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Saudi Arabia

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

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

The law prohibits torture and holds criminal investigation officers accountable for any abuse of authority. Sharia, as interpreted in the country, prohibits judges from accepting confessions obtained under duress. Statutory law provides that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony.

There were no confirmed reports of torture by government officials during the year, but numerous prisoners were serving sentences based on confessions they claimed were obtained through torture or mistreatment. Amnesty International, HRW, and other human rights organizations reported cases in which the SCC based its decisions on confessions allegedly obtained through torture and admitted as evidence. The UN Committee against Torture also noted that courts admitted coerced confessions as evidence. According to the committee, SCC judges “repeatedly refused to act on claims made by defendants facing terrorism charges that they were subjected to torture or ill-treatment during interrogations for the purpose of compelling a confession, including in the cases of Fadhel al-Manasif, Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher” (see section 1.a.). In 2015 the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for al-Nimr, al-Marhoon, and al-Zaher (see section 1.a.), as well as other Shia activists who claimed that authorities tortured them to obtain confessions. Amnesty International reported that Ali al-Nimr said authorities obtained his confession under torture during interrogation sessions held during six months of pretrial detention in 2012.

The UN committee also reported that complaints of torture and mistreatment by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) were rarely investigated, creating a climate of impunity. On April 10, the cabinet (or Council of Ministers) issued a decree stripping the CPVPV of authority to pursue suspects, ask for their identification, and arrest or detain them.

Former detainees in facilities run by the General Investigations Directorate (the country’s internal security forces, also known as “Mabahith”) alleged that abuse included sleep deprivation or long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees. Former detainees in Mabahith-run al-Ha’ir Prison claimed that, while physical abuse was uncommon in detention, Mabahith officials sometimes resorted to mental or psychological abuse of detainees, particularly during the interrogation phase. Ministry of Interior officials claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system. The ministry installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in criminal investigation offices, some police stations, and in prisons where such interrogations regularly occurred, such as the ministry’s General Investigations Directorate/Mabahith prison facilities.

Representatives from the governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), supported by a trust funded by the estate of the late King Fahd, conducted prison visits to ascertain whether torture occurred in prisons or detention centers and maintained permanent branches in eight facilities. Independent institutions did not conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture.

The courts continued to use corporal punishment as a judicial penalty, usually in the form of floggings, whippings, or lashings, a common punishment that government officials defended as dictated by sharia. According to local human rights activists, police conducted the floggings according to a set of guidelines determined by local interpretation of sharia. The police official administering the punishment must place a copy of the Quran under his arm that prevents raising the hand above the head, limiting the ability to inflict pain on the person subjected to the punishment, and instructions forbid police from breaking the skin or causing scarring when administering the lashes.

In February a Saudi appeals court returned a death sentence from the Abha General Court for Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi resident of Palestinian origin, whom the court had found guilty of apostasy, spreading atheism, threatening the morals of Saudi society, and having illicit relations with women. He was sentenced to death for apostasy because of poetry he wrote was deemed offensive to Islam. The lower court then commuted his death sentence to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes while maintaining the guilty verdict.

In February the Medina Criminal Court reportedly sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing his atheism on Twitter, according to the local newspaper al-Watan.

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions varied, and some did not meet international standards.

Physical Conditions: Juveniles constituted fewer than 1 percent of detainees and were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information. Although information on the maximum capacity of the facilities was not available, overcrowding in some detention centers was reported to be a problem. Violations listed in NSHR reports following prison visits documented shortages of and improperly trained wardens and lack of prompt access to medical treatment when requested. Some detained individuals complained about lack of access to adequate health-care services, including medication. Some prisoners alleged that prison authorities maintained cold temperatures in prison facilities and deliberately kept lights on 24 hours a day to make prisoners uncomfortable.

Human rights activists reported that deaths in prisons, jails, or pretrial detention centers were infrequent. In May local media reported that two female inmates died at a rehabilitation center at the Malaz Prison, but the circumstances of their death were unclear.

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

Administration: There were multiple legal authorities for prisons and detention centers. Local provincial authorities administered approximately 90 local jails, and the Ministry of Interior administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers. Recordkeeping on prisoners was inadequate; there were reports authorities held prisoners after they had completed their sentences. A Ministry of Interior-run website provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information about the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates.

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

No ombudsmen were available to register or investigate complaints made by prisoners, although prisoners could and did submit complaints to the HRC and the NSHR for investigation. There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship or whether authorities investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions and treatment and made them public.

Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once every 15 days, and there were reports that prison officials denied this privilege in some instances. The families of detainees could access a website for the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Prisons that contained forms to apply for prison visits, temporary leave from prison (generally approved around the post-Ramadan Eid holidays), and release on bail (for pretrial detainees). Family members of detained persons complained that authorities canceled scheduled visits with their relatives without reason.

Authorities permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform religious observances such as prayers, but prison authorities in Mabahith prison facilities reportedly did not arrange for detainees to conduct Friday Islamic congregational prayer services.

HRW reported that activist Khalid al-Umair remained in prison following the completion of his eight-year sentence on October 5. Al-Umair was arrested in 2009 for attempting to protest against Israel’s military operations in Gaza. A Gulf-based NGO reported that, as of November 3, al-Umair was transferred from al-Ha’ir Prison to Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in preparation for his release; he remained there at year’s end.

Independent Monitoring: No independent human rights observers visited prisons or detention centers during the year. The government permitted foreign diplomats to visit prison facilities to view general conditions in nonconsular cases. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats visited individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may have differed from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners. The most recent prison visit conducted by an independent human rights organization was a 2006 visit by HRW. In August security officials stated they permitted foreign journalists to visit a security prison in Jeddah during the year. The government permitted the governmental HRC and domestic quasi-governmental organizations, such as the NSHR, to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. The NSHR monitored health care in prisons and brought deficiencies to the attention of the Ministry of Interior. In 2015 the NSHR documented 422 prison-related complaints, including lack of access to medical care, poor hygiene and sanitation, overcrowding, poor ventilation, and understaffing.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Civil law does not protect human rights, including freedoms of speech and of the press; only local interpretation and the practice of sharia protect these rights. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech. 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.

The legal definition of terrorism, according to the counterterrorism law, includes “any act…intended to disturb the public order of the state…or insult the reputation of the state or its position.” Local human rights activists and international human rights organizations criticized the law for its vague definition of terrorism and complained the government could use it to prosecute peaceful dissidents for “insulting the state.”

Freedom of Speech and 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 legally 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, the monarchy, the governing system, or the Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.

The government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. In January local media reported that the Najran Criminal Court sentenced two Ministry of Health employees to prison terms and lashes for criticizing their hospital’s administration on Twitter. On appeal, the employees were sentenced under the anticyber crimes law to prison terms of 11 months and eight months, respectively.

In February local media reported that the Medina Criminal Court sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes on charges related to “atheistic” tweets.

In September the SCC sentenced a person to seven years in prison and a travel ban of 10 years on charges of publishing rumors via Twitter, joining an unauthorized association, not pledging allegiance, calling publicly for demonstrations, and challenging the independence of the judiciary, according to local media reports.

On December 27, the media reported that a court in Dammam sentenced a man to one year in prison and a fine of 30,000 riyals ($8,000) for “incitement to end the guardianship of women” after making statements online and hanging up posters in mosques calling for an end to the male guardianship system.

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

Press and Media Freedoms: 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. The media fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and 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 decree.

Media policy statements have 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 500,000 riyals ($133,000) for each violation of the law, which is doubled if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Culture and 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.

Although 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 Culture and Information and could not operate freely. The government filtered and at times blocked access to internet sites it considered objectionable. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists to arrests, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.

In March the SCC sentenced Eastern Province-based journalist Alaa Brinji to five years in prison and an eight-year travel ban on charges of inciting the public against the country’s rulers, attempting to tarnish the country’s reputation, accusing security forces of killing protesters in Awamiya, and violating the 2007 anticyber crimes law. According to human rights organizations, Brinji was arrested in 2014 and held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer during pretrial detention.

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. Because of self-censorship, authorities did not frequently have reason to prosecute print and broadcast media.

All newspapers in the country must be government-licensed. The Ministry of Culture and 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, for example, by removing works by Palestinian novelist and poet Mamoud Darwish at the Riyadh International Book Fair in 2014.

In November multiple media reported that authorities closed the al-Rawi Cultural Cafe on the campus of South Imam University in Riyadh, pending a Ministry of Culture and Information investigation into the cafe’s compliance with book licensing requirements.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis as-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 anticyber crimes 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 and increases the maximum fine to 500,000 riyals ($133,000).

In June the Jeddah Criminal Court commuted a seven-year prison sentence and 2,100 lashes for an Indian man convicted of blasphemy after he converted to Islam while in prison; he was initially convicted for posting an image on Facebook of the Holy Kaaba covered with Hindu deities, according to media reports.

In February the SCC sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and a travel ban of unspecified duration for “spreading malicious rumors about the kingdom” and running a YouTube channel in which he called the country’s rulers “tyrants,” according to the local Arab Newsnewspaper.

National Security: In most cases authorities used the anticyber crimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting several individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The Ministry of Culture and 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 more than 70 percent of the population used the internet during the year, while 83 percent had mobile broadband subscriptions, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

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. Laws, including the anticyber crimes 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 Da’esh. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications. According to a 2015 Freedom House report, social media users were increasingly careful about what they posted, shared, or “liked” online, particularly after the passage of the 2014 counterterrorism law.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet access providers to monitor customers and also 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.

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.

In October the CITC announced it blocked 2.6 million “pornographic” sites in calendar year 2015 as well 3.5 million such sites in the period from 2010 through 2015. 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 September the CITC announced that it had not blocked any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. Users of Snapchat, a private messenger app, reported the CITC blocked the app during the year. Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp were partially accessible, with text-message features available but voice- and video-calling features blocked. In July users of FaceTime and other video-calling apps reported such services were blocked. In 2013 the CITC had announced it blocked the voice-calling app Viber and that it would “take appropriate action” against applications or services, including Skype and WhatsApp, if the proprietary services did not allow the government “lawful access” for monitoring purposes.

The CITC allows the public to submit requests to block or unblock specific sites. In 2010 the CITC stated it received more than 300,000 requests to block websites annually, citing an average of 200 requests daily to both block and unblock sites.

On July 3, the Ministry of Culture and Information blocked the website of the online news website al-Marsad. The ministry did not give a reason for the closure, and the block on the website was removed after five days.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. On September 25, authorities arrested a man who used the nickname “Abu Sin” after internet video exchanges with a foreign female user circulated on social media. Authorities charged him with violating the anticyber crimes law, which in part prohibits the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on the public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” He was released on bail after 10 days, according to media sources.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government censored public artistic expression, prohibited cinemas, and restricted public musical or theatrical performances other than those considered folkloric or special events approved by the government. 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 October the Commission on Public Entertainment, established on May 7, hosted a public live dance performance in Riyadh and Jeddah and announced a series of entertainment performances as part of a new government-sponsored program under the auspices of the Vision 2030 economic reform agenda to foster live entertainment in the country.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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