediation when strikes threaten key sectors in the economy.

The government effectively enforced the law. Inspection was sufficient to enforce compliance and penalties for violations (damages and fines) were commensurate with those for similar crimes.

The government and employers respected freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining agreements covered nearly 100 percent of the formal economy’s workforce. Independent contractors in various industries, but mainly in construction and tourism, sometimes hired subcontractors to avoid hiring workers with bargaining rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

Law enforcement authorities and the Administration of Occupational Health and Safety (AOSH) effectively enforced the law. Resources were adequate during the year, although there were no prosecutions. The law is sufficiently stringent compared with those on other serious crimes, and penalties for violations were commensurate.

Some instances of forced labor occurred. Traffickers subjected men and women to forced labor in construction, tourism, and restaurants. Foreign “posted workers” were at particular risk of forced labor because traffickers paid them in their home countries and contracted them to work for up to 183 days in the country under the guise of avoiding taxes and union fees, limiting tax authorities’ and union officials’ ability to monitor their work conditions and pay. Foreign workers have the same rights that are afforded to local workers in collective bargaining agreements. Union officials noted that they do take legal action on the behalf of workers, regardless of whether union dues had been paid.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and provides for a minimum age of employment, including limitations on working hours, occupational safety, and health restrictions for children younger than age 18. According to the law, children ages 13 and 14 may be employed in light work up to 12 hours per week and a maximum of two hours per day outside organized school teaching hours during the school year and up to 35 hours a week or a maximum of seven hours per day during school vacations. They may not work between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children between the ages of 15 and 18 who do not attend school may work up to 40 hours per week and a maximum of eight hours per day, but not between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. For children who remain in school, the law limits work to 12 hours per week and a maximum two hours per day during the school year, but up to 40 hours per week and a maximum eight hours per day during school vacations. They may not work between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children younger than 18 may not be employed in hazardous work as specified by law.

The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes. Inspection capacity was sufficient to enforce compliance.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and other laws prohibit employment discrimination in general and provide for fines determined by the courts for violations. The law provides for equal treatment in the labor market, without regard to race, ethnicity, age, religion, beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, or gender expression. The law does not specifically address HIV/AIDS or refugee status. Under the law individuals, companies, institutions, and nongovernmental organizations can refer cases to the Gender Equality Complaints Committee, which rules on appointments and salary-related matters.

The government effectively enforced the law in most areas, but instances of employment discrimination occurred. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations. Despite laws requiring equal pay for equal work, a pay gap existed between men and women. Disability rights advocates asserted that persons with disabilities had a more difficult time finding jobs due to prejudice and because fewer job opportunities, especially part time, were available for persons with disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wages and Hour Laws: The law does not establish a minimum wage. The minimum wages negotiated in various collective bargaining agreements applied automatically to all employees in those occupations, including foreign workers, regardless of union membership. While the agreements can be industry-wide, sector-wide, or in some cases firm-specific, the type of position defined the negotiated wage levels, which were higher than the poverty level.

The law requires that employers compensate work exceeding eight hours per day as overtime and limits the time a worker may work, including overtime, to 48 hours a week on average during each four-month period. Overtime pay does not vary significantly across unions, but collective bargaining agreements determine the terms of overtime pay. The law entitles workers to 11 hours of rest in each 24-hour period and one day off each week. Under specially defined circumstances, employers may reduce the 11-hour rest period to no fewer than eight hours, but they must then compensate workers with corresponding rest time later. They may also postpone a worker’s day off, but the worker must receive the corresponding rest time within 14 days. AOSH monitored and enforced these regulations.

Occupational Safety and Health: The law sets occupational health and safety standards that are appropriate for the main industries, and the Ministry of Welfare administered and enforced them through AOSH, which conducted both proactive and reactive inspections. Workers can remove themselves from situations that endanger health and safety without jeopardy to their employment. AOSH can close workplaces that fail to meet safety and health standards.

The government effectively enforced the law. AOSH employed a sufficient number of inspectors to enforce standards effectively in all sectors. AOSH levied daily fines on companies that did not follow instructions, urging them to improve work conditions. Daily fines were commensurate with those for similar violations. Except for certain asylum seekers, the government provided universal health-care coverage to all workers, including those in the informal economy.

The Icelandic Confederation of Labor stated in its annual report for 2021 that the pandemic had revealed faults with the economy where the lowest earners and vulnerable groups lost their livelihoods and are more likely to experience long-term unemployment. Although violations of occupational safety and health standards occurred in all sectors, violations occurred most frequently in the construction and food industries. Young workers and employees who did not understand or speak Icelandic and did not know local rules and regulations were more likely to be subjected to hazardous or exploitative working conditions.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the al-Sabah family. While there is also a democratically elected parliament, the amir holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The most recent parliamentary general election, considered generally free and fair, was held in December 2020. Members of the opposition won a majority of seats while no women candidates won a seat.

Police have sole responsibility for the enforcement of laws not related to national security, while the Kuwait State Security oversees national security matters. Both police and Kuwait State Security personnel report to the Ministry of Interior, as does the Coast Guard. The Kuwait National Guard is independent of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense. The Kuwait National Guard reports to the prime minister and the amir. The Kuwait National Guard is responsible for critical infrastructure protection, support for the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the maintenance of national readiness. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; arbitrary arrest; political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of NGOs and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement including the right to leave the country; government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.

The government took significant steps in some cases to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Impunity was a problem in corruption cases.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there continued to be reports of torture and mistreatment by police and security forces against detained members of minority groups and noncitizens.

Several noncitizens claimed police or Kuwaiti State Security (KSS) force members beat them at police checkpoints or in detention. During the reporting period at least eight foreign nationals reported credible cases of abuse or mistreatment during arrest or interrogation by law enforcement, including the Ministry of Interior’s Drug Enforcement General Directorate (DEGD). In their initial meeting with prisoners, public prosecutors must ask whether the prisoner is injured; it is the prisoner’s responsibility to raise the subject of abuse. Prosecutors also look for visible injuries. If a prisoner states they are injured or if injuries are visible, prosecutors must ask how the injury happened and refer the prisoner to medical professionals.

Numerous activists representing stateless persons of Arab heritage – known in Arabic as bidoon jinsiya (without nationality) or colloquially as Bidoon – reported mistreatment at the hands of authorities while in detention. There continued to be allegations from individuals that they were subjected to unlawful detention and physical and verbal abuse in police centers and State Security detention centers. There are credible indications that police, KSS force members, and the DEGD abused prisoners during arrest or interrogation. Multiple transgender individuals have reported cases of rape and physical and verbal abuse by police and prison officials.

The government investigated complaints against police and took disciplinary action when the government determined it was warranted. As of November the Department of Oversight and Inspection at the Ministry of Interior received 591 complaints against ministry employees for abuse of power, the arbitrary application of the law, excessive use of force, and verbal or physical abuse of citizens and noncitizens. The Ministry of Interior applied disciplinary actions, including fines, detention, and removal or termination from professional postings. In more serious cases, however, individuals can bring their cases against a ministry employee to the courts, or the ministry can refer the complaint to the courts through its legal department. Of the 591 complaints received, as of November the ministry reviewed 413, 71 of which resulted in disciplinary actions and 96 of which were referred to the courts. The government did not make public the findings of its investigations or administrative punishments. The current number of complaints of sexual or physical violence reported by prisoners was unavailable, as was data on how many, if any, were terminated.

Although government investigations do not often lead to compensation for victims, the victim can utilize government reports and results of internal disciplinary actions to seek compensation via civil courts.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh due to overcrowding.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding continued to be a significant problem during the pandemic. Authorities hold men and women in separate prisons. Juveniles are held in separate wards within the adult prisons. Pretrial prisoners are held in the central prison, and convicted prisoners are held in the public prison. According to the Ministry of Interior, the capacity of the central prison is 2,390 inmates, and there were 3,037 inmates as of November. In a November visit to the central prison, however, the National Council for Human Rights (Diwan Huquq al-Insan or the Human Rights Diwan) stated there were 4,500 inmates. According to the Ministry of Interior, there was overcrowding at the public prison but not at the women’s prison. If a woman gives birth while imprisoned, she has the right to decide to keep her child with her in the women’s prison. As of November there were three children in the women’s prison with their mothers.

In January security officials reported to local media that there was extensive overcrowding at the deportation center because of limited flights available to return prisoners to their home countries. At the time 800 persons were detained pending deportation – mostly from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Madagascar – including families with women and children. Some individuals were held for up to nine months awaiting deportation in either police station holding cells, the deportation prison, residency violators’ holding cells, and the DEGD. The Ministry of Interior reported no overcrowding at the deportation center as of November. Press reports, however, indicated that the Ministry of Interior and the Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) stopped efforts to identify and arrest illegal residents due to overcrowding at the center from October to December.

Access to and quality of food, potable water, sanitation, heating, ventilation, lighting, and medical care were adequate. The Ministry of Interior reported there was a hospital and several specialized clinics in the prison complex run by the Ministry of Health. More serious medical cases were referred to hospitals outside of the prison complex. The Ministry of Interior imposed various measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the prisons. Only Muslims and Christians are permitted to pray and possess religious literature while detained. According to the government, prisoners were allowed to make one domestic telephone call per day and one international call per month. International observers confirmed that prisoners were able to make domestic calls via a landline for approximately 10 minutes each day. There were no reports of deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detentions centers attributed to prison conditions.

Administration: There were some reports of corruption and lack of supervision by the administration of the prison and detention center system. While inmates lodged complaints against prison officials and other inmates, no information was available on the resolution of these complaints. Authorities allowed Muslim imams and Christian clergy access to prisoners and detainees for religious observance, but other religions did not have this privilege.

Independent Monitoring: The Ministry of Interior permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by some nongovernmental observers and international human rights groups, although required written approval for visits by local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities permitted staff from the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, Kuwait Red Crescent Society, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Evangelical Church, the Kuwait Bar Association, and Human Rights Diwan to visit prisons and detention centers during the year.

Improvements: Efforts by the government to decrease the prison population to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 substantially reduced overcrowding in the prisons. In January, Amir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah issued a decree pardoning 600 prisoners. Of those pardoned, 120 prisoners were released early in February, and the others were given a penalty reduction or fine exemption. In May a second decree provided amnesty and commuted the prison terms of 459 additional convicts.

Observers indicated that sanitation and facilities maintenance had generally improved from previous years, particularly due to the government’s early release of approximately 1,000 prisoners who had committed minor offenses or served most of their time. In September the Ministry of Interior launched a new electronic monitoring system for citizens on bail or probation, which will allow those sentenced to less than three years to serve their sentences at home wearing monitoring devices. This tracking system is available only to citizens for traffic violations and criminal offenses.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

A police officer generally must obtain an arrest warrant from a state prosecutor or a judge before making an arrest, except in cases of hot pursuit or observing the commission of a crime. There were numerous reports of police arresting and detaining noncitizens without a warrant, apparently as part of the government’s effort against unlawful residents. Authorities generally informed detainees promptly of the charges against them and allowed access to family members and a lawyer of their choice. For defendants without a lawyer, one is provided by the state. The courts usually do not accept cases without warrants issued prior to arrests. In some detention cases, authorities permitted lawyers to attend legal proceedings, but did not allow direct contact with their clients. Some defendants were sentenced in absentia. Detainees facing “state security” charges were routinely denied access to their lawyers, interpreters, and document translators in advance of hearings. Police investigated most misdemeanor cases, and suspects were released within 48 hours after paying bail or a fine. For more serious misdemeanors and felonies, police can hold a suspect a maximum of four days on their own authority before they must refer the case to prosecution. Nonetheless, some detainees, especially those held for drug and state security crimes, were detained for periods of one to two weeks without notification of the specific charges against them. They were also not allowed to make telephone calls or contact lawyers and family members.

If authorities file charges, a prosecutor may remand a suspect to detention for an additional 10 days for a serious misdemeanor, and three weeks for a felony, in order to question the suspect and investigate the case. Prosecutors also may obtain court orders to extend detention for another 15 days, up to a maximum of four months’ detention pending trial. There is a functioning bail system for defendants awaiting trial.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law and the constitution provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. The Supreme Judicial Council nominates all prosecutors and judges and submits nominations to the amir for approval. Judges who were citizens received lifetime appointments until they reached mandatory retirement age. Noncitizen judges held one- to three-year renewable contracts. The Supreme Judicial Council may remove judges for cause. In September the Chief of the Supreme Judicial Council and Chairman of the Court of Cassation Council began implementing the “Kuwaitization plan” for the judiciary, as part of a government initiative to recruit more of its own citizens for public sector employment. The chief said the council agreed to admit graduates of the faculties of law and sharia to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Generally, the judiciary was independent; however, noncitizen residents involved in legal disputes with citizens frequently alleged the courts showed bias in favor of citizens. In some cases legal residency holders – principally migrant workers – were detained and deported without recourse to the courts.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law forbids physical and psychological abuse of the accused. Defendants enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence, to be present at their trial, and to receive prompt, detailed information on the charges against them. The Ministry of Justice is required to pay for and provide defendants with an interpreter for the entire judicial process, but this did not always occur. In some cases, defendants who did not speak or understand Arabic learned of charges against them after their trial began, because an interpreter was not provided when charges were presented.

Criminal trials are public unless a court decides the “maintenance of public order” or the “preservation of public morals” necessitates closed proceedings. During the first half of the year judges exercised wide discretion in closing their courtroom or limiting members of the public in court proceedings due to COVID-19 guidelines, but limits were eased during the second half of the year. Defendants generally have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice. The bar association is obligated upon court request to appoint an attorney without charge for indigent defendants in civil, commercial, and criminal cases, and defendants used these services. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Most court documents were not publicly accessible.

Defendants have the right to confront their accusers, to confront witnesses against them, and to present their own witnesses, although these rights were not always respected. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal verdicts to a higher court, and many exercised this right.

Under the domestic labor law, domestic workers are exempted from litigation fees. If foreign workers had no legal representation, the public prosecutor sometimes arranged for it on their behalf, but with little or no involvement by the workers or their families. When workers received third-party assistance to bring a case, the cases were often resolved when the employer paid a monetary settlement to avoid a trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were many reports of persons detained for expressing their political views. These individuals were given the same protections as other detainees and the government permitted human rights groups to visit them. Throughout the year the government continued to arrest individuals on charges such as insulting the amir, leaders of neighboring countries, or the judiciary; spreading false news; or undermining the state’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The courts issued verdicts for 21 cases of individuals charged with insulting the amir; some defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences from one to 10 years. Sentences for organizing public demonstrations amongst the Bidoon, participating in unlicensed or illegal demonstrations against the country’s ruling system, spreading false news, or criticizing the amir or other leaders on social media ranged from six months in prison to 10 years plus fines for multiple offenses.

The government actively monitored social media and incarcerated bloggers and political activists for expressing opinions and ideas critical of the government. Media reported between two and four such convictions per month.

In September authorities released Abdullah Fayrouz, a human rights activist and Bidoon rights advocate, after he served eight years in prison pending deportation for insulting the amir on Twitter. Fayrouz, who claimed to be a citizen but has been designated by the government as Bidoon, had been sentenced to exile but was never deported because no other country was willing to accept him.

Amnesty: In November the amir pardoned 11 former opposition members of parliament and activists self-exiled in Turkey who were convicted of storming the National Assembly in 2011. Additionally, the amir pardoned 24 Shia citizens from the al-Abdali Cell who were linked to Hizballah and Iran and convicted in a 2017 state security case. The pardons were part of a National Dialogue aimed at resolving Arab Spring-era tensions between the government and opposition.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for an independent and impartial judiciary and trial for individuals or organizations in civil matters regarding human rights abuses, but authorities occasionally did not enforce such requirements for political reasons. Authorities frequently used administrative punishments, such as travel bans or deportation in civil matters. As of November there were 36,761 travel bans issued during the year for citizens and noncitizens for various reasons, including pending court cases, personal status cases, and outstanding financial claims. In most cases of human rights or labor law abuses, victims can go to PAM or the Domestic Workers Employment Department (DWED) to reach a negotiated civil settlement outside of court, except for cases of physical or sexual abuse. In these cases workers can file criminal complaints at police stations or through the Public Prosecutor’s Office. For other labor related complaints, workers can file complaints with PAM or the DWED, and if this is unsuccessful, these workers can pursue their cases in labor courts.

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

The constitution and the law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Cybercrime agents within the Ministry of Interior regularly monitored publicly accessible social media sites, however, and sought information regarding owners of accounts, although foreign-owned social media companies denied most requests for information.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, although these rights were routinely violated. The law also imposes penalties on persons who create or send “immoral” messages, spread false news, and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services to individuals on national security grounds. The number of individuals convicted for expressing their opinions was not available at year’s end.

Freedom of Expression: The law bans certain issues for publication and public discussion. Topics banned for publication include insulting religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the amir; endangering relations between Kuwait and friendly countries; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; sorcery; and publishing information that could lead to a devaluation of the currency or false economic worries. The Public Prosecutor investigated COVID-19-related cases concerning the dissemination of allegedly false news. In general, local activists, academics, journalists, and opposition political figures reported they were regularly contacted by KSS, Ministry of Information, and Public Prosecutor’s Office officials after they published opinions deemed contrary to government positions. Government authorities did not always take immediate action in the cases of social media posts made by citizens while overseas to which the authorities objected, but under the law, the government may take action once the author returns to the country. There was broad latitude in the interpretation of what constitutes a crime when voicing dissent against the amir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count of the offense. A lawyer said in July that the Publicity, Information, and Publication Affairs Prosecution prosecuted approximately 9,000 cases related to social media or traditional media publications over the past three years.

The courts continued to sentence political activists to harsh prison sentences for charges of speaking out against the amir, the government, religion, or neighboring states.

In January the Court of Cassation refused bail for social media influencer Jamal al-Najada who was sentenced to three months in prison for insulting the Public Prosecutor’s Office in a leaked audio recording.

In 2020 the Court of Appeals and Cassation determined a 2014 conviction against outspoken opposition member of parliament Bader al-Dahoum for insulting the amir did not disqualify him for running for parliament. In March, however, the Constitutional Court reversed that decision and al-Dahoum was removed from the National Assembly.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views within legally permissible limits. All print media were privately owned, although their independence was limited by law and self-censorship based on fear of prosecution. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. The Ministry of Information may request that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry ban any media organization; media organizations can challenge media bans in the administrative courts. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. Both government and privately owned broadcast media are subject to the same laws as print media. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 22 cases involving violations of the electronic media law.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: In January amendments to the Press and Publications Law came into effect that dismantled the Ministry of Information’s oversight committee for imported publications (mainly books). Publishers importing books are no longer required to obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Information to import books, and they are only expected to provide the book title, the author’s name, the number of copies to be imported, and a copy of the book to the Ministry of Information. They remain liable to legal action if the courts receive an official complaint from the public. Other amendments to the Press and Publications Law prohibited publishing any content that “stirs up sectarianism or tribal strife” or racist ideas. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (awqaf means endowment) reviewed books of a religious nature.

Media outlets exhibited a range of opinions on topics relating to social problems, but all apparently self-censored, avoiding critical discussion on topics such as the amir, foreign policy, and religion, to avoid criminal charges or fines or to keep their licenses. Discussions of certain sensitive topics, such as sex, were also self-censored. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required educational material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely, although authorities did not censor these topics in news media. Widely available satellite dishes and virtual private networks allowed unfiltered media access.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file a complaint with authorities against anyone the citizen believes harmed public morals. The constitution states the amir is “immune and inviolable” and the penal code and press and publications law criminalize defamation and criticism of the amir.

National Security:The law forbids the publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. The government prosecuted online bloggers, political activists, and social media outlets under the Cybercrime Law, the Printing and Publications Law, and the National Security Law. The government generally restricted freedom of speech in instances purportedly related to national security, including the glorification of Saddam Hussein and references to the “Arabian Gulf” as the “Persian Gulf.”

Authorities arrested prominent human rights defender and lawyer Hani Hussein in 2020 and charged him with “broadcasting false news about the Saudi-Kuwait Neutral Zone” and violating the national unity law. Hussein was released on bail and was found innocent by the Court of First Instance, but the government appealed the decision. In September the Court of Cassation acquitted Hussein of all charges.

Internet Freedom

The law criminalizes certain online activities, including unauthorized access to information technology systems and confidential information; blackmail; use of the internet for terrorist activity; money laundering; and utilizing the internet for human trafficking. The cybercrime department at the Ministry of Interior received 2,023 cybercrime related complaints during the year.

The government’s E-Licensing program requires bloggers and websites that provide news in the country to register with the Ministry of Information and apply for a license or face a fine. Information on the number of new registration applications, rejected applications, existing registered sites, and fines issued were unavailable.

The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and general security reasons. The Ministry of Communications blocked websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate [the country’s] customs and traditions.” The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by email and social media, based on laws related to libel, national unity, and national security. The government prosecuted some online bloggers under the Printing and Publications Law and the National Security Law.

In June an Egyptian resident was arrested and deported by security forces for “insulting the country” in a social media post in which he criticized the weather. In November local media reported a citizen who was sentenced in 2017 for criticizing Saudi Arabia on Twitter went on a hunger strike after the central prison transferred him to a cell occupied by convicted terrorists; he remained imprisoned at the end of year.

The government filtered the internet primarily to block pornography and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) material (to include health, advocacy, and legal information) as well as sites critical of Islam. The Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) blocked 82 websites during the year and unblocked 13. CITRA reported that the blocked websites included content considered offensive to the state and harmful to public morals. According to CITRA websites are blocked upon receipt of a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office or KSS.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law provides for the freedoms of opinion and research, but self-censorship limited academic freedom, and the law prohibits academics from criticizing the current and previous amirs or Islam. The government censored academic curricula for topics relating to the Holocaust, sex, and other sensitive subjects. The government restricted artistic presentations and theatrical performances if they were perceived to damage public morals.

The Ministry of Interior reserved the right to approve or reject public events it considered politically or morally inappropriate.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Noncitizens and Bidoon are prohibited from demonstrating. The government requires citizens to obtain permits for public gatherings of more than 20 persons. Bidoon activists reported that if they tried to assemble peacefully or organize campaigns to gain equal rights, authorities regularly harassed them. Some Bidoon activists indicated they were detained for questioning by authorities each time they planned campaigns or protests.

In July the Ministry of Interior deported a Jordanian resident for taking part in a gathering to protest the government’s decision barring unvaccinated individuals from entering malls. During the gathering he spoke to local television stations and criticized the ban.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government placed restrictions on this right. The law prohibits officially registered organizations from engaging in political activities.

The government used its power to register associations as a means of political influence and to limit public engagement on controversial topics or proscribed activities. The Ministry of Social Affairs can reject an NGO’s application if it deems the NGO does not provide a public service. Most instances in which the government closed a charity resulted from the charity not properly reporting fundraising activities, including failing to obtain permission from the ministry to fundraise or failing to submit annual financial reports. Dozens of unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs had no legal status, and many of those chose not to register due to bureaucratic inconvenience, including inability to meet the minimum 50-member threshold. The Ministry of Social Affairs continued to reject some new license requests, contending established NGOs already provided services like those the petitioners proposed. Members of licensed NGOs must obtain permission from the ministry to attend international conferences as official representatives of their organization.

Following the submission of a large number of applications from inactive NGOs to take part in activities abroad, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ NGOs Department in 2019 set regulations for NGO members to take part in conferences, lectures, and seminars held outside the country, including limiting the maximum number of participants to two per NGO, ensuring the conference theme is part of the goals of the concerned organization’s establishment, and notifying the ministry at least one month in advance.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The constitution generally provides for freedom of internal movement, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel.

With limited paths to citizenship, all legal noncitizen workers are considered foreign workers rather than migrants.

Foreign Travel: Bidoon residents and foreign workers faced problems with, or restrictions on, foreign travel. The government restricted the ability of many Bidoon residents to travel abroad by not issuing them travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon residents to travel overseas for medical treatment and education, and to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj. The Ministry of Interior issued Article 17 passports (temporary documents that do not confer nationality) to some Bidoon for these purposes, if they held valid identification documents issued by the Central Agency for Illegal Residents and did not have security restrictions placed on their file. Migrant workers who obtain emergency travel documents from their home country embassy are required to obtain permission from the PAM and the Ministry of Interior to exit the country. The Ministry of Interior announced that domestic workers would lose their residencies if they remained outside of the country for more than six months starting on December 1.

The law also permits travel bans on citizens and noncitizens accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows citizens to petition authorities to impose a travel ban on others. This provision was sometimes imposed arbitrarily and resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country. Human rights activists reported being banned from travel to prevent them from participating in overseas events. They claim the government told them they were put under a travel ban for failing to pay parking tickets or other small fines.

Citizenship: By law the government is prohibited from revoking the citizenship of an individual who was born a citizen unless that individual has taken a second nationality. The government can revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause and can subsequently deport them. The justifications for such revocations include felony conviction for “honor-related and honesty-related crimes,” obtaining citizenship dishonestly, and threatening to “undermine the economic or social structure of the country.” In 2018 the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, affirmed that it is not permissible to withdraw citizenship from any citizen without a legitimate reason, stressing that a final court ruling must justify any withdrawal of citizenship.

On occasion the government revokes citizenships. In August media reported the Supreme Committee for Nationality Verification revoked the citizenship of 54 citizens, mostly women with dual nationalities. The Supreme Committee, however, reported that it revoked the citizenship of 10 citizens during the reporting period. If a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status was derived from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights. Absent holding another nationality, those impacted would become stateless. Authorities can seize the passports and civil identification cards of persons who lose their citizenship and enter a “block” on their names in government databases. This “block” prevents former citizens from traveling with the country’s passports or accessing free health care and other government services reserved for citizens.

The law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but it allows non-Muslim male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendants.

The government may deny a citizenship application by a resident based on security or criminal violations committed by the individual’s family members.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution stipulates the country is a hereditary emirate. The 50 elected members of the National Assembly (plus government-appointed ministers) must approve the amir’s choice of crown prince by majority vote conducted by secret ballot. According to the Succession Law, the crown prince must be a male descendant of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah and have attained the age of 30, possess a sound mind, and be a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the amir from power by a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions was not met.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Observers generally considered the December 2020 parliamentary election free and fair, and reported no serious procedural problems. In November 2020 the Interior Ministry announced that 34 of the 395 candidates had been disqualified without explanation, although 20 were later reinstated. One of these candidates was elected to the Parliament. Due to COVID-19 health concerns, the campaign period prior to the election was shorter than normal, and in-person events were not allowed.

Opposition MPs took 24 of the National Assembly’s 50 seats, an increase of 16 seats from the last parliament. Thirty candidates younger than age 45 were elected, while none of the 33 women candidates won seats. In May a by-election was held to fill the seat by Bader al-Dahoum’s judicial disqualification (see section 2, Freedom of Expression). In the May election, which local observers considered free and fair, 15 candidates, including one woman, ran. Opposition figure Obaid al-Wasmi won the seat.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not recognize political parties or allow their formation, although no law formally bans political parties. National Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals. Well organized, unofficial blocs operated as political groupings inside the National Assembly, and members of parliament formed loose alliances. Those convicted of insulting the amir and Islam are banned from running for elected office. In 2019 the Court of Cassation issued a verdict that found citizens convicted of calling for or participating in unregistered demonstrations and protest rallies or resisting security operatives could not vote or stand for public office. Voters may register to vote every February upon reaching the voting age of 21 and having citizenship for 20 years. Prosecutors and judges from the Ministry of Justice supervise election stations. Women prosecutors served as supervisors for the first time during the 2016 elections. Annually the Ministries of Interior and Justice work together to purge from voter registration lists the names of those convicted of insulting the amir; cases must reach a final verdict before names can be removed. The election law criminalizes tribal primary elections for member of parliament candidates that take place informally before the official election date. In September, one former and one current member of parliament were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for holding illegal tribal elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Religious minority groups can freely participate in the political process, vote, and run for the National Assembly. LGBTQI+ individuals do not openly participate in the political process due to legal discrimination (see section 6, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity). Although women gained the right to vote in 2005, they faced cultural and social barriers to political participation. For example, some tribal leaders excluded women from running for office or choosing preliminary candidates by banning them from being considered or attending unofficial tribal primaries. Cultural norms often excluded women from attending local gatherings, called diwaniyas, which candidates attend to lobby for support from influential leaders and voters. The one appointed woman cabinet member can vote within the country’s 50-seat parliament. Although 33 female candidates ran in the December 2020 parliamentary election, no women were elected. Analysts attributed this outcome to widespread discomfort with women in leadership roles and an electoral system that minimized the likelihood of voters allocating their one vote per slate of 10 district candidates to a female candidate. In September, three women were appointed as deputy directors of prosecution for the first time in the country. In October the Ministry of Justice announced that seven female judges assumed leadership roles overseeing misdemeanor court circuits. In November the government appointed 14 new female prosecutors to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, increasing the total number of female prosecutors to 64. As of November the Ministry of Justice had appointed a total of 15 female judges. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were a total of 1,380 prosecutors and judges. As of December 19, the Ministry of Defense permitted women to enlist in the military. Within the first two days, the ministry reported 260 women signed up to join the military.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights.

The government imposed limits on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups, although government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. The law permits the existence of NGOs, but the government continued to deny registration to some. To be registered NGOs are required to demonstrate that their existence is in the public interest, conduct business beneficial to the country, have at least 50 citizen members and a board comprised entirely of citizens, and not undermine cultural values and norms as defined by the government. NGOs may not engage in political activity or encourage sectarianism.

Major local NGOs dedicated specifically to human rights included the Kuwait Society for Human Rights and the Kuwaiti Association of the Basic Evaluators of Human Rights. Most local registered NGOs were devoted to the rights or welfare of specific groups, such as women, children, prisoners, and persons with disabilities. These organizations operated with little government interference, and some suffered from a lack of government cooperation. A few dozen local unregistered human rights groups also operated discreetly but ran the risk of sanction if they were too vocal in calling out abuses. The government and various national assembly committees met occasionally with local NGOs and generally responded to their inquiries.

In May the Public Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges against human rights defender Hadeel Buqrais, officially closing her case, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Frontline Defenders reported the Cybercrimes State Security Agency interrogated Buqrais in November 2020 over a tweet critical of discrimination against and mistreatment of the Bidoon community. Frontline Defenders reported that authorities questioned her regarding her human rights work and advocacy for the Bidoon community without the presence of her lawyer.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, which operates independently of the government, is a parliamentary body that primarily hears individual complaints of human rights abuses and worked with plaintiffs and relevant stakeholders to reach a mutual settlement. The committee had adequate resources and was considered effective. The number of grievances received by the committee was unavailable.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, but not spousal rape. The law covers rape for men and women. Rape carries a maximum penalty of death, which the courts occasionally imposed for the crime. The courts issued verdicts for 198 cases of sexual assault including rape. Some defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences from five to 20 years. Authorities did not effectively enforce laws against rape. The law allows a rapist to avoid punishment on the condition that he marry his victim and that her male guardian consents that the perpetrator not be punished. Violence against women continued to be a problem, and the law does not include separate criminal penalties for domestic violence. There were reports alleging that some police stations did not take seriously reports by both citizens and noncitizens of sexual assault and domestic violence, which service providers stated contributes to a culture of underreporting by rape and domestic violence survivors.

When reported, police typically arrested perpetrators and investigated allegations of rape, and in a limited number of cases, prosecuted the accused. In July the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of a former government official for kidnapping and raping a Bidoon child. As of November the alleged perpetrator was in pretrial detention. In September the Criminal Court sentenced a male citizen to 15 years in prison for raping an expatriate woman.

Although the government does not regularly publish statistics on domestic violence, cases of domestic violence against women were regularly reported by local NGOs. These NGOs noted an increase in cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. The courts issued verdicts for 991 domestic violence cases, including 662 cases of violence against women. Some defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences from six months to 20 years, and some were sentenced to the death penalty. Service providers observed that domestic violence was significantly underreported to authorities, but press publicized some high-profile cases.

In April a citizen man stabbed to death a citizen woman after he crashed his car into her sister’s car and kidnapped her and her daughter. She had previously filed two police complaints against the perpetrator for harassing and threatening her for more than a year after her family had refused his marriage proposal. In July the Criminal Court charged the perpetrator with first degree murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. In September the Criminal Court referred a citizen man responsible for the September 2020 killing of his sister for examination by mental health experts. Press reports indicated that the accused man killed his sister while she was recovering in the hospital from an initial attempt on her life by another brother. Media asserted the men attacked their sister because they did not approve of her marriage.

In February activists launched a countrywide social media campaign under the name Lan Asket (“I will not be silenced”) to raise awareness and end violence against women. The campaign encouraged women to submit their experiences online and documented numerous reports of women facing violence and harassment. Women’s rights activists also documented numerous stories of citizen and female foreign workers seeking help to leave an abusive situation who faced significant obstacles or were forced to remain in life-threatening situations because government has not yet opened a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As of December the Ministry of Social Affairs assigned a building for a domestic violence shelter with capacity for up to 100 women and hired at least six staff to work at the shelter and operate the domestic violence hotline.

A woman may petition for divorce based on injury from spousal abuse, but the law does not provide a clear legal standard regarding what constitutes injury. In domestic violence cases, a woman must produce a report from a government hospital to document her injuries, in addition to having at least two male witnesses (or a male witness and two female witnesses) who can attest to the abuse. Advocates reported that women who reach out to police rarely get help because officers are not adequately trained to deal with domestic violence cases. Victims were generally sent back to their male guardians, who in some instances were also their abusers. Information on the number of cases and final and appealable sentences issued for rape and domestic violence was unavailable.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): While FGM/C is illegal, it is not specifically criminalized by law outside of the penal code provisions prohibiting physical violence and abuse. NGOs have reported its practice in some expatriate communities. Parents and doctors found to be participating in FGM/C can be fined.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law provided reduced penalties for a man who murders a woman who allegedly engaged in an adulterous act, which NGOs have asserted legalizes honor killings. The government does not track honor killings or publish data on honor killings.

Sexual Harassment: Human rights groups characterized sexual harassment in the workplace as a pervasive and mostly unreported problem. The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, but many activists, legal experts, and members of parliament have stated they are not satisfied with the penal code and called for a separate law to criminalize sexual harassment in February. In reference to the penal code, in September the government announced that sexual harassment is prohibited in the private sector workplace and that PAM is responsible for referring cases of sexual harassment and discrimination to the Ministry of Interior and Public Prosecutor’s Office. The prohibition also includes “all forms and means of harassment and discrimination,” including online and discrimination based on gender, age, pregnancy, or social status. PAM, however, has not announced the implementation of any procedures to report violations of the prohibition. The law criminalizes “encroachment on honor,” which encompasses everything from touching persons against their will to rape, but police inconsistently enforced this law. The government deployed female police officers specifically to combat sexual harassment in shopping malls and other public spaces. Perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault faced fines and imprisonment.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

There were no reports of government interference in the right of married couples to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of children. There were no reports of government interference in the ability to access information on reproductive health. Social and cultural attitudes, however, prevented unmarried women from seeking out this information and some physicians were reluctant to administer certain procedures, such as pap smears, to unmarried women despite there being no law against it. The information and means to make decisions, as well as skilled attendance during prenatal care, essential obstetric care, childbirth, and postpartum care were freely available to citizens and foreign residents with valid identification documents. Many stateless Bidoon and unmarried women reportedly had difficulty accessing nonemergency reproductive medical care.

While the government did not provide any formal family planning programs, contraceptives were available without prescription regardless of nationality, age, or marital status. Clinics were prohibited from providing any advice on contraceptives to unmarried women, however. Cultural stigmas discouraged unmarried women from accessing contraceptives. According to UN Population Fund 2021 estimates, 34 percent of women ages 15-49 used a modern type of contraceptives. It is illegal to give birth out of wedlock, and a mother who gives birth out of wedlock can be imprisoned along with her child. Fathers of children born out of wedlock can also be imprisoned. If an unmarried woman was pregnant, authorities have at times summoned her partner for interviewing, requested the suspected father submit to a paternity test, and asked for a marriage certificate backdated nine months for the mother and father to avoid arrest. Mothers giving birth out of wedlock in public or government-run hospitals often faced issues getting documentation for their children. NGOs and medical professionals reported families pressured unmarried pregnant women to claim falsely they have been raped to avoid jail time and the stigma associated with sexual relations prior to marriage.

The government provided some access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, but these services were largely inadequate. Emergency contraception was available. A large percentage of survivors of sexual violence had little access to health services. NGOs reported that hospitals do not have rape kits available; rape survivors are required to go to the Ministry of Interior’s forensic medical department to request a rape kit. Publicly available information was limited on the required procedures needed to request a rape kit. Expatriate survivors of sexual violence often had even less access to such services, particularly if they were illegal residents or their employer did not provide adequate medical coverage.

Discrimination: The law does not provide women the same legal status, rights, and inheritance provisions as men. Women experienced discrimination in most aspects of family law, including divorce and child custody, as well as in the basic rights of citizenship, the workplace, and in certain circumstances, the value of their testimony in court. Sharia (Islamic law) courts have jurisdiction over personal status and family law cases for Sunni and Shia Muslims. As implemented in the country, sharia discriminates against women in judicial proceedings, marriage, child custody, and inheritance. There were no reported cases of official or private sector discrimination in accessing credit, owning or managing a business, or securing housing, but no official government system exists to track this.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to both citizen and noncitizen women (see section 7.d.). Secular courts allow any person to testify and consider the testimony of men and women equally, but in sharia courts the testimony of a women equals half that of a man. A study released by the Kuwait Society for Human Rights in 2020 found that, while the constitution provides for equal rights for women, implementation often fell short and many laws contradicted its equal protection provisions.

The law allows marriage between Muslim men and non-Muslim women (of Abrahamic religious groups only) but it prohibits marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. The law does not require a non-Muslim woman to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim man, but many non-Muslim women faced strong economic and societal pressure to convert. In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother who did not convert to Islam, the law grants the father or his family sole custody of the children. A non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim citizen man is also ineligible for naturalization and cannot inherit her husband’s property unless specified as a beneficiary in his will.

Inheritance is also governed by sharia, which varies according to the specific school of Islamic jurisprudence. In the absence of a direct male heir, a Shia woman may inherit all property, while a Sunni woman inherits only a portion, with the balance divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.

Women do not enjoy equal citizenship rights as men. Female citizens are unable to transmit citizenship to their noncitizen husbands or to children. Failure to provide equal citizenship rights to women subjects their children to statelessness when a woman is married to a stateless Bidoon resident. In exceptional cases some children of widowed or divorced female citizens were granted citizenship by amiri decree, although this was a discretionary act. In March the Ministry of Interior announced female citizens could sponsor residency permits for their noncitizen husbands and children only if the husband and children were unemployed and not naturalized citizens.

Male citizens married to female noncitizens do not face such discrimination and their children are accorded the full legal protections of citizenship. In February, however, the Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee rejected a proposal to grant citizenship to widows of male citizens even if the couple had children. Individuals can petition the Ministry of Interior to include their name on a list of proposed naturalizations, to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers. If approved the names go to the amir for signature and are published in the national gazette. The law requires segregation by gender of classes at all public universities and secondary schools, although it was not always enforced.

Children

Birth Registration: Birth registration is generally available to all citizens and foreign residents as long as the parents have a recognized marriage certificate dated at least seven months prior to the birth date of their child. Citizenship is transmitted exclusively by the father (see section 6, Discrimination). The government designates the father’s religious group on birth certificates as either Muslim, Christian, or other. The government often granted citizenship to orphaned or abandoned infants, including Bidoon infants. Bidoon parents, and in a few cases citizen women married to Bidoon or foreigners, were sometimes unable to obtain birth certificates for their children even after completing extensive administrative procedures. The lack of a birth certificate prevented Bidoon children from obtaining identification papers and accessing public services such as education and health care.

Education: Education for citizens is free through the university level and compulsory through the secondary level. Education is neither free nor compulsory for noncitizens. Credible reports estimate hundreds of children are unable to attend school as a result. The 2011 Council of Ministers decree which extended public education to Bidoon residents has still not been implemented fully. Lack of identification documents sometimes prevented Bidoon resident access to education even at private schools. The Education Ministry sets annual quotas for the number of Bidoon residents who can attend public schools, most of whom have citizen mothers. The others must attend private schools and pay fees. Charitable organizations offer tuition support to some but not all of these students.

Medical Care: Citizen boys and girls have equal access to state-provided medical care. Lack of identification papers restricted Bidoon residents’ access to free medical care.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal marriage age is 17 for boys and 15 for girls, but tradition and family expectations sometimes resulted in girls marrying at a younger age within some tribal groups.

Child Abuse: The law establishes protections for abused children, including noncitizen children.  The Child Protection Office of the Ministry of Health, established in 2014, has made significant efforts in monitoring and following cases of child abuse. The office manages a child abuse hotline, which received 474 reports of abuse as of November. Most abuses occurred within the family, and cases were approximately split evenly among boys and girls. In instances of reported child abuse, children are admitted to a hospital and assessed by medical professionals pending legal proceedings. There is no shelter for abused children.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: There is no minimum age for consensual sex. There are no laws specific to child pornography because all pornography is illegal. There is no statutory rape law; premarital sexual relations are illegal. The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, grooming, and offering or procuring children for prostitution. The authorities generally enforced the law.

A Child Protection Office policy holds families of children 13 years old or younger responsible for the use of social media applications that might be unsuitable for young children or could expose them to sexual predators.

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

Anti-Semitism

There were no known Jewish citizens and an estimated few dozen Jewish foreign resident workers. Anti-Semitic rhetoric generally originated from self-proclaimed Islamists or conservative opinion writers. There were reported cases of clerics and others making statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews. Columnists often conflated Israeli government actions or views with those of Jews more broadly. Reflecting the government’s nonrecognition of Israel, there are longstanding official instructions to teachers to expunge any references to Israel or the Holocaust from English-language textbooks. The law prohibits local companies from conducting business with Israeli citizens, included transporting Israeli passport holders on the country’s national airline.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

Police incited, perpetrated, condoned, and tolerated violence against LGBTQI+ individuals. Transgender persons reported cases of repeated harassment, detention, abuse, and rape by police, who blackmailed and raped them without fear of reprisal. Consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men and imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex are illegal. The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between men older than age 21 with imprisonment of up of to seven years; those engaging in consensual same-sex sexual activity with men younger than age 21 may be imprisoned for up to 10 years. No laws criminalize same-sex sexual activity between women. The law criminalizes and imposes a fine and imprisonment for one-to-three years for persons imitating the appearance of the opposite sex in public. These penalties were enforced.

The Criminal Court sentenced a transgender woman, Maha al-Mutairi, to prison for two years and fined her 1,000 dinars ($3,315) in October for “imitating the opposite sex” in her online activities and for “misusing phone communication.” In June 2020 al-Mutairi asserted on social media that she was targeted by police based on her gender identity and she was sexually assaulted and raped by police officers. Authorities held al-Mutairi in solitary confinement at the central prison for men. In late November the Court of Appeals issued an amended verdict sentencing al-Mutairi to one month in prison and a fine of approximately 500 dinars ($1,650). Since al-Mutairi had been imprisoned since October, she was released for completing the one-month sentence in late November. Societal discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity occurred. Officials practiced such discrimination, usually upon discovering that a person stopped for a traffic violation did not appear to be the gender indicated on the identification card.

No registered NGOs focused on LGBTQI+ matters, although unregistered ones existed. Due to social convention and potential repression, LGBTQI+ organizations neither operated openly nor held LGBTQI+ human rights advocacy events or Pride marches.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of citizen workers to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, with significant restrictions. The law prohibits trade unions from conducting any political activities. Foreign workers, who constituted more than 80 percent of the workforce, may join unions only as nonvoting members after five years of work in the sector the union represents, provided they obtain a certificate of good conduct and moral standing from the government. They cannot run for seats or vote in board elections. Migrant workers have the right to bargain collectively at their respective workplace but are not permitted to form trade unions. Migrant workers can participate in trade unions and share grievances but are not permitted to vote or run for office. The government generally enforced applicable laws with some exceptions, which were commensurate with those for other laws involving denial of civil rights, such as discrimination. Complaint proceedings were generally not subjected to lengthy delays or appeals for Kuwaitis. The time it takes to resolve complaints for migrant workers depends on the nature of the complaint but is generally longer for migrants than for citizens.

The labor law does not apply to domestic workers or maritime employees. Discrete labor laws set work conditions in the public and private sectors, with the oil industry treated separately. The law permits limited trade union pluralism at the local level. Public sector employees are permitted to unionize, but the government authorized only one federation, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation. The law also stipulates any new union must include at least 100 workers and that at least 15 must be citizens.

The law provides workers, except for domestic workers, maritime workers, and public sector employees, a limited right to collective bargaining. There is no minimum number of workers needed to conclude such agreements. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Public-sector workers do not have the right to strike. Citizens in the private sector have the right to strike, although cumbersome provisions calling for compulsory negotiation and arbitration in the case of disputes limit that right. The law does not prohibit retaliation against striking workers or prevent the government from interfering in union activities, including the right to strike.

As of July the Ministry of Interior arrested 95 employers for issuing residency permits in exchange for money and deported 4,896 residents whose legal status had lapsed. The Ministry of Interior reported that it closed 44 fake domestic worker employment offices.

The International Labor Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation criticized the citizenship requirement for discouraging unions in sectors that employ few citizens, including most private sector employment, such as construction. The government treated worker actions by citizens and migrant workers differently. While citizens and public sector union leaders and workers faced no government repercussions for their roles in union or strike activities, companies directly threatened migrant workers calling for strikes with termination and deportation.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference with union functions. The law provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Nevertheless, the law empowers the courts to dissolve any union for violating labor laws or for threatening “public order and morals,” although a union can appeal such a court decision. The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs can request the Court of First Instance to dissolve a union. Additionally, the amir may dissolve a union by decree.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not prohibit and criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor. There are exceptions to the law in cases related to “national emergency and with just remuneration.” The law allows for forced prison labor as a punishment. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

In April security guards at the Ministry of Education posted on social media that they had not received their salaries for five months. In response PAM required their employer to pay their salaries. As of June hundreds of security guards and cleaners working for private companies with government contracts had not received their salaries since February. Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for foreign workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers. Employers confined some domestic and agricultural workers to their workspaces by retaining their passports and, in the case of some domestic workers, locked them in their work locations. The government did not make consistent efforts to educate households regarding the legal prohibition on seizing domestic employees’ passports. Some employers did not allow workers to take their weekly day of rest or leave their work location. Workers who fled abusive employers had difficulty retrieving their passports, and authorities deported them in almost all cases.

Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under kafala, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. Forced labor conditions for migrant workers included nonpayment of wages, long working hours, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as withholding passports or confinement to the workplace.

Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain their passports, which employers had illegally confiscated when they began their employment. There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or injuring them when they tried to escape. Some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted some serious cases of abuse when reported, particularly when the cases were raised by the source country embassies. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse. PAM operated a shelter for female domestic workers, victims of abuses, or persons who were otherwise unwilling to continue to work for their employers and preferred to leave the country. The shelter had a capacity of 500, and PAM reported the shelter accommodated a total of 160 occupants during the reporting period. In August a Filipina domestic worker posted a video on social media claiming abuse by her sponsor. According to PAM, the Ministry of Interior and PAM found her and moved her to the women’s domestic worker shelter in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh.

A government-owned recruiting company designed to mitigate abuses against domestic workers (Al-Durra) officially launched its services in 2017 and initially planned to bring 120 domestic workers a month from the Philippines and approximately 100 male workers from India. Al-Durra reported it had not recruited any new domestic workers since the end of the first quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19. Al-Durra’s services included worker insurance, a 24/7 abuse hotline, and follow-up on allegations of labor rights violations. The target recruitment fee depends on domestic workers’ experience and skillset. The government regularly conducted information awareness campaigns in Arabic and English via media outlets and public events and otherwise informed employers to encourage compliance by public and private recruiting companies with the law.

Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of residence permit or “visa trading,” wherein companies and recruitment agencies collude to “sell visas” fraudulently to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and workers are vulnerable to exploitation in the black market where they are forced to earn a living and repay the cost of their fake “visa.” Arrests of traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. Since workers cannot freely or easily change jobs under the country’s kafala system, many workers were unwilling to leave their initial job, even if visa traders had misled them regarding the position, or their position existed only on paper. Workers who left their employers due to abusive treatment, nonpayment or late payment of wages, or unacceptable working conditions risked the Ministry of Interior charging them with falling into illegal residency status, absconding, and being deported. In 2020 PAM established an emergency hotline to track “visa trading” and labor infraction allegations. Through the hotline, online applications, social media platforms, and the PAM website, PAM received 53 complaints as of November. In October the Anti-Trafficking Department at the Ministry of Interior established a 24/7 hotline in Arabic and English to receive reports of human trafficking. Since its establishment the hotline received 95 complaints, none of which the Ministry of Interior qualified as a trafficking in persons violation.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought increased public and press attention to “visa trading.” Civil society groups, press outlets, and MPs called for the government to increase its efforts to protect victims and punish traders and their enablers.

In May the Court of Cassation sentenced a Ministry of Interior colonel and two Egyptian nationals to three years in prison for visa trading and violating the residency law. In September the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of three citizens for running a human trafficking operation, after the Immigration Investigations Department found that 400 expatriates were falsely told they would be working at hotels, which the workers later discovered did not exist. Some expatriates from various countries reportedly indicated to the Public Prosecutor’s Office they paid approximately 1,500 dinars ($5,000) each to be brought to the country for work.

In March the rapporteur of the National Assembly’s human rights committee stated that the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, among other ministries, were involved in human trafficking, and government contracts are a large source for trafficking.

In November the Court of Cassation rejected the appeals of Bangladeshi member of parliament Kazi Shahidul Papul, two Kuwaiti government officials, and a Kuwaiti former member of parliament who were convicted of bribery and human trafficking in April. The court upheld Papul’s seven-year prison sentence, his fine of approximately 270,000 dinars ($900,000), and his deportation after serving his sentence.

The court also upheld the appeal ruling for the former PAM chief, who was sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of almost 180,000 dinars ($600,000) The police officers involved were sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of approximately 1.97 million dinars ($6.5 million).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The government did not effectively enforce the child labor law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The legal minimum age for employment is 18, although employers may obtain permits from the Ministry of State for Economic Affairs to employ juveniles ages 15 to 18 in some nonhazardous trades. Juveniles may work a maximum of six hours a day with no more than four consecutive hours followed by a one-hour rest period. Juveniles cannot work overtime or between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Although not extensive there were credible reports that children of South Asian origin worked as domestic laborers. Some underage workers entered the country on travel documents with falsified birth dates.

PAM labor and occupational safety inspectors routinely monitored private firms for labor law compliance. Noncompliant employers faced fines or a forced suspension of their company operations. Nevertheless, the government did not consistently enforce child labor laws in the informal sector, such as in street vending.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, and disability in the public and private sectors. Penalties for violations were not commensurate to other laws on civil rights, such as election interference.

The government immediately deported HIV-positive foreign workers, and there was no protection for workers based on sexual orientation. No laws prohibit labor discrimination based on non-HIV communicable diseases, or social status; there were no reported cases of discrimination in these areas. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to both citizen and noncitizen women. Female domestic workers were at particular risk of discrimination or abuse due to the isolated home environment in which they worked.

The law states that a woman should receive “remuneration equal to that of a man provided she does the same work,” although it prohibits women from working in “dangerous industries” in trades “harmful” to health, or in those that “violate public morals,” such as professions that provide services exclusively to men. The law does not allow women to work the same hours as men and restricts women from working in certain industries, such as mining, oil drilling, construction, factories, and agriculture.

In September the Ministry of Commerce and PAM issued a decision banning sexual harassment and discrimination in the private sector workplace. The decision prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of gender, age, pregnancy, or social status in the oil and private sectors.

The Supreme Council for Planning and Development reported that women make up 56 percent of the labor market in the public sector and 11 percent in the private sector. The Supreme Council for Planning and Development reported that women make up 18 percent of leadership positions.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with permanent physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, and it imposes penalties on employers who refrain without reasonable cause from hiring persons with disabilities. The government generally enforced these provisions. Noncitizens with disabilities had no access to government-operated facilities that covered job training, and the government has not fully implemented social and workplace aides for persons with physical and, in particular, vision disabilities.

In July, PAM approved a proposal to prohibit the issuance of new work permits for expatriate workers at the age of 60 years and above, and those who hold only high school diplomas, unless the employer paid a 2000 dinar ($6,555) fee. In October the Department of Fatwa and Legislation determined that the prohibition was illegal and that the fee would be removed. In November, PAM proposed a new decision stipulating that this category of expatriate residents could renew their visas if their employers were to pay for private health insurance, amounting to approximately 900 dinars ($3,000) and an annual visa fee of 510 dinars ($1,680). Though this fee was for the employer, most employees paid the fees. The Fatwa and Legislation Department must approve PAM’s new decision before it can be implemented. As of December no visas have been renewed and the suspension was still in place.

Shia continued to report government discrimination based on their religion. Shia held no leadership positions in the security forces. Some Shia continued to allege that a glass ceiling prevented them from obtaining leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the security services. In the private sector Shia were generally represented at all levels in proportion to their percentage of the population.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The law does not provide for a national minimum wage for all sectors of the economy. It sets a national monthly minimum wage in the oil sector, and the private sector, and a minimum monthly wage for domestic workers. The minimum monthly salary for the private sector is approximately 75 dinars ($250) whereas the approximate lowest monthly salary for the public sector is 600 dinars ($2,000). Domestic workers earn a minimum monthly salary of approximately 60 dinars ($200).

The law limits the standard workweek to 48 hours (40 hours for the petroleum industry) and gives private-sector workers 30 days of annual leave. The law also forbids requiring employees to work more than 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. The law provides for 13 designated national holidays annually. Workers are entitled to 125 percent of base pay for working overtime and 150 percent of base pay for working on their designated weekly day off. The government effectively enforced the law in most cases, but there were gaps in enforcement with respect to low-skilled migrant workers. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Occupational Safety and Health: The government issued occupational health and safety standards that were up-to-date and appropriate for the main industries. The law provides that all outdoor work stops between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during June, July, and August, or when the temperature rises to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. A worker could file a complaint against an employer with PAM if the worker believed his or her safety and health were at risk. As of November, PAM conducted 2,773 inspections; between June and August, PAM recorded 1,045 companies in violation of the work ban.

PAM was responsible for enforcement of wages, hours, overtime, and occupational safety and health regulations of workers. Labor and occupational safety inspectors monitored private firms. The government periodically inspected enterprises to raise awareness among workers and employers and to assure that they abided by existing safety rules, controlled pollution in certain industries, trained workers to use machines safely, and reported violations.

The government did not effectively enforce all occupational safety and health laws. Penalties for violations of the law were commensurate with those for crimes like negligence. Workers were responsible for identifying and reporting unsafe situations to PAM. Occupational safety and health inspectors were required to actively monitor conditions and take appropriate actions when violations occur. PAM monitored work sites to inspect for compliance with rules banning summer work and recorded hundreds of violations during the year. Workers could also report these violations to their embassies, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation, Kuwait Society for Human Rights, or the Labor Disputes Department. Noncompliant employers faced warnings, fines, or forced suspensions of company operations. The law does not provide domestic workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment.

Informal Sector: The law does not provide for occupational health and safety standards for workers in the informal economy. PAM has jurisdiction over domestic worker matters and enforces domestic labor working standards.

At times PAM intervened to resolve labor disputes between foreign workers and their employers. The authority’s labor arbitration panel sometimes ruled in favor of foreign laborers who claimed violations of work contracts by their employers. The government was more effective in resolving unpaid salary disputes involving private sector laborers than those involving domestic workers.

Domestic workers and other low-skilled foreign workers in the private sector frequently worked in excess of 48 hours a week, with no day of rest. The law required workers to earn an established monthly wage in order to sponsor their family to live in the country, although certain professions were exempted. As a result, most low-wage employees were not able to bring their families to the country.

Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers, particularly domestic employees in the home, and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. Domestic workers had little recourse when employers violated their rights except to seek admittance to the domestic workers’ shelter where the government mediated between sponsors and workers either to assist the worker in finding an alternate sponsor, or to assist in voluntary repatriation.

There were no inspections of private residences, where most of the country’s domestic workers were employed. Reports indicated employers forced domestic workers to work overtime without additional compensation. In 2020 PAM began implementing a “blacklist” system that would prevent the sponsorship of domestic workers by recruitment offices or employers that violate workers’ rights. The government usually limited punishment for abusive employers to administrative actions such as assessing fines, shutting employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back wages. In September 2020 PAM, the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, the United Nations Development Program and the International Organization for Migration launched the Tamkeen Initiative to implement the International Recruitment Integrity System to promote ethical recruitment of migrant workers. As of November, PAM stated that the first phase of the Tamkeen Initiative, which included training for its own staff and recruitment agencies, was complete.

Some domestic workers did not have the ability to remove themselves from an unhealthy or unsafe situation without endangering their employment. There were reports of domestic workers’ dying or attempting to die by suicide due to desperation over abuse, including sexual violence or poor working conditions. The law provides legal protections for domestic workers, including a formal grievance process managed by PAM. A worker who was not satisfied with the department’s arbitration decision has the right to file a legal case via the labor court.

Several embassies with large domestic worker populations in the country met with varying degrees of success in pressing the government to prosecute serious cases of domestic worker abuse. Severe cases included those where there were significant, life-threatening injuries or death.

In July, PAM imposed a ban on residence permits for laborers in the country working in the industrial, agricultural, and fishing industries. In September, PAM implemented a decision to permit expatriates to transfer commercial visit visas to a work permits due to widespread labor shortages.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy ruled since January 2020 by Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al Said. The sultan has sole authority to enact laws through royal decree, although ministries and the bicameral Majlis Oman (parliament) can draft laws on non-security-related matters, and citizens may provide input through their elected representatives. The Majlis Oman is composed of the Majlis al-Dawla (upper house or State Council), whose 85 members are appointed by the sultan, and the elected 86-member Majlis al-Shura (lower house or Consultative Council). In 2019 nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Council; there were no significant claims of improper government interference.

The Royal Office, Royal Oman Police Internal Security Service, and Ministry of Defense comprise the security apparatus. The Royal Office is responsible for matters of foreign intelligence and security. The Royal Oman Police, which includes Civil Defense, Immigration, Customs, and the Coast Guard, performs regular police duties as well as many administrative functions similar to a Ministry of Interior in other countries. An inspector general serves as the head of the Royal Oman Police, which is a ministerial-level position that reports directly to the sultan. An official with ministerial-level rank heads the Internal Security Service, which investigates matters related to domestic security. Sultan Haitham’s brother – Shihab bin Tarik Al Said – serves as deputy prime minister for defense affairs, although the sultan remains the supreme commander of the armed forces. The sultan, as well as the senior civilian and military authorities who reported to him, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary arrest or detention; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on the internet, including site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious restrictions on political participation; criminalization of consensual lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex conduct; and labor exploitation of foreign migrants.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses, and authorities generally held security personnel and other government officials accountable for their actions.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices. The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an organization based in Beirut that relies heavily on social media, reported Sultan Ambo Saeedi’s claims that the Internal Security Service (ISS) subjected him to nail removal, electric shocks, and tear gas exposure while he was in custody in 2017. During the year Saeedi also indicated that his torture complaint, filed in 2017, had not been addressed. Saeedi claimed he was forced to leave the country after successive summonses. On March 26, the government-funded Oman Human Rights Commission (OHRC) said that it would “coordinate with the competent authorities to find the truth and take the necessary actions in accordance with the law,” and the Royal Oman Police (ROP) said in a separate statement it would clarify the facts of this case and noted “all its procedures are in accordance with laws and regulations,” but no case updates were available by year’s end.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There was no current information available regarding prison or detention center conditions.

Physical Conditions: There have been no prison condition reports since a 2019 report from Amnesty International that described the conditions in Samail Central Prison as “poor.” During the COVID-19 outbreak, there were reports of infections among inmates in some of the country’s prisons. The OHRC reported that prison and detention center officials worked to protect inmates and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by isolating and monitoring new prisoners for 14 days in separate areas before transferring them to their cells. Inmates also received educational briefings on health and infection-prevention best practices.

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

Independent Monitoring: The law permits visits by international human rights observers. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the country in July; however, ICRC is not believed to have conducted any independent monitoring visits in the country during the year. The OHRC reported on human rights conditions to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC investigated claims of abuse, conducted prison and detention center site visits, and published a summary of its activities in an annual report. Consular officers from some diplomatic missions reported difficulties in meeting with prisoners or delayed notification regarding detained citizens.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The government generally observed these requirements, but there were reports the government arbitrarily arrested several peaceful activists who publicly criticized the government. Persons arrested or detained are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis of their detention although there were reports that those arrested were not always able to access legal representation in a timely manner.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law does not allow the ROP to arrest or detain a person “without an order to this effect from a concerned legal authority.” The law stipulates that police must either release the person or refer the matter to the public prosecution within 48 hours. For most crimes the public prosecution must then order the person’s “preventive detention” or release the person within 24 hours; preventive detention is warranted if “the incident is an offense or an act of misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment.” A preventive detention order shall not exceed 30 days, or 45 days in offenses involving public funds, narcotics, and psychoactive drugs. A prosecutor may request extensions – 15 days in special circumstances, but the request cannot exceed 60 days. The law requires those arrested be informed immediately of the charges against them. The government generally observed these requirements unless charges were related to peaceful activism challenging the government’s authority in which case the government prevented activists from promptly accessing legal representatives. There was a functioning bail system. Detainees generally had prompt access to a lawyer of their choice although there are reports individuals detained for political reasons were not always given prompt access to a lawyer. The state usually provided public attorneys to indigent detainees, as required by law. In cases involving foreign citizens, police sometimes failed to notify the detainee’s local sponsor or the citizen’s embassy.

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

According to GCHR on February 23, security authorities in Dhofar Governorate arrested environmental rights activist Ahmed Issa Qatan. On February 28, authorities arrested internet activists Salem Ali al-Maashani and Amer Muslim Bait Saeed (Amr al-Hkli) for acts relating to environmental activism online, according to human rights organizations and social media posts calling for their release. A court in Salalah acquitted one of the activists, and released the other two on bail, the same sources said in March.

On July 23, security forces arrested internet activist Ghaith al-Shibli at his home in Sohar, according to GCHR and social media. Al-Shibli’s arrest was followed by the arrest of several internet activists who participated in dialogues that al-Shibli organized on religious freedom and other topics. Other activists reportedly detained in the same crackdown included Maryam al-Nuaimi and Abdullah Hassan. Both of their Twitter accounts were suspended following their arrests. No further updates were available. On August 9, police arrested Talal bin Ahmed al-Salmani after he submitted a request to the director of Bousher Police Station in Muscat Governorate requesting permission to organize a peaceful rally on August 11 calling for liquor shops to be shut down, according to human rights observers based outside the country. He was released in October, according to the state-run Oman News Agency.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the sultan may act as a court of final appeal and exercise his power of pardon as chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s highest legal body, which is empowered to review all judicial decisions. The country has civil courts though principles of sharia (Islamic law) inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes. There is no article in the law that prohibits or allows women to serve as judges, but no women are known to have served. Civilian or military courts try all cases. There were no reports judicial officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys faced intimidation or engaged in corruption.

Trial Procedures

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The number of political prisoners was unknown. Political prisoners are not denied any prisoner rights under the law, and they may ask to speak with representatives from the OHRC or the ICRC. Some activists were denied prompt access to legal representation, Freedom House reported.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

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

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

The law does not allow public officials to enter a private home without first obtaining a warrant from the public prosecution. The government monitored private communications, including cell phone, email, and social media exchanges. The government blocked most voice over internet protocol (VoIP) sites.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The law provides for limited freedom of expression for members of the press and other media, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists, high profile figures, and writers reportedly exercised self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” It is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities prosecuted individuals for writing on the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. International human rights organizations expressed concern that the penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.

In February a court charged an individual with a misdemeanor and sentenced him to two months’ imprisonment and a fine of 300 rials ($780) for the “indecent act” of showing contempt for the national currency, local press reported. According to the report, the man posted a video to social media in which he was dancing while wearing a necklace of currency bills.

On August 13, security forces arrested internet activist Khamis al-Hatali after he published a video on his Twitter account where he addressed Sultan Haitham, saying, “We are the nation talking…You are an unjust person.” No update was available.

There were no updates available on the status of Musallam al-Ma’ashani’s indefinitely delayed trial related to his arrest in 2019 at the Sarfait border crossing for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar.

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

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

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

Authorities blocked the import without the necessary permit of certain publications, for example, religious texts. Importing pornography also was blocked. Shipping companies claimed customs officials sometimes confiscated these materials. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities censored 51 literary works from the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair, which was cancelled in 2021 due to COVID-19.

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

In March the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) blocked domestic access to the drop-in audio chat platform Clubhouse, according to social media and local press outlet that confirmed the block with TRA. Some social media users, media outlets, and human rights observers described the block as censorship and inconsistent with the principle of freedom of expression.

In March a court sentenced two citizens to one year in prison and a fine of 500 rials ($1,300) and confiscated their cell phones for using information technology to violate public morals, local press reported. According to the report, the men posted video clips to social media that contained indecent signs, phrases, and actions. No additional details were available.

On July 23, security forces arrested Internet activists Ghaith al-Shibli, Maryam al-Nuaimi, and Abdullah Hassan, according to GCHR and social media reports (see section 2.d.).

According to HRW and Amnesty International, activist and blogger Awadh al-Sawafi was arrested in June for tweets critical of government institutions. On June 16, he was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison sentence and banned from using social media for one year for violating the Cyber Crime Law by “publishing information harming public order.” On June 10, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced former Shura Council member Salem al-Awfi and journalist Adel al-Kasbi each to one year in prison for “using information technology to spread harm to public order” under the Cyber Crime Law. Both of their charges relate to posts that criticized government figures and the Shura Council.

Some informal civil society and advocacy organizations also were targeted for social media posts, according to HRW. Notably, the women behind the “Nasawiyat Omaniyat” (Omani Feminists) Twitter account were reportedly summoned for questioning by authorities and forced to suspend their activity on the account, seemingly in retaliation for their work and public advocacy on women’s rights.

Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most VoIP technologies.

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

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

During a series of nationwide demonstrations against unemployment in May, the ROP reportedly arrested individuals engaged in peaceful protest, according to some social media users and human rights observers. The ROP arrested “dozens” of protesters, most of whom the authorities released after they signed pledges to refrain from participating in future demonstrations, GCHR said in June. According to this organization, authorities released five peaceful protestors in July after charging them with participating in a gathering of more than 10 persons without a permit and detaining them for several weeks. Human rights defender Ibrahim al-Balushi was among those reportedly arrested. He went on a hunger strike while in solitary confinement and was released on June 2, according to GCHR.

Freedom of Association

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although this right is not codified; however, there were reports that migrant workers were not always able to depart the country freely.

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

Foreign Travel: The government reported that expatriate workers could depart the country without permission at any time, but a worker’s ability to do so was contingent on physically possessing a passport and not facing any charges, including “absconding” charges. Some potential human trafficking victims who experienced passport confiscation or were subject to spurious charges filed by their employers may have been unable to leave the country freely.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in May 2020 the sultan postponed the quadrennial municipal council elections, last held in 2016. The government did not set a date for when these elections would take place.

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

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. During the Majlis al-Shura elections in 2019, voters elected two women as representatives. The sultan appointed 15 women to the Majlis al-Dawla in 2019. Three women serve as ministers, four as undersecretaries, and one as Chair of the Small and Medium Enterprise Authority.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The OHRC, a government-funded commission made up of members from the public, private, and academic sectors, reported on human rights to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC also published an annual report summarizing the types of complaints it received and how it handled those complaints. OHRC functions semi-independently with moderate effectiveness in protecting human rights in the country, based on limited public information.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

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

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

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

Sexual Harassment: Harassing a woman by word or conduct is punishable by imprisonment up to a year.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. Married couples have access to family planning and information, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Health clinics disseminated information on family planning under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. Some forms of birth control, including condoms, were available at pharmacies and supermarkets, although medically prescribed contraceptives were generally not available for unmarried women. Menstrual healthcare was available for citizens and menstrual care products were readily available in pharmacies and grocery stores. The government provided free childbirth services to citizens within the framework of universal health care. Prenatal and postnatal care was readily available and used. While survivors of sexual violence could seek medical treatment at public healthcare facilities, the government did not provide emergency contraception or dedicated sexual and reproductive health services to survivors.

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

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

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

The law provides for transmission of citizenship at birth if the father is a citizen, if the mother is a citizen and the father is unknown, or if a child of unknown parents is found in the country. Women married to noncitizens may not transmit citizenship to their children (who are thereby at risk of statelessness) and cannot sponsor their noncitizen husband’s or children’s presence in the country.

The law provides that any adult, male or female, may become a citizen by applying for citizenship and subsequently residing legally in the country for 20 years or 10 years for a woman if married to a male citizen. Women citizens cannot confer expedited citizenship to their foreign male spouses in the same manner. The approval or rejection of the citizenship application is subject to the Ministry of Interior’s final decision.

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

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

Children

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

Child Abuse: According to the law, any concerned citizen must report child abuse, and each governorate had an interagency committee that would meet to discuss the allegations and possibly take the child out of the parent’s custody until the allegations were investigated. The government operated a child abuse hotline.

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no indigenous Jewish population. One Arabic-language newspaper featured multiple cartoons critical of the Israeli government in which a man representing stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes of Jews along with wearing the Star of David represented the state of Israel.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct and consensual heterosexual sex outside of marriage with a jail term of six months to three years, but it requires a spouse or guardian complaint to initiate prosecution, independent of gender. The government did not actively enforce this provision, and there were no public records of potential prosecutions.

The law identifies “crossdressing” (defined as males dressing in female clothing) as a criminal act punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of 100 to 300 rial (approximately $260 to $780), or both.

Public discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity remained a social taboo. There were no known lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) organizations active in the country, although regional human rights organizations focused on the human rights of LGBTQI+ citizens. Authorities took steps to block LGBTQI+-related internet content as well as international films that featured LGBTQI+ characters.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, as well as conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, but with significant restrictions. The law provides for one general federation, to which all unions must affiliate, and which represents unions in regional and international fora. The law requires a minimum of 25 workers to form a union, regardless of company size. The law requires an absolute majority of an enterprise’s employees to approve a strike, and notice must be given to employers three weeks in advance of the intended strike date. The law allows for collective bargaining; regulations require employers to engage in collective bargaining on the terms and conditions of employment, including wages and hours of work. Where there is no trade union, collective bargaining may take place between the employer and five representatives selected by workers. The employer may not reject any of the representatives selected. While negotiation is underway, the employer may not act on decisions related to problems under discussion. The law prohibits employers from firing or imposing other penalties on employees for union activity, although it does not require reinstatement for workers fired for union activity.

No independent organized labor unions existed. Worker rights continued to be administered and directed by the General Federation of Oman Workers (GFOW).

The GFOW responded to reports of labor rights violations, some precipitated by the COVID-19-related economic downturn. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the GFOW received and adjudicated complaints that employers reduced or failed to pay wages, forced workers to take unpaid leave, and deducted time in quarantine from workers’ leave banks.

Government-approved unions are open to all legal workers regardless of nationality, though the law prohibits members of the armed forces, other public security institutions, government employees, domestic workers, as well as individuals convicted of criminal activity or acts against the security of the country or national unity from forming or joining such unions. In addition, labor laws apply only to workers who perform work under a formal employment agreement and excludes domestic workers.

The law prohibits unions from accepting grants or financial assistance from any source without the Ministry of Labor’s prior approval. All unions are subject to the regulations of the government federation and may be shut down or have their boards dismissed by the federation.

The government generally enforced applicable laws effectively and respected the rights to collectively bargain and conduct strikes, although strikes in the oil and gas industries are forbidden. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. The government provided an alternative dispute resolution mechanism through the Ministry of Labor, which acted as mediator between the employer and employee for minor disputes such as disagreement over wages. If not resolved to the employee’s satisfaction, the employee could, and often did, resort to the courts for relief. The country lacked dedicated labor courts, and observers noted the mandatory grievance procedures were confusing to many workers, especially foreign workers. The Ministry of Labor had sufficient resources to act in dispute resolution.

Freedom of association in union matters and the right to collective bargaining existed, but the threat of a strike can prompt company action or government intervention. Strikes rarely occurred and were generally resolved quickly, sometimes through government mediation.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor but explicitly excludes domestic workers. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

By law all expatriate workers, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the workforce, must be sponsored by a citizen employer or accredited diplomatic mission. Some migrant workers employed as domestic workers or as low-skilled workers in the construction, agriculture, and service sectors, faced working conditions indicative of forced labor, including withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, usurious recruitment fees, nonpayment of wages, long working hours without food or rest, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. These situations were generally considered civil or contract matters by authorities, who encouraged dispute resolution rather than criminal action. Authorities generally relied on victims to identify themselves and report abuses, rather than proactively investigating trafficking among vulnerable populations. In 2020 the government created and disseminated a formal screening questionnaire for officials to use in identifying potential trafficking victims among those arrested for alleged labor violations and fleeing their employer. Police officials underwent training on how to identify victims of trafficking and cases of forced or compulsory labor. Training was temporarily paused during the pandemic but resumed by the end of the year.

Employer-based, visa sponsorship known as kafala left foreign workers vulnerable to exploitative and abusive conditions and made it difficult for them to change employers (see section 2.d.). Some sponsors allow their employees to work for other employers, sometimes in return for a fee. This practice is illegal, but enforcement was weak, and such arrangements diminished workers’ agency and increased their vulnerability. Some employers of domestic workers, contrary to law, withheld passports and other documents, complicating workers’ release from unfavorable contracts and preventing workers’ departure after their work contracts expired. The ROP issued a decision in May 2020 that all expatriates will no longer require a “no objection certificate” (NOC) from their employers to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts, which went into effect January 1. The implementation of this decision is ambiguous. Before the ROP removed the NOC requirement, some employers exploited it to demand exorbitant release fees before permitting workers to change employers. There were reports that sponsors were reluctant to provide NOCs, which would result in loss of the foreign labor certificate for that position.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 16, or 18 for certain hazardous occupations. Employees younger than 18 may work only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and are prohibited from working for more than six hours per day, on weekends, or on holidays. The law allows exceptions to the age requirement in agricultural works, fishing, industrial works, handicrafts, sales, and administrative jobs, under the conditions that it is a one-family business and does not hinder the juvenile’s education or affect health or growth.

The Ministry of Labor and ROP are responsible for enforcing laws with respect to child labor. The law provides for fines for minor violations and imprisonment for repeat violations. Employers are given time to correct practices that may be deemed child labor. The government does not publish information on the enforcement of child labor laws; no information was available to determine whether penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

In 2020 the country made a moderate advance in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, and there is evidence that small numbers of children in the country engaged in child labor, including in fishing and selling items in kiosks.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not address discrimination based on race, sex, gender, nationality, political views, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or having other communicable diseases, or social status. It is unclear, therefore, whether any penalties existed for violations that were commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. While labor laws generally do not allow women to work in jobs deemed hazardous or arduous, there no industry-specific occupations were closed to women.

Discrimination occurred based on gender, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, and gender identity. Foreign workers were required to take HIV/AIDS tests and could only obtain or renew work visas if the results were negative. This practice was suspended during COVID-19, according to local sources.

Although some educated women held positions of authority in government, business, and media, many women faced job discrimination based on cultural norms. The law entitles women to paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The government, the largest employer of women, observed such regulations, as did many private sector employers. The percentage of women working in the government sector increased from 41 percent of the total number of workers in 2014 to 59 percent in 2018, according to official government statistics.

The law provides persons with disabilities the same rights as other citizens in employment, and the provision of other state services. Persons with disabilities, however, continued to face discrimination. The law mandates access to public transportation and buildings for persons with disabilities, but many older buildings, including government buildings and schools, did not conform to the law. The law also requires government agencies and private enterprises employing more than 50 persons to reserve a certain percentage of positions for persons with disabilities. This percentage was 2 percent for the private sector; the Civil Service Council was responsible for determining the percentage for the public sector, which was set at 5 percent. Authorities did not systematically enforce this regulation.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The country has a minimum monthly wage for citizens that does not apply to noncitizens in any occupation. Minimum wage regulations do not apply to a variety of occupations and businesses, including small businesses employing fewer than five persons, dependent family members working for a family firm, or some categories of manual laborers. Most citizens who lived in poverty were engaged in traditional subsistence agriculture, herding, or fishing, and generally did not benefit from the minimum wage. The private sector workweek is 45 hours and includes a two-day rest period following five consecutive days of work. Government workers have a 35-hour workweek. The law mandates paid overtime for hours of more than 45 per week.

The Ministry of Labor effectively enforced the minimum wage for citizens. In wage cases the Ministry of Labor processed complaints and acted as mediator. In most cases the plaintiff prevailed, gaining compensation, the opportunity to seek alternative employment, or return to their country of origin in the case of foreign laborers. The ministry was generally effective in cases regarding minor labor disputes. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Occupational Safety and Health: The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were appropriate for the main industries in the country. There were reports that the government did not enforce them for poor foreign workers according to an International Organization for Migration representative. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with OSH experts and not the worker based on hazards inherent to the nature of work. The law states an employee may leave dangerous work conditions without jeopardy to employment if the employer was aware of the danger and did not implement corrective measures. Employees covered under the labor law may receive compensation for job-related injury or illness through employer-provided medical insurance. Neither wage and hour nor occupational safety and health regulations apply to domestic workers.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing labor laws, and it employed inspectors in Muscat and around the country. It generally enforced the law effectively with respect to citizens; however, it did not always effectively enforce regulations regarding hours of employment and working conditions for foreign workers. Penalties for violations of occupational, safety, and health laws were commensurate with those for similar crimes like negligence.

Labor inspectors performed random checks of worksites to verify compliance with all labor laws. Inspectors from the Department of Health and Safety of the Labor Care Directorate are responsible for enforcement of health and safety codes. Limited inspections of private sector worksites are required by law to deter or redress unsafe working conditions in the most dangerous sectors.

Informal Sector: The law does not provide for occupational health and safety standards for workers in the informal economy. Foreign workers were vulnerable to poor, dangerous, or exploitative working conditions. There were reports that migrant laborers in some firms and households worked more than 12 hours a day without a day off for below-market wages. Employers often cancelled the employment contracts of seriously sick or injured foreign workers, forcing them to return to their countries of origin or remain in the country illegally. Some labor inspections focused on enforcing visa violations and deporting those in an irregular work visa status rather than verifying safe and adequate work conditions.

Employers have a great deal of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers, who can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans. As of January 1, expatriates were no longer required to obtain a “no-objection certificate” to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts. There are no maximum workhour limits for domestic workers nor any mandatory rest periods, although the contract between the employer and worker can specify such requirements. There were some reports that domestic workers were forced to work with inadequate rest periods. Separate domestic employment regulations obligate the employer to provide domestic workers with free local medical treatment throughout the contract period. Penalties for noncompliance with health regulations were insufficient to deter violations. Some domestic workers were subjected to abusive conditions.

There was no data available on workplace fatalities or safety.

Qatar

Executive Summary

Qatar is a constitutional monarchy in which Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani exercises full executive power. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the amir’s branch of the Al Thani family. Qatar held elections in October for the Shura (Consultative) Council, Qatar’s legislative body with limited authorities, which were the first such elections in the country’s history. Voters chose 30 representatives of the 45-member body, with the amir appointing the other 15 members. Observers considered these elections free and fair with 63 percent turnout, but with election laws that disenfranchised some tribal groups. The amir appoints all cabinet members, including the prime minister.

The national police and Ministry of Interior forces maintain internal security and are responsible, among other matters, for preventing terrorism, cyberattacks, and espionage. The national police oversee general law enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. There were infrequent reports of abuses committed by security forces.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: restrictions on free expression, including the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; restrictions on migrant workers’ freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully in free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation, including prohibitions on political parties; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and prohibitions on independent trade unions.

The government took limited steps to prosecute those suspected of committing human rights abuses or engaging in corruption. The government took steps to address forced labor.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

In August security forces arrested Haza bin Ali, a local lawyer belonging to the al-Murra tribe, after he posted a series of videos expressing dissatisfaction with the elections law. In one of the videos, bin Ali addressed the amir in a challenging tone. Following the release of this video, hundreds of al-Murra tribe members staged a sit-in at bin Ali’s house, where he announced that the tribe would hold peaceful protests and not clash with security forces unless attacked. Security forces consequently arrested bin Ali’s two brothers and dozens of tribesmen and put them in solitary confinement for expressing their rejection of the elections law. As of December the Ministry of Interior has not commented on the incident or disclosed the whereabouts of any detainees.

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

The constitution and law prohibit torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment. There were no reports of torture during the year.

The government interprets sharia as allowing corporal punishment such as court-ordered flogging for certain criminal offenses, including alcohol consumption and extramarital sex. No statistics were available regarding rates of corporal punishment during the year.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

Physical Conditions: The National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) reported that the prisons were overcrowded and lacked the appropriate environment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. No statute allows ombudsmen to advocate for prisoners and detainees.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring visits by independent human rights observers and international bodies to all facilities except the state security prison. The government routinely provided foreign diplomats access to state security prisoners. The NHRC reported conducting 82 field visits to detention and interrogation facilities in 2020, down from 96 in 2019. More recent statistics were unavailable at year’s end.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government usually observed these requirements. The NHRC received four complaints of arbitrary arrests in 2020 (the most recent figures available by year’s end). The committee reported that the four defendants were arrested pending investigation by the State Security Prosecution, had access to legal representation, were allowed to contact their families, and were subsequently released.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that persons be apprehended with warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by an authorized official. By law all suspects except those detained under the Protection of Society Law or the Combating Terrorism Law must be presented before the public prosecutor within 24 hours of arrest. If the public prosecutor finds sufficient evidence for further investigation, authorities may detain a suspect for up to 15 days with the approval of a judge, renewable for similar periods not to exceed 45 days, before charges must be filed in the courts. Judges may also extend pretrial detention for one month, renewable for one-month periods not to exceed one-half the maximum punishment for the accused crime. Authorities typically followed these procedures differently for citizens than for noncitizens. The law does not specify a time limit on preventive detention; the government has not acted on a 2019 recommendation by the NHRC to set such a time limit.

The law permits the prime minister to extend detention indefinitely in cases of threats to national security and to adjudicate complaints involving such detentions. The state security service may arrest and detain suspects for up to 30 days without referring them to the public prosecutor.

In most cases a judge may order a suspect released, remanded to custody to await trial, held in pretrial detention pending investigation, or released on bail. Although suspects are entitled to bail (except in cases of violent crimes), release on bail was infrequent.

Authorities were more likely to grant bail to citizens than to noncitizens. Noncitizens charged with minor crimes may be released to their employer (or a family member for minors), although they may not leave the country until the case is resolved.

By law in non-security-related cases, the accused is entitled to legal representation throughout the process and prompt access to family members. There are provisions for government-funded legal counsel for indigent prisoners in criminal cases, and authorities generally honored this requirement. There were no new reported cases invoking either the Protection of Society Law or the Combating Terrorism Law.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the amir, based on recommendations from the Supreme Judicial Council, appoints all judges, who retain their positions at his discretion. Foreign detainees had access to the legal system, although some complained of opaque legal procedures and complications, mostly stemming from language barriers. Foreign nationals did not uniformly receive translations of legal proceedings, although interpretation was generally provided within courtrooms. The government established the Labor Dispute Settlement Committees in 2018 to increase the efficiency and speed of decision making in the overloaded labor courts and included court translators at all hearings. The existence of these committees reportedly has not shortened the time from complaint to resolution, nor has the Supreme Judicial Council’s 2020 establishment of a branch of the Enforcement Court to facilitate implementation of the committees’ verdicts. Some employers facing lawsuits from non-Qatari employees were able to have plaintiffs deported before a trial could take place.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial for all residents, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

The law provides defendants the presumption of innocence, and authorities generally inform defendants promptly of the charges brought against them, except for suspects held under the Protection of Society Law and Combating Terrorism Law. The defendant may be present at his or her trial.

Defendants are entitled to choose their legal representation or accept it at public expense throughout the pretrial and trial process. In matters involving family law, Shia and Sunni judges may apply their interpretations of sharia for their religious groups. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute. In family law matters, a woman’s testimony is deemed one-half of a man’s testimony.

Defendants usually have free language interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, while court documents are provided only in Arabic. Defendants have access to government-held evidence, have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence, and have the opportunity to give a statement at the end of their trial. Defendants have the right to appeal a decision within 15 days; use of the appellate process was common.

The Court of Cassation requires a fee to initiate the appeals process. In some cases courts waived fees if an appellant demonstrated financial hardship.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Civil remedies are available for those seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights abuses, but no cases were reported during the year. The law specifies circumstances that necessitate a judge’s removal from a case for conflict of interest, and authorities generally observed this provision. Individuals and organizations may not appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

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

The constitution and the criminal procedures code prohibit such actions. Police and security forces, however, reportedly monitored telephone calls, emails, and social media posts.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights. Self-censorship was prevalent.

Freedom of Expression: Citizens did not regularly discuss sensitive political and religious matters in public forums, but they did so in private and on social media. The law prohibits criticism of the amir. Members of the majority foreign population exercised self-censorship on sensitive topics. The law penalizes by up to three years in prison damaging, removing, or expressing hatred and contempt toward the country’s flag, the Gulf Cooperation Council flag, or the flag of any international organization or authority. The use of the national flag without formal permission from authorities, displaying a damaged or discolored flag, or changing the flag by adding photographs, text, or designs to it are also criminalized.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The law includes restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, their closure, and the confiscation of assets of a publication. Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials owned all print media. Both private and government-owned television and radio reflected government views, although call-in shows allowed for some citizen criticism of government ministries and policies. While broadcast media generally did not criticize authorities or the country’s policies, specific ministries and even individual ministers were regular targets of criticism in print media. The government owned and partially funded the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, which carried regional, international, and theme-based programming. It also partially funded other media outlets operating in the country. Some observers and former al-Jazeera employees alleged the government influenced the content produced by that news outlet.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Qatar Media Corporation, the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and customs officials censored material. The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Journalists and publishers continued to self-censor due to political and economic pressures when reporting on government policies or material deemed denigrating to Islam, the ruling family, and relations with neighboring states.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel and slander, including “insult to dignity.” A journalist may be fined and imprisoned for up to five years for defamation or reporting “false news.” The law restricts the publication of information deemed insulting to the amir or heir apparent; blasphemous or defamatory to the Abrahamic faiths; harmful to the national currency or the economic situation; or infringing upon the dignity of persons, the proceedings of investigations, and prosecutions in relation to family status, and it punishes violators with up to seven years’ imprisonment.

National Security: The law restricts the publication of information that could defame the state or endanger its safety, incite the overthrow of the government or harm supreme state interests, report official secret agreements, offend heads of state, or disturb foreign relations.

In May authorities arrested Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan labor rights activist working as a security guard for a private company and took him to an unknown location for 15 days. Authorities then disclosed his whereabouts and officially charged him with receiving funds from a foreign entity to spread misinformation regarding the country. Bidali was kept in solitary confinement prior to his release in early June pending trial. In July the criminal court sentenced him to a fine of 25,000 riyals ($6,800) and had his mobile phone and social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram seized by authorities. The International Trade Union Confederation paid Bidali’s fine, and he departed the country.

In November the Norwegian Broadcasting Company reported that two of its journalists were detained and questioned regarding their investigation of working and living conditions of migrant laborers constructing venues for the 2022 World Cup. The journalists, who maintained that they had obtained the permits necessary to film, were permitted to leave the country after approximately 36 hours in custody but were required to delete their footage.

Internet Freedom

The maximum punishments for infractions of the cybercrime law are up to three years in prison and a substantial fine. The law prohibits any online activity that threatens the safety of the state, its general order, or local or international peace. It also criminalizes the spread of “false news,” forces internet providers to block objectionable content, and bans third-party publication of personal or family information.

The law requires internet service providers to block objectionable content upon request from judicial authorities. Internet providers also are obligated to maintain long-term electronic records and traffic data, which must be furnished to the government upon request. The government-controlled internet service provider, Ooredoo, censored political, religious, and pornographic internet content through a proxy server, which monitored and blocked websites, email, and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) platforms, including Skype and FaceTime. Users who believed authorities had mistakenly censored a site could request that the site be reviewed by the Ministry of Transportation and Communication for suitability; there were no reports that any websites were unblocked based on this procedure.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The constitution provides for freedom of expression and scientific research. Instructors at Qatar University noted they sometimes exercised self-censorship. Instructors at foreign-based universities operating in the country, however, reported they generally enjoyed academic freedom. There were occasional government restrictions on cultural events, including denial of permits without explanation, and some groups organizing cultural events reported they exercised self-censorship. Authorities censored books, films, and internet sites for political, religious, and sexual content and for vulgar and obscene language.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but this right is restricted by law, including the Public Meetings and Demonstrations Law and the Associations and Private Institutions Law. Noncitizens are exempt from the constitutional protections on freedom of assembly. Organizers of public meetings must obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to acquire a permit.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right to form groups, defined by the law as professional associations and private institutions, but the government significantly limited this right. Noncitizens are exempt from the constitutional protections on freedom of association. There were no reports of attempts to organize politically. There were no organized political parties, and authorities prohibited politically oriented associations. The government prohibited professional associations and private institutions from engaging in political matters or affiliating internationally. Civil society organizations must obtain approval from the Ministry of Social Development and Family, which may deny their establishment if it deems them a threat to the public interest. Informal organizations, such as community support groups and activity clubs, operated without registration, but they may not engage in activities deemed political.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not fully respect these rights.

In-country Movement: Restrictions on in-country movement for citizens concerned sensitive military, oil, and industrial installations. Although the practice of setting and enforcing “family-only” times at entertainment areas in Doha was no longer common, several local malls and markets continued to restrict access to certain areas by foreign workers on weekends and by those dressed “immodestly.”

Foreign Travel: The government prevented the travel of its citizens only when they were involved in pending court cases. Single women younger than age 25 require the permission of their male guardian to travel outside the country, although the requirement was rarely enforced. Male relatives may prevent married or single adult female family members from leaving the country by seeking and securing a court order.

Citizenship: The law allows for the revocation of citizenship, such as when a citizen acquires another nationality.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution 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. The government did not allow the formation of political parties or opposition groups. The amir exercises full executive powers, including the appointment of cabinet members. The law categorizes Qataris into “genuine” citizens who obtained their nationality before 1930 and “naturalized” citizens who became citizens after 1930. Only “genuine” citizens have the right to run and vote in Shura Council elections. There were no official statistics publicly available on the number of “genuine” and “naturalized” citizens.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In October citizens voted to choose 30 members in the first-ever partially elected Shura Council, while the amir appointed the remaining 15 in the 45-member consultative body. Approximately 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the election.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not permit the organization of political parties, and there were no attempts to form them during the year. Voting is open only to citizens at least 18 years old who can prove that their family resided in Qatar before 1930 or that their grandfather was born in Qatar.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although traditional attitudes and societal roles continued to limit women’s participation in politics, women served in various roles in public office. In October the amir appointed women as the minister of social development and family and the minister of education and higher education. Including the minister of public health, the cabinet has three female members – the highest number in the country’s history. Women also occupied top positions such as the deputy foreign minister, chair of the Qatar Foundation, head of the Qatar Museum Authority, chairwoman of the National Human Rights Committee, and ambassadorships. In October the amir appointed two women to the Shura Council, one of whom was elected vice speaker. Noncitizen residents are banned from voting or otherwise participating in political affairs, although they served as judges and staffers at government ministries.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Researchers from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and international unions such as the Building and Wood Workers’ International and the International Trade Union Confederation continued to visit and report on the country without interference from authorities. The government was often responsive to requests for meetings and jointly participated in public events hosted by human rights groups, including on sensitive topics such as labor rights.

Several quasi-governmental organizations were under a single entity, the Qatar Foundation, led by Sheikha Hind Al Thani, the sister of the amir. These organizations cooperated with the government, rarely criticized it, and did not engage in political activity. Some international NGOs had offices in the country and focused on labor rights with the permission of the government.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Under a mandate from the cabinet, the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Interior and the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are to observe, report, and handle human rights matters. The cabinet mandates the NHRC, whose members by law have immunity and operate as an independent body, to issue an annual report on human rights conditions in the country. The 2021 NHRC report provided a list of recommendations including amending the Penal Code’s articles on freedom of expressions, improving prison conditions, and signing the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The NHRC typically handled petitions by liaising with government institutions to ensure timely resolution of disputes.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape but does not specifically recognize rape of men. Spousal rape is not illegal. Sexual assault and other gender-based crimes were rarely reported, mostly due to social taboo. The penalty for rape is life imprisonment, regardless of the age or gender of the survivor. If the perpetrator is a nonspousal relative, teacher, guardian, or caregiver of the survivor, the penalty is death. The government enforced the law against rape.

No specific law criminalizes domestic violence, whether against spouses or against any member of a household, including children and domestic workers. According to the NHRC, authorities may prosecute spousal violence as “general” violence under the criminal law.

Extramarital sex is punishable by up to seven years in prison, flogging (for unmarried persons), or the death penalty (for married persons). A woman who gives birth out of wedlock receives a 12-month jail sentence, on average, and may also be subject to corporal punishment (lashings) or, in the case of foreign residents, deportation. Press reports indicated jail sentences and flogging were rare in such cases, however.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and carries penalties of imprisonment or fines. In some cases sponsors sexually harassed and mistreated foreign domestic workers. The government prosecuted nearly 100 trafficking-related cases, of which 13 involved instances of violence against domestic workers; in three of those cases it issued verdicts under the penal code.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. There were no reports of government interference in the rights of married couples to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. It is illegal to have children out of wedlock, and unmarried female foreign residents may risk jail time and deportation if they do. Due to the legal prohibitions and social stigma surrounding sex outside of marriage, obtaining documentation for children born out of wedlock was typically not possible.

Women were routinely asked for marriage certificates when seeking prenatal care. Unmarried individuals who reported pregnancies risked prosecution for extramarital sexual relations. Emergency contraception, in the form of pills, IUDs, condoms, and contraceptive injections, was available in public and private health centers. Birth control pills and condoms were available at pharmacies without a prescription. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. In rape cases with pregnancy, authorities provided all the required services to the victims.

Discrimination: The constitution asserts equality between citizens in rights and responsibilities, but social and legal discrimination against women persisted. Sharia, as implemented in the country, discriminates against women in judicial proceedings, freedom of movement, marriage, child custody, and inheritance.

In line with local social norms, male relatives generally represented female relatives in court, although women have the legal right to attend court proceedings and represent themselves. Judges have discretion to consider a woman’s testimony one-half that of a man’s.

Under the Nationality Law, female citizens face legal discrimination, since they, unlike men, are not permitted to transmit citizenship to their noncitizen spouses or to children born from marriage to a noncitizen. Female citizens are unable to pass citizenship to their offspring. The law allows children of citizen mothers to gain permanent status in country, even if the father is not a Qatari national. Citizens must obtain government permission to marry foreigners, which is sometimes not granted for female citizens. Male citizens may apply for residency permits and citizenship for their foreign wives, but female citizens may apply only for residency for their foreign husbands and children, not citizenship. A non-Muslim wife does not have the automatic right to inherit from her Muslim husband. She receives an inheritance only if her husband wills her a portion of his estate, and even then, she is eligible to receive only one-third of the total estate. A female heir generally receives one-half the amount of a male heir; for example, a sister would inherit one-half as much as her brother. In cases of divorce, children generally remain with the mother until age 13 for boys and 15 for girls, at which time custody reverts to the father’s family, regardless of the mother’s religion.

To receive maternity care, a woman is required to present a marriage certificate, although hospitals generally assist in the birth of children of unwed mothers regardless. There were cases of hospitals reporting unwed mothers to authorities.

The housing law, which pertains to the government housing system, also discriminates against divorced women and women married to noncitizen men.

A non-Muslim woman is not required to convert to Islam upon marriage to a Muslim, but many do so. The government documents children born to a Muslim father as Muslims, regardless of the religion of the mother.

Single women younger than age 25 require the permission of their male guardian to travel outside the country, although the requirement was rarely enforced. There were sporadic reports via social media that airport authorities prevented women older than 25 from traveling abroad without the approval of the male guardian, although the law allows women older than 25 to travel without a guardian’s permission. Male relatives may prevent married or single adult female family members from leaving the country by seeking and securing a court order.

Adult women were customarily not allowed to leave home without a guardian’s approval. This included a need to obtain their male guardian’s permission to work outside the home, although the requirement was rarely enforced.

There was no specialized government office devoted to women’s equality.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship only from the father. Citizen mothers are unable to transmit citizenship to their children. The government generally registered all births immediately.

Education: Education is free and compulsory for all citizens through age 18 or nine years of education, whichever comes first. Education is compulsory for noncitizen children, but they pay a nominal fee. Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslims and non-Muslims attending state-sponsored schools.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse. There were limited cases of reported child abuse, family violence, and sexual abuse of children.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: By law the minimum age for marriage is 18 for boys and 16 for girls. The law does not permit marriage of persons younger than these ages except with consent from the legal guardian and with permission from a judge. Underage marriage was rare.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: No specific law sets a minimum age for consensual sex. The law prohibits sex outside of marriage. In the criminal law, the penalty for sexual relations with a person younger than 16 is life imprisonment. If the individual is the nonspousal relative, guardian, caretaker, or servant of the victim, the penalty is death; there were no reports this sentence was implemented. No specific law prohibits child pornography because all pornography is prohibited, but the law specifically criminalizes the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country does not have an indigenous Jewish community, and there were no official data on the number of Jewish foreign residents in the country. Cartoons and opinion articles in local newspapers periodically carried anti-Semitic messages.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons faced discrimination under the law and in practice. The law prohibits consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men but does not explicitly prohibit same-sex sexual relations between women. Under the law a man convicted of having sexual relations with a boy younger than age 16 is subject to a sentence of life in prison. A man convicted of having same-sex sexual relations with a male 16 years of age or older may receive a sentence of seven years in prison. Under sharia law homosexuality is punishable by death; there were no reports of any executions for this reason.

In addition to banning sex outside marriage for all persons, the law provides penalties for any male, Muslim or not, who “instigates” or “entices” another male to commit an act of sodomy or immorality. Under the penal code, “leading, instigating, or seducing a male by any means for sodomy or dissipation” and “inducing or seducing a male or a female by any means to commit illegal or immoral actions” is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

There were no public reports of violence against LGBTQI+ persons, who largely hid their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression due to an underlying pattern of discrimination toward LGBTQI+ persons. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination, nor are there antidiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQI+ individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or gender expression.

Due to social and religious conventions, there were no LGBTQI+ organizations, pride marches, or LGBTQI+ rights advocacy events. Information was not available on official or private discrimination in employment, occupation, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

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, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively, which made the exercise of these rights difficult. The law provides local citizen workers in private-sector enterprises that have 100 citizen workers age 18 and older a limited right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law excludes government employees, noncitizens, domestic workers, drivers, nurses, cooks, gardeners, casual workers, workers employed at sea, and most workers employed in agriculture and grazing from the right to join worker committees or the national union, effectively banning these workers from organizing, bargaining collectively, or striking.

The law permits the establishment of “joint committees” with an equal number of worker and management representatives to deal with a limited number of workplace problems. Foreign workers may be members of joint labor-management committees. The law offers a means to file collective disputes. If disputes are not settled internally between the employees and employer, the Ministry of Labor may mediate a solution. A 2017 agreement between the ministry and the International Labor Organization (ILO) includes provisions to create these committees with ILO supervision and assistance. Under the umbrella of this agreement and as of August, at least five joint committees initiated operations and held elections to choose employee representatives. Following the formation of “joint committees,” the ILO provided extensive training to the committee members on how to manage committees, establish open channels of communications with workers and management, and submit complaints to the competent authorities.

The law requires approval by the Ministry of Labor for worker organizations to affiliate with groups outside the country. The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining outside of the joint committees.

The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws or impose penalties commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. For those few workers covered by the law protecting the right to collective bargaining, the government circumscribed the right through its control over the rules and procedures of the bargaining and agreement processes. The labor code allows for only one trade union, the General Union of Workers of Qatar (General Union), which was composed of general committees for workers in various trades or industries. Trade or industry committees were composed of worker committees at the individual firm level. The General Union was not a functioning entity.

Employees could not freely practice collective bargaining, and there were no workers under collective bargaining contracts. While rare, when labor unrest occurred, mostly involving the country’s overwhelmingly migrant workforce, the government reportedly responded by dispatching large numbers of police to the work sites or labor camps involved; the government also requested the assistance of the embassies for the nationals involved. Strikes generally ended after these shows of force and the involvement of embassies to resolve disputes. In many cases the government summarily deported the migrant workers’ leaders and organizers.

Although the law recognizes the right to strike for some workers, restrictive conditions made the likelihood of a legal strike extremely remote. The law requires approval for a strike by three-fourths of the General Committee of the workers in the trade or the industry, and potential strikers also must exhaust a lengthy dispute resolution procedure before a lawful strike may be called. Civil servants and domestic workers do not have the right to strike; the law also prohibits strikes at public utilities and health or security service facilities, including the gas, petroleum, and transportation sectors. The Complaint Department of the Ministry of Labor, in coordination with the Ministry of Interior, must preauthorize all strikes, including approval of the time and place. In May several hundred migrant workers staged a protest regarding unpaid salaries. Security forces surrounded the location of the protest but did not disperse the protesters. The Ministry of Labor released a statement the following day assuring that the ministry would pay salaries in full.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. International media and human rights organizations alleged numerous abuses against foreign workers, including withheld wages, unsafe working conditions, poor living accommodations, and employers who routinely confiscated workers’ passports under an employer-based sponsorship system known as kafala that gave employers inordinate control over foreign workers. The government made efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor but did not in all cases effectively enforce the law; the kafala system left migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation.

The law allows employees in the private sector to switch employers at the end of their contract, which can be up to five years, without the permission of their employer. Employees may also switch employers in cases of failure to pay, breach of contract, mutual agreement, filing of a legal case in court, and bankruptcy or death of employer. A change to the law in 2020 extended the elimination of exit visa requirements to 95 percent of government workers and all domestic workers. In 2020 the country abolished restrictions on migrant workers changing jobs without their employer’s permission and introduced a monthly minimum wage as a basic salary. The abolishment of the no-objection certificate was effective immediately; however, media sources and NGOs reported several instances of employers retaliating against employees who initiated a transfer by canceling their visa or filing an absconding charge, rendering the worker illegal and at increased risk of exploitation, detention, or deportation. The implementation of the minimum wage provision came into force in March. These reforms have not yet been fully implemented and enforced, exposing migrant workers, especially domestic workers, to potential abuse.

Workers who are still required to seek their employers’ permission to leave the country may request an exemption from a grievance committee jointly operated by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labor in cases where an employer refuses to grant permission. In 2020 the committee received 228 requests, of which it approved 218, the latest data available at year’s end.

The government arrested and prosecuted individuals for suspected labor law infractions. The Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Interior, and the National Human Rights Commission conducted training sessions and distributed multilingual, written explanations of migrant workers’ rights under local labor and sponsorship laws. To combat late and unpaid wages, the government mandated that employers pay wages electronically to all employees covered by the labor law, through a system subject to audits by an inspection division at the Ministry of Labor. Employers who failed to pay their workers faced penalties, but enforcement was inconsistent.

There were continuing indications of forced labor, especially among migrant workers in the construction and domestic labor sectors. Exorbitant recruitment fees incurred abroad entrapped many workers in long-term debt, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. Some foreign workers who voluntarily entered the country had their passports, ATM cards, and pay withheld and worked under conditions to which they had not agreed. One migrant worker told an NGO that his employer threatened him and approximately 1,000 other employees with deportation if they refused to sign new contracts with substantially lower wages. Another migrant worker said his company had not paid its workers in five months. Contract substitution remained a problem, according to representatives of the migrant worker community; however, to help eliminate the practice, a government electronic contracting system existed in several foreign countries where workers are hired. Embassies of labor-sending countries reported this system helped significantly reduce contract substitution and the number of workers who arrived in Doha without contracts.

Construction of FIFA World Cup-related facilities continued despite crowded worksites and the high risk of COVID-19 transmission. Human rights groups and international media condemned the exemption of World Cup projects from precautionary countermeasures.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits and criminalizes all the worst forms of child labor and provides for the protection of children from exploitation in the workplace, including limitations on working hours, occupational safety, and health restrictions. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years and stipulates minors between the ages of 16 and 18 may work with parental or guardian permission. Minors may not work more than six hours a day or more than 36 hours a week. Employers must provide the Ministry of Labor with the names and occupations of their minor employees and obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to hire a minor. The education ministry may prohibit the employment of minors in jobs judged dangerous to their health, safety, or morals. The government generally enforced the applicable law, but penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, ethnicity, and religion, but not political opinion, national origin, social origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or HIV-positive status. Local custom, however, outweighed government enforcement of nondiscrimination laws. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.

Legal, cultural, and institutional discrimination existed against women, noncitizens, and foreign workers. The labor law does not allow women to work in jobs deemed hazardous, dangerous, or morally inappropriate, or in jobs specified by a decision of the Ministry of Labor.

By law women are entitled to equal pay for equal work but did not always receive it, and they often lacked access to decision-making positions in management of private companies and in the public sector. Gender-based violence or harassment occurred in the workplace. The government prohibited lower-paid male workers from residing in specific “family” residential zones throughout the country. The government discriminated against noncitizens in employment, education, housing, and health services (see section 6). Other forms of discrimination targeted certain nationalities in the country such as Egyptians working for private security companies who were deported from the country in June 2020. The law prohibits employers from withholding workers’ passports and penalizes employers who do so, but noncitizen community leaders and officials from labor-exporting countries stated that passport confiscation remained a widespread problem. The law requires reserving 2 percent of jobs in government agencies and public institutions for persons with disabilities, and most government entities appeared to conform to this law. Private-sector businesses employing a minimum of 25 persons are also required to hire persons with disabilities as two percent of their staff. Employers who violate these employment provisions are subject to moderate fines. There were no reports of infractions of the hiring quota requirement during the year.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The labor law provides for a 48-hour workweek with a 24-hour rest period and paid annual leave days. The labor law and provisions for acceptable conditions of work, including overtime pay provisions, do not apply to workers in the public sector or agriculture, or to domestic workers. Some employers did not pay workers for overtime or annual leave. Penalties for abuses were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Occupational Safety and Health: Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were appropriate for the main industries in the country, such as construction, but the government generally did not enforce them. Responsibility for laws related to acceptable conditions of work fell primarily to the Ministry of Labor as well as to the Ministry of Municipality and the Ministry of Public Health. In November the ILO published a detailed report regarding OSH conditions in the country and urged the government to exert more efforts in collaboration with employers to meet OSH standards and develop mechanisms to collect data on work injuries and fatalities. The report stated that occupational injuries in 2020 included 50 fatalities, 506 severe injuries, and 37,601 mild or moderate injuries. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment, with the exception of a 2020 ministerial decision allowing workers to leave worksites in case of heat stress. Authorities did not effectively provide protection to employees exercising this right.

The government did not effectively enforce standards in all sectors. Working conditions for citizens were generally adequate because government agencies and the major private-sector companies employing them generally followed the relevant laws. The government sets restrictions on working during the hottest hours of the day during the summer and general restrictions related to temperature during the rest of the day as well. Employers often ignored working-hour restrictions and other laws with respect to domestic workers and unskilled laborers, the majority of whom were migrants. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were not commensurate with those for crimes like negligence.

The government took limited action to prevent abuse. If a company had not brought conditions up to standard within one month of being notified of the need for action, the Ministry of Labor imposed fines, blacklisted the company, and on occasion referred the matter to the public prosecutor for action. Fear of penalties such as blacklisting appeared to have had some effect as a deterrent to some labor law infractions. Blacklisting is an administrative hold freezing government services such as processing new visa applications from a company or individual. Firms must pay a moderate fine to be removed from the list, even if the dispute is resolved, and the ministry reserves the right to keep companies on the list as a punitive measure after the fine is paid.

Ministry of Labor personnel continued to conduct inspection visits to work and labor housing sites. Officials from the ILO joined labor inspectors on several inspections. A strategic plan for strengthening the Labor Inspections Unit, developed with ILO assistance, went into effect in 2020 and focuses on upgrading inspectors’ skills in evaluating living accommodations and raising awareness regarding heat stress. Employers must pay their employees electronically to provide a digital audit trail for the Ministry Labor. Employers who failed to pay their workers faced penalties.

The government did not effectively enforce these laws, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. Infractions of wage, overtime, and safety and health standards were relatively common, especially in sectors employing foreign workers in which working conditions were often poor. The government continued to serve eviction notices to property owners whose buildings were not up to code. Throughout the year international media reported the existence of abusive working conditions, including work-related deaths of young foreign workers, particularly in the construction sector.

Informal Sector: The law prohibits employers from withholding workers’ passports and penalizes employers who do so, but noncitizen community leaders and officials from labor-exporting countries stated that passport confiscation remained a widespread problem with insufficient enforcement of penalties. Employers housed many unskilled foreign laborers in cramped, dirty, and hazardous conditions, often without running water, electricity, or adequate food. Domestic workers often faced unacceptable working conditions. Many such workers frequently worked seven days a week and more than 12 hours a day with few or no holidays, no overtime pay, and limited means to redress grievances. Despite partial exit permit reform, domestic workers were required to obtain permission from employers to leave the country. Some employers denied domestic workers food or access to a telephone, including their own cellphones, according to news reports and foreign embassy officials. NGOs found that foreign workers faced legal obstacles and lengthy legal processes that prevented them from seeking redress for abuses and exploitative conditions. Noncitizen community leaders also highlighted migrant workers’ continued hesitation to report their plight due to fear of reprisals.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud).

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

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; collective punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious abuses in a conflict, including civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure as a result of airstrikes in Yemen; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists and others, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions on domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, the role of trade unions, and labor committees.

In several cases the government did not investigate, prosecute, or punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. The government prosecuted some officials for corruption, although there were allegations of significant due process violations and other human rights abuses, including allegations of torture, in these cases.

Houthi militant attacks from Yemen caused civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, which reports to the king, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions. Capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for such offenses were rare and usually reduced on appeal.

On December 30, media reported that at least three of the individuals convicted in connection with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, including Salah al-Tubaigy, Mustafa al-Madani, and Mansour Abahussein, were seen living in luxury villas in a government compound near Riyadh. There was no further action on the case during the year.

In September 2020 the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.

In January the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses, but as of November the government had not published the relevant changes.

Discretionary (tazir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors are forbidden, and minors’ prison sentences are capped at 10 years under an April 2020 royal decree. (The 2018 Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18 based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted in qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudud, crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, still face the death penalty.

On February 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported prosecutors were seeking 10-year prison sentences, rather than the death penalty originally sought, for four men convicted of crimes committed as minors: Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj. They were arrested in 2017 and 2018 on protest-related charges.

On June 15, the government executed Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish, a 26-year-old Shia citizen convicted of terrorism charges. According to human rights organizations, he was detained in 2015 for alleged participation in riots between 2011 and 2012. The official charge sheet did not specify the dates his alleged crimes took place, making it unclear whether he had turned 18 by that time. Government officials claimed he was executed for other crimes committed as an adult but provided no further information.

On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges. Although no longer at risk of imminent execution, al-Huwaiti could still be sentenced to death at a later stage, since the case remained open, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia prisoners Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences. Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoun who remained imprisoned, were arrested in 2012 as minors when they participated in political protests in 2011. In February all three had their death sentences commuted to 10 years in prison with credit for time served.

On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges.

On November 11, the ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors continued to face the possibility of capital punishment, including Sajjad al-Yassin, Jalal al-Labbad, Yusuf al-Manasif, and Hasan Zaki al-Faraj.

b. Disappearance

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

According to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST) and Prisoners of Conscience, the whereabouts of physician and internet activist Lina al-Sharif were unknown since her arrest in May. The groups claimed al-Sharif was arrested for comments on social media regarding national politics and human rights issues.

There were no updates during the year regarding the whereabouts of several members of the royal family detained in March 2020, including the former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Prince Nayef bin Ahmed Al Saud, a former head of army intelligence. The government did not announce their detentions, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “contact with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” In June NBC News reported the former crown prince was being held at a government compound in Riyadh, but there was no subsequent confirmation. According to the report, he had lost significant weight, could no longer walk unaided due to serious injuries from beatings, and was deprived of pain medication needed for previous injuries.

There was also no information during the year regarding the whereabouts of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, also detained by security forces in March 2020.

On April 5, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years’ imprisonment, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on terrorism financing and facilitation charges. After his arrest in 2018, al-Sadhan was detained incommunicado for two years before being allowed to speak with his family. Legal proceedings against him began on March 3 in a process that Amnesty International said was marred by rights violations. Al-Sadhan reportedly tweeted comments critical of the government and sympathetic to ISIS, which family members claimed were satirical in nature. Family members alleged that al-Sadhan was physically abused during his detention and that he was unable to present a proper legal defense during his trial.

In July representatives of the family of Princess Basmah bint Saud reportedly filed an appeal to the Special Procedures experts at the UN Human Rights Council requesting their intervention to demand that authorities provide proof that she was alive. Detained since 2019, media and rights groups reported the princess had health problems, including heart issues and osteoporosis. On May 29, Forbes reported she had a brief telephone call with a relative.

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 states that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony. There were, however, reports by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Officials from the Ministry of Interior, Public Prosecutor’s Office, and HRC, which is responsible for coordinating with other government entities to investigate and respond to alleged human rights violations (see section 5), claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system, but human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties said there were reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. Amnesty International assessed in August that the Specialized Criminal Court “routinely condemns defendants to lengthy prison terms and even death sentences following convictions based on ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.” It alleged that Mustafa al-Darwish’s June execution resulted from confessions obtained by torture (see section 1.a.). Amnesty International reported that former detainees in Mabahith-run facilities alleged abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.

On January 15, three UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Ali Hassan al-Rabea, expressing concern at the alleged use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and other evidence. In December 2020 the Supreme Court sentenced al-Rabea to death in a final ruling, not subject to appeal. As of year’s end, the sentence was pending King Salman’s approval. Al-Rabea was arrested in 2013, charged with participating in demonstrations, chanting antigovernment slogans, and possessing weapons. The primary evidence reportedly presented against him was the confession allegedly made after being subjected to torture and mistreatment.

In July HRW reported anonymous accounts from prison guards alleging torture of political detainees, including of prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabea. They alleged women’s rights activists and others were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual abuse. In February, following her sentencing and conditional release, al-Hathloul’s family reported that an appeals court rejected a lawsuit regarding her claims of torture. In December 2020 the Riyadh Criminal Court had previously dismissed her claim, citing a lack of evidence.

On July 28, the Washington Post reported that former interior ministry official Salem al-Muzaini was whipped, starved, beaten with iron bars, and subjected to electric shocks while held at two Saudi prisons and the Ritz-Carlton hotel from September 2017 until January 2018. He was originally detained in Dubai in 2017 and transferred to Saudi Arabia. Following his release in 2018, al-Muzaini allegedly disappeared in August 2020 after visiting a senior Saudi security official. Al-Muzaini was married to Hissah al-Muzaini, the daughter of Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking intelligence official who fled the country in 2016 (see sections 1.e. and 1.f.).

Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment. In March the Supreme Court clarified that the April 2020 royal decree that effectively eliminated flogging in most cases could be applied retroactively to sentences predating the decree. While flogging may no longer be used as a discretionary ta’zir sentence, it can still be used for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In March local media reported that the appeals court in Jeddah issued a final decision to overturn a sentence of 5,000 lashes for an individual convicted on drug trafficking charges. Reportedly the man instead received five years in prison, a five-year travel ban, and a large fine.

No additional information was available whether the remainder of the discretionary flogging element of activist Raif Badawi’s sentence had been dropped. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a 10-year travel ban in 2014 for insulting Islam, among other charges. He received 50 lashes in 2015, but further floggings were delayed due to health concerns.

Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Activists questioned the impartiality of procedures to investigate detainees’ complaints of torture and maltreatment. The Ministry of Interior stated it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations occur. The government provided human rights training to security forces, but HRW continued to highlight concerns regarding abuse and deplorable conditions in detention centers.

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: A July 7 ALQST report alleged that detention and deportation facilities suffered from overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and medical and administrative neglect. On August 14, the ESOHR estimated that at least 20 persons had died due to prison conditions since 2010, adding that some of them appeared to have been tortured. The years of individual deaths were not provided.

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

Authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. They separated persons suspected or convicted of terrorism offenses from the general population. Activists alleged that authorities sometimes detained individuals in the same cells as individuals with mental disabilities as a form of punishment and said authorities mistreated persons with disabilities.

Authorities differentiated between violent and nonviolent prisoners, sometimes pardoning nonviolent prisoners to reduce the prison population. Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

Prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were often required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.

In February Attorney General Saud bin al-Mu’jab issued directives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners and detainees. On April 22, local media reported that approximately 68 percent of detainees in state security prisons were vaccinated against COVID-19. Rights organizations said Zaheer Ali contracted COVID-19 during a prison outbreak in April and died, which they attributed to medical negligence by prison authorities. Allegedly arrested for his writings in 2017, Ali died on May 8 in al-Ha’ir Prison, the United Kingdom-based rights groups Sanad and ALQST reported.

On October 12, ALQST reported academic and activist Musa al-Qarni, who was arrested in 2007 along with several other activists and charged with forming a secret organization and spreading anarchy, was beaten to death by fellow inmates. No information was available whether any inmates were charged in connection with his killing.

Online activists reported that at least five members of an outlawed human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), along with 25 other detainees in al-Ha’ir Prison, participated in a hunger strike between March 7 and March 14, reportedly to protest denied family contact, poor food quality, and attacks by prisoners suffering from mental illness. ACPRA members Mohammed al-Qahtani, Fawza al-Harbi, Issa al-Nukhaifi, Fahad al-Arani, and Mohammed al-Hudaif participated, with Abdulaziz al-Sunaidi joining from Onayza Prison in al-Qassim. On March 14, Prisoners of Conscience announced that the strike was suspended after prison administrators agreed to meet their demands. On August 15, al-Qahtani restarted his hunger strike to protest prison administrators’ alleged reneging on the March agreement.

Administration: There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit allegations of mistreatment to prison or prosecutorial authorities without censorship or whether authorities responded or acted upon complaints. There were multiple legal authorities for prisons and detention centers. The General Directorate of Prisons administered approximately 91 detention centers, prisons, and jails, while the Mabahith administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers for security prisoners. The law gives the Public Prosecutor’s Office 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.”

The law 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 [now the Public Prosecutor’s Office].” Prisoners submitted complaints to the HRC, which had offices in a number of prisons, and to the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) for follow-up. Inmates, however, required approval from prison authorities to submit complaints to an HRC office.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office announced in July the launch of the Ma’akom system, which allows citizens and residents to submit complaints directly regarding illegal detention or violations of detainee rights, using the online platform Absher, a hotline telephone number, or in person. The Ministry of Interior-run website (Nafetha) provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information regarding the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates.

Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once or twice a month. Prisoners were typically granted at least one telephone call per week. There were reports that prison, security, or law enforcement officials denied this privilege in some instances, often during pretrial 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). Starting on October 31, families of detainees who received two doses of an approved coronavirus vaccine could apply for prison visits. Family members of detained persons under investigation or in pretrial detention said family visits were typically not allowed, while others said visits or calls were extremely brief (less than five minutes). Authorities at times reportedly denied some detainees their weekly call for several months or years. Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason.

Independent Monitoring: Independent institutions were not permitted to conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture. Foreign diplomats regularly requested to attend non-consular trials of high-profile detainees but were not admitted into courtrooms. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats were granted consular visits to individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may differ from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.

The government permitted the HRC and quasi-governmental NSHR to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. On July 7, local media reported the HRC conducted 1,538 prison visits during the fiscal year 2020-21, including visits to public prisons, security prisons, and various detention centers as well as “social observation centers” and girls’ welfare institutions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law provides that no entity may restrict a person’s actions or imprison a person, except under the provisions of the law. The law of criminal procedure provides that authorities may not detain a person for more than 24 hours, but the Ministry of Interior and the State Security Presidency, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained and exercised broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family, according to human rights groups.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law gives the Public Prosecutor’s Office “complete and independent powers” to identify major crimes that require detention, according to local media. In August 2020 the public prosecutor issued a list of 25 major crimes that mandate arrest and pretrial detention, including certain border crimes, corruption, homicide, and offenses against national security, among others.

According to the law, “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, which were not required under the law in all cases.

The law requires authorities to file charges within 72 hours of arrest and hold a trial within six months, subject to exceptions specified by amendments to the law of criminal procedure and the counterterrorism law (see section 2.a.). Authorities may not legally detain a person under arrest for more than 24 hours except pursuant to a written order from a public investigator. Authorities reportedly often failed to observe these legal protections, and there was no requirement to advise suspects of their rights.

The law specifies procedures required for extending the detention period of an accused person beyond the initial five days. There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal charges. Authorities may approve detentions in excess of six months in “exceptional circumstances,” effectively allowing individuals to be held in pretrial detention indefinitely in cases involving terrorism or “violations of state security.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office may order the detention of any person accused of a crime under the counterterrorism law for up to 30 days, renewable up to 12 months, and in state security cases up to 24 months with a judge’s approval.

By law defendants accused of any crime cited in the law are entitled to hire a lawyer to defend themselves before the court “within an adequate period of time to be decided by the investigatory body.” The government provided lawyers to defendants who made a formal application to the Ministry of Justice to receive a court-appointed lawyer and proved their inability to pay for their legal representation. In cases involving terrorism or state security charges, detainees generally did not have the right to obtain a lawyer of their choice.

There were reports authorities did not always allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Authorities indicated a suspect could be held up to 12 months in investigative detention without access to legal counsel if authorized by prosecutors. Judicial proceedings begin after authorities complete a full investigation.

The king continued the tradition of commuting some judicial punishments. Royal pardons could set aside a conviction or reduce or eliminate corporal punishment. The remaining sentence could be added to a new sentence if the pardoned prisoner committed a crime subsequent to release.

Authorities commuted the sentences of some who had received prison terms. The counterterrorism law allows the Public Prosecutor’s Office to stop proceedings against an individual who cooperates with investigations or cooperates in thwarting a planned terrorist attack. The law authorizes the State Security Presidency to release individuals already convicted in such cases.

Arbitrary Arrest: Rights groups received reports from families claiming authorities held their relatives arbitrarily or without notification of charges. During the year authorities detained without charge security suspects, persons who publicly criticized the government, Shia religious leaders, individuals with links to rights activists, and persons accused of violating religious standards.

On May 6, Prisoners of Conscience reported that dozens of journalists and bloggers remained under arbitrary arrest. In November Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had detained blogger Zainab al-Hashemi and university student Asmaa al-Subaie since May without charge. The two were reportedly arrested with other online activists. As of year’s end, their whereabouts were unknown.

Pretrial Detention: In August 2020 ALQST and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group lodged a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding the “arbitrary” detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud and his father. In February international media reported that the two were moved from a house in Riyadh to “an undisclosed location” at the end of November 2020. In 2018 Prince Salman was detained with 11 other princes after they staged what the prosecutor called a “sit-in” at a royal palace in Riyadh to demand the state continue to pay their electricity and water bills. Sources told Agence France Presse that the prince and his father had never been formally interrogated or charged.

Incommunicado detention occurred (see section 1.b.). Authorities reportedly did not always respect a detainees’ right to contact family members following detention, and the counterterrorism law allows the investigatory body to hold a defendant for up to 90 days in detention (or longer) without access to family members or legal counsel. Security and 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.

During July and August, family members of Muslim scholar Salman al-Odah and Mohammed al-Qahtani (see section 1.c.) claimed authorities had denied them contact with their family members and lawyers for months. According to his wife, al-Qahtani was able to call her on August 19 following a four-day hunger strike and after almost four months of incommunicado detention. In September al-Odah’s family reportedly said his eyesight had deteriorated during his solitary confinement.

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides that judges are independent and not subject to any authority other than the provisions of sharia and the laws in force. 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 Specialized Criminal Court, which rarely acquitted suspects. The Specialized Criminal Court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office were not independent entities, as they reportedly were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, including the king and crown prince. Human rights activists claimed that the court’s 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.

On March 8, local media reported that the Supreme Court eliminated the use of oaths (al-qisama) as evidence in murder or manslaughter cases. Under Islamic law, the victim’s family is allowed to take up to 50 oaths to officially confirm that the suspect was guilty if there was no direct evidence or if eyewitness testimony was invalid under Islamic law, as in the case of child witnesses.

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 then unanimously affirm. Appellate courts may recommend changes to a sentence, including increasing the severity of a lesser sentence (up to the death penalty), if the trial court convicted the defendant of a crime for which capital punishment is permitted.

Defendants possess the right to seek commutation of a death sentence for some crimes and may receive a royal pardon under specific circumstances (see section 1.d.). In some prescribed cases (qisas), the families of the deceased may accept compensation from the family of the person convicted in an unlawful death, sparing the convicted from execution.

On August 3, Amnesty International assessed that trials before the Specialized Criminal Court were “intrinsically unfair, with defendants subjected to flawed procedures that violate both Saudi and international laws.” Amnesty accused authorities of using the court to crack down on freedom of expression through the prosecution, sentencing, and resentencing processes, as well as bans on public speaking, human rights work, use of social media, and travel. Among others, Amnesty cited the trial and conviction of activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban in February for charges related to her peaceful activism and participation in antigovernment protests.

On August 16, the court of appeals increased the sentence of activist Khalid al-Omair from seven to nine years without explanation, according to ALQST.

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. In February the crown prince announced forthcoming legal reforms that would impact the personal status law, civil transactions law, evidence law, and discretionary sentencing, aiming to increase predictability and transparency in the legal system and expand protections for women (see section 6, Women). On December 28, the Council of Ministers enacted the evidence law.

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 provide sentencing requirements for crimes, including terrorism, cybercrimes, trafficking in persons, and domestic abuse.

The Justice Ministry continued to expand a project started in 2007 to distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application, and the ministry published judicial decisions on its website. The law states that defendants should be treated equally in accordance with sharia. The Council of Senior Scholars, or the ulema, an autonomous advisory body, issues religious opinions (fatwas) that guide how judges interpret sharia. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice issued a compilation of previous decisions that judges could refer to as a point of reference in making rulings and assigning sentences.

Appeals courts cannot independently reverse lower-court judgments of innocence or guilt; they are limited to affirming judgments, modifying sentences, 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 were represented in the Council of Senior Scholars, the Hanbali School predominated and formed the basis for the country’s law and legal interpretations of sharia. Shia citizens used 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. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to not approve foreign diplomatic missions to attend court proceedings at the Specialized Criminal Court as well as trials related to security and human rights issues. Diplomatic personnel were generally allowed to attend consular proceedings of their own citizens. Some family members of prisoners complained that neither they nor the legal representatives of the accused were permitted access to trials or notified of the status of trial proceedings. In a number of cases, family members were given only 24 hours’ notice before a trial hearing.

According to the Ministry of Justice, authorities may close a trial depending on the sensitivity of the case to national security, the reputation of the defendant, or the safety of witnesses. HRC representatives sometimes attended trials at the Specialized Criminal Court.

By law authorities must offer defendants a lawyer at government expense. In 2017 the Ministry of Justice stated that defendants “enjoy all judicial guarantees they are entitled to, including the right to seek the assistance of lawyers of their choosing to defend them, while the ministry pays the lawyer’s fees when the accused is not able to settle them.” Activists alleged that many political prisoners were not able or allowed to retain an attorney or consult with their attorneys during critical stages of the investigatory and trial proceedings. Detained human rights activists often did not trust the courts to appoint lawyers for them due to concerns of lawyer bias. The law provides defendants the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial. The counterterrorism law, however, authorizes the attorney general to limit the right of defendants accused of terrorism to access legal representation while under investigation “whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to discovery, nor can defendants view their own file or the minutes from their interrogation. Defendants have the right to call and cross-examine witnesses. Activists reported, however, that Specialized Criminal Court judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a prosecutor-appointed investigator may question the witnesses called by the defendant during the investigation phase before the initiation of a trial. The investigator may also hear testimony of additional witnesses he deems necessary to determine the facts. Authorities may not subject a defendant to any coercive measures or compel the taking of an oath. The court must inform convicted persons of their right to appeal rulings.

The law does not provide for a right against self-incrimination.

The law does not provide for free interpretation services, although services were often provided in practice. The law provides that “the court should seek the assistance of interpreters,” but it does not obligate the court to do so from the moment the defendant is charged, nor does the law specify that the state will bear the costs of such services.

While sharia as interpreted by the government applies to all citizens and noncitizens, the law in practice discriminates against women, noncitizens, nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and persons of other religions. In certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals one-half that of a man. Judges have discretion to discount the testimony of nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, or persons of other religions; sources reported judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government maintained there were no political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge, while local activists and human rights organizations claimed there were “hundreds” or “thousands.” Reporting by advocacy groups and press suggested authorities detained persons for peaceful activism or political opposition, including nonviolent religious figures, women’s rights defenders, and human rights activists, and those who the government claimed posted offensive or antigovernment comments on social media sites.

In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. During the year the Specialized Criminal Court tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state, and authorities restricted attorneys’ access to detainees on trial.

International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism legal authorities to detain or arrest on security-related grounds some dissidents or critics of the government or royal family who had not espoused or committed violence. According to the NGOs Prisoner of Conscience and EOHSR, more than 100 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders or policies, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Naimah Abdullah al-Matrod, Maha al-Rafidi, Eman al-Nafjan, and Waleed Abu al-Khair; clerics including former grand mosque imam Salih al-Talib; and Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.

Between February and June, several women’s rights activists, who had been arrested in 2018 and convicted on charges related to their human rights work and their contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists, were released after having their sentences suspended or reduced to time served, although they reportedly continued to be subject to travel bans. Sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court in December 2020 to five years and eight months in prison, with credit for time served, Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayaa al-Zahrani were released in February and March, respectively. Prisoners of Conscience also reported the release of Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi in February. Rights organizations reported that Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, who were sentenced to five years in prison with half suspended in 2018, were released on June 27 at the conclusion of their remaining sentences. Al-Hathloul appealed her sentence, but on May 9, she was informed by state security officials that the Supreme Court upheld her conviction on terrorism charges. While rights organizations welcomed the releases, they criticized the imposition of travel bans, as well as reports that the released rights activists were instructed not to make public statements regarding their sentences.

In October the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the six-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea. In April the court had sentenced al-Rabea under the country’s counterterrorism law to six years’ imprisonment, with credit for time served, and a travel ban. Detained in 2018 along with al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef, al-Rabea’s arrest was also tied to his activism for women’s right to drive and against the guardianship system.

On September 23, authorities released human rights defender Abdulrahman al-Shumiri following completion of his 15-year prison sentence, according to ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience. He remained subject to a travel ban for 15 years following his release. Al-Shumiri, a retired academic, was arrested in 2007 and sentenced on charges including disobeying the ruler.

In April the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced activist Yasser al-Ayyaf to two years in prison, according to Prisoners of Conscience. Al-Ayyaf was arrested in 2018, reportedly for his activism and participation in peaceful sit-ins, marches, and protests between 2011 and 2013. He spoke out in support of detainees held without trial and those who were detained after completing their sentences, including his father, whom he claimed was incarcerated beyond the end of his 10-year sentence. Al-Ayyaf was released in September.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: There were reports that authorities attempted to intimidate critics living abroad, pressured their relatives in the country, and in certain instances abducted or pressured dissidents and repatriated them to the country. A Freedom House report on transnational repression released in February reported 10 cases of Saudi transnational repression carried out in recent years against former government officials and activists living abroad.

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: In July the New York Times reported that since 2018, Saudi Arabia had used Israeli cybersurveillance firms’ spyware to monitor dissidents and political opponents at home and abroad. A July 18 Amnesty International report alleged that an investigation into the Israeli cybersurveillance firm NSO Group revealed evidence that the Saudi government used its Pegasus software against Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his family members, including his fiancee, former wife, and son. Other media reported that Khashoggi’s associates Yahya Assiri, Omar Abdulaziz, and Ghanem al-Masari were also targeted by the software.

On February 27, the Washington Post reported that Saudi dissident Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi disappeared while visiting the Saudi embassy in Ottawa in January and later reappeared in Saudi Arabia. Activists alleged his return was coerced. After his visit to the embassy in Ottawa, al-Harbi reportedly called two friends and stated he had been pressured during interrogation to reveal the names of activists and believed his family in Saudi Arabia was being threatened. Al-Harbi had received asylum in Canada in 2019 after making statements critical of the Saudi government during his studies in the United States and was cooperating with activists critical of the government. Al-Harbi’s whereabouts following his return to Saudi Arabia remained unknown as of December.

In February media reported that Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking Saudi intelligence official who fled the country in 2016, filed a second lawsuit in the United States alleging that Saudi officials tried to lure his daughter, Hissah al-Muzaini, to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2019 (see section 1.c.). The Wall Street Journal reported on January 27 that 10 Saudi state-owned companies filed a civil suit in Canada against Saad al-Jabri, alleging embezzlement. Activists and al-Jabri’s family claimed that the Canadian lawsuit against him was politically motivated. In an October 23 interview on 60 Minutes, al-Jabri reiterated claims that a hit squad had been sent to kill him in 2018 and asserted that his son Omar and daughter Sarah had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia to force his return to the country (see section 2.b.). The two were arrested in March 2020 and held in incommunicado detention, according to HRW. In November 2020 a court sentenced Omar and Sarah al-Jabri to, respectively, nine and six and one-half years in prison for money laundering and attempting escape. HRW reported an appeals court upheld their sentences in December 2020.

Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country.

Activists claimed that Saudi Arabia misused an INTERPOL notice to secure the February arrest in Morocco of a government critic, Osama al-Hasani, a citizen of Saudi Arabia and Australia. He was deported to Saudi Arabia in March. HRW claimed that court documents showed Saudi authorities had previously cleared him of the charge of auto theft that was the basis for the Saudi INTERPOL notice. On March 12, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent Moroccan authorities a letter urging them not to deport al-Hasani due to fears that he could face torture in Saudi Arabia. A Moroccan court approved al-Hasani’s extradition to Saudi Arabia on March 13, according to press reports. On September 3, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced al-Hasani to four years’ imprisonment.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Complainants claiming human rights violations generally sought assistance from the HRC or the NSHR, which sometimes advocated on their behalf or provided courts with opinions on their cases. The HRC generally responded to complaints and can refer cases to the Public Prosecutor’s Office; 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 Specialized Criminal Court handles remediation. The counterterrorism law contains a provision allowing detainees in Mabahith-run prisons to request financial compensation from the Ministry of Interior, State Security Presidency, or both for wrongful detention beyond their prison terms. In some cases the government did not carry out judicially ordered compensation for unlawful detentions in a timely manner.

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

The law prohibits unlawful intrusions into the privacy of persons, their homes, places of work, and vehicles. Criminal investigation officers are required to maintain records of all searches conducted; these records should contain the name of the officer conducting the search, the text of the search warrant (or an explanation of the urgency that necessitated the search without a warrant), and the names and signatures of the persons who were present at the time of search. While the law also provides for the privacy of all mail, telegrams, telephone conversations, and other means of communication, the government did not respect the privacy of correspondence or communications and used the considerable latitude provided by the law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary. Authorities targeted family members of activists and critics of the government.

In June dissident Abdullah al-Odah, son of prominent detained cleric Salman al-Odah (see section 1.d., Pretrial Detention), alleged that 17 of his family members were banned from travel and that his uncle, Khalid al-Odah, was arrested for tweeting about the cleric’s arrest.

There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile phone or internet usage. (See section 1.e., Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion, for reporting regarding the government’s purported use of Pegasus software to monitor activists and their families and friends.) 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 or publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. Informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.

Use of encrypted communications by private citizens was banned, and authorities frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks. Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. Media outlets reported that authorities gained access to critics’ and activists’ Twitter and other social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the government to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is charged with monitoring and regulating public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years.

g. Conflict-related Abuses

Saudi Arabia continued to conduct military operations in support of the UN-recognized government of Yemen against the Houthi militants.

The United Nations, NGOs, media outlets, as well as humanitarian and international organizations, reported what they characterized as disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by all parties to the continuing conflict, causing civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure from shelling and airstrikes. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts (GEE) concluded in September that the government of Yemen, Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition, and the Southern Transitional Council were “responsible for human rights violations including arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the recruitment and use in hostilities of children, the denial of fair trial rights, violations of fundamental freedoms, and economic, social and cultural rights.” Additionally, the GEE specifically noted, “individuals in the [Saudi-led] coalition, in particular from Saudi Arabia, may have conducted airstrikes in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution, acts that may amount to war crimes.”

In 2016 the government of Saudi Arabia and other governments participating in the Saudi-led coalition established the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), which consisted of military and civilian personnel from coalition countries, to investigate claims of civilian casualties linked to coalition air strikes or other coalition operations inside Yemen and coalition adherence to international humanitarian law. The JIAT held press conferences to explain the results of its investigations to the public. The GEE’s September report expressed concerns regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s investigation and prosecution efforts. The GEE also stated the JIAT did not provide detailed case summary information or supporting evidence.

On numerous occasions, Saudi civilians were injured and killed and civilian objects and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed by missile, rocket, drone, artillery, and maritime cross-border attacks by Houthi militants in Yemen aimed at Saudi territory.

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure on multiple occasions. A report by the NGO Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, “likely violated prohibitions under international humanitarian law and international humanitarian law “ by depriving civilians of objects essential to their survival by targeting farms, water facilities, and artisanal fishing boats and equipment that destroyed, damaged or rendered useless objects essential to survival, namely agricultural areas, irrigation works, livestock, foodstuff, water infrastructure, fishing boats, and fishing equipment. According to the UN’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes accounted for 55 civilian casualty allegations in the first nine months of the year. Casualties linked to airstrikes were down 75 percent compared with the same period in 2020. The nonprofit organization Yemen Data Project, affiliated with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, assessed civilian casualties linked to airstrikes in the first half of the year were the lowest of any six-month period since the start of the conflict. In June the UN secretary-general noted a “sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. During the last three months of the year, the Saudi-led coalition increased airstrikes in and around more-populated areas in response to increased Houthi cross-border attacks and Houthi ground offensive operations in Ma’rib and Shabwah, which resulted in an increase in civilian casualties.

Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that groups aligned with the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for the disappearance of seven civilians in Yemen from September 2020 to September 2021.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

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

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

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

The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year.

Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested journalist Fahid al-Shammari on March 3 for publishing videos with “false information” regarding food products. Prisoners of Conscience claimed that the true reason for al-Shammari’s arrest was a video mocking General Entertainment Authority chairman Turki Al al-Sheikh. Al-Samara first published the video in 2019, but it recirculated on social media early in the year.

On October 27 and again on October 30, police in Mecca detained and released with a warning a foreign national for wearing a T-shirt reading, “Pray for the end of China’s genocide & occupation in East Turkistan.” He was released three days later and departed the country.

Between May and June, multiple rights groups reported blogger Abdullah Jilan and two Twitter pseudonymous users, Ladon and Lioness, were arrested for tweets regarding social justice, equitable distribution of wealth, and job creation in the country. The groups stated the three were affiliated with Canada-based dissident Omar Abdulaziz and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On November 17, Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Ali Aboluhom, who received a 15-year prison sentence for tweets that, according to the Saudi authorities, promoted apostasy, atheism, and blasphemy. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, on October 26, the criminal court in Najran sentenced Aboluhom to 10 years in prison after convicting him of apostasy and atheism and another five years in prison for publishing his writings on social media networks that “would prejudice public order, religious values, and morals.”

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

Government policy guidance instructs journalists in the country to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. The press law requires all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The law bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

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

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

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

The Jeddah Criminal Court sentenced Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, a Sudanese media personality and journalist, to four years’ imprisonment on June 8 for criticizing in tweets and media interviews Saudi actions in Sudan and Yemen.

On March 1, Reporters Without Borders filed a criminal complaint in Germany against the Saudi crown prince for his alleged role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey and the arbitrary detention of 34 journalists in Saudi Arabia. According to the complaint, 33 journalists, including blogger Raif Badawi, continued in detention.

In July Prisoners of Conscience reported the release of journalist Aql al-Bahili and writer Abdulaziz al-Dukhail without charges. The two were arrested in April 2020, along with activist Sultan al-Ajmi, reportedly for tweeting condolences on the death of imprisoned reformer and rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid. As of November, there were no updates on the status of al-Ajmi.

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

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

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

In May the Public Prosecutor’s Office warned against producing, sending, or storing materials in information networks and computers that might “affect public order and go against religious values and morals.” Local media reported in July the office issued an arrest warrant against an individual who shared on social media parts of a television program that allegedly spread tribal intolerance and hatred. Following the arrest, the office stressed that hatred and intolerance disturb public order and that related actions are punishable by five-year sentences and substantial fines.

Online self-censorship was reportedly pervasive, as social media users were extremely cautious regarding what they posted, shared, or “liked” due to the threat of harassment or prosecution under broadly worded antiterrorism and other laws. The government closely monitored and often targeted users who expressed support for minority rights or political reform, in addition to those who exposed human rights violations. Social media users were reportedly reluctant to express support for outspoken activists who were detained or received prison sentences. Questioning religious doctrine was strictly taboo, particularly content related to the Prophet Muhammad.

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

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

National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media. On April 25, ALQST reported that activist Khaled al-Omair was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for charges that included launching a hashtag on Twitter titled “the people want a new constitution.”

On October 18, local media reported that authorities arrested a Palestinian national in Riyadh after he appeared in a video clip insulting Saudi Arabia and its leaders. Authorities deemed these comments as aimed to harm the country’s national security and public order.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.

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 November 9, Amnesty International called upon authorities to immediately release and drop all charges against 10 Egyptian men detained without charge for 16 months after attempting to organize a remembrance event marking the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. On November 10, the Specialized Criminal Court postponed their first hearing until January 2022.

Freedom of Association

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

On April 7, ALQST reported that authorities increased the prison sentence of activist Mohammed al-Otaibi, founder of the NGO Union for Human Rights, from 14 to 17 years for unknown reasons. From 2013 to 2017, the NGO worked to abolish the death penalty and strengthen women’s role in society, until al-Otaibi’s arrest in 2017.

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law does not prohibit internal movement, emigration, or repatriation. The government imposed some restrictions on foreign travel.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system no longer requires a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). Following a July 2020 court ruling in favor of women’s right to live independently, judicial authorities amended the absenteeism law, or taghayyub, to allow all unmarried, divorced, or widowed women to live alone without the consent of a male guardian. Previously, the law granted guardians the right to report the “unapproved absence” of anyone under their guardianship (see section 6, Women).

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

Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. In March the government implemented reforms allowing most private-sector expatriate workers to obtain exit or reentry visas at the end of their work contract without their employer’s permission. Expatriate domestic workers, however, still require employer approval to travel or depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21 and foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. 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. Courts regularly applied travel bans as part of sentencing, restricting the ability to leave the country after release from prison. Travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to state security, corruption, labor, financial, or real estate disputes, in addition to other crimes.

On April 9, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced media worker Khalid al-Muhawish to 10 years’ imprisonment and a 10-year travel ban for expressing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian uprising, and the Palestinian cause, according to local media and rights organizations.

Activists, media, and rights groups alleged the government used travel bans as part of a broader effort to suppress dissent. Activists estimated thousands of citizens were under travel restrictions, including released activists, relatives of citizens detained in the government’s anticorruption campaign, and relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their national 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 any male citizen or noncitizen may express an opinion or a grievance without an appointment. Senior leaders were typically unavailable to the public, but their representatives or lower-level officials continued this traditional practice. Officials may also be reached through written petitions, such as an appeal of decisions from the legal system.

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

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

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The law permits women and men to engage in political activities on an equally limited basis. Women may vote and run for office in municipal elections and serve on the Shura council. Women served in a small number of senior positions within government ministries. On April 18, Inas al-Shahwan became the country’s third female ambassador. In August local media reported the appointment of two women, Al-Anoud al-Aboud and Fatima al-Rashoud, to top senior leadership positions at the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques. Women expanded participation in the military, security forces, and other major institutions. On July 13, soldier Abeer al-Rashed became the first woman to conduct the security forces briefing for Hajj, in September the first class of female soldiers graduated from the Armed Forces Women’s Training Center, and in October the first 30 Saudi female pilots received their licenses from OxfordSaudia Flight Academy.

There were no women on the High Court or Supreme Judicial Council and no female judges or public prosecutors. In January the undersecretary for women’s empowerment at the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development claimed in an interview that the appointment of female judges was forthcoming, but by year’s end no women had been appointed and no specific plans to do so had been released.

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

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The law provides that “the State shall protect human rights in accordance with Islamic sharia.” The government restricted the activities of domestic and international human rights organizations.

The government often cooperated with and sometimes accepted the recommendations of the NSHR, the sole government-licensed domestic human rights civil society organization. The NSHR accepted requests for assistance and complaints regarding government actions affecting human rights. The government blocked websites of unlicensed local human rights groups and charged their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations (see 2.b., Freedom of Association).

The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to be based in the country and restricted their access to the country for visits; there were no transparent standards governing visits by international NGO representatives. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported the government was at times unresponsive to requests for information and did not establish a clear mechanism for communication with NGOs on both domestic human rights issues and issues relating to the conflict in Yemen.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In March the Guardian reported that a senior Saudi official in Geneva was accused of threatening to “take care of” UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard during her investigation into the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post later reported the unnamed official was Saudi Human Rights Commission president Awad al-Awad. He stated publicly that he had been present at the meeting but denied making any threatening remarks.

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

During the year the HRC and NSHR were more outspoken in areas deemed less politically sensitive, including child abuse, child marriage, and trafficking in persons. While they avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists that would require directly confronting government authorities, they inquired into complaints of mistreatment by some high-profile political prisoners. The 18 full-time members of the HRC board included nine women and at least three Shia members; they received and responded to individual complaints, including those related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights.

The Shura Council’s Human Rights Committee also actively followed cases and included women and Shia among its members.

The HRC and NSHR maintained records of complaints and outcomes, but privacy laws protect information concerning individual cases, and information was not publicly available. On June 29, the HRC stated it handled 4,593 complaints in 2020, a 9 percent increase over 2019.

The Board of Grievances, a high-level administrative judicial body that hears cases against government entities and reports directly to the king, is the primary mechanism to seek redress for claims of abuse. During the year the Board of Grievances held hearings and adjudicated claims of wrongdoing, but there were no reported prosecutions of security force members for human rights violations. Military and security courts investigated an unknown number of abuses of authority and security force killings. 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.

Citizens may report abuses by security forces at any police station or to the HRC or NSHR. The Public Prosecutor’s Office announced in July the launch of the Ma’akom system, which allows citizens and residents to submit complaints directly regarding illegal detention or violations of detainee rights, using the online platform Absher, a hotline telephone number, or in person (see Administration in section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

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 in some cases courts punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal “mixing of genders,” even when there was no conviction for rape. Survivors must prove that a rape was committed, and a woman’s testimony in court was not always accepted.

Due to these legal and social obstacles, authorities brought few cases to trial. Statistics on incidents of, and prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for rape were not available. Most rape cases were likely unreported because survivors faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanctions up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia. There were reports that domestic abuse in the form of incest occurred but was seldom reported to authorities due to fears of societal repercussions, according to local sources.

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

Researchers stated it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of domestic abuse, which they believed to be widespread. Recent studies varied widely, finding the rate of domestic abuse among women to be anywhere between 15 to 60 percent. In July, referencing a Ministry of Health report, local media reported authorities were investigating more than 2,700 domestic violence cases, in which 75 percent of the alleged survivors were female. The National Family Safety Program, a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, is charged with spreading awareness of and combatting domestic violence, including child abuse, and continued to report abuse cases.

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

On January 27, Prisoners of Conscience reported that a woman known only as Manal was arrested after publishing details on the disappearance and death of her 26-year-old sister, Qamar, allegedly at the hands of their two brothers. Manal stated on Twitter that her two brothers killed Qamar for setting up a public Snapchat account. Authorities in al-Kharj stated they arrested two individuals in connection with the murder on January 21. As of November, Manal’s whereabouts were unknown.

The government made some efforts to reduce domestic violence. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters, although women reported that remaining in the shelters was not always voluntary. On March 29, the HRC and the Mawaddah Charitable Association signed a memorandum of understanding to increase coordination and antidomestic violence awareness efforts. It would establish an independent body to research domestic violence, propose changes to the legal framework, and develop specialized centers for survivors, local media reported. No additional information on implementation of the memorandum was available as of December.

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

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

On January 12, the Council of Ministers approved an amendment to the antiharassment law that allows for the public release of names of those convicted for harassment, as a deterrent and to prevent offenders’ employment in certain jobs. The law criminalizing sexual harassment carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a substantial fine. The HRC stated that a legal punishment against sexual harassment is irreversible, even if the victim renounced his or her own rights or did not file a legal complaint.

Local media reported a number of incidents of harassment during the year. In March the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of a man seen in a video insulting and assaulting two young women in the streets of Riyadh and filed a criminal suit against him. On February 22, local media reported that former shura council member Iqbal Dandari won a case against a man for cyberharassment. Details regarding the case were unknown. On September 26, local media reported a number of sexual harassment incidents during National Day celebrations. Security authorities arrested and referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office three Saudi citizens in Medina, a Saudi and an Egyptian resident in Riyadh, and a Saudi citizen in Taif for harassing women.

In April the HRC launched a specialized group for confidential support of victims of sexual harassment and their families with psychological counseling and educational, social, and legal guidance.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Premarital sex is illegal under sharia law, and hospitals and health centers may report extramarital pregnancies to police. Access to most contraceptives required a prescription, but condoms were available at pharmacies and supermarkets for over-the-counter purchase. According to 2020 estimates by the UN Population Fund, 15 percent of all women and 23 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 used a modern method of contraception.

In some cases women may be discouraged from making certain reproductive health decisions due to cultural and religious beliefs, social pressure, and lack of awareness of their rights.

Almost all women had access to skilled health attendants during pregnancy and childbirth. The most recent UN Population Fund estimates reported that skilled health personnel attended 99 percent of births between 2010 and 2019. While some women in rural areas had to travel to the closest medical facility to receive treatment, others received health services from Ministry of Health-sponsored mobile health clinics. According to the government, women are entitled to medical assistance during pregnancy and delivery; the right to decide the details of their deliveries; and obtain maternity care in a language she understands and is appropriate to her cultural and religious beliefs. Adult women also have the right to consent to any medical procedures.

Governmental and quasi-governmental agencies provided medical care to sexual violence survivors as well as psychological and social support. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s Center for Protection Against Abuse runs a 24-hour hotline and shelters across the country with access to medical care for victims of sexual violence, while the quasi-governmental National Family Safety Program agency provided medical support to sexual abuse victims. (See sections 2.g. and 6, Children, for issues related to legal status for children born outside of marriage.)

Discrimination: Women continued to face discrimination under law and custom. A series of regulations issued from 2019 through year’s end, however, granted women many of the same rights enjoyed by men pertaining to travel abroad, civil status, and employment.

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

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

In June judicial authorities amended the absenteeism law, or taghayyub, to allow all unmarried, divorced, or widowed women to live alone without the consent of a male guardian. The amendment followed a July 2020 court decision in which a court ruled in favor of Maryam al-Otaibi, a Saudi woman who lived independently in Riyadh, despite prosecutors’ attempt to convict her for absenteeism. Under the previous absenteeism law, guardians could report the unauthorized absence of anyone under their guardianship, which could lead to the arrest, detention, or forcible return of the individual.

In advance of Hajj in July, authorities ended the male guardian requirement for women to participate in the annual pilgrimage.

Adult women may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their husbands or ex-husbands. They can make their own determinations concerning hospital care and no longer need a male guardian’s permission to start a business.

By law women have equal rights to employment. On January 14, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development banned employee discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, age, or disability, citing reforms to human resources laws. Commenting on a job advertisement that contained gender discriminatory language, the ministry stated it violated the labor law, stressing that citizens have equal employment rights without any form of discrimination, including gender.

On February 21, the Ministry of Defense began allowing women to serve in the army, air defense, navy, strategic missile force, and armed forces medical services as enlisted personnel, but not as officers. In November data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s National Labor Observatory showed women constituted 60 percent of Saudi youth who joined the local employment market during the first nine months of the year.

Women no longer require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.

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

Few businesses still required or pressured women to sit in separate, specially designated family sections in public places.

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

Women faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of a woman equals one-half that of a man. Women have begun practicing law, but all judges are male. 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 more access to courts, even if they chose to cover their faces with the niqab covering.

In February 2020 the Justice Ministry ended the so-called secret divorce, whereby men could divorce their wives without the woman’s consent or knowledge. The ministry also canceled an article in the marriage law that gave a husband the right to force his wife to return to her home against her will.

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 cases the judge assumes the role of the guardian and may approve the marriage. During the year courts executed marriage contracts for women whose male guardians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media. According to local media in 2020, courts considered an average of 750 marriage contract cases annually.

In February the crown prince announced forthcoming legal reforms that would impact the personal status law and expand protections for women. On October 24, Minister of Justice Walid al-Samaani stated the personal status draft law would address a woman’s agreement to marriage, preserving her and her children’s financial and alimony rights, as well as other issues related to divorce requests. Additional details regarding these reforms were not made public by year’s end.

Courts routinely awarded 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 some cases former husbands reportedly prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children.

Sharia-based inheritance laws discriminate against women, giving daughters one-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 the university level was standard. Some private universities, such as -Faisal University, 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. A few other government universities offered coeducation in selected programs, largely in the sciences. Private international and national schools may offer coeducation at any grade; most private international schools are coeducational, while most private national schools are segregated. Primary public schools offered mixed-gender education up to the third grade.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship generally derives from the father, and both the father and mother may register a birth. There were cases of authorities denying public services to children of citizen parents, including education and health care, because the government failed to register the birth entirely or had not registered it immediately, sometimes because the father failed to report the birth or did not receive authorization to marry a foreigner. Children of women who were married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother (see section 2.g., Stateless Persons). On June 25, the social security administration announced children from foreign fathers and Saudi mothers will be allowed to benefit from their mother’s pension, as long as she is widowed or divorced. In January the HRC stated that a child born in the country to unknown parents would be considered a Saudi citizen.

Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. The National Family Safety Program operated a helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse, providing counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development had 17 social protection units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 as well as other vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse. Child abuse is a crime punishable by one year’s imprisonment, a maximum fine of 50,000 riyals ($13,300), or both.

On January 30, local media reported that the family protection unit in Jizan investigated the case of a 15-year-old girl abused by her father, stating that legal actions would be taken against him. There were no updates as of November.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18; those younger than that age may marry only with court approval. According to local media, the court ensures several conditions are met before approving a marriage contract for a bride or groom younger than 18, including assessing their psychosocial development and hearing statements from the potential bride, groom, and guardians to determine consent. 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 such marriages. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The cybercrimes law stipulates that punishment for such crimes, including the preparation, publication, and promotion of material for pornographic sites, may be no less than two and one-half years’ imprisonment or a substantial fine if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex. In February a woman was arrested for sexually abusing a girl in Riyadh. The woman allegedly filmed herself and the girl and posted the footage on social media. In the same month, Mecca police arrested a man for sexually harassing a child. He reportedly posted a video of the harassment on social media.

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

Anti-Semitism

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

Cases of government-employed imams using anti-Semitic language in their sermons were generally rare but occurred more frequently during the May conflict in Gaza. The law requires government-employed imams to deliver all sermons in mosques in the country. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs vets all sermons. 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.

On January 30, a Washington Post article cited expert assessments that anti-Semitic references and language in Saudi textbooks had been removed or tempered, including calls to “fight the Jews.” Nonetheless, some concerns remained regarding anti-Semitic themes in textbooks; for example, a textbook’s passage refers to a Quranic text that suggests God changed a group of Israelites into “monkeys.”

A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the October Riyadh International Book Fair included exhibitors selling more than two dozen notoriously anti-Semitic books. The ADL noted that the presence of these anti-Semitic books at the largest book fair in the country “seem[s] at odds with some positive Saudi trends.”

In January a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country. On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran an op-ed by two Israeli writers, Hay Eyta Cohen Yanarocak and Jonathan Spyer, believed to be the first time a Saudi newspaper knowingly published Israeli writers.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

Under sharia, as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case. It is illegal for men “to behave like women” or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTQI+ 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. Clerics condemned homosexuality during government-approved Friday sermons at some mosques.

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

On October 24, local media reported that Northern Borders Province police arrested and referred for prosecution five men who appeared in public in women’s clothing. The men filmed themselves and posted the video on social media in an apparent attempt to attract more social media followers. A police spokesman described their conduct as “inconsistent with the public morals of society.”

Observers at the December MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival reported that it included the public display of LGBTQI+ culture.

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; however, trade unions and labor committees existed. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining or the right to conduct legal strikes. Workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for unsanctioned 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 of Human Resources and Social Development 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 that are limited to improvements to working conditions, health and safety, productivity, and training programs.

The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. There was little information on government efforts to enforce applicable laws and whether penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not prohibit or criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers, notably domestic workers. Conditions indicative of forced labor experienced by foreign workers reportedly included withholding of passports, nonpayment of wages, restrictions on movement, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. The law prohibits the confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages. Penalties for violations of labor laws were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government improved enforcement of the law, including electronic systems to monitor and ensure compliance. On March 14, the government announced the Labor Reform Initiative, which eliminated the need for many private-sector workers to obtain their employer’s permission to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, obtain a final exit visa, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year. This provided increased freedom of movement and lessened the risks of forced labor for seven million private-sector workers. According to the Human Resources Ministry, as of November, 65,000 workers had successfully changed employers. The Labor Reform Initiative does not apply to domestic workers (see section 2.d.).

Many migrant workers, particularly female domestic workers, who are not covered under the labor law, were unable to exercise the right to terminate their employment contract, change employers, or leave the country without undue restrictions. Employers may require a trainee to work for them upon completion of training for a period not to exceed twice the duration of the training or one year, whichever is longer.

The government expanded to all private-sector companies the implementation of the Wage Protection System, which requires employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer through a Saudi bank. The government also implemented a mandatory e-contract system that includes type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, and annual leave. Contracts were verified by both the employer and employee. The government reported it used the Mudad platform to track Wage Protection System and e-contract compliance in real-time and imposed penalties for any firm that failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits and criminalizes all the worst forms of child labor and provides for a minimum age of employment. 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. A ministerial decree provides that hazardous operations, such as use of power-operated machinery, or harmful industries, such as mines and quarries, may not employ legal minors. 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 applicable laws and whether penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Authorities mostly enforced the law in response to complaints regarding children begging on the streets.

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor law in general prohibits discrimination in the terms of recruitment as well as during employment. The law mandates that employers treat all workers equally and barred discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, age, or any other forms of discrimination, whether in work, employment, or advertising a vacancy. No regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, sexual orientation or gender identity, language, or HIV-positive status. Gender-based violence and harassment occurred in the workplace (see section 6, Women). Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred in all these categories. There are no effective complaint resolution mechanisms to determine whether any existing penalties were commensurate with other laws on civil rights, such as election interference.

Women may work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required applicants to submit proof of it, even though the law prohibits the practice. A 2019 decree expanded previous regulations barring employers from firing female workers on maternity leave and includes protection from dismissal for pregnancy-related illness if the absence is less than 180 days per year. Employers who violate the antidiscrimination law can be fined. The antidiscrimination law only applies to citizens and does not protect the rights of expatriates. There was widespread societal discrimination against African and Asian expatriate workers.

In recent years women’s labor participation increased significantly, including in sectors traditionally dominated by men (see section 6, Women). Prohibitions on employment of women in some hazardous jobs and night shifts were lifted. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development explicitly approved and encouraged employment of women in specific sectors, particularly in government and retail, but women continued to face societal discrimination, and gender segregation continued in the workplace. In medical settings and the energy industry, women and men worked together, and in some instances, women supervised male employees. There were no women working as judges or as members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars.

The first-quarter Labor Market Report by the General Authority for Statistics found the labor force participation rate of the total female working-age population was 33.6 percent. Most non-Saudi women were employed as domestic workers.

No regulation requires equal pay for equal work. In the private sector, the average monthly wage of Saudi women workers was 64 percent of the average monthly wage of Saudi men. Labor dispute settlement bodies did not register any cases of discrimination against women.

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. Women who work in establishments with 50 or more female employees have the right to maternity leave and childcare. 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 those wearing niqabs, for law enforcement purposes. In 2020 the military chief of general staff inaugurated the first women’s wing in the armed forces, and on April 25, the Ministry of Defense created a joint admissions portal for upcoming military positions open to both women and men. In September the first class of women graduated from the Saudi Armed Forces Training Academy.

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. They 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 and employees of municipalities and public schools. A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was above the estimated poverty-income level. There was no private-sector minimum wage for foreign workers.

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. The law requires employers to provide paid holidays on Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Saudi National Day but does not apply to domestic workers sponsored by individuals rather than companies.

An estimated 10.2 million foreign workers, including approximately 1.4 million women, made up approximately 75 percent of the labor force, according to the General Authority for Statistics’ labor market survey for the first quarter. 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 law.

The law provides penalties for bringing foreigners into the country to work in any service, including domestic service, without following the required procedures and obtaining a permit. Penalties, however, were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Occupational Safety and Health: The government issued occupational safety and health standards that were up-to-date and appropriate for the main industries. The law provides for regular safety inspections and enables ministry-appointed inspectors to make unannounced inspections, initiate sanctions, examine materials used or handled in industrial and other operations, and submit samples of suspected hazardous materials or substances to government laboratories. The government effectively enforced the law.

The Ministry of Health’s Occupational Health Service Directorate worked with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development on health and safety matters. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts and not the worker. By law employers are obligated to safeguard safety and health requirements in the workplace to protect employees from harm and disease. Regulations require employers to protect some workers from job-related hazards and disease, although some violations occurred. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. Punishment for labor violations involved a range of fines and the possible temporary or permanent closure of a business. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment.

Informal Sector: The law requires that a citizen or business must sponsor foreign workers for them to obtain legal work and residency status, although the requirement exempts Syrian and Yemeni citizens who overstayed their visas. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development implemented measures allowing noncitizen workers to switch their employer to a new employer or company that employed a sufficient quota of Saudi citizens. Some workers were unaware of the new regulations and were forced to remain with their sponsor until completion of their contract or seek the assistance of their embassy to return home. There were also instances in which sponsors bringing foreign 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. Authorities, however, would not jail or forcibly return fleeing workers who sought to exit the country within a 72-hour period or coordinate with their embassy for repatriation, provided 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. Those provisions were not drafted in line with international standards and varied depending on the bargaining power of the foreign workers’ country. There were 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 without due compensation, and restrictions on movement due to passport confiscation. There were also reports of physical, psychological, sexual, and verbal abuse.

There were reports that some migrant workers, particularly domestic employees, were unable 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 in the country, usually held foreign workers’ passports, a practice prohibited by law. In some contract disputes, in order to prevent the employee from leaving the country until resolution of the dispute, sponsors asked authorities to coerce the employee into accepting a disadvantageous settlement or risking deportation without any settlement.

While some foreign workers were able to contact the labor offices of their embassies for assistance, domestic workers faced challenges when attempting to gain access to their embassies, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and telephone access, confiscation of their passports, and being subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse. During the year several dozen (primarily) female domestic workers sought shelter at their embassies’ safehouses to escape physical and sexual abuse by their employers. Those workers usually sought legal assistance from their embassies and government agencies to obtain end-of-service benefits and exit visas. In addition to their embassies, some domestic servants could contact the NSHR, HRC, Interministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department, which provided services to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and protect them from abuse. Some were able to apply to the offices of regional governors and lodge an appeal with the Board of Grievances against decisions by those authorities.

Occupational safety and health regulations do not cover farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, or workers in family-operated businesses. Although the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development employed nearly 1,000 labor inspectors, foreign workers privately reported frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards. Although statistics were unavailable, examples of major industrial accidents during the year that caused the death or serious injury to workers included local media reports from February 15 that at least six Bangladeshi migrant workers were killed in a fire at a furniture factory in Medina.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates with a resident population of approximately 9.8 million, of whom an estimated 11 percent are citizens. The rulers of the seven emirates constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the country’s highest legislative and executive body. The council selects a president and a vice president from its membership, and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi emirate, is president, although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi exercises most executive authority. The emirates are under patriarchal rule with political allegiance defined by loyalty to tribal leaders, leaders of the individual emirates, and leaders of the federation. A limited, appointed electorate participates in periodic elections for the partially elected Federal National Council, a consultative body that examines, reviews, and recommends changes to legislation and may discuss topics for legislation. The last election was in 2019, when appointed voters elected 20 Federal National Council members. Citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders through traditional consultative mechanisms such as the open majlis (forum), but they do not have the right to choose their government in free and fair elections.

Each emirate maintains a local police force called a general directorate, which is officially a branch of the federal Ministry of Interior. All emirate-level general directorates of police enforce their respective emirate’s laws autonomously. They also enforce federal laws within their emirate in coordination with one another under the federal ministry. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and detention, including incommunicado detention, by government agents; political prisoners; government interference with privacy rights; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including very restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully in free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults; and outlawing of independent trade unions or significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

The government investigated, prosecuted, and punished some officials who committed abuses, primarily official financial crimes. There was no publicly available information on whether authorities investigated complaints of other abuses, including prison conditions and mistreatment, or prosecuted and punished officials in connection with these complaints.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

Human rights organizations reported instances of enforced disappearances by government authorities. Abdul Rahman al-Nahhas, a Syrian human rights activist sentenced in September to 10 years in prison on charges of terrorism and insulting the prestige of the state, reportedly was forcibly disappeared, threatened, tortured, held incommunicado, and denied access to his legal representative; he remained in prison at year’s end.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices, but there were some reports of occurrences during the year. Based on reports from released prisoners and their family members, diplomatic observers, and human rights organizations, UN human rights experts found that some individuals imprisoned for suspected state security and criminal offenses were subjected to torture or mistreatment. In June the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights defenders stated that five of the approximately 60 imprisoned members of the UAE 94, a group of Emirati scholars, activists, lawyers, and doctors who were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in 2013 for signing a petition two years earlier calling for greater democratic reforms, faced prison conditions that could constitute torture. She cited allegations that the men were held for long periods in solitary confinement, left without air conditioning as outside temperatures rose above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and prevented from seeing sunlight.

Although legal reforms in 2020 made it illegal for authorities to use evidence obtained through torture or degrading treatment, human rights groups alleged that abuses took place during interrogations and as inducement for signed confessions.

Reforms to the legal code in 2020 and 2021 removed flogging as a permissible form of punishment under the federal penal code; however, sharia (Islamic) courts, which adjudicate criminal and family law cases, still impose flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage, defamation of character, and drug or alcohol charges.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions varied widely among the individual emirates and between regular prisons (which hold those accused of nonpolitical crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and killings) and state security detention facilities (which hold political activists or those the government defines to be terrorists). There continued to be allegations of overcrowding, long waits for health-care access, and poor sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: The government did not release statistics on prison demographics and capacity. Diplomatic observers and UN human rights experts reported that in Abu Dhabi, some prisoners reported overcrowding, particularly in drug units, poor temperature control, retaliation for raising complaints to their embassies, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.

There were reports that individuals in state security detention facilities were mistreated, abused, and tortured. Prisoners complained to embassy representatives that they witnessed routine abuse of fellow prisoners, including long periods of solitary confinement and imprisonment in noncooled spaces where temperatures could reach upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit for most months of the year.

In February Human Rights Watch reported that government authorities had denied a British national access to critical medication and adequate health care throughout his 10-year detention on a six-year criminal sentence, ignoring his 2014 pardon.

According to diplomatic observers, overcrowding was periodically a problem in prisons in Dubai and the northern emirates. In particular, prisoners awaiting transfer to Abu Dhabi for federal prosecution experienced long stays in police holding cells equipped only for short-term incarceration. In June the minister of interior reported that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reduction in serious crimes and a decrease of more than 20 percent in the country’s prison population compared with 2020. The minister stated that 4 percent of the country’s prison population tested positive for COVID-19. Prevention measures in prisons included mandatory vaccination, careful sanitization of facilities, a 15-day quarantine for new inmates, and awareness-raising sessions in different languages.

Some prisoners were not permitted exercise or reading materials. There were reports that some prisoners did not have access to outside areas and exposure to sunlight. According to human rights organizations, imprisoned activist Abdelsalam al-Marzooqi was held in solitary confinement in a secret location for eight months and denied visiting and contact rights for more than a year. In Abu Dhabi there also were reports of dangerously hot conditions when air conditioners broke during periods of extreme high temperatures.

While medical care was generally adequate in regular prisons, HIV-positive noncitizen detainees reported not being given regular and uninterrupted access to antiretroviral treatment and experiencing other forms of discrimination, such as being held in segregated units or solitary confinement. Other prisoners reported prolonged delays in receiving medical treatment and difficulty obtaining necessary medication, including insulin for diabetics.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights blamed the death in February of Jordanian journalist and writer Tayseer al-Najjar, two years after his release from prison, on health complications caused by the conditions during his confinement, which al-Najjar’s wife supported. His sentence ended in December 2018, but he remained imprisoned until February 2019 due to his inability to pay a large fine, which local authorities eventually waived at the time of his release.

Prisons attempted to accommodate persons with disabilities based on their specific needs, such as placing wheelchair users on a lower floor. Some reports alleged inconsistencies in providing support for prisoners with mental disabilities. In Dubai and to some extent in Abu Dhabi, prison officials worked with mental-health professionals to provide support and administer needed medication. Training and facilities to accommodate prisoners with mental disabilities were allegedly less well developed in the other emirates. It reportedly was common for authorities to grant a humanitarian pardon in cases where a person with a disability had been convicted of a minor offense.

Administration: Some state security detainees were not permitted access to visitors or had more limited access than other prisoners. Although prisoners had a right to submit complaints to judicial authorities, details about whether any investigations into complaints took place were not publicly available, and there were no independent authorities to investigate allegations of poor conditions. Inmates reported retaliation from authorities after raising issues regarding prison conditions with diplomatic missions.

There were standard weekly visiting hours in regular prisons, but unmarried and unrelated visitors of the opposite sex had to receive permission from a prosecutor. As a result of COVID-19, some prisons throughout the country used teleconferencing measures in lieu of in-person visitations. Dubai police adopted a remote visual communication service between inmates in Dubai prisons and their families inside and outside the country.

Prison authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes regarding Islam. Some Christian clergy raised concerns regarding lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. In several emirates Christian clergy were not able to visit Christian prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to visit prisons and provide material support on a limited basis. Authorities did not grant access to independent human rights groups, media, or international monitoring bodies, and prohibited regular consular access for State Security Department detainees.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The government, however, reportedly often held persons in custody for extended periods without charge or a preliminary judicial hearing. The law allows state security officers to hold detainees for up to 106 days, but indefinite detention for such cases has been reported.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law prohibits arrest or search of citizens without probable cause. Legal reforms implemented in November 2020 provide the right to remain silent and require arresting officers to inform the accused of this right and the alleged charges upon arrest or detention. While awaiting a decision on official charges at a police station or the prosecutor’s office, a detainee is not entitled to legal counsel. Police usually adhered to the requirement that they report an arrest to the public prosecutor within 48 hours. The public prosecutor must question the accused within 24 hours of notification of arrest.

Police investigations regularly take up to three months, during which time detainees were often held incommunicado and without public knowledge of their whereabouts. In some cases authorities did not allow detainees contact with attorneys, family members, or others for indefinite or unspecified periods. Some detainees reported being monitored during meetings with family members and consular officials, as well as being prevented from discussing their cases or detention conditions.

Authorities often did not notify the appropriate diplomatic officials when a foreign national was detained. For state security detainees, notification was exceptionally rare, and information regarding the status of these detainees was very limited.

The law requires prosecutors to submit charges to a court within 14 days of the police report. Judges may not extend a detention beyond 30 days without charges; however, once charges are brought, judges may renew 30-day extensions indefinitely. Multiple detainees complained that authorities did not inform them of the charges or other details of their case for months at a time. There were also reports of authorities pressuring or forcing detainees to sign documents before having access to attorneys.

The 2020 legal reforms require police to furnish a translator when an individual does not understand Arabic. Noncitizen detainees reported that when the prosecutor presented the charges, they were written in Arabic and translation services were often inadequate.

Authorities treated prisoners arrested for political or security reasons differently from other prisoners, including placing them in separate sections of a prison. The State Security Department handled these cases and, in some instances, held prisoners and detainees in separate undisclosed locations for extended periods prior to their transfer to a regular prison.

Public prosecutors may hold suspects in terrorism-related cases without charge for six months. Once authorities charge a suspect with terrorism, the Federal Supreme Court may extend the detention indefinitely. The counterterrorism law provides for the establishment of rehabilitation centers under the Munassaha program, which aims to use psychosocial techniques to reform persons deemed to pose a terrorist threat or those convicted of terrorist offenses. The law stipulates that program administrators provide reports on detainees’ status every three months and that the public prosecutor submit a final opinion on the outcome of rehabilitation to inform the court’s decision on whether to release the individual.

Authorities may temporarily release detainees who deposit money, a passport, or an unsecured personal promissory statement signed by a third party. Abu Dhabi and Dubai utilize an electronic travel ban system, which allows authorities to prevent individuals involved in pending legal proceedings from departing the country without physically confiscating their passport. Nonetheless, officials routinely held detainees’ passports until sentencing. Authorities may deny pretrial release to defendants in cases involving loss of life, including involuntary manslaughter. Authorities released some prisoners detained on charges related to a person’s death after the prisoners completed diya (blood money) payments. Once an accused is found criminally liable for a death, judges may grant diya payments as compensation to the victim’s family in an amount determined to be in accordance with sharia. For example, in June an Abu Dhabi court awarded 283,000 dirhams (AED) ($77,100) in diya to the family of a woman killed in a hit-and-run car accident.

A defendant is legally entitled to an attorney after authorities complete their investigation and file formal charges. There were allegations that authorities sometimes questioned the accused for weeks without permitting access to an attorney. The government may provide counsel at its discretion to indigent defendants charged with felonies punishable by imprisonment. The law requires the government to provide counsel in cases in which indigent defendants face punishments of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Authorities held some persons incommunicado, particularly in cases involving state security.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports the government carried out arrests without informing the individual of the charge, notably in cases of alleged violations of state security regulations. In these cases authorities did not give notice to the individual or to family members regarding the subject of the inquiry or arrest.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention occurred, especially in cases involving state security. Diplomatic observers noted cases where the time defendants spent waiting for a court date surpassed the maximum sentence for the crime. The speed with which these cases were brought to trial increased, as it did in the previous year, with a lower number of State Security Court acquittals and convictions in comparison with recent years. As a result of COVID-19, the government increased its use of video teleconferencing measures for litigation procedures.

In February international media reported that the government released eight Lebanese nationals who were detained in 2014 due to alleged links to Hezbollah. Fifteen other Lebanese nationals are reportedly still being held pending trial under the same charges.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports authorities delayed or limited an individual’s access to an attorney and did not give prompt court appearances or afford consular notification, both for ordinary prisoners and in state security cases. Diplomatic observers reported this was a particular problem for foreign residents who were vulnerable to loss of job, home, and accrual of debt due to unlawful detention. There were no known reports of courts finding individuals eligible for compensation on the basis of unlawful detention.

According to human rights organizations, Amina al-Abdouli and Maryam al-Balushi – women who were arrested in 2016 and 2015, respectively, for alleged state security crimes – remained detained despite completing their sentences. Al-Abdouli made a recording in 2020 stating that the public prosecutor had filed a new case against her and al-Balushi in reprisal for their previous recordings regarding prison conditions. In January the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion urging authorities to release al-Balushi and al-Abdouli, citing concerns that they were in poor health.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, court decisions remained subject to review by the political leadership. Authorities often treated noncitizens differently from citizens. The judiciary consisted largely of contracted foreign nationals subject to potential deportation, further compromising its independence from the government.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. Abu Dhabi and other emirates expanded the implementation of virtual court systems, which allowed detainees and prisoners to participate in hearings and trials remotely and afforded continued access to the justice system despite pandemic-related government office closures. Dubai maintained a website where individuals could obtain basic information concerning pending legal cases, including formal charges and upcoming court dates. Diplomatic observers noted that in many instances a similar website in Abu Dhabi did not function effectively.

The law presumes all defendants are innocent until proven guilty. By law a defendant enjoys the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges. The 2020 legal reforms established the right to remain silent, the right to be informed of one’s alleged crime at the time of arrest, and the inadmissibility of evidence obtained through torture or degrading treatment. The law requires all court proceedings to be conducted in Arabic but now mandates that an interpreter be provided when the individual being questioned does not speak Arabic. Despite the defendant’s procedural right to an interpreter, there were reports authorities did not always provide one or provided poor-quality interpreting services.

Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to have legal counsel in court for cases that carry punishment other than a fine. The defendant has a right to government-provided counsel after charges have been filed only in cases involving a capital crime or possible life imprisonment. The government may also provide counsel, at its discretion, to indigent defendants charged with felonies punishable by provisional imprisonment. The law provides prosecutors discretion to bar defense counsel from any investigation. Defendants and their attorneys may present witnesses and question witnesses against them. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess. Some defendants said they did not have adequate time to prepare a defense, sometimes due to limited telephone access. Verdicts were announced in open court, even if the case was heard in a closed session.

Both local and federal courts have an appeals process. Appeals are first heard by each emirate’s court of appeals and can be escalated to a higher court if necessary. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ras al-Khaimah, appeals are escalated to the respective emirate’s court of cassation. For those emirates that lack a court of cassation (Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah), appeals are escalated to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. Convicted defendants may also appeal death sentences to the ruler of the emirate in which the offense was committed or to the president of the federation. In homicide cases the victim’s family must consent to commute a death sentence. The government normally negotiated with victims’ families for the defendant to offer diya payments, in accordance with sharia, in exchange for forgiveness and a commuted death sentence. The prosecutor may appeal acquittals and provide new or additional evidence to a higher court. An appellate court must reach unanimous agreement to overturn an acquittal. In July an Emirati national convicted of homicide was executed after the victim’s family refused to accept a blood money payment and insisted on the death penalty.

In state security cases, the Federal Court of Appeals serves as a court of first instance. State security cases may be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court.

When authorities suspected a foreigner of crimes of “moral turpitude,” authorities sometimes deported the individual without recourse to the criminal justice system. At the judge’s discretion, foreigners charged with such crimes may be granted bail and allowed to remain in the country to defend themselves if they so request. This provision does not apply to foreign residents charged with a national security-related crime. Changes to the penal code announced in November mandated deportation for noncitizens accused of crimes, with limited exceptions.

Women continued to face legal discrimination because of the government’s interpretation of sharia (see section 6, Women ).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations. Since 2011 the government has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and government-designated terrorist organization, and others critical of the government.

In a July report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist convicted in 2018 under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the United Arab Emirates and its symbols” and of seeking to damage the country’s relationship with its neighbors by publishing information critical of those governments on social media, was held in solitary confinement for nearly four years without access to a mattress or other necessities. He also was reportedly denied access to lawyers, granted only a limited number of family visits, and subjected to death threats, physical assault, government surveillance, and inhuman treatment while in custody. Mansoor remained in prison at year’s end.

During the year human rights organizations continued to call for the government to release Mohammed al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith. Al-Roken is a lawyer, academic, and human rights defender whom authorities allegedly arbitrarily detained in 2012 for “plotting against the government.” Bin Ghaith is an economist, professor, and activist who was allegedly held incommunicado for 18 months after being arrested in 2015 for harming the reputation of the country in tweets that criticized local officials and the Egyptian government. Al-Roken and bin Ghaith were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 and 2017, respectively.

In April human rights organizations confirmed the release of four Emirati political activists under the president’s annual Ramadan pardon. The four were convicted in 2011 of belonging to the banned Islah group and seeking to overthrow the government. They had been held beyond their jail terms in state security-run counseling centers for individuals deemed to be terrorist threats.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: According to human rights groups, government authorities continued to target relatives of political prisoners detained in the country and dissidents living abroad, allegedly subjecting them to harassment in reprisal for their relatives’ activism.

International media reporting in August alleged that the government used surveillance software to spy on Emirati human rights figures located outside the country such as Alaa al-Siddiq, executive director of the London-based Emirati human rights organization ALQST, until her death in June.

In September the government designated as terrorists Hamad al-Shamsi, Ahmed al-Nuaimi, Mohammed al-Zaabi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji. These individuals resided outside the country and belonged to the UAE 94. They also were alleged to be members of al-Islah.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens and noncitizens had access to the courts to seek damages for, or cessation of, human rights abuses. Courts lacked full independence, often delaying proceedings.

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

The constitution prohibits entry into a home without the owner’s permission, except when police present a lawful warrant. Officers’ actions in searching premises were subject to review by the Ministry of Interior, and officers were subject to disciplinary action if authorities judged their actions irresponsible.

The constitution provides for free and confidential correspondence by mail, telegram, and all other means of communication. There were reports, however, that the government monitored and occasionally censored incoming international mail, wiretapped telephones, and monitored outgoing mail and electronic forms of communication without following appropriate legal procedures. According to media reports, the government engaged in systematic campaigns to target journalists and activists using spyware and hackers. In July a series of investigations by 17 global media organizations, known as the Pegasus Project, accused the government of using NSO Group-developed spyware to target journalists and activists in the country and abroad, including Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf and human rights defender Alaa al-Siddiq.

g. Conflict-related Abuses

The government continued to support partner forces in Yemen that NGOs have previously alleged committed human rights abuses including arbitrary detention and torture. For further information see the Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen, section 2, Respect for Civil Liberties.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the law prohibits criticism of national rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest. The government regularly restricted freedom of speech and the press, and human rights organizations reported that the government continues to detain political activists and human rights defenders. Media outlets conformed to unpublished government guidelines. Editors and journalists were aware of government “red lines” for acceptable media content, stipulated in federal libel and slander laws. On other socially sensitive topics, they commonly practiced self-censorship. In January the government introduced the National Policy for the Quality of Digital Life aimed at encouraging positive digital citizenship by promoting “tolerance, coexistence, and pluralism” in the curriculum of government schools.

Freedom of Expression: After the onset of widespread regional popular uprisings in 2011, authorities severely restricted freedom of expression by prohibiting any public criticism of the government and individual ministers. The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities, calls for democratic reforms, criticism of or perceived insults against the government and government institutions, and, in rarer cases, criticism of individuals. Both verbal and written insults online are a prosecutable offense.

In other cases authorities brought individuals to trial for posting material on social media platforms that was considered a violation of privacy or personally insulting to acquaintances, colleagues, employers, or religions.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: International NGOs categorized the press, both in print and online, as not free. Except for regional media outlets located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s free-trade zones, the government owned and controlled most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Journalists reported the government maintained unpublished guidelines for acceptable media content. Regulations for electronic media, including rules for publishing and selling advertising, print, video, and audio material, require those benefitting monetarily from social media advertising to purchase a license from the National Media Council (NMC).

Censorship or Content Restrictions: By law the NMC, whose chair the president appoints, licenses, and censors all publications, including private association publications. Domestic and foreign publications were censored to remove any criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments. Online content was often removed without transparency or judicial oversight. Domain hosts or administrators are liable if their websites are used to “prompt riot, hatred, racism, sectarianism, or damage the national unity or social peace or prejudice the public order and public morals.” Censorship also extends to statements that “threaten social stability” and materials considered pornographic or excessively violent. The government in December introduced a new “21+” rating for films with mature content, allowing “international versions” of films to be screened in the country. Prior to the announcement of the new rating system, authorities reportedly banned or edited films for “mature” content, which it considered to include representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals.

Government and private institutions must obtain a license before publishing or broadcasting media or advertising content, or face penalties. This requirement applies to any media or advertising activity and to any person or entity that issues any type of publication, including clubs, associations, diplomatic missions, foreign centers, and movie theaters.

Government officials allegedly warned journalists who published or broadcast material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Authorities did not allow importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

Internet and television providers continued to block Qatari-funded al-Jazeera’s website and most Qatari broadcasting channels at the direction of government authorities.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel and slander laws to suppress criticism of its leaders and institutions. The law criminalizes acts that defame others online or through information technology, including communication applications such as WhatsApp; punishment is either imprisonment or a fine. In July a Ras al-Khaimah court ordered a woman to pay a former Federal National Council member AED 20,000 ($5,450) as compensation after she allegedly insulted him and damaged his reputation on social media.

Those convicted of libel face up to two years in prison. The maximum penalty for libel against the family of a public official is three years in prison.

The law also criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred or insulting religious convictions.

National Security: Authorities often cited the need to protect national security as the basis for laws that prohibit and punish criticism of the government or expression of dissenting political views. For example, the country’s cybercrime laws include broad limitations on using electronic means to promote disorder or “damage national unity.” Human rights groups criticized these laws for excessively restricting freedom of expression.

Internet Freedom

The Ministry of Interior lists 10 broad categories of online activities it considers illegal under the cybercrime law: defaming or disrespecting others, violating privacy, filming persons or places and posting these videos without permission, spreading false news and rumors, manipulating personal information, engaging in blackmail and threats, establishing websites or accounts that violate local regulations, inciting immoral acts, posting work-related confidential information, and establishing or managing websites or accounts to coordinate with terrorist groups. The law imposes fines and sentences up to life imprisonment depending on the nature of the alleged offense. In February HRW contended that the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals’ October 2020 sentencing of a Jordanian national to 10 years’ imprisonment was based solely on “peaceful” Facebook posts critical of the Jordanian government. Prosecutors had asserted that the posts could endanger national security, harm the social order, and damage relations with Jordan.

The government restricted access to some websites and conducted widespread surveillance of social media, instant messaging services, and blogs with little to no judicial oversight. Virtual private networks (VPNs) are permitted for use by companies, institutions, and banks for internal purposes only; use by private individuals is forbidden. The usage of VPN technology for illegal means is considered a serious offense under the law. Authorities threatened to imprison individuals for misusing the internet. Self-censorship was apparent on social media. There were reports the Ministry of Interior monitored internet use, and access to the Clubhouse social media application was allegedly deliberately interrupted by telecom operators, although the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority denied these claims to an international media outlet. There were numerous documented instances of online surveillance used to track dissidents in the country and abroad. This included reports the government had purchased spyware, including NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, and employed foreign cyber-experts to bolster its own hacking capabilities. NGOs and media outlets reported that activists, journalists, politicians, and dissidents were targeted in systematic hacking campaigns.

The country’s two internet service providers, both majority owned by the government’s sovereign wealth fund, used a proxy server to block materials deemed inconsistent with the country’s values, as defined by the Ministry of Interior and overseen by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. Blocked material included sites with LGBTQI+ content; atheism; negative critiques of Islam; testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity; gambling; promotion of illegal drug use; pornography; and postings that explained how to circumvent the proxy servers. International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained filtered content. The government also blocked some sites containing content critical of the government or laws of the country, and other states in the region.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority operated with no oversight or transparency in identifying which sites it blocked. Service providers did not have the authority to unblock sites without government approval. The government also blocked most voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) applications and the use of VoIPs through VPNs. Convictions for unauthorized use of VoIPs can lead to significant fines, imprisonment, or both. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority temporarily approved a set of VoIP applications to support teleworking and distance learning.

The Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes investigated criminal cases involving use of information technology, including the use of the internet with the intent to “damage public morals,” the promotion of “sinful behavior,” illegal collections of donations, trafficking in persons, calling for or abetting the breach of laws, and the organization of demonstrations.

The NMC requires social media influencers who accept payment in money or high-value goods and services in return for endorsing products to join a social media management agency or obtain an e-commerce license for a small fee and a trade license, for which the price varies by emirate. Unlicensed paid social media influencers face a moderate fine.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom, including speech both inside and outside the classroom by educators, and censored academic materials for schools. The government required official permission for conferences and submission of detailed information on proposed speakers and topics of discussion. The same procedure applied to on-campus events at private schools. Some organizations found it difficult to secure meeting space for public events that dealt with contentious topics.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides limited freedom of assembly, although the government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of assembly in practice.

The law requires a government-issued permit for organized public gatherings. While there was no uniform standard for the number of persons who could gather without a permit, some residents reported authorities ask groups of four or more to disperse if they did not have a permit. The government did not interfere routinely with informal, nonpolitical gatherings held without a government permit in public places unless there were complaints. The government generally permitted political gatherings that supported government policies. Hotels, citing government regulations, sometimes denied permission for groups such as unregistered religious organizations to rent space for meetings or religious services.

Freedom of Association

The law provides limited freedom of association. The government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of association in practice.

Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Community Development, and many that did so received government subsidies. Domestic NGOs registered with the ministry were mostly citizens’ associations for economic, religious, social, cultural, athletic, and other purposes.

Registration rules require that all voting organizational members, as well as boards of directors, must be citizens. This requirement excluded almost 90 percent of the population from fully participating in such organizations. In Dubai volunteer organizations were required to register with the Community Development Authority (CDA) and obtain its approval before conducting fundraising activities. In April the president issued a federal law requiring a license from the CDA for individuals and entities to engage in fundraising activities or collecting donations, which they may do no more than four times a year. Penalties under the law may include substantial fines and deportation of noncitizens.

Associations must follow the government’s censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval before publishing any material. In Abu Dhabi all exhibitions, conferences, and meetings require a permit from the Tourism and Culture Authority. To obtain a permit, the event organizer must submit identification documents for speakers along with speaker topics.

LGBTQI+ individuals could not openly engage in advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights due to social norms and possible prosecution or reprisal (see section 6).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law generally provided for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation. In September the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis, and Disaster Committee for the COVID-19 pandemic ended internal movement restrictions following a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases.

While the government generally respected the right to freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, it imposed certain legal restrictions on foreign travel. The lack of passports or other identity documents restricted the movement of stateless persons, both within the country and internationally.

Foreign Travel: Authorities generally did not permit citizens and residents involved in legal disputes under adjudication and noncitizens under investigation to travel abroad. In addition, authorities sometimes arrested individuals with outstanding debts or legal cases while in transit through an international airport. Abu Dhabi and Dubai maintain a system that allows individuals to verify if they are subject to a travel ban related to unsettled debts or pending legal action. In some cases travelers can settle debts directly at the airport and have their travel ban lifted. Debtors also may challenge travel bans in court.

Emirate-level prosecutors have the discretion to seize the passports of foreign citizens and restrict foreign travel during criminal or civil investigations. These measures posed particular problems for noncitizen debtors who, in addition to being unable to leave the country, were usually unable to find work without a passport and valid residence permit, making it impossible to repay their debts or maintain legal residency. In some cases family, friends, local religious organizations, or other concerned individuals helped pay the debt and enabled the indebted foreign national to depart the country. In February Dubai authorities released a number of prisoners after a group of charities and individual donors paid their debts. In September a charity in Sharjah paid the debts of 805 persons including an unspecified number of inmates.

Citizens targeted for reasons of state security, including former political prisoners, encountered difficulties renewing official documents, resulting in implicit travel bans.

Custom dictates that a husband may prevent his wife, minor children, or adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by taking custody of their passports.

Citizenship: The government may revoke naturalized citizens’ passports and citizenship status for criminal or “politically provocative” actions.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. Federal executive and legislative power is in the hands of the Federal Supreme Council, a body composed of the hereditary rulers of the seven emirates. It selects from its members the country’s president and vice president. Decisions at the federal level generally are by consensus among the rulers, their families, and other leading families. The ruling families, in consultation with other prominent tribal figures, also choose rulers of the emirates.

Citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders through an open majlis, a traditional consultative mechanism. On occasion, women were permitted to attend a majlis. If a majlis was closed to women, men sometimes expressed concerns as proxies on behalf of women. In addition, authorities sometimes held a women-only majlis or a majlis focused specifically on women’s issues.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2019 an appointed electorate of more than 330,000, representing just under one-quarter of the total citizen population, elected 20 members of the Federal National Council (FNC), a 40-member consultative body with some legislative authority. Approximately 35 percent of eligible voters participated. The size of the appointed electorate increased by approximately 50 percent from the 2015 election. Each emirate receives seats in the FNC based on population. In a nontransparent process, each emirate ruler appoints that emirate’s portion of the other 20 FNC members. As mandated by a 2018 decree, female representation in the FNC stands at 50 percent, to include both directly elected and appointed members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Citizens did not have the right to form political parties, which are prohibited by law.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, although cultural practices and norms discouraged women from engaging in political life. The government prioritized women’s participation in government. There were nine female ministers in the 31-member cabinet and 20 women in the FNC (seven elected).

Except in the judiciary and military, members of non-Muslim and racial minority groups did not serve in senior federal positions. Many judges were contracted foreign nationals.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government generally did not permit domestic or international organizations to focus on domestic political or human rights issues.

The government directed, regulated, and subsidized participation by all NGO members in events outside the country. All participants were required to obtain government permission before attending such events. The government also restricted entry to the country by members of international NGOs. There were no transparent standards governing visits from international NGO representatives. The antidiscrimination law, which prohibits multiple forms of discrimination and criminalizes acts or expression the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion, was used as a legal basis for restricting events such as conferences and seminars. The law also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audiovisual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Committee acts as the main liaison between human rights bodies in the country and supervises the implementation of a comprehensive national human rights plan. In December 2020 the committee launched the first stage of the consultative process for developing the National Human Rights Action Plan, covering matters such as women’s empowerment, humanitarian aid, interfaith acceptance and tolerance, labor rights, and workers’ welfare. That same month the government approved the formation of the National Human Rights Authority to advance the country’s efforts to protect human rights and safeguard the rights of women, children, workers, older persons, persons with disabilities, and the vulnerable, on the regional and international level. In August the country established the National Human Rights Institution, which aims to “promote and protect” human rights and “fundamental freedoms” in accordance with the constitution, federal laws and legislation, and relevant international conventions; in December the government announced the appointment of its secretary general and 12-member board of trustees.

Two recognized local human rights organizations existed: the quasi-governmental Emirates Human Rights Association (EHRA), which focused on human rights problems and complaints on matters such as labor conditions, stateless persons’ rights, and prisoners’ well-being and treatment; and the Emirates Center for Human Rights Studies, which focused on human rights education for lawyers and legal consultants. The EHRA claimed it operated independently without government interference, apart from requirements that apply to all associations in the country, although several EHRA members worked in the government, and the organization received government funding.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, which is defined as coerced sexual intercourse with a woman or sodomy with a man. Rape is punishable by death under the penal code. Changes to the penal code announced in November made rape of women generally punishable by life imprisonment but still punishable by death in certain cases. The penal code does not prohibit spousal rape. In sharia courts, which are primarily responsible for civil matters between Muslims, the extremely high burden of proof for a rape case contributed to a low conviction rate. There were reports employers raped or sexually assaulted foreign domestic workers. The government rarely prosecuted these cases, and those that did led to few convictions.

In November 2020 the government decriminalized consensual extramarital sex. Changes to the penal code announced in November, however, stipulated that consensual extramarital sex is punishable by six months’ imprisonment if a complaint is filed by a husband or guardian of either of the parties. Updates to the penal code also criminalized indecent assault by coercion, threat, or deceit, and cover instances where the victim is incapable of providing consent due to mental incapacity. Sexual relations with a person younger than the age of consent, 14 years old, is punishable as indecent assault. Changes to the penal code announced in November raised the age of consent to 18. If the perpetrator is related to the victim, responsible for their upbringing or care, or has authority over them, the punishment may be up to life imprisonment.

In February the Ras al-Khaimah Criminal Court of Appeal upheld the life sentence of two Gulf nationals convicted of kidnapping and raping an unidentified person described only as “a youth.” Also in February the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court sentenced three male nationals of a Gulf country to life imprisonment on charges including attempted rape. In April the Dubai Court of Appeals upheld a life sentence against an Indian salesman for raping a housewife inside her home and threatening her with a knife.

The penal code outlaws multiple forms of domestic abuse, including mental, sexual, and financial abuse. Public prosecutors may issue protective orders for victims, and abusers may be subject to prison or monetary fines. In June a criminal court in Dubai sentenced a man to life in prison for killing his wife.

Victims of domestic abuse may file complaints with police units stationed in major public hospitals. Social workers and counselors, usually female, also maintained offices in public hospitals and police stations. There are domestic abuse centers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, and Sharjah.

While the government has not yet fully implemented the Family Protection Policy, adopted in 2019, it did coordinate with social organizations to increase awareness of domestic violence, conduct seminars, educational programs, symposiums, and conferences. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children sought to increase awareness of domestic violence through social media, television, radio programming, and advertising; by hosting workshops; and by sponsoring a hotline. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foundation, which operated a shelter, also launched a project with the L’Oreal Fund for Women to construct a medical screening and quarantine facility for domestic abuse survivors. The Aman Shelter for Women and Children in Ras al-Khaimah also maintains a hotline for domestic abuse survivors.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C, and although the Ministry of Health prohibits hospitals and clinics from performing the procedure, private clinics and ritual/traditional circumcisers continued to carry it out. The type of FGM/C most prevalent in the country was performed during infancy and childhood. FGM/C was practiced by some tribal groups and was reportedly declining as a traditional custom, although little information was available. Foreign residents from countries where FGM/C is prevalent undertook the practice.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: In November 2020 the government repealed an article in the penal code allowing men to receive lighter sentences for killing a female relative found in the act of extramarital sex. The country employs judicial supervision for individuals considered at risk from relatives threatening to commit honor crimes against or otherwise harming them. Judicial supervision typically included providing housing to individuals for their safety and well-being and family mediation and reconciliation.

Sexual Harassment: The government has prosecuted sexual harassment. The legal definition of sexual harassment includes repetitive harassment through action, words, or signs, and acknowledges that men can be victims of sexual harassment. The penal code stipulates punishment by a prison term of at least one year, a fine of 100,000 AED ($27,250), or both. If a criminal judgement is rendered against a foreigner, it is to include a prison term followed by deportation.

Conviction of “disgracing or dishonoring” a person in public is punishable by a minimum of one year and up to 15 years in prison if the victim is younger than age 14. Conviction for “infamous” acts against the rules of decency is punishable by a penalty of six months in prison, and “dishonoring a woman by word or deed on a public roadway” is also a punishable offense. The government generally enforced this law.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

According to changes to the penal code announced in November, pregnancy outside marriage is punishable by two years’ imprisonment unless the parents marry or one or both acknowledge the child and obtain identification papers and travel documents in accordance with the laws of the country of which either parent is a national. Unmarried noncitizen women who become pregnant have faced difficulties registering births and obtaining identity documents for children, complicating the ability for such children to remain in the country.

While reproductive health care is available, it was more challenging to access for unmarried and noncitizen women, who represented a significant majority of the female population. Additionally, there were restrictions to health-care access based on health insurance. Although the government provides free health care to citizens, including access to contraception, obstetric and gynecologic services, prenatal care, and delivery care to married female citizens, insurance plans for unskilled laborers often did not offer prenatal or postnatal care, and the government did not provide free postnatal care for noncitizen pregnant women. Foreign residents with no health insurance benefits may use public hospitals for a fee and sometimes relied on charity to cover these costs. Access to limited pharmacological contraception options was available only through medical prescription. Oral contraceptive prescriptions are legal for single women as treatment for menstrual issues. Most health insurance plans did not cover insertion and removal of intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants.

Abortion is generally illegal. It is permitted only when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life, or when there is evidence that the baby will be born with deformities and will not survive.

There were no reports that virginity tests were practiced in the country. Hospitals must report rape cases to police, and rape victims were usually provided with medical care. Emergency contraception was reportedly available with a doctor’s prescription and in some cases required spousal consent.

Discrimination: Women in general faced legal and economic discrimination, with noncitizen women at a particular disadvantage. In November Abu Dhabi passed a new personal status law for non-Muslims related to marriage, divorce, custody of children, and inheritance that would limit discrimination against non-Muslim women.

The government’s interpretation of sharia applies in personal status cases and family law. Muslim women must have the consent of their guardians to marry. Local interpretation of sharia prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims and Muslim men from marrying women “not of the book,” generally meaning adherents of religions other than Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In addition, the law permits a man to have as many as four wives. Non-Muslim women normally inherit less than men, and a son’s inheritance may be double that of a daughter under sharia law. The reforms announced in November in Abu Dhabi would entitle non-Muslim women to larger inheritances than previously. Legal reforms in 2019 allow women to apply for a passport without the written consent of her husband. In 2019 the government began allowing women to be head of household.

To obtain a divorce with a financial settlement, a woman must prove her husband inflicted physical or moral harm upon her, abandoned her for at least three months, or did not provide for her or their children’s upkeep. Physical abuse claims require medical reports and two male witnesses. It is up to the judge’s discretion to consider women as full witnesses or half witnesses. Alternatively, women may divorce by paying compensation or surrendering their dowry to their husbands. In April, Sharjah passed a decree providing female citizens additional protections against eviction from their marital home in cases of divorce. According to the decree, a divorced citizen woman cannot be evicted if the home was given as government aid or if she has children.

The strict interpretation of sharia does not apply to child custody cases, and courts applied the “the best interests of the child” standard. According to federal law, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach age 13 and sons age 11. are permitted to file for continued custody until a daughter is married or a son finishes his education. Under federal law, fathers are permitted to seek custody of a son younger than age 11 if they believe the child has become “too soft.” The new family law for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi, issued in November, grants parents joint custody, unless a parent waives their right or submits a request to deny the other parent custody on grounds of “ineligibility,” potential danger to the child, or failure to perform parental duties.

In March a criminal case against a resident who gave birth out of wedlock in 2020 was dismissed on the grounds that the decriminalization of consensual premarital sex rendered the act “unpunishable.” The legal reforms did not address the civil status of births out of wedlock, however, and many residents were not able to register their children without a marriage certificate.

Despite these changes to federal laws, local laws may still penalize adultery or consensual premarital sex. In August the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from Sharjah accused of consensual premarital sex, finding that local laws remained applicable despite the absence of a federal penalty.

While the law mandates equal access to education for all, federal law prohibits coeducation in public universities, except in the United Arab Emirates University’s executive MBA program and in certain graduate programs at Zayed University. Many private schools, private universities, and institutions, however, were coeducational. According to officials, local women represented more than 70 percent of national higher education students.

The government excluded women from certain social and economic benefits, including land grants for building houses, because tribal family law often designates men as the heads of families.

The government has a Gender Balance Council to promote a greater role for female citizens, but not noncitizens, working outside the home. In 2020 the president issued a law stipulating equal wages for women and men in the private sector.

Children

Birth Registration: Children generally derive citizenship from their parents. The children of citizen mothers married to foreigners do not receive citizenship automatically. The government registered noncitizen births, including of Bidoon. Despite recent legal reforms, women reportedly faced difficulty registering births, and thus obtaining residency and travel documents for their children, without a marriage certificate, or if they were unable to pay hospital debts.

Education: Education is compulsory through the 12th grade or until the age of 18, whichever occurs first; however, the law was not enforced, and some children did not attend school, especially children of noncitizens. The government provided free primary education only to citizens. Noncitizen children could enroll in public schools only if they scored more than 90 percent on entrance examinations, which authorities administered in Arabic, and if one of the parents worked in a government entity, among other criteria. In 2018 the Ministry of Education made all public schools coeducational from the first to fifth grades, starting with that year’s first-grade class.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, and the government took steps to increase awareness of the issue, including the Child Safety Campaign, which reinforced the role of media in protecting the rights of children. In March the Fujairah Appeals Court fined an Emirati man AED 1,100 ($300) for assaulting and injuring his 11-year-old son, as confirmed in two videos by the victim’s mother. In August the Dubai police announced they had handled 103 child abuse cases, including 17 instances of children deprived of identity documents and 14 of their education rights, thus far in the year.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage for both men and women is 18, unless a judge gives approval for an earlier marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes the sexual exploitation of children, with a minimum penalty for conviction of 10 years in prison. The penalty for conviction of sex with children younger than 14 is life imprisonment. Distribution and consumption of child pornography is illegal.

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

Anti-Semitism

There is no indigenous Jewish community. There were no synagogues, but Abu Dhabi was constructing the country’s first purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House, scheduled to open in 2022. The small foreign Jewish population conducted regular and holiday prayer services in rented space. In February the Jewish community living in the country formally incorporated the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, the country’s first Jewish court of law, to adjudicate personal disputes. Dubai’s Jewish community was able to obtain its first official license from the CDA under the name “Gates of the East,” conferring among other privileges the ability to seek religious worker visas. Anti-Semitic remarks decreased on social media, and government officials demonstrated inclusivity by broadcasting greetings on Jewish holidays through social media and highlighting the normalization of UAE-Israel relations under the Abraham Accords to promote interfaith understanding and combat anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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

Both civil law and sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Under sharia individuals who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct could be subject to the death penalty. Dubai’s penal code allows for up to a 10-year prison sentence for conviction of such activity, while Abu Dhabi’s penal code allows for up to a 14-year prison sentence. There were no known reports of arrests or prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct.

The law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQI+ individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination.

In November 2020 the penal code dropped a clause criminalizing wearing clothing deemed inappropriate for one’s sex. The law now criminalizes only men who enter a place designated for women while disguised as a woman. The punishment for this infraction is up to one year in jail and a fine of up to AED 100,000 ($27,250).

The law permits doctors to conduct sex reassignment surgery when there are “psychological” and “physiological” signs of gender and sex disparity. The penalty for performing an unwarranted “sex correction” surgery is three to 10 years in prison.

Due to social conventions and potential repression, LGBTQI+ organizations did not operate openly, nor were gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events held.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law neither provides for the right to organize, strike, or bargain collectively nor permits workers to form or join unions. The labor law forbids strikes by public-sector employees, security guards, and migrant workers. The law does not entirely prohibit strikes in the private sector but allows an employer to suspend an employee for striking. The government generally enforced labor laws, but penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

In the private sector, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization must approve and register individual employment contracts. The labor law does not apply to public-sector employees, agricultural workers, or most workers in export-processing zones. Domestic workers fall under a separate labor law but are regulated by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.

Private-sector employees may file collective employment dispute complaints with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, which by law acts as mediator between the parties. Employees may then file unresolved disputes within the labor court system, which forwards disputes to a conciliation council. Public-sector employees may file an administrative grievance or a case in a civil court to address a labor-related dispute or complaint. Administrative remedies are available for labor complaints, and authorities commonly applied them to resolve issues such as delayed wage payments, unpaid overtime, or substandard housing.

All foreign workers have the right to file labor-related grievances with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Reports on the length of administrative procedures varied, with workers citing both speedy and delayed processes. The ministry sometimes intervened in foreign workers’ disputes with employers and helped negotiate private settlements. The law allows employers to request the government to cancel the work permit of, and deport for up to one year, any foreign worker on a work-sponsored residency visa for unexcused absences of more than seven consecutive days or for participating in a strike. The law prohibits unauthorized demonstrations or the expression of opinions deemed “false, or hurtful to the country’s public image.” Changes to the penal code announced in November mandated deportation of noncitizen workers inciting or participating in a strike. In June Abu Dhabi set up a fast-track court to handle labor disputes and cases concerning unpaid wages for claims of less than AED 500,000 ($136,000). Plaintiffs must register their cases with the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, and the courts are obligated to hear cases and issue rulings within 15 days. Rulings on claims less than AED 50,000 ($13,600) may not be appealed.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, and religious-related concerns.

Professional associations were not independent, and authorities had broad powers to interfere in their activities. For example, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization had to license and approve professional associations, which were required to receive government approval for international affiliations and travel by members. The government granted some professional associations with majority citizen membership a limited ability to raise work-related matters, petition the government for redress, and file grievances with the government.

Foreign workers may belong to local professional associations; however, they do not have voting rights and may not serve on association boards. Apart from these professional associations, in a few instances some foreign workers came together to negotiate with their employers on issues such as housing conditions, nonpayment of wages, and working conditions.

The threat of deportation discouraged noncitizens from expressing work-related grievances. Nonetheless, occasional protests and strikes took place. The government did not always punish workers for nonviolent protests or strikes, but it dispersed such protests and sometimes deported noncitizen participants. Following the mandatory closure of many businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government gave employers the ability to reduce wages or place workers on unpaid leave with the workers’ consent. There were instances of employers exploiting these changes illegally to reduce salaries or furlough workers without their consent.

In Dubai the CDA regulates and provides licensing services to nonprofit civil society organizations and associations that organize ongoing social, cultural, artistic, or entertainment activities. All voluntary organizations and individual volunteers are required to register with the CDA within six months. In addition, all voluntary activities require a CDA permit, but there are no prescribed penalties for noncompliance.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the domestic-worker sector. Penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

The government took steps to prevent forced labor through continued implementation of the Wages Protection System (WPS) (see section 7.e.). In April the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization increased the penalty for private-sector companies that do not pay salaries on time. Upon recruiting a new employee, the employer has the option either to submit a bank guarantee on behalf of the employee or to insure them for two years. In case of a company’s bankruptcy or failure to pay benefits, employees receive insurance coverage of end-of-service benefits, vacation allowance, overtime allowance, unpaid wages, return air tickets, and compensation for any work injuries certified by a court ruling. Some employers subjected migrant domestic workers, and to a lesser degree construction and other manual labor workers, to conditions indicative of forced labor. Contract substitution remained a problem. Workers experienced nonpayment of wages, unpaid overtime, failure to grant legally required time off, withholding of passports, threats, and in some cases psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.

Contrary to the law, employers routinely withheld employees’ passports, thus restricting their freedom of movement and ability to leave the country or change jobs. There were media reports that employees were coerced to surrender their passports for “safekeeping” and sign documentation that the surrender was voluntary. In most cases individuals reported they were able to obtain their travel documents without difficulty when needed, but this was not always the case. With domestic workers, passport withholding frequently occurred, and enforcement against this practice was weak. In labor camps it was common practice for passports to be kept in a central secure location, accessible with 24 to 48 hours’ notice. In June a group of Indian migrant workers became stranded without jobs after they were reportedly duped by an agent who confiscated their passports.

Some employers forced migrant workers in the domestic and agricultural sectors to compensate them for hiring expenses such as visa fees, health exams, and insurance, which the law requires employers to pay, by withholding wages or having these costs deducted from their contracted salary. Some employers did not pay their employees contracted wages even after they satisfied these “debts.”

There were reports from community leaders that employers refused to apply for a residency visa for their domestic workers, rendering them undocumented and thus more vulnerable to exploitative labor practices.

Although charging workers recruitment fees was illegal, workers in both the corporate and domestic sectors often borrowed money to pay recruiting fees in their home countries, and as a result they spent most of their salaries trying to repay home-country labor recruiters or lenders. These debts limited workers’ options to leave a job, sometimes trapped them in exploitive work conditions, and increased their vulnerability to labor trafficking through debt-based coercion. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization oversees recruitment of domestic workers through one-stop Tadbeer Centers at which recruitment agencies register their services, workers undergo interviews and receive training, and visas and identification documents are distributed.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits and criminalizes all the worst forms of child labor, but penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The law prohibits employment of persons younger than 15 and includes special provisions regarding children ages 15 to 18. Under the labor law, teenagers are not allowed to work at night in industrial enterprises, be hired to do hazardous or strenuous jobs, or work overtime or on holidays. The law excludes agricultural work, leaving underage workers in these sectors unprotected. Under the law governing domestic workers, 18 is the minimum age for legal work. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization is responsible for enforcing the regulations and generally did so effectively.

In September the government announced a juvenile work permit, issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, allowing individuals aged 15 to 18 to apply for a part-time permit provided they receive approval from their parents, hold valid residency, and continue their education. The permit allows youth to work six hours a day, with a one-hour break, for up to six months, or for a few hours during a year. A training permit allows those older than 12 to work in the private sector as summer hires.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

In November the government announced a new labor law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or disability. The government also reformed laws that prohibited women from working during certain hours, or in certain occupations, eliminating legal restrictions. A national decree introduced new rules to the labor laws to promote equal opportunities and access to the labor market, prohibit discrimination based on gender in the workplace, and repeal articles prohibiting women from working during the hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and in hazardous, strenuous, or physically harmful jobs. The decree prohibits discrimination in jobs with the same functions and prohibits an employer from discriminating against or terminating an employee based on pregnancy. In 2020 the UAE offered paid parental leave, granting private-sector employees five days and public-sector employees three days of parental leave.

Various departments within the Ministries of Human Resources and Emiratization, Education, and Community Development are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and the government enforced these rights in employment, housing, and entitlement programs. Enforcement was effective for jobs in the public sector, and the government made efforts to encourage private-sector hiring of persons with disabilities. Some emirates and the federal government included statements in their human resources regulations emphasizing priority for hiring citizens with disabilities in the public sector and actively encouraged the hiring of all persons with disabilities.

A presidential decree grants women equal pay for “work of equal value” in the private sector. Work of “equal value” is to be determined by rules and regulations approved by the cabinet based on recommendations from the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Women who worked in the private sector, and especially nonnationals, however, regularly did not receive equal benefits and reportedly faced discrimination in promotions and equality of wages. The domestic worker law also prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, political opinion, national, or social origin. Nevertheless, job advertisements requesting applications only from certain nationalities were common and not regulated. In free-trade zones individualized laws govern employment requirements.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: There is no national minimum wage. The government announced in November, however, that a new labor law would set a minimum wage for employees in the private sector to be determined by the cabinet. There was very limited information on average domestic, agricultural, or construction worker salaries or on public-sector salaries. In some sectors minimum wages were determined by workers’ nationality and years of experience. The law prescribes a 48-hour workweek and paid annual holidays. The law states daily working hours must not exceed eight hours in day or night shifts and provides for overtime pay to employees working more than eight hours in a 24-hour period, apart from those employed in trade, hotels, cafeterias, security, domestic work, and other jobs as decided by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.

The government took action, including site visits, to address wage payment issues. Its implementation of the WPS and fines for noncompliance discouraged employers from withholding salaries to foreign workers under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. The WPS requires private institutions employing more than 100 employees to pay workers electronically via approved banks, exchange bureaus, and other financial institutions, to assure timely and full payment of agreed wages and overtime within 10 days of payment due date. After 16 days of nonpayment, an employer becomes ineligible for new work permits from the ministry. If the nonpayment persists past 29 days, the ministry refers the case to the labor courts; after 60 days, the employer faces a fine for each unpaid worker. For companies employing fewer than 100 employees, the freezes, fines, and court referrals apply only after 60 days of nonpayment. The government enforced fines for employers who entered incorrect information into the WPS or made workers sign documents falsely attesting to receipt of benefits. Media and diplomatic sources continued to report that some companies retained foreign workers’ bank cards or accompanied them to withdraw cash, coercively shortchanging the employees even though the WPS showed the proper amount paid. Such cases were difficult to prove in labor courts. The WPS payment requirement did not apply to foreign workers under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, such as agricultural workers, or to domestic laborers.

In July a judge from a Dubai labor court affirmed that under the federal labor law there is no minimum wage, noting that the law stipulates that “both parties who sign a work contract can agree to include a specified salary to the contract.” He added that certain jobs related to private security under the supervision of the Dubai police do have a monthly minimum wage. According to TAMM, an online government services platform, Tadbeer Centers charged higher recruitment and sponsorship transfer fees for domestic workers of certain nationalities, including those from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Occupational Safety and Health: Occupational safety and health standards were appropriate for the main industries in the country, such as construction. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were commensurate with those for crimes like negligence. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts and not the worker. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization was responsible for enforcing laws governing acceptable conditions of work for workers in professional and semiskilled job categories but did not do so in all sectors, including the informal sector. To monitor the private sector, the ministry had active departments for inspection, occupational safety, and wage protection. Workplace inspection is permissible but not required under the law.

Government occupational health and safety standards require that employers provide employees with a safe work and living environment, including minimum rest periods and limits on the number of hours worked, depending on the nature of the work. For example, the law mandates a two-and-one-half-hour midday work break between June 15 and September 15 for laborers who work in exposed open areas, such as construction sites. Companies are required to make water, vitamins, supplements, and shelter available to all outdoor workers during the summer months to meet health and safety requirements. Employers who do not comply are subject to fines and suspension of operations. The government may exempt companies from the midday work break if the company cannot postpone the project for emergency or technical reasons. Such projects included laying asphalt or concrete and repairing damaged water pipes, gas lines, or electrical lines. Employers with 50 or more employees must provide low-salaried workers with accommodations.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization conducted inspections of labor camps and workplaces such as construction sites, routinely fined employers for violating the midday break rule, and published compliance statistics. The penalties were not commensurate with those for crimes like fraud, which carried larger fines and imprisonment. The ministry stated that it issued written documentation on health and safety problems needing correction and reviewed them in subsequent inspections. Nevertheless, some low-wage foreign workers faced substandard living conditions, including overcrowded apartments or unsafe and unhygienic lodging in labor camps. In some cases the ministry cancelled hiring permits for companies that failed to provide adequate housing.

During some inspections of labor camps, the ministry employed interpreters to assist foreign workers in understanding employment guidelines. The ministry operated a toll-free hotline in several languages spoken by foreign residents through which workers were able to report delayed wage payments or other abuses. The ministry’s mobile van units visited some labor camps to inform workers of their rights. The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and Dubai courts also employed buses as mobile courts, which traveled to labor camps to allow workers to register legal complaints. Abu Dhabi’s mobile courtroom was used for cases involving large groups or those who encountered difficulties attending court.

Emirate-level officials across the country developed programs aimed at verifying the protection of workers’ rights, security, and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Abu Dhabi workers residing in labor camps and industrial cities received free COVID-19 testing. Quarantine facilities and free health care were provided to those who tested positive. The Dubai Municipality and the Dubai Health Authority instituted regulations, including thermal screening and capacity limitations on shared transportation to and from work sites, to limit the spread of COVID-19 within labor camps, and engaged in a systematic inspection campaign to verify compliance.

The government-supported NGO EHRA promoted worker rights. It conducted unannounced visits to labor camps and work sites to monitor conditions and reported problems to the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.

There were cases in which workers were injured or killed on job sites; however, authorities typically did not disclose details of workplace injuries and deaths or discuss the adequacy of safety measures despite a Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization requirement that companies with more than 15 employees submit labor injuries reports. A government resolution requires private companies that employ more than 500 workers to hire at least one citizen as an occupational health and safety officer; companies with more than 1,000 employees must hire two such officers. In addition, Dubai required construction companies and industrial firms to appoint safety officers accredited by authorized entities to promote greater site safety. In August the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeal ordered a company to compensate a worker after he fell into a ditch during work, sustaining multiple injuries. Reports of vehicle-accident deaths of delivery workers in Dubai highlighted the lack of protections for migrant laborers, who have been in particular demand due to the pandemic.

There were no reports of migrant worker suicides and limited stories of attempted suicides, which observers linked attributed to personal problems possibly linked to problems in the workplace. Dubai police and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, a quasi-governmental organization, conducted training programs aimed at decreasing suicidal behavior.

Sailors faced particular difficulty remedying grievances against employers. Although ship owners operating in the country’s ports must carry insurance contracts covering repatriation of noncitizen employees, owners often declared bankruptcy but refused to sell their ships, leaving their crews aboard under substandard conditions without pay or regular resupply. In January media reports called attention to the five-man crew of the MT Iba, a merchant tanker that ran aground after anchoring offshore for several years due to its owner’s financial problems. The crew survived on limited food rations until the ship was sold in March, whereupon they received 80 percent of the salaries they had been owed for more than two years.

To provide for the continuity of ship crews complicated by COVID-19, in August the Federal Transport Authority permitted crew changes in all ports across the country. Previously, crew changes were possible only in Dubai. The decision sought to relieve crews whose time aboard exceeded the limits delineated under maritime conventions.

Informal Sector: There was no official information available on the informal economy, legal enforcement within this sector, or an estimate of its size; however, anecdotal reports indicated it was common for individuals to enter the country on a nonwork visa and join the informal job sector, subjecting them to exploitative conditions. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization requires that residents sponsoring a domestic worker meet an income standard sufficient to pay the employee a living wage. Workers in agriculture and other categories overseen by the Ministry of Interior come under a different regulatory regime. These workers are not covered by private- and public-sector labor law, but have some legal protections regarding working hours, overtime, timeliness of wage payments, paid leave, health care, and the provision of adequate housing. Enforcement of these rules was often weak, however. As a result, these workers were more vulnerable to substandard work conditions.

Domestic workers often faced unacceptable working conditions. Many such workers frequently worked seven days a week and more than 12 hours a day with few or no holidays, no overtime pay, and limited means to redress grievances. The law prohibits employers from withholding foreign workers’ passports and penalizes employers who do so, but noncitizen community leaders and officials from labor-exporting countries stated that passport confiscation remained a widespread problem with insufficient enforcement of penalties. Despite partial exit-permit reform, domestic workers were required to obtain permission from employers to leave the country. Some employers denied domestic workers food or access to a telephone although such actions were illegal.

Despite a government-mandated contract for domestic workers spelling out requirements for working hours, time off, overtime, health care, and housing, some originating countries contended that they were unable to review and approve their citizens’ labor contracts. As a result, some countries attempted to halt their citizens’ travel to the UAE to assume domestic labor positions. In April the Philippines lifted its 2014 ban on domestic worker recruitment to the UAE after agreeing with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization on additional contract protections to provide domestic workers access to a personal mobile phone, private sleeping quarters, and a bank account in the worker’s name for salary deposits. Liability for exploitation was extended to cover recruiters, and any contract extensions or transfers to other employers would need to be approved by the Philippine Embassy.

Although domestic worker salaries were not required to be paid via the WPS, the government continued a 2020 pilot program to incorporate domestic workers into the WPS through an agreement between the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization and First Abu Dhabi Bank. The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking reported that the pilot program integrated 423 individuals during the year, a figure representing less than 1 percent of the estimated number of domestic workers nationally.

The government allowed foreign workers to switch jobs without a letter of permission from their employer. Labor regulations provide foreign employees the option to work without an employment contract or, in cases in which a contract was in force, to change employer sponsors after two years, as well as within the first two years within the terms of the contract. The government designed this regulation to improve job mobility and reduce the vulnerability of foreign workers to abuse. To mitigate against potential labor abuse under the employer-based sponsorship system known as kafala, domestic workers have the right to terminate their employment if an employer fails to meet contractual obligations or if the employee is subject to sexual harassment or physical or verbal abuse by the employer. Despite legal measures allowing workers to change sponsors or terminate their employment, regulatory enforcement remained a problem.