Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities.

A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff). 

The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning. 

As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights.

In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes.

The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Athens) – Greece should not extradite, deport, or otherwise facilitate the return of a Tajik opposition activist to Tajikistan, where he faces possible torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Mirzorakhim Kuzov, a senior leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was detained on October 9, 2017, by Greek police at passport control in Athens International Airport as he was in transit after attending a human rights conference in Warsaw, Poland.

The Tajik government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the country’s leading opposition party, and designated it a terrorist organization in September 2015. Kuzov was detained in Athens under an Interpol “red notice” submitted by Tajik authorities on the basis of politically motivated extremism charges brought in retaliation for his peaceful political opposition. The Tajik government has previously abused the Interpol notice system to target several peaceful political activists, including Muhiddin Kabiri, the party leader.

Mirzorakhim Kuzov © 2017 Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan

“It is no secret that Tajikistan has a serious problem with torture and is actively hunting down political opposition figures using Interpol ‘red notices,’” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has a legal obligation not to return anyone to a country where they could face torture or ill-treatment and should abide by those international commitments.”

In recent years, Tajik authorities have dramatically intensified a crackdown on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The government has jailed hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, and closed down opposition parties.

In September 2015, following clashes between government forces and militants associated with Tajikistan’s deputy defense minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, authorities arrested dozens of IRPT members, accusing them of involvement in the violence, despite a lack of evidence. In June 2016, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court sentenced 13 party leaders to lengthy prison terms, including life in prison for 2, on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The sentences followed an unfair trial initiated in retaliation for their peaceful political opposition, and reflect the government’s pervasive manipulation of the justice system and egregious violations of the right to freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous sources who report that various IRPT activists in prison, including Mahmadali Hayit and Rahmatullo Rajab, have been tortured.

Mirzorakhim Kuzov attending the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw, September 2017. © 2017 Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan

Kuzov is being held in Korydalos prison in Athens. He has told Human Rights Watch that he fled Tajikistan in September 2015 fearing arrest after Tajik police and security services began persecuting him and other party members. He had been in hiding in a third country for the last two years, before attending the human rights conference organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw. In August, Kuzov’s family members were also forced to flee Tajikistan, following nearly two years of continuous harassment and repeated interrogations by Tajik security services.

Tajik authorities have charged Kuzov with various crimes of “extremism” under Tajikistan’s criminal code including “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)). Authorities routinely invoke article 307 charges in politically motivated cases.

Despite reforms outlawing torture, as defined under international standards, in Tajikistan’s criminal code, torture is an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and Human Rights Watch has received many credible reports of people associated with political opposition groups being tortured.

As a party to the Convention against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights, Greece is obliged to ensure that it does not forcibly send anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment.

The European Court of Human Rights has issued a number of rulings that sending anyone back to Tajikistan would be a violation of the European Convention because of the serious risk that the person would be tortured or subject to inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected as unreliable assurances from the Tajik government that it would not subject anyone sent back to prohibited treatment, saying that such assurances did not satisfy the host government’s obligation not to return the individuals to places where they faced such risk. The court has yet to issue any subsequent ruling that circumstances in Tajikistan have substantially changed and that extradition or forcible returns to Tajikistan would not violate the convention.

“Kuzov urgently needs protection,” Swerdlow said. “Greek authorities should make sure they don’t send him back to Tajikistan, where it’s clear he is at serious risk of abuse and wouldn’t get a fair trial.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Related Content

Mr. Bruno Gencarelli
Head of Unit, Directorate-General Justice and Consumers
European Commission
Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat 200
1049 Brussels

October 2, 2017

Dear Mr. Gencarelli:

Thank you for your outreach to civil society as part of your review of Implementing Decision 2016/1250 on the adequacy of the protection provided by the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield (Implementing Decision). The undersigned organizations write to address two matters in which you have recently expressed interest in relation to the review. These include the possibility that authorities in the United States of America (United States) may be able to gain access to personal data stored in the country by relying on Executive Order 12333 (EO 12333), and the authorities’ potential use of parallel construction to conceal from defendants and judges the fact that intelligence surveillance data has been employed in a criminal investigation.

  1. Access under Executive Order 12333 to Personal Data Stored in the United States

You have asked whether, under EO 12333, the US authorities have the power to obtain access to personal data that companies store in the United States.

As an initial matter, we note that the executive branch has revealed little information publicly about how it interprets its surveillance authorities under EO 12333. The government also has a documented history of adopting interpretations of surveillance laws that—in violation of human rights—are not clearly foreseeable based on the text of those laws.[1] It is therefore difficult for civil society members to state with certainty what powers the government exercises or could exercise under EO 12333.

However, we are aware of several potential legal loopholes that could enable the US authorities to use EO 12333 to obtain warrantless access to personal data transferred from the European Union and stored by companies in the United States. We note that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (which is currently inoperative due to vacancies) had previously expressed an intention to review and report on “collection that occurs within the United States or from U.S. companies” under EO 12333, suggesting that the Board viewed such collection as a possibility.[2]

At present, the broader question of whether officials are or should normally be required to obtain a warrant to gain access to the stored content of electronic communications remains the subject of constitutional and legislative debate.[3] The court of appeals in one federal jurisdiction has issued an important ruling finding that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their stored e-mails that are held by a service provider, and therefore that the warrant requirement found in the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution applies (in the absence of a valid exception).[4] However, although the Justice Department has generally adopted a policy of using warrants to compel the disclosure of the content of communications stored by providers[5], we are not aware of any expression by the government of a conclusion that it is legally obligated to do so.

To the extent that the government believes it must normally obtain a warrant to gain access to a stored communication, Section 2.5 of EO 12333 grants it the power to avoid doing so in potentially broad circumstances. The provision states that the Attorney General has “the power to approve the use for intelligence purposes, within the United States … of any technique for which a warrant would be required if undertaken for law enforcement purposes,” as long as “the Attorney General has determined in each case that there is probable cause to believe that the technique is directed against a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.”[6] It is unclear how the government may be interpreting this potentially broad reference to “the technique”—a term that may be susceptible to a construction that permits bulk or large-scale surveillance affecting individuals who could not legitimately be regarded as “foreign power[s]” or agents thereof.

Section 2.5 of EO 12333 further provides that the power it grants, “including the authority to approve the use of electronic surveillance as defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978” (FISA), must be “exercised in accordance with that Act.”[7] However, we do not know the extent to which the government interprets FISA’s definition of “electronic surveillance” as applying to communications stored by a service provider.[8]

Even if the government believes the definition applies, the specific terms of the definition appear to render it applicable only to monitoring that “intentionally target[s]” a known United States person[9] who is in the United States; the acquisition in the United States of communications to or from a United States person; the intentional acquisition of a communication when all the parties to that communication are in the United States; and the installation or use of a surveillance device in the United States for monitoring that would require a warrant if done for law enforcement purposes.[10] This definition contains multiple potential loopholes that the government may be able to use to gain warrantless access to stored communications or other personal data on the basis of EO 12333: for example, when the surveillance employs methods executed or devices used outside the United States, and/or when it is not intended to acquire the communications of a US person or communications that take place solely between people in the United States. Such loopholes would leave much prospective leeway for the United States government to gain access to communications—especially those of non-United States persons—under EO 12333.

We encourage the European Commission to ask the United States executive branch to provide clear and comprehensive explanations on these points; we also encourage the Commission to make any such explanations it receives available to the public.

  1. Parallel Construction

In the context of discussions of whether the United States provides adequate notification to individuals who have been monitored as well as access to effective redress, you have also indicated an interest in the practice known as “parallel construction.”

In brief, “parallel construction” is a term that describes deliberate efforts by US government officials or agencies, as part of an investigation or prosecution, to conceal the true origins of evidence by creating an alternative explanation for how the authorities discovered it. The practice was initially brought to the public’s attention by the news agency Reuters in August 2013. Focusing on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), journalists John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke found that a “secretive” unit known as the Special Operations Division was “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.” Documents they had obtained, the reporters wrote, showed that “federal agents are trained to ‘recreate’ the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated,” including by staging pretextual traffic stops and subsequent searches.[11] The reporters quoted an anonymous senior DEA official who depicted the practice as “a bedrock concept” that is “decades old” and that the government employs daily.[12]

Reuters subsequently reported that a manual available to Internal Revenue Service personnel between 2005 and 2007 had described the practice of parallel construction and “instructed agents of the U.S. tax agency to omit any reference to tips supplied by the DEA’s Special Operations Division, especially from affidavits, court proceedings or investigative files.”[13] In 2014, journalist CJ Ciaramella obtained and released DEA training materials concerning parallel construction pursuant to a freedom of information request.[14]

Attorneys at multiple civil society organizations have published analyses expressing concerns about the possibility that the United States government may use parallel construction to avoid notifying criminal defendants about any intelligence surveillance involved in their cases.[15] Human Rights Watch expects to publish research addressing this issue during the next several months.

* * *

We hope this information assists your review of the Implementing Decision. Please do not hesitate to contact us for further details regarding these matters.


Access Now
Amnesty International
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights Watch


Annex: Definition of “Electronic Surveillance” for Purposes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

As per 50 U.S.C. § 1801(h), the term “electronic surveillance” for the purposes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as amended, means:

(1) the acquisition by an electronic, mechanical, or other surveillance device of the contents of any wire or radio communication sent by or intended to be received by a particular, known United States person who is in the United States, if the contents are acquired by intentionally targeting that United States person, under circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a warrant would be required for law enforcement purposes;

(2) the acquisition by an electronic, mechanical, or other surveillance device of the contents of any wire communication to or from a person in the United States, without the consent of any party thereto, if such acquisition occurs in the United States, but does not include the acquisition of those communications of computer trespassers that would be permissible under section 2511(2)(i) of title 18;

(3) the intentional acquisition by an electronic, mechanical, or other surveillance device of the contents of any radio communication, under circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a warrant would be required for law enforcement purposes, and if both the sender and all intended recipients are located within the United States; or

(4) the installation or use of an electronic, mechanical, or other surveillance device in the United States for monitoring to acquire information, other than from a wire or radio communication, under circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a warrant would be required for law enforcement purposes.

[1] See Mattathias Schwartz, “The Rabbit-Hole of ‘Relevant’,” N.Y. Times, June 23, 2015, (discussing the government’s expansive interpretation of the term “relevant” as it appeared in Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act prior to reforms adopted in 2015 in the USA Freedom Act, facilitating the bulk collection of United States telephone records); New America Open Technology Institute, “OTI Applauds End to NSA ‘About Collection,’ Urges Statutory Reform of Section 702,” Apr. 28, 2017, (discussing lack of clear congressional intent to authorize the National Security Agency’s practices of “upstream” searches and “about” collection under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Act); Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner (C-362/14), judgment, Oct. 6, 2015, ¶ 91 (indicating that interferences with privacy and other relevant rights must be subject to “clear and precise rules governing the scope and application” of the measures in question); Malone v. United Kingdon, application no. 8691/79, judgment (European Court of Human Rights, plenary), Aug. 2, 1984, ¶ 67 (establishing that a law permitting government surveillance that interferes with the right to privacy must be “sufficiently clear in its terms to give citizens an adequate indication as to the circumstances” in which this may take place).

[2] Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, “PCLOB Examination of E.O. 12333 Activities in 2015,” undated,

[3] See Electronic Frontier Foundation, “EFF Supports Senate Email and Location Privacy Bill,” July 27, 2017,; United States v. Warshak, 631 F.3d 266 (6th Cir. 2010), available at

[4] Warshak, supra n. 3.

[5] See In re Search of Information Associated with [Redacted] that Is Stored at Premises Controlled by Google, Inc., Case No. 16-mj-00757 (D.D.C.), Memorandum Opinion, July 31, 2017, available at

[6] Executive Order 12333: United States Intelligence Activities, as amended, § 2.5, available at

[7] Id.

[8] The definition appears at 50 U.S.C. § 1801(f), available at and reproduced in an annex to this letter.

[9] Under FISA, “United States person[s]” include United States citizens, lawful permanent residents, and some corporations and associations. 50 U.S.C. § 1801(i).

[10] Supra n. 8.

[11] John Shiffman & Kristina Cooke, “Exclusive: US directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans,” Reuters, Aug. 5, 2013,

[12] Id.

[14] See Shawn Musgrave, “DEA teaches agents to recreate evidence chains to hide methods,” Muckrock, Feb. 3, 2014,

[15] See, e.g., Patrick C. Toomey, “Why Aren’t Criminal Defendants Getting Notice of Section 702 Surveillance—Again?”, Just Security, Dec. 11, 2015,; Sarah St.Vincent, “We Have Good Reason to Be Concerned About the Impact of Section 702 on the Criminal Justice System,” Just Security, June 7, 2017,; Michelle Richardson, Statement for the Record, Senate Judiciary Committee, June 27, 2017 Hearing on the FISA Amendments Act: Reauthorizing America’s Vital National Security Authority and Protecting Privacy and Civil Liberties, undated,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Attn: Department of State Desk Officer
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
Office of Management and Budget
725 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20503

Bureau of Consular Affairs, Visa Office
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20520

October 2, 2017


Re: 82 Fed. Reg. 36180, OMB Control No. 1405-0226; Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants

Dear Sir or Madam:

The undersigned organizations write to express our serious concerns about the Department of State’s proposed policy, published for comment in Public Notice 10065. This policy would make permanent the collection of additional information from immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other visa ineligibilities, including national security-related ineligibilities.[1]

As with the emergency collection that was put in place in May, the additional requirements impose significant burdens on visa applicants; are apt to chill speech and reveal private information about travelers that is irrelevant to their suitability for entry to the United States; and expose information about their families, friends and business associates in the U.S. Further, the context in which these policies are being developed raises concerns that the populations targeted for additional scrutiny will be identified by their shared religion, nationality, or ideology. Lastly, the data collection will facilitate the bulk mining and analysis of information about travelers and U.S. citizens, amplifying the concerns above, all in exchange for speculative national security benefits in light of the vanishingly small number of foreign-born persons who commit terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

I.The Proposed Collection Excessively Burdens Visa Applicants for Speculative National Security Benefits

Applicants falling within populations the State Department determines require additional scrutiny (which, as detailed below, will disproportionately impact Muslim populations) will have to provide: fifteen years’ worth of travel, address, and employment history; five years’ worth of social media platforms and identifiers, email addresses, and phone numbers; names of siblings, children, and former spouses not already provided; prior passport numbers; and details and documentation on any travel to an ISIS-controlled territory.[2] Travel information from applicants must include “details for each trip [and] source[s] of funds” for foreign travel and even potentially domestic travel.[3]

First, the request for fifteen years’ worth of details on travel, address, and employment imposes an excessive – and potentially exclusionary – burden on affected applicants without commensurate benefits for national security. Second, the request for social media data (“platforms and identifiers”) is fatally ambiguous and will have a deleterious impact on the speech and privacy of applicants as well as the Americans with whom they communicate. Finally, social media communications have context-specific meanings that are notoriously difficult to interpret, and are more apt to raise false positives than to identify real security threats.

a.Request for Fifteen Years of Travel, Address and Employment History is Overly Burdensome

First, the additional disclosures are overly onerous, given that visa applicants under the current system are already required to provide a significant amount of documentation and information.[4] For example, gathering fifteen years’ worth of travel history in addition to what is already required – even assuming it were available and recorded – could require weeks’ worth of time and substantial resources, involve tracking down accommodation and transportation providers, and finding credible people to corroborate trip details. The State Department’s estimate that the “Average Time Per Response” will be 60 minutes per applicant, resulting in a “Total Estimated Burden Time” of 65,000 hours, seems an implausible guess.[5]

Perhaps more significantly, it is unclear how collecting extensive personal and travel histories would be helpful for national security purposes, particularly since many current terrorist threats like ISIS did not even emerge until 2013.[6]  Indeed, the questions for even a short visit to the U.S. require more personal information than the standard forms required to get a Top Secret security clearance.[7] In any event, one consequence of this policy is clear: the heavy burdens discussed above will mean less people coming to the U.S., whether because they find visa application requirements prohibitive or too invasive,[8] or fear making application errors that could give rise to false suspicions of fraud.[9]

b.Request for Social Media Platforms and Identifiers is Ambiguous and Broad

The request for social media information in this information collection request (ICR) is also problematic. As an initial matter, the description of the data requested – namely, “[s]ocial media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the last five years” – is insufficient to provide guidance on the scope of required disclosure. The term “social media platforms” is not defined; while popular social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram may be the most obvious targets, some definitions of social media include blogging and similar online activities.[10] It is not clear whether applicants are meant to cast as wide a net as possible in their disclosures, or whether an inadvertent failure to do so may be used as a reason, whether pretextual or not, to deny their entry into the country.

Similarly, the proposed form to be completed by applicants asks for social media platforms and identifiers “for any websites or applications you have used to create or share content (photos, videos, status updates, etc.) as part of a public profile within the last five years.”[11] It appears that travelers who contribute to multiple accounts on a single platform – a personal one and a professional one, for instance – will be required to disclose all such accounts, raising the risk that they will be held accountable for posts on a profile for which they exercise only partial control. The form does not offer a mechanism to explain the applicant’s role in using a particular platform or whether content is created or shared by other users as well.

The proposal does impose an important limitation on consular officers’ authority with respect to social media information – namely, the directive that adjudicating officers are to refrain from requesting applicants’ social media passwords or from subverting other privacy safeguards. Nonetheless, account collection may precede password collection: DHS started by collecting social media handles and identifiers from certain travelers in 2016,[12] for instance, but the agency signaled shortly after President Trump’s inauguration that it might demand users’ passwords as well.[13] It is also unclear how the State Department would ensure that this rule is followed, and what remedy applicants would be afforded for violations.

In any case, this guidance is insufficient to overcome significant problems with the substance of the policy, as described in the next section.

c.Social Media Collection Will Capture Information That is Difficult to Interpret, Chill Expression and Affect Third Parties

The ICR assumes that the investigation of applicant-provided social media information will assist the department in uncovering potential terrorists applying for visas.[14] This seems unlikely. As an initial matter, it is doubtful that an individual who promotes terrorism online will disclose information about the social media profile he is using to do so, or will retain postings that might raise concerns in the eyes of consular officials or software programs analyzing online content.

Moreover, problems of interpretation are guaranteed to plague any review of social media postings. One need only look at the 2012 experience of a British citizen who was turned back at the border because DHS agents misinterpreted his posting on Twitter that he was going to “destroy America” – slang for partying – and “dig up Marilyn Monroe’s grave” – a joke.[15] In a similar vein, government agents and courts have erroneously interpreted tweets repeating American rap lyrics as threatening messages in several court cases, including high-stakes national security matters.[16] Even greater difficulties are inevitable if the language used is not English.

This is to say nothing of the challenges posed by non-verbal communication on social media. On Facebook, for instance, users can react to a posting with a range of emojis. The actual meaning of these emojis is highly contextual. If a Facebook user posts an article about the FBI persuading young, isolated Muslims to make statements in support of ISIS,[17] and another user “loves” the article, is he sending appreciation that the article was posted, signaling support for the FBI’s practices, or sending love to a friend whose family has been affected? Assuming it is even possible to decode the meaning, that could not be done without delving further into the user’s other online statements, interactions, and associations, as well as the postings of those with whom he or she communicates, a laborious, invasive, and error-riddled process. Indeed, such ambiguity is already affecting domestic criminal proceedings with dire consequences, including individuals put behind bars for their Facebook likes.[18]

This concern may be amplified for journalists, particularly those writing on conflict zones. Take the example of a foreign journalist who “favorites” a provocative tweet from an ISIS follower in order to find it again more easily for a piece of writing – will that be taken as support for the poster’s positions? If so, will he or she be called to account for every “heart” and “like”? Political scientists and other scholars who follow or interact with individuals with provocative or even reprehensible views for purposes of research and public education will face similar quandaries. In light of the multitude of possible interpretations of both speech and non-verbal communication, consular officers will be in a position to exercise enormous, unchecked discretion when it comes to assessing foreign residents’ suitability to enter the country, potentially quizzing them about the meaning and significance of a range of expression.

As a result of both the information request and the ambiguity pervading interactions on social media, online speech – particularly of the political or religious variety – will inevitably be chilled. Visa applicants will surely sanitize their own postings and internet presence to ensure that nothing online would provide cause for further scrutiny or suspicion by a rushed consular officer. Even if these travelers do not have First Amendment rights before they arrive in the United States, a system that potentially penalizes people for statements they make online due to misinterpretation is profoundly incompatible with core American constitutional values. It is also incongruent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees “the right to freedom of expression,” including the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”[19]

Moreover, the notice’s statement that this collection of information will not be used to deny visas on the basis of religion or political views, while commendable, is insufficient. The point of the disclosure requirement, presumably, is for consular officers to view and assess the content of applicants’ postings. It is hard to imagine that the religious and political views reflected in those postings will not be taken into account in practice, even if officers are on paper prohibited from doing so.

We note the same point with respect to the direction to “[c]onsular staff…to take particular care to avoid collection of third-party information.”[20] Such collection and analysis will be inevitable if the purpose of gathering social media data is in part to ascertain whether an applicant’s associations are relevant to her eligibility for a U.S. visa – for example, to determine whether she has sufficient links to her country of origin to overcome the statutory presumption that temporary visa applicants intend to immigrate to the U.S.,[21] or whether her social media associations have been flagged in government databases as potential national security threats.[22] As such, reviews of travelers’ social media profiles will also likely reveal personal information not contained within any given account, including peoples’ connections to friends, relatives, and business associates in the U.S., potentially subjecting Americans to invasive scrutiny of their personal lives. This scrutiny may undermine the right to communicate anonymously, too, a right that is protected by the First Amendment and was called a necessary condition of free expression by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.[23] Requiring visa applicants to disclose their online identities may thus enmesh American citizens’ communications and sweep in large quantities of constitutionally protected speech.

Lastly, the government can point to no evidence that social media screening works and is worth expanding. While no public audits have yet been released for State Department social media collections, the DHS Office of Inspector General recently audited the Department of Homeland Security’s existing social media pilot programs and found that insufficient metrics were in place to measure the programs’ effectiveness, concluding that existing pilots had provided little value in guiding the rollout of a department-wide social media screening program.[24]

II.The Proposed Collection Will Primarily Burden Applicants on the Basis of National Origin

The burdens detailed above would be substantial regardless of the faith or ethnicity of a visa applicant. While the State Department has stated that applicants flagged for additional scrutiny will be chosen “based on individual circumstances and the information they provide,” it is evident that these vetting procedures will be applied on the basis of national origin and will mainly be felt by Muslims. The proclamation issued by the president on September 24, 2017, explicitly provides for additional vetting of nationals of Iraq, Iran, and Somalia.[25] In addition, the   Department   of   State   describes   the   anticipated   respondents   as “[i]mmigrant   and nonimmigrant visa applicants who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities.”[26]  It estimates that 65,000 respondents, or 0.5% of U.S. visa applicants worldwide, will be affected.26 This number closely tracks the roughly 68,000 nonimmigrant visas issued to nationals of the six travel ban countries and Iraq – which was included in Executive Order 13769, the first travel ban executive order – in fiscal year 2016, suggesting that the criteria triggering additional scrutiny may include national origin or religion.[27] Finally, the State Department’s first attempt at implementing these requirements – which were halted due to ongoing litigation – required additional scrutiny specifically of nationals of the initial Muslim ban countries.[28] So “populations warranting increased scrutiny” could refer to people from Muslim countries or some subset thereof.

The history of the vetting procedures also suggests the intent to target Muslims. Shortly after becoming the official Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump rolled out a new plan: “extreme vetting” for Muslims entering the United States.[29] He proposed that the United States admit only those “who share our values and respect our people.” [30] One campaign official explained that people who have “attitudes about women or attitudes about Christians or gays that would be considered oppressive” would be barred.[31] Department of Homeland Security officials have indicated that visa applicants could be queried about honor killings, the role of women in society, and legitimate military targets.[32] It is difficult to see the connection between a visitor’s view of the role of women in society and terrorism, but the connection between such questions and criticisms of the rights of women in Muslim societies is plain.[33]

Such an approach is unlikely to make us safer. There is no evidence that an applicant’s national origin or religion reflects a propensity for terrorism. In fact, writing in opposition to Executive Order 13780, more than 40 national security experts from across the political spectrum argued that vetting should be responsive to “specific, credible threats based on individualized information,” not stereotypes of religions or countries.[34] They also warned that banning nationals from Muslim countries would damage the “strategic and national security interests of the United States,” corrode relationships with allies and “[reinforce] the propaganda of ISIS.”[35] Indeed, pro-ISIS social media accounts have used the Muslim ban to vindicate the claim that the U.S. is at war with Islam and stoke anti-American sentiments.[36] An analysis by the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security found that citizenship was an unreliable indicator of terrorism threat,[37] an unsurprising finding in light of U.N. estimates that in 2015 about 244 million people were living outside of the countries in which they were born.[38] As has been detailed in previous Brennan Center reports, decades of counterterrorism research has not been able to identify traits that could be used to identify people who have a propensity for terrorism.[39]

The Department of State’s notice does state that “[t]he collection of social media platforms and identifiers will not be used to deny visas based on applicants’ race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, political views, gender or sexual orientation.”[40] However, given the context in which this ICR arises, and because it is part of the broader “extreme vetting” framework that appears aimed at Muslims, that assurance seems less than credible.

III.Information Collection may Facilitate Bulk Data Mining and Algorithmic Analysis Efforts that Amplify Privacy and Discrimination Concerns

While the ICR says that “[t]he additional information collected will facilitate consular officer efforts to apply more rigorous evaluation of these applicants for visa eligibilities,” it does not say what those efforts will consist of or how the State Department will use or store the data it obtains. Will it be able to analyze such large amounts of data? If so, through what means, and based on what criteria? Presumably this information about visa applicants from around the world will be recorded in government databases; for what purposes will these databases be used? Exploiting this data for bulk mining or algorithmic analysis would further amplify many of the privacy and discrimination-oriented concerns highlighted above. 

The sensitive applicant information collected would likely be shared with the Department of Homeland Security, which may use the information as an input into new technological tools it wants developed as part of an “Extreme Vetting Initiative.”[41] For this initiative, the Department of Homeland Security reportedly intends to “establish an overarching vetting [system] that automates, centralizes and streamlines the current manual vetting process,” driven by the mandates in President Trump’s immigration Executive Orders, including Executive Order 13780.[42] Vetting would be dynamic: this computerized system would attempt to “continuous[ly] vet” visitors within the country using information including “media, blogs, public hearings, conferences, academic websites, social media websites…radio, television, press, geospatial sources, [and] internet sites.”[43] It would further be targeted at “evaluat[ing] an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society as well as their ability to contribute to national interests.”[44] Naturally, the program would seek to predict whether those entering the U.S. intended to commit a crime or terrorist attack once they arrived here.[45]

Setting aside that these standards – especially those measuring the likelihood that an applicant will “positively contribute” to society or to the national interest – are impossible to administer, computer analyses are only as good as their inputs. Recent efforts to employ predictive algorithms throughout the criminal justice system have been shown to reflect enduring biases, including those based on race and income, since they rely on historic crime data that integrates those biases.[46]  

In the realm of immigration, use of such algorithms may have the effect of facilitating religious or ideological vetting.[47] Indeed, there are already Homeland Security programs that attempt to draw inferences about social media data to develop traveler risk profiles on the basis of “tone analysis,” a process that is likely to incorporate decontextualized judgments about entire communities or religions, raising questions about both its ostensible neutrality and its effectiveness.[48] In light of these concerns, collecting social media and other data for the purpose of vetting foreign travelers in order to subject it to algorithmic analysis seems highly unlikely to contribute measurably to domestic safety and security.  

IV.There is No Evidence that Foreign Visitors Pose a Significant Threat to the U.S.

Lastly, empirical evidence shows that the risk of an attack on U.S. soil perpetrated by a foreign person who has been improperly vetted is infinitesimal. This is not surprising: the U.S. has one of the world’s most thorough visa vetting systems, built to identify national security threats. The government has had trouble showing otherwise. According a federal court of appeals: “There is no finding that present vetting standards are inadequate, and no finding that absent the improved vetting procedures there likely will be harm to our national interests.”[49]

Indeed, over the past ten years, Americans have been more than ten times as likely to drown in a bathtub or die in a lightning strike than to die in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a foreign born terrorist on U.S. soil.[50] According to a Cato Institute study, only five foreign-born terrorists have successfully carried out deadly attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, when the U.S. immigration security infrastructure was overhauled.[51]  Four were U.S. permanent residents or citizens who perpetrated terror attacks years after entering the country; indeed, three entered the United States as children. Entry screening would have been unlikely to catch them years before they decided to commit violence.[52] Only Tashfeen Malik – who, along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people and injured 22 others in San Bernardino – entered the U.S. near in time to when she perpetrated an attack.[53] But even discounting the proximity between a terrorist’s entry and his or her attack, and counting the September 11 hijackers (who came to the U.S. on temporary visas), Cato’s analysis of cases from 1975 through 2015 shows that 7.38 million such visas were issued for every one issued to a foreign-born terrorist, amounting to a near-zero (0.0000136) percent of visas.[54] In short, the State Department’s expanded collection is a solution in search of a problem.


For the above reasons, we urge the Department of State to abandon this proposed information collection initiative. Please do not hesitate to let us know if we can provide any further information regarding our concerns. We may be reached at (Faiza Patel:  646-292-8325),  (Rachel Levinson-Waldman: 202-249-7193), or (Harsha Panduranga: 646-292-8719).

Access Now
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
American Library Association
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Arkansas United Community Coalition
Article 19
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
Center for Democracy & Technology
Center for Media Justice
Center for Security, Race, and Rights
Committee to Protect Journalists
Data & Society
Defending Rights & Dissent
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free Press
Government Information Watch
Human Rights Watch
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Iranian American Bar Association
Japanese American Citizens League
Legal Aid Justice Center
Marhaba Service LLC
Mi Familia Vota
Muslim Community Network
Muslim Justice League
Muslim Public Affairs Council
National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF)
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Immigration Law Center
National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC)
New America's Open Technology Institute
New York Immigration Coalition
PEN America
Poligon Education Fund
Resilient Communities, New America
Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN)
Southern Poverty Law Center
The Constitution Project
United Church of Christ, OC Inc.
Yemen Peace Project

[1] We note that aspects of this notice and proposed policy may be amended or superseded in part by the president’s proclamation of September 24, 2017, putting in place new vetting processes and expanding the affected countries. Proclamation No. 9645, 82 Fed. Reg. 45,161 (Sept. 24, 2017). Nevertheless, we submit our comments in response to the current published notice from the State Department, in light of the approaching deadline.

[2] 60-Day Notice of Proposed Information Collection: Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants, 82 Fed. Reg. 36,180 ¶12 (posted Aug. 3, 2017).

[3] While the updated Form DS-5535 requires details only regarding travel outside the applicant’s country of residence (see Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants: DS-5535 Form, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget, available at, the August 3 ICR states that details about domestic travel may be required as well where the consular officer determines that the applicant was in an area while it was under the control of a terrorist organization (see 82 Fed. Reg. 36,180, 36,181 (posted Aug. 3, 2017)).

[4] Applicants must already plan far in advance and coordinate with various people to obtain materials in support of their visa applications. For example, nonimmigrant applicants must overcome the legal presumption that they intend to permanently stay in the U.S. In order to do that, a visa applicant must marshal extensive evidence to prove that she has every incentive to return to her home country. These include: proof of property ownership; proof of employment or pension; financial records; family documents; and/or proof of travel plans. See “US Visitor Visa – Visitor Documents,” Immihelp, accessed September 27, 2017, Immigrant visa applicants must provide even more information, including medical exam results and various civil documents. See “The Immigrant Visa Process,” Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs, accessed September 27, 2017,

[5] 82 Fed. Reg. 36,180, 36,181 (posted Aug. 3, 2017).

[6] "Syria Iraq: The Islamic State militant group," BBC News, August 2, 2014, accessed September 21, 2017,

[7] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “Questionnaire For National Security Positions,” Standard Form 86 OMB No. 3206 0005, revised December 2010, accessed September 6, 2017,

[8]See, e.g., American Anthropological Association, et. al, Comment Submission Regarding Notice of Information Collection under OMB Review: Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants (DS-5535), for Department of State Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and Visa Office, Bureau of Consular Affairs, May 18, 2017,;

[9]Carol Morello, "U.S. embassies start new vetting of visa applicants," The Washington Post, June 01, 2017, , accessed September 27, 2017,

[10] “Social Media Overview,” Tufts University Relations – Communications and Marketing, accessed September 27, 2017, (Includes blogs and LinkedIn Groups as social media platforms.). Webster’s Dictionary has a very broad definition of social media: “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” Merriam-Webster OnLine, s.v. “social media,” accessed September 27, 2017,

[11] Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants: DS-5535 Form, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget, available at (emphasis added).

[12] Tony Romm, "U.S. government begins asking foreign travelers about social media," POLITICO, December 22, 2016, accessed September 28, 2017,

[13] Laura Meckler, “Trump Administration Considers Far-Reaching Steps for ‘Extreme Vetting’,” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2017,

[14] 82 Fed. Reg. 36,180 (posted Aug. 3, 2017) (indicating that consular officers will request information, including social media identifying information, “to vet for terrorism” and other risks).

[15] See J. David Goodman, “Travelers Say They Were Denied Entry to U.S. for Twitter Jokes,” The Lede (blog), New York Times, January 30, 2012, 1:03 PM, twitter-jokes/?mtrref=undefined.

[16] See, e.g., Natasha Lennard, “The Way Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Tweets Are Being Used in the Boston Bombing Trial Is Very Dangerous,” Fusion, March 12, 2015,; Bill Chappell, “Supreme Court Tosses Out Man’s Conviction for Making Threat on Facebook,” National Public Radio, June 1, 2015, way/2015/06/01/411213431/supreme-court-tosses-outman-s-conviction-for-making-threats-on-facebook.

[17] See, e.g., Eric Lichtblau. “F.B.I. Steps Up Use of Stings in ISIS Cases,” New York Times, June 7, 2016,; Murtaza Hussain, “Confidential Informant Played Key Role in FBI Foiling Its Own Terror Plot,” Intercept, February 25, 2015,

[18] See, e.g., Ben Popper, “How the NYPD Is Using Social Media to Put Harlem Teens Behind Bars,” Verge, December 10, 2014,

[19] G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Dec. 16, 1966),

[21] Immigration and Nationality Corrections Act of 1994, Pub.L. 103-416, 108 Stat 4305, Title II, § 214 (b) (1994) (amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act codified as 8 U.S.C. § 1184 (b)).

[22] The notice says that consular officers will collect data to “resolve an applicant’s identity or to vet for terrorism, national security-related, or other visa ineligibilities.” (emphasis added) This means that the information need not be used solely for national security vetting; Immigration and Nationality Act of June 27, 1952, Pub. L. No. 82-414, 66 Stat. 163 (1952) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 8 U.S.C.) The INA says that an applicant “shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, and the immigration officers, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status.” Immigration and Nationality Corrections Act of 1994, Pub.L. 103-416, 108 Stat 4305, Title II, § 214 (b) (1994) (amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act codified as 8 U.S.C. § 1184 (b)),

[23] “Anonymity,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, accessed September 27, 2017,; Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Rep., Human Rights Council, at 1, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/29/32, May. 22, 2015, available at

[24] See generally John Roth, Inspector General, DHS’ Pilots for Social Media Screening Need Increased Rigor to Ensure Scalability and Long-term Success (Redacted), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2017,

[25] Proclamation No. 9645, “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats,” September 24, 2017, (an unpublished Presidential Document by the Executive Office of the President).

[26] 82 Fed. Reg. 36,180 (posted Aug. 3, 2017).

[28] Department of State, 9SBU) Implementing Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications, by Rex Tillerson, 17 STATE 24324, ¶ 9-14,

[29] Jeremy Diamond, “Trump Proposes Values Test for Would-be Immigrants in Fiery ISIS Speech,” CNN, August 15, 2016,

[30] Ibid.

[32] Meckler, “Trump Administration Considers Far Reaching Steps for ‘Extreme Vetting.’”

[33] Faiza Patel, “Reflections on the Prejudice in the Draft Exec Order’s Vetting of ‘Prejudice’,” Just Security (blog), January 27, 2017,; Faiza Patel and Erica Posey, “Beware Trump’s Phony ‘Terror’ List,” Daily Beast, March 22, 2017, beware-trump-s-phony-terror-list.html.

[34] Brief of Former Nat’l Sec. Officials as Amicus Curiae in Support of Plaintiff-Appellees at 13, 28, Hawaii v. Trump, 859 F.3d 741 (2017) (no. 16-1540) (Docket No. 108), cert granted by Trump v. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, 137 S. Ct, 2080 (2017) (available at

[35] “Letter from Foreign Policy Experts on Travel Ban,” New York Times, March 11, 2017,

[37] Department of Homeland Security, “Citizenship Likely an Unreliable Indicator of Terrorist Threat to the United States,” Draft Report Obtained by Associated Press, February 24, 2017,

[38] International Migration Report 2015 [highlights], United Nations, 2016, 1,

[39] See, e.g. Faiza Patel and Meghan Koushik, Countering Violent Extremism, Brennan Center for Justice, 2017, 10-11,

[41] See, e.g. State Department, 60-Day Notice of Proposed Information Collection: Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants, 82 FR 36180, 36181 (Aug. 3, 2017) (“Consular posts worldwide regularly engage with U.S. law enforcement and partners in the U.S. intelligence community to identify characteristics of applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny”); Department of Homeland Security, Presolicitation Notice, ICE-HSI- Data Analysis Service Amendment: Solicitation Number: HSCEMD-17-R-00010 (June 12, 2017), (background document, section 3.2: “[T]he contractor shall…have the ability to ingest and screen against large volumes of visa electronic applications efficiently and at high speed in regard worldwide social media and open source holdings and domains relevant to person centric derogatory and threat information assessment information, adjudication recommendation to the Department of State and notification to other government equites when warranted.”). The “Industry Day” materials prepared by ICE-HIS for this Presolicitation Notice were obtained and released by The Intercept in August 2017. Sam Biddle and Spencer Woodman, “These Are the Technology Firms Lining Up to Build Trump’s ‘Extreme Vetting’ Program,” Intercept, August 7, 2017,

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. at Attachment 2: Background, 5.

[44] Department of Homeland Security, Presolicitation Notice, ICE-HSI- Data Analysis Service Amendment: Solicitation Number: HSCEMD-17-R-00010 (June 12, 2017), (Statement of Objectives, 1).

[45] Ibid.

[46] See, e.g., Aaron Shapiro, “Reform predictive policing,” Nature, January 25, 2017,; Logan Koepke, “Predictive Policing Isn’t About the Future,” Slate, November 21, 2016,; William Isaac and Andi Dixon, “Column: Why big data analysis of police activity is inherently biased,” PBS NewsHour, May 10, 2017,

[47] See, e.g. Laura Hudson, “Technology is Biased Too. How Do We Fix It?” FiveThirtyEight, July 20, 2017, (“The focus on accuracy implies that the algorithm is searching for a true pattern, but we don’t really know if the algorithm is in fact finding a pattern that’s true of the population at large or just something it sees in its data,” Suresh Venkatasubramanian) (“In some cases, the most accurate prediction may not be the most socially desirable one, even if the data is unbiased, which is a huge assumption — and it’s often not.”). 

[48] Aaron Cantu and George Joseph, “Trump’s Border Security May Search Your Social Media by ‘Tone,’” Nation, August 23, 2017,

[49] Hawaii v. Trump, 859 F.3d 741, 771 (9th Cir. 2017), cert. granted sub nom Trump v. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, 137 S. Ct. 2080 (2017).

[50] Emmanuelle Saliba, “You’re More Likely to Die Choking Than Be Killed by Foreign Terrorists, Data Show,” NBC News, February 1, 2017, Other striking comparative risk statistics: toddlers with guns killed more people than foreign terrorists in 2015. Gary Younge, “Trump fears terrorists, but more Americans are shot dead by toddlers,” Guardian, February 8, 2017,; Christopher Ingraham, “People are getting shot by toddlers on a weekly basis this year,” Washington Post, October 14, 2015,; Kim LaCapria, “Toddlers Killed More Americans than Terrorists in 2015,” Snopes, accessed September 15, 2017, Since September 11, 2001, an average American has been as likely to be crushed by a television or furniture as a terrorist attack. Micah Zenko, “America Is a Safe Place,” Council on Foreign Relations (blog), February 24, 2012,

[51] Alex Nowrasteh, Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis, Cato Institute, 2016, No. 798, 13,

[52] One possible exception is Mohamad Hadayet, who opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. For more details see, Eddy Ramirez, “Panel Probes LAX Gunman,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2002, (Immigration officials reportedly “doubted Hadayet was a peaceful man when he requested political asylum in 1992.”).

[53] Tashfeen Malik entered the U.S. on July 27, 2014. She and Syed Rizwan Farook perpetrated the San Bernardino attacks on December 2, 2015 – just under a year and a half after Ms. Malik entered the U.S. Brian Ross et al., “Welcome to America: New Photo Shows San Bernardino Terror Couple Entering US,” ABC News, December 7, 2015,

[54] Nowrasteh, Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis, Cato Institute, 2016, No. 798, 8,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia September 26, 2017. 

© 2017 Samrang Pring / Reuters

(New York) – The Cambodian government’s filing of a politically motivated legal case on October 6, 2017 to dissolve the main opposition party will render national elections in July 2018 undemocratic, Human Rights Watch said today. If the government-controlled Supreme Court rules against the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), this would deny Cambodians the fundamental right to elect a government of their choosing.

In recent months, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has engaged in an intensified crackdown against the country’s political opposition, the independent media, and human rights groups. Last month, the government arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha on dubious charges of treason and threatened to arrest other senior party members. It forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, independent local radio stations, and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer language service.

Governments that still insist Cambodia is democratically ruled should act to reverse this development, or share the blame for democracy’s demise under Hun Sen’s autocratic rule.

James Ross

Legal and Policy Director

“The Cambodian government’s lawsuit to dissolve the main opposition party ahead of the 2018 elections is a naked grab for total power,” said James Ross, legal and policy director. “Governments that still insist Cambodia is democratically ruled should act to reverse this development, or share the blame for democracy’s demise under Hun Sen’s autocratic rule.”

At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned; many of them were prosecuted in summary trials that fell far short of international standards.

The current crackdown appears motivated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) concerns about winning national elections scheduled for July 29, 2018. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the June 2017 commune elections.

On February 20, the CPP adopted amendments to the Law on Political Parties that severely undermine the ability of opposition parties to function. Article 38 of the law provides the minister of interior with the authority to “file a complaint to the Supreme Court to dissolve that political party in case of committing a serious offence.” A new provision, article 18, sets out that senior members of a political party “shall not be a person convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony without having their sentence suspended.”

Sam Rainsy, the founding president of the CNRP, had to step down from his party’s leadership because of a criminal conviction in a politically motivated defamation case from 2013, in order to avoid giving the government grounds to dissolve the party. Rainsy is currently in exile and faces at least two years in prison were he to return to Cambodia.

On September 3, the government arrested Kem Sokha, who became the CNRP’s leader after Rainsy’s resignation. Kem Sokha had been subject to de facto house arrest at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh for six months in 2016 in a separate politically motivated case. Since his arrest, as many as half of the CNRP’s national members of parliament, as well as senior party staff, have fled the country.

Several other elected opposition leaders, including MP Um Sam An, Senator Hong Sok Hour, and Commune Councilor Seang Chet, remain in detention after politically motivated prosecutions.

The international community played an important role in supporting Cambodia to reach a peace agreement in Paris in 1991 in the wake of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge genocide and the Vietnamese occupation and civil war. The Cambodian signatories to that deal, including Hun Sen, agreed to “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities which would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Key government donors involved with Cambodia – including the United States, Japan, European Union countries, and Indonesia, among others – signed the deal as guarantors and agreed “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.”

Paris signatories and other concerned countries should respond robustly to this political crackdown, starting with diplomatic moves to threaten targeted economic sanctions and travel bans on senior Cambodian officials involved in the crackdown, including Hun Sen. They should call on Hun Sen to end all politically motivated cases against opposition leaders, civil society activists, and media outlets, and allow the democratic process to proceed with full respect for fundamental rights and liberties.

“Hun Sen’s latest crackdown could be the final nail in the coffin of the Paris Peace Agreements,” Ross said. “With national elections eight months away, the countries that struggled to obtain that agreement, which enshrines respect for human rights and democracy in Cambodia, should urgently act to save it.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nabeel Rajab on the day of his release from detention on bail, on November 2, 2014 in Manama, Bahrain.

© 2014 Ahmed Al-Fardan

This week Saudi Arabia and its allies in Geneva are blustering and threatening other countries to try to defeat a UN Human Rights Council resolution that would set up an independent investigation into war crimes by all parties – including the Saudi-led military coalition – in Yemen.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain –Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and part of the coalition bombing Yemen – a court on Wednesday postponed the trial of the country’s preeminent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab. This was at least the 16th delay. Rajab has been in jail since June 2016 and faces up to 18 years in prison for speech crimes, in his case tweets and media comments critical of his government.

Rajab’s “offenses” include a March 26, 2015 tweet – the day the Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen – asserting that “wars bring hatred, destruction, and horrors,” along with graphic images purporting to portray the results of the bombing.

Since then, the horrors in Yemen have only mounted. The UN reported in late September that it had verified the deaths of at least 5,159 civilians, with 8,761 wounded, adding that “[t]he actual numbers are likely to be far higher.” Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition continue to be the “leading cause of civilian casualties, including of children,” according to the UN. Additionally, some 7 million people are on the brink of famine thanks in large part to the coalition’s blockade and restrictions on fuel and food imports.

Bahraini authorities first arrested Rajab in the “tweets” case in April 2015. Since then, he was released and then re-arrested for this “crime” and once for media interviews he gave in 2014 and 2015. This past July 10, a court sentenced him to two years in prison on those charges, “for disseminating false news, statements and rumors about the internal situation in the kingdom that would undermine its prestige and status.” In his appeal hearing on September 28 regarding that conviction, the court postponed the hearing to October 25.

As for the UN Human Rights Council, it should create the international inquiry into Yemen abuses that countless activists like Rajab are calling for. It should also make crystal clear to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries that those who speak out on human rights violations should be protected, not locked away.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia traces its origins to a 1744 pact between a religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and the Al Saud family, under which al-Wahhab’s movement enabled the Saudi rulers to expand their political rule in return for enforcing his religious teachings. The power relations between the Saudi royal family and the clerics have changed over time, but the clerics and religious scholars continue to wield power and directly influence the policies and politics of the Saudi state, especially in the justice and education sectors.

Since its establishment, the Saudi state has permitted government-appointed religious scholars and clerics to refer to Shia citizens in derogatory terms or demonize them in official documents and religious rulings, which influence government decision-making. In recent years government clerics and others have used the internet and social media to demonize and incite hatred against Shia Muslims and others who do not conform to their views.

Some Saudi state clerics and institutions incite hatred and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Shia Muslim minority. 

Saudi state-funded religious scholars, who generally follow the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, are variously described as “Wahhabi” after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab or “Salafi.” Salafism refers to a movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century and advocated a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). There is extensive academic and political debate over these terms and their usage, as well as their relationship to a spectrum of Sunni religio-political movements, including the Salafi-Jihadi ideologies that have fueled armed groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS. This debate is beyond the scope of this report, but further reading on this topic can be found in the sources cited in the footnotes.

The Saudi-sponsored “purist” Islamic belief and practice has influenced Muslims across the globe, but it is by no means uncontested. Many Sunnis regard this form of Islam as intolerant and extremist. Sufism in particular represents a strain of Islam, long popular among Sunnis and Shia alike, that shares many practices with mainstream Shia Islam, such as veneration of the prophet’s family and local saints. Therefore, like Shia Islam, Sufism has been a prime target of Saudi-sponsored hate speech and intolerant rhetoric.

International human rights law prohibits “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Implementation of this prohibition by states over the years has been uneven and sometimes used as a pretext to restrict lawful speech or target minority groups. In order to address this problem, experts in recent years have proposed a six-part threshold test to establish whether any particular speech can be lawfully limited, including the context of the speech, the position of the status of the speaker, the intent of the speech, the content or form of the speech, the extent or reach of the speech, and an assessment of the risk of resulting harm of the speech.

Under this formula, Saudi religious scholars’ anti-Shia rhetoric documented in this report sometimes rises to the level of hate speech or incitement to hatred or discrimination. Other statements by Saudi religious scholars documented in this report do not rise to the level of hate speech or incitement to hatred or discrimination but nevertheless should be publicly repudiated and counteracted by Saudi authorities. Given the influence and reach of these scholars, these public anti-Shia statements are instrumental in Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of a system of discrimination against Shia citizens. This discrimination occurs in various areas, including refusal to permit Saudi Shia to build houses of worship outside limited Shia-majority areas, the imposition of a justice system that often displays anti-Shia bias, and an education curriculum that stigmatizes Shia religious beliefs and practices.

Government religious clerics often refer to Shia using derogatory terms such as rafidha or rawafidh, meaning “rejectionists,” and stigmatize their beliefs and practices. They have also condemned mixing between Sunnis and Shia as well as intermarriage. One current member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the country’s highest religious body, responded in a public meeting to a question about Shia Muslims by stating that “they are not our brothers ... rather they are brothers of Satan…”

Saudi Arabia’s former grand mufti, Abdulaziz Bin Baz, who died in 1999, condemned Shia in numerous religious rulings. Bin Baz’s body of fatwas and writings remain publicly available on the website of Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas. They remain influential and are often cited in Saudi court rulings, which are based on Islamic law.

Some clerics use conspiratorial language when discussing Saudi Shia, accusing them of being a domestic fifth column for Iran and disloyal by nature.

In addition to government-affiliated clerics, the state likewise allows other clerics to employ enormous social media followings – some in the millions – and media outlets to stigmatize Shia with impunity.

In addition to statements by Saudi religious scholars, anti-Shia bias extends to the Saudi judicial system, which is controlled by the religious establishment and often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices. In 2015, for example, a Saudi court sentenced a Shia citizen to two months in jail and 60 lashes for hosting private Shia group prayers in his father’s home in the Eastern Province town of Khobar, a city in which Saudi authorities do not permit Shia mosques to be built. In 2014, a Saudi Arabia court convicted a Sunni man of “sitting with Shia.”

The Saudi Ministry of Education religion curriculum also employs anti-Shia rhetoric. The religion curriculum for the 2016-17 school year does not mention Saudi Shia by name, but instead uses veiled language to stigmatize Shia religious practices as shirk, or polytheism or ghulah, “exaggeration.” Saudi religious education textbooks direct these critiques in particular to the Shia practice of visiting graves and religious shrines to venerate important religious figures and members of the family of the prophet, as well as tawassul, or intercession, by which Shia Muslims call on the prophet or members of the prophet’s family as intermediaries to God. The textbooks state that these practices, which both Sunni and Shia citizens understand as Shia, are grounds for removal from Islam and incur the punishment of being sent to hell for eternity. These beliefs about Shia are shared by many Sunnis outside Saudi Arabia, but in the Saudi context, the government textbooks perpetuate an anti-Shia narrative in Saudi society that serves to incite hatred against Shia citizens and maintain a system of discrimination against them.

Not only does the Saudi government tolerate hate speech, it sometimes imprisons those who criticize it. For example, in 2008, the government arrested prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer after he spoke out in a sermon against a statement signed by 22 prominent Saudi clerics in which they called Shia “an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and most deceptive to the Sunni people.” At the time the statement was issued, 11 of the 22 signatories were current government officials and 6 were former government officials. Al-Amer is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for publicly demanding constitutional reforms.

Anti-Shia hate speech has fatal consequences when armed groups such as the so-called Islamic State or ISIS or al Qaeda employ it as a justification for targeting Shia civilians with violence. Since mid-2015, ISIS has carried out attacks against six Shia mosques and religious buildings in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Najran, killing over 40 individuals. ISIS press releases claiming these attacks stated that the attackers were targeting “edifices of shirk” and rafidha, which is the same language used by Saudi religious scholars and Ministry of Education textbooks in describing Shia citizens. Saudi officials immediately condemned these attacks, but they have not acted to stamp out the hate speech that supports them. ISIS has employed similar justifications for attacking Shia civilians and religious sites in Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Following two of the ISIS attacks on Shia mosques in May in May 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, the country’s highest advisory body, debated a proposed “Regulation on Protecting National Unity,” which would have criminalized hate speech, but Shura Council members ultimately rejected the proposal by a vote of 74 to 47.

Human Rights Watch supports the right to free expression, which is clearly set out in international law, and has repeatedly documented and criticized Saudi Arabia’s unlawful efforts to limit free expression and restrict critical debate on important political, social, or religious topics. Any lawful restriction on the content of expression concerning hate speech should address speech that is likely to incite violence, discrimination, or hostility against an individual or clearly defined group of persons in circumstances in which such violence, discrimination, or hostility is imminent and alternative measures to prevent such conduct are not reasonably available. Government agencies and officials, as well as others who effectively wield governmental authority or exercise effective control over territory and population, have a duty to refrain from speech advocating violence, discrimination, or hostility toward any individual or social group.

Human Rights Watch’s examination of statements and writings of Saudi clerics, courts, and textbooks in this report demonstrate that Saudi government officials and institutions have incited hatred or discrimination against its own Shia citizens, and that hostility and discrimination against Shia both in Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders directly resulted from these statements and writings. In addition to Shia, these hostile statements have also targeted Jews, Christians, Sufis, Zoroastrians, and others. Rather than turning a blind eye to such rhetoric, Saudi Arabia is obligated to halt or take measures to counter such speech.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has classified Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” – its harshest designation for countries that violate religious freedom – repeatedly since 2004. Despite this designation, Saudi Arabia has not faced sanctions mandated for such countries under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) because the law allows the US president to issue a waiver if the waiver would “further the purposes of IRFA” or if “the important national interest of the United States requires the exercise of such waiver authority.” The US president has issued a waiver for Saudi Arabia since 2006. Among the sanctions for countries of particular concern are private or public condemnation, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges, denial or cancellation of US visas for officials, suspension of aid, or even prohibition of export or import agreements. The president of the United States should immediately rescind the waiver for Saudi Arabia and use the tools of the IRFA to push Saudi Arabia to halt incitement to hatred and discrimination against Shia Islam and other religions.

Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to end hate speech by state-affiliated clerics and bodies because of its role in undergirding and perpetuating its anti-Shia discrimination in Saudi society. They should also immediately dissociate the state from any cleric or preacher who uses rhetoric that incites hatred against Shia including by firing members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars who have targeted Shia with hate speech. Saudi authorities should also take measures to counter hate speech by government and non-government clerics in the media and on social media.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia should enact anti-discrimination legislation that would prevent anti-Shia bias in the justice and education system, allow Shia to build houses of worship and freely practice their religious beliefs on an equal basis with Sunni citizens, and authorities should reform the education curriculum to remove anti-Shia elements.


To the Government of Saudi Arabia

  • Engage high religious officials, such as the office of the grand mufti, the Council for Senior Religious Scholars, and the Ministry for Islamic Affairs, Preaching, and Religious Guidance to rebut religiously intolerant speech by officials and other influential voices.
  • Establish a committee to monitor anti-Shia hate speech on social media and publicly condemn such statements if they rise to advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.
  • Engage in broad efforts to combat negative stereotypes of, and discrimination against, Saudi Shia citizens and promote intercultural understanding.
  • Remove all anti-Shia fatwas from the website of Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas.
  • Remove discriminatory language, criticism, and stigmatization of Shia and Sufi religious practices, as well as other religions, from the Saudi education curriculum, including the Tawhid series.
  • Provide anti-discrimination training to Saudi judges and justice officials and prohibit criminalization of normal Shia religious practices.
  • Agree to a longstanding request by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to conduct a country visit to Saudi Arabia.
  • Establish a commission of equal citizenship, under the National Dialogue Center, and with a wide participation, including members of the Shura Council, the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights, elected local councilors, and tribal, religious and community leaders of the Eastern Province. The Commission should consider recommending a national institution on discrimination, as suggested by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Commission should explore ways to:
    • Protect freedom of worship for the Shia, especially in areas with a high Shia population, including freedom in the building and upkeep of mosques and husseiniyyas, printing, importing, and distribution of religious material, and the holding of public religious celebrations.
    • Protect the freedom for parents to ensure their children receive a religious education in accordance with their beliefs, and for children to be able to choose and practice their own religion. This should include a right at school to abstain from or opt out of Sunni religious instruction that is contrary to Shia beliefs, and the right, wherever possible (and at a minimum in all areas where Shia form a significant percentage of the population), to receive religious instruction according to Shia beliefs on par with what Sunni pupils receive. Exercise of that right should entail allowing Shia to teach religion in schools.
    • Ensure equality in employment and access to institutions of higher learning, including in the security services, high ministerial positions, local, provincial and the Shura Council, and military academies.
    • Ensure equal access to justice, including by mandating that all persons are equal before the law regardless of their sectarian identity, and that qualified Shia jurists can work as judges in regular courts, especially in areas with a high Shia population.
  • Establish a commission on holy places, to carry forward the Mecca June 2008 interfaith initiative organized by the Muslim World League, to explore ways to share space for religious worship in Mecca and Medina among adherents of different Muslim creeds while respecting Saudi Arabia's dominant religious practices. The commission should pay special attention to diverse staffing and appropriate training for security guards and officials of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice operating in such shared space for worship.

To the Government of the United States

  • Rescind a waiver shielding Saudi Arabia from application of specific remedies mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, including appropriate sanctions aimed at ending religious persecution for “countries of particular concern.”
  • Enter into a binding agreement with Saudi authorities pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act to end incitement to hatred or discrimination against Shia and Sufi religious practices, as well as other religions.
  • Work with Saudi authorities to ensure removal of all criticism and stigmatization of Shia and Sufi religious practices, as well as other religions, from the Saudi education curriculum, including the Tawhid series.


Saudi authorities have not granted Human Rights Watch access to freely conduct in-country research since a November-December 2006 research mission to the country. Human Rights Watch staff have visited Saudi Arabia six times since 2006, but most of these visits remained tightly circumscribed. Human Rights Watch visits to Saudi Arabia have, however, included trips to the Eastern Province for meetings with Shia intellectuals, activists, and victims of human rights abuses.

In addition to visits, this report relies on telephone interviews and social media communications with Saudi human rights activists, religion experts, and Saudi Shia living inside and outside Saudi Arabia. To protect those we interviewed from retaliation, we have withheld names or used pseudonyms for our sources, unless they indicated a willingness to be named.

Much of the material used in preparing this report, including court rulings, social media posts, and video clips were collected by Saudi activists and shared with Human Rights Watch. Other materials, such as fatwas by Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas or the Saudi Tawhid education curriculum textbooks, are available online.

On July 10, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Saudi government enquiring about incitement to hatred or discrimination against Shia in Saudi Arabia. As of early September, Saudi authorities had not replied to Human Rights Watch.


Ashura: The tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, during which Twelver Shia religious communities hold mourning ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein.

Fatwa (pl. Fatawa): a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority.

Ghulah (or Ghaliyah): a term used to denote a Shia sect that advocates the divinity of Ali, used pejoratively against Shia who “exaggerate” the position of the family of the prophet.

Houthis: officially “Ansar Allah,” is a Zaidi Shia-led religious-political movement from northern Yemen.

Ikhwan: the first Saudi army made up of traditionally nomadic tribesmen who formed a significant military force under Saudi ruler Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Imamiya: A name for Ithna Ashariya or “Twelver” Shia Islam.

Ismailiya: Seveners,” a branch of Shia Islam. Seveners believe in seven imams who are the spiritual and political successors to the prophet Mohammad.

Ithna Ashariya: “Twelvers,” the largest branch of Shia Islam. Twelvers believe in twelve imams who are the spiritual and political successors to the prophet Mohammad.

Jafariya: A name for Ithna Ashariya or “Twelver” Shia Islam.

Kharijites (or Khuwarij): Term applied to an early Islamic sect that rebelled against the fourth caliph Ali after he agreed to a ceasefire with his rival Mu’awiyah.

Majus: derogatory term applied to Zoroastrians.

Manuwiyyin: adherents of Manicheanism.

Muharram: first month of the Islamic calendar, during which Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein.

Muwahiddin: advocates of tawhid or oneness of God, preferred moniker of followers of Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

al-Radifha or al-Rawafidh: literally “rejectionists,” a term that has applied to various groups since the eighth century, but is often used today as a general derogatory term for Shia Muslims.

Ridda: apostasy from Islam.

Salafi: follower of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf).

Salafism: a movement within Sunni Islam that advocates a return to the traditions of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf).

al-Shirk: association of other beings with God, polytheism.

Sufism: the phenomenon of mysticism within Islam characterized by particular values, ritual practices, doctrines and institutions.

Tawhid: monotheism or oneness of God.

Zaydiya: a Muslim sect which emerged in the eighth century out of Shia Islam. Zaydis are mostly found in northern Yemen.

I. Background

Saudi Shia make up 10 to 15 percent of the Saudi population and have inhabited areas of the Arabian Peninsula since the early centuries of Islam. They are predominately adherents of the “Twelver” or Ithna-Ashariya Shia creed and live primarily in areas of the Eastern Province around the al-Ahsa Oasis and the old port town Qatif, with a small community in Medina known as the Nakawila. There is also a significant population of Ismaili or “Sevener” Shia Muslims located around Najran in southern Saudi Arabia along the Yemeni border.[1]

Shia communities have lived under Saudi rule since 1913, when Abdulaziz bin Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, incorporated the areas of al-Ahsa and Qatif into his territory after the Ottoman rulers handed over the region to his advancing troops.[2]

The modern Saudi state is deeply intertwined with the Saudi religious establishment’s interpretation of Islam, which goes back to the origins of the Al Saud family’s rule over the territory more than two-and-a-half centuries ago. In 1744, the itinerant preacher Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab found refuge near today’s Riyadh with local chief Muhammad bin Sa'ud. They agreed to make common cause, with Abd al-Wahhab giving the ruler religious legitimacy integral to expand his realm, and the Al Saud family in exchange granting Abd al-Wahhab freedom to “purify” the inhabitants of what he saw as centuries of corrupt practices and to return them to the path of what he claimed to be “true” Islam.[3]

Abd al-Wahhab’s views on Shia Islam have heavily influenced the attitude of the Saudi state toward its Shia population. According to historians, king Abdulaziz “despised the Shiites,” but found himself caught between giving in to “the hatred that the Wahhabi 'ulama' have consistently shown toward Shiism,” and the realities of the Shiite areas’ high population not being easily subdued without large numbers of troops. Moreover, there were tangible benefits in being able to tax Shia financial resources to fund Saudi expansionism, in addition to the need to accommodate international diplomacy, especially British interests in the Gulf.[4] 

Nevertheless, the new Saudi state initially allowed “Wahhabi zealots [to] implement ... a repressive religious policy” toward the Shia, including demands of forced conversion.[5] In 1927, facing criticism from his Wahhabi fighting force, the Ikhwan, Abdulaziz permitted the issuance of a fatwa, or Islamic legal ruling, which called for the conversion of the Shia of al-Ahsa to Sunni Islam and proselytization of Abd Al-Wahhab’s version of Sunni Islam in Shia areas of Qatif.[6] This fatwa referred to Shia Muslims as rafidha, a term that means “rejectionist” and has been applied to various groups since the eighth century, but is often used today as a general derogatory term for Shia Muslims.[7] When conflict later arose between the Ikhwan and the king, the Ikhwan were crushed and disbanded in 1930, and repression of the Shia eased.[8]

Since the 1930s the Saudi royal family has historically attempted to act as an “arbiter” between influential Saudi clerics and Shia citizens by implicitly “protecting” them from the most extreme Wahhabi demands for the forced conversion or execution of Shia, while concurrently placating Sunni clerics by ensuring that Shia religious practices are largely kept out of public view.[9]

The severity of government repression of Shia citizens has fluctuated over the years, and consequently the Shia have maintained a fraught historical relationship with the state, erupting in civil disobedience campaigns as well popular protests on several occasions, including in the 1950s, 1979, and 2011-12. These demonstrations have demanded, among other things, an end to religious, political, and economic discrimination.[10]

State Discrimination Against Saudi Shia

Saudi Shia face systematic discrimination in the education system, the criminal justice system, religious practice, and in political participation.[11]

According to Saudi activists, Saudi Shia do not study Islamic Law at Saudi universities because of the anti-Shia biases of university law faculties and therefore Saudi Shia are not permitted to teach religion class in Saudi schools. All Shia pupils learn from Sunni teachers via the state-sponsored Sunni education curriculum. Interviewees claim that in practice Shia citizens are not permitted to serve as school principals outside of Shia enclaves.[12]

Nearly all judges and prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are Sunni; they are generally graduates of Sharia-law studies programs at Saudi governmental universities. In criminal cases, Sunni judges sometimes disqualify Shia witnesses on the basis of their sect and exclusively follow tenets of Sunni religious law in making their rulings. Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has officially permitted the existence of two courts in the Eastern Province to settle personal status, endowments, and inheritance issues for Saudi Shia according to the Shia Jaafari school of jurisprudence.[13]

Saudi authorities also inhibit Shia religious practices. In March 2016, Saudi authorities banned mosques in al-Ahsa from broadcasting the Shia version of the Muslim call to prayer, and authorities have disallowed Ashura processions in al-Ahsa since 1913.[14] In July

2015, Saudi Arabia’s health ministry suspended a female nurse for one day without pay because the sound of her mobile phone ring tone was the Shia call to prayer. (see figure above).[15]

Saudi authorities generally prohibit the building of Shia mosques outside Shia-majority enclaves. There are no licensed Shia mosques in Saudi major urban centers like Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar, where many Shia live.[16] The lone exception to this ban is Imam Hussein Mosque in Dammam’s al-`Anoud neighborhood, which Saudi authorities allowed to be built in the 1980s following extensive negotiations.[17] ISIS militants bombed the Imam Hussein Mosque on May 29, 2015, killing four men.[18]

Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch they were unaware of any cases in which Sunni citizens were punished for hosting prayers in communal halls or private homes, although there were several such cases involving Shia citizens. The activists said that without mosques, private meetings were the only way they could pray communally.[19]

The activists also said that Shia also face difficulties establishing Shia cemeteries outside of Shia enclaves. The government has refused to build cemeteries for Shia or allow them to bury their dead in regular cemeteries, meaning that when Shia die outside of Shia enclaves in Saudi Arabia their bodies must be sent to a Shia enclave for burial.[20]

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has historically excluded Saudi Shia from serving in certain public-sector jobs and high political office. There are currently no senior Shia diplomats or high-ranking military officers. Shia students generally cannot gain admission to military or security academies or find jobs within the security forces.[21] In 2014, then-king Abdullah appointed the first-ever Shia cabinet member, an Ismaili named Mohammed Abu Saq, who serves as minister of Shura Council affairs.[22] Saudi Arabia has only ever appointed one Shia ambassador, Jamil al-Jishi, who served as Saudi ambassador to Iran between 1999-2003.[23] No Shia woman has ever held a high-level political position.

Even attempts to bridge Sunni-Shia divides sometimes face government sanction. In November 2006, Saudi authorities pressured Shia religious scholars to disband a group they had formed to attempt, together with the national astronomical society, to unify diverse theological methods to detect the arrival of the new moon. The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year, and differences over dating the new moon, which heralds the start of religious holidays, is a matter of frequent Sunni-Shia contention.[24] On February 4, 2007, the Saudi police arrested Mikhlif al-Shammari, a Sunni human rights activist working toward greater Shia-Sunni understanding, and detained him for three months for having visited Shaikh Hasan al-Saffar, the top Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia.[25] Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court later sentenced al-Shammari in 2013 to five years in prison for “sowing discord” and criticizing Saudi officials in his online writings. In 2014 another criminal court sentenced him to two years in prison and 200 lashes for “sitting with Shia” among other speech-related offenses.[26]

The Saudi state, the government-supported Saudi religious establishment, and some elements of the wider Saudi Sunni community’s hostility and suspicion toward Saudi Shia reflects not just religious intolerance but also escalating sectarian tensions arising from broader regional dynamics. These include the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s conflict against the Zaydi Shia Houthi armed group (also known as Ansar Allah) in Yemen; the Shia politico-militant group Hezbollah’s political dominance in Lebanon; the sectarian cleavages in Syria that have deepened during the six-year civil war; Shia parties’ dominance over Iraqi politics; and fears on the part of Israel and Arab Gulf states about the influence of Shia-majority Iran over the Shia populations of Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Saudi foreign policy has exacerbated these tensions not only in the Yemen conflict but also in Bahrain, where it has supported the minority Sunni monarchy’s repression of both Sunni and Shia opposition groups.[27]

Anti-Shia Court Rulings

In addition to statements and comments by government officials, anti-Shia bias has also presented itself within the criminal justice system, which is entirely staffed by Sunni religious scholars. As of April 2017, Human Rights Watch does not know of any Shia citizens who have served as prosecutors or judges in criminal courts.[28] Shia to whom Human Rights Watch spoke almost universally alleged that false claims against Shia based on religiously motivated charges, such as cursing God, the Prophet, or his companions, are a staple of discriminatory acts against Shia.[29] In 2014, one Saudi Shia man claimed that the personal status court in Dammam had refused to hear his testimony because he was Shia.[30]

Human Rights Watch discovered and analyzed court rulings that appear to criminalize practice of Shia Islam or even contact with Shia Muslims. For example, on July 9, 2015 a Saudi court sentenced Shia citizen Zahir Hussein al-Bu Saleh to two months in jail and 60 lashes for hosting private group prayers in his father’s home in the Eastern Province town of Khobar, a city in which Saudi authorities do not permit Shia mosques to be built.

Eastern Province-based activists told Human Rights Watch that intelligence officials summoned al-Bu Saleh in late May, held him for a day, and referred his case for prosecution. He was summoned two days after a suicide bomber affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State, or ISIS, blew himself up inside a Shia mosque in the village of Qudaih, killing 23 people and wounding over 100.[31]

The official case notification document sent to al-Bu Saleh by the Khobar Criminal Court on June 25, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, says the case involves “violating Sharia or public rules of conduct.” (see figure on the following page)

According to local activists and media reports, the court convicted and sentenced al-Bu Saleh in a 15-minute session on July 9.[32]

In another case, in 2015, a Saudi court reportedly sentenced a 43-year old Saudi Shia woman and mother of seven to three months in jail and 120 lashes for reciting Shia slogans under her breath at the prophet’s mosque in Medina. Authorities originally arrested the woman, Noura al-Hanfoush, during the 2014 Hajj season, after an Egyptian woman heard her quietly reciting slogans and reported her to the police.[33]

In a third case, in 2014 the Medina Criminal Court sentenced a Saudi Shia man to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 Saudi Riyals ($9,450) for “writing or sending something that harms public morals” over a tweet on the social media platform Twitter in which he wrote: “I thought one day that Iran was the fire-worshiping Islamic Republic but after Abu Mit`ib [the late King Abdullah] invited them to Mecca it is confirmed that they are Muslims regardless of the fire worshiping Wahhabis.” According to the trial judgment, authorities immediately arrested the man even though he deleted the tweet.[34]

In a fourth case, the Khobar Criminal Court convicted Mikhlif al-Shammari on November 3, 2014 and sentenced him to two years in prison and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting a prominent Shia family in the Eastern Province in January 2013 after he had pledged to cease “inciting public opinion.”[35] He had made this pledge as a result of a previous criminal case, involving his critical writings and human rights work. The trial judgment included “sitting with Shia” among his alleged “crimes.” (see figure below):

Al-Shammari is the Eastern Province representative of a large Sunni clan from the central Najd region and has sought to improve relations between Sunnis and Shia.[36] He made national headlines in 2008 when he visited a Shia mosque in Qatif and prayed next to a Shia religious leader in a show of solidarity.[37]

In a fifth case involving 32 men for allegedly spying on behalf of Iran, Saudi authorities rounded up the suspects in 2013 and 2014, but did not bring them to trial until February 2016. The date is significant because in January Saudi Arabia and Iran cut diplomatic relations after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and Iranian protesters sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation.

Dubbed the “Iran Spy Trial,” Saudi authorities accused the men of a number of offenses constituting “high treason,” including meeting with Iranian “intelligence agents” and passing them confidential military information and background information on Shia communities in Mecca, Medina, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. But among charges that do not represent recognizable crimes, six were charged with “supporting demonstrations,” three with “distorting the reputation of the kingdom,” and three with attempting to “spread the Shia confession” in Saudi Arabia. One faced the charge of “planning with an Iranian intelligence element… to establish a company to spread Shia activities in [Eastern Province.]…”[38] (see figures below):

Another faced the charge of “endeavoring and attempting to establish a center especially for the Shia confession in the city of Mecca to spread the Shia confession in Mecca.”[39] (see figure below)

On December 6, 2016, the Specialized Criminal Court convicted 30 of the 32 men, sentencing 15 to death and 15 to 25 years in prison following an unfair trial.[40]

Saudi Shia have also alleged that dozens of Saudi Shia arrested following popular protests in the Eastern Province in 2011-12 were subjected to unfair trails and harsh judgments for protest-related activities. Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed seven separate trial judgments that the Specialized Criminal Court handed down in 2013 and 2014 against men and children accused of protest-related crimes. In all seven trials, detainees alleged that confessions were extracted through torture, but judges quickly dismissed these allegations without investigation, admitted the confessions as evidence, and then convicted the detainees almost solely based on these confessions, sometimes handing down death sentences.[41]

In nearly all the trial judgments analyzed by Human Rights Watch, defendants repudiated their confessions, saying they were coerced in conditions that in some cases amounted to torture, including beatings and prolonged solitary confinement. The court rejected the allegations out of hand without, in any of the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, appearing to take any steps to investigate the allegations of torture. Some defendants asked judges to request video footage from the prison that they said would show them being tortured. Others requested that the court summon interrogators as witnesses to inquire details on how confessions were obtained. In all cases judges ignored these requests. Two of the cases involved three defendants whom judges sentenced to death for crimes allegedly committed before they were 18.[42] In total, the Specialized Criminal Court has sentenced over 40 Saudi Shia to death over the protest, including prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whom Saudi authorities executed on January 2, 2016.[43]

In a sixth case, the Criminal Court of al-Ahsa in March 2017 sentenced a Saudi Shia man to 50 days in jail and 120 lashes for using his home to host readings of the passion play on the killing of the Imam Hussein, a common Shia practice during the month of Muharram.[44]

II. International Legal Standards

Hate Speech

States’ obligations regarding hate speech, including incitement to violence or discrimination, represent a developing area of international human rights law and are closely related to the right to freedom of expression. These obligations are addressed formally by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Saudi Arabia has not signed, but which represents an authoritative source and guideline that reflects international best practice.

Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression. The ICCPR permits governments to impose certain restrictions or limitations on freedom of expression only if such restriction is provided by law and is necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals. [45] Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, also guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to impart news to others by any means. Like the ICCPR, the Arab Charter allows for some restrictions, including those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.”[46]

The UN Human Rights Committee, which provides the authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR, wrote in General Comment 34: “Restrictive measures must conform to the principle of proportionality; they must be appropriate to achieve their protective function; they must be the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve their protective function; they must be proportionate to the interest to be protected.” The committee also stated that such restrictions “may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets, and human rights.”[47]

Saudi Arabia could therefore formally restrict incitement to discrimination or hatred provided it could show that such measures are necessary under the conditions established by the ICCPR and that the measures taken are proportional to the threat posed by such speech, are appropriate to achieving the goal of stopping hate speech, and are the least intrusive option.

In addition to allowing states to limit hate speech under certain limited conditions, the ICCPR also formally obliges states to prohibit the worst forms of hate speech such as incitement to hatred and incitement to discrimination. Article 20.2 states, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”[48] States therefore must formally prohibit and take criminal measures against those who engage in such forms of hate speech.

Due to increasing international attention around the issue of hate speech, in 2011 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights convened a series of expert workshops on the application of article 20 of the ICCPR. These experts noted serious flaws, including “the absence of the legal prohibition of incitement to hatred in many domestic legal frameworks around the world,” and the use of “variable terminology” that “is often inconsistent with article 20” in various legal provisions that do exist.[49] The experts further observed that attempts to apply article 20 have sometimes resulted in the use of vague blasphemy laws, which are counterproductive because they limit religious belief, dialogue, and debate, and there are “numerous examples” of the use of these laws to persecute religious minorities and dissenters.[50]

In 2012, these experts attempted to provide a path forward via the Rabat Plan of Action, which analyzes the issue of hate speech and makes specific recommendations for states attempting to comply with article 20 while upholding the right to freedom of expression and minority rights. The plan proposes a “high threshold for defining limitations on freedom of expression, for defining incitement to hatred, and for the application of article 20,” arguing that “incitement to hatred must refer to the most severe and deeply felt form of opprobrium.”[51] The experts therefore proposed a six-part threshold test to establish whether any particular speech can be lawfully limited, including the context of the speech, the position of the status of the speaker, the intent of the speech, the content or form of the speech, the extent or reach of the speech, and an assessment of the risk of resulting harm of the speech.[52]

Under this formula, it is Human Rights Watch’s firm conclusion that many comments by Saudi religious officials and other government employees could be lawfully restricted as incitement to hatred or discrimination, especially given that the Saudi state already enforces a system of discrimination against Saudi Shia. These officials hold high government positions and have a clear role in and influence on government decision-making, including determining the content of the religious education curriculum in Saudi schools. Many also exert enormous influence through newspapers, TV shows, and social media, including Twitter followers numbering in the millions. These officials are also able to directly influence the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia, given that the justice system is entirely composed of religiously-trained jurists and lawyers tasked with applying Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islamic law.[53]

For other types of hate speech that do not meet the high threshold, the Rabat Plan of Action recommends that states should take other positive measures to combat such speech outside of legislation. These measures include “engagement in broad efforts to combat negative stereotypes of, and discrimination against, individuals and communities on the basis of their nationality, ethnicity, religion or belief,” promotion of intercultural understanding, and setting a “public policy and regulatory framework which promotes pluralism and diversity of the media.”[54]

Saudi Arabia should, at a very minimum, cease to support or provide a platform for officials who issue hate speech against Shia citizens and take active steps to combat anti-Shia discrimination and bias. When speech by these officials or private individuals rises to the level of incitement to hatred or discrimination, Saudi authorities have a duty to halt such speech through criminal legislation and other means, but only in a restrictive manner consistent with international human rights standards.

Discrimination Against Religious Minorities

International law prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the rights of religious and other minorities such as Saudi Shia citizens. The most important international human rights treaties that spell out the meaning and extent of these prohibitions and protections include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention against Discrimination in Education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[55] In addition, the United Nations has passed declarations that articulate human rights standards and best practices in matters of discrimination. These are the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981), the UNGA Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities (1992), and the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978).[56]

The 1978 UNESCO declaration declares “[a]ny distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, ethnic or national origin or religious intolerance motivated by racist considerations” to be incompatible with human rights.[57] The Convention against Discrimination in Education, in article 1, also includes religious factors among prohibited discrimination. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief declares that “discrimination between human beings on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity.”[58]

The prohibition against discrimination applies to the enjoyment of all fundamental rights, including the rights to development, education, work, and access to justice. States are bound to guarantee equal access for everyone to “[e]conomic, social and cultural rights, in particular: The rights to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, [and] to just and favourable remuneration.”[59]

The prohibition against racist laws, policies, and acts obliges states to take preventive and remedial action against racism. According to the UNGA’s 1992 declaration, states are obliged to protect minorities, such as the Shia, by taking “measures to create favourable conditions to enable persons belonging to minorities to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs.”[60]

The 1992 declaration also says that states must protect the identity of minorities “within their respective territories” by encouraging “conditions for the promotion of that identity” and measures allowing minority members to “participate fully in the economic progress and development in their country.”[61] The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights recognizes that “education shall enable all persons … to promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups.”[62] The Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically requires the education of a child to be directed to the “development of ... his or her own cultural identity, language and values” and gives a child of a religious minority the right “to enjoy his or her own culture, [and] to profess and practise his or her own religion.”[63] The 1981 UNGA declaration states that, in education, a child “shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents.”[64]

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which reviews state compliance with the International Covenant protecting this set of rights, states that a violation of the right to education includes “the introduction or failure to repeal legislation which discriminates against individuals or groups, on any of the prohibited grounds, in the field of education; the failure to take measures which address de facto educational discrimination; [and] the use of curricula inconsistent with the objectives set out in Article 13 (1) [principles of the right to education].”[65]

In the 1981 UNGA declaration, the “freedom to have a religion ... and freedom ... to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching" is protected, and “coercion which would impair [t]his freedom” is prohibited.[66] More specifically, assembly for worship, observance of religious holidays, maintaining and erecting buildings for worship, acquiring items for use in religious rituals, religious teaching and appointment of religious leaders, fundraising for religion, and communication with coreligionists are activities that fall within the protection of freedom of religion.[67]

International law not only protects the identity of minorities and prohibits discrimination, but guarantees the rights of minorities to actively participate in the public and cultural life of society, including by “maintain[ing] their own associations.”[68] Minorities have “the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority.”[69]

III. Incitement to Discrimination and Hate Speech by Government-Affiliated Religious Institutions and Clerics

Saudi government-appointed religious scholars and clerics have demonized Shia citizens in official documents, speeches, and on social media. Given the scholars’ government affiliation, some of these statements represent clear instances of incitement to discrimination.

Council of Senior Religious Scholars

Human Rights Watch analyzed official fatwas (Islamic religious rulings) by Saudi Arabia’s governmental Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, whose members are drawn from the 21-member Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the country’s highest religious body. The council represents an official arm of the state, maintains offices that are government property, and its members receive a government salary.[70] A primary duty of the permanent committee is to issues religious rulings in response to Saudis and other Muslims who submit questions for clarifications on Islamic belief and practice. These answers are posted publicly on the committee’s website.

On the website of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, Human Rights Watch identified at least seven fatwas that stigmatize and attack Shia religious beliefs, and some of the seven refer to them as rafidha or rawafidh. These statements create a narrative of hostility emanating from the Saudi state that calls for discrimination against Shia, forbidding marriage with them and even basic interactions. The fatwas sometimes attack and castigate Shia as polytheists or mushrikeen (those who ascribe a partner to God or polytheists) based on their religious practices, especially visits to Shia shrines and graves of past religious figures. These allegations carry serious and grave implications given that Saudi courts have issued death sentences for apostacy, and could in certain circumstances incite violence against Shia citizens.

Some rulings of the committee are blatantly discriminatory in stating that Sunnis cannot marry Shia. For example, in response to a woman requesting if she could divorce a man who initially claimed to be Sunni but revealed after their marriage that he was Shia, one fatwa (no. 20011) stated “it is not permissible to give women who adhere to Sunna in marriage to Shia men or communists. If the marriage contract is concluded it will be deemed invalid, as it is known that Shiites supplicate to the prophet’s household and seek their help, which are acts of major shirk (associating others with God)” (see figure below).[71]

Fatwas of the Permanent Committee, A Muslim man marrying a Kafir, Fatwa no. 20011

In a similar case, a man wanted to remarry his Shia Bahraini wife after divorcing her for performing “acts contrary to Islam” such as “visiting al-Najaf where they worship graves.” The fatwa in response to this case (no. 2706) concludes that he can only remarry the woman if she is Sunni, otherwise “it is impossible to continue the relationship.”[72]

On whether Sunnis from Iran can travel together with Iranian Shia to Mecca to fulfill the Islamic obligation of performing the Hajj one time in a person’s life, another fatwa (no. 8308) rules that this is allowed, but that “they should exercise extreme caution lest they be deceived by the false Shiite doctrines.”[73] In March 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that Iranian pilgrims could travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj in 2017 after no Iranian pilgrims had participated in 2016 due to a deterioration of relations between the two countries.[74]

In response to a question regarding Western NGOs “sponsoring” or otherwise financially supporting Muslim children in the developing world, one ruling issued by the council concludes that this is prohibited, arguing, “We see that Christians and rafidha [Shia Muslims] and their like are enemies of Islam and the Sunna and will use every method and know every trick to obtain guardianship, custody, and upbringing of Muslim children.” This guardianship would then make “Muslim children become unbelievers and polytheists, or Christians and Jews, or rawafidh [Shia Muslims]….,” according to the ruling.[75]

Some fatwas issued by Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas have appeared in other anti-Shia publications. For example, a 1996 anti-Shia treatise, entitled “Selected Shia Doctrines,” quotes directly from a state fatwa discussing whether Sunnis can eat meat resulting from Shia sacrifices, such animal sacrifices carried out on Shia holy days or sacrifices dedicated to members of the family of the prophet, stating, “If the issue is as mentioned by the questioner, that there are people who adhere to the Jaafari Mathhab [or Twelver Shia sect], and they call upon Ali, Hassan, and Hussein, then they are polytheists who have apostatized from Islam. We seek refuge from God from that.” The treatise, authored by hardline cleric Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Salafi, received an endorsement by then-Saudi Grand Mufti and member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars Abdulaziz bin Baz, who wrote the forward to the treatise, stating that he “found it to be a beneficial booklet, which is suitable for distribution in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] and the Gulf.”[76]

Human Rights Watch also analyzed speeches and social media activity by government-affiliated clerics and religious figures that stigmatize Shia and incite discrimination against them.

One prominent Sheikh, Abdullah bin Abd al-Rahman al-Jabreen, a former member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, made numerous anti-Shia statements prior to his death in 2009. His website remains active and his fatwas remain influential in Saudi religious circles. Many of al-Jabreen’s fatwas deride Shia as unbelievers. For example, in one fatwa (no. 12461), in responding to a question on how to interact with rafidha, al-Jabreen responds: “It is not permissible to encourage them, congratulate them on their holidays, or purchase their goods or from their businesses. Likewise, it is not permissible to precede them in greeting or stand up for them, or seat them in gatherings…”[77]

In another fatwa asking whether it is permissible for a Sunni to marry a Shia, al-Jabreen responds: “Rafidha declare Sunnis infidels as found in their well-known books and do not pray with them. Therefore, Sunnis declare them unbelievers because they object to the Quran… and worship Ali bin Abi Talib, Hassan, Hussein, and Zein al-Abideen and pray to them without God … Because of this their sacrifices and marriage to their women are forbidden.”[78]

In one recorded question and answer session with Sheikh Saleh bin Fawzan al-Fawzan, a current member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, a man asks whether it is permissible to call rafidha and Shia “our brothers.” The sheikh responds, “We are exonerated by God for this statement, they are not our brothers … rather they are brothers of Satan…. Whoever says they are our brothers must repent.”[79]

One Salafi website provides links to at least 11 anti-Shia statements Sheikh al-Fawzan has made over the years, in most of which he derides Shia as “unbelievers.”[80] In one, al-Fawzan states that Shia “lie about God, his prophet, and the consensus of Muslims … there is no doubt about the unbelief of these [people].”[81]

In September 2016, Saudi Arabia’s current grand mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh told the Okaz Newspaper that Iranians, who are mostly Shia, are not Muslims, stating “We must understand that they are not Muslims, they are sons of Majus [a pejorative term for Zoroastrian], and their hostility with Muslims is a longstanding matter, particularly with Sunnis.”[82]

Fatwas and Statements by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz

Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz was a highly-influential Saudi cleric who served a grand mufti from 1993 until his death in 1999. Bin Baz made a number of statements that incite discrimination against Shia, and his statements and rulings remain influential among Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. They are all available in English on the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Issuing Fatwas website, and the council has not repudiated them.

For example, bin Baz was asked in an interview whether it is permissible to cooperate with Shia in external struggles. Bin Baz responds that “this is not possible,” and that until the rafidha stop practices like “abhorring” and “insulting” the Prophet’s Companions, worshipping members of the Prophet’s extended family and believing that the Twelve Imams are infallible (all of which he considers some of “the most misleading falsehoods”), “there should be no form of cooperation between [Sunnis] and them.”[83] In 1982, bin Baz said in a speech that certain rafidha practices constitute riddah, or apostasy. Apostasy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.[84]

In responding to a question regarding the difference between the Sunni and the Shia, bin Baz noted that some Shia are unbelievers while others are not, but that “among the most evil of them are the Twelver Imams and Al-Nusayriyyah [referring to the Alawi community] who are also called Al-Rafidah.”[85] He goes on to note that, “Not everyone who claims to be a Muslim can be accepted as such.”[86] In other writings, bin Baz noted that a child should disown his parents who are rafidha, but continue to treat them kindly because they are his parents, that Muslims should not offer the funeral prayer for members of the “rafidha” group, and that it is forbidden to eat food or take part in certain “rafidha” rituals.[87]

Bin Baz’s statements, which remain listed on the website of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, have led directly to clear instances of discrimination against Saudi Shia. For example, in 1993, bin Baz declared the Shia Ramadan festival of Qarqiun a heretical “innovation.” Almost fifteen years later, in September 2007, a local education official in the Eastern Province, Ahmad Bil-Ghanaim, the director of education in al-Ahsa, relied on Bin Baz’s ruling to issue a directive to all schools banning all Qarqiun festivities.[88]

Anti-Shia Comments by Other Saudi State Officials

In addition to government clerics, other state officials have also made remarks that incite discrimination against Shia and stigmatize them as disloyal citizens. Saad al-Shithri, for example, was named by King Salman as a personal advisor one week after the King assumed the throne in January 2015. In a 2006 video that shows al-Shithri addressing a group of a students at a conference, he notes that in dealing with non-Sunni groups one must “be careful of their heresy and warn against it.” He affirms, however, that these groups remain Muslim.[89]

On September 10, 2015, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s central al-Qassim province, royal family member Faisal bin Mash`al bin Abdulaziz, published an opinion article in the Saudi al-Jazirah newspaper in order to counter criticism of the message of Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab. The article portrays Shia Islam as a nefarious opponent to state sponsored Salafi ideology. For example, he writes, “There is no doubt we see that for the West, its excuse for ideology against the Sunni sect is from esoteric al-Manuwiyyin [Manicheans] and Shia, as well as its excuse to fight and be hostile to all that is Sunni.”[90] In assessing what went wrong in Islam prior to Abd al-Wahhab, he states that an internal rift led to “political religious extremist groups such as the Kharijites [a 7th center religious sect] and other, until the appearance of the Shia sect, which is influenced by pagan beliefs…”[91] Finally, he lists Ismailis, a Shia sect present in the southern Saudi city Najran, as among the “most dangerous” manifestations of polytheism that Sheikh Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab fought against.[92]

Prince Saud bin Nayef, governor of the Eastern Province, where the majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens live, stirred controversy in April 2015 for comments to al-Medina newspaper after assailants shot two policemen in the Shia-majority town Qatif. He stated, “There are good men and there are also evil scum, while our country is going through what it is going through and standing together as one block, we find the descendants of the fickle Safavid Abdullah Ibn Saba who try to divide that block…”[93] The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran from 1501-1736 and oversaw the conversion of the country to Shia Islam.[94] Shia activists in the Eastern Province told Human Rights Watch that they understood Prince Saud’s comments to mean that he believed Saudi Shia are disloyal citizens.[95]

IV. Hate Speech and Anti-Shia Rhetoric on Social Media

Saudi clerics have vigorously employed new communications tools and social media to propagate anti-Shia hate speech. Some have social media followings numbering in the millions. This section is not an exhaustive account of Saudi clerics’ social media activity or anti-Shia statements, but offers examples of hate speech that are common within the religious discourse of Saudi Arabia, particularly on Twitter. Most of the clerics in this section are not members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, but a majority do have government connections via direct employment in government institutions or advisory roles. Given the large influence and popularity of many of these clerics and their influence on Muslims around the globe this rhetoric can amount to incitement to hatred and discrimination, which the Saudi state has an obligation to curtail.

Criticism of Shia religious practices in general is normally protected speech under international human rights law, but when such speech by government officials promotes a culture of intolerance or hostility Saudi authorities should take steps to repudiate and counteract it.

Hate Speech and Incitement to Discrimination

One religious scholar who has propagated anti-Shia hate speech, Mohammad al-Arifi, is an assistant professor at the governmental King Saud University in Riyadh and boasts nearly 17.1 million Twitter followers.[96] In 2007, he gave a Friday sermon entitled “Beliefs of rafidha” in which he castigates Shia and compares them to Jews, accusing them of making up their own religious rules.[97] In 2012, he tweeted and used the derogatory term “al-Rafidhi” to refer to a Shia father that allegedly refused to allow his son’s organs to be transplanted into a Sunni, stating:

A doctor spoke to me: A child is brain dead, and I said to his father (an al-Rafidhi) that we have a child here who needs a liver transplant; do you think I could take your son’s liver? The father asked, ‘is the one who needs it Sunni or Shia?’ I told him Sunni, and he said that, no, he would not allow it. (see figure below)[98]

August 2, 2012 Tweet by Mohammad al-Arifi.

© 2017 Private

On June 15, 2013, al-Arifi spoke at a conference supporting the Syrian opposition in Cairo, during which he implored God to “tear apart [Shia pro-Assad fighters] in these lands,” and “pour on them the whip of torment.”[99] Al-Arifi has been barred from entry by both the UK and Switzerland based on his statements, including his comments about Shia and Jews.[100]

Another cleric who has propagated anti-Shia hate speech, Nasser al-Omar, is president of the International Organization for the Management of the Qur’an and a board member of the Muslim Scholars Association. He has 4.4 million Twitter followers. In January 2011, Saudi Arabia’s minister of Islamic affairs inaugurated the new office of al-Omar’s Diwan al-Muslim Foundation in Riyadh.[101] Members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars have appeared with him at public events. [102] Al-Omar is the author of one of the most notorious anti-Shia treatises in circulation. The 1993 treatise, entitled “The Situation of the Rejectionists in the Lands of Monotheism,” brands Shia as unbelievers and enemies of Islam. It also names prominent Saudi Shia and accuses them of trying to take over key sectors of the countries like business and education. He also warns against excessive reproduction by Saudi Shia (see figure below).[103]

In April 2015, al-Omar tweeted: “The Sheikh of Islam [Ibn Taymiya] said: No enemy has come to fight Muslims with whom the rafidha have not joined. History over the course of centuries has proven this. So have we learned who our enemy is?”[104]

April 26, 2015 Tweet by Nasser al-Omar

© 2017 Private

In another 2012 tweet al-Omar wrote: “The rafidha are the most renowned in the history of the Islamic nation for treachery and breaking vows, after the Jews! (see figure below)[105]

January 1, 2012 Tweet by Nasser al-Omar.

© 2017 Private

Another sheikh who has propagated anti-Shia hate speech, Ali al-Maliki, has worked in a variety of government positions, including at the Ministry of Education and at the royal court. He has 432,000 Twitter followers.[106]

In 2012, he tweeted: “With bravery the rafidha bastards must be stopped because an illegitimate child only does what is forbidden, it’s in their blood” (see figure below).[107]

April 9, 2012 Tweet by Ali al-Maliki.

© 2017 Private

He also tweeted in 2012: “The al-Rafidhi Shia man, when he is a child, is acceptable, but when he grows up and licks the [Shia] sect, God will tear his face off with a pig’s face – even when you see their faces you will say they look like the front side of a Volkswagen.”[108]

March 5, 2012 Tweet by Ali al-Maliki.

© 2017 Private

Another cleric who has propagated anti-Shia hate speech, Dr. Ibrahim al-Fares, is a former member of the education department at King Saud University in Riyadh and has 178,000 Twitter followers. Al-Fares published a lengthy treatise on Shia Islam on the website entitled “The rafidha series, belief and purpose.” The treatise begins, “It is necessary for Sunnis to remain permanently vigilant against the danger of Shia rafidha. They should know that negligence will have dire consequences. Whoever follows the rafidha across history finds that they have no enemy other than Sunnis…”[109]

He has used Twitter to attack Shia on numerous occasions, calling them the “bastard offspring born of a marriage of Majus and Jews” as well as rawafidh.[110] He has also accused Shia of trying to infiltrate Sunni communities by using non-Shia names and sending pregnant women to give birth other areas of the country so that their children’s birth certificates will not indicate Shia-majority areas.[111]

Al-Fares directly called for the exclusion of Saudi Shia from holding senior positions or being in sensitive locations, in one Tweet writing: “If it were up to me, I’d exclude all the rawafidh and their ilk from all sensitive places and senior positions and apply the law of divide and rule to make it easier to monitor and keep an eye on them” (see figure below).[112]

September 5, 2o15 Tweet by Dr. Ibrahim al-Fares.

© 2017 Private

In a 2014 Tweet, al-Fares accuses Shia of being disloyal spies for Iran, calling again for them not to be appointed to senior positions: “Beware of employing the rawafidh in important, sensitive positions. They are spies, loyal to their sources of authority in Iran and their ilk. They will have our important secrets sooner than we imagine” (see figure below).[113]

October 28, 2014 Tweet by Dr. Ibrahim Fares.

© 2017 Private

Other Anti-Shia Rhetoric that Saudi Authorities Should Repudiate

Other Saudi clerics have propagated rhetoric that falls short of incitement to hatred or discrimination but nevertheless contributes to and reaffirms the dominant anti-Shia discourse in Saudi Arabia. Given Saudi Arabia’s longstanding discrimination against Shia, Saudi authorities should take steps to repudiate and counteract anti-Shia comments by these clerics.

One such cleric, Al-Sharif Hatem bin Aref al-Awni, is a former member of the Saudi Shura Council, the country’s highest consultative body, and currently holds a position at Um al-Qura University in Mecca. On May 22, following the bombing of a Shia mosque in Qatif, al-`Awni wrote on his public Facebook profile:

Today there was a Friday sermon in Mecca that called for the destruction of the rafidha, and he didn’t realize that his calls were certainly answered before he announced them in Qatif! Blessings are not obtained except for holy men, and the virtuous are answered before they call (see figure below).[114]

May 22, 2015 Facebook Post by Al-Sharif Hatem bin Aref al-Awni.

© 2017 Private

In another post the following day al-Awni reversed course and stated it is impermissible to declare Shia unbelievers or kill them. It is unknown why he changed his position.[115]

Another religious scholar who has propagated anti-Shia rhetoric that the Saudi authorities should repudiate, Abdulaziz al-Tarifi, is a former researcher for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs.[116] He remains influential with nearly one million Twitter followers.[117]

On May 18, 2015, al-Tarifi tweeted that Shia are part of a conspiracy with Christians and Jews, “Previously Jews and Christians did not collude with rafidha against Islam as they do today. They were colluding in one country, and today in every country.” (see figure below).[118]

May 18, 2015 Tweet by Abdulaziz al-Tarifi.

© 2017 Private

On May 5, al-Tarifi tweeted “The West calls for a coming together of Sunni and rafidha, but in secret they call for rafidha to oppress Sunnis. The matter is abbreviated for both sides: The Christians do not have trustworthiness and the rafidha do not have Islam. (see figure below)[119]

May 12, 2015 Tweet by Abdulaziz al-Tarifi.

© 2017 Private

Another prominent sheikh, Mohammad al-Barrak, is a professor at Um al-Qura University in Mecca, a governmental university. He has 316,000 Twitter followers.[120] In May 15, 2015 he released a series of anti-Shia Tweets, including: “Opposites do not come together; the Noble Quran does not get corrupted; The Shia rafidha religion is comprised of the delusion, myths, and vices.”[121] He followed this with another: “If every invalid sect came to together, the worst of them when the total is reached is what is contained in the religion of the Shia rafidha.” (see figures below).[122]

May 20, 2015 Tweets by Mohammad al-Barrak.

© 2017 Private

May 20, 2015 Tweets by Mohammad al-Barrak.

© 2017 Private


In a 2013 Tweet al-Barrak called for the destruction of Shia shrines, writing: “The rafidha place no value on the mosques of Muslims, but they move the world for their shrines of polytheism. So the mujahidin should level their shrines to the ground and erase their traces” (see figure below).[123]

July 31, 2013 Tweet by Mohammad al-Barrak.

© 2017 Private

Another cleric who has propagated anti-Shia rhetoric that the Saudi authorities should repudiate, Dr. Mohammad al-Nojimi, is a professor at the High Judicial Institute, part of the governmental Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. He has 127,000 Twitter followers.[124] In March 2015, he tweeted: “Understand! We do not support Daesh [Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS], we are against them; the annihilation of Daesh and Khairijites [a 7th century Muslims sect] is easy, but the Majus Rafidha are more dangerous and difficult to annihilate. Understand my brother!”[125]

March 20, 2015 tweet by Dr. Mohammad al-Nojimi.

© 2017 Private

V. Anti-Shia Rhetoric in Public School Textbooks

Human Rights Watch has documented many episodes of discrimination and harassment against Shia students in the Saudi education system. For example, in 2006, Sunni teachers in schools in al-Ahsa called Shia students “unbelievers” on several occasions, which students recorded on their cellphones. In March 2008, an Ismaili in Riyadh recounted how a Sunni teacher had called his daughter an unbeliever and expelled her from his class.[126]

Beyond discrimination against Shia students, Saudi Shia teachers and activists have long-complained about anti-Shia bias in Ministry of Education religion textbooks used in Saudi public schools, arguing that these texts denigrate Shia religious beliefs and practices and lead directly to anti-Shia discrimination. Criticism of Shia religious practices in general is normally speech that Saudi Arabia should protect under freedom of expression, but the authorities should not allow stigmatization of Shia Muslims as unbelievers as part of the school curriculum given the curriculum’s role in perpetuating anti-Shia discrimination in Saudi society.

Textbook Controversy and Reform Promises

Saudi religion textbooks have provoked widespread controversy over the years, especially after the September 11, 2011 attacks, facing accusations that they propagate anti-Semitic and anti-Christian content, intolerant viewpoints toward other religious traditions, and promote holy war against “unbelievers.” For example, in 2006 research by Freedom House pointed out that one of the secondary school books contained the text “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus,” while finding that another book said “[d]o not yield to them [Christians and Jews] on a narrow road out of honor and respect.”[127]

Saudi diplomats have responded to this criticism by pledging curriculum reform. In November 2005, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, then-Saudi ambassador to the United States, told a conference “[w]e are updating our educational curriculums and removing any material that can be possibly interpreted as advocating intolerance or extremism.”[128] In 2006, then-Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s education reform at a press conference in Washington, stating:

The education reforms in Saudi Arabia go beyond textbook rewriting. And they go into teacher training, directions or the messages that are given to children in the formative years a… the whole system of education is being transformed from top to bottom. Textbooks are only one of the steps that has been taken by Saudi Arabia.[129]

Turki al-Faisal claimed in March 2006 that Saudi authorities had “eliminated what might be perceived as intolerance from old textbooks that were in our system,” but a later study of 12 Saudi religion textbooks by the human rights group Freedom House found that while some of the content had been altered, the religion curriculum “continue[d] to propagate an ideology of hate toward the ‘unbeliever,’ which includes Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others.”[130]

In 2011, the US Department of State commissioned the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (IRCD) to conduct a comprehensive review of Saudi religion textbooks, but the state department faced criticism after it declined to release the results of the study. The State Department insisted that it is continuing its work with Saudi authorities to fix the curriculum.[131]

In March 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child requested information on whether the government had removed any discriminatory stereotypes against religious minorities from school curricula.[132] The government stated that no discriminatory stereotypes were included in its school curricula.[133] The Commmitee called on Saudi Arabia to “remove, as a matter of priority, all content that is derogatory of religious minorities from textbooks.”[134]

According to the 2017 US International Religious Freedom Report, Saudi officials stated in February 2017 that the “final stage of revisions to high school textbooks was underway, with revisions to grade 11 and 12 texts yet to be completed.” The commission noted, however, that while some intolerant content had been reduced it continued to include “derogatory language about non-Sunni Muslims.”[135]

On June 14, 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs that one of the initiatives of the new Riyadh-based Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology is “to publish new textbooks that go into the schools that are in the mosques around the world … to replace textbooks that are out there today that do advocate extreme Wahhabism viewpoints around the justification for violence.” Tillerson did not specifically address Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks.[136]

Condemnation of Shia Beliefs and Practices

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch review of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education-produced school religion books for the 2016-17 school year found that much of the content disparaging other religions remains in these texts despite Saudi Arabia’s reform pledges. The curriculum, entitled Tawhid or “monotheism,” consists of 45 textbooks and student workbooks for the primary, middle, and secondary education levels.[137] Human Rights Watch did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary, or Qur’an recitation.[138]

Saudi Arabia’s Tawhid curriculum does not make direct reference to Shia Islam or use derogatory terms like rafidha. Instead, the texts harshly criticize practices and traditions closely associated with Shia Islam in broad terms, in many cases labeling them evidence of shirk or polytheism that will result in their removal from Islam and eternal damnation for those who practise them. Saudi activists and experts consulted by Human Rights Watch said that Saudi students would immediately understand the targets of the criticism found in these texts as Shia beliefs and practices even though the texts do not use the word Shia, though some of the criticisms would apply equally to Sufi religious practices.

The curriculum specifically identifies itself with Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’a or Sunni Islam. The first lesson of the sixth grade second semester book is entitled “the method of Sunnis in doctrine,” and defines Sunnis as those “who formed a consensus on the truth and were not disunited in religion.”[139] The level one textbook on the secondary level goes further, arguing that Sunni Islam has received the “best” of that afforded to nation of the prophet Mohammad, because “they represent the true Islam, both in theory and practice.” (see figure below).[140]

Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Joint Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 33.

© 2017 Private

In addition to its stated preference for Sunni Islam, all levels of the Tawhid curriculum single out and condemn beliefs and practices associated with Shia reverence for early Islamic religious figures among the family of the Prophet Mohammad such as Ali, the fourth caliph, his sons Hassan and Hussein, and the Imams of Twelver and Ismaili Shiism. Other condemned practices include Shia pilgrimages to holy sites such as tombs of revered religious figures and tawassul, or “intercession,” by which Shia Muslims call on the prophet or members of the prophet’s family as intermediaries to God.[141]

Saudi state religious education textbooks disparage these practices throughout the primary, middle, and secondary school levels, referring to them in stereotyped terms such as “worshiping,” “prostrating before,” “reverencing” the dead as well as “supplication to,” “swearing by,” “seeking refuge or assistance from,” or “sacrificing” to the dead. “The dead” in these instances is understood by a Saudi audience to include revered figures in Shia Islam among the family of the prophet Mohammad, though Shia argue that these descriptions are not necessarily accurate.[142]

Human Rights Watch found that in eleven places the primary school books alone condemn “supplication to anyone other than God,” a thinly veiled reference to the Shia practice of tawassul. The text condemns “supplication” in various terms, including supplication to “the righteous,” “the dead,” or at “graves” and “shrines.” For example, the fourth grade second semester book cites several examples of “the greatest shirk or polytheism,” the second of which is “supplication to those in graves or shrines to relieve stress or obtain a livelihood.”[143] The defined punishment for this is “removal from the Islamic community and eternal damnation in hell.” (see figure below).[144] The fifth grade first semester textbook likewise states that “it is not permissible to supplicate to anyone but God most high, whoever supplicates to anyone other than God most high has committed shirk.”[145]

Tawhid, Student Book, Fourth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17 p. 31.

© 2017 Private

The sixth grade first semester al-tawheed textbook is regularly singled out by Saudi Shia activists as among the most blatant in terms of condemnation of Shia practices. It contains a chapter entitled “the greatest Shirk,” which defines polytheism as “ascribing a partner to God most high in his lordship, divinity, or his names or characteristics. For example, praying to those in graves or shrines to relieve stress or obtain a livelihood” (see figure on the following page).[146]

Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 27.

© 2017 Private

The same textbook states that among the “examples of shirk in [God’s] lordship” are: “what those extremists believe who worship graves and shrines who claim that the souls of the forefathers move around in the universe and direct it.” Next to this section is a photo marked “shrine” which appears to show a grave draped in a green cover. Shia activists and experts told Human Rights Watch that Saudis and Muslims generally would understand the shrine in the photo to be a Shia shrine (see figure below).[147] Another example of this kind of shirk is “believing that anyone knows that which is hidden [or supernatural] along with God,” a clear reference to the Shia belief that Imams have secret knowledge of the unseen.[148] As with the previous examples, the punishment is removal from the Islamic community and eternal damnation.

Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 32.

© 2017 Private

The photo of the grave draped with a green cover as an example of an “illicit” shrine is used continually throughout the Tawhid curriculum. Human Rights Watch found seven places in the primary, middle, and secondary curriculum that use the same photo. Similarly, the curriculum condemns in at least six places the practice of building mosques or shrines on top of graves, a clear reference to Shia or Sufi pilgrimage sites. The Secondary Level Three Semester textbook contains a section entitled, “People’s violation of the teachings of the prophet with graves,” and states that “many people have violated what the prophet forbade in terms of bida’ or “illicit innovations” with graves and committed what he prohibited and because of that fell into bida’ or the greatest shirk” by “building mosques and shrines on top of graves.”[149] The text also states that people use shrines as a place to commit other acts of shirk or bida’, including: “praying at them, reading at them, sacrificing to them and those [interred] in them, seeking help from them, or making vows by them…” (see figure on the following page).[150]

Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104.

© 2017 Private

The second semester of the seventh-grade text expresses similar sentiment, arguing that “those who take the graves of prophets and the righteous as mosques are evil-natured.”[151]

Other texts condemn worshiping graves, circumambulating graves, sacrificing to graves, or being obsessed with graves.[152] Shia activists and experts told Human Rights Watch they do not perform such practices, but that they are likely Sunni stereotypes of Shia practices.[153]

The religion textbooks contain more explicit references to Shia practices in other places. For example, the infamous sixth grade first semester textbook condemns “wailing” over the dead, which it cites as an example of “unbelief.” Wailing is closely associated with Shia flagellation and mourning rituals around the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein known as Ashoura during the first month of the Islamic calendar. The text describes wailing as “raising of the voice in regret over a dead person and supplication by bursting into loud laments.”[154]

In addition, the textbooks proscribe the practice of swearing an oath to anyone other than God, labeling such swearing a form of shirk. The sixth grade first semester textbook cites as an example swearing by Hussein, which is a Shia practice (see figure below).[155]

Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 58.

© 2017 Private

A fourth-grade book forbids the Shia practice of using the name Abd al-Hussein or servant of Hussein, arguing that a name can only include one of the 99 names of God following “servant of.” (see figure below).[156]

Tawhid, Student Book, Fourth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 22.

© 2017 Private

The texts also criticize “exaggeration” in Shia reverence for the family of the prophet. A seventh-grade text argues that “exaggeration with regards to the family of the prophet or raising them over their [rightful] place which God gave them is one of the causes of shirk,” citing as examples “supplicating to them,” “seeking their help,” and “alleging that they have the power to know the unseen.” (see figure below).[157]

Tawhid, Student Book, Middle Level One, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 18.

© 2017 Private

The first level secondary school text makes a similar point, stating that one of the reasons shirk “returned” and “ignorance spread” in recent centuries is “exaggeration with regards to the prophets, the rulers, and the righteous on the pretext of love of for them, whereby shrines were built on their graves, and they were turned into worshiped idols…”[158]

A section of the fifth level secondary school text makes explicit reference to Shia views on the infallibility of Imams as well as their practice of tawassul or intercession:

The Sunnis are innocent of those who exaggerate [the place of] the family of the prophet and claim that they are infallible, and those who create
hostility against the family of the prophet and slander them, and the way of the innovators who make intercession with the family of the prophet and make them lords other than God (see on below).[159]

Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Five, 2016-17, p. 101.

© 2017 Private


This report was researched and written by Adam Coogle, researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, with extensive research support from Kristine Beckerle, researcher, Hiba Zayadin, research assistant, and Oakley Haight, intern with the Middle East and North Africa division.

The report was reviewed by a Middle East and North Africa deputy director; Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor; and Tom Porteous, deputy program director. Sarkis Balkhian, a consultant in the Middle East and North Africa division, provided editorial and production assistance. Layout and production were coordinated by Olivia Hunter, publications coordinator, Jose Martinez, senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

We would like to thank Sunni and Shia Saudi activists for assisting Human Rights Watch with this research.

[1] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 1-6.

[2] Ibid, pp. 45-54.

[3] Raihan Ismail, Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp.13-14.

[4] Guido Steinberg, “The Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (al-Ahas), 1913-1953,” in Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende, eds., The Twelver Shia in Modern Times. Religious Culture and Political History (Cologne: Brill, 2001), p. 237.

[5] Laurence Louer, Transnational Shia Politics. Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 21.

[6] For more information on the terms “wahhabi” or “salafi” and scholarly debates around their meanings and usage, see Madawi al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[7] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, p. 50; Raihan Ismail, Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam, pp. 55-65.

[8] Steinberg, “The Shiites in the Eastern Province,” p. 248. King Abd al-‘Aziz agreed to demands by the Ikhwan in 1927 to forcethe Shia to convert to “Islam,” to close all mosques and husseiniyyas of the Shia, and to prohibit public religious ceremonies.

[9] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, p. 8.

[10] Natana J. Delong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam. From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 84-90; Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, pp. 21-22.

[11] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens, September, 2009,

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi school principal, Dammam, June 16, 2015.

[13] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity; Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, p. 59.

[15] “Urgent investigation into the punishment of a Saudi nurse because of the Shia call to prayer on her mobile phone,” CNN, November 4, 2015, (accessed April 6, 2017).

[16] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi Shia activists, Dammam, June 16-17, 2015.

[18] Toby Matthiesen, “Sectarianism after the Saudi mosque bombings,” Washington Post, May 29, 2015, (accessed March 20, 2016).

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi Shia activists, Dammam, June 16-17, 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity.

[22] Abdullah al-Hidha, “Mohammed Abu Saq, the First Shiite Saudi Minister,” al-Arab, (accessed March 20, 2017).

[23] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, p. 10.

[24] Human Rights Watch, The Ismailis of Najran: Second-class Saudi Citizens, September 2008,, p.22.

[25] Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, statement, February 15, 2007, and Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mikhlif al-Shammari, July 30, 2009.

[26] “Saudi Arabia: 5-Year Sentence for Rights Defender,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 22, 2013,; “Saudi Arabia: Assault on Online Expression,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 22, 2014,

[27] “Bahrain's Human Rights Crisis,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 5, 2011,

[28] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Tweet from Mo (@alnemere) on Twitter social media platform, December 28, 2014, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[31] “Saudi Arabia attack: Islamic State claims Shia mosque bombing,” BBC, May 25, 2015, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[32] “Worry and Congestion of the East of Saudi Arabia Over Orders to Close a Shia Mosque and Two Months’ Imprisonment and 60 Lashes for the Son of the Manager of the Mosque,” Mirat al-Jazeera, July 11, 2015, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[33] “’Aman’ Requests that Saudi Authorities Immediately Release Ms. Hanfoush and Protect Religious and Civil Rights,” Mirat al-Jazeera, July 28, 2015, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[34] Court judgement on file with Human Rights Watch.

[35] “Saudi Arabia: Assault on Online Expression,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 22, 2014,

[36] Robert F. Worth, “Saudi’s Lonely, Costly Bid for Sunni-Shiite Equality,” New York Times, March 14, 2014, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[37] “Al-Sheikh Mikhlif al-Shammari: Visiting the Shia and Praying in their Mosque Came as a Response to Takfriri Statement,” Aafaq, June 18, 2008, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[38] “Saudi Arabia: Spy Trial a Mockery of Justice,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 17, 2016,

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Saudi Arabia: Mass death sentences in ‘spy trial’ a travesty of justice,” Amnesty International news release, December 6, 2016, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[41] “UN Committee against Torture: Review of Saudi Arabia,” Human Rights Watch statement, April 26, 2016,

[42] Ibid.

[43] European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, “List of detainees facing execution in Saudi Arabia,” March 7, 2017, on file with Human Rights Watch; “Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution Largest Since 1980,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 4, 2016,

[44] Court judgment on file with Human Rights Watch.

[45] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art. 19.

[46] League of Arab States, Arab Charter for Human Rights, May 22, 2004, reprinted in 12 Int'l Hum. Rts. Rep. 893 (2005), entered into force March 15, 2008, art 32.

[47] Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of Opinion and Expression, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34 (2011), paras. 23, 34.

[48] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art. 20.

[49] Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, October 5, 2012, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.; Dr. Susan Benesch proposes a similar formula for determining “dangerous speech,” see: (accessed April 6, 2017).

[53] Human Rights Watch, Precarious Justice: Arbitrary Detention and Unfair Trials in the Deficient Criminal Justice System of Saudi Arabia, March 2008,

[54] Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, October 5, 2012, (accessed March 25, 2017).

[55] International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), adopted December 21, 1965, G.A. Res. 2106 (XX), annex, 20 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 14) at 47, U.N. Doc. A/6014 (1966), 660 U.N.T.S. 195, entered into force January 4, 1969. Saudi Arabia acceded to the ICERD on October 23, 1997; Convention against Discrimination in Education, 429 U.N.T.S. 93, entered into force May 22, 1962. Saudi Arabia acceded to the convention on August 17, 1973; Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990. Saudi Arabia acceded to the CRC on February 25, 1996; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976.

[56] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, G.A. res. 36/55, 36 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 171, U.N. Doc. A/36/684 (1981); Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, G.A. res. 47/135, annex, 47 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 210, U.N. Doc. A/47/49 (1992); Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.1, annex V (1982). Adopted and proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at its twentieth session, on 27 November 1978.

[57] Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.1, annex V (1982). Adopted and proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at its twentieth session, on 27 November 1978, art. 3.

[58] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, art. 3.

[59] ICERD, art. 5.

[60] Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, art. 4.

[61] Ibid., arts. 1 and 4.

[62] ICESCR, art. 13 (1).

[63] CRC, arts. 29 and 30.

[64] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, art. 5.2.

[65] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 13, The right to education (article 13 of the Covenant), E/C.12/1999/10 (1999), para. 59.

[66] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, art. 1.

[67] Ibid., art. 6.

[68] Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, art. 2.

[69] Ibid.

[70] For an in-depth explanation of Saudi governmental religious bodies see Nabil Mouline, “Enforcing and Reinforcing the States Islam,” in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, and Stephane Lacroix, eds., Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Political, Economic, and Religious Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 57-63.

[74] Ben Hubbard, “Iranian Pilgrims Can Participate in Hajj This Year, Saudi Arabia Says,” New York Times, March 17, 2017, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[76] Abdulaziz bin Mohammad al-Salafi, “Selected Shia Doctrines,” 1996, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[77] Ibn Jabreen website, “The way of dealing with al-rawafidh,” Fatwa no. 12461, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[78] Ali, Hussein, Hassan, and Zein al-Abideen are revered historical figures by Shia Muslims. Ibn Jabreen website, “Marriage with Shia,” Fatwa no. 8748, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[79] Available at: (accessed March 27, 2017).

[80] Al-Baydha al-Ilmiya, “All the words of the scholar Saleh bin Fawzan al-Fawzan, God keep him, about the Shia and rulings associated with them,” (accessed March 26, 2017).

[81] Available at: (accessed March 27, 2017).

[82] “Saudi Mufti Responds to Khamenei: You are not Muslims but sons of Majus hostile to Sunnis,” CNN, September 6, 2016, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[87] General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta’, Fatwas of Ibn Baz, “A question about Al-Rafidah,” (accessed March 26, 2017); General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta’, Fatwas of Ibn Baz, “Funeral Prayer offered for those practicing Bid`ah,”
languagename=en&lang=en&view=result&fatwaNum=&FatwaNumID=&ID=2314&searchScope=14&SearchScopeLevels1=&SearchScopeLevels2=&highLight=1&SearchType=exact&SearchMoesar=false&bookID=&LeftVal=0&RightVal=0&simple=&SearchCriteria=allwords&PagePath=&siteSection=1&searchkeyword=114097102105100097104#firstKeyWordFound (accessed March 26, 2017); General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta’, Fatwas of Ibn Baz, “Ruling on Al-Husainiyyat of Al-Rafidah and the sacrifices offered on this occasion,”
(accessed March 26, 2017).

[88] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education, (280) Ahsa’ Governorate Education Administration (Boys), Administration for Islamic Awareness, “Circular to All Units, Administrations, Divisions, Centers for Educational Supervision, Schools, and Institutes, No 34/27166,” September 25, 2007. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[89] Available at: (accessed March 26, 2017).

[90] Prince Faisal bin Mashal Al Saud, “Historical Dimensions of Hostility to Salafiya … and why the attack on the Saudi Salafi Method?” Al-Jazirah, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid.

[93] “Emir of Eastern Province: The Homeland Does not Permit the Group of Ibn Saba the Safavid to Divide It,” al-Medina, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[94] Abdullah Ibn Saba is an early Islamic figure whom later Sunni scholars accused of ascribing divinity to Ali and attempting to divide the Islamic community. See: Raihan Ismail, Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam, pp. 65-66.

[95]  Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi Shia activists, Dammam, June 16-17, 2015.

[96] King Saud University, “Dr. Mohammad A. Al-Areefe,” (accessed May 29, 2017); Twitter profile for Mohammad al-Arifi (@MohamadAlarefe) on Twitter social media platform, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[98] Tweet from Mohammad al-Arifi (@MohamadAlarefe) on Twitter social media platform, August 2, 2012, (accessed May 29, 2017)

[99] Available at: (accessed May 29, 2017).

[100] Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Britain Appeals to Anti-Extremist Imams in Effort to Uproot Seeds of Radicalization,” New York Times, August 24, 2014, (accessed March 26, 2017); Garrett Nada and Faris Al Sulayman, “Twitter sheikhs of Saudi Arabia,” al-Monitor, December 18, 2013, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[101] “Inauguration of the new headquarters of the Diwan al-Muslim Foundation … Minister of Islamic Affairs and Awqaf presides over Qur’an workshop,”, January 8, 2011, (accessed April 6, 2017).

[102] David Andrew Weinberg, “Saudi Arabia Honors Its Nastiest Clerical Ideologues,” The National Interest, October 16, 2015, (accessed April 6, 2017).

[103] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, pp. 9; Raihan Ismail, Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam, p. 119.

[104] Tweet from Nasser al-Omar (@naseralomar) on Twitter social media platform, April 26, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[105] Tweet from Nasser al-Omar (@naseralomar) on Twitter social media platform, January 1, 2012, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[106] “Execution of al-qisas ruling against the ‘oldest prisoner’ in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Resalah, March 5, 2014, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[107] Tweet from Ali al-Maliki (@dr_alimalki) on Twitter social media platform, April 9, 2012, Tweet no longer available.

[108] Tweet from Ali al-Maliki (@dr_alimalki) on Twitter social media platform, March 5, 2012, Tweet no longer available.

[109] “Important points on the Shia rafidha and their aims,”, (accessed March 26, 2017).

[110] Majus is a derogatory term used by Saudi clerics to describe Zoroastrians; Tweet from Dr. Ibrahim al-Fares (@ibrahim_alfares) on Twitter social media platform, January 17, 2016, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[111] Raihan Ismail, Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam, p. 119.

[112] Tweet from Dr. Ibrahim al-Fares (@ibrahim_alfares) on Twitter social media platform, September 5, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[113] Tweet from Dr. Ibrahim al-Fares (@ibrahim_alfares) on Twitter social media platform, October 28, 2014, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[114] Facebook post from Al-Sharif Hatem bin Aref al-Awni (@Al3uny) on Facebook social media platform, May 22, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[115]Facebook post from Al-Sharif Hatem bin Aref al-Awni (@Al3uny) on Facebook social media platform, May 24, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[116] Facebook profile for Abdulaziz al-Tarifi (@abdulazizaltarefe) on Facebook social media platform, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[117] Twitter profile for Abdulaziz al-Tarifi (@abdulaziztarefe) on Twitter social media platform, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[118] Tweet from Abdulaziz al-Tarifi (@abdulaziztarefe) on Twitter social media platform, February 28, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[119] Tweet from Abdulaziz al-Tarifi (@abdulaziztarefe) on Twitter social media platform, May 12, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[120] Twitter profile for Mohammad al-Barrak (@mohamdalbarrak) on Twitter social media platform, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[121] Tweet from Mohammad al-Barrak (@mohamdalbarrak) on Twitter social media platform, May 20, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[122] Tweet from Mohammad al-Barrak (@mohamdalbarrak) on Twitter social media platform, May 20, 2015, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[123] Tweet from Mohammad al-Barrak (@mohamdalbarrak) on Twitter social media platform, July 31, 2013, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[124] Twitter profile for Dr. Mohammad al-Najimi (@alnojimi) on Twitter social media platform, (accessed May 29, 2017).

[125] Tweet from Dr. Mohammad al-Najimi (@alnojimi) on Twitter social media platform, March 20, 2015, Tweet no longer available.

[126] Human Rights Watch, Denied Dignity.

[127] Nina Shea, “This is a Saudi textbook. (After the intolerance was removed.),” Washington Post, May 21, 2006, (accessed March 24, 2017).

[128] Middle East Institute, “2005 Annual Conference - Keynote Address Transcript,” November 7, 2005, (accessed March 24, 2005).

[129] Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “HRH Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Washington, DC, May 18, 2006,” May 4, 2010, (accessed March 24, 2017).

[130] Center for Religious Studies of Freedom House, “Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance,” 2006, (accessed March 24, 2017), pp. 9, 12.

[131] David Weinberg, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Textbook Diplomacy: Why the State Department Shelved a Study on Incitement in Saudi Education Materials,” March 2014, (accessed March 24, 2017).

[132] Committee on the Rights of the Child, “List of issues in relation to the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia,” CRC/C/SAU/Q/3-4, March 14, 2016, (accessed September 13, 2017), para. 6.

[133] Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Replies of Saudi Arabia to the list of issues,” CRC/C/SAU/Q/3-4/Add.1, August 3, 2016, (accessed September 13, 2017), p. 10.

[134] Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia,” CRC/C/SAU/CO/3-4, October 25, 2016,, para. 25.

[135] US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Saudi Arabia,” 2017, (accessed July 21, 2017).

[136] “Fiscal Year 2018 State Department Budget,” C-SPAN, June 14, 2017, (accessed July 21, 2017).

[137] Tawid, or monotheism, is the basic tenant of Islam and the focus of Saudi Wahabi or Salafi Islam. Early followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab called themselves Muwahidin or “Unitarians.” See David E. Long, “Tawhid or Jihad: What Wahhabism Is and Is Not,” Middle East Institute, October 1, 2009, (accessed March 24, 2017).

[138] Saudi Arabia’s school textbooks are available at:

[139] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Six Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 10-11.

[140] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Joint Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 33.

[141] See: “Tawassul (Resorting to Intermediary),”, (accessed March 24, 2017).

[142] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi Shia activists, Dammam, June 16-17, 2015.

[143] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Fourth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 31.

[144] Ibid.

[145] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 57.

[146] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 27.

[147] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p.32.

[148] Ibid.

[149] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104.

[150] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104.

[151] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Middle Level One, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 20.

[152] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Middle Level Two, First Semester, 2016-17, pp. 64, 68, 69; Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Fourth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, pp. 12, 23, 24, 34.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudi Shia activists, Dammam, June 16-17, 2015.

[154] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 62, 64.

[155] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Sixth Grade, First Semester, 2016-17, p. 58.

[156] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Fourth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 22.

[157] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Middle Level One, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 18.

[158] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 29.

[159] Saudi Ministry of Education, Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Five, 2016-17, p. 101.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Two men hold the Indonesian flag as the compound of the Gafatar sect burns after being set on fire by local villagers, at Antibar village, West Kalimantan province, January 19, 2016. 

© 2016 Jessica Helena Wuysang/Reuters

The Indonesian government has just made it clear that the country’s dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law is here to stay – which is bad news for beleaguered religious minorities.

During the United Nation’s periodic review of Indonesia’s rights record last week, Jakarta rejected recommendations by UN member states that the government “introduce legislation to repeal the blasphemy law”. It also rejected a recommendation to amend or revoke laws that limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the country.

Indonesia’s religious minorities have every right to feel alarmed at this position. That’s because these laws, and the blasphemy law in particular, have frequently been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities. Recent victims include three former leaders of the Gafatar religious community, prosecuted for blasphemy following the violent forced eviction of more than 7,000 Gafatar members from their farms on Kalimantan Island last year. Another was the former Jakarta Governor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, sentenced to two years in prison in May.

And Indonesia is not satisfied with just ignoring UN calls to scrap the problematic blasphemy law either – the country’s Religious Affairs Ministry wants to reinforce and expand its scope through the so-called Religious Rights Protection bill, which parliament will likely debate later this year.

The Indonesian government will probably point to its acceptance of other, ambiguously worded recommendations – which only pay lip-service to the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion – as evidence of its commitment to religious freedom. But Indonesia’s religious minorities are already painfully aware of the glaring gap between their government’s religious freedom rhetoric and the far more abusive reality, which it has passively and actively fostered.

By rejecting pleas from UN member states to abolish the blasphemy law, the Indonesian government is telling the world that it will continue to pander to bigotry and discrimination at the expense of the rights of religious minorities. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Dear Member/Senator:

The undersigned organizations, which are dedicated to protecting privacy, civil liberties and human rights, write to outline our serious concerns regarding proposed legislation that would provide a new process for cross-border access by foreign governments to electronic communications and related data held in the United States. We urge you to oppose this legislation in its current form if it is introduced as either a stand-alone bill or as part of another legislative vehicle. We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss how best to improve the current cross-border process in a rights-protective manner.  

At present, when a foreign government seeks to obtain electronic communications content held in the United States by U.S. service providers, they generally follow a process laid out in a “mutual legal assistance treaty” (MLAT) between that country and the United States. Under an MLAT, individual requests for the content of communications are evaluated by the U.S. government, and if the required standards are met, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will seek an order from a U.S. court to provide the content of communications to the foreign country. Importantly, through this review process, the DOJ and U.S. judges take additional steps to protect the rights of individuals in the United States and abroad, including requiring the minimization of data, ensuring the request does not violate the Constitution and will not cause serious human rights violations, and evaluating whether responding to the request is consistent with U.S. treaty obligations.    

The current MLAT process is time consuming, and the U.S. government and foreign governments have argued that a less cumbersome procedure is needed. But rather than improve or devote more resources to the MLAT process, the proposed legislation would empower certain foreign governments to bypass it. Specifically, it would amend U.S. law to permit U.S. communications providers to respond directly to foreign government requests for stored data, and would even allow companies to conduct wiretaps (i.e. collect data in real time) for foreign governments, something that the current MLAT process does not allow. In doing so, the proposed bill eliminates many key safeguards provided under current law that protect the rights of individuals inside and outside the United States. For example, the new approach eliminates the individualized review presently conducted by the U.S. government to ensure that requests for data are not likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations. Thus, without significant amendments, this legislation poses threats to privacy, civil liberties, and human rights.

Our principal concerns with the proposed legislation are as follows:

Provides broad discretion to the Executive Branch to enter into agreements without appropriate oversight: The bill gives the Executive Branch broad discretion to enter into bilateral agreements with other countries without appropriate congressional involvement. Under the current proposal, Congress would not need to approve, ratify, or otherwise endorse such agreements and there is no mechanism for Congress to review implementation of such agreements . Instead, similar to extradition treaties, the bill should require that Congress ratify each individual bilateral agreement, and review such agreements on a periodic basis to determine whether they should be extended.  Further, the bill bars any judicial or administrative review of whether the approval requirements were met. Such unilateral power in the hands of the executive branch without congressional or judicial oversight is a recipe for arbitrariness or decisions based on political factors that do not take adequate account of the rights of people inside or outside the United States.

Allows foreign governments to obtain U.S. held data under a weak standard: The bill only requires that the order by the foreign government be based “on requirements for a reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts, particularity, legality, and severity regarding the conduct under investigation.” This is a lower standard than the U.S. probable cause standard that applies to foreign requests for the content of communications under current law, impacting both the non-U.S. persons who may be targets of the foreign government requests and U.S. persons whose information may be incidentally collected. This standard may also be insufficient to meet the requirements of international human rights law. In addition, although the bill includes language stating that orders must “identify a specific person, account, address, or personal device, or any other specific identifier as the object of the Order,” this language is insufficient to prevent large-scale collection. For example, an “address” could be an IP address, which can cover numerous computers, or it could include an entire apartment building.

Does not adequately protect the rights of people in the United States: Although foreign governments would not be permitted to use this cross-border process to target U.S. persons (i.e., citizens and legal permanent residents) or individuals located inside the United States, they would still be likely to obtain the communications of Americans who were in contact with foreign targets through “incidental collection.”  In some cases, foreign governments could then voluntarily share such information about U.S. persons with the U.S. government, even though it was collected without the safeguards that would otherwise apply under the Fourth Amendment and the Wiretap Act. Specifically, foreign governments could share any metadata for Americans’ communications (such as the “to” and “from” lines of an email) with the U.S. government.  Additionally, they could share the content of U.S. persons’ communications if the foreign government believes the information “relates to significant harm, or the threat thereof, to the United States or U.S. persons,” which is a standard lower than what would be required for the U.S. government to obtain the information on its own.  Moreover, since the bill also permits foreign governments to voluntarily share collected U.S. person communications with third-party governments in certain situations, including those that do not meet baseline human rights standards, it further threatens the rights of people in the United States.

No requirement for prior individualized and independent review: Prior individualized review by an independent decisionmaker is a fundamental protection under the U.S. system of justice and under international human rights law. However, the bill only requires “review or oversight by a court, judge, magistrate, or other independent authority.”  By permitting foreign countries to rely only on "oversight” which may be generalized, the system fails to require both the prior individualized and independent review necessary to protect individuals inside and outside the United States.

Permits real-time or prospective surveillance for the first time and without adequate safeguards: Under current law, U.S. providers may only turn over stored -- and not real-time -- content to foreign governments through the MLAT process, and when the U.S. government conducts real time or prospective surveillance, the Wiretap Act provides additional safeguards beyond those required for access to stored content. The bill, however, would permit foreign governments, for the first time, to issue orders for U.S. providers to turn over the content of communications in real time without including protections comparable to those contained in the Wiretap Act.

Fails to prevent data localization mandates or requirements for encryption back doors: The bill does not include any language to prohibit foreign countries from requiring that U.S. communications providers store their data in that country (data localization). Although efforts by countries with strong data privacy requirements to apply those protections to data held by U.S. providers may be helpful, rules that simply require data to be stored in a specific country can impede the free flow of information on the internet. Nor does the bill bar foreign countries from requiring U.S. communications providers to create back doors to circumvent encryption. The bill thus fails to protect against many of the threats that the government has suggested it is intended to forestall. 

Fails to require review and establish standards for disclosure of sensitive metadata: Under current law, although foreign government requests for communications content are subject to the rights-protective MLAT process, U.S. providers may voluntarily turn over communications metadata based simply upon a request from a foreign government. This is true even for particularly sensitive metadata, such as email logs and other traffic data. In fact, it is often easier for foreign governments to obtain metadata from U.S. providers than it is for the U.S. government to do so. Any legislation governing cross-border data requests should include a requirement that foreign government requests for sensitive metadata must be subject to prior independent review, and should establish a meaningful standard for that review. The bill, however, fails to address this problem.

Does not appropriately limit the types of crimes that may justify a foreign government data request: The bill applies to data requests in connection with the prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution of “serious crime, including terrorism,” but it does not list, define, or otherwise limit the “serious crimes” that are covered. Further, unlike the current MLAT requirements, the bill fails to include a dual criminality requirement to ensure that data requests to U.S. providers would only cover the types of crimes that U.S. law also recognizes as serious criminal behavior. The bill thereby creates risks that U.S. providers will be called upon to assist in investigations and prosecutions that violate human rights and civil liberties.  

Fails to ensure that the U.S. government only enters into agreements with foreign governments that meet strong human rights standards: The bill establishes requirements for the U.S. Attorney General, with the concurrence of the U.S. Secretary of State, to approve individual bilateral agreements with foreign governments under which they may seek the contents of communications directly from U.S. communications providers. However, the provisions for U.S. executive branch review and approval of such bilateral agreements only specify “factors to be considered” rather than making the listed factors mandatory for approval. For example, it should be mandatory (and not simply a factor to consider) that countries can only be approved where they adhere to applicable international human rights obligations and commitments, so that there can be no approvals for countries that the State Department has assessed to have committed serious human rights violations.

Fails to ensure notice to targets and others: The bill fails to require notice -- even after the fact -- to the target of a data request, or others whose communications will inevitably be “incidentally” collected. Yet notice is a key human rights protection that gives targets and others an opportunity to ask a court to vindicate their rights and seek redress where abuses occur. The bill does not even require notice to the U.S. government when a foreign government demands data stored in the United States from a U.S. company, to allow the U.S. government to recognize any patterns of abuse.    

For these reasons, without significant amendments to the bill, we urge you to oppose this legislation. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss how to address the government’s concerns in a rights protective manner.


Access Now
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Media and Democracy
Constitutional Alliance
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fight for the Future
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Human Rights Watch
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Security Counselors
New America's Open Technology Institute
Project On Government Oversight
Restore the Fourth

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


On October 2, 2016 scores of people, possibly hundreds, died at the annual Irreecha cultural festival of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo people, following a stampede triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and discharge of firearms in response to an increasingly restive crowd. Some died after falling into a deep open trench, others drowned in the nearby lake while fleeing security forces, and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that others were shot by security forces. Many were trampled after armed security forces blocked main roads exiting the site, leaving those fleeing with few options.

Irreecha is the most important cultural festival of Ethiopia’s 35 million ethnic Oromos who gather to celebrate the end of the rainy season and welcome the harvest season. Massive crowds, estimated in the millions, gather each year at Bishoftu, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa every year. Until 2016, there had never been any major incidents or security problems despite annual massive crowds.

Ethiopian government and security officials should act with restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival on October 1, 2017. 

The government eventually said the official death toll was 55 people but opposition groups estimate nearly 700 died. Neither figure has been substantiated or explained. An investigation by the government affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was not transparent or credible and there is no evidence of accountability.

One year on, government has failed to meaningfully investigate the security forces’ response, and there is no independent and credible determination of the death toll. Based on analysis of dozens of videos and photos and over 50 interviews with attendees and other witnesses, this report documents the abuses which occurred on October 2, 2016 at Bishoftu. It is not intended to be a comprehensive investigation; rather, the findings underscore the need, not only for credible investigations into what occurred in 2016, but also for the government to ensure security forces refrain from the unnecessary use of force and act professionally at this year’s event, currently scheduled for October 1, 2017.

The 2016 Irreecha festival was held following a year of protests against government policies and security force aggression that left over 1000 people dead across Ethiopia and tens of thousands detained by security forces.

Faced with longstanding tensions that had been greatly exacerbated by a year of brutal repression, the government attempted to play a more dominant role than in previous years with increased security presence and attempts to control who took the stage during the 2016 Irreecha. According to attendees, this prompted anger within the crowd and led some people to get on stage to lead anti-government chants. The security forces initially sought to control the crowds, using teargas. Later, witnesses described security forces firing into the crowd using live ammunition.

In several videos recorded at the scene, numerous gunshots could clearly be heard as crowds flee. Witnesses reported seeing people killed with bullet wounds.

Ethiopia’s then communication minister and other senior officials stated that security forces were unarmed and there was no live ammunition at Irreecha, despite photos clearly showing heavily armed security forces at the event and several witness accounts of gunfire and bullet wounds.


International guidelines, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, stipulate that the police should use force only as a last resort, and refrain from the use of firearms except in the face of extreme danger to themselves or others that cannot be prevented by other means. While the crowd at Irreecha was chanting anti-government slogans, and expressing anger against the government, it does not appear that there was violence from the crowd or an imminent threat to security forces.

There were numerous protests around Bishoftu in the hours and days after the event. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces shot live ammunition during some of these protests as well. In the days that followed, many individuals who attended Irreecha were arrested in their home communities.

In the week that followed, angry youth attacked government buildings and private businesses, leading to an abusive and far-reaching state of emergency, lifted in August 2017. During the state of emergency, security forces arbitrarily detained over 21,000 people in “rehabilitation camps,” artists, politicians, and journalists were tried on politically motivated charges; there were increased limitations on internet access; and many communities reported heavier than usual military presence.

Despite government promises of “deep reform” to address protester grievances, there has been little movement on fundamental issues raised by protesters, including the lack of political space and brutality of the security forces, during the year-long protests heightening tensions further ahead of this year’s Irreecha.

The government expressed regret over the loss of life at the 2016 Irreecha, but also exonerated security forces, blaming the chaos and deaths, as it often does, on “anti-peace forces.” Many Oromo interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they believe the heavy-handed security forces’ response at Irreecha was an intentional and planned massacre, a narrative whose resonance only serves to increase tensions still further ahead of this year’s festival, which could be a flashpoint for further unrest.

The government has strongly resisted calls for international investigations, including into Irreecha. The consistent lack of credibility of government investigations into ongoing abuses and the scale of the crimes being committed are a compelling argument for the need for an independent, international investigation into abuses during the protests, the state of emergency and the events on October 2. Ethiopia’s international allies should call on the government to agree to such an inquiry.

Importantly, the government should take urgent steps to ensure Irreecha 2017 unfolds with far greater restraint and competence on the part of the security forces, and that effective steps are taken to minimize and de-escalate any risk of violence. The government should consider whether a smaller or lower-profile security presence would be the best way to accomplish those goals. Security forces should expect and tolerate free expression which may be critical of the policies of the ruling party and not use force or threat of force to silence critical speech.


To the Government of Ethiopia

Regarding the 2016 Irreecha Festival

  • Support a credible, independent and transparent investigation into the use of force by security forces and discipline or prosecute those found responsible for the excessive use of lethal force and other crowd control tactics that led to fatalities.
  • Ensure authorities who have received inquiries from families of people who have disappeared or are missing reply promptly, providing all known information on the whereabouts and fate of these people and on steps being taken to acquire such information if not readily available.
  • Promptly release from custody and drop any charges against all persons arbitrarily detained for attending 2016 Irreecha, or otherwise peacefully exercising their fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

Regarding the 2017 Irreecha Festival

  • Ensure law enforcement and security organs issue clear orders to their forces that the use of force, including firing of tear gas and discharging firearms in the air, should be strictly minimized, and that use of excessive force will be punished. Permit the 2017 Irreecha festival to proceed without undue government obstruction.
  •  Ensure that any security plans for the festival are carefully tailored to minimize and de-escalate the risk of violent confrontation.

To Ethiopia’s International Partners

  • In the absence of decisive steps to establish a credible domestic investigation into abuses in Ethiopia since November 2015, including the 2016 Irreecha festival and the subsequent state of emergency, all concerned governments should press for an independent international investigation into abuses and press for accountability for the excessive use of force in protests and during the 2016 Irreecha.
  • Publicly call and privately press for the release of anyone arbitrarily detained during the time of the protests, Irreecha, and the state of emergency, including those prosecuted under the criminal code or anti-terrorism law.
  • Improve and increase monitoring of trials of detainees to ensure trials meet international fair trial standards.
  • Publicly and privately raise concerns with Ethiopian government officials at all levels regarding their response to the 2016 Irreecha festival, urge the government to ensure that appropriate levels of force are used in 2017 Irreecha and urge the government to ensure that security presence does not exacerbate an already tense situation.
  • Attend the 2017 Irreecha festival and monitor festival preparations in the days before the festival.
  • Urge Ethiopian officials to invite relevant United Nations and African Union human rights mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Ethiopia.

To All Entities Tasked with Managing the Irreecha Festival, including the Gadaa Council and All Government Bodies Tasked with Security

  • Ensure there are multiple points of egress from the festival site. Security forces should not block these exits.
  • Any and all trenches should either be filled, fenced, or otherwise managed in a way that minimizes risks.


This report is based on research conducted between October 2016 and August 2017 in Ethiopia and three other countries. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 51 people, including 26 individuals from 10 different zones in Oromia who attended Irreecha in 2016, another 15 who were arrested in their communities due to their alleged involvement in Irreecha and 10 other individuals with knowledge of the event including members of the security forces, government officials, health workers, journalists and academics. All were interviewed individually in person, by telephone, or via other methods of communication.

No one interviewed for this report was offered any form of compensation. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to stop the interview at any point, and gave informed consent to be interviewed.

Human Rights Watch also consulted court documents, photos, videos and various secondary material, including academic articles, reports from nongovernmental organizations, and information collected by other credible experts to corroborate details or patterns of abuse described in the report. Human Rights Watch took various steps to verify the credibility of interviewees’ statements. All the information published in this report is based on at least two and usually more than two independent sources, including both interviews and secondary material, including videos. The initial moments of the stampede and the events leading up to the stampede were captured in dozens of videos from individuals on stage and in the crowd.

In the past, Ethiopian authorities have harassed and detained individuals for providing information or meeting with international human rights investigators, journalists, and others. Even after individuals flee Ethiopia, family members who remain may be at risk of reprisals. To protect victims and their family members against such reprisals identifying details, including locations of interviews are withheld where such information could suggest someone’s identity.


EPRDF: Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front

OFC: Oromo Federalist Congress

OLF: Oromo Liberation Front

OMN: Oromia Media Network

OPDO: Oromo People’s Democratic Organization

SNNPR: Southern Nations Nationalities’ and Peoples’ Region

TPLF: Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

I. Background

The Protests of 2015 and 2016

Oromia is home to many of Ethiopia’s estimated 35 million ethnic Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. Government repression across the region has escalated steadily over the years. Ethnic Oromo who express dissent are often arrested and tortured or otherwise illtreated in detention.[1] Abuses against individuals of Oromo ethnicity occur within a broader pattern of repression of dissenting or opposition voices in Ethiopia.

Oromo concerns about the government’s proposed expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa, triggered protesters in November 2015. Protesters feared that the Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan would displace Oromo farmers living around Addis Ababa, as has increasingly occurred over the past decade. The protests soon spread to hundreds of locations in Oromia where people complained of displacement, numerous historical grievances and brutality by security forces during the protests.[2] In July 2016, protests spread to the Amhara region.

During the 2015-2016 protests, security forces killed over 1,000 protesters and arrested tens of thousands of students, teachers, opposition politicians, health workers, and those who sheltered or assisted fleeing protesters.[3] While many detainees were released before Irreecha in October, an unknown number remained in detention without charge or access to legal counsel or family. Most of the leadership of the legally registered opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, have been charged under the anti-terrorism law, including Deputy-Chairman Bekele Gerba, and remain behind bars today.[4]

The government’s framing of the protests as being orchestrated or exacerbated by “anti-peace elements” was frequent prior to Irreecha in 2016. While in the latter stages of the protests there were clearly armed elements among the protesters, the protests were overall predominantly peaceful -- the government overemphasized the protester armed element and continuously denied the disproportionate armed response from security forces.[5] Protesters have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the Ethiopian government’s continued characterization of protesters as “anti-peace elements” and security forces routinely engaging in brutality exacerbated anger among people in Oromia.[6]

Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission – a government-funded entity – has produced two reports into the 2015-2016 protests. In Human Rights Watch’s analysis, neither is impartial nor demonstrates the independence that is needed for investigations to be credible. Both reports concluded that federal security force response was proportionate to threats posed by protesters.[7]


The Irreecha festival is held annually on the last Sunday in September or the first Sunday in October near the shores of Lake Hora in Bishoftu [also called Debre Zeit], Ethiopia, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa. Massive crowds gather there each year and in other locations around the world where there are ethnic Oromo communities.[8] The event serves to unify Oromo people, regardless of geographic origin, politics, or religion.[9] Irreecha is presided over by the Gadaa Council, a traditional council of Oromo elders, independent of the government, who play a key role in managing the festival.[10]

Previous governments, including the Derg government, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, restricted the Irreecha festival.[11] Since 1991, under the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, Irreecha has been permitted and held without any major security problems until 2016.[12] On December 1, 2016, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included the Gadaa system, the traditional Oromo political system, on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[13] Ethiopia’s government played a major role in pushing for this designation.[14] Irreecha is one feature of this traditional system according to the UNESCO nomination documents.[15] The leader of the Gadaa Council is known as the Abaa Gadaa, a position currently held by Beyene Sembetu. The Abaa Gadaa traditionally opens the festival with a blessing. Attendees then go to nearby Lake Hora (Hora Arsadi) to give thanks and pray to Waqaa [God] for the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the harvest season.[16]

The recent history of Irreecha reflects the increasingly fraught and complex relationship between the government and Oromo communities. While Irreecha is ostensibly apolitical, many regular Irreecha attendees told Human Rights Watch that recent years have not only seen increasing crowds but also increased government involvement and increased expressions of resistance to government policies. A number of regular attendees report more security and surveillance, particularly over the last several years, as the relationship between the EPRDF government and the Oromo population has deteriorated.[17]

In the leadup to 2016 Irreecha, some Oromo stakeholders voiced concern about the increased politicization of the festival, particularly after a year of protests. The United Oromo Gadaa Council [“Gadaa Council”]asked Irreecha participants in August 2016 to avoid “bringing to the celebrations the flags of any and all political organizations.”[18]

The Irreecha festival site is outdoors on the shore of Lake Hora and is approximately 130 meters by 90 meters, small given the size of the crowds. With Lake Hora on one side of the site there are limited egress options should there be the need to evacuate a large amount of people in a short time. This makes it even more critical that appropriate crowd control measures are employed by security forces during Irreecha.

See below for overview and close-up maps of Bishoftu town and the Irreecha festival site:


II. The Events of 2016 Irreecha festival

Increased Tensions Ahead of Irreecha

Some Oromo expressed nervousness about attending the 2016 Irreecha given the tensions in Oromia and fear over the presence of the same security forces that had reacted with brutality to protests over the previous year. Some individuals told Human Rights Watch that they were told by local security officials or party cadres not to attend Irreecha and were pressured to convince others not to attend. One 14-year-old Grade 6 student from East Wollega zone described his experience:

The local police and some local government officials came to my school and took me and several classmates into the principal’s office. They told us not to go to Irreecha, and to tell other students not to go. They suspected we would protest the government there. We were the older students so they always thought we organized the local protests.[19]

The Gadaa Council had reportedly expressed concerns to the government during their annual discussions with authorities about the role the government wanted to play at Irreecha. Individuals who were present at the meetings between the Council and the government told Human Rights Watch that the Council had reportedly also expressed concern about security preparations for the festival including warning the government about the danger of a very deep natural trench that was located near the stage and recommended fencing it or filling it in.[20]

Attendees described a much larger than usual security presence, including many more security checkpoints, both on the routes to Bishoftu and inside the city. While there had been security checkpoints at past Irreechas, attendees reported much more stringent security provisions. A 21-year-old man from Shashemene described the atmosphere at the 2016 festival:

When we arrived, what we used to know and what we saw now was so different. Military vehicles and machines were everywhere. As I approached a checkpoint near the stage some plain clothes security personnel, some in Oromo cultural clothes, were arresting a few people. I don’t know why. The whole feeling [of Irreecha] was different. It felt like a political event, not a cultural and religious event.[21]

One long-time attendee further explained:

Local police and regional police usually take responsibility for most of the policing. They speak our language, they know how important this [Irreecha] is, and they know the trench, they know the area. This year there were many federal security forces, speaking a language I do not know. They were heavily armed, whereas the Oromo police are not usually armed. They made it look like a military operation.[22]

All witnesses described seeing the presence of military helicopters – for the first time at Irreecha -- flying low overhead in the lead up to the ceremony beginning, dropping pamphlets to welcome people to Irreecha.[23] One witness said:

We could feel the wind and some leaves from trees would fall. [The helicopter] was very low. This was done to intimidate. It dropped some papers into the crowd. It was the first time I had seen a helicopter up close and was scared but believed in such a large population they would not attack us. We all crossed our arms in defiance against the helicopter.[24]

Attendees also said that people sang and chanted while crossing their hands above their heads, a popular symbol of the Oromo protest movement. One elder and long-time participant described to Human Rights Watch the presence of far more young people “who seemed more interested in making anti-government gestures and songs than participating in Irreecha itself.”[25]

Irreecha Morning of October 2, 2016

As the ceremony began, on the morning of October 2, 2016, tensions within the massive crowd built when government officials from the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) appeared on stage with Nagasa Nagawo, a former Abaa Gadaa who is perceived to be closely aligned with the government.[26] According to interviewees, normally the current elected Abaa Gadaa would appear and give a traditional blessing to begin Irreecha. Nagasa took to the stage and spoke briefly. The crowd grew more angry and restless. Some participants jumped on stage. As the master of ceremony (MC) pleaded for calm, a man, Gemada Wariyo, got on stage, grabbed the microphone from the MC and led the crowd in anti-government chants.[27]

Unarmed security officials between the stage and the crowd, believed by attendees to be Oromia regional police,[28] tried unsuccessfully to prevent members of the crowd from getting on stage. In the meantime, armed security forces were standing behind and next to the stage. The ceremony was disrupted while some of the dignitaries left the stage,[29] while some people who got on stage crossed their arms above their heads in a sign of protest.

What appears to have been tear gas was fired from an unknown source near the stage triggering panic in the crowd. A number of witnesses told Human Rights Watch they believed they heard a gunshot.[30] Several more tear gas canisters were fired over the next 15 seconds, including one within 10 meters of the trench.[31] Ten interviewees said they saw tear gas canisters being dropped from helicopters, although it is not likely this was the initial tear gas that that was fired.[32]

As one man who was close to the front of the crowd described:

People got on stage after previously being pushed back by the police. So even more felt emboldened and moved towards the stage. That was when things got out of control. We heard what sounded like a gunshot and teargas fired. After the teargas we heard many gunshots but don’t know from where as we were blinded by teargas, dust and the chaos.[33]

The Stampede

While there is no evidence that security forces on stage fired into the crowd, attendees report hearing “many gunshots” during the stampede. This is backed up by several videos of 2016’s Irreecha in which numerous gunshots and firing of teargas can be heard.[34] In multiple videos, over the next minute a series of single rifle shots including at least one burst of three shots can be heard.[35] Human Rights Watch was not able to ascertain whether these gunshots were live ammunition or rubber bullets.[36] In some videos, security forces are pointing weapons into the air but for some of the audible gunshots, no video footage is available. As Human Rights Watch has documented in many of the protests preceding Irreecha 2016, hundreds of people have been killed by security forces’ use of live ammunition,[37] so when the pattern seemed to be repeating itself at Irreecha, panic very quickly set in.

Based on available evidence, people ran in various directions immediately after the tear gas was fired. In video footage, attendees appear blinded by dust and teargas and unaware of which direction to run for safety. Some people said that they couldn’t determine the origin of the gunshots although most told Human Rights Watch they believed they were coming from the armed security forces that were stationed next to the stage.[38]

As people ran, some fell into a very deep trench nearby and were suffocated when other people fell on top of them. [39] Others were trampled in the ensuing chaos. According to interviewees, some also drowned in nearby Lake Hora.[40] Armed security forces, previously either offsite or behind the stage moved forward closer to the festival site and onto the stage. People who had fled toward the exit road at the back of the festival site found armed security forces there and quickly fled back into the festival site. Numerous witnesses report the security forces that were blocking exits pointing weapons at the fleeing crowd.[41]

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight people, none of whom knew each other, who were caught in the stampede and described seeing people with gunshot wounds. One student from East Wollega zone said:

I saw three young men who had been hit with bullets. Everyone was saying ‘they’ve been shot, who are they?’ I had crawled to the edge of the site and lay there. I was close to those three bodies. I saw a government vehicle come and quickly load those bodies and take them away. There were many other bodies lying down not moving. It was all very confusing. I didn’t know who had shot them or from which direction just that they had been shot and were not moving. The exits were closed. They were open before the stampede and then as the stampede happened they [security forces] were standing at the exits. I saw them pointing guns at the crowd but don’t know if they were shooting. It was confusing and I heard many shots.[42]

Another businessman described:

I was running with the crowd and was nearing the road and the person in front of me fell over. I tripped over him. I got up but he didn’t. I looked at him and he had been shot and blood was pouring out of his neck. I was very scared. There were soldiers running around and shooting on the road and I saw other people with small guns [pistols] but I don’t know who specifically shot him.[43]

Another student described:

I saw several plain clothes men shooting and killing people at close range. For example, I saw one plain clothed man shoot and kill [name withheld] who was a lecturer at Tepi University. He was very famous and I knew him. I saw him fall down but I could not assist him because I was also running for my life. A number of people I know were killed that day by the bullets. I saw their bodies, they were all hit by bullets. I know them because we are from the same village.[44]

Four of those individuals said family members next to them were shot and killed.[45] It was not clear who had shot them. Each showed videos and photos from the funerals that were held in the days following the festival. A body had been returned to the family in just one of those four incidents.[46]

Four individuals described some people in the crowd who they believed were security officials dressed in Oromo cultural clothes, who pulled out pistols.[47]

Four witnesses described various military vehicles coming to the festival site and quickly loading bodies in the vehicles, both those who had been injured or those who had been killed from being trampled or shot.[48] Videos show a military vehicle arriving several minutes after the stampede.[49]

Once most of the people had been cleared from the festival site, festival goers along with some security forces who had been near the stage helped people who were trying to climb out of the trench.

One young boy who fled the stampede and ran into the lake described the scene at
the shore:

I, like everyone, was looking for somewhere to run. I could see many people had fallen into the ditch [trench]. It scared me. When I got to the lake there were many people in the lake - some had clearly drowned. I could swim but I know many people cannot. I waded alongside the edge of the shore and stayed there until it was safe to go into town.[50]

The Death Toll and Aftermath of Irreecha

Many people went to Bishoftu hospital or nearby health facilities to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones who had either been killed or had disappeared. It is not clear where those who had drowned or been shot were taken although several people whose relatives had not returned from Irreecha told Human Rights Watch that sympathetic local security officials had told them that those who had been shot had been taken to the federal police hospital near Mexico Square in Addis Ababa.[51]

There were sporadic protests in Bishoftu that day and evening with many reports of security forces, both Oromia police and military, firing munitions into the air and live ammunition into crowds.[52] One person told Human Rights Watch: “At the circle I saw someone shot in front of me. We managed to take him [name withheld] to his family. The next day the funeral was held in their village [name withheld] which was just outside of Bishoftu.”[53]

Another person described coming into town after being separated from his friends during the event:

I think it was about one hour after the stampede. Gunshots had slowed down by this time. I went back into town on the main road. The Agazi [military] were in town and I heard gunshots everywhere. Some were clearly shooting in the air but many people were shot too. They [security forces] seemed to be trying to clear the streets but were doing it through bullets. In the middle of town, there was another protest. Oromia police were also armed and shot some people there.[54]

Another woman described the growing frustration over the lack of information about missing relatives and the continuing protest the next day:

The next day I went back to hospital and there were many people in front of the hospital crying and screaming “where have you taken the bodies of our children?” I and many of those people protested that day at the circle in Bishoftu. The soldiers were shooting into the crowd. I saw four people [names withheld] killed during that protest. Those bodies were taken to the hospital but don’t know what happened to them from there.[55]

Some family members whose relatives had been killed by gunshots either during the stampede or during protests in Bishoftu had bodies returned to their home communities within several days, but four family members told Human Rights Watch that while different people had seen them shot and killed, their bodies have not been returned to their families. Months later, at the time they spoke to Human Rights Watch, their whereabouts were still unknown.[56]

While there were some reports of arrests in and around Bishoftu the day of Irreecha, based on available evidence, the scale of arrests appears relatively minor.[57]

Many people described general chaos, many security checkpoints, and abuses by security forces on their way home. One person from Shashemene describes:

We were taking a bus back home. The road was blocked near Ziway. Military made all those who had attended Irreecha get out and we lay on the ground and they hit us with sticks and walked over our backs. Only those wearing cultural clothes were pulled out. This was at 8pm between Negelle and Ziway.[58]

The government stated initially that 52 people had died during Irreecha, eventually rising to 55 several days later.[59] The opposition political party Oromo Federalist Congress said 678 died.[60] It is not clear how either group determined these figures.

The government limits independent media and restricts nongovernmental organizations, both domestic and international, so that currently no one has had the access, expertise or impartiality necessary to determine a precise, credible death toll. Based on estimates from health care workers, reports of funerals and missing persons, and incidents that were documented, it is clear that the death toll is much higher than government estimates, but without independent investigators being given open access, and witnesses and health workers being free to speak without the fear of reprisal, the exact number will not be known. The government has shown little willingness to meaningfully investigate the conduct of the security forces.

The government put forward staff at Bishoftu hospital to lend credibility to its claims that the death toll was 55 and that the cause of death was the stampede and nothing else.[61] But three health workers who worked in health facilities where the dead and injured were brought told Human Rights Watch that they had been instructed by Ethiopian security forces or government cadres not to speak to journalists or anyone about the numbers of people killed or how people had been killed.[62]

Information health workers shared indicated a much higher number of people that died. During the year-long protests, Human Rights Watch documented harassment and arrests of medical staff for speaking out about killings and beatings by security forces, or in some cases for treating injured protesters.[63] The government’s effort to immediately try to convince the public that the stampede was the cause of death was in part to counter the narrative that had already taken root in many Oromo communities that large numbers of attendees were shot and that it was a deliberate massacre by the government.

Reprisals for Attending Irreecha

15 individuals from 10 of the 17 zones in Oromia told Human Rights Watch that when they returned from Irreecha in 2016 they had been told by various local contacts that lists had been prepared by local intelligence and security officials of those who had been to Irreecha and that they were to be arrested in the coming days.[64] Ten of those festival goers were then arrested. One in Bale was taken to a local police station and questioned for three days. He was asked about why he went to Irreecha, who he went with, and was accused of “starting violence.” [65] Two other people were taken to Tolay military camp. They told Human Rights Watch that soldiers beat them both badly.[66] One said he was strung up by his wrists, beaten and accused of causing the unrest at Irreecha.[67]

He recalled:

They were accusing me of shooting at security forces, of throwing stones on stage - things that didn’t happen. It was clear they wanted me to admit I started problems. I went there to my first Irreecha to celebrate being Oromo. They were targeting those who went to Irreecha but I had never even been to a protest before.[68]

One person described being arrested in Arsi Zone on October 4, 2016 and taken to the local police station where someone from the local administration questioned him. “He was accusing me of starting anti-government chants. The only time I had seen him previously was at Irreecha. He was on the small bus we had taken from our village.” [69]

All of those who told Human Rights Watch that they had been detained said they had never been to court. They all described being beaten by security forces in detention.[70] It is difficult to know the scale of these arrests across Oromia in part because of mass arrests that were being carried out in connection with the destruction of government buildings/private properties. However Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of arrests of Irreecha festival participants from 16 out of 17 zones in Oromia.

An Oromo elder who had attended each of the five previous Irreecha festivals described his arrest:

When I returned to the kebele I was registered by them [kebele administrators] because I went to Irreecha. They said it was to help identify those missing. The next morning, I was arrested. We were sitting in a group mourning the death of our family members. The security man [plain clothes] came with several local police to us and said “Why are you sitting in a crowd mourning for your family? No one died, you should not mourn.” Then they said, “Why did you start the violence at Irreecha?” We were all arrested and taken to the police station. I was beaten there by the agazi [military].[71]

A 14-year-old boy from Negelle Borana told Human Rights Watch that his parents had gone to Irreecha in 2016 and they had never returned. As he looked for them in hospitals he found that three of his classmates who had been protesting had been arrested. Five other classmates had disappeared. He later fled Ethiopia with two friends to avoid arrest.[72]

A number of individuals reported reprisals against family members of those who attended Irreecha. One young man from Wollega zone said: “I did not go back to my village but got a call from family that they were arresting all those who went to Irreecha. Then they came to my house. Since I wasn’t there they arrested my 78-year-old father. He was arrested until I was produced.” [73] He did not know his father’s current whereabouts.

In other communities, individuals had been pre-warned by local police or local party officials not to attend Irreecha. A 24-year-old Grade 11 student told Human Rights Watch: “We were told there would be serious consequences should we go or should others from our class go. I went, and when I returned from Irreecha local security forces arrested me. They beat me seriously for two weeks accusing me of ignoring their orders and starting Irreecha violence. I was forced to do strenuous exercise and was released after two weeks.”[74]

Several other individuals who were at Irreecha described being arrested after they had told their friends or communities about what had happened at Irreecha. Each of those was interrogated and asked questions including “why are you spreading lies about the government?”, “why are you exaggerating what happened?”[75]

In the days following Irreecha, protests swept throughout Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia. In sharp contrast to previous protests, protesters targeted government buildings and private investors that were perceived to be close to the government. Buildings were looted and destroyed, there were numerous jailbreaks, and police stations were overrun.[76]

One man who said he was part of a mob that destroyed local government buildings near Ziway two days after Irreecha encapsulated the shift in attitude:

It was always important to us that we [protesters] do not engage in violence. We knew that the only way we would gain support from the world is if we spoke about issues in a peaceful manner. But every time we would go out we face bullets, we face arrests and beatings. After a while, we started to debate the limits of our non-violent action. When you are bereft of options and the government and the world ignores your concerns, it is inevitable there would be violence. The fire was already there, it was smoldering, killing us at Irreecha poured fuel on the fire. The violence started sooner than any of us thought.[77]

The State of Emergency

On October 9, 2016 the government announced a country wide six-month state of emergency.[78] It was renewed again for another four months in April 2017. It was lifted on August 4, 2017.[79]

Measures under the state of emergency were overly broad. The implementing directive prescribed draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that went far beyond what is permissible under international law and signaled an increasingly militarized response to the situation.[80]

The directive included far-reaching restrictions on sharing information on social media, watching diaspora television stations, and closing businesses as a gesture of protest, as well as curtailing opposition parties’ ability to communicate with the media. It specifically banned writing or sharing material via any platform that “could create misunderstanding between people or unrest.”[81]

It banned all protests without government permission and permitted arrest without court order in “a place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency.” It also permits “rehabilitation” – a euphemism for short-term detention that often involves physical exercise. During the state of emergency, over 21,000 people were arrested according to government figures, many of them in these “rehabilitation camps.” As of August 4, 2017 around 8,000 remained in detention.[82] Major opposition figures like Dr Merera Gudina were arrested and charged under the criminal code.[83]

The state of emergency could have provided an opportunity for the government to embark on the “deep reform” it promised in response to the year-long protests. The reforms it ended up implementing included tackling corruption, cabinet reshuffles, and a dialogue with what was left of opposition political parties. The government also pledged youth job creation and good governance. Crucially, these are not the fundamental issues that protesters raised during the hundreds of rallies between November 2015 and October 2016. The government largely redefined protester grievances in its own terms, ignoring more fundamental demands to open up political space, allow dissent, and tolerate the free expression of perspectives that are critical in such a large and ethnically diverse country.

III. Government Response

In the wake of Irreecha, the government expressed condolences and declared three days of mourning, labeling the incident as an unfortunate accident.[84]

At the same time, government officials repeatedly and publicly blamed “anti-peace elements” for the deaths. For example, Prime Minister Hailemariam, in an address on national television blamed the deaths on the “violent forces who have a hidden political agenda who tried to disrupt the celebration and turn the situation into chaos.” He also thanked security forces for their “great efforts to maintain peace and order.”[85] Eshetu Dessie, the then vice president of Oromia regional state said “The innocent participants of the Irreecha died due to the violence caused by the anti-peace forces during the celebration.”[86]

The government vehemently insisted that the only people who were killed at Irreecha died in the stampede, and insisted that security forces did not use live ammunition.[87] Then federal government communications minister Getachew Reda said “of the people's bodies who were collected, they do not have any bullet wounds whatsoever. They were killed in the stampede. The security forces were mostly unarmed. There was no force involved on the part of the security forces."[88] This was reiterated in a strong statement from then foreign minister Dr Tedros Adhanom who said that “it is quite clear from the videos that there was no shooting and the police were unarmed.[89]

Despite promises to investigate[90] no transparent or credible investigation has been undertaken. In April, the government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission presented orally to parliament the results of its investigations into protests between June and September 2016.[91] It included reference to October’s Irreecha concluding that “security forces did not use force against the crowd except firing tear gas and this measure was proportionate.”[92] No official written version is publicly available and the Commission has not commented on the methodology they employed to make such conclusions – conclusions that largely replicate the government’s narrative.

IV. International Law and Appropriate Use of Force

The United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials offer guidance as to how law enforcement agencies should limit and control the use of force so as to ensure respect for human rights. The Principles make clear that law enforcement officers should:

  • “as far as possible, employ non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms” and use force or firearms “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result;”
  • Where the use of force is unavoidable, “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved” and “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;”
  • Ensure that the development and deployment of non-lethal weapons are “carefully evaluated in order to minimize the risk of endangering uninvolved persons,” and that the use of such weapons is “carefully controlled;”
  • Equip law enforcement officers with defensive equipment, “in order to decrease the need to use weapons of any kind.” [93]

Police should exercise particular restraint when using teargas or other non-lethal weaponry in situations when its use could cause death or serious injury.

The Principles also stipulate that law enforcement shall not use force to disperse lawful and peaceful assemblies; that the use of force should be “avoided or, where that is not practicable, restricted to the minimum extent necessary” in dispersing unlawful but non-violent assemblies; and that in dispersing violent, unlawful assemblies, law enforcement shall only use firearms “when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary.” More generally, “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life…and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.[94]

While tensions in the crowd were high and many people were clearly protesting against the government, available evidence indicates that the crowds did not appear to pose a direct threat to security forces.

Firing tear gas and discharging firearms exacerbated an already tense situation, causing widespread panic and triggering the stampede. Any discharge of live ammunition at members of the crowd was clearly disproportionate, and the use of tear gas and non-lethal munitions appears to have been as well. Blocking main roads out of the site through the presence of armed security forces caused people to turn back into the crowds caused further casualties. At best this was a disastrous mishandling of a complex crowd control situation. At worst, it was a deliberate use of disproportionate force that led to scores—or more likely hundreds—of needless deaths.

If force was used to disperse the crowd rather than in response to a perceived threat posed by them, it may also have constituted a violation of the rights to free expression and assembly.

V. 2017 Irreecha

Irreecha is about peace, unity, and our culture. It is not about politics. And the government changed all that last year. We do not want problems this year. This government just needs to allow us to celebrate Irreecha and not try to take it over again. They don’t need to be there and nor do the soldiers. There were never problems before. Just let us practice our traditional culture.

75-year-old elder from Ambo, Oromia, Ethiopia, August 2017

The lack of space in Ethiopia for open critical debate, including the decimation of the Oromo Federalist Congress and long-standing limitations on independent media and civil society, meant there are few independent voices in-country that are deemed credible to protesters to challenge the narrative that has taken root among many Oromo that the deaths at Irreecha resulted from an intentional and planned act by the government. Restrictions under the state of emergency further decreased space for any critical discussion about the events of Irreecha 2016. Devoid of fora for open dialogue about sensitive issues, including security force handling of Irreecha, the narrative of deliberate massacre remains a strong one within Oromo communities.

While there has been little mention from senior government officials about 2016 Irreecha since the state of emergency was called on October 9, 2016, there continues to be considerable anger within many Oromo communities about the events that day. This is critical to understand when assessing the potential for the 2017 Irreecha to be problematic and underscores the deep mistrust that exists between the Oromo people and the government, and the lack of avenues available to seek redress.

It is likely that tensions and frustrations will be very high at the 2017 Irreecha, and that there will be more protests and anti-government songs and chants. Ethiopia’s government should develop an approach that aims to de-escalate tensions and prevent any unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by security forces. Security forces should tolerate expressions of dissent, and government, in particular the federal government, should consider whether it would be wise to limit the security forces’ involvement in the event.


This report was written by Felix Horne, Africa researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, based on research carried out by Felix Horne and Abdullahi Abdi, research assistant in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. It was edited by Maria Burnett, associate Africa director. Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor, and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director, provided legal and program review respectively.

Abdullahi Abdi, research assistant in the Africa division, provided production assistance and support. Josh Lyons, in the emergencies division assisted with satellite imagery analysis. The report was prepared for publication by Olivia Hunter, publications coordinator; Jose Martinez, senior coordinator; and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank the fixers and translators in Ethiopia and elsewhere who cannot be named for security reasons but whose contribution made this report possible.


[1] Government officials often cite Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) presence, activities, and links to justify acts of repression of Oromo individuals. In the years before the 2015/2016 protests, tens of thousands of Oromo individuals have been targeted for arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses even when there is no evidence linking them to the OLF. See Human Rights Watch, “Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region,” Vol. 17, No. 7 (A), May 10, 2005, and Amnesty International, “’Because I am Oromo’, Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region” of Ethiopia. October 10, 2014 (accessed May 19, 2016).

[2] Similar protests over the Master Plan and a resultant crack-down occurred in Oromia in April and May 2014. See Amnesty International, “Because I am Oromo’, Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region” of Ethiopia. October 10, 2014 (accessed August 25, 2017) and “Ethiopia: Brutal Crackdown on Protests,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 5, 2014, for more information on the 2014 protests. See “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests,” Human Rights Watch report, June 15, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017) which covers the first six months of the 2015-2016 protests.

[3] “State of Emergency Ends in Ethiopia,“ Human Rights Watch dispatch,, August 7, 2017 (accessed August 29, 2017). For details on the first six months of the protest see “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests,” Human Rights Watch report, June 15, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[4] The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) is Oromia’s main legally registered opposition party. Human Rights Watch has routinely interviewed individuals who have been harassed, fired from their jobs, or arrested for being members, supporters or campaigning for OFC. In December 2016, many senior members of the OFC were arrested and eventually charged with terrorism. Deputy-chairman Bekele Gerba is one of them. Dr Merera Gudina, Chairman of OFC, and one of the few senior OFC members not in detention was arrested in November 2016 and charged in February 2017 under the criminal code. They are still behind bars. See “Using Courts to Crush Dissent in Ethiopia,” Human Rights Watch dispatch, May 9, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[5] BBC, “Ethiopia's Oromo protests: PM Hailemariam Desalegn apologises,” March 10, 2016,
August 25, 2017) an Ethiopian News Agency, “Ethiopia Should Reinforce Efforts to Resist Anti-Peace Elements: President,” October 10, 2016, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[6] Human Rights Watch statement to European parliament, October 12, 2016, (accessed August 29, 2017).

[7] The first report was made public 10 months after it had been presented orally to parliament. First report is available at: The second report, presented to parliament in April 2017 is still not publicly available. Various draft versions have been seen by Human Rights Watch.

[8] Numerous sources list attendance at Irreecha at several million each year. In UNESCO nomination documents, the Ethiopian government states that Irreecha is “celebrated by millions annually at Lake Arsadi.” It also states that four million attended in 2015. It’s not clear how these numbers are determined but it is clear massive crowds attend each year. The Irreecha festival site where the stampede occurred is approximately 13,000 square meters making it unlikely that there was any more than a couple hundred thousand present at the location and time of the stampede. “Irreecha to be celebrated on Sunday,” Walta, September 29, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[9] Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Eleventh session, Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia (accessed August 23, 2017); see also, The Colors, The Identity and The Pride of Oromo Nation,” Addis Standard, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Addis Standard, “Irreecha: a defining moment in hallowed land,” October 2016,, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[12] “Oromia’s Irreecha Festival - A Revival of an Ancient African Culture An Attempt to Understand and Explain,” Mekuria Bulcha, September 2015, (accessed August 23 2017).

[13] Gadaa is a traditional system of governance used by the Oromo people in Ethiopia, which functions in conjunction with the state. Gadaa regulates political, economic, social and religious activities of the community, dealing with issues such as conflict resolution, reparations and protecting women’s rights. It serves as a mechanism for enforcing moral conduct, building social cohesion, and expressing forms of community culture. For more information, please see, “Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 11.COM 10.B.11,” UNESCO, (accessed August 17, 2017) and UNESCO, Gada system, an indigenous democratic socio-political system of the Oromo, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[14] Efforts to inculcate Gadaa system on world heritage list yields results, Walta, August 10 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[15] UNESCO, Gada system, an indigenous democratic socio-political system of the Oromo, accessed August 17, 2017).

[16] See Addis Standard special edition on Irreecha, November 8, 2016, (accessed August 24, 2017).

[17] For further information on the importance of Irreecha please see: “Irreecha – The Colors, The Identity and The Pride of Oromo Nation,” Addis Standard, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[18] See “Oromo Abba Gadaa leaders call for withdrawal of federal army from Oromia and release of political prisoners,” Opride, September 2, 2016 (accessed August 18, 2017).

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with #7, location withheld, April 2017.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with individuals #11, #43 who participated in meetings between government and Gadaa Council, location withheld, August 2017.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with #21, location withheld, August 2017.

[22] Human Rights Watch Interview #6, location withheld, April 2017. Language was likely Amharic.

[23] Based on analysis of videos by Human Rights Watch, the helicopters appear to be Mi-8 medium transport helicopters sometimes called a “Hip”. It is a Soviet-designed and built machine that’s been around in some form since the early 1960s. Ethiopia’s military is known to possess these helicopters. While it can be armed with rockets, bombs, or machine guns, no such weapons are visible in the videos analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with #4, location withheld, December 2016. See video of one of the passes of the helicopter at

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with #12, location withheld, August 2017.

[26] The OPDO is the EPRDF ruling coalition’s affiliate in Oromia.

[27] Videos of this are available at: (accessed August 18, 2017). He chanted in English “Down, Down Woyane” and “Down, Down TPLF”. Woyane is slang for the Tigrayan-led government that has dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991. TPLF is the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the main government party in the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Gemada is currently in exile in Egypt and has given several interviews to media about Irreecha. However, the government charged Tufa Melka Hordofa on May 26, 2017 under Article 32/1/a/b, 35, and 38 of the criminal code and Article 31/1/2 of the Anti-Terrorism law accusing him of being the individual who grabbed the microphone. The charge sheet accuses him of belonging to the OLF. Tufa has been in detention since October 21, 2016. In an article published June 13, 2017 Gemada Wariyo told VOA “I took the microphone in a peaceful protest. I was the one who protested and I don’t know the men blamed for grabbing the microphone.” See Voice of America, “Ethiopia’s Civil Society Getting Squeezed,” (accessed August 25, 2017).

[28] A number of individuals present at the front of the crowd said that some of the police did not speak Afan Oromo, raising suspicions that not all of them were Oromia regional police as is commonly believed.

[29] Dignitaries leave stage at 0:36 of

[30] Heard at 0:50 of Tear gas can be seen at 01:08. Human Rights Watch interviews with #29, #5, #2, and #36, locations withheld, December 2016, April 2017, August 2017.

[31] Tear gas is visible close to the trench at 01:08. Firing of tear gas be heard between 0:50 and 01:12 of this publicly available video at

[32] Human Rights Watch did not view any videos that showed helicopters once the stampede started and no videos were viewed that showed helicopters dropping tear gas. On some of the videos of the stampede, sound of helicopters can be heard overhead.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with #8, location withheld, June 2017.

[34] Human Rights Watch interviews #9, #11, #46, #47, locations withheld, August 2017. Publicly available videos include: (accessed August 25, 2017) and (accessed August 25, 2017).

[35] Gunshots can be heard from 01:10 onwards. Burst of gunfire can be heard at 0:121 of this publicly available video at

[36] Rubber bullets were retrieved at the scene. Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[37] See Human Rights Watch, “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests” June 15, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[38] Video footage shows soldiers with Kalashnikov-style assault rifles while other security forces in this area are unarmed.

[39] The trench is estimated to be around 5 meters wide, 10-20 meters long and approximately 4-8 meters deep. There are varying accounts of how the risk of the trench was handled in previous years. Some people said that local police were nearby to warn people about the trench, while others described preventing children from climbing a nearby tree that was close to the trench. Others suggest that there is little risk of the trench under normal circumstances. Larger crowds in that area than in previous years may have exacerbated the risks. This video at shows some of the first moments after people fell into the trench as many tried to climb out.

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews #8, #13, #27, location withheld, June and August 2017. Lake Hora is approximately 200m from the stage.

[41] Human Rights Watch interviews with #26, #3, #9, #34, locations withheld, December 2016 and August 2017.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with #2, location withheld, December 2016.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with #44, location withheld, August 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with #24, location withheld, August 2017.

[45] Human Rights Watch interviews with #8, 13, 18 and 32, locations withheld, June and August 2017.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with #32, location withheld, August 2017.

[47] Human Rights Watch interviews with #18, #16, #48, and #49, locations withheld, August 2017.

[48] Human Rights Watch interviews with #35,20,5,16, locations withheld, April and August 2017.

[49] Video at: (accessed August 24, 2017).

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with #9, location withheld, August 2017.

[51] Human Rights Watch interviews with #45 and #15, locations withheld, August 2017.

[52] Human Rights Watch interviews with #3, #17, #21, #32, and #46, locations withheld, December 2016 and August 2017.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with #17, location withheld, August 2017.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with #19, location withheld, August 2017.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with #22, location withheld, August 2017.

[56] Two of these individuals were interviewed in August 2017, and two were interviewed in December 2016.

[57] Human Rights Watch interviews with #35, 5, 20 and 26, locations withheld, April and August 2017.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with #23, location withheld, August 2017.

[59] “State gov’t pledges support for families of stampede victims, ”Ethiopian News Agency, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 20, 2017). Various government statements initially put the number at 52.

[60] “AHRE condemns the violent act of security forces that causes the death of dozens at festival”, Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 16, 2017).

[61] “Bishoftu Hospital confirms stampede, suffocation caused Irreecha deaths”, Ethiopian News Agency, October 3, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[62] Human Rights Watch interviews with #30, #51, #42, locations withheld, August 2017.

[63] See pages 41-43 in See Human Rights Watch, “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests” June 15, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[64] A zone is an administrative unit in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is made of 11 regions. Regions are made up of zones. Zones are made up of woredas. Woredas are made up of kebeles. There are 17 zones in Oromia.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with #14, location withheld, August 2017.

[66] Human Rights Watch interviews with #33 and 36, location withheld, August 2017.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with #36, location withheld, August 2017.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with #31, location withheld, August 2017.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with #6, location withheld, April 2017.

[70] All were arrested before the October 9 state of emergency, but were released during the state of emergency.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with #1, location withheld, December 2016.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with #25, location withheld, August 2017.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with #28, location withheld, August 2017.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with #26, location withheld, August 2017.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with #20, location withheld, August 2017.

[76] See “Anger Boiling Over in Ethiopia,” Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2016 (accessed August 23, 2017).

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with #29, location withheld, August 2017.

[78] “Ethiopia: State of Emergency Risks New Abuses,” Human Rights Watch, October 31, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017). Six months is the maximum allowed under Ethiopian law. Four months is the maximum extension permitted under Ethiopian law.

[79] “Ethiopia lifts state of emergency imposed in October,” Al Jazeera, August 5, 2017
(accessed August 18, 2017).

[80] “Legal Analysis of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency,” Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[81] Under international law, during a state of emergency a government may only suspend certain rights to the extent permitted by the “exigencies of the situation.” Many of the measures, including the restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association go far beyond what is permitted under international law. For legal analysis of Ethiopia’s state of emergency, please see; “Legal Analysis of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency,” Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[82] “Ethiopia life state of emergency imposed in October,” al Jazeera, August 4, 2016,
(accessed August 17, 2017).

[83] See, “Ethiopia prosecutors bring multiple criminal charges against opposition leader Dr. Merera Gudina, two others” Addis Standard, February 23, 2017 (accessed August 18, 2017).

[84] Elias Meseret, “52 confirmed dead in stampede at Ethiopia religious event,” AP, October 3, 2016,, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[85] Prime Minister Hailemariam speech, Ethiopian broadcasting Corporation (EBC), October 2, 2016. Translated from Amharic. Accessed (August 20, 2017).

[86] Ibid.

[87] “Hospital confirms stampede, suffocation caused Irreecha deaths,” Walta, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017). Cover photo clearly shows armed security forces next to the stage.

[88] “Ethiopia declares state of emergency after months of protests,” CNN, October 11, 2016, (accessed August 20, 2017).

[89] “Human Rights Watch encourages opposition violence”, The Official Blog of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 22, 2016, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[90] Ibid.

[91] Human Rights Commission Publicizes Findings about the Recent Sporadic Disturbances, Ethiopian News Agency, April 18, 2017, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[92] “Rights commission say security measures that killed hundreds of civilians during recent protests mostly proportional,” Addis Standard, April 18, 2017, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[93] “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials: Adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, 27 August to 7 September 1990,” (accessed August 18, 2017).

[94] Ibid.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Washington, DC) – Equatorial Guinean authorities arrested a political cartoonist and activist on September 16, 2017, Human Rights Watch and EG Justice said today. He has been held in detention since then and authorities may be preparing to file criminal defamation charges against him.
The arrest of the cartoonist, Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé, is the latest episode of government retaliation against artists who have used their work to criticize the government. EG authorities should repeal the country’s colonial-era defamation statute, which allows for the criminal prosecution of people who criticize the president and top government officials. They should abandon any plans to charge Ebalé under that law and, if he is accused of no other crime, release him immediately and without charge.
“The Equatorial Guinea government has again demonstrated its hostility to any form of critical expression that escapes its heavy-handed censorship,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, which monitors human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea.
Three state security officers detained Ebalé outside a restaurant in the capital, Malabo, at about 7 p.m. on September 16, along with two Spanish nationals who were with him. All three men were taken to the Office Against Terrorism and Dangerous Activities in the Central Police Station. The Spanish nationals were interrogated about their connection to Ebalé and freed after several hours.
Authorities continue to hold Ebalé without charge, exceeding the 72-hour period allowed under Equatoguinean law. Interrogators reportedly questioned him about his political cartoons, which often lewdly caricature President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and other government officials, and repeatedly told him that people may only participate in politics if they are associated with an official party.
Ebalé has lived outside of Equatorial Guinea for several years and had returned to the country to renew his passport. He has not been taken before a judge, which Equatoguinean law requires within 24 hours. Family members were allowed to see him on September 18 and 19, though prison guards refused to allow his sisters to visit on September 17 or to confirm he was being held there.
Based on the interrogators’ apparent questions, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch are concerned that Ebalé may be charged with violating Equatorial Guinea’s criminal defamation statute. In Human Rights Watch’s view, such laws are incompatible with the right to free expression and Equatorial Guinea’s statute should be repealed.
The arts have traditionally served as a safe space for independent voices to provoke public debate on social issues in Equatorial Guinea, a country with little tolerance for political dissent. But EG Justice and Human Rights Watch have documented an increasing number of incidents over the past two years in which the government has retaliated against artists and cultural groups.
In one recent incident, in July, authorities arbitrarily detained Benjamin Ndong, known as Jamin Dogg, after he released a song in support of taxi drivers protesting an increase in licensing fees. In August 2016, authorities suspended a UNICEF-funded theater production raising awareness about HIV after a comment from the audience questioning why the government hadn’t done more to stop the spread of the disease. And in August 2015, the interior minister closed an independent cultural center in Rebola after an artist performed a rap song critical of the government.
“Prosecuting a cartoonist for unflattering satirical drawings is incompatible with free speech and only highlights the power of the pen,” said Sarah Saadoun, researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In July 2016, the United States Department of Justice released a legislative proposal that could vastly increase surveillance by other governments with the direct assistance of Silicon Valley. The unprecedented proposal would allow certain governments to demand the contents of Internet communications such as e-mails and chats directly from US companies, rather than going through cross-border law enforcement treaties that have long been in place to protect rights. The US has already negotiated the outlines of such a deal with the United Kingdom and the Justice Department proposal would extend it to other governments.

This development should raise alarm bells for any user of US-based Internet companies such as Google or Facebook. If enacted, privacy safeguards will get much weaker, collection much broader, and private information potentially more widely shared since governments will have increased access to user communications. While the legislative proposal generally conditions this access on a government’s general respect for human rights, it falls short of ensuring that rights will be adequately protected.

The proposal was introduced on September 14 in the US Congress as an amendment to a defense spending bill, and may be introduced in stand-alone legislation later this year.

The Rationale

Under current US law, Internet companies are prohibited from turning over the contents of communications directly to foreign governments, even for investigating crime. Instead, law enforcement agencies outside the US must make requests through Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs), with the Justice Department and US judges serving as intermediaries between the requesting government and the company that holds the information.

As a byproduct of this process, the US extends the same strong constitutional privacy protections enjoyed by US citizens to surveillance targets outside the US. These protections have long promoted respect for rights in criminal investigations, despite the US reputation for excessive surveillance in the intelligence context.

Under this system, the requesting authority must convince a judge that there is “probable cause” the search will elicit evidence of a crime. This is a high standard. The requesting government has to put forward specific facts—and not just a hunch or belief—that demonstrate the communications sought are likely to be evidence of criminal activity. The request must also specifically describe the evidence sought, preventing governments from speculative “fishing” for evidence of crime. An impartial and independent judge must authorize the warrant and the US government also strips out communications that aren’t relevant to the request, all prior to disclosure. Finally, some treaties limit how the information may be used. While the MLAT process isn’t as transparent as it should be, it is rigorous and protective of rights—often more so than the domestic law of requesting governments.

Law enforcement agencies in the UK and elsewhere have become increasingly frustrated with this process, which can be slow. One 2013 review found that it takes an average of 10 months to fulfill a government request. This tortoise-like pace is not intrinsic to the process, which can be very quick for US authorities seeking warrants. The US has devoted insufficient resources to the process, leading to a large backlog, with the number of requests only increasing. Also, with US standards more rigorous than those in many requesting countries, requesting authorities must often devote more resources to gather evidence to meet them.

In response, the UK has claimed that they can extend their surveillance orders “extraterritorially” to Internet companies outside their borders to bypass this process. This places companies in the awkward position of deciding whether to comply with UK warrants in violation of US law. Major US Internet companies have also said that foreign governments’ frustration with the process is leading to calls for data localization worldwide, which would force companies to store user data locally in territories where they offer services, or even arrest of employees.

US companies believe that the Justice Department proposal would prevent this parade of horribles and are actively supporting the government’s move. Whether it would do so is an open question. But the proposal also means eliminating rights protections for many users outside the US.

The Proposal

The proposal would allow qualifying countries to request the contents of communications directly from US companies, bypassing the MLAT process, for the investigation of undefined “serious crime.” The proposal actually goes beyond the existing system since it would allow governments to demand real-time wiretapping from US tech companies for the first time. But the requirements governments would have to meet fall well short of what international human rights law requires of the US and its partners—that an independent authority consider whether, in each individual case, the request is necessary and proportionate and subject to challenge and redress.

For a government to qualify, the US would have to negotiate a bilateral agreement with the country and certify that it has “robust substantive and procedural protections for privacy and civil liberties.” But the proposal only lists “factors to be considered,” not firm requirements. The factors include whether the country generally has respect for the rule of law and human rights and “sufficient mechanisms to provide accountability and appropriate transparency” for surveillance.

This blanket determination is far weaker than the case-by-case judicial authorization that the current process requires, and it overlooks the fact that the authorities of any country—no matter how well intentioned—may make mistakes or overreach. It also makes the certification process vulnerable to politics, where the US might ignore serious abuses to certify key allies.

Once a country is certified and an agreement is in place, its law enforcement agencies could request stored communications or real-time wiretaps directly from US companies. Generally, those requests would be subject to the country’s own domestic procedures and standards, although the proposal would require them to ensure there is a “reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts.” The meaning of that standard remains unclear, though it appears to be less than “probable cause.” The proposal doesn’t compel companies to comply, though the requesting government may try to do so. If a company denies a request, the government can resubmit its order through the usual MLAT process.

Under the proposal, requesting governments would have to subject requests to undefined “review or oversight” by an independent authority, but officials would not have to seek prior judicial authorization. Such review could also be generalized rather than specific to each request. This is a major weakness since the current system requires an independent examination by a US judge of the justification for the request (and the potential impact on rights) before disclosure.

Many of the proposal’s terms are undefined, and it is unclear how they will be interpreted and applied under vastly different legal systems. For example, the proposal requires requesting governments to specify a “person, account, address, or personal device” to target, which in theory might deter some sweeping data requests. In practice, however, a single request could involve disproportionate amounts of data, depending on how specific provisions are defined. For example, an “address” could be interpreted to include an “Internet Protocol address,” which could be shared by thousands of computers. The onus will be on the requesting government to “segregate” non-relevant information.

Finally, the proposal does not require governments to provide notice to surveillance targets. Yet notice is a critical human rights protection that enables individuals to seek redress for surveillance abuses. Participating countries are also allowed to share information collected under this regime with the US and other governments in some circumstances.

Impact on User Rights

Agreements negotiated under the proposed framework would undoubtedly lead to far more user information flowing from US Internet companies to the UK and other governments than under the current process. The proposal would protect US companies from liability for complying with requests made in “good faith.” This removes incentives for companies to scrutinize or deny such requests, given other legal or political pressures they may face from requesting governments.

For users outside the US, the proposal’s shift of human rights scrutiny from US courts back to the institutions of the requesting country means the impact on privacy and other rights depends first and foremost on whether their country’s laws are more protective than the current MLAT system. In the UK, the protections are weaker.

The US government contends that the new system would encourage other countries to reform their own surveillance laws to qualify for speedier access to data held by US firms. But whether that is likely depends on political interests of both the US and the participating government. What countries may qualify—or could qualify with some reforms—is uncertain. The draft agreement appears designed to require no changes to UK law, which Edward Snowden described as legalizing “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.” From conversations with companies and other stakeholders, Brazil and India may also be on a desired short list for data sharing under the proposal.

People in countries like Brazil or India should decide whether they are willing to trade privacy protections provided by the current MLAT system for some hazy incentive to improve domestic laws. The proposal’s criteria fall short of international human rights law, including the Necessary and Proportionate Principles, which would likely limit any reforms, even if a government were willing to change its laws.

Finally, there is a question of accountability. The MLAT system subjects users’ rights to standards their own governments did not enact, under a process they cannot contest. This is not ideal, yet it manages to provide strong protections for people outside the US. The new proposal would simply remove many of these protections and defer to the participating government’s domestic processes, which may be even more opaque and unaccountable.

Internet users should assess whether their domestic system would adequately prevent their government from abusing the arrangement, and whether local law enforcement can be held accountable, given how much more data would be available to them under the deal.

What Alternative?

The US should adequately fund the current process so that government requests can be properly reviewed in a timely way. The US could also streamline the MLAT process, for example, creating a standardized online system for requests that would not require weakening rights protections. Both technology companies and the US should prioritize these solutions before pursuing a proposal that could allow a potentially vast expansion of surveillance, with lower safeguards.

To be truly viewed as an improvement, any cross-border data request proposal should strengthen privacy protections and improve human rights accountability, not merely shift the burden to systems that have fewer protections. The current proposal doesn’t come close to achieving this.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics, in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The campaign comes three months after Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017.

The reported arrests of Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and more than a dozen others since September 10 are the latest in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing repression campaign against dissidents including peaceful activists, journalists, and writers. A prominent writer, Jamal Khashoggi, announced that his publication, al-Hayat, had banned him from writing regular opinion columns.

Saudi authorities arrested Salman al-Awda and over a dozen others in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent. 

© 2009 Marwan Almuraisy (Wikimedia Commons)

“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views.”

A September 12 Saudi Press Agency announcement appeared to confirm the arrests, stating that the Presidency of State Security, the country’s new counterterrorism agency, had worked “to monitor the intelligence activities of a group of people for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities, and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity.” It said the group included Saudis and foreigners.

Al-Awda and al-Qarni were prominent members of the “Sahwa Movement” in the early 1990s, which criticized Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow the US military into the country to protect it from a potential Iraqi invasion. The authorities imprisoned al-Awda from 1994-1999. Since 2011 al-Awda has advocated greater democracy and social tolerance. Al-Qarni announced in March that authorities had banned him from writing following a conviction for harming public order.

Reuters reported that the clerics failed to sufficiently back Saudi policies, including the isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. The Wall Street Journal reported that the arrests may be related to Saudi authorities’ preparation for an abdication by King Salman in favor of Mohammad bin Salman, the king’s son.

While Saudi authorities have not disclosed the specific reasons for the detentions, they fit a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution.

Khashoggi has faced writing bans in the past. The most recent came in November 2016, after the Saudi Press Agency stated that Khashoggi does not represent the government of Saudi Arabia after he criticized Donald Trump at a presentation in Washington, DC, on November 10.

Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years and most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent. They include “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law.

Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal.

Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.

Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed. Activists Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak are currently on trial. In late July, a Saudi appeals court upheld an eight-year prison sentence against Abdulaziz al-Shubaily. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are currently on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.

“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains hateful and incendiary language toward religions and Islamic traditions that do not adhere to its interpretation of Sunni Islam, Human Rights Watch said today. The texts disparage Sufi and Shia religious practices and label Jews and Christians “unbelievers” with whom Muslims should not associate.

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch review of the Education Ministry-produced school religion books for the 2016-17 school year found that some of the content that first provoked widespread controversy for violent and intolerant teachings in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks remains in the texts today, despite Saudi officials’ promises to eliminate the intolerant language.

“As early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The lessons in hate are reinforced with each following year.”

This research was part of a broader investigation into Saudi officials and religious clerics’ use of hate speech and incitement to violence for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report. The reviewed curriculum, entitled al-tawhid, or “Monotheism,” consisted of 45 textbooks and student workbooks for the primary, middle, and secondary education levels. Human Rights Watch did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary, or Qur’an recitation.

The United States Department of State first designated Saudi Arabia a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations in 2004. It has continued to do so every year since. The designation should trigger penalties, including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. But the US government has had a waiver on penalties in place since 2006. The waiver allows the US to continue economic and security cooperation with Saudi Arabia unencumbered.

Saudi Arabia has faced pressure to reform its school religion curriculum since the September 11 attacks, particularly from the US, after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Saudi officials have said repeatedly they will carry out these reforms, although past reviews of the curriculum over the last dozen years have shown these promises to be hollow. In February 2017, Saudi’s education minister admitted that a “broader curriculum overhaul” was still necessary, but did not offer a target date for when this overhaul should be completed.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. Its public school religious textbooks are but one aspect of an entire system of discrimination that promotes intolerance toward those perceived as “other.”

As Saudi Arabia moves towards implementing its Vision 2030 goals to transform the country culturally and economically, it should address the hostile rhetoric that nonconforming Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and non-Muslim expatriate workers face in Saudi Arabia, said Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia’s al-tawhid, “Monotheism,” curriculum harshly criticizes practices and traditions closely associated with both Shia Islam and Sufism. In many cases, the curriculum labels practices, such as visiting the graves of prominent religious figures, and the act of intercession, by which Shias and Sufis supplicate to God through intermediaries, as evidence of shirk, or polytheism, that will result in the removal from Islam and eternal damnation.

The curriculum repeatedly condemns building mosques or shrines on top of graves, a clear reference to Shia or Sufi pilgrimage sites. The third book in the five-part secondary level curriculum, for example, contains a section, entitled, “People’s Violation of the Teachings of the Prophet with Graves,” stating that “many people have violated what the prophet forbade in terms of bida’ or ‘illicit innovations’ with graves and committed what he prohibited and because of that fell into illicit innovations or the greatest polytheism” by “building mosques and shrines on top of graves.” The text also states that people use shrines as a place to commit other acts of illicit innovations or polytheism, including: “praying at them, reading at them, sacrificing to them and those [interred] in them, seeking help from them, or making vows by them…”.

Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104

The second semester of the seventh-grade text expresses similar sentiment, saying that “those who make the graves of prophets and the righteous into mosques are evil-natured.”

Toward the end of one chapter, “The Role of Reformers in Declaring and Defending the Correct Doctrine,” in a secondary-level textbook, a short glossary lists practices of those who have deviated from correct religious practice. It describes Sufism as “a perverse path that began with the claim of asceticism, or severe self-discipline, then entered into illicit innovation, misguidedness, and exaggeration in reverence to the righteous.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 40

The curriculum reserves its harshest criticisms for Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths, often describing them as kuffar, or “unbelievers.”

In one fifth-grade second semester textbook, the curriculum calls Jews, Christians, and Al Wathaniyeen, or “pagans,” the “original unbelievers” and declares that it is the duty of Muslims to excommunicate them: “For whoever does not [excommunicate them], or whoever doubts their religious infidelity is himself an unbeliever.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 55

In a chapter listing markers by which one can recognize the approach of the Day of Resurrection, one passage states: “The Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill the Jews.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level Two, 2016-17, p. 102.

A recurring and alarming lesson in the curriculum warns against imitating, associating with, or joining the “unbelievers” in their traditions and practices. One passage rejects and denounces the Sufi practice of celebrating the birth of the prophet, accusing Sufis of imitating Christians, i.e. “unbelievers,” in their celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 279

[Translation: Celebrating the prophet’s birth in the spring of every year is prohibited; for it is a new innovation and is in imitation of the Christian celebration of what is known as the birth of Christ.]

In another chapter, “Loyalty to Unbelievers,” the text explicitly calls on Muslims to reserve loyalty to God, the prophet, and other believers and to express hostility and antagonism toward “unbelievers.” It warns Muslims that by imitating “unbelievers” or even joining them in their celebrations, one is at risk of expressing loyalty to them, and worse even, becoming one of them.

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level One, 2016-17, p. 165


The Saudi government’s official denigration of other religious groups, combined with its ban on public practice of other religions, could amount to incitement to hatred or discrimination. International human rights law requires countries to prohibit “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

Article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or relief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

“Saudi Arabia’s officials should stop denigrating other people’s personal beliefs,” Whitson said. “After years of reform promises there is apparently still little room for tolerance in the country’s schools.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am