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Cuba

Executive Summary

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Communist Party (CP). Cuba has a one-party system in which the constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and the highest political entity of the state. On March 11, citizens voted to ratify a preselected list of 605 candidates to the National Assembly. A CP candidacy commission prescreened all candidates, and the government actively worked to block non-CP approved candidates from the ballot. On April 19, the National Assembly elected Diaz-Canel president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers. Neither the legislative nor the national elections were considered to be free or fair.

The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included reports of an unlawful and arbitrary killing by police; torture of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; holding of political prisoners; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. The government engaged in censorship, site blocking, and libel is criminalized. There were limitations on academic and cultural freedom; restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; and restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement and on political participation. There was official corruption, trafficking in persons, outlawing of independent trade unions, and compulsory labor.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses and failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed the abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, only insofar as it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.

Freedom of Expression: The government had little tolerance for public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The forum’s organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country.

Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms. The civic group Cuba Posible reported that during the year authorities harassed researchers who contributed to its projects and several contributors were fired from their state jobs.

On October 23, State Security agents interrogated Maylet Serrano, a student at Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and wife of graffiti artist Yulier P, whom police previously threatened and detained for his art in Havana. State Security agents threatened to hold back her graduation due to her husband’s activities. The director of the conservatory, Enrique Rodriguez Toledo, arranged the encounter.

During the year some religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, although most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. The Roman Catholic Church operated a cultural and educational center in Havana that hosted debates featuring participants expressing different opinions about the country’s future.

Press and Media Freedom: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming was generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties.

On June 13, authorities denied Fernando Ravsberg, a foreign freelance journalist and founder of the independent blog Cartas Desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba), renewal of his press credentials. During his 20 years of reporting, Ravsberg published articles that questioned government policies. He ceased reporting from the country after his press credentials expired.

Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of Todos Marchamos activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression since President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were prevented from traveling abroad. On May 16, July 30, and September 22, government officials prevented independent journalist Anay Remon Garcia from boarding an airplane to leave the country. They did not cite a reason and did not accuse her of any crime.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed and sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. In February the government blocked direct online access to the independent magazine El Estornudo (The Sneeze). Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.

The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership.

Authorities sentenced independent union leader Eduardo Hernandez Toledo to one year in prison for “verbal disrespect” following his negative references to Fidel and Raul Castro at a September 27 celebration by the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

On February 6, authorities detained rap singer and composer Henry Laso on charges of “disrespect.” Authorities accused him in January after his song El Rey Falso, (The False King) critical of the late Fidel Castro, went viral, but they did not arrest him due to mediation by the Roman Catholic Church in Cienfuegos. Medical authorities subsequently diagnosed Laso as schizophrenic and moved him to multiple hospital prisons. The government released Laso in October.

Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice to send mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents. On August 11, in the Havana suburb of San Isidro, residents received a text message calling independent artist Luis Manuel Otero a “disgrace for the neighborhood” and warned he would bring police action to the community.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted access to the internet, and there were reports the government monitored without appropriate legal authority citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small but increasing number of underground networks.

While the International Telecommunication Union reported that 49 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017 and the government estimated 53 percent of the population used the internet during the year, this included many whose access was limited to a national network that offered only government-run email and government-generated websites, at a fraction of the price of internet available to the public.

The government selectively granted in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.

During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots to more than 700 countrywide, and on December 6 it launched 3G mobile service that allowed persons for the first time to access the internet on their cell phones without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi, but the cost was still beyond the means of most citizens. In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites it considered objectionable. The number of websites blocked fluctuated, with approximately 20 websites blocked on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CubaNet and Marti Noticias and websites critical of the government’s human rights record.

While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that would provide uncensored internet access. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment.

The use of encryption software and transfer of encrypted files are also illegal. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure challenges, a growing number of citizens maintained blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government, with help from foreign supporters who often built and maintained the blog sites overseas. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition, a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media to report independently on developments in the country, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse.

Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. The government-owned telecommunications provider Empresa de Telecomunicaciones SA frequently disconnected service for human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Some academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval and, at times, the presence of a government monitor. Those permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives back home. During the year the government allowed some religious educational centers greater latitude to operate.

Outspoken artists and academics faced some harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. On July 21, authorities arrested Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara for protesting against Decree 349, which regulates artistic and cultural activity, legalizes censorship, and prevents independent artists from presenting their work in public spaces. Otero Alcantara, Yanelys Nunez Leyva, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Soandry Del Rio, and Jose Ernesto Alonso organized the campaign “Cuban Artists against Decree 349” that included various artistic protest performances. On August 1, state security and police personnel surrounded Otero Alcantara’s home and arrested him again, along with Nunez Leyva, for planning a concert and open-microphone event to protest the decree. In December authorities arrested several artists who organized a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture to protest the decree, including Otero Alcantara, Pacheco, Tania Bruguera, Nunez Leyva, and Michel Matos.

During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.

Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so could carry a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions.

Independent activists faced greater obstacles, and state security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government did not grant permission to independent demonstrators or approve public meetings by human rights groups or others critical of any government activity.

The government also continued to organize “acts of repudiation” in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those assembled peacefully. The targets of this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims or respond to victims’ complaints and instead frequently orchestrated the activities or took direct part in physical assaults.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The government routinely denied citizens freedom of association and did not recognize independent associations. The constitution proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition.

Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the CP. Religious groups are under the supervision of the CP’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities and exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons.

Groups must register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities continued to ignore applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups as well as women’s rights and gay rights organizations, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.

The government continued to afford preferential treatment to those who took an active part in CP activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government, especially when awarding valued public benefits, such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

There continued to be restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government also controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana.

Individuals seeking to migrate legally stated they faced police interrogation, fines, harassment, and intimidation, including dismissal from employment. Government employees who applied to migrate legally to the United States reportedly sometimes lost positions when their plans became known. Some family members of former government employees who emigrated from the island lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels). Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors, or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.

Under the terms of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters, or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station, after attempting to emigrate illegally if they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.

In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, changes of residence to Havana were restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization from these bodies and send them back to their legally authorized place of residence. There were reports authorities limited social services to illegal Havana residents. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.

The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned them to their homes even though they had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to require several classes of citizens to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists. It also used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the island to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. The Patmos Institute published a list of 64 human rights activists to whom the government denied permission for foreign travel as of July. Activists reported interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from outside the country.

On April 12, airport authorities detained Marthadela Tamayo and Juan Antonio Madrazo, members of the independent NGO Committee for Racial Integration who were traveling to Geneva to participate in a session of the UN Universal Periodic Review, and barred them from leaving the country. In April the government prevented several members of independent civil society from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit of the Americas. In May authorities prevented Berta Soler and Leticia Ramos of the Damas de Blanco from traveling to New York to receive an award for promoting liberty.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance, pending third-country resettlement. In addition, the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved.

Section 7. Worker Rights

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits workplace discrimination based on skin color, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality, “or any other distinction harmful to human dignity,” but it does not explicitly protect political opinion, social origin, disability, age, language, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. No information was available on government enforcement of these provisions during the year.

The government continued to use politically motivated and discriminatory dismissals against those who criticized the government’s economic or political model. Workers forced out of employment in the public sector for freely expressing themselves were often further harassed after entering the emerging but highly regulated self-employment sector.

Discrimination in employment occurred with respect to members of the Afro-Cuban population. Leaders within the Afro-Cuban community noted some Afro-Cubans could not get jobs in better-paying sectors such as tourism and hospitality because they were “too dark.” Afro-Cubans more frequently obtained lower-paying jobs, including cleaning and garbage disposal, which had no interaction with tourists, a major source of hard currency.

There were no statistics stating whether the government effectively enforced applicable laws.

Russia

Executive Summary

The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The March 18 presidential election and the 2016 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.

Except in rare cases, security forces generally reported to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities, however, had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The country’s occupation and purported “annexation” of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.

Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel that sometimes resulted in death and sometimes involved punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary or unjust arrest and detention; political prisoners; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; increasingly severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations;” severe restrictions on religious freedom; undue restrictions on freedom of movement of those charged with political offenses; credible reports of refoulement; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; trafficking in persons; government decriminalization of domestic abuse, which created an atmosphere of impunity for domestic violence against women; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against LGBTI persons and members of ethnic minorities.

The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous issues, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI issues, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism, or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.

Freedom of Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.

Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of September 11, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,507 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 200 items from 2017. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,500 extremism cases in 2017, some of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.

Several persons were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. For example, on February 11, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.

In September the Supreme Court amended its 2011 decree regarding publication of extremist material online to require authorities to have proof of criminal intent in order for them to prosecute. Authorities must now prove in court that publications or reposts were made with the intent “to incite hate or ill will.”

By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.

During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on August 7, a court in Biysk fined 16-year-old Maxim Neverov 50,000 rubles ($750) for posting images of shirtless men on a social network. The Russia LGBT Network attributed the case against Neverov to his organizing of a May public protest called “Gay or Putin.” On October 26, an appeals court overturned the lower court decision.

During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” On May 8, authorities raided the home and seized the computers of Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya. Motuznaya was interrogated and shown pictures of her social media posts from 2015 in which she shared memes that satirized the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 23, she was charged with “offending the feelings of religious believers” and “extremism.” On October 9, a judge returned the case to prosecutors for further development.

During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 6, police in the Tyva Republic detained journalist Oyuuma Dongak because of photographs of Nazi Germany which contained a swastika posted on her Facebook page in 2014. Dongak said that the photos accompanied an article she had shared about the rebirth of fascism. A court fined her 1,000 rubles ($15) on August 8. Observers described the case as retribution for Dongak’s support of opposition politicians.

During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly “insulted government officials.” For example, on August 3, a court in Magadan fined two men for “insulting” local mayor Yuri Grishan when they demanded his resignation in messages on the platform WhatsApp, using language authorities deemed “unacceptable.”

During the year authorities used a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute the independent press for their coverage of independent political candidates. On June 20, a court in Syktyvkar fined the independent online news outlet 7×7 800,000 rubles ($12,000), and fined its editor 40,000 rubles ($600) for publishing an interview in March with a libertarian politician who noted that synthetic drugs killed people at a higher rate than heroin. Authorities considered this statement an endorsement of heroin.

The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On February 26, a St. Petersburg court sentenced opposition activist Artem Goncharenko to 25 days in prison for “organizing an unsanctioned meeting” because he displayed a large inflatable rubber duck in the window of his apartment. Yellow rubber ducks have been used to signal support for the anticorruption protests organized by opposition leader Navalny.

Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”

A 2017 law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of September 20, there were nine outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents could be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.

In some cases courts imposed extremely high fines on independent media outlets, which observers believed were intentionally disproportionate and designed to bankrupt the outlets and force their closure. For example, on October 26, a Moscow court fined independent news outlet The New Times 22.3 million rubles ($338,000) for errors in information it had provided to the government, as required by the “foreign agents” law. Press reports indicated this was the highest fine imposed on a media outlet in the country’s history. Prosecutors alleged that the newspaper had not properly accounted for money it received from a foundation affiliated with the paper, the Press Freedom Support Foundation, which is designated by the government as a “foreign agent.” Observers believed the case against The New Times to be in retaliation for the newspaper publishing an interview with opposition leader Navalny.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Fund, as of September incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included two killings, 42 attacks, 82 detentions by law-enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered forms of government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.

On April 14, Maksim Borodin, a Yekaterinburg journalist with the independent newspaper Novyy Den, died in a fall from his fifth-floor apartment balcony in an incident seen by observers as suspicious. Borodin had been reporting on the foreign activities of the Wagner battalion, a private oligarch-sponsored militia aligned with the government.

On April 12, two unknown assailants in Yekaterinburg attacked Dmitriy Polyanin, editor in chief of the regional progovernment newspaper Oblastnaya Gazeta, which had recently published articles about local disputes related to the housing market. Polyanin was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken rib.

On January 31, the FSB raided the apartment of journalist Pavel Nikulin and brought him to their headquarters for several hours of interrogation in response to a 2017 article he wrote about a man who had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS. A regional court named Nikulin as a witness in a criminal investigation into “illegal terrorist training” in connection with the article and had approved a search warrant for his apartment. In July, Nikulin and a colleague were detained by police in Krasnodar on suspicion of extremist activity and attacked by unknown assailants with pepper spray. On September 16, Nikulin and two colleagues were again arrested in Nizhniy Novgorod on suspicion of distributing “extremist materials.”

There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media, much of which occurred online (see Press Freedom, Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events sections). Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.

There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who published content it disliked. For example, on January 23, the website Russiagate.com was blocked with no formal notification hours after it published evidence of corruption by the head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov. The website’s editor reported that investors in the website immediately informed her that they were ending their financing of the project.

On April 4, the independent Kaliningrad newspaper Novyye Kolesa announced it would cease publication following a campaign of harassment and censorship by authorities. Following an FSB raid in November 2017, authorities arrested the newspaper’s editor, Igor Rudnikov, and charged him with extortion. Human rights organizations believed there to be no legitimate basis for the charges, which could bring 15 years in prison. On March 29, unidentified individuals went to newsstands, seized all copies of the newspaper on sale, and threatened vendors. The lead story in that edition of the newspaper alleged that the FSB had tortured to death a local resident in detention. Distribution network representatives gave orders to hide all remaining copies, and later informed Novyye Kolesa leadership it would no longer be profitable for them to continue to sell the newspaper.

Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them and to retaliate against them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. For example, on July 23, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Nizhigorodskiy Prison Colony Number 2, which had filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Sobesednik and Pussy Riot-member Maria Alekhina for damaging its reputation in a 2017 article describing forced labor conditions at the prison. The court obliged the newspaper to print a retraction and pay a 3,000-ruble ($45) fine.

On April 23, President Putin signed a law allowing the state to block online information that “offends the honor and dignity” of an individual, if the author of the information has defied a court order to delete it.

On October 3, President Putin signed a law that strengthened penalties for the dissemination of “false” information related to defamation or information that violates privacy restrictions. International and domestic experts believed the introduction of criminal responsibility for noncompliance with court decisions ordering the takedown or retraction of content in civil defamation cases would expand the tools available to officials and public figures to interfere with public access to information detrimental to their interests.

National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies or officials, or to retaliate against critics.

On May 18, authorities raided the home of independent Omsk journalist Viktor Korb, conducted a 10-hour search, and charged him with incitement to terrorism, justification of terrorism, and terrorist propaganda, which carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The charges stemmed from Korb’s 2015 publication on a news and discussion website of a portion of remarks given by political activist Boris Stomakhin, during Stomakhin’s trial on terrorism charges. Korb did not endorse Stomakhin’s remarks.

Authorities also charged independent journalists with espionage. On June 4, a Moscow court convicted Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for the Ukrinform news agency, was detained in Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information, an allegation human rights groups claimed was politically motivated.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression online. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 76 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.

The government monitored all internet communications and prohibited online anonymity (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.

The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. As of July 1, companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months. As of October 1, companies are required to store electronic correspondence (audio, images and video) for three months.

Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance.

On April 13, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Roskomnadzor’s 2017 request to block the Telegram messaging service for failing to share with the FSB encryption keys to users’ correspondence. Telegram maintained that the FSB’s request was both unconstitutional and technically impossible, as the messenger uses end-to-end encryption (when the encryption keys are stored only by users). The Supreme Court upheld the FSB’s arguments on August 8. For several months beginning in mid-April, Roskomnadzor actively attempted to block Telegram. Since the messenger was using dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses, however, blocking it proved impossible. Roskomnadzor was forced to block more than 20 million other IP addresses, which resulted in a major loss in accessibility to a wide range of unrelated online services. Despite Roskomnadzor’s efforts, Telegram remained mostly accessible to users. In August press reports indicated that Roskomnadzor and the FSB were testing systems designed to allow more precise blocking of individual sites to enable blocking Telegram.

The law requires commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. Under the law Roskomnadzor can also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In May, Roskomnadzor reported it had blocked 50 VPN services.

The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law came into force in January. On August 27, Roskomnadzor expanded the list of designated “organizers of information dissemination” to include several new sites, such as the blogging platform Livejournal, the online dating site LovePlanet, and the car sharing app BlaBlaCar. Beginning in July these “organizers of information dissemination” were required to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e‑payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.

On November 6, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree requiring anonymous messenger applications to obtain verification of a user’s phone number from mobile phone network providers within 20 minutes of initial use of the application. If the phone network provider cannot verify the phone number, then messenger services are required to block the user. The government also required network operators to keep track of messenger apps for which users have registered.

The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of October, a total of 3.8 million websites were unjustly blocked in the country.

On November 26, Roskomnadzor filed a civil law suit against Google seeking to fine the company 700,000 rubles ($10,500) for declining to connect its search engine to an automated system that prevents blocked web sites from appearing in search results. On December 11, a court fined Google 500,000 rubles ($7,530).

During the year authorities blocked websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or purportedly violated laws on internet content. For example, on April 28, Roskomnadzor blocked the LGBTI health awareness site Parni Plus. The site’s administrators said they received a notice from Roskomnadzor on April 28 informing them about a January 26 ruling by a district court in the Altai Territory to block Parni Plus for distributing information that “challenges family values” and “propagates nontraditional sexual relations.” The notice did not specify what content broke the law, and the notice came so late that the website missed its opportunity to appeal the verdict.

In some cases authorities coerced sites into taking down content by threatening to block entire platforms. For example, on February 13, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube, Instagram, and several dozen media outlets if, based on a court decision, they did not delete an anticorruption investigation video made by opposition activist Navalny that described a meeting between government-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko on a luxury yacht. All but YouTube complied. On February 20, Roskomnadzor stated it would not seek to block YouTube for its noncompliance.

In 2017 amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal. Dunja Mijatovic, the special representative on freedom of the media of the OSCE, raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”

A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, there were several instances of courts ordering that content be removed from search results on these grounds in 2017.

There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see Freedom of Expression).

There were reports of disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, media reported that, during opposition protests in Moscow on May 7, authorities switched off phone and mobile internet coverage in the protest area.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.

On June 21, the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), claiming the school violated multiple education standards. Shaninka, a Russian-British higher education institution founded in 1995, continued to operate but will not be not be able to issue state-approved diplomas or provide deferment from military service. Media outlet Meduza speculated the loss of accreditation was due to the school’s extensive international connections, and constituted a move to disable the country’s only remaining private institution of higher education.

On November 7, the trial began of well known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov has been in custody since August 2017.

Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. Citing a bomb threat, police disrupted a June 13 theater production about imprisoned Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev in Moscow and evacuated the theater.

In November media outlets reported a notable increase in the number of incidents in which authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. Monitoring by Meduza identified 13 such cases across the country during the month of November, compared with 10 during the rest of the year. Of the 13 cases, nine involved the rapper Husky or the electronic music group IC3PEAK, both of whom perform songs containing lyrics critical of the government. In most cases the concerts were canceled after the FSB or other security forces visited and threatened the managers or owners of music venues.

Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, on January 23, the Ministry of Culture recalled the rights to air the comedy film The Death of Stalin after a number of cultural figures sent a complaint to the department. The authors of the collective letter claimed Death of Stalin was a “spit in the face” of veterans that “blackened the memory of our citizens who defeated fascism.” Police disrupted a January 25 screening of the film at the Pioneer cinema in Moscow. On February 22, a Moscow court fined the theater 100,000 rubles ($1,500) for the screening.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.

Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.

The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.

The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly laws–up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizers, and one million rubles ($17,140) for groups or companies. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,000) or imprisoned for up to five years.

On May 10, President Putin signed a decree limiting freedom of assembly in cities hosting the 2018 International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) World Cup in conjunction with enhanced security, although protests in cities that did not host the tournament were allowed to take place.

Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For instance, on August 25, police arrested opposition leader Navalny for allegedly organizing an unsanctioned “voters’ strike” rally on January 28. His arrest came shortly before planned rallies in opposition to pension reform scheduled nationwide on September 9. Immediately following his release on September 24, police from a different precinct rearrested Navalny for 20 more days for allegedly organizing the unsanctioned September 9 demonstration, which purportedly caused “bodily harm to a government official.”

There was a reported increase in authorities charging individuals with “inciting mass riots” based upon their social media activities. For example, following the May 5 antigovernment protests, 28 organizers and activists with opposition leader Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation were detained and charged with inciting mass riots based on their tweets or retweets. While some were fined and released, others were sentenced to 30-day prison terms.

Activists were at times subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. On May 5, police stood by as unknown persons in Cossack uniforms beat participants in peaceful opposition rallies in Moscow and other cities. More than 1,300 persons were arrested during these protests, 572 in Moscow alone.

Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on September 9, police throughout the country detained 1,195 persons who were demonstrating against pension reform. Media reports of the Moscow protest described unprovoked and disproportionate police beatings of protesters with rubber batons.

Authorities regularly arrested single-person picketers. For example, on June 14 authorities arrested UK-based activist Peter Tatchell in Moscow for staging a single-person picket against restrictions on LGBTI persons in the country, citing a breach of antiprotest rules put in place for the World Cup. Tatchell was released the same day and departed the country before appearing in court.

Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. On November 27, the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI issues could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.

On April 8, police detained approximately 30 gay rights activists who took part in an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg. City authorities had turned down their request to hold a parade, so each participant demonstrated alone, in a bid to avoid the protest being called a gathering, which did not prevent their arrest.

Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 13th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.

Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.

The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of October the Ministry of Justice had added five NGOs to the “foreign agents” registry during the year, and its registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 73 NGOs.

For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions or presentations; ‎participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.

To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.

The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, on August 13, a court in the Mari-El Republic fined the human rights group Man and Law 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for failing to mark its Facebook page as belonging to a “foreign agent.” According to the NGO, the page had previously been marked but the marking disappeared when Facebook had updated its user interface.

The government placed additional restrictions on NGOs designated as “foreign agents.” On October 11, President Putin signed a law prohibiting “foreign agent” NGOs and foreign NGOs from receiving an accreditation from the Ministry of Justice that would allow them to submit anticorruption analysis of legislation. NGOs designated “foreign agents” were already prohibited from participating in election observation.

Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press.

The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year as the Ministry of Justice added the European Platform for Democratic Elections, the International Elections Study Center, the German Marshall Fund, and Pacific Environment. As of October the total number of “undesirable foreign organizations” was 15. According to the law, a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.

NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.

Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of October more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses were facing criminal charges for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).

There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. As of September the legal NGO Agora had identified more than 80 such attacks during the year. For example, there were multiple reports of physical attacks on the Memorial and its activists in the North Caucasus during the year, which human rights organizations believed to be a coordinated campaign of pressure aimed at silencing Memorial and halting its human rights work. On January 17, two masked men set fire to the Memorial office in Nazran, Ingushetia. On January 23, unknown perpetrators set fire to one of Memorial’s cars in Makhachkala, Dagestan. On March 29, Sirazhutdin Datsiyev, the head of Memorial’s office in the Republic of Dagestan, was hospitalized with a head injury after an attack by unknown assailants.

In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).

There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases, authorities restricted internal movement, foreign travel, and repatriation.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems. NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. In one case NGOs reported that 102,944 refugees remained in the country, including 101,019 Ukrainians, of whom nearly 2,000 struggled to maintain legal status. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. According to NGOs, two Syrian refugees and 150 Ukrainian refugees received citizenship in during the year. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.

In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.

Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.

Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups.

The law on procedures for departing from and entering the country stipulates that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of a bankrupt citizen’s right to leave the country. Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes. For example, the government temporarily stopped opposition leader Navalny from leaving the country to attend an ECHR hearing on November 13 because he had an outstanding debt from embezzlement charges that most observers considered politically motivated. He was permitted to leave the country the following day.

According to press reports, since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of approximately five million of its employees. This included employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

In 2017 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 19,000 internally displaced persons, down from 22,600 in 2016. Of the 19,000 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 5,900 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of forced migrants decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former USSR republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the first Chechen conflict in 1995-96.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GAMI), did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers could request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution. There were no known statistics on the number of persons subjected to such actions.

Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers during the year, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.

Access to Asylum: The country’s laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($495) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, in particular Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. With the exception of Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.

Some observers pointed out that GAMI data failed to include asylum seekers who were forcibly deported or extradited before exhausting their legal remedies. Moreover, some individuals who might otherwise have sought international protection, especially those from Central Asia, reportedly chose not to make formal applications for asylum because doing so often led to criminal investigations and other unwanted attention from the security services.

Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin. Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.

Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration.

Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, receive medical care, and attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service.

While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.

Temporary Protection: A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who could not be expelled or deported for humanitarian reasons, could receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Laws, policies and procedures allow stateless persons to gain nationality, and for their children born in the country to gain nationality. Some NGOs estimated there were approximately 500,000 stateless persons in the country and reported that authorities urged stateless persons to depart the country, but, in most cases, they failed to provide temporary legal status that would facilitate their departure.

Section 7. Worker Rights

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, gender identity, or disability. Although the country placed a general ban on discrimination, the government did not effectively enforce the law.

Discrimination based on gender in compensation, professional training, hiring, and dismissal was common. Employers often preferred to hire men to save on maternity and child-care costs and to avoid the perceived unreliability associated with women with small children. Such discrimination was often very difficult to prove, although NGOs reported several successful lawsuits in St. Petersburg against companies for wrongful termination of women on maternity leave.

A 2013 law prohibits employer discrimination in posting job vacancy information. It also prohibits employers from requesting workers with specific gender, race, nationality, address registration, age, and other factors unrelated to personal skills and competencies. Notwithstanding the law, vacancy announcements sometimes specified gender and age requirements, and some also specified a desired physical appearance.

According to the Center for Social and Labor Rights, courts often ruled in favor of employees filing complaints, but the sums awarded were inconsequential. Many employees preferred not to spend the money and time to take legal action.

The labor code restricts women’s employment in jobs with “harmful or dangerous conditions or work underground, except in nonphysical jobs or sanitary and consumer services,” and forbids women’s employment in “manual handling of bulk weights that exceed the limits set for their handling.”

The labor code includes hundreds of tasks prohibited for women and includes restrictions on women’s employment in mining, manufacturing, and construction. The World Economic Forum’s publication, The Global Gender Gap Report 2015, based on the country’s annual statistics report, documented a widespread gender pay gap and noted that, while women were close to parity in senior business roles, women predominated in low-paying jobs in education, the health-care industry, and low-level sales positions. On average women earned 72.6 percent of salaries for men, notwithstanding that 85 percent of women had completed some form of higher education compared with 68 percent of men.

The law requires applicants to undergo mandatory medical screenings when entering into a labor agreement or when enrolling at educational institutions. The medical commission can restrict or prohibit access to jobs and secondary or higher education if they find signs of physical or mental issues. Persons with disabilities were subject to employment discrimination. Companies with 35 to 100 employees have an employment quota of 1 to 3 percent for persons with disabilities, while those with more than 100 employees have a 2- to 4-percent quota. Some local authorities and private employers continued to discourage persons with disabilities from working. Inadequate workplace access for persons with disabilities limited their work opportunities.

Many migrants regularly faced discrimination and hazardous or exploitative working conditions. Union organizers faced employment discrimination, limits on workplace access, and pressure to give up their union membership.

Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was a problem, especially in the public sector and education. Employers fired LGBTI persons for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or public activism in support of LGBTI rights. If they expected to be fired, some LGBTI persons chose to resign preemptively to avoid having their future prospects hindered by a dismissal on their resumes. Primary and secondary school teachers were often the targets of such pressure due to the law’s focus on so-called propaganda targeted at minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

Persons with HIV/AIDS were prohibited from working in some areas of medical research and medicine.

In September, as part of broader pension reform, amendments to the criminal code were adopted to establish criminal liability for employers who dismiss workers due to approaching pension age.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

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

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced renditions; forced disappearances; and torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents. There were also reports of arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.

Government agents carried out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2. King Salman pledged to hold all individuals involved accountable, regardless of position or rank. Several officials were removed from their positions, and on November 15, the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) announced the indictment of 11 suspects. The PPO announced it would seek the death penalty for five of the suspects charged with murder and added that an additional 10 suspects were under further investigation. At year’s end the PPO had not named the suspects nor the roles allegedly played by them in the killing, nor had they provided a detailed explanation of the direction and progress of the investigation. In other cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity.

The country continued air operations in Yemen as leader of a military coalition formed in 2015 to counter the 2014 forceful takeover of the Republic of Yemen’s government institutions and facilities by Houthi militias and security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on a number of occasions, and the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, reported that some coalition airstrikes caused disproportionate collateral damage. Houthi-aligned militias carried out cross-border raids into Saudi territory and fired missiles and artillery into Saudi Arabia throughout the year, killing and injuring Saudi civilians. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team, established by the Saudi government and based in Riyadh, investigated allegations of civilian casualties, published recommendations, and in some cases promised to provide compensation to affected families, although no prosecutions occurred.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

The legal definition of terrorism, according to the 2017 counterterrorism law, 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 counterterrorism law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.

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

Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.

The government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year.

From May 15 to year’s end, authorities arrested at least 30 prominent women activists and their male supporters and imposed travel bans on others, in connection with their advocacy for lifting the ban on women driving. Those arrested included some of the women who first defied the driving ban in 1990, as well as others who expressed solidarity with detained activists. At least 12 persons remained in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them.” In a June 2 statement, the public prosecutor stated the detainees had admitted to communicating and cooperating with individuals and organizations opposed to the kingdom, recruiting persons to get secret information to hurt the country’s interests, and offering material and emotional support to hostile elements abroad. State-linked media labelled those arrested as traitors and “agents of embassies.” The detained included Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, and Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi, among others.

In August authorities arrested Mecca Grand Mosque Imam Sheikh Salih al-Talib. In his last Friday sermon on July 13, Al-Talib discussed the duty in Islam to speak out against evil in public. Al-Talib was the first imam of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina to be detained.

In September the SCC opened trials against clerics, academics, and media persons for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, including prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in September 2017, and the public prosecutor was reportedly seeking the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor brought 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari government, in addition to his public support for imprisoned dissidents. None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12. The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”

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

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

The law states that violators can face fines up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Information has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and sharia court judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which process accords with the law.

On July 12, authorities arrested influential religious scholar and Sahwa (Awakening) movement figure Safar al-Hawali, four of his sons, and his brother after al-Hawali reportedly published a book criticizing the Saudi royal family and the country’s foreign policy.

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

On February 19, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned writer Muhammad al-Suhaimi from writing and taking part in any media activity, and referred him to an investigation committee for criticizing the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) and calling for reducing the number of mosques. Speaking to the MBC TV channel, al-Suhaimi had criticized the volume of the call to prayer, calling it a nuisance.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.

Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominate social media trend lists and effectively silence dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.

On February 8, the SCC sentenced prominent newspaper columnist Saleh al-Shehi to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel ban, for insulting the royal court and its employees. Al-Shehi was reportedly arrested on January 3 after a televised appearance on the privately owned Rotana Khalejia channel in which he accused the royal court of being “one of the institutions that reinforced corruption” in the country, citing examples such as granting plots of land to citizens based on personal connections.

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

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

The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, or offensive, or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In June 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. On June 13, 2018, the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism, and harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high-profile or controversial sessions to the media.

Libel/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.

The anti-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.” In 2014 the law was amended to include social media and social networks.

On May 30, the SCC in Riyadh sentenced academic and media professional Mohammed al-Hudaif to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel and social media ban, and ordered his Twitter account shut down. Al-Hudaif was convicted of “insulting neighboring states” following a comment he wrote about the visit of the former Egyptian justice minister, Ahmed al-Zind, to the UAE. The government deemed Hudaif’s tweet insulting to both the Egyptian and Emirati authorities. He was convicted of destroying national cohesion, publishing writings hostile to state policy, and communicating with members of bodies hostile to the state (the Muslim Brotherhood), according to Al-Qst rights group.

On September 3, the public prosecutor warned that producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes, and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media would be considered a cybercrime punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

The Ministry of Information or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available, and 82 percent of the population used the internet in 2017, according to International Telecommunication Union data.

The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued implementing regulations for electronic publishing that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. On May 27, then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the anti-cybercrimes law, criminalize defamation on the internet, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security, as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications.

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

On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.

On February 12, the SCC in the western city of Tabuk held the first hearing for student and activist Noha al-Balawi. Al-Balawi was detained on January 23 after posting a video online in which she criticized the country’s potential normalization of ties with Israel. According to the United Kingdom-based Saudi rights group Al-Qst, Balawi was charged under anti-cybercrime laws and faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On February 22, authorities reportedly released al-Balawi, according to online activists and media sources.

On February 27, the SCC convicted computer engineer Essam Koshak of posting tweets that “infringe on public order and religious values” and sentenced him to four years in prison followed by a four-year ban on travel and social media usage. According to multiple NGOs, Koshak tweeted in support of the 2017 social media campaign #EndMaleGuardianship, organized by HRW. According to court documents and trial observations, the prosecution charged Koshak with creating the #EndMaleGuardianship social media campaign and, in so doing, undermining public order and “violating freedom of expression.”

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

The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).

The CITC claimed that Facebook removed materials that the CITC deemed offensive but that Twitter ignored all CITC requests. In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In September 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. Other video-calling apps, including WhatsApp and Viber, however, reported services were still blocked.

The government continued blocking Qatari websites such as al-Jazeera, an action it began in May 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.

In June 2017 Ministry of Information spokesperson Hani al-Ghofaily stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission. In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Authority for Entertainment (GEA) and the General Authority for Culture, with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the GEA sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance. On June 2, King Salman issued a royal order creating the Ministry of Culture, separating it from the Information Ministry, and appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud as its minister. On April 18, the country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened after a ban was lifted in 2017. AMC Entertainment was granted the first license to operate cinemas in the country and was expected to open more theaters over the next five years, according to state media.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

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

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

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

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

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

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

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

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATELESS PERSONS

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

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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