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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.


Nepal is a federal democratic republic. The 2015 constitution established the political system, including the framework for a prime minister as the chief executive, a bicameral parliament, and seven provinces. In 2017 the country held national elections for the lower house of parliament and the newly created provincial assemblies. Domestic and international observers characterized the national elections as “generally well conducted,” although some noted a lack of transparency in the work of the Election Commission of Nepal.

The Nepal Police are responsible for enforcing law and order across the country. The Armed Police Force is responsible for combating terrorism, providing security during riots and public disturbances, assisting in natural disasters, and protecting vital infrastructure, public officials, and the borders. The Nepal Police and Armed Police Force report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Nepali Army is responsible for external security and international peacekeeping, but also has some domestic security responsibilities such as disaster relief operations and nature conservation efforts. The Nepali Army reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective authority over the Nepal Police, Armed Police Force, and Army. Human rights organizations documented some abuses by members of the security forces.

Significant reported human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by the government; arbitrary detention; serious restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet, including site blocking and criminal defamation laws; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; restrictions on freedom of movement for refugees, notably resident Tibetans; and significant acts of corruption.

The government investigated but did not routinely hold accountable those officials and security forces accused of committing violations of the law. Security personnel accused of using excessive force in controlling protests in recent years did not face notable accountability nor did most conflict-era human rights violators.

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

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

There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Ministry of Home Affairs are authorized to examine and investigate whether security force killings were justified. NHRC has the authority to recommend action and to record the name and agency of those who do not comply with its recommendations. The Attorney General has the authority to pursue prosecutions. According to a report by the human rights group Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance (THRDA), 12 of 18 custodial deaths they reported from 2015-20 occurred among members of the Dalit, Madhesi, or other marginalized communities.

On June 10, Shambhu Sada, a member of the Dalit community, died in police custody in Dhanusha District. Sada, a truck driver, turned himself in to police after a traffic accident where he hit and killed a woman. Police reported the cause of death as suicide; however, Sada’s family and community believe police killed Sada or drove him to suicide through physical and emotional torture. Sada’s mother-in-law visited three days before his death and stated that Sada looked scared and told her that he feared for his life.

On July 16, the Nepali Army detained 24-year-old Raj Kumar Chepang and six friends for foraging in Chitwan National Park. They were released later in the day, but Chepang complained of physical discomfort when he arrived home. His health deteriorated and he died on July 22 from injuries that his family and the community stated were sustained while in custody. The army was investigating the incident and an autopsy was conducted.

In June 2019 police in Sarlahi killed a local leader of the Maoist splinter party Biplav. Police reported that they shot Kumar Paudel after he fired at them. The human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Advocacy Forum-Nepal (AF) reported the encounter was likely staged and the NHRC recommended the government suspend the three police officers involved in the incident and conduct a fresh and impartial investigation. In February, Paudel’s family tried to file a report with the Sarlahi police and then the District Attorney’s office. Both offices refused to register the case. A human rights NGO helped the family submit the report by mail. As of September, the NHRC’s recommendation to suspend the three officials involved had not been implemented.

b. Disappearance

The law formally criminalizes enforced disappearance. There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year.

The fate of most of those who disappeared during the 1996-2006 civil conflict remained unknown. According to the NHRC, 802 cases of disappearances remain unresolved, most of which the NHRC says may have involved state actors. One new conflict-era case was registered in 2020. As of September, the government did not prosecute any government officials, sitting or former, for involvement in conflict-era disappearances, nor had it released information on the whereabouts of the 606 persons the NHRC identified as having been disappeared by state actors. The NHRC reported that Maoists were believed to be involved in 150 unresolved disappearances during the conflict. As of early September, the government had not prosecuted any Maoists or state actors for involvement in disappearances.

In 2017 the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) formed five teams to begin investigating complaints of disappearances filed by conflict-era victims. The commission had before it 3,197 registered cases and ultimately pursued 2,512 cases under its first commissioner, whose tenure expired in 2019. A new commissioner was appointed in January. As of August, the CIEDP reported 2,503 cases completed.

Human rights organizations continued to express concern over flaws related to the CIEDP. According to the International Commission of Jurists, CIEDP investigations suffered from inadequate human and financial resources to handle the large number of cases, opaque appointment processes of investigators, and a lack of measures to provide confidentiality and security of victims and witnesses.

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

The constitution prohibits torture, and the law criminalizes torture, enumerates punishment for torture, and provides for compensation for victims of torture.

According to human rights activists and legal experts, police resorted to severe abuse, primarily beatings, to force confessions. The Nepal human rights group AF also reported that law enforcement personnel subjected violators of the COVID-19 lockdown to inhuman and degrading treatment. Violators were detained for hours in the sun, forced to do sit-ups, frog jumps, and crawl on the road. AF and THRDA reported annual decreases of torture and mistreatment, although THRDA noted that this trend did not hold in the southern portion of the country. AF stated that police increasingly complied with the courts’ demand for preliminary medical checks of detainees.

AF reported that 19 percent of the 1,005 detainees interviewed in 2019 reported some form of torture or ill treatment. These numbers were even higher among women (26.3 percent) and juvenile detainees (24.5 percent).

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in April 2018 of sexual exploitation and abuse by Nepalese peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission. The allegation is against one military contingent member deployed to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving sexual assault and attempted sexual assault of two children in April 2018. As of September, the Nepalese government was still investigating the allegation and the case was still pending, including identification of the alleged perpetrator.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Both AF and THRDA stated that torture victims were often hesitant to file complaints due to intimidation by police or other officials and fear of retribution. In some cases, victims settled out of court under pressure from the perpetrators. AF and THRDA noted the courts ultimately dismissed many cases of alleged torture due to a lack of credible supporting evidence, especially medical documentation. In cases where courts awarded compensation or ordered disciplinary action against police, the decisions were rarely implemented. There have been no cases brought to the criminal justice system regarding torture committed during the civil conflict.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions, especially those in pretrial detention centers, were poor and did not meet international standards, according to human rights groups.

Physical Conditions: There was overcrowding in the prison system. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) reported that in its nationwide assessment of prisons, facilities held 150 percent of the designed capacity of inmates. AF stated that overcrowding and poor sanitation remained a serious problem in detention centers. According to the OAG report, most prisons and detention centers had sufficient windows, daylight, and ventilation, with a few exceptions.

Some facilities held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. Due to a lack of adequate juvenile detention facilities, authorities sometimes incarcerated pretrial child detainees with adults or allowed children to remain in jails with their incarcerated parents.

The OAG reported that prisoners in the 31 prisons it monitored had a junior health official available to them, but none of the 42 detention centers or juvenile reform homes had designated health officials for medical treatment. Under the law children should be kept only in juvenile reform homes and not in prison. According to AF juveniles were sometimes observed with adult detainees. There were no separate facilities for persons with disabilities. Women were kept in separate facilities, but the facilities lacked the basic amenities.

According to AF, medical examinations for detainees generally were perfunctory and medical care was poor for detainees with serious conditions. AF reported that some detainees slept on the floor due to lack of beds and had access only to unfiltered and dirty water and inadequate food, and that many detention centers had poor ventilation, lighting, heating, and bedding.

Human rights groups reported that many COVID-19 quarantine facilities did not meet Ministry of Health and Population guidelines. Human rights groups reported deaths due to poor sanitation, lack of medical care, transport, and fear of infection. An NGO that works with marginalized groups reported that a Dalit migrant worker returning from India developed diarrhea in a quarantine center. When his condition continued to deteriorate, he was taken to the Provincial Hospital, but he did not receive proper treatment until his COVID-19 test came back negative.

Administration: Authorities including the OAG conducted investigations of allegations of mistreatment. Detainees have the legal right to receive visits by family members, but family access to prisoners varied from prison to prison.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed prison and pretrial detention center visits by the OAG, NHRC, as well as by lawyers of the accused. THRDA and AF reported that they and some other NGOs often were prevented from meeting with detainees or accessing detention facilities, although some independent human rights observers, including the United Nations and international organizations, were given such access. Media had no access to prisons or detention centers. The NHRC could request government action, but authorities often denied such requests.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but security forces reportedly conducted arbitrary arrests during the year. Human rights groups contended that police abused their 24-hour detention authority by holding persons unlawfully, in some cases without proper access to counsel, food, and medicine, or in inadequate facilities. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law stipulates that, except in cases involving suspected security and narcotics violations, or when the crime’s punishment would be more than three years’ imprisonment, authorities must obtain an arrest warrant and present the suspect to a court within 24 hours of arrest (not including travel time).

If the court upholds a detention, the law generally authorizes police to hold the suspect for up to 25 days to complete an investigation and file a criminal charge sheet. In special cases, that timeframe is extended. For narcotics violations, a suspect can be held for up to three months; for suspected acts of organized crime, 60 days; and for suspected acts of corruption, six months. Human rights monitors expressed concern that the law vests too much discretionary power in local authorities. The constitution provides for detainees’ access to a state-appointed lawyer or one of the detainee’s choice, even if charges have not been filed. Few detainees could afford their own lawyer, and the justice system did not receive sufficient funding to provide free and competent counsel to indigent defendants. There were, however, independent organizations providing free legal services to a limited number of detainees accused of criminal violations.

Authorities routinely denied defense attorneys access to defendants in custody. A functioning bail system exists; the accused have the option of posting bail in cash or mortgaging their property to the court. Unless prisoners are released on recognizance (no bail), no alternatives to the bail system exist to assure a defendant’s appearance in court.

Arbitrary Arrest: The human rights NGO Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) documented 119 incidents of arbitrary arrest (without timely warrant presentation) since January. INSEC noted that the decrease from the previous year’s 234 incidents might be due to COVID-19.

Pretrial Detention: Time served is credited to a prisoner’s sentence and no person may be held in detention for a period exceeding the term of imprisonment that could be imposed on him if he were found guilty of the offense.

Under the law security forces may detain persons who allegedly threaten domestic security and tranquility, amicable relations with other countries, or relations between citizens of different castes or religious groups. The government may detain persons in preventive detention for as long as 12 months without charging them with a crime as long as the detention complies with the act’s requirements. The courts do not have any substantive legal role in preventive detentions under the act.

According to human rights groups, in some cases detainees appeared before judicial authorities well after the legally mandated 24-hour limit, allegedly to allow injuries from police mistreatment to heal. AF estimated in 2018 that 14 percent of detainees did not appear before judicial authorities within 24 hours of their arrests, down from 41 percent in 2015. THRDA stated police frequently circumvented the 24-hour requirement by registering the detainee’s name only when they were ready to produce the detainee before the court.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but courts remained vulnerable to political pressure, bribery, and intimidation.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to counsel, equal protection under the law, protection from double jeopardy, protection from retroactive application of the law, public trials, and the right to be present at one’s own trial. These rights are largely honored, except for the right to counsel and the right to be present at one’s own trial, which were sometimes ignored. Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence, except in some cases, such as human trafficking and drug trafficking, where the burden of proof is on the defendant once the charge sheet establishes a prima facie criminal violation. The law provides detainees the right to legal representation and a court-appointed lawyer, a government lawyer, or access to private attorneys. The government provided legal counsel to indigent detainees only upon request. Persons who were unaware of their rights, in particular “lower-caste” individuals and members of some ethnic groups, were thus at risk of being deprived of legal representation. Defense lawyers reported having insufficient time to prepare their defense. A 2016 Supreme Court directive ordered that the courts must provide free interpretation services to those who do not speak Nepali, and interpreters were made available to interpret a variety of languages. Defense lawyers may cross-examine accusers. All lower-court decisions, including acquittals, are subject to appeal. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort.

Military courts adjudicate cases concerning military personnel under the military code, which provides military personnel the same basic rights as civilians. The law requires that soldiers accused of rape or homicide be transferred to civilian authorities for prosecution. Under normal circumstances the army prosecutes all other criminal cases raised against soldiers under the military justice system. Nevertheless, the Nepali Army has told the government it was willing to cooperate with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and CIEDP. Military courts cannot try civilians for crimes, even if the crimes involve the military services; civilian courts handle these cases.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations could seek remedies for human rights abuses in national courts.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these provisions.

The law allows police to conduct searches and seizures without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed, in which case a search may be conducted as long as two or more persons of “good character” are present. If a police officer has reasonable cause to believe that a suspect may possess material evidence, the officer must submit a written request to another officer to conduct a search, and there must be another official present who holds at least the rank of assistant subinspector. Some legal experts claimed that by excluding prosecutors and judges from the warrant procedure, there were relatively few checks against police abuse of discretionary authority.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although journalists, NGOs, and political activists stated the government restricted media freedom by threatening journalists and news organizations that criticized the government. Human rights lawyers and some journalists stated that both the constitution and law enable the government to restrict freedom of speech and press in ways they considered vague and open to abuse. For example, the constitution lists several circumstances under which laws curtailing freedom of speech and press may be formulated. These include acts that “jeopardize harmonious relations between federal units” and acts that assist a foreign state or organization to jeopardize national security. The constitution prohibits any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.”

Freedom of Speech: Citizens generally believed they could express their opinions freely and often expressed critical opinions in print and electronic media without restriction. The government continued to limit freedom of expression for members of Kathmandu’s Tibetan community through its attempts to stop Tibetans from celebrating culturally important events (see section 2.b.).

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, but the number of journalists arrested and charged with cybercrime, reportedly over news articles published online, has posed a new challenge. Under the law any person who makes harsh comments on social media or another online site against a senior government official can be charged with a “cybercrime.” Several editors and journalists reported they faced intimidation by police and government officials and that vague provisions in laws and regulations prompted an increase in self-censorship by journalists.

Journalists claimed to have been targeted by the former minister for communication and information technology, Gokul Prasad Baskota, who resigned in February amid reports of soliciting bribes from a foreign company, and who frequently criticized journalists and supported legislation that would restrict freedom of speech.

Violence and Harassment: According to the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), despite the government’s commitment for better policy and legal restrictions, there were a number of press freedom abuses, and the government did not make sufficient efforts to preserve the safety and independence of media. On April 27, journalists Binod Babu Rijyal from Kayakairan Media and Arjun Adhikari from Radio Triveni were detained by Traffic Police while capturing pictures for the news during the COVID-19 lockdown. Police confiscated the journalists’ mobile phones and both were detained in quarantine facilities for one hour.

The government attempted to stifle news reports that revealed financial irregularities. Journalists stated that they continued to receive vague threats from officials in response to their investigative reporting on corruption. There were also incidents of attacks on journalists. In February, Ajayababu Shiwakoti, editor in chief of Hamrakura.com, who broke the news of Minister Baskota’s involvement in corruption (see section 4), was threatened and his residence surveilled by unidentified individuals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits prior censorship of material for printing, publication, or broadcasting, including electronically. The constitution also provides that the government cannot revoke media licenses, close media houses, or seize material based on the content of what is printed, published, or broadcast. The constitution, however, also provides for “reasonable restrictions” of these rights for acts or incitement that “may undermine the sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality of Nepal, or harmonious relations between the federal units or harmonious relations between the various castes, tribes, religions, or communities.” Speech amounting to treason, defamation, or contempt of court is also prohibited.

Journalists and NGOs stated the law criminalizes normal media activity, such as reporting on public figures, and triggered a significant increase in self-censorship by media. Media professionals expressed concern regarding an additional provision in the constitution that allows the government to formulate laws to regulate media. The law, for example, extends the scope of limitation on freedom of expression compared to the language in the constitution for national security and for maintaining public order, and defines defamation as a criminal offense. The FNJ argued that such laws could be used to close media houses or cancel their registration. The constitution also includes publication and dissemination of false materials as grounds for imposing legal restrictions on press freedom. Media experts reported, however, that these provisions were not enforced against any media houses.

Although by law all media outlets, including government-owned stations, operate independently from direct government control, indirect political influence sometimes led to self-censorship.

Libel/Slander Laws: On April 22, Nepal Police arrested former government secretary Bhim Upadhyay and accused him of defaming the government and its ministers through his social media posts; he was later released on bail. On April 30, Dipak Pathak, a journalist and board member of Radio Nepal, was arrested for reportedly criticizing former prime minister and chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal on social media. Pathak was jailed for defamation and later released on bail.

Internet Freedom

There were several incidents in which authorities took action under the law in response to material posted on social media. The law prohibits publication in electronic form of material that may be “contrary to the public morality or decent behavior,” may “spread hate or jealousy,” or may “jeopardize harmonious relations.” In 2017 the government issued an amended online media operation directive, which requires all domestically based online news and opinion websites to be registered. The directive gives the government the authority to block websites based on content if it lacks an “authoritative source,” creates “a misconception,” or negatively affects international relationships. The government also has the authority to block content that threatens the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, or harmonious relations. Online sedition, defamation, contempt of court, or indecent and immoral content may also be blocked. The new directive makes the registration, license renewal, and content production provisions for online platforms more complicated, including by requiring a copy of a site’s value added tax or permanent account number registration certificate. Renewals require online platforms to provide updated human resource and payroll records annually. The FNJ expressed concern that the directive’s vague language gives the government power to censor online content.

In April the Press Council Nepal, an autonomous and independent media regulatory body, asked for clarification from 37 online media outlets regarding the spread of disinformation on the coronavirus, which reportedly created public panic.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law provides for the freedom to hold cultural events. There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, with the exception of events in the Tibetan community, which faced restrictions (see section 2.b.).

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of assembly and association; however, the government sometimes restricted freedom of assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Freedom of assembly generally was respected for citizens and legal residents, but there were some restrictions. Government permits are required to hold large public events. The law authorizes chief district officers to impose curfews when there is a possibility that demonstrations or riots could disturb the peace.

The government continued to limit freedom of association and peaceful assembly for members of Kathmandu’s Tibetan community, including by denying requests to celebrate publicly certain culturally important events, such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and deploying large numbers of police offices to Tibetan settlements to monitor private celebrations of this and other culturally important events, including Tibetan Uprising Day and Tibetan Democracy Day. The government cited pandemic-related restrictions on mass gatherings in justifying these actions.

During June and July, an independent youth group staged a series of protests in Kathmandu against the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Named the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign, protesters demonstrated through physically distanced sit-ins and hunger strikes, demanding effective management of the pandemic. Police used force, including batons and water cannons, to disperse protesters and arrested several of them.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. NGOs, however, stated the existing legal framework does not adequately recognize the independence of civil society and opens the door to the exercise of excessive discretion by the government. They added that the registration process for civil society organizations (CSOs) was restrictive and cumbersome, the government had wide discretion to deny registration, and requirements varied among various registration authorities, with some entities requiring documents not mentioned in existing laws on an ad hoc basis.

Additionally, the law empowers the government to give directions to associations and to terminate associations if they refuse to follow these directions. To receive foreign or government resources, CSOs must seek separate and additional approval from the Social Welfare Council, the government entity responsible for overseeing CSOs. The Council requires that CSOs allocate at least 80 percent of their budgets for hardware or tangible development outputs, which places undue restrictions on CSOs that focus on advocacy matters.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, except for most refugees, whose freedom of movement within the country is limited by law. Constraints on refugee movements were enforced unevenly.

In-country Movement: The government has not issued personal identification documents to Tibetan refugees in more than 20 years, leaving the majority of this refugee population without required documents to present at police checkpoints or during police stops. Some refugees reported being harassed or turned back by police at checkpoints. The government also restricted the movement of urban refugees of various nationalities whom the government considered irregular migrants (see section 2.f.).

Foreign Travel: In an attempt to protect women from being exploited in trafficking or otherwise abused in overseas employment, the government maintained a minimum age of 24 for women traveling overseas for domestic employment. NGOs and human rights activists viewed the age ban as discriminatory and counterproductive because it impelled some women to migrate through informal channels across the Indian border, rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks displaced millions of individuals. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, natural disasters in 2019 led to 29,000 displacements.

Many earthquake-affected IDPs remained in camps or informal settlements because they did not hold a title to land and were occupying it illegally when the earthquake occurred. Others stayed because their homes remained vulnerable to or were destroyed by subsequent landslides. The government promoted their safe, voluntary return and had policies in place to help them.

Although the government and the Maoists agreed to support the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of conflict-displaced IDPs to their homes following the 10-year civil war, the agreement had not been fully implemented. The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction estimated that 78,700 persons were displaced from 1996 to 2006, but an estimated 50,000 remained unwilling or unable to return home. The reasons included unresolved land and property matters, lack of citizenship or ownership documentation, and security concerns, since the land taken from IDPs by Maoists during the conflict was often sold or given to landless or tenant farmers.

The government provided relief packages for the rehabilitation and voluntary return of conflict-era IDPs. Many of those still displaced preferred to integrate locally and live in urban areas, mostly as illegal occupants of government land along riversides or together with the landless population. The absence of public services and lack of livelihood assistance also impeded the return of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the determination of individual refugee or asylum claims or a comprehensive legal framework for refugee protection. The government recognized only Tibetans and Bhutanese as refugees, and regarded the approximately 700 refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities as irregular migrants. The government continued to support the resettlement to foreign countries of certain Bhutanese refugees, while requiring other refugees accepted for third country resettlement to pay substantial penalties for illegal stay before granting exit permits. The government does not recognize Tibetans who arrived in the country after 1990 as refugees. Most Tibetans who arrived since then transited to India, although an unknown number remained in the country. The government has not issued refugee cards to Tibetan refugees since 1995. UNHCR estimated three-quarters of the approximately 12,000 resident Tibetan refugees remained undocumented, including all of whom were younger than the age of 16 in 1995 or had been born since then. Government opposition to registration has prevented revisions to these estimates. UNHCR reported 578 refugees and 60 asylum seekers from other countries, including Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq, lived in the country. The government continued to deny these groups recognition as refugees, even when recognized as such by UNHCR.

Freedom of Movement: The government officially restricted freedom of movement and work for the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship residing in the two remaining refugee camps in the eastern part of the country, but those restrictions were largely unenforced for this population. After China heightened security in 2008 along its border and increased restrictions on internal freedom of movement for ethnic Tibetans, the number of Tibetans who transited through the country dropped significantly. UNHCR reported that 53 Tibetans transited the country in 2017, 37 in 2018, 23 in 2019, and 5 as of September. During the year border closures due to COVID-19 prevented transit between the country and India. While Tibetans based in the country with refugee certificates were eligible to apply for travel documents to leave the country, the legal process was often arduous, expensive, and opaque and travel documents were typically valid for one year and a single trip. A 2016 government directive authorized chief district officers to skip the verification step, which required witnesses and a police letter, for Tibetans who had previously been issued a travel document. For individuals whom the government did not recognize as refugees, even when recognized by UNHCR, the government levied fines for each day out of status and a substantial discretionary penalty to obtain an exit permit. The government maintained its policy enabling Nepali government-registered refugees destined for resettlement or repatriation to obtain exit permits without paying these fines.

Employment: Tibetan refugees were denied the right to work officially.

Access to Basic Services: Most Tibetan refugees who lived in the country, particularly those who arrived after 1990 or turned 16 after 1995, did not have documentation, nor did their locally born children. Even those with acknowledged refugee status had no legal rights beyond the ability to remain in the country. The children born in the country of Tibetans with legal status often lacked documentation. The government allowed NGOs to provide primary- and secondary-level schooling to Tibetans living in the country. Tibetan refugees had no entitlement to higher education in public or private institutions. They were unable legally to obtain business licenses, driver’s licenses, bank accounts, or to own property. Some refugees continued to experience difficulties documenting births, marriages, and deaths. Some in the Tibetan community resorted to bribery to obtain these services.

The government allowed UNHCR to provide some education, health, and livelihood services to urban refugees, but these refugees lacked legal access to public education and the right to work. In particular, the government officially does not allow the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship to work or have access to public education or public health clinics, but it previously allowed UNHCR to provide parallel free education and health services to refugees in the camps. During the year some new local authorities allowed Bhutanese children access to public schools on an ad hoc basis.

Durable Solutions: The government does not provide for local integration as a durable solution. Since 2007 the government has permitted third-country resettlement for more than 113,000 Bhutanese refugees.

g. Stateless Persons

An estimated 6.3 million individuals lacked citizenship documentation, although the majority of these would be eligible for citizenship under local law. Citizenship documents, which are issued at age 16, are required to register to vote, register marriages or births, buy or sell land, appear for professional exams, open bank accounts, or gain access to credit and receive state social benefits.

Constitutional provisions, laws, and regulations governing citizenship limited women’s ability to convey citizenship to their children (see section 6, Women, Discrimination), which contributed to statelessness. NGOs assisting individuals lacking citizenship documentation stated that local authorities maintained patriarchal requirements, such as attestations from a woman’s male relatives that she qualified for citizenship, a measure that impeded attempts by some individuals to obtain citizenship certificates.

Stateless persons experienced discrimination in employment, education, housing, health services, marriage and birth registration, identity documentation, access to courts and judicial procedures, migration opportunities, land and property ownership, and access to earthquake relief and reconstruction programs.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The government held parliamentary, provincial, and local assembly elections over five phases throughout 2017. International observers indicated that these parliamentary and provincial assembly elections were generally well conducted, despite some violent incidents, and logistical and operational challenges, including a notable lack of transparency and adequate voter education by the Election Commission of Nepal, which affected the electoral process. According to domestic observer groups, the elections were free, fair, and peaceful and saw high voter turnout. There were three reports, however, of individuals being killed by police and sporadic reports of interparty clashes or assaults, vandalism, and small explosive devices and hoax bombs.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws explicitly limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate in local, provincial, and national elections. The constitution mandates proportional inclusion of women in all state bodies and allocates one third of all federal and provincial legislative seats to women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists noted that this mandate excluded nonbinary candidates from running for office.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and there were reports of government corruption during the year. Media reported many procurement irregularities and alleged instances of corruption in the government’s COVID-19 response.

Corruption: The Commission for the Investigations of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) was investigating Communications Minister Gokul Baskota after media leaked a telephone conversation of him demanding a 700-million-rupee bribe ($5.9 million) from an agent of a Swiss company for the procurement of secure printing presses in February. Baskota resigned to allow for the investigation, but he also filed a case at the Supreme Court and the CIAA against the Swiss firm’s agent, Bijay Prakash Mishra, with whom he was discussing the bribe. As of September the investigation was continuing.

The CIAA expanded its investigative scope in 2018 to include a civil engineering lab to determine the quality of materials used in public infrastructure, a common target for systemic corrupt cost cutting. During the year the CIAA conducted 59 sting operations which facilitated the arrest of 88 civil servants.

As in previous years, student and labor groups associated with political parties demanded contributions from schools and businesses. Corruption remained problematic within the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws and the vast majority of civil servants complied with the requirement. Despite the required financial disclosures, the National Vigilance Center, the body mandated to monitor financial disclosures and make them publicly available, generally did not make individual government employee names and financial disclosures public. Government officials are subjected to financial disclosure if anyone files a case under the Right to Information Act.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials were generally cooperative with NGO investigations, the government placed administrative burdens on some international NGOs by complicating procedures for obtaining visas and compelling them to sign asset control documents. Some NGOs, particularly those with a religious element, reported increasing bureaucratic constraints after the devolution of power to local level officials.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC investigated allegations of abuses, but insufficient staff (85 out of 309 positions were vacant as of August), and limitations on its mandate led some activists to view the body as ineffective and insufficiently independent. The NHRC claimed the government helped promote impunity by failing to implement its recommendations fully. The NHRC stated that from its establishment in 2000, it had made recommendations for prosecution and reparations in 1,197 cases (as of August). More than three-quarters of these involved conflict-era incidents. On October 15, the NHRC published a report listing 286 human rights abusers. It identified former top government and security officials, including former Chief of Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa, former home secretary Narayan Gopal Malego, and former chief of Nepal Police Kuber Singh Rana, who have been implicated in serious human rights abuses over the last two decades.

The Nepal Police and Armed Police Force each have a Human Rights Cell (HRC) and the Nepali Army has a human rights directorate (HRD). The Nepali Army HRD and Nepal Police HRC have independent investigative powers. The Nepali Army’s investigations were not fully transparent according to human rights NGOs.

During the year the government and judiciary did not significantly address conflict-era human rights and humanitarian law abuses committed by the Nepali Army, Nepal Police, Armed Police Force, and Maoist parties.

There were significant delays in implementing and granting full independence to the country’s two transitional justice mechanisms, CIEDP and the TRC. Human rights experts continued to report that neither of the mechanisms had made significant progress on investigations or reporting. In January the government appointed commissioners for TRC and CIEDP with the mandate to complete the remaining tasks on transitional justice within two years.

Local human rights advocates cited legal shortcomings that pose obstacles to a comprehensive and credible transitional justice process in the country. For example, the law does not retroactively criminalize torture or enforced disappearance, and the statute of limitations for rape is only 180 days.

Additionally, the law does not specifically recognize war crimes or crimes against humanity, although the constitution recognizes as law treaties to which the country is a party. Critics also cited instances in which parliament failed to implement Supreme Court decisions. For example, in a 2015 ruling, the court nullified provisions of the law that would have granted the commissions discretionary power to recommend amnesty for serious crimes, because amnesty would violate the then interim constitution and international obligations. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s petition seeking review of the 2015 decision. As of August the federal parliament had not amended the act in line with the Supreme Court verdict and international standards.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including marital rape, is illegal, with minimum prison sentences that vary between five and 15 years, depending on the victim’s age. The law also mandates five years’ additional imprisonment in the case of gang rape, rape of pregnant women, or rape of women with disabilities. The victim’s compensation depends on the degree of mental and physical abuse. Nepal’s definition of rape does not include male victims. Male victims may file a complaint under the ‘unnatural’ sexual offense penal code; the highest punishment is up to 3 years imprisonment and a fine.

Police and the courts were responsive in most cases when rape was reported, although several high-profile cases highlighted the government’s failure to secure justice for rape victims. In May, Angira Pasi, a 13-year-old Dalit girl, was raped by Birenda Bhar, a 25-year-old non-Dalit man in Rupandehi District, Devdaha Municipality. Villagers, including the ward chair, decided the girl should marry Bhar, because she would otherwise be considered unsuitable for marriage due to the rape. After the marriage, Bhar’s mother refused to let Pasi enter the house and beat her. Bhar took Pasi to a nearby stream and hours later her body was found hanging in a manner that her relatives said would have been impossible for her to carry out herself. Bhar’s family offered 200,000 rupees ($1,690) to keep the incident quiet, and police initially refused to register the case. After the NHRC and national attention focused on the case, police detained Bhar, his mother, and his aunt.

In July 2018, 13-year-old Nirmala Panta was raped and killed in Kanchanpur district. A government panel that reviewed the police response found that investigators acted with grave negligence and destroyed key evidence in the case. In March 2019 the district court charged eight police personnel for tampering with evidence. On July 30, the Kanchanpur District Court acquitted these eight personnel, including former Superintendent of Police Dilliraj Bista, of torture and incriminating evidence. Human rights groups noted irregularities leading up to the trial including that the Kathmandu-based lawyers arguing for the victim’s family requested the hearing be postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions on air travel. The court cited the end of the government lockdown and continued with the hearing.

Human rights activists outside of Kathmandu expressed concern that police frequently refused to register cases of gender-based violence, including occasionally rape cases. These groups reported that police often preferred to use mediation rather than criminal investigation to resolve conflicts. In October 2019 allegations of rape against Speaker of Federal Parliament Krishna Bahadur Mahara led to his resignation at the request of Prime Minister Oli and the ruling Nepal Communist Party. On February 16, the Kathmandu District Court acquitted Mahara due to lack of evidence.

Domestic violence against women and girls remained a serious problem. NGOs reported that violence against women and girls, including early and forced marriage, was one of the major factors responsible for women’s relatively poor health, livelihood insecurity, and inadequate social mobilization and contributed to intergenerational poverty. The law allows for settling complaints of domestic violence through mediation with an emphasis on reconciliation. Authorities usually pursued prosecution under the act only when mediation failed.

The Nepal Police had women’s cells staffed by female officers in each of the country’s 77 districts to make it easier for women and girls to report crimes to police. According to Women, Children and Senior Citizens Service Directors, all 233 women’s cells across the country located in all 77 districts were in operation. NGOs stated that despite improvements, resources, and training to deal with victims of domestic violence and trafficking were insufficient. Although police guidelines call on officers to treat domestic violence as a criminal offense, this guidance was difficult to implement outside of the women’s cells due to entrenched discriminatory attitudes.

The government maintained service centers in 17 districts, rehabilitation centers in eight districts, and hospital-based one-stop crisis management centers in 17 districts to provide treatment, protection, and psychosocial and legal support for survivors of gender-based violence. Gender experts said the service centers have improved coordination among police, the NHRC, National Women’s Commission, chief district officers, local authorities, community mediation centers, and NGOs working to address violence against women and girls.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The constitution criminalizes violence against or oppression of women based on religious, social, or cultural traditions and gives victims the right to compensation. The criminal code makes the practice of paying dowries illegal and imposes fines, prison sentences of up to three years, or both. The legislation also criminalizes violence committed against one’s spouse in connection to a dowry, imposing substantial fines, prison sentences of up to five years, or both. Additionally, the law stipulates that any psychological abuse of women, including asking for dowry, humiliation, physical torture, and shunning women for not providing a dowry, is punishable. Nevertheless, according to NGOs, dowries remained common, especially in the Terai region. Government agencies documented incidents of dowry-related violence and forced marriage, recommended interventions, and occasionally rescued victims and offered them rehabilitation services.

Traditional beliefs about witchcraft negatively affected rural women, especially widows, the elderly, persons of low economic status, or members of the Dalit caste, despite a law specifically criminalizing discrimination and violence against those accused of witchcraft. There were no reported prosecutions under the law. Media and NGOs reported some cases of violence against alleged witches, and civil society organizations raised public awareness of the problem.

The law criminalizes acid attacks. INSEC documented three acid attacks from January to September.

The practice of chhaupadi (expelling women and girls from their homes during menstruation and sometimes following childbirth, including forcing women and girls to reside in livestock sheds) continued to be a serious problem despite a 2005 Supreme Court decision outlawing the practice and 2008 guidelines from the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare against the practice. In 2018 a law that formally criminalized the practice went into effect; it stipulates a punishment of up to three months’ imprisonment, a token fine, or both. Some local officials implemented various efforts to eliminate chhaupadi, including education campaigns and physical destruction of sheds, but stigma and tradition maintained the practice, particularly in rural western districts, where women periodically died from exposure to the elements. According to news reports, after antichhaupadi campaigns destroyed chhaupadi huts, family members, often mothers in law, still forced women and girls to remain isolated. In some cases, women and girls in rural areas resorted to sleeping in sheds, animal pens, or caves throughout both the winter and monsoon season.

Sexual Harassment: The law allows the top administrative official in a district to impose up to six months imprisonment, a fine, or both, against a perpetrator, once a series of internal workplace processes to address a complaint have been exhausted. According to women’s rights activists, the law provides adequate protective measures and compensation for victims, but the penalties are insufficiently severe and the law does not cover the informal sector, where sexual harassment is most common. AF reported an incident where three women were sexually harassed by police after being arrested for drinking and driving. According to the women, police called them prostitutes, used obscene language, and groped their breasts.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Although the law provides protection, women faced systemic discrimination, including in employment (see section 7.d.) and especially in rural areas. Dalit women in particular faced gender and caste discrimination. The law grants women equal shares of their parents’ inheritance and the right to keep their property after marriage, but many women were not aware of their rights, and others were afraid to challenge existing practice. The law also grants widows complete access and authority to the estate of their deceased husbands; the government did not take sufficient measures to enforce these provisions.

The law contains discriminatory provisions. For example, the law on property rights favors men in land tenancy and the division of family property. The constitution, however, confers rights for women that had not previously received legal protection, including rights equal to those of their spouses in property and family affairs, and special opportunities in education, health, and social security.

The constitution does not allow women to convey citizenship to their children independent of the citizenship of the child’s father and has no specific provision for naturalization of foreign husbands married to citizen wives.

For women and girls to obtain citizenship by descent for themselves, regulations require a married woman to submit a formal attestation from her husband, father, or husband’s family (if widowed) that she qualifies for citizenship and has his or their permission to receive it. This requirement makes a woman’s right to citizenship contingent on her father’s or husband’s cooperation. In many cases husbands refused to provide their wives this attestation. Preventing women from obtaining citizenship documentation precludes their access to the courts and thus their ability to make legal claims to land and other property, which permits the husband or male relatives free to stake their own claims.

Children

Birth Registration: Constitutional provisions, laws, and regulations governing citizenship discriminated by the gender of the parent, which contributed to statelessness (see section 2.g.). There was no difference in birth registration policies and procedures based on the sex of the child.

The constitution states that citizenship derives from one citizen parent, but it also stipulates that a child born to a citizen mother and a noncitizen father may obtain citizenship only through naturalization. In some cases, mothers faced extreme difficulties in securing citizenship papers for children of citizen parents, even when the mother possessed citizenship documents, except in cases in which the child’s father supported the application. These difficulties persisted despite a 2011 Supreme Court decision granting a child citizenship through the mother if the father was unknown or absent.

The constitution states that the children of unidentified fathers may obtain citizenship through their mothers, but if it is later determined that the father is a foreign citizen, the child will lose citizenship by descent but be eligible for naturalization. Many single women faced difficulties registering their children as citizens by descent. The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that government authorities must not deny the registration of birth and citizenship of children of citizen mothers and fathers who cannot be traced. According to human rights lawyers, although this provision applies to the children of single mothers, including rape and trafficking victims, it does not address situations in which the identity of a child’s father is known but he refuses to acknowledge paternity. The legal and practical restrictions on transferring citizenship imposed particular hardships on children whose fathers were deceased, had abandoned the family, or (as was increasingly common) departed the country to work abroad.

Since naturalization is not a fundamental right under the constitution, although it could be an option for those not eligible for citizenship by descent, it is subject to state discretion. Although they lacked specific data, human rights lawyers reported that the government has processed few applications for naturalization of children in recent years.

Education: The constitution makes basic primary education free and compulsory nationwide. The law divides the education system into Basic Education (Early Childhood Development and grades one to eight), which is free and compulsory, and Secondary Education (grades nine to 12), which is free but not compulsory. The government reported that during the 2019-20 school year, 96.5 percent of school-age children attended primary schools with gender parity.

Some children, particularly girls, face barriers to accessing education due to lack of sanitation facilities, geographic distance, costs associated with schooling, household chores, and lack of parental support. Countrywide, nearly a third of schools lack separate toilet facilities for girls, which can deter them from attending school, especially when they are menstruating. Barriers for attending school for school-age boys include pressure to find employment, migration to work outside the country, and problems with drugs and alcohol. Children with disabilities face additional barriers to accessing education, including denial of school admission. In addition, children are required to attend school only up to age 13. This standard makes children age 13 and older vulnerable to child labor despite not being legally permitted to work.

Medical Care: The government provided basic health care free to children and adults although quality and accessibility vary. Parental discrimination against girls often resulted in impoverished parents giving priority to their sons when seeking medical services.

Child Abuse: Violence against children, including sexual abuse, was reportedly widespread. NGOs stated that such reports have increased in part due to greater awareness, but no reliable estimates of its incidence exist. The government has some mechanisms to respond to child abuse and violence against children, such as special hotlines and the National Child Rights Council.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law prohibits marriage for both boys and girls before the age of 20, but the country has a high rate of child marriage and child bearing among girls. According to UNICEF, nearly a third of young women aged 20-24 reported they were married by the age of 18, and 7.9 percent by age 15.

Social, economic, and cultural values promoted the practice of early and forced marriages, which was especially common in the Dalit and Madhesi communities. The law sets penalties for violations according to the age of the girls involved in child marriage. The penalty includes both a prison sentence and fine, with the fees collected going to the girl involved. The law provides that the government must act whenever a case of child marriage is filed with authorities. Additionally, the practice of early and forced marriage limited girls’ access to education and increased their susceptibility to domestic violence and sexual abuse, including sex trafficking.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Commercial sexual exploitation of children remained a serious problem, according to NGOs. There were reports of boys and girls living on the streets and exploited in prostitution, including by tourists, and of underage girls employed in dance bars, massage parlors, and cabin restaurants (sometimes fronts for brothels). Enforcement was generally weak due to limited police investigation and capacity, and police sometimes arrested girls in commercial sexual exploitation. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18 years.

There is no specific law against child pornography, but the law stipulates that no person can involve or use a child for an immoral profession, and photographs cannot be taken or distributed for the purpose of engaging a child in an immoral profession. Additionally, photographs that tarnish the character of the child may not be published, exhibited, or distributed.

Displaced Children: Many children remained displaced due to the 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks (see section 2.d.). The government did not have comprehensive data on children affected by the decade-long Maoist conflict, including the original number of internally displaced and the number who remained displaced.

Institutionalized Children: Abuse, including sexual abuse, and mistreatment in orphanages and children’s homes reportedly was common. An NGO working in this field estimated that approximately one-third of registered children’s homes met the minimum legal standards of operation, but there was no reliable data on the many unregistered homes. NGOs reported some children in the institutions were forced to beg. The NGO also reported no significant change in the level or degree of abuse of children compared to previous years.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was a small Jewish population in the country and no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on disability or physical condition and contains additional specific rights for persons with disabilities. These include the right to free higher education for all citizens with physical disabilities who are “financially poor” and the provision of accessible instructional materials and curricula for persons with vision disabilities.

The government provides services for persons with physical and mental disabilities, including a monthly stipend, building shelters, and appointing one social welfare worker in each of 753 local governments. The law provides that persons with disabilities have equal access to education, health, employment, public physical infrastructure, transportation, and information and communication services. On July 19, the government passed the Regulation on the Rights of Person with Disability (2020), which focused on the rights of individuals with “profound” disabilities. The government also formed a national level directorate for implementation of the act. Although government efforts to enforce laws and regulations to improve rights and benefits for persons with disabilities gradually improved, they still were not fully effective. For example, books printed in braille were not available for students at all grade levels, and free higher education was not uniformly available to all interested persons with disabilities.

The government provided monthly social security allowances for persons with disabilities of 3,000 rupees ($25) for those categorized as “profoundly” disabled. The 2020 Disability Rights Regulations removed the provision of providing a social allowance for those categorized as “severely disabled.” After criticism and lobbying, the government has been providing 1600 rupees ($14) for “severely” disabled persons under a temporary provision. The law states that other persons with disabilities should receive allowances based on the availability of funds and the degree of disability. Three provincial governments funded sign language interpreters in 20 districts to assist deaf and hard-of-hearing persons in obtaining government services.

The Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens was responsible for the protection of persons with disabilities. The country has 380 resource classrooms for students with disabilities, 32 special education schools, and 23 integrated schools. The number of students enrolled was low compared to the number of children without disabilities. Compared with primary school attendance, relatively few children with disabilities attended higher levels of education, largely due to accessibility problems, school locations, and financial burdens on parents. Although abuse of children with disabilities reportedly occurred in schools, no reports of such incidents were filed in the courts or with the relevant agencies during the year. The Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens reported that most of the 753 municipalities have allocated funding to minority and vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, under the new federal system. Most persons with disabilities had to rely almost exclusively on family members for assistance.

There are no restrictions in law on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote and participate in civic affairs or to access the judicial system. According to the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens, however, there were obstacles in exercising these rights, especially the lack of accessibility to public facilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law provides that each community shall have the right “to preserve and promote its language, script, and culture” and to operate schools at the primary level in its native language. The government generally upheld these provisions. More than 125 caste and ethnic groups, some of which are considered indigenous nationalities, speak more than 120 different languages.

Discrimination against lower castes and some ethnic groups, including in employment (see section 7.d.), was widespread and especially common in the Terai region and in rural areas.

Caste-based discrimination is illegal, and the government outlawed the public shunning of Dalits and made an effort to protect the rights of other disadvantaged castes. The constitution prohibits the practice of untouchability and stipulates special legal protections for Dalits in education, health care, and housing. It also established the National Dalit Commission as a constitutional body to strengthen protections for and promote the rights of Dalits. While the government promulgated the accompanying laws to prohibit discrimination in late 2018, Dalit rights activists maintained that the laws banned discrimination too generally without explicitly protecting Dalits.

According to the Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization, government progress in reducing discrimination remained limited in rural areas.

On May 23, six youth, including four Dalit, were killed in what activists characterized as the most violent attack on Dalits in the modern history of the country. Nawaraj Bishwokarma and a group of friends were attacked by a mob of villagers, including the local ward chair Dambar Malla, when he tried to elope with his Chhetri caste girlfriend. According to survivors of the attack and some local officials, villagers chased the young men to a nearby riverbank, beat them to death with stones, sharp weapons, and pieces of wood, and threw their bodies in the river. Local police investigated and arrested 27 suspects including the girl’s parents and the local ward chair. The Ministry of Home Affairs and House of Representatives formed committees to investigate the incident and the NHRC sent a team to investigate.

Indigenous People

The government recognized 59 ethnic and caste groups as indigenous nationalities, comprising approximately 36 percent of the population. Although some communities were comparatively privileged, many faced unequal access to government resources and political institutions and linguistic, religious, and cultural discrimination.

On July 18, Media and NGOs reported that Chitwan National Park authority workers burned two houses and used an elephant to destroy eight others from a Chepang community within the park’s buffer zone. The Ministry of Forests and Environment began an investigation after human rights groups and media criticized the evictions, which occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown and monsoon season. The NHRC was also investigating the incident.

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

No laws criminalize same-sex sexual activity, and LGBTI persons actively advocated for their rights. The constitution contains provisions outlining protections for LGBTI persons, but LGBTI activists continued to press for further legislation to increase protections for gender and sexual minorities.

According to local LGBTI advocacy groups, the government did not provide equal opportunities for LGBTI persons in education, health care, or employment (see section 7.d.). Additionally, advocacy groups stated that some LGBTI persons faced difficulties in registering for citizenship, particularly in rural areas.

Although several LGBTI candidates ran for office in local elections in recent years, LGBTI activists noted that election authorities prevented one person in 2017 who self-identified as third gender from registering as a candidate for vice mayor because electoral quotas required the individual’s party to register a “female” candidate for the position; the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government. Separately, LGBTI activists stated that some transgender persons refrained from voting due to harassment or social scorn because transgender persons were forced to stand in lines reflecting the gender on their citizenship documents, regardless of whether they had changed gender in practice.

According to LGBTI rights NGOs, harassment and abuse of LGBTI persons by private citizens and government officials declined during the year, especially in urban areas, although such incidents still occurred.

LGBTI rights groups reported that gender and sexual minorities faced harassment from police during the year. The Nepal Police HRC confirmed that some low-level harassment occurred because many citizens held negative views of LGBTI persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There was no official discrimination against persons who provided HIV-prevention services or against high-risk groups that could spread HIV/AIDS.

Societal discrimination and stigma against persons with HIV and those at high risk of HIV remained common, according to NGOs.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice, except those organizations deemed by the government to be subversive or seditious. Freedom of association extends to workers in both the formal and informal sectors. Noncitizens cannot be elected as trade union officials. Local workers have the right to strike and bargain collectively, except for employees in essential services, including public transportation, banking, security, and health care. The law prohibits workers from striking in any special economic zone. The government is planning 14 special economic zones. One special economic zone in Bhairahawa is operating and one in Simara is nearing completion, both are in the portion of the country near the Indian border. Members of the armed forces, police, and government officials at the undersecretary level or higher also are prohibited from taking part in union activities. In the private sector, employees in managerial positions are not permitted to join unions.

The law stipulates that unions must represent at least 25 percent of workers in a given workplace to be considered representative. The minimum requirement does not prohibit the formation of unofficial union groups, which under certain conditions may call strikes and enter into direct negotiation with the government. Workers in the informal sector may also form unions, but many workers were not aware of these rights. The government effectively enforced applicable laws and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights such as discrimination. Implementation in the private and informal sectors, however, remains a challenge. On October 15, the government established a labor court to address violations of labor laws and other issues related to labor.

The law also protects union representatives from adverse legal action arising from their official union duties, including collective bargaining, and prohibits antiunion discrimination. Workers dismissed for engaging in union activities can seek reinstatement by filing a complaint in labor court or with the Department of Labor, which has semijudicial and mediation authority. Most cases are settled through mediation. By law employers can fire workers only under limited conditions and only after three instances of misconduct. The law stipulates that participation in a strike that does not meet legal requirements constitutes misconduct, for which the consequences are suspension or termination of employment.

To conduct a legal strike, 51 percent of a union’s membership must vote in favor in a secret ballot, and unions are required to give 30 days’ notice before striking. If the union is unregistered, does not have majority support, or calls a strike prior to issuing 30 days’ notice, the strike is considered illegal.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were generally respected. Although the government restricted strikes in essential services, workers in hospitals, education services, and the transportation sector occasionally called strikes during the year and did not face any legal penalties. Many unions had links to political parties and did not operate independently from them but worked effectively to advance the rights of workers. The government did not interfere in the functioning of workers’ organizations or threaten union leaders.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law does not criminalize the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of persons by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the country continued to be a source, transit, and destination for men, women, and children who were subjected to forced labor. Kamlari is one such form of slavery outlawed in 2013 in which girls as young as four years and women across all age groups are forced to work as bonded laborers in the houses of the rich landlords. Although it is illegal, the government did not provided support for these newly freed women to reintegrate them adequately into society, such as financial assistance or educational opportunities. A number of nonprofit organizations focused on the country’s border with India, where human trafficking was still a problem, to help women and children who were at a higher risk of human trafficking and slavery.

Government enforcement of the laws against bonded labor was uneven, and social reintegration of victims remained difficult. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate. The government did not effectively screen for labor trafficking among abused migrant workers and handled such cases administratively in lieu of criminal investigation. In addition, despite reports of worker exploitation, including trafficking, and illegal recruitment fees charged by recruitment agencies, the government did not sufficiently investigate agencies for violations. The penalties for violating laws against bonded labor involve fines and compensation to victims, with no imprisonment, and therefore are not commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Labor trafficking is prosecuted as a criminal offense under the Trafficking in Persons law and the punishments are commensurate with other serious crimes.

Forced labor, including through debt-based bondage, of adults and children existed in agriculture, brick kilns, the stone-breaking industry, and domestic work. A government study documented more than 61,000 individuals–including approximately 10,000 children–in forced labor over the past five years, especially in agriculture, forestry, and construction. NGOs continued to report some children worked in brick kilns, including carrying loads, preparing bricks, and performing other tasks at kilns for extended periods.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for work and 17 as the minimum age for hazardous work, and it defines and mandates acceptable working conditions for children. The minimum age for hazardous work is not consistent with international standards because it does not prohibit children age 17 from engaging in hazardous work. The types of hazardous work prohibited for children also do not include brickmaking, a sector in which there is evidence that work involves carrying heavy loads and being exposed to hazardous substances. Employers must maintain separate records of laborers between the ages of 14 and 17. The law prohibits employment of children in factories, mines, and 60 other categories of hazardous work and limits children between the ages of 16 and 17 to a 36-hour workweek (six hours a day between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., six days a week).

There was little progress in the devolution of power of the labor inspectorate. Labor law enforcement remained centralized and the number of labor inspectors at the provincial levels remained inadequate. The Department of Labor, which is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and practices, did not effectively do so. The Department of Labor conducted most of its labor inspections in the formal sector while nearly all child labor occurred in the informal sector. The Department had 14 factory inspector positions in district labor offices and two senior factory inspector positions in Kathmandu. Chronic vacancies in these positions, however, limited the department’s effectiveness. Some of these positions were vacant due to regular rotation of civil servants, and resources devoted to enforcement were limited. Although labor inspectors periodically received training on child labor laws and inspection, this training did not necessarily adhere to any formal schedule. A broad range of laws and policies were designed to combat and eventually eliminate child labor. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations and were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

COVID-19 had a serious impact on child poverty where children have been bearing the burden of poverty disproportionately. The number of children living in poverty rose from an estimated 1.3 million before the pandemic to approximately seven million in August. A lack of education and healthcare resources led to increases in child labor. Paternal disability or death, among the strongest observable predictors of engagement in the worst forms of child labor, increased during the pandemic.

Child labor, including forced child labor, occurred in agriculture, domestic service, portering, recycling, and transportation; the worst abuses were reported in brick kilns, the stone-breaking industry, the carpet sector, embroidery factories, and the entertainment sector. In the informal sector, children worked long hours in unhealthy environments, carried heavy loads, were at risk of sexual exploitation, and at times suffered from numerous health problems (see section 6, Children).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sex, caste, tribe, geographical or social origin, language, marital status, physical or health condition, disability, or ideological conviction. Labor regulations prohibit discrimination in payment or remuneration based on gender. Penalties were commensurate to laws related to civil rights.

There are no provisions in the constitution, law, or regulations prohibiting discrimination, including labor discrimination, or discrimination based on color, age, national origin or citizenship, HIV-positive status, or other communicable disease. The 2017 ban on domestic work in Gulf countries for Nepali women under 30 was intended to protect them from exploitation and violence; however, the ban caused many young women to seek illegal routes, which placed them at higher risk of trafficking and violence.

Despite constitutional and legal protections, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, caste, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, disability, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and HIV-positive status. Such discrimination was most common in the informal sector, where monitoring by the government and human rights organizations was weak or absent and those in disadvantaged categories had little leverage or recourse. In the formal sector, labor discrimination generally took the form of upper-caste men without disabilities being favored in hiring, promotions, and transfers.

To be eligible for government jobs, Nepali national origin or citizenship is mandatory.

According to the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens and to disability rights advocates, the overall rate of employment of persons with disabilities did not increase significantly. In the private sector, large numbers of persons with disabilities claimed they were denied work opportunities or dismissed due to their conditions. In all sectors employees with disabilities reported other forms of discriminatory treatment.

According to the Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization, the government made little progress in implementing antidiscrimination legal provisions to assure employment opportunities for lower-caste individuals in both the public and private sectors. There was no comprehensive data on this abuse.

Structural barriers and discrimination forced Dalits to continue low-income and dehumanizing employment, such as manual scavenging, disposing of dead animals, digging graves, or making leather products.

For every 100 employed men, there were only 59 employed women, and the average monthly income for women was 5,834 rupees ($49) less than what men earn. The unequal gender division of labor has long been identified as a factor causing inequality with direct links to lower income, education, and access to medical services for women. A heavy domestic workload aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis could leave women and girls further behind.

Reliable data on discrimination against LGBTI persons in various sectors was not available, but activists reported it was common for gender and sexual minorities to be denied promotions and competitive opportunities within the security services and athletics.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage exceeded the official poverty line but it was minimally sufficient to meet subsistence needs.

Minimum-wage laws apply to both the formal sector (which accounted for approximately 10 percent of the workforce) and the informal sector, but implementation was stronger in the formal sector.

The law stipulates a 48-hour workweek, with one day off per week and one-half hour of rest per five hours worked. The law limits overtime to no more than four hours in a day and 20 hours per week, with a 50 percent overtime premium per hour. Excessive compulsory overtime is prohibited. Employees are also entitled to paid public holiday leave, sick leave, annual leave, maternity leave, bereavement leave, and other special leave. The law provides adequate occupational health and safety standards and establishes other benefits, such as a provident fund, housing facilities, day-care arrangements for establishments with more than 50 female workers, and maternity benefits.

The Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security reported that most factories in the formal sector complied with laws on minimum wage and hours of work, but implementation varied in the informal sector, including in agriculture and domestic servitude. The ministry did not employ a sufficient number of inspectors to enforce the wage and hour laws or the occupational health and safety laws. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Implementation and enforcement of occupational health and safety standards were minimal, and the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security considered it the most neglected area of labor law enforcement. The ministry found violations across sectors, including in construction, mining, transportation, agriculture, and factory work.

The government had not created the necessary regulatory or administrative structures to enforce occupational safety and health provisions. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security did not have a specific office dedicated to occupational safety and health, nor did it have inspectors specifically trained in this area. Although the law authorizes factory inspectors to order employers to rectify unsafe conditions, enforcement of safety standards remained minimal, and monitoring was weak. Accurate data on workplace fatalities and accidents was not available. Labor law and regulations do not specify that workers can remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.

The government regulated labor contracting, or “manpower,” agencies recruiting workers for overseas jobs, and penalized fraudulent recruitment practices. The government declared it remained committed to the free-visa, free-ticket scheme introduced in 2015, but according to migrant rights NGOs, the government failed to implement the policy effectively. Some government officials were complicit in falsifying travel documents and overlooking recruiting violations by labor contractors. The Department of Foreign Employment introduced measures to reduce the number of registered manpower agencies and more closely scrutinize their activities. The myriad unregistered and unregulated labor “brokers” and intermediaries, who were often trusted members of the community, complicated effective monitoring of recruitment practices. Workers were also encouraged to register and pay a fee to the Foreign Employment Board, which tracked migrant workers and provided some compensation for workers whose rights were violated. The suspension of international flights and the economic impact of COVID-19 prevented workers from traveling for a significant portion of the year and made it difficult to evaluate the impact of any measures.

The government required contracts for workers going abroad to be translated into Nepali and instituted provisions whereby workers must attend a predeparture orientation program. During the orientation workers are made aware of their rights and legal recourse, should their rights be violated. The effectiveness of the initiatives remained questionable since workers who went overseas often skipped the mandatory training, and many companies issued predeparture orientation certificates for a small fee and failed to deliver the training. Migrant workers heading abroad often continued to face exploitive conditions.

According to the International Labor Organization, more than 70 percent of the economically active population was involved in the informal economy.

The law provides for protection of workers from work situations that endanger their health and safety, but in small and cottage industries located in small towns and villages, employers sometimes forced workers to work in such situations or risk losing their jobs. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the country’s workforce.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Nepal
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.


Nauru is a constitutional republic. International observers deemed the August 2019 parliamentary election to be generally free and fair. Parliament elected Lionel Aingimea, a former human rights lawyer and second-term member of parliament, as president.

The police force, under the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, maintains internal security and, as necessary, external security. The country has no military force. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed few abuses.

Significant human rights issues included censorship and criminal libel laws, although there were no such cases during the year.

There were no reports that government officials committed egregious human rights abuses, and impunity was not a problem. The government has mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding physical conditions or prisoner abuse.

Administration: There were no reports that authorities failed to conduct proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permits prison and detention center monitoring visits by independent human rights observers. There were no reports that such visits occurred before COVID-related travel restrictions were implemented in March.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities made arrests based either on warrants issued by authorized officials or for proximate cause by a police officer witnessing a crime. Police may hold a person for a maximum of 24 hours without a hearing before a magistrate. Authorities informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. The bail system functioned properly. The law provides for accused persons to have access to legal assistance, but qualified assistance was not always readily available.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

Trial Procedures

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

English common law provides the basis for procedural safeguards, including the presumption of innocence, the right to be present at one’s own trial, adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, and prohibitions on double jeopardy and forced self-incrimination. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and consult with an attorney or have one provided at public expense as necessary “in the interest of justice.” Defendants also have the right to confront witnesses, present evidence, not be compelled to testify or confess guilt, and appeal convictions. The law extends these rights to all suspects. There was no legal provision for traditional reconciliation mechanisms; however, as a mitigating factor in sentencing, apologies and reconciliation frequently played an informal role in criminal proceedings. This was sometimes due to communal pressure.

A law passed in June 2019 limited defendants’ access to overseas lawyers; the law barred overseas lawyers from participating in local cases unless specifically instructed by a local lawyer or pleader with 10 years of legal experience in Nauruan law. International human rights groups and critics of the government asserted that the law impeded 12 persons, convicted in December 2019 for “rioting” and related actions at a 2015 protest outside parliament, from engaging overseas lawyers and noted that only one public defender was appointed to represent all 12 defendants (see section 2.b.).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The judiciary generally functioned in an independent and impartial manner in civil matters. Individuals or organizations have access to the court to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, the government owned all media and exercised some editorial control over content.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government owned all media, giving it significant control over published and broadcast content.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law “unlawful vilification” and “criminal defamation” are punishable by a maximum three years’ imprisonment. There were no reports of arrests for breach of the law.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. In 2018 the government lifted restrictions it had used previously to block Facebook.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. International human rights and civil society groups, however, said that the December 2019 conviction of 12 defendants for “rioting” and related offenses at a largely peaceful 2015 protest outside parliament amounted to “an unlawful restriction on the right to peaceful assembly” (see section 1.e.).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

Neither the constitution nor the law specifically provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government generally respected these rights for its citizens.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of July 31, a total of 180 individuals formerly housed at the Australian government’s Regional Processing Center in the country (used to house individuals seeking refuge or asylum in Australia), a site criticized for its poor conditions, remained on Nauru.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law includes a provision for nonrefoulement.

Durable Solutions: The government grants five-year visas to asylum seekers after they receive refugee determination.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: International observers considered the most recent parliamentary election, held in August 2019, to be generally free and fair. There were accusations, however, that late changes to the election law by the government of then president Baron Waqa allegedly to disadvantage nongovernment candidates, that substantial payments by Waqa’s government to persons affected by the 2006 collapse of the Bank of Nauru, and that the approval of citizenship for 118 individuals in the weeks before the election, were done to improve the government’s electoral prospects.

The resulting 19-member parliament elected Lionel Aingimea, a former human rights lawyer and second-term member of parliament, as president.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Although political parties have the legal right to operate without outside interference, there were no formal parties.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate; however, participation by women was significantly less than by men. Two of the five women who ran in the August 2019 general election were elected to the 19-person parliament.

The country has a small and almost entirely homogenous Micronesian population. There were no members of minority groups in parliament or the cabinet.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively.

Corruption: There were no new reports of government corruption.

Financial Disclosure: There are no income and asset disclosure laws for appointed or elected officials.

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

The government did not restrict the establishment or operation of local human rights organizations, but no such groups existed. No international human rights organizations maintained offices in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Department of Justice had a Human Rights Section staffed by a human rights adviser, two human rights officers, and a liaison officer from the secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Regional Rights Resource Team. The section was generally effective.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men or women is a crime and carries a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment. The law specifically applies penalties for rape of married and de facto partners. Police are required to investigate all reported rape cases. They generally did so, and the courts prosecuted cases. Observers said many instances of rape and sexual abuse went unreported. The law does not address domestic violence specifically, but authorities prosecuted domestic-violence cases under laws against common assault. The maximum penalty for simple assault is one year’s imprisonment. The maximum penalty for assault involving bodily harm is three years’ imprisonment.

Both police and judiciary treated major incidents and unresolved family disputes seriously.

The government did not maintain statistics on the physical or domestic abuse of women, but police officials stated they received frequent complaints of domestic violence. Families normally sought to reconcile such problems informally and, if necessary, communally.

Sexual Harassment: There is no specific law against sexual harassment, but authorities could and did prosecute harassment involving physical assault under assault laws.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men, including under family, religious, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws. Discrimination in employment and wages occurred with respect to women (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship if one of their parents is a citizen. The constitution also provides for acquisition of citizenship by birth in the country in cases in which the person would otherwise be stateless. The law requires registration of births within 21 days to receive citizenship, and families generally complied with the law.

Child Abuse: The government does not maintain data on child abuse, but it remained a problem, according to civil society groups. The law establishes comprehensive measures, including mandatory reporting, to protect children from child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law prohibits marriage by persons younger than 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. There are standardized penalties for sexual exploitation of children; intentional sexual intercourse with a child younger than age 16 is punishable by 25 years’ imprisonment. Sexual intercourse with a child younger than 13 carries a penalty of life imprisonment.

The law establishes penalties for taking images of children’s private acts and genitalia. If the child is younger than age 16, the maximum penalty is 10 years’ imprisonment, and if younger than 13, it is 15 years’ imprisonment. The same law prescribes even tougher penalties for involving children to produce pornographic material. The maximum penalty if the child is younger than 16 is 15 years’ imprisonment and 20 years’ imprisonment if the child is younger than 13. The cybercrime law outlaws the electronic publication and transmission of child pornography.

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

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.htmlAnti-Semitism

The country does not have a Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

There were no confirmed reports during the year that Nauru was a source, destination, or transit country for victims of human trafficking.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities. No legislation mandates services for persons with disabilities or access to public buildings. Although the government has installed mobility ramps in some public buildings, many buildings were not accessible. The Department of Education has a special education adviser who is responsible for education for students with disabilities and teachers provided classes for a small group of students with disabilities.

The Department of Justice is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The law grants some legal protections for persons with mental disabilities. There were no reports of discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, but social stigma likely led to decreased opportunities for employment.

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

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The law does not specifically cite sexual orientation, but it could be used to aid in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. There were isolated reports of violence against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent trade unions or other associations. It restricts freedom of association for police. While the right to strike is neither protected nor prohibited by law, a civil servant may not foment or take part in a strike and may be summarily dismissed if found guilty of organizing a strike. The law does not specifically provide for the right of workers to bargain collectively, but it does not prohibit it. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination, and there is no legal requirement to reinstate workers dismissed due to union activity; however, workers may seek redress through the civil court system.

The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties for violations include fines, which were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

The country lacks formal trade unions. The transient nature of the mostly foreign workforce hampered efforts to organize trade unions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. In general, the government did not effectively enforce the law. The law does not stipulate penalties. Civil courts handle cases of forced labor. There were no reports of forced labor or of government prosecution or removal of victims of forced labor.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The worst forms of child labor were not prohibited. The law sets the minimum age of employment at 16. No regulations govern type of work, occupation, or hours for workers younger than age 18, nor do they identify hazardous occupations. The Department of Human Resources and Labor is responsible for enforcing the law. The government effectively enforced the law in the public sector but did not conduct any workplace inspections of private businesses. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

The only two significant employers–the government and the phosphate industry–respected minimum age restrictions.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. The law requires that public servants receive equal pay for work of equal value. Women working in the private sector do not have a similar entitlement.

The government did not effectively enforce the law, and discrimination against women in employment and wages occurred. Societal pressures, lower wages, and the country’s general poverty limited opportunities for women. While women headed approximately one-third of all households, less than one-quarter of heads of households engaged in paid work were female. There were no reports the government took any specific action to prevent employment discrimination.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum starting salary for public-sector employees is above the poverty level. There is no minimum salary for the private sector; approximately 26 percent of the population lived at the subsistence level. The law outlines a standard eight-hour workday and one-hour meal break for permanent and contract employees; workers are not required to work longer than nine hours. The law stipulates that, “For each year of service, an employee is entitled to four weeks of recreation leave on full salary,” and that it can be accumulated for up to three years, at which time the employee must take leave to reduce the balance or “cash out” an amount of recreation leave to reduce the total leave balance accrued.

Public-service regulations govern salaries, working hours, vacation periods, and other employment matters for government workers, who constituted more than 90 percent of salaried workers. The government has a graduated salary system for public-service officers and employees. The law provides for maternity leave after a woman has completed six months of employment.

There is no limit to the maximum number of accumulated overtime hours and no prohibition on excessive or compulsory overtime for workers in the public sector. No specific regulations govern overtime or overtime pay for private-sector workers.

Although the government sets some health and safety standards, they do not have the force of law. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment.

The Department of Human Resources and Labor effectively enforced labor laws in the public sector. Enforcement was more lax in the private sector, but no violations of labor regulations were reported. The law allows the ministry the right to inspect a workplace without prior notification. Authorities can charge an employer with a criminal offense if found to be in violation of the labor law or the provisions of an employment contract, which was sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to monitor compliance fully.

With the decline of the phosphate industry, enforcement of workplace health and safety requirements continued to be lax.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Nauru
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.​


Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary national legislative system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with Head of Government (prime minister) Saadeddine El Othmani. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. International and domestic observers judged the 2016 parliamentary elections credible and relatively free from irregularities.

The security apparatus includes several police and paramilitary organizations with overlapping authority. The National Police Force manages internal law enforcement in cities and reports to the Ministry of Interior. The Auxiliary Forces also report to the Ministry of Interior and support gendarmes and police. The Royal Gendarmerie, which reports to the Administration of National Defense, is responsible for law enforcement in rural regions and on national highways. The judicial police (investigative) branches of both the Royal Gendarmerie and the National Police report to the royal prosecutor and have the power to arrest individuals. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

The Kingdom of Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the territory that it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that seeks the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan and POLISARIO forces fought intermittently from 1975, when Spain relinquished colonial authority over the territory, until a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission. After resignation of Personal Envoy of the Secretary General Horst Kohler in May 2019, the UN Security Council returned to one-year renewals of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. As of December, the UN secretary-general had not yet appointed a new personal envoy and the mission mandate was extended for another year.

Significant human rights issues included: torture by some members of the security forces, although the government condemned the practice and made efforts to investigate and address any reports; allegations that there were political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression, including criminalization of libel and certain content that criticized Islam, the monarchy, and the government’s position regarding territorial integrity; substantial interference with freedom of assembly and association; corruption; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex conduct.

There were few examples of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by officials, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, which contributed to impunity.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

According to the annual report from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, from May 2018 to May 2019, the country had 153 outstanding cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992, seven fewer than at the beginning of the reporting period. The National Council on Human Rights (CNDH), a publicly funded national human rights institution, reported that as of July, six cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992 remain unresolved. The CNDH continued to cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on unresolved cases of disappearance.

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

The constitution and the law prohibit such practices, and the government denied it authorizes the use of torture. To combat degrading treatment and punishment in prisons, on March 19, parliament passed a law to fund doctors for training in forensics to identify signs of torture and abuse. As of August 11, the Prison Administration (DGAPR) reported that the Fes Court of Appeals received two cases of torture in 2019. In both cases prisoners alleged they were beaten and insulted in al-Hoceima. The government launched an investigation that concluded both allegations were unfounded. In April the CNDH issued a report confirming security officials had subjected an inmate at the Souk Larbaa Prison in Kenitra Province to torture and degrading treatment. The DGAPR initiated an investigation into the claims that continued at year’s end. During the year there were 20 complaints of torture or degrading treatment filed with the Prosecutor General’s Office. The office closed 15 cases, and one remained under investigation at year’s end.

From January to June, the National Police Force’s (Direction Generale de la Surete Nationale–DGSN) internal mechanism for investigation of torture and degrading treatment investigated four cases involving six police officials. The DGSN reprimanded and imposed administrative sanctions on two officials, and transferred two cases involving the other four officers to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The Prosecutor General’s Office initiated legal proceedings in at least one of the cases.

The CNDH reported it opened investigations into 28 complaints of torture or degrading treatment between January 1 and August 31.

In the event of an accusation of torture, the law requires judges to refer a detainee to a forensic medical expert when the detainee or lawyer requests it or if judges notice suspicious physical marks on a detainee. In some cases judges have refused to order a medical assessment when a detainee made an allegation of abuse. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media documented cases of authorities’ failure to implement provisions of the antitorture law, including failure to conduct medical examinations when detainees alleged torture.

Reports of torture have declined over the last several years, although Moroccan government institutions and NGOs continued to receive reports about the mistreatment of individuals in official custody. Reports of mistreatment occurred most frequently in pretrial detention. There were also accusations that security officials subjected Western Sahara proindependence protesters to degrading treatment during or following demonstrations or protests calling for the release of alleged political prisoners.

In March the CNDH released a report on 20 allegations by Hirak protesters that they were tortured during detention; the report determined that these allegations, highlighted in a February 19 report by Amnesty International, were unfounded.

In January the spouse of Abdelqader Belliraj, who was serving a life sentence on terrorism-related charges, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Belliraj has been deprived of contact with other inmates since 2016 and was kept in confinement 23 hours a day. HRW called these measures inhumane. According to media reports, the DGAPR disputed the validity of the allegations, stating Belliraj received an hour break each day that allowed for interactions with other inmates and was allowed family visits. Belliraj claimed he was convicted based on confessions obtained under police torture.

According to media, the Marrakech branch of the auxiliary forces suspended two officers after they appeared in a video violently arresting a suspect on May 6.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were no allegations submitted from January to August of sexual exploitation and abuse by Moroccan peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. Morocco and the United Nations were jointly investigating three allegations in 2019 of sexual exploitation and abuse by Moroccan peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions; one case alleged transactional sex with an adult, and two cases alleged rape of a child. As of September, all three investigations remained underway. In one of the alleged rape cases, identification of the alleged perpetrator was pending.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions improved during the year but in some cases did not meet international standards.

Physical Conditions: The Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP), an NGO focused on the rights of prisoners, continued to report that some prisons were overcrowded and failed to meet local and international standards. In newer prisons, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held separately, but in older prisons the two groups remained together.

According to government sources and NGOs, prison overcrowding was also due in large part to an underutilized system of bail or provisional release, a severe backlog in cases, and lack of judicial discretion to reduce the length of prison sentences for specific crimes. Government sources stated that administrative requirements also prevented prison authorities from transferring individuals in pretrial detention or the appeals phase to facilities outside the jurisdiction where their trials were to take place.

According to a DGAPR report in May, the prison population dropped by 7 percent as a result of royal pardons and the Prosecutor General’s Office conducting virtual trials. Overcrowded prisons emerged as a key concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 27, approximately 150 human rights associations and activists signed a petition calling for the DGAPR to release “prisoners of conscience,” such as prisoners arrested during the 2016-17 Rif protests, female prisoners with children, and low-risk offenders, as well as those vulnerable to COVID-19 (detainees older than age 60 or ill). The so-called Rif prisoners were arrested for their involvement in a series of protests in the northern Rif region in 2016 and 2017. Found guilty of damaging public property, injuring law enforcement members, and threatening the stability of the state, approximately four were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in 2018. On April 5, King Mohammed VI pardoned 5,654 detainees and gave orders to take necessary measures to strengthen the protection of detainees in prisons against COVID-19. In July a royal pardon of an additional 6,032 inmates and 105 others on bail included individuals who were vulnerable to the virus.

The law provides for the separation of minor prisoners from adult prisoners. In all prisons, officials classify youth offenders into two categories, both of which are separated from other prisoners: minors under 18 and youthful offenders 18 to 20 years old. According to authorities, minors are not held with prisoners older than 20 years. The DGAPR had three dedicated juvenile “centers for reform and education” but maintained separate, dedicated youth detention areas for minors in all prisons. The government reported that, in cases where a juvenile court judge ruled that detention was necessary, minors younger than 14 were detained separately from minors 15 to 18 years old. In cases where a minor is ordered to be detained, a judge must follow up on a monthly basis.

The DGAPR reported there was no discrimination in access to health services or facilities based on gender for female prisoners, who make up just over 2 percent of the prison population. Some officials reported that female inmates often had a harder time accessing gender-specific health specialists such as OB/GYNs, than a general physician. Local NGOs asserted that prison facilities did not provide adequate access to health care and did not accommodate the needs of prisoners with disabilities. The DGAPR reported that a nurse and a psychologist examined each prisoner on arrival and that prisoners received care upon request. The DGAPR reported conducting extensive COVID-19 tests and medical consultations in prisons.

The DGAPR provided fresh food to inmates at no cost, certified by the Ministry of Health as meeting the nutritional needs of the average adult male. According to the DGAPR, the penitentiary system accommodated the special dietary needs of prisoners suffering from illnesses and of prisoners with religious dietary restrictions.

NGOs frequently cited cases where prisoners protested the conditions of their detention with hunger strikes. According to Amnesty International, prisoners launched hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including poor hygiene and sanitation, inadequate health care, overcrowding, and detention far from their families, as well as limited visiting rights and access to education. Prisoners Nabil Ahamjik and Nasser Zefzafi went on a hunger strike on February 22 over allegations of abuse and mistreatment in prison. They demanded better prison conditions, adequate medical care, and visitation rights. Both ended their hunger strike on March 17. According to the OMP, however, most hunger strikes were in protest of judiciary processes and sentences rather than detention conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR regularly addressed requests for transfer based on family proximity, and the DGAPR sometimes granted such requests. At other times, the DGAPR informed the detainee that the requested transfer was not possible, often because of overcrowding at the requested location.

Some human rights activists asserted that the prison administration reserved harsher treatment for Islamists who challenged the king’s religious authority and for those accused of “questioning the territorial integrity of the country.” The DGAPR denied that any prisoners received differential treatment and asserted that all prisoners received equal treatment in accordance with the law.

Families of detainees from Western Sahara charged that they faced unusually harsh prison conditions. The DGAPR contested this claim and asserted that prisoners in Western Sahara and Sahrawi prisoners in the rest of Morocco received the same treatment as all other prisoners under its authority.

According to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center, as of May 15, journalist and Sahrawi activist Mohamed al-Bambary was detained with 45 other prisoners in a cell that was 25 feet by 18.5 feet. The journalists and activists were detained because of their involvement in a movement questioning the territorial integrity of Morocco.

Administration: While authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners, there were reports that authorities denied visiting privileges in some instances. The DGAPR assigned each prisoner to a risk classification level, which determined visiting privileges. According to its prisoner classification guide, the DGAPR placed restrictions on the level of visits, recreation, and types of educational programming for higher-risk prisoners. At all classifications, prisoners may receive visits, although the length, frequency, and number of visitors may vary. Most prisons assigned each prisoner a designated “visit day” to manage the number of visits to the prison. The DGAPR authorizes religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic, DGAPR suspended family and lawyer visits but increased phone time privileges for inmates.

The CNDH and the DGAPR investigated allegations of inhumane conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR effectively served the function of an ombudsman, and a system of “letterboxes” operated in prisons to facilitate prisoners’ right to submit complaints regarding their imprisonment. Detainees could submit complaints without censorship to the DGAPR Delegate General’s Office for processing, as well as to the CNDH.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some NGOs with a human rights mandate to conduct unaccompanied monitoring visits. Government policy also permitted academics, as well as NGOs that provided social, educational, or religious services to prisoners, to enter prison facilities. According to prison officials, academics and various NGOs conducted 79 visits through June. The OMP conducted 53 monitoring visits through June. The CNDH conducted two monitoring visits during the year.

Between January 1 and August 31, the CNDH’s three commissions in the south carried out nine visits to prisons including two visits in Laayoune-Sakia and Smara to focus on the prevention of COVID-19 in prisons. The CNDH observed the DGAPR took a number of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including the establishment of a digital platform to provide remote psychological support to prison staff and detainees, limiting the number of family visits and raising awareness through an information campaign among detainees. The Laayoune branch of the CNDH conducted monitoring visits and found the local prison in Dakhla remained overcrowded and insufficiently equipped to provide appropriate living conditions to the detainees. The objectives of the visits were to prevent practices likely to lead directly or indirectly to any form of torture and mistreatment, to verify whether the preventive measures recommended by the public authorities against COVID-19 are in place in compliance with international standards and to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities responsible.

Improvements: To alleviate overcrowding and improve overall conditions, the DGAPR reported there were six prisons currently under construction and prison extensions. The DGAPR opened a new prison in Berkane.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention. Observers indicated that police did not always respect these provisions or consistently observe due process, particularly during or in the wake of protests. According to local NGOs and associations, police sometimes arrested persons without warrants or while wearing civilian clothing. Individuals have the right to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and request compensation by submitting a complaint to the court. The UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September noted the OHCHR received reports of human rights violations perpetrated by government officials against Sahrawis, including arbitrary detention.

In Western Sahara, human rights organizations continued to track alleged abusers who remained in leadership positions or who had been transferred to other positions. International and local human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements. Government officials generally did not provide information on the outcome of complaints. The CNDH and DGAPR provided human rights training for prison officials and members of the security forces in Western Sahara.

On March 12, HRW published a report of police violence against two Western Sahara activists, Walid el-Batal and Yahdhih el-Ghazal in Smara, in June 2019. According to HRW’s report, Moroccan security forces attempted to prohibit the men from attending an event for activist Salah Labsir who was serving a four-year prison sentence on charges for premeditated violence against police and the destruction of public goods. A video of the incident showed a dozen individuals in civilian clothing forcibly dragging two men from their truck and assaulting them with batons. Two Moroccan police vehicles were in the background of the scene, and the batons matched the style of police-issued equipment while one man wore a police helmet, leading HRW to determine the perpetrators were plainclothes police officers. Ghazal informed HRW that “they beat and tortured us there, and then they took us to the police station. They beat us there. And we passed out–I passed out; when I woke up I found myself in the hospital.” Court documents showed that el-Batal and el-Ghazal were taken to a hospital after their arrest. Moroccan authorities claimed the men were brought to the hospital because of injuries they sustained in colliding with police barriers and resisting arrest. The OHCHR requested an investigation into el-Batal’s case, raising concerns over human rights abuses. The public prosecutor opened an investigation, which resulted in the indictment of five police officers for police brutality. The investigation continued at year’s end.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law police may arrest an individual after a general prosecutor issues an oral or written warrant. The law permits authorities to deny defendants’ access to counsel or family members during the initial 96 hours of detention under terrorism-related laws or during the initial 24 hours of detention for all other charges, with an optional extension of 12 hours with the approval of the Prosecutor’s Office. Authorities did not consistently respect these provisions. Reports of abuse generally referred to these initial detention periods, when police interrogated detainees. The government continued to require new police officers to receive security and human rights training facilitated in partnership with civil society.

In ordinary criminal cases, the law requires police to notify a detainee’s next of kin of an arrest immediately after the above-mentioned period of incommunicado detention, unless arresting authorities applied for and received an extension from a magistrate. Police did not consistently abide by this provision. Authorities sometimes delayed notifying the family or did not inform lawyers promptly of the date of arrest, and the families and lawyers were not able to monitor compliance with detention limits and treatment of the detainee.

The law states, “in the case of a flagrant offense, the Judicial Police Officer has the right to keep the suspect in detention for 48 hours. If strong and corroborated evidence is raised against this person, [the officer] can keep them in custody for a maximum of three days with the written authorization of the prosecutor.” For common crimes, authorities can extend this 48-hour period twice, for up to six days in detention. Under terrorism-related laws, a prosecutor may renew the initial detention by written authorization for a total detention time of 12 days. According to the Antiterrorism Act, a suspect does not have a right to a lawyer during this time except for a half-hour monitored visit at the midpoint of the 12-day period. Observers widely perceived the law on counterterrorism as consistent with international standards.

At the conclusion of the initial detention period in police custody, a detainee must be presented to a prosecutor, who may issue provisional charges and order additional investigation by an investigatory judge in preparation for trial. The investigative judge has four months, plus a possible one-month extension, to interview the individual and determine what charges, if any, to file for trial. An individual may be detained in investigatory detention or at liberty during this phase. At the end of five months (if an extension is granted), the investigative judge must either file charges, decline to file charges and drop the case, or release the individual pending an additional investigation and a determination of whether to file. Authorities generally followed these timelines.

NGO sources stated that some judges were reticent to use alternative sentences permitted under the law, such as provisional release. The law does not require written authorization for release from detention. In some instances judges released defendants on their own recognizance. A bail system exists; the deposit may be in the form of property or a sum of money paid to the court as surety to ensure the defendant’s return to future court proceedings. The amount of the deposit is subject to the discretion of the judge, who decides depending on the offense. Bail may be requested at any time before the judgment. According to the law, defendants have the right to attorneys; if a defendant cannot afford private counsel, authorities must provide a court-appointed attorney when the criminal penalty exceeds five years in prison. Authorities did not always provide effective and timely counsel.

Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces often detained groups of individuals, took them to a police station, questioned them for several hours, and released them without charge.

Under the penal code, any public official who orders an arbitrary detention may be punished by demotion and, if it is done for private interest, by imprisonment for 10 years to life. An official who neglects to refer a claimed or observed arbitrary or illegal detention to his superiors may be punished by demotion. During the year no security officials were investigated for arbitrary arrest associated with enforcement of the shelter-in-place protocol due to COVID-19 restrictions. There was no information available as to whether these provisions were applied during the year.

Pretrial Detention: Although the government claimed that authorities generally brought accused persons to trial within two months, prosecutors may request as many as five additional two-month extensions of pretrial detention. Pretrial detentions can last as long as one year. Government officials attributed delays to the large backlog of cases in the justice system. The government stated that a variety of factors contributed to this backlog, including a lack of resources devoted to the justice system, both human and infrastructure; the lack of plea bargaining as an option for prosecutors, lengthening the amount of time to process cases on average; the rare use of mediation and other out-of-court settlement mechanisms allowed by law; and the absence of legal authority for alternative sentencing. The government reported that, as of May, approximately 6.5 percent of detainees were in pretrial detention awaiting their first trial. In some cases detainees received a sentence shorter than the time they spent in pretrial detention, particularly for misdemeanors.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and, as in previous years, NGOs asserted that corruption and extrajudicial influence weakened judicial independence. The Supreme Judicial Council, mandated by the constitution, manages the courts and day-to-day judicial affairs in place of the Ministry of Justice. The president of the Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeals) chairs the 20-member body. Additional members include the president of the First Chamber of the Court of Cassation; the prosecutor general (equivalent of the attorney general); the mediator (national ombudsman); the president of the CNDH; 10 members elected by the country’s judges; and five members appointed by the king. While the government’s stated aim in creating the council was to improve judicial independence, its effect on judicial independence was not clear since its inception as an independent entity in late 2017. According to media reports and human rights activists, outcomes of trials in which the government had a strong interest, such as those touching on Islam as it related to political life and national security, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and Western Sahara, sometimes appeared predetermined.

On November 4, the Court of Cassation reviewed the appeals to the 2017 verdict against 23 Sahrawi individuals arrested during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp. The sentences issued ranged from time served to life imprisonment. The individuals had been previously convicted in a military trial in 2013. A 2015 revision of the Code on Military Justice eliminated military trials for civilians, and in 2016 the Court of Cassation ruled on appeal that the group should receive a new civilian trial. Two were given reduced sentences (from 25 years to 4.5 years and 6.5 years) and were released, joining two others whose 2013 sentences of time served were confirmed by the civilian court. Two other individuals also received reduced sentences (from 30 years to 25 years and from 25 years to 20 years). On November 9, HRW noted concerns that an earlier verdict was reached based on information obtained under torture.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with the right of appeal, but this did not always occur. The law presumes that defendants are innocent. Defendants are informed promptly of potential charges after the initial arrest and investigation period. Defendants are then informed of final charges at the conclusion of the full investigatory period, which may last several months. Trials are conducted in Arabic, and foreigners have the right to request interpretation if they do not speak Arabic.

Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult in a timely manner with an attorney. Defendants have the right to refuse to participate in their trial, and a judge may decide to continue the proceedings in the defendant’s absence while providing a detailed summary to the defendant. Authorities often denied lawyers timely access to their clients and, in some cases, lawyers met their clients only at the first hearing before the judge. Authorities are required to provide attorneys in cases where the potential sentence is greater than five years, if the defendant is unable to afford one. Publicly provided defense attorneys were often poorly paid and neither properly trained in matters pertaining to juveniles nor provided to defendants in a timely fashion. The appointment process for public defenders was lengthy, often resulting in a defendant arriving to trial before a court-appointed attorney was designated. In these cases the judge may ask any attorney present to represent the defendant. This practice often resulted in inadequate representation. Many NGOs provided attorneys for vulnerable individuals (minors, refugees, victims of domestic violence), who frequently did not have the means to pay. Such resources were limited and specific to larger cities.

The law permits defense attorneys to question witnesses. Despite the provisions of the law, some judges reportedly denied defense requests to question witnesses or to present mitigating witnesses or evidence.

The law forbids judges from admitting confessions made under duress without additional corroborating evidence, government officials stated. NGOs reported that the judicial system often relied on confessions for the prosecution of criminal cases, and authorities pressured investigators to obtain a confession from suspects in order for prosecution to proceed. HRW and local NGOs charged that judges, at their discretion, sometimes decided cases based on forced confessions. According to the government, in order to move away from a confession-based judicial system, cases based solely on confessions and without any other substantiating evidence are not accepted by the courts.

According to the DGSN, during the year the forensics unit in partnership with international technical experts trained 85 judges and public prosecutors on forensics evidence for prosecutions. Since 2016 the National Police have had evidence preservation centers throughout the country to secure evidence collected at crime scenes and to ensure compliance with chain of custody procedures. According to the Ministry of Justice, legal clerks manage the evidence preservation centers and coordinate the court’s and the defense’s access to evidence.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The law does not define or recognize the concept of a political prisoner. The government did not consider any of its prisoners to be political prisoners and stated it had charged or convicted all individuals in prison under criminal law. Criminal law covers nonviolent advocacy and dissent, such as insulting police in songs or “defaming Morocco’s sacred values” by denouncing the king and regime during a public demonstration. NGOs, including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), Amnesty International, and Sahrawi organizations, asserted the government imprisoned persons for political activities or beliefs under the cover of criminal charges.

The HRW annual report highlighted, “authorities continued to selectively target, prosecute, jail and harass critics, and enforce various repressive laws, notably pertaining to individual liberties.”

In December 2019 police in Rabat arrested Ben Boudouh, also known as Moul al-Hanout (grocery store owner), for “offending public officials” and “incitement to hatred.” Boudouh posted a live video on his Facebook page criticizing the king for allowing corruption. On January 7, the court of first instance of Khemisset, sentenced Ben Boudouh to three years in prison for “insulting constitutional institutions and public officials.” Ben Boudouh was in Tiflet Prison at year’s end. Amnesty International claimed the charges against Ben Boudouh were politically motivated.

Security forces arrested Soulaimane Raissouni, journalist and editor in chief of newspaper Akhbar al-Yaoum, in Casablanca on May 22 on an allegation he sexually assaulted a young man. On May 25, an investigating judge charged him with “violent and indecent assault and forced detention” and ordered his detention in Oukacha Prison. The arrest of Soulaimane generated criticism from civil society groups and activists, who asserted the arrests were politically motivated.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Human rights and proindependence groups considered a number of imprisoned Sahrawis to be political prisoners. This number included the 19 Gdeim Izik prisoners who remained in prison as well as members of Sahrawi rights or proindependence organizations.

Although individuals have access to civil courts for lawsuits relating to human rights violations and have filed lawsuits, such lawsuits were frequently unsuccessful due to the courts’ lack of independence in politically sensitive cases or lack of impartiality stemming from extrajudicial influence and corruption. The Supreme Judicial Council is tasked with ensuring ethical behavior by judicial personnel (see section 4). There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for alleged wrongs. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders in a timely manner.

The Institution of the Mediator (national ombudsman) helped to resolve civil matters that did not clear the threshold to merit involvement of the judiciary, including cases involving civil society registration issues. Although it faced backlogs, it gradually expanded the scope of its activities and subjected complaints to in-depth investigation. The mediator retransmitted to the CNDH for resolution cases specifically related to allegations of human rights abuses by authorities. The CNDH continued to be a conduit through which citizens expressed complaints regarding human rights abuses.

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

While the constitution states an individual’s home is inviolable and that a search may take place only with a search warrant, authorities at times entered homes without judicial authorization, employed informers, and monitored, without legal process, personal movement and private communications–including email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private.

On June 22, Amnesty International published a report claiming authorities had used NSO spyware to target journalist Omar Radi’s phone from January 2019 to January 2020. Starting on June 26, the judicial police, gendarmerie, and prosecutors summoned Radi for 12 interrogation sessions of six to nine hours each regarding multiple accusations, including allegedly providing “espionage services” to foreign governments, firms, and organizations. On July 29, police arrested Radi on charges of “indecent assault with violence; rape; the receipt of foreign funds for the purpose of undermining state’s domestic security; and initiation of contacts with agents of foreign countries to harm the diplomatic situation of the country.” According to HRW, the rape and indecent assault charges against Radi were based on a complaint filed July 23 by one of Radi’s colleagues. His trial commenced on December 24.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, although they criminalize and restrict some freedom of expression in the press and social media–specifically criticism of Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time, despite the freedom of expression provided for in the press code. The press code applies only to journalists accredited by the department of communication, under Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, for speech or publications in the line of work; private speech by accredited journalists remains punishable under the penal code. According to the Freedom House 2020 Freedom in the World report, the press enjoyed a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, but authorities used an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists. International and domestic human rights groups criticized criminal prosecutions of journalists and publishers as well as libel suits, claiming that the government principally used these laws to restrict independent human rights groups, the press, and social media.

According to the UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September, the OHCHR remained concerned by reports alleging excessive surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists in Western Sahara. The report added that the OHCHR continued to receive reports of harassment and arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders covering human rights violations. Amnesty International stated Sahrawi human rights activists remained subject to intimidation, questioning, arrest, and intense surveillance that occasionally amounted to harassment.

Freedom of Speech: The law criminalizes criticism of Islam, of the legitimacy of the monarchy, of state institutions, of officials such as those in the military, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. Amnesty International and HRW highlighted dozens of cases in which freedom of expression was restricted. During the year the government displayed intolerance for individuals critical of the monarch, local authorities and Islam. According to the government, 359 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).

On January 16, the Laayoune Court of Appeals sustained a court of first instance conviction for Hamza Sbai but reduced the prison sentence from 36 months to eight months. Sbai was convicted under the penal code for his rap video posted on YouTube, titled We Understand. According to the Ministry of Interior, he was sentenced by the court in December 2019 to three years of prison and a fine for “insulting constitutional institutions.” Sbai was transferred from a prison in Laayoune to Bouizakarne in January and was released on August 28.

On March 23, parliament passed a law declaring a health emergency and setting a penalty of a three-month prison sentence for anyone disobeying “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” those decisions. As of May, 91, a total of 623 individuals were briefly detained or fined for breaking the new state of emergency law, of whom 558 remained in detention.

On March 28, the secretary general of the Presidency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that police had arrested 56 individuals for publishing false information regarding COVID-19.

On May 5, local representatives of the Ministry of Interior in Tiflet reportedly assaulted two journalists while they were covering the COVID-19 lockdown’s impact on local market activity during Ramadan on behalf of a national Amazigh television station. Media reports indicated the officials verbally assaulted a female journalist before slapping her and pushing her to the ground, while her accompanying cameraman sustained a hand injury as he tried to prevent the authorities from confiscating his camera. On May 7, Reporters without Borders condemned the “unacceptable” assault and stated, “The coronavirus crisis must not be used as an excuse to harass journalists who are just trying to do their job.” On May 8, the ministry announced to the French Press Agency that it opened an internal investigation of the claims. The Ministry of Interior denied the claims of police intervention and allegations of assault against the journalist and cameraman.

In August, 400 artists and intellectuals wrote a manifesto denouncing police repression and defamation campaigns, exacerbated by the pandemic situation, citing “several cases of political imprisonment and harassment, including the arrest of journalists Omar Radi (see section 1.f.) and Hajar Raissouni (who was convicted of engaging in premarital sex and attempting to get an abortion before receiving a royal pardon in 2019), as well as repression against social movements.” When some decided to withdraw their signatures from the petition, other activists claimed they had been subjected to intimidation.

On April 27, authorities arrested Omar Naji, vice president of the AMDH Nador branch, and charged him with defamation and spreading false information after he posted on Facebook that local authorities were confiscating goods sold by local merchants in the informal economy. Naji was released on bail pending trial on June 2. The AMDH called Naji’s arrest an attack on freedom of expression, although Naji was found not guilty.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a variety of views within the restrictions of the law. The press code limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. As of September 6, two journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with two in all of 2019.

Two publishing directors of news websites were brought before the crown prosecutor in Mohammedia for allegedly publishing “fake news” on COVID-19. Five other individuals were arrested for sharing the same news via their Facebook accounts.

In March international NGOs drew attention to the government’s suspension of print newspapers during the outbreak of COVID-19 to reduce contact and the spread of the virus.

In March, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mi Naima, a YouTuber with a large following, posted a video in which she claimed that COVID-19 did not exist. She was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for “sharing fake news.”

On March 17, journalist Omar Radi was sentenced to a four-month suspended prison sentence and fine over a tweet in 2019 in which he criticized the judge who handed down prison sentences against activists of the Hirak movement (see section 1.f.).

On March 27, Kawtar Zaki and Abdelilah Sakhir, both of the online outlet Eljarida 24, received six-month suspended prison sentences and fines for publishing information from a parliamentary committee on corruption by elected officials. Hakim Benchamach, speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, filed the complaint that led to the case, according to Freedom House.

Actor Rafiq Boubker was prosecuted in May for blasphemy, insulting Islam, insulting a corporate body, and violating the state of emergency. In a video leaked on social media, an apparently intoxicated Boubker called an imam derogatory names and called on Moroccans to “pray with vodka”–leading to charges of “insulting the Islamic religion and undermining the sanctity of worship.” Boubker was arrested on the basis of complaints to the crown prosecutor. On July 14, the Ain Sebaa Court of First Instance in Casablanca was set to take place on November 10 but postponed for a later date.

Journalists continued to denounce the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the press code. Some members of the press claimed that journalists from outlets close to the government and palace received their credentials sooner than journalists from independent outlets. They claimed journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in an ambiguous legal status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.

The government also enforced strict procedures governing journalists’ meetings with NGO representatives and political activists. Foreign journalists needed, but did not always receive, approval from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports before meeting with political activists.

The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, has been repeatedly postponed since 2015; the individuals had not been sentenced at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Justice, Mansouri, Monjib, and Almiraat were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of the country. The seven individuals were charged for posing a threat to the internal security of the country, fraud, managing an association exercising unauthorized acts, and accepting unauthorized foreign funds. On December 29, Maati Monjib was arrested on charges of embezzlement. He had been under a new investigation since October 7 on accusations of money laundering against him. His trial was scheduled to begin in January 2021.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation, including attempts to discredit them through harmful rumors about their personal lives. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists, often putting them on trial for matters seemingly unrelated to journalism or political activities.

According to media reports, authorities rejected one international journalist’s accreditation request during the year because he lacked a valid permit. The government stated that foreign media representatives who comply with local laws are allowed to perform their duties without interference and that allegations that authorities expelled foreign journalists were unsubstantiated.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship and government restrictions on sensitive topics remained serious hurdles to the development of a free, independent, and investigative press. Publications and broadcast media require government accreditation, and the government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications that breach public order or criticize Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions on territorial integrity. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure through written and verbal warnings and by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor and host opposition news sites on servers outside the country to avoid being shut down by the authorities. According to Freedom House, personal attacks and derogatory comments received by activists and opinion makers online, often in response to their criticism of government policies, also contributed to self-censorship.

Libel/Slander Laws: The press code includes provisions that permit the government to impose financial penalties on accredited journalists and publishers who violate restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. A court may impose a prison sentence if an accredited journalist is unable or unwilling to pay the fine.

Individuals not registered as journalists may be charged for defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as can accredited journalists for their private actions.

Between November 2019 and January, NGOs reported 10 individuals were arrested for “offending public officials and institutions.”

National Security: The antiterrorism law provides for the arrest of individuals, including journalists, and filtering websites deemed to “disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence.” The law assigns legal liability to the author and anyone who in any way helps the author to disseminate information deemed as a justification for acts of terrorism, which would include site owners and internet service providers. While the law was designed to combat terrorism, authorities retain the discretion to define terms such as “national security” and “public order,” under the penal code for which the government can seek fines of up to 200,000 s ($21,000) for publishing content online seen as disruptive to public order, with the maximum fine of 500,000 s ($52,000) if the content offends the military. Online speech offenses related to the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara, as well as threats to national security can carry prison sentences of two to six years.

Internet Freedom

The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press on the internet. The press code stipulates that online journalism is equivalent to print journalism. Laws on combatting terrorism permit the government to filter websites. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the government did not block or filter any political, social, or religious websites during the year. Nonetheless, security officials pressured activists to delete sensitive content. The same report indicated there has been an influx of progovernment online outlets that published false and defamatory news about dissidents. The report also noted there have been cases in which bloggers were arrested or imprisoned for content the government deemed politically sensitive. Social media and communication services, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, were available in the country, as were international blog-hosting services. Freedom House claimed, however, that unfair disbursement of advertising money, strict self-censorship, and continuing trials of journalists have prevented the emergence of a vibrant online media environment. According to the government, funds for advertisements derive from the private sector, not from the public sector. The government also repeatedly reminded online journalists to obey the law. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online, particularly related to protests in the northern Rif region.

According to Freedom House, numerous accounts were created on Twitter and Facebook with the apparent purpose of harassing, intimidating, and threatening activists who criticize authorities. Activists believed these progovernment commentators were also equipped with direct or indirect access to surveillance tools, since they often obtained private information about other users.

Many contributors working for online news outlets and many online news outlets themselves were unaccredited and therefore not covered under the press code for their publications. They remained subject to provisions of the antiterrorism law and the penal code that permit the government to jail and impose financial penalties on anyone who violates restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults.

On April 27, a draft bill seeking to limit social media commentary promoting boycotts and businesses was leaked. After the draft language sparked rapid and broad condemnation by civil society, the minister of justice on May 3 withdrew the bill from consideration and initiated consultations on the proposed legislation with the CNDH and civil society. On May 12, during a video conference on human rights, CNDH president Amina Bouayach said she considered the bill significantly “outdated” and “unsuitable for Morocco,” reiterating that the CNDH had a clear stance on free speech online and viewed social media as “an incubator of freedoms.”

According to various NGOs, the government frequently hacked Sahrawi citizen journalists’ and bloggers’ social media accounts.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law permits the government to criminalize presentations or debate questioning the legitimacy of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, state institutions, and the status of Western Sahara. The law restricts cultural events and academic activities, although the government generally provided more latitude to political and religious activism confined to university campuses. The Ministry of Interior approves appointments of university rectors.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for the right of peaceful assembly. The government generally allowed authorized and unauthorized peaceful demonstrations to occur. Under the law groups of more than three persons require authorization from the Ministry of Interior to protest publicly. Some NGOs complained that the government used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. Security forces intervened on occasion to disband both authorized and unauthorized protests when officials deemed the demonstration a threat to public security. Amnesty International reported continued arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, particularly of individuals supporting independence for Western Sahara.

Several proindependence organizations and some human rights NGOs in Western Sahara stated that in recent years the submission of applications for permits to hold demonstrations declined because police rarely granted them. In most cases the organizers proceeded with planned demonstrations in the absence of authorization, and there was no discernible difference in security forces’ reaction to authorized or unauthorized protests. Violent confrontations between security forces and protesters were less common than in previous years, according to several local NGOs, although violent dispersals occurred on occasion. Security force practices were similar to those in internationally recognized Morocco; however, in Western Sahara there was often a higher ratio of members of security forces to protesters.

On March 23, the government implemented a royal decree concerning the state of health emergency, making a violation of public authority confinement measures punishable with one to three months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 1,240 s ($130), or both; the decree also makes the use of social media or broadcast networks to spread misinformation about COVID-19 or incite criminal activity punishable with up to one year in prison. The UN high commissioner for human rights noted that security forces “used excessive force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews.” According to a report by Amnesty International published in June, a total of 91,623 individuals were prosecuted from March to May for breaking the state of emergency. At least 588 persons remained in detention for breaking the state of emergency, according to the May 22 official statement of the public prosecutor’s office.

Some NGOs complained that authorities did not apply the approval process for holding a demonstration consistently and used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. HRW’s World Report 2020 highlighted interference with associations that expressed views critical of the monarch and events organized by the AMDH. Police allowed many protests demanding political reform and protesting government actions, but often forcibly dispersed peaceful protests, arrested protesters and protest leaders, or prevented demonstrations from occurring. According to the government, approximately 4,400 protests took place from January to July. While most protests proceeded peacefully, on several occasions violence erupted between protesters and police.

Security forces were generally present both in and out of uniform at protests, particularly if the protest was expected to address a sensitive issue. In general, officers were under orders to observe and not intervene, unless the demonstration became unruly, threatening to bystanders, or overflowed into public highways. In those cases, under standard operating procedures, officers were required to give the crowd three warnings that force would be used if they did not disperse. Security forces would then attempt to force protesters to leave the area, using riot shields to push standing protesters into a designated area or carrying seated protesters to the designated area.

Security force tactics did not differ significantly whether the protest was authorized or unauthorized, although the decision on whether to intervene sometimes depended on whether the protest was authorized. According to the government, if officers intervened in a protest, a police judiciary officer not involved in the intervention and under the supervision of the attorney general must produce a statement documenting the circumstances of the case, the number of victims, and the material damage due to the operation. The police judiciary officer must address the statement to the Attorney General’s Office with a copy to the governor of the territorial jurisdiction where the incident transpired. The government organized training on human rights-based methods to manage crowds throughout the year.

In February the CNDH released a report about security force actions to disperse the 2017 Hirak protests and largely upheld police action on the basis that the protests had gradually escalated towards violence. NGOs and the CNDH continued to monitor the Rif Hirak prisoners sentenced by the Casablanca Court of Appeal in April 2019.

On January 28, two participants from a “Philosophy in the Street” event promoting freedom of expression were arrested and later released in Rabat. Event organizers stated this was the first time members from the group had been arrested as part of a public meeting. On July 22, one of the activists was tried for public intoxication and fined 500 s ($50).

The CNDH’s Laayoune and Dakhla regional commissions monitored 24 demonstrations from January to July. Security forces dispersed several demonstrations by force, with clashes resulting in injuries on both sides.

In July, CNDH’s Laayoune Commission was approached by an association of migrants about a clash between law enforcement officials and a group of 78 sub-Saharan migrants in an irregular situation, who were held in a reception center and tried to leave it without authorization. The commission visited the scene of the clashes and monitored the exchange of violence between police and this group of immigrants who stormed the outer door of the accommodation center in a bid to break the health state of emergency, which led the police officer present to shoot two rubber bullets in the air as a warning; a third rubber bullet hit a migrant. The situation was contained, while a police officer and four migrants were admitted to hospital with minor bruises. The judicial police of Laayoune opened a preliminary investigation.

Freedom of Association

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of association, although the government sometimes restricted this freedom. The government prohibited or failed to recognize some political opposition groups by deeming them unqualified for NGO status. While the government does not restrict the source of funding for NGOs operating in the country, NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources are required to report the amount and its origins to the government within 30 days from the date of receipt. The government denied official recognition to NGOs it considered to be advocating against Islam as the state religion or questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy or the country’s territorial integrity. Authorities obstructed the registration of a number of associations perceived to be critical of the authorities by refusing to accept their registration applications or to deliver receipts confirming the filing of applications (see section 5).

Amnesty International reported that Moroccan authorities routinely rejected the registration applications of Sahrawi human rights groups.

The Ministry of Interior required NGOs to register before being recognized as legal entities, but there was no comprehensive national registry publicly available. A prospective organization must submit its objectives, bylaws, address, and photocopies of members’ identification cards to local officials of the ministry. The local officials of the ministry issue a receipt to the organization that signifies formal approval. Organizations without receipts are not formally registered. According to the law, however, any association not denied registration that did not receive a receipt within 60 days of submitting the required documentation has the right to engage in activities. These same organizations reported extended delays in receiving correspondence from the ministry on the receipt issue.

Unregistered organizations could not access government funds or legally accept contributions. On February 13, a group of human rights organizations gathered to denounce the ministry’s refusal to issue receipts of registration to certain organizations that cover human rights. The organizations stated local officials’ refusal to issue receipts is a violation of article five of Law 75, which governs the right of association. One of the organizations, the Moroccan Federation of Human Rights, reported the ministry has refused to issue it a registration receipt for the last five years.

On February 29, media reported the authorities prevented an NGO from conducting training on “national and international mechanisms to protect human rights activists” in Meknes. Media reported the hotel had received notice from authorities to cancel the activity. According to the government, the local authorities did not cancel the event, rather, the hotel refused to host the event after the organizers were unable to provide the necessary meeting permits.

The National Federation of Amazigh Associations, an organization supporting the inclusion of the Amazigh (Berber) population in public life, reported that, as of October, nine Amazigh organizations denied registration in 2017 continued to be denied registration during the year, including the federation itself (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

The Justice and Charity Organization, a Sunni Islamist movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated, although authorities continued to monitor its activities.

In October 2019 local authorities refused to accept the application of a religious freedom organization based in Casablanca, which attempted to register as an association.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although it limited movement to areas experiencing widespread unrest. The government denied entry to individuals it believed threatened the stability of the country. The government continued to make travel documents available to Sahrawis to travel and encouraged the return of Sahrawi refugees from Algeria and elsewhere if they acknowledged the government’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Refugees wishing to return are required to obtain the appropriate travel or identity documents at a Moroccan consulate abroad, often in Mauritania. There were a few reported cases, however, of authorities preventing Sahrawis from traveling.

On January 2, the Moroccan authorities prevented representatives of Sahrawi NGOs from celebrating activist Aminatou Haidar’s reception of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award. Authorities denied activists access to the venue and forced all those present to leave the headquarters of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Violations of Human Rights Committed by the State of Morocco in El-Ayoun.

In-country Movement: There were several reports of government authorities denying local and international organizations and press access to the Rif and Eastern regions. The government, however, maintained that no international organizations or press were denied access to the Rif region.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. The government also provided funding to humanitarian organizations to provide social services to migrants, including refugees.

The government has historically deferred to UNHCR as the sole agency in the country entitled to perform refugee status determinations and verify asylum cases. UNHCR referred cases that meet the criteria for refugee recognition to the government’s interministerial Commission in Charge of Hearings for Asylum Seekers within the Bureau of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were particularly vulnerable to abuse. Authorities continued cooperation with Spanish and EU authorities to thwart trafficking networks and arrest smugglers. A decrease in Europe-bound human smuggling and human trafficking coincided with increased border controls implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNDH regional branches reported receiving several complaints regarding the rights of migrants. There were reports of government authorities arresting or detaining migrants, particularly around the Spanish enclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta, and forcibly relocating them to other parts of the country to deter attempts to cross illegally into Spanish territory. Several NGOs reported the week of February 14 that authorities were forcibly removing groups of migrants from proximity to the coast and Spanish enclave cities to the southern region. One NGO alleged that security services moved approximately 10,000 sub-Saharan migrants from the north to the south of the country and deported another 3,000 migrants from Guinea-Conakry, Mali, or Cameroon to their home countries. The government maintained the return of third-country nationals to their country of origin was coordinated with diplomatic legations who endorsed these departures and issued the appropriate papers (see section 2.f, Durable Solutions).

On February 10, the international NGO Alarm Phone reported to the press that Morocco allegedly deported a Yemeni migrant to Algeria in mid-September 2019.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status. The government recognizes asylum status for refugees designated according to the UNHCR statute. The government continued to grant status to UNHCR-recognized refugees and temporary status to registered Syrians. There were 1,363 refugees registered in the country and six asylum seekers.

Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees and migrants were generally able to work and access health care and education services, including publicly funded professional and vocational training. Requests on behalf of women and children receive automatic approval, with immediate access to education and health care. Asylum seekers were, however, sometimes unable to access the national health care system and continued to have little access to the judicial system until recognized as refugees.

Durable Solutions: The government facilitated voluntary returns in cooperation with UNHCR and, when necessary, the resettlement of recognized refugees to third countries. Since 2004 the government and the International Organization for Migration have cofunded the voluntary return of migrants to their countries of origin. According to the government, it assisted with the voluntary return to the country of origin of an average of 2,000 migrants between January 2019 and March 2020.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Syrians and Yemenis benefited from “exceptional regularization” outside the more permanent migrant regularization program.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The country is a constitutional monarchy under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with the head of government (prime minister). According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government.

The law provides for, and citizens participated in, free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage for parliament’s Chamber of Representatives and municipal and regional councils. Regional and professional bodies indirectly elected members of parliament’s less powerful Chamber of Counselors.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2016 the country held direct elections for the Chamber of Representatives (the more powerful lower house of parliament). The major political parties and domestic observers considered the elections free, fair, and transparent. International observers considered the elections credible, noting voters were able to choose freely and the process was free of systemic irregularities. As stipulated by the constitution, the king tasked the Party of Justice and Development, which won the most seats in the newly elected chamber, to form a governing coalition and nominate new ministers.

Political Parties and Political Participation: A political party may not legally challenge Islam as the state religion, the institution of the monarchy, or the country’s territorial integrity. The law prohibits basing a party on a religious, ethnic, or regional identity.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Voters elected a record number of women in the 2016 elections, although very few subsequently won leadership positions as ministers or parliamentary committee presidents.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were reports of government corruption in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches during the year.

Corruption: Observers generally considered corruption a persistent problem, with insufficient governmental checks and balances to reduce its occurrence. There were reports of petty government corruption.

The National Authority for Probity, Prevention, and Fighting Corruption (INPPLC) is responsible for combating corruption. In addition to the INPPLC, the Ministry of Justice and the High Audit Institution (government accountability court) had jurisdiction over corruption issues, and the latter has authority to conduct investigations.

The Ministry of Justice ran a hotline for the public to report instances of corruption. As of August the government reported there were 9,550 calls to the hotline alleging corruption that resulted in 39 cases in court during the year. The government also reported 90 percent of the calls were inquiries about corruption cases in trial, rather than new reports of alleged corruption. The Prosecutor General’s Office reported it registered 950 calls to its anticorruption hotline from private citizens during the year; the office stated there were convictions against the officials involved in 16 cases.

In January a “money for diplomas” scandal came to light in Tetouan at a public Abdelmalik Essaadi University. The university president declared the report an isolated incident and launched an internal investigation. The prosecutor for the case suggested that hundreds of diplomas were issued fraudulently.

On February 5, a court in Marrakesh sentenced Khalid Ouaya to 10 years in prison and one million s for receiving kickbacks from land deals. He was serving his prison sentence and awaiting trial by the court of appeals. On March 5, media reported a collusion scheme among judges, prosecutors, clerks, and bailiffs of the Casablanca Court of First Instance, legal representatives of public and private creditors, and service providers that filed thousands of suits against citizens without their knowledge. The Prosecutor General’s Office reportedly opened an investigation into the case that continued at year’s end.

The government claimed to investigate corruption and other instances of police malfeasance through an internal mechanism. Nevertheless, international and domestic human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements.

The judicial police investigated allegations, including those against security forces, and advised the court of their findings. Cases at times languished in the investigatory or trial phases. The government reported 45 cases in September where there was sufficient evidence pointing to police officers engaging in corruption, extortion, collusion with drug traffickers, or misappropriation of seized objects, and 16 police officers received disciplinary sanctions in connection to the cases.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires judges, ministers, and members of parliament to submit financial disclosure statements to the High Audit Institution, which is responsible for monitoring and verifying disclosure compliance. According to allegations from government transparency groups, however, many officials did not file disclosures. There are no effective criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases; however, the government’s responsiveness to, cooperation with, and restrictions on domestic and international human rights organizations varied, depending on its evaluation of the political orientation of the organization and the sensitivity of the issues.

The government did not approve AMDH appeals during the year to register multiple regional branches. The organization regularly faced difficulties renewing the registration of its offices.

During the year activists and NGOs reported continuing restrictions on their activities in the country (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). According to the government, registered organizations are authorized to meet within their established headquarters, but any meetings outside that space, including privately owned establishments, were considered to be in public spaces and require authorization from the Ministry of Interior. Organizations stated that government officials told them their events were canceled for failing to follow required procedures for public meetings, although the organizations claimed to have submitted the necessary paperwork or believed the law did not require it.

Some unrecognized NGOs that did not cooperate officially with the government still shared information informally with both the government and government-affiliated organizations.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated with the United Nations and permitted requested visits.

Nonetheless, in September the UN secretary-general urged the state and other parties to address outstanding human rights problems and enhance cooperation with the OHCHR. The report noted that the human rights situation in Western Sahara has been adversely affected by COVID-19, especially with regard to economic and social rights.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The CNDH is a national human rights institution established by the constitution that operates independently from the elected government. It is publicly funded and operates in conformity with the Principles of Paris, according to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. The council filled the role of a national human rights monitoring mechanism for preventing torture. The CNDH oversees the National Human Rights Training Institute, which collaborated with international organizations to provide training to civil society, media, law enforcement, medical personnel, educators, and legal practitioners.

Via its regional offices in Dakhla and Laayoune, the CNDH continued a range of activities, including monitoring demonstrations, visiting prisons and medical centers, and organizing capacity-building activities for various stakeholders. It also maintained contact with unregistered NGOs. The CNDH also occasionally investigated cases raised by unregistered NGOs, especially those that drew internet or international media attention.

The Institution of the Mediator acted as a general ombudsman. It considered allegations of governmental injustices and has the power to carry out inquiries and investigations, propose disciplinary action, and refer cases to the public prosecutor.

The mission of the Interministerial Delegation for Human Rights (DIDH), which reports to the minister of state in charge of human rights, is to promote the protection of human rights across all ministries, serve as a government interlocutor with domestic and international NGOs, and interact with relevant UN bodies regarding international human rights obligations. The DIDH coordinates government responses to UN bodies on adherence to treaty obligations and serves as the principal advisory body to the king and government on human rights. The DIDH oversaw the launch during the year of the National Plan of Action on Democracy and Human Rights (PANDDH), approved by parliament in 2017 and the king in 2019. The PANDDH includes more than 400 measures to improve democracy, governance, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights as well as reforms to institutional and legal frameworks.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law punishes individuals convicted of rape with prison terms of five to 10 years; when the conviction involves a minor, the prison sentence ranges from 10 to 20 years. Spousal rape is not a crime. Numerous articles of the penal code pertaining to rape perpetuate unequal treatment for women and provide insufficient protection. A 2018 law provides a stronger legal framework to protect women from violence, sexual harassment, and abuse. Under the law a sexual assault conviction may result in a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine. For insults and defamation based on gender, an individual may be fined up to 60,000 s for insults and up to 120,000 s for defamation ($6,300 to $12,600). General insult and defamation charges remain in the penal code. A March reform of the law requires the DGSN, Prosecutor General’s Office, Supreme Judicial Court, and Ministries of Health, Youth, and Women to have specialized units that coordinate with one another on cases involving violence against women. The Judicial Police reported gender-based violence response units opened in 132 police precincts across the country as of late 2019. These specialized units intake and process cases of gender-based violence and provide psychological support and other services to victims. In 440 precincts where gender-based violence response units have not been established, a regular police officer is designated to process the cases.

The National Union for Women in Morocco (UNFM) launched an online platform in January to provide support for victims of domestic abuse. The platform gave victims access to legal counsel, a network to find employment, and a social support network. The UNFM also offered temporary housing and vocational training for victims of domestic violence.

Later in the year, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a spike in domestic abuse as a result of isolation measures. The government and NGOs expanded programming and outreach that provided shelter, assistance, and guidance for survivors of domestic abuse. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the government adopted protective measures, such as shelters, for victims of domestic violence in the first half of the year. On May 28, the government adopted a bill to create a national registry for social support programs for women and children. Several NGOs adapted services provided to victims of domestic violence, providing hotlines, shelter, resources, guidance, and legal support.

There were reports, however, that these shelters were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Courts maintained “victims of abuse cells” that brought together prosecutors, lawyers, judges, women’s NGO representatives, and hospital personnel to review domestic and child abuse cases to provide for the best interests of women or children.

According to local NGOs, survivors did not report the vast majority of sexual assaults to police due to social pressure and the concern that society would most likely hold the victims responsible. Some sexual assault victims also reported police officers at times turned them away from filing a police report or coerced them to pay a bribe to file the report by threatening to charge them with consensual sex outside of marriage, a crime punishable with up to one year in prison. Police selectively investigated cases; among the minority brought to trial, successful prosecutions remained rare.

The law does not specifically define domestic violence against women and minors, but the general prohibitions of the criminal code address such violence. Legally, high-level misdemeanors occur when a victim’s injuries result in 20 days of disability leave from work. Low-level misdemeanors occur when a victim’s disability lasts for less than 20 days. According to NGOs, the courts rarely prosecuted perpetrators of low-level misdemeanors. Police were slow to act in domestic violence cases, and the government generally did not enforce the law and sometimes returned women against their will to abusive homes. Police generally treated domestic violence as a social rather than a criminal matter. Physical abuse was legal grounds for divorce, although few women reported such abuse to authorities.

On January 21, media reported that 20 suspects kidnapped “Oumaima”, a 17-year-old girl, in the Moulay Rachid district (in Casablanca) and then gang raped and abused her for 25 days before she convinced a friend of the perpetrators to assist in her escape. According to the victim’s mother, during confinement, the perpetrators forced the girl to ingest toxic substances to try to kill her. The girl was hospitalized after her escape. According to an NGO, three of the 20 suspects were arrested, and two of the three were later released on bail.

In February the Court of Appeal in Rabat sentenced the perpetrator of the summer 2019 rape and murder of Hanane al-Iraki to death; the principal defendant was convicted of premeditated murder on February 10. Six accomplices in the crime were sentenced to five years in prison. The conviction closed a case that surfaced in July 2019 when footage of the crime was published on the internet.

Sexual Harassment: Before the law on violence against women was passed in 2018, sexual harassment was only a crime if it was committed by a supervisor in the workplace. Under the 2018 law, sexual harassment is a crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine up to 10,000 s ($1,000) if the offense takes place in a public space or by insinuations through texts, audio recording, or pictures. In cases where the harasser is a coworker, supervisor, or security official, the sentence is doubled. Prison sentences and fines are also doubled in cases where a spouse, former spouse, fiance, or a family member perpetrates the harassment act, physical violence, or abuse or mistreatment or breaks a restraining order or if the crime is perpetrated against a minor. In the past authorities did not effectively enforce laws against sexual harassment. Civil society leaders stated they did not observe efforts by the government to enforce the 2018 law or provide training on the new law for judicial or law enforcement officials.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: While the constitution provides women equal rights with men in civil, political, economic, cultural, and environmental affairs, laws favor men in property and inheritance. Numerous problems related to discrimination against women remained, both with inadequate enforcement of equal rights provided for by the laws and constitution and in the reduced rights provided to women in inheritance.

According to the law, women are entitled to a share of inherited property, but a woman’s share of inheritance is less than that of a man. Women are generally entitled to receive half the inheritance a man would receive in the same circumstances. A sole male heir would receive the entire estate, while a sole female heir would receive half the estate with the rest going to other relatives.

In 2019 the government revised the structure and administration of communal lands, allowing female heirs to inherit, and be titled as owners of, those lands.

The family code places the family under the joint responsibility of both spouses, makes divorce available by mutual consent, and places legal limits on polygamy. Implementation of family law reforms remained a problem. The judiciary lacked willingness to enforce them, as many judges did not agree with their provisions. Corruption among working-level court clerks and lack of knowledge about its provisions among lawyers were also obstacles to enforcing the law.

The law requires equal pay for equal work, although in practice this did not occur.

Children

Birth Registration: The law permits both parents to pass nationality to their children. The law establishes that all children have civil status regardless of their family status. There were, nonetheless, cases in which authorities denied identification papers to children because they were born to unmarried parents, particularly in rural areas or in the cases of poorly educated mothers unaware of their legal rights.

Child Abuse: NGOs, human rights groups, media outlets, and UNICEF claimed child abuse was widespread. According to the government, in 2019 a total of 6,399 individuals were investigated for criminal offenses associated with 5,699 reported cases of child abuse. Prosecutions for child abuse were extremely rare. Some children rights NGOs expressed concerns over the lack of legislation to prosecute cases involving incest.

On January 28, the Taroudant Court of First Instance sentenced Boujemaa Bodhim, a teacher, to a six-month prison sentence, a four-month suspended sentence, and a fine for beating an eight-year-old student.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18, but parents, with the informed consent of the minor, may secure a waiver from a judge for underage marriage. According to a statement released by the Prosecutor General’s Office in July, the judiciary in 2019 approved 2,334 requests. Under the framework of the PANDDH, the CNDH maintained a national awareness-raising campaign against the marriage of minors.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 18. The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Penalties for sexual exploitation of children under the criminal code range from two years’ to life imprisonment and fines from 9,550 s ($1,000) to 344,000 s ($36,100).

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

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The constitution recognizes the Jewish community as part of the country’s population and guarantees each individual the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” Community leaders estimated the size of the Jewish population at 3,500. Overall there appeared to be little overt anti-Semitism, and Jews generally lived in safety.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care. The law also provides for regulations and building codes that provide for access for persons with disabilities. The government did not effectively enforce or implement these laws and regulations. While building codes enacted in 2003 require accessibility for all persons, the codes exempt most pre-2003 structures, and authorities rarely enforced them for new construction. Most public transportation is inaccessible to persons with disabilities, although the national rail system offers wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, and special seating areas. Government policy provides that persons with disabilities should have equal access to information and communications. Special communication devices for persons with visual or audio disabilities were not widely available.

In March disability rights groups reported the government’s COVID-19 hotline was not accessible to persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Family, Solidarity, Equality, and Social Development has responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and attempted to integrate persons with disabilities into society by implementing a quota of 7 percent for persons with disabilities in vocational training in the public sector and 5 percent in the private sector. Both sectors were far from achieving the quotas. The government maintained more than 400 integrated classes for children with learning disabilities, but private charities and civil society organizations were primarily responsible for integration.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The majority of the population, including the royal family, claimed some Amazigh heritage. Many of the poorest regions in the country, particularly the rural Middle Atlas region, were predominantly Amazigh and had illiteracy rates higher than the national average. Basic governmental services in this mountainous and underdeveloped region were lacking.

On August 2, parliament approved an education bill that encourages instruction in Tifinagh and foreign languages in schools. Article 5 of the constitution identifies Arabic and Tamazight as the official languages of the state, although Arabic remained dominant. Tamazight is one of three national Amazigh dialects.

On September 3, the Council of Ministers established a commission tasked with monitoring the implementation of Tifinagh, the alphabet used in Tamazight language.

Amazigh cultural groups contended they were rapidly losing their traditions and language to Arabization. The government offered Tamazigh language classes in some schools. Although the palace-funded Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture created a university-level teacher-training program to address the shortage of qualified teachers, Amazigh NGOs contended that the number of qualified teachers of regional dialects of Amazigh languages continued to decrease. The government reported, however, that the number of teachers employed to teach the official national Amazigh language has increased. Instruction in the Amazigh language is mandatory for students at the Ministry of Interior’s School for Administrators.

In March authorities in Casablanca refused to register the birth of a girl under an Amazigh name. The incident confirmed complaints of Amazigh NGOs about administrative discrimination. Two cases were filed regarding the incidents by two separate families, and an open letter was written to the head of government. According to the government, as of March 18, the registration for the Amazigh name for one of the two girls named in the two cases fully complied with the law, while it denied claims of a second case.

Amazigh materials were available in news media and, to a much lesser extent, educational institutions. The government provided television programs in the three national Amazigh dialects of Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight. According to regulations, public media are required to dedicate 30 percent of broadcast time to Amazigh language and cultural programming. According to Amazigh organizations, however, only 5 percent of broadcast time was given to Amazigh language and culture.

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, with a maximum sentence of three years in prison for violations. According to a report by the Prosecutor General’s Office released in 2019, the state prosecuted 122 individuals in 2019 for same-sex sexual activity. Media and the public addressed questions of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity more openly than in previous years. According to some human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) victims of violence in high-profile cases from previous years continued to be harassed when recognized in public.

On May 7, two Moroccan journalists based in France posted on social media that a young gay man in Sidi Kacem (a town in the Rabat-Sale-Kenitra region), was arrested on April 10 after he attempted to press defamation charges against an individual who outed him on Facebook. The young man was held in police custody for 48 hours for violating the state of emergency confinement measures, while he claimed he had a permit to leave his residence. On October 6, Sidi Kacem preliminary court sentenced activist and playwright Abdellatif Nhaila to four months’ suspended sentence and 1,000 dirhams ($10) fine for violating the state of emergency confinement measures.

In March and April, a transgender Moroccan LGBTI activist based in Turkey started a campaign encouraging the outing of closeted homosexuals in Morocco. As a result an international warrant for his arrest was issued. The investigation remained underway. The press reported numerous cases of harassment resulting from these outings, and some victims reported receiving death threats.

The AMDH and other individual liberties groups followed suit with a letter condemning the homophobic acts and demanding that authorities arrest those responsible for defamation. As of April 20, LGBTI groups indicated at least 50 individuals were targeted as a result of Instagram live video; of whom an estimated 21 were physically abused or rendered homeless and several others committed suicide.

Antidiscrimination laws do not apply to LGBTI persons, and the penal code does not criminalize hate crimes. There was a stigma against LGBTI persons, including some reports of overt discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and health care.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons with HIV and AIDS faced discrimination and had limited treatment options. The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported that some health-care providers were reluctant to treat persons with HIV and AIDS due to fear of infection. According to UNAIDS, treatment coverage increased from 16 percent in 2010 to 48 percent in 2016, and the National Strategic Plan 2017-2021 commits the country to reduce new infections among key and vulnerable populations, eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV, reduce AIDS-related deaths, confront discrimination, and strengthen governance for an efficient response.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides workers with the rights to form and join unions, strike, and bargain collectively, with some restrictions.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and prohibits companies from dismissing workers for participating in legitimate union-organizing activities. Courts have the authority to reinstate workers dismissed arbitrarily and may enforce rulings that compel employers to pay damages and back pay. Trade unions complained that the government at times used the penal code to prosecute workers for striking and to suppress strikes.

The law prohibits certain categories of government employees, including members of the armed forces, police, and some members of the judiciary, from forming and joining unions and from conducting strikes. The law excludes migrant workers from assuming leadership positions in unions.

The government generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Employers limited the scope of collective bargaining, frequently setting wages unilaterally for most unionized and nonunionized workers. The law allows independent unions to exist but requires 35 percent of the employee base to be associated with a union to permit the union to be represented and engage in collective bargaining. Domestic NGOs reported that employers used temporary contracts to discourage employees from affiliating with or organizing unions. Unions can legally negotiate with the government on national-level labor issues. At the sectoral level, trade unions negotiated with private employers concerning minimum wage, compensation, and other concerns. Labor disputes were common and, in some cases, resulted from employers failing to implement collective bargaining agreements and withholding wages.

The law concerning strikes requires compulsory arbitration of disputes, prohibits sit-ins, and calls for a 10-day notice of a strike. The government may intervene in strikes. A strike may not occur over matters covered in a collective contract for one year after the contract commences. The government has the authority to disperse strikers in public areas not authorized for demonstrations and to prevent the unauthorized occupancy of private space. Unions may neither engage in sabotage nor prevent those individuals who were not on strike from working.

The government did not adequately enforce labor laws, particularly inspections. Inspectors reported that their role as mediators of labor conflicts significantly limited the amount of time they can spend proactively inspecting worksites, and remediating and uncovering violations. Inspectors do not have punitive power and cannot independently levy fines or other punishments. Only action by the public prosecutor that results in a judicial decree, can force an employer to take remedial actions. Penalties were considered insufficient to deter offenses. Enforcement procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Most union federations affiliated with political parties, but unions were generally free from government interference.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and prescribes penalties of a fine for the first offense and a jail term of up to three months for subsequent offenses; these penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for analogous crimes such as kidnapping.

The domestic workers law provides protections to domestic workers, including limits on working hours and a minimum wage. Penalties for violating the law start with a fine and, in cases of repeated offenses, can include one to three months’ imprisonment.

Labor inspectors did not inspect small workshops with fewer than five employees and private homes where many such violations occurred, as the law requires a warrant or permission of the owner to search a private residence. The law establishes a conciliation process for labor inspectors to handle disputes between domestic workers and their employers, but the law lacks time limits for a resolution. Labor inspectors reported their small numbers, scarce resources at their disposal, and the broad geographic dispersion of sites limited their ability to enforce the law effectively.

Reports indicated that forced labor, especially of children, occurred (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law establishes a minimum age for employment and the government enforced the law. A law passed in 2016 that became effective in 2018 prohibits children younger than age 16 from working as domestic servants and strictly limiting the work of children younger than 18. The overwhelming majority of child laborers worked in rural areas, according to the government’s statistical agency, the High Planning Commission. Punishments for violations of the child labor laws include criminal penalties, civil fines, and withdrawal or suspension of one or more civil, national, or family rights, including denial of legal residence in the country for five to 10 years. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Integration continued to conduct child labor inspections in the formal economy across the country, but the government reported it remained concerned about child labor violations in the informal sector, including potential forced child labor crimes. The government reported that, overall, labor inspections suffered from insufficient personnel and resources to address child labor violations, including potential child trafficking crimes, throughout the country. Furthermore, there was no national focal point to submit complaints about child labor or forced child labor and no national mechanism for referring children found during inspections to appropriate social services.

The labor code does not apply to children who work in the traditional artisan or handicraft sectors for businesses with fewer than five employees or to those who work on private farms or in residences. Some children became apprentices before they were 12, particularly in small, family-run workshops in the handicraft industry and in the construction industry and mechanic shops. Children also worked in hazardous occupations as designated by law (see section 7.e.). These included fishing and, in the informal sector, in textiles, light manufacturing, and traditional handicrafts. Children’s safety, health conditions, and wages were often substandard.

The government adopted Law 51.17, which requires the government to enact compulsory education for children between the ages of four and 16 by 2025, and significantly increased the number of prosecutions related to the worst forms of child labor, from five cases in 2018 to 170 cases in 2019. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 16 in dangerous labor; however, it does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law does not specifically prohibit the use, procuring, or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs. In some cases employers subjected children to the worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children); forced domestic work; and forced labor in the production of artisan products and construction.

Children in Western Sahara engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including agriculture and forced domestic work; they also produced artisanal handicrafts. Laws related to the minimum age for work and the use of children for illicit activities do not meet international standards and government programs that target child labor did not fully address the problem.

The Moroccan government continued to invest in education in Western Sahara through the Tayssir cash assistance program and continued to provide child protection services through the second phase of the National Initiative for Human Development Support Project. Residents of Western Sahara received more assistance per capita from this program than persons living in internationally recognized Morocco.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor code prohibits discrimination against persons in employment and occupation based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, or disability, including physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disability. The law does not address age or pregnancy.

Discrimination occurred in all categories prohibited by law, Women are prohibited from working in occupations that present a risk of excessive danger, exceeds their capacity or is likely to undermine their morality, such as jobs in quarries and underground in mines, or engaging in work that exposes them to the risk of falling or slipping as well as work in a constant squatting or leaning position, work or activities using asbestos and benzene and any other activity exposing them to dangerous chemical agents.

Migrant worker organizations reported that some migrants, particularly those from sub-Saharan African countries, experienced discrimination in hiring, wages, or conditions of employment. These workers often reported employer noncompliance with low or unpaid wages, excessive hours of work, restricted movement, dangerous and difficult work conditions. Even after obtaining a residence card, their vulnerability was reinforced by lack of access to the formal economy, pushing them to the margins of society. Most lived in crowded rooms in dilapidated neighborhoods, while others slept on the streets, in cemeteries, and forests.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage was above the poverty line. The law provides for a 44- to 48-hour maximum workweek with no more than 10 hours work in a single day, premium pay for overtime, paid public and annual holidays, and minimum conditions for health and safety, including limitations on night work for women and minors. The law prohibits excessive overtime. An April 2019 tripartite agreement between the government, employers, and unions stipulated a 10 percent minimum wage increase per month phased into two 5 percent increases. The first occurred in 2019, and the second was planned for July. In a July 27 press release, the General Confederation of Enterprises of Morocco called on companies “in difficulty” to postpone the wage increase to preserve jobs and avoid layoffs and suggested only companies in sectors not affected by the COVID-19 crisis should implement the second 5 percent wage increase.

Occupational health and safety standards, reviewed and enforced by the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Integration, are rudimentary, except for a prohibition on the employment of women and children in certain dangerous occupations. The law prohibits persons younger than age 18 from hazardous work in 33 areas, including working in mines, handling dangerous materials, transporting explosives, and operating heavy machinery.

Many employers did not observe the legal provisions regulating conditions of work. The government did not effectively enforce basic provisions of the labor code, such as payment of the minimum wage and other basic benefits under the National Social Security Fund. The country’s labor inspectors reported that although they attempted to monitor working conditions and investigate accidents, they lacked adequate resources, preventing effective enforcement of labor laws.

There were no major workplace accidents during the year. There were, however, numerous media reports of accidents, sometimes fatal, on construction sites that lacked inadequate safety standards or safety equipment. In the formal sector, workers can remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in such situations.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Morocco
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.​


Montenegro is a mixed parliamentary and presidential republic with a multiparty political system. Voters choose both the president and the unicameral parliament through popular elections. The president nominates, and the parliament approves, the prime minister. An observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated that the August 30 parliamentary elections were overall transparent and efficient, but highlighted that the ruling party gained an undue advantage through misuse of office and state resources and dominant media coverage, which undermined the quality of information available to voters. Milo Djukanovic, president of the Democratic Party of Socialists was elected president in 2018 with nearly 54 percent of the vote in the first round for his second term as president. He had already served six terms as prime minister. Observers from ODIHR, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly noted the election proceeded in an orderly manner but had minor irregularities that did not affect the outcome. Despite opposition protests, elections were generally considered free and fair.

The National Police Force, which includes Border Police, is responsible for maintaining internal security. They are organized under the Police Administration, which is independent from the Ministry of Interior and report to the police director and, through him, to the prime minister. The Armed Forces of Montenegro are responsible for external security and consist of an army, navy, and air force that are overseen by the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by the government; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous people; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.

Impunity remained a problem, and the government did little to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

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

Oversight over police is provided by the parliament, a civil control council, and an internal control unit within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Parliamentary oversight in the area of security and defense is conducted through the Committee for Defense and Security, which conducts hearings and audits the activities and budget of entities responsible for security and defense, including police, as well as deliberating draft laws and amendments touching on the security sector. The Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations assesses the use of police powers regarding the protection of human rights and freedoms and provides reviews and recommendations to the minister of interior for action. A Ministry of Interior unit conducts assessments of the legality of police work, particularly in terms of respecting and protecting human rights when executing police tasks and exercising police powers. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms (Ombudsman’s Office) also has oversight authority over police. It can investigate claims submitted either by the public or on its own initiative for suspected violations of human rights or other illegalities in the actions of police.

b. Disappearance

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

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports alleging that police tortured suspects and that beatings occurred in prisons and detention centers across the country. The government prosecuted some police officers and prison guards accused of overstepping their authority, but there were delays in the court proceedings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that several police officers found to be responsible for violating the rules of their service, including cases of excessive use of force, remained on duty.

On July 14, the NGO Human Rights Action (HRA) issued a public call for authorities to investigate “urgently, thoroughly, and impartially” allegations that police tortured three individuals suspected of being connected with the 2015 bomb attacks on the Grand Cafe and the house of former National Security Agency officer and current police officer Dusko Golubovic in late May and early June. All three individuals submitted separate reports to the Basic State Prosecution Office in Podgorica containing identical allegations of police torture by application of electroshock devices to their genitals and thighs, brutal beatings using boxing gloves and baseball bats, and other cruel methods, such as threatening to kill them and playing loud music to drown out their screams during the interrogation to extract their confessions.

The three individuals were Jovan Grujicic, the main suspect in the bombings; Benjamin Mugosa, who was initially accused of participation in the attacks, although the charges were subsequently dropped when it was revealed that he was in prison at the time of the bombings; and MB, an alleged witness who was said to have testified that Mugosa and Grujicic executed the attacks before the charges were dropped against Mugosa. The HRA claimed that the accusations of torture were not based solely on the descriptions provided by the three individuals but also on photographs of MB’s injuries, which were published by the media outlets Vijesti and Dan.

The European Commission and several foreign governments quickly issued statements urging the authorities to carry out, without delay, a comprehensive, transparent, and effective investigation into the torture allegations in accordance with international and European standards. Media outlets and NGOs also cited the findings from a 2017 visit by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which noted allegations of police mistreatment, including “punches, slaps, kicks, baton blows, and strikes with nonstandard objects, and the infliction of electrical shocks from hand-held electrical discharge devices.” Most abuses were alleged to have occurred either at the time of apprehension or during the preinvestigation phase of detention for the purpose of extracting confessions.

While the Basic State Prosecutor’s Office stated that police acted in accordance with the law, an investigation is ongoing. The HRA questioned why prosecutors ordered forensic medical examination of bodily injuries immediately upon a receipt of the reports of the two persons claiming torture but did not order a similar timely investigation upon receipt of the report from Grujicic. The HRA released a public letter to Supreme State Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic, asking him to check whether and when a forensic medical examination of Grujicic was ordered and to request that Grujicic be allowed to continue receiving psychiatric treatment and medicine that had been suspended as a result of his arrest.

The HRA did not receive any response to its requests to prosecutors for updates on the case on behalf of Grujicic’s family. In August the HRA submitted a request for the UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, to investigate the allegations of torture and had not received a response by year’s end. The Ombudsman’s Office’s investigation into the allegations was ongoing at year’s end. In early November the Basic Court in Podgorica issued a verdict acquitting Grujicic of the charges of bombing the Grand Cafe and Golubovic’s house.

Impunity remained a problem in the security forces, particularly among the police and prison officers. Domestic NGOs cited corruption; lack of transparency; a lack of capacity by oversight bodies to conduct investigations into allegations of excessive force and misuse of authority in an objective and timely manner; and the ruling political parties’ influence over prosecutors and officials within the Police Administration and the Ministry of Interior as factors contributing to impunity. Despite the existence of multiple, independent oversight bodies over police within the Ministry of Interior, parliament, and civil society, NGOs and the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations noted a pervasive unwillingness of police officers to admit violations of human rights or misuse of authority committed by themselves or their colleagues. To increase respect for human rights by the security forces, authorities offered numerous training sessions on this subject, often in conjunction with international partners, as well as working group meetings dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.

According to domestic NGOs, authorities made little progress in addressing the problem of police mistreatment and other shortcomings in the Internal Control Department of the Ministry of the Interior. They cited a lack of strict competitive recruitment criteria and training for police officers; the absence of effective oversight by the Internal Control Department; and the need for prosecutors to conduct more thorough and expeditious investigations into cases of alleged mistreatment by police officers as areas where there were continuing problems. The NGOs also noted there was an ongoing need for prosecutors to carry out timely investigations.

In September the HRA condemned the decision of the High Court in Podgorica to grant suspended sentences to 10 prison officers convicted of torturing and inflicting grievous bodily harm on 11 prison inmates in 2015. The court justified the suspended sentences on the grounds of the lack of prior convictions of the offenders, family circumstances, socioeconomic status (e.g., lack of property ownership), and the fact that the victims did not join the criminal prosecution. The HRA expressed frustration that none of the guards lost their jobs with the Ministry of Justice’s Bureau for the Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions, contrary to the Labor Law and international standards, and noted that the responsibility of the officers’ supervisors, whose presence in the prison at the time of the incident was captured in video, was never seriously investigated. According to the HRA, the suspended sentences promoted impunity for human rights offenses and encouraged the continued use of torture in prisons and by police. The decision also was at odds with international standards established by the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were some reports regarding prison and detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were some poor conditions in prisons and pretrial detention facilities due to overcrowding and access to medical care. In the report issued following its 2017 visit to Montenegro, the CPT noted problematic levels of prison overcrowding, i.e., less than three square meters (32.3 square feet) of space per inmate in multiple-occupancy cells in certain sections and remand prisoners confined to their cells for 23 hours a day without being offered activities for months or even years on end. The CPT noted that material condition in police stations it visited were not suitable for detaining persons for up to 72 hours due to structural deficiencies such as poor access to natural light, inadequate ventilation, poor conditions of hygiene, and irregular provision of food.

NGOs reported that detainees who were addicted to drugs, had mental disabilities, or had other disabilities continued to face difficulties in obtaining adequate treatment while detained. The CPT also noted the level of serious interprisoner violence was a long-standing and persistent problem at the remand prison and the Institute for Sentenced Prisoners. In May there were reports that one prisoner was stabbed by another prisoner. Also during the year, there were reports of cases of violence in the country’s primary prison attributed to the long-standing “war” between the country’s two main organized criminal groups, which prison authorities managed by taking preventive measures, such as providing separate accommodations and preventing mutual contact of persons who are members of opposing criminal groups as well as other operational and tactical measures and actions, such as providing close personal supervision of persons and conducting random periodic searches of their persons and accommodations. There were widespread reports that prison employees cooperated with members of the organized criminal groups, including one in prison. Some such employees were prosecuted by the authorities. During the year the Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sanctions, in cooperation with security sector agencies, conducted two investigations of two directorate officials suspected of cooperating with members of organized criminal groups. In one proceeding, the directorate official was exonerated, while in another procedure an indictment was filed against the directorate official due to a well founded suspicion that he committed the crime.

During a May 13 inspection of the security center in Niksic following the detention of Bishop Joanikije of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Montenegro and eight priests (see section 1.d.), the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations noted poor conditions in the pretrial detention rooms. In addition to lacking water and being equipped with damaged and dirty mattresses, overcrowding was a problem, as there were only seven beds for the nine detainees. In other inspections of the security centers in Podgorica and Niksic, the council noted similar problems with overcrowding and a lack of capacity to provide basic services to detainees.

Podgorica Prison was not fully accessible to persons with disabilities.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment, but they usually did so only in reaction to media campaigns or upon the ombudsman’s recommendation. Results of investigations were generally made available to the public.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits to prisons by independent nongovernmental observers, including human rights groups and media, and international bodies such as the CPT. Even when monitors visited on short notice, prison authorities allowed them to speak with the prisoners without the presence of a guard. The Ministry of Justice’s Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sanctions noted positive working relationships with NGOs, including those who were critical of the organization.

Improvements: Improvements in the physical facilities, staffing levels, and training for guards continued throughout the year. Overcrowding in Podgorica’s temporary detention prison continued to diminish and was expected to improve further upon completion of new facilities. The government also announced that the new prison facility would be constructed in Mojkovac and would be suitable for 250 prisoners. The Bureau for the Execution of Criminal Sanctions provided health services to inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As of August, media outlets reported five cases of COVID-19 among prisoners in the facility at Spuz. It also touted new programs designed to focus on rehabilitation and providing inmates with skills to increase employment prospects upon release, including apprenticeship programs to cultivate farming skills.

In June parliament passed an amnesty law aimed at relieving the problem of overcrowding in the prison system and ensuring the safety of prisoners threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The law provides for a 15 percent reduction in prison sentences and a 10 percent reduction of sentences for those who have not yet begun serving their sentences. The amnesty does not apply to the most serious crimes, including war crimes against civilians, terrorism, human trafficking, rape, money laundering, criminal association, the creation of a criminal organization, abuse of a minor, and domestic violence. The NGO Civic Alliance described the amnesty law as positive and legally sound but noted that the law’s objectives could have been achieved through other mechanisms, such as house arrest, deferred prosecutions, or better application of alternative sanctions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government usually observed these requirements. Detainees have a right to be compensated in cases of unfounded detention and the government generally follows these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Arrests require a judicial ruling or a “reasonable suspicion by the police that the suspect committed an offense.” Police generally made arrests using warrants issued by judges and based on sufficient evidence. Police and prosecutors may detain suspects for up to 72 hours before bringing them before a judge and charging them. Although the law prohibits excessive delay in filing formal charges against suspects and in conducting investigations, delays sometimes occurred. At arraignment, judges make an initial determination about the legality of the detention, and arraignment usually occurred within the prescribed period.

Courts increasingly used bail. Judges can also release defendants without bail and limit their movements, impose reporting requirements on them, or retain their passports or other documents to prevent flight. The law permits a detainee to have an attorney present during police questioning and court proceedings, and detainees generally had prompt access to a lawyer. Although legal assistance is required to be available for persons in need, financial constraints sometimes limited the quality and availability of assistance. Authorities must immediately inform the detainee’s family, common-law partner, or responsible social institution of an arrest, and they usually did so.

During June protests, police sometimes used excessive force when detaining protesters. The opposition condemned “police brutality” and asserted the country was moving from “an autocracy to a violent dictatorship.” The Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations requested police leaders to identify and sanction officers shown in social media videos kicking individuals in custody and lying on the ground, adding that “legitimate police interventions must not be compromised by the disproportionate use of force.” The NGO MANS declared that events in Budva and other cities represented flagrant, brutal violence of police against the country’s citizens. It described videos of police officers kicking and beating persons who were restrained and helpless as appalling evidence of the government’s brutal political abuse of captive institutions. Representatives of several foreign governments and the EU called on all sides to avoid escalation and further acts of violence, engage in constructive dialogue, and investigate allegations of disproportionate use of force.

Arbitrary Arrest: Police continued to summon witnesses and suspects to police stations for “informational talks” and often used this practice to curb hooliganism during soccer matches or to reduce participation in opposition political rallies. This practice generally did not involve holding suspects longer than the six hours allowed by law, nor did it typically result in charges.

NGOs and the Ombudsman’s Office noted that authorities engaged in a broad pattern of selective arrests in enforcing the Ministry of Health’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On May 12, Archbishop Joanikije and eight other Serbian Orthodox Church priests were detained for their role in organizing a procession with several thousand worshipers in Niksic in commemoration of a religious feast day, despite the government’s ban on public gatherings. Tensions rose after the clergymen were taken to the Niksic police station to give statements, as several hundred protesters gathered in front of the station and insulted police late into the night, finally dispersing after police threated to use tear gas.

The National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCB) demanded that the Supreme State Prosecutor take immediate and decisive action against the organizers of the procession in Niksic, warning that the illegal gathering could jeopardize all the previous achievements of the fight against COVID-19. In his public address, Acting Supreme State Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic stressed that all those responsible would be held to account, adding that violations of the infectious disease-related regulations could reach as high as 12 years in prison. Despite these statements, no demonstration-related arrests lasted more than two weeks.

The Episcopal Council of the Serbian Orthodox Church requested that authorities release the detained priests, accusing the authorities and police of “politically and ideologically persecuting the Church.” The Episcopal Council also warned and called on all political leaders to restrain from any party or political abuses of the Church. At the same time, pro-Serbian opposition parties joined the Serbian Orthodox Church in separate press releases to condemn the arrests and to urge the authorities to release the detained clergymen immediately. Several civil society political analysts also questioned authorities’ decision to detain the clergymen, noting that detentions should be the last measure taken.

At approximately midnight on May 15, upon the expiration of the maximum 72-hour detention period permitted under the law, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niksic released Archbishop Joanikije and the eight other priests. The head of the Basic Prosecutor’s Office, Stevo Sekaric, stated in a press conference that an indictment proposal had been filed against the priests for violating the government’s COVID-19 preventative measures, for which a fine or up to one-year imprisonment were reportedly prescribed.

The following week, police took no action to detain or arrest anyone participating in large, public Independence Day celebrations on May 21, despite an abundance of video and photographic evidence that people were not respecting the NCB’s ban on public gatherings. Political parties formerly in the opposition accused police and prosecutors of engaging in selective justice and of being extensions of the former ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations asked the director of the Police Administration, Veselin Veljovic, to provide it with detailed information about arrests and prosecutions for violations of the ban on public gatherings.

According to the Serbian Orthodox Church, more than 100 other clergymen across the country were called in for questioning, arrested, or fined for violating the COVID-19 preventative health measures. Among these clergymen was Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral, who was called in for questioning on multiple occasions between April and June. During the June questioning, the 82-year-old metropolitan was held in custody for six hours even though the prosecutor had authorized his release after two hours.

The HRA and the NGO Institute Alternativa highlighted the disparity of responses and called on the government to either harmonize its actions and treat participants of different public assemblies equally or end the ban on public assemblies outright. NGOs highlighted, as examples of selective application of the law, the differing reaction of police to motorcade demonstrations by citizens driving from Tivat to Budva on May 13 in support of the Serbian Orthodox Church and to motorists participating in Independence Day celebrations organized by the government on May 21. In both cases, groups of citizens drove around, honking their horns and randomly flashing their lights to draw attention to their vehicles. According to the NGOs, police called in 25 persons who participated in the May 13 motorcade for interviews and fined 14 for violating traffic safety laws, while police did not question or fine any of the participants in the May 21 motorcades.

Pretrial Detention: Courts frequently ordered the detention of criminal defendants pending trial. The law sets the initial length of pretrial detention at 30 days but permits prosecutors to increase it by five months. When combined with extensions granted by trial judges, authorities could potentially detain a defendant legally for up to three years from arrest through completion of the trial or sentencing. The average detention lasted between 90 and 120 days. The length of pretrial detention was usually shorter than the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. Authorities stated that pretrial detainees on average accounted for 30 percent of the prison population. Police often relied on prolonged pretrial detention as an aid to investigate crimes. The backlog of criminal cases in the courts also contributed to prolonged detention. The courts continued to reduce this backlog gradually.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. While the government expressed support for judicial independence and impartiality, some NGOs, international organizations, and legal experts asserted that political pressure, corruption, and nepotism influenced prosecutors and judges. The process of appointing judges and prosecutors remained somewhat politicized, although the constitution and law provide for a prosecutorial council to select prosecutors and a judicial council to select judges.

In February the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) described as “alarming” the lack of progress on the composition and independence of the Judicial Council, the body charged with upholding the independence and autonomy of courts. GRECO was particularly concerned by the ex officio participation of the minister of justice on the Judicial Council and the council’s decision to reappoint five court presidents for at least a third term, which was not in line with its previous recommendations. While some progress was made in providing the public with information concerning disciplinary proceedings against prosecutors, the anticorruption monitoring body criticized the lack of similar progress in reviewing the disciplinary framework for judges.

Inadequate funding and a lack of organization continued to hamper the effectiveness of the courts. The law provides for plea bargaining, which is available for all crimes except war crimes and those related to terrorism.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial and the judiciary generally enforced that right, although many trials were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By law, defendants are presumed innocent. Authorities are required to inform detainees of the grounds for their detention. Defendants have the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay and to be present at their trial. Courts may close certain sessions during the testimony of government-protected or other sensitive witnesses. Authorities also close juvenile trials. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney in a timely manner in pretrial and trial proceedings. The law requires authorities to provide an attorney at public expense when a defendant is a person with disabilities or is already in detention, destitute, facing a charge carrying a possible sentence of more than 10 years, being tried in absentia, engaged in a plea-bargaining process, or being questioned solely by police or Customs Authority officials during the preliminary investigative phase, upon the approval of a prosecutor. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation from the moment charged through all appeals; and to confront prosecution witnesses, present their own witnesses and evidence, and remain silent. Both the defense and the prosecution have the right of appeal.

While the judiciary was unable to hold all criminal trials publicly due to a shortage of proper facilities. The shortage also affected the timeliness of trials. Systemic weaknesses, such as political influence and prolonged procedures, inconsistent court practices, and relatively lenient sentencing policy, diminished public confidence in the efficiency and impartiality of the judiciary. Lenient sentencing policies also discouraged the use of plea agreements, as they left little maneuvering room for prosecutors to negotiate better terms, thereby contributing to inefficiency in the administration of justice.

Courts may try defendants in absentia but by law must repeat the trial if the convicted individuals are later apprehended.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible allegations that the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country.

In August, Interpol’s Commission for Control of International Arrest Warrants adopted the appeal filed by fugitive businessman Dusko Knezevic and revoked the arrest warrant issued for him in January 2019. The country’s special prosecutor indicted Knezevic for several crimes, including organizing a criminal group, money laundering, and tax evasion. Knezevic, who fled to London, accused President Milo Djukanovic of corruption, claiming the arrest warrant was issued upon pressure from a cadre close to the president and his family who were trying to take over Knezevic’s business and properties. Knezevic had claimed that Interpol’s arrest warrants against him were not in line with the organization’s legal regulations. His legal representative, Zdravko Djukic, told media that revoking the arrest warrant against Knezevic proved that the indictments against him were politically motivated.

Toby Cadman, a London-based lawyer specializing in criminal law, human rights law, and extradition, told local A1 Television that Interpol also revoked its international red notice against British-Israeli political consultant Aron Shaviv, whom he represented. Prosecutors accused Shaviv of assisting an alleged 2016 coup attempt in the country. After hearing arguments from both the defense and the prosecution, Interpol concluded, per Cadman, that the Montenegro-initiated red notice for Shaviv constituted “abuse of process” and was “politically motivated.”

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary in civil matters, and citizens had access to courts to bring lawsuits seeking damages for violations of constitutionally recognized human rights. Although parties brought suits alleging human rights violations and at times prevailed, perceptions that the system was subject to nepotism, corruption, and political influence led to widespread public distrust. According to NGOs, courts in most cases either rejected civil cases involving claims of human rights violations or proceeded on them slowly. When domestic courts issued decisions pertaining to human rights, the government generally complied with them.

Upon exhausting all other available effective legal remedies, citizens may appeal alleged violations of human rights to the Constitutional Court. Many cases filed with the court involved such complaints. The Constitutional Court has the authority to review all alleged constitutional and human rights violations. If it finds a violation, it vacates the lower court’s decision and refers the case to an appropriate court or other authority to rectify the deficiency.

There were also administrative remedies for violations of constitutionally protected human rights. In cases of police abuse, citizens can address complaints to the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations, which may then make recommendations for action to the chief of police or the interior minister. The Ombudsman’s Office noted that even before operational delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the long duration of trials, especially those that were deemed a high priority, eroded citizens’ trust in the court system. This was particularly pronounced in disputes dealing with the establishment or termination of employment or the right to earnings and other wages. The office was also empowered to act in certain individual cases.

Once national remedies are exhausted, individuals, regardless of citizenship, may appeal cases alleging government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights. The government has traditionally complied with all decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place, but NGOs and advocacy groups reported that the government did not make significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens. The pre-World War II Jewish population was estimated to have been only about 30 individuals with no identified synagogue or communal property. There was one possible case of a claim for restitution regarding Holocaust-era properties. A family that has the longest-running property restitution case in the country reported its Jewish heritage in 2019, thus potentially bringing the case under the purview of the Terezin Declaration. Neither the local Jewish community nor the government has thus far confirmed the information, nor has the government taken any further action on the family’s restitution claim.

The country’s restitution law was most recently amended in 2007, and the country has not passed any laws dealing with restitution following the endorsement of the Terezin Declaration in 2009, nor did it make any special provisions for heirless property from the Holocaust era. The passage of a law on the restitution of religious or communal properties would have minimal impact on the Jewish community, given its small size and the absence of identified prewar Jewish communal property. Any such legislation would mainly apply to properties confiscated from the Serbian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches during the communist era. For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

A large number of restitution claims for private and religious properties confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved. Private individuals, NGOs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church criticized the government for delays in addressing this problem. These unresolved claims and concerns that the situation could happen again were some of the justifications used by the Serbian Orthodox Church and some political parties formerly in the opposition for protesting the passage of the Law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities by the government in December 2019. That law stipulates that religious property lacking clear ownership and that falls under the pre-1918 “cultural heritage” of the state may become state property, though the government repeatedly asserted that the purpose of the property provisions was not to confiscate property held by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions without court approval or legal necessity and prohibit police from searching a residence or conducting undercover or monitoring operations without a warrant. The law requires the National Security Agency and police to obtain court authorization for wiretaps. Similarly, a 2018 Constitutional Court decision proclaimed that some provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code regarding secret surveillance measures were unconstitutional. Prosecutors can no longer independently decide on application of those measures; instead, all requests must now be approved by a court. That decision was the result of a case in which a state prosecutor, with prior information from and the consent of one of the participants, ordered the recording of a telephone conversation without first obtaining judicial authorization.

There were no official reports the government failed to respect these requirements for conducting physical and property searches. Human rights activists, such as the NGOs MANS and Institute Alternativa, continued to claim, however, that authorities engaged in illegal wiretapping and surveillance.

External judicial and parliamentary oversight bodies, including the opposition-controlled inspector general, did not report any violations of the law. However, in early February the IN4S news portal published a leaked recording of an alleged telephone call between assistant director of police Administration and the chief of sector for the fight against organized crime and corruption, Zoran Lazovic, and senior police officer Dusko Golubovic in which one of the speakers said Serbian Orthodox Church believers rallying over Christmas would “get their asses kicked if they make trouble during the church gathering.” According to local media, the Basic State Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica opened an investigation into the case the Electronic Communications and Postal Services Agency was collecting information about the leaked recording. In addition, in an effort to discourage those under mandatory self-isolation from leaving their homes, the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCB) on March 21 published the names and address of individuals who were required by authorities to stay home since March 18. Shortly afterward, the NGO Civic Alliance filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court. Civic Alliance claimed that the government’s decision to publicize the names, surnames, and addresses of the persons put in isolation was illegal and infringed upon citizens’ right to privacy. The government said it had received the consent of the Agency for Data Protection to publish the list, as COVID-19 endangered the survival and the functioning of the state. A number of prominent legal professionals supported the government’s position, including law professor and former judge of the European Court of Human Rights Nebojsa Vucinic who countered that the right to privacy may be restricted when required by the general public interest. On April 3, a list with the names and identification numbers of persons who had tested positive for COVID-19 was published after being leaked by an official at the Podgorica Health Center. On April 8, the Prosecutor’s Office announced it had arrested the person responsible for the unauthorized collection and use of personal information, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the suspect sent the list of names to colleagues who were not authorized to have access via Viber.

NGOs focusing on women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues were particularly concerned with the government’s publication of this medical information due to fears that it would identify members of vulnerable populations and expose them to potential discrimination or other adverse treatment. According to the NGO SOS Hotline Niksic, the NCB measures could result in the publication of the names and addresses of women and children residing in safe houses and shelter, violating the anonymity they needed to protect them from reprisals or other harmful actions from abusers. Similarly, the NGO LGBT Forum Progress reported the NCB required they provide the names and addresses of LGBTI persons who received food assistance in order to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns to the Municipality of Podgorica and the Red Cross before the NCB would consent to continue providing food services. While the NCB stated the purpose of this requirement was to collect additional contact tracing data, the NGO expressed concerns about privacy and how the government might store and use the information in the future.

In July the Constitutional Court overturned the NCB’s decision to publish the names of individuals in self-isolation to curb the spread of the virus. It found the decision unconstitutional as it violated citizens’ right to privacy and for their personal data to be protected. The court expressed concern that the publication of personal data on persons in self-isolation created a precondition for their stigmatization by the broader community and that their data could be used by an unlimited number of citizens. Of even greater concern to the court, the publication of personal data could also deter those who needed medical help from seeking such help, which would have the contrary effect of endangering their health and increasing the risk the coronavirus could spread to other persons.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. However, unsolved attacks against journalists, political interference with the public broadcaster, smear campaigns carried out by progovernment tabloids, and unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies against independent and pro-opposition media remained a significant problem.

Freedom of Speech: Amid the subsequent tensions and protest walks (litije) of Serbian Orthodox Church followers following the adoption of the contentious Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities (religious freedom law) authorities arrested, detained, and fined a number of journalists, political activists, and private citizens for posting disinformation, “fake news,” or insulting comments against government officials on social media.

On January 5, police detained journalist Andjela Djikanovic from the online portal FOS Media and charged her with causing panic and disorder after publishing a false report claiming that 250 members of Kosovo’s ROSU Special Forces Unit would be deployed in Montenegro (under the command of Montenegrin authorities) to help provide security during the Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6. The government denied the veracity of the report and called on prosecutors to react promptly. Both national and international organizations called for Djikanovic’s release; she was held in detention overnight and released January 6. The case was pending as of mid-November.

One week later, on January 12, police detained the editors in chief of the Montenegro-based pro-Serbian and pro-Russian online portals IN4S and Borba, Gojko Raicevic and Drazen Zivkovic, and charged them with causing panic and disorder by falsely reporting that an explosion took place at a government building in Podgorica used to hold ceremonial events. After questioning in the basic prosecutor’s office, Raicevic and Zivkovic were released from detention on January 13. Their cases were pending as of mid-November.

The European Commission and Reporters without Borders expressed concern over the arrests of journalists for spreading disinformation. Journalist associations, NGOs, and opposition political parties accused the authorities of introducing a dangerous precedent that could easily lead to a practice of censoring media by arbitrarily deciding what constitutes “fake news.” The Ombudsman’s Office warned that detaining journalists must be a measure of last resort, and that, if detention is used, it must be done in only extremely justified situations and in line with international practices. Other government officials contended the arrests were necessary to counteract internal and external actors attempting to destabilize the state.

On February 10, the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) decided to ban temporarily for three months the rebroadcasting of segments of certain programs of Serbia-based television stations Happy and Pink M for “promoting hatred, intolerance, and discrimination towards the members of the Montenegrin ethnicity.” The AEM’s managing council found that TV Happy’s Good Morning Serbia, Cyrillic, and After Lunch programs as well as TV Pink M’s New Morning program were used as vehicles for an “unprecedented hate speech campaign” by Serbian media against Montenegro over the Montenegrin religious freedom law.

The Atlantic Council of Montenegro’s Digital Forensic Center warned on January 28 that “a well coordinated and planned disinformation campaign aimed at spreading confusion and havoc” was occurring following the passage of the religious freedom law. Similarly, on February 20, the European External Action Service noted that most of the false news in the country was originating from media based in Serbia, including state-owned outlets, as well as the Serbian-language publications of Russia-owned Sputnik and several pro-Serb portals in the country.

On January 23, the Misdemeanor Court of Niksic fined Milija Goranovic 500 euros ($600) for posting an allegedly insulting comment on Facebook about the national police chief. According to reports, Goranovic posted a comment below a statement of the police director on Facebook telling the police chief “not to talk rubbish.” Police arrested Goranovic and brought him to the prosecutor, who charged him with violating the Law on Public Peace and Order. The law prescribes a fine ranging from 250 to 1,000 euros ($300 to $1,200) for “anyone who severely insults another person in the public place or otherwise behaves in an impudent, shameless, or abusive manner.”

On January 28, police detained Vesko Pejak, the coordinator of the small political party Alternativa Crna Gora, on suspicion of causing panic and disorder by commenting via Facebook that the ruling party and the president intended to drag the country into war. Pejak was released from detention the following day. The Montenegrin Center for Investigative Journalism called Pejak’s detention a violation of his rights. The HRA also described the authorities’ actions as a “coordinated suppression of the freedom of expression,” contrary to international standards. The HRA also announced that it had challenged the constitutionality of Article 398 of the criminal code, which was the basis for the controversial detentions and fines. That article allows up to a three-year prison term for persons who disclose or spread false news or allegations via the media that cause panic or seriously disrupts public peace and order. According to the HRA, the law was improperly being used by the government as a substitute for the criminal offense of defamation and insult, which was abolished in 2011.

At the beginning of May, Velimir Cabarkapa, a 29-year-old man employed by the public waterworks company in the city of Pljevlja, was arrested and detained for 72 hours for publishing a satirical version of the national anthem on Facebook. Cabarkapa made several allusions to drug trafficking, including substituting the lyrics, “We are sons of your cocaine and keepers of your heroin” for the original lyrics, “We are sons of your rocks and keepers of your honesty.” The parody followed the seizure by German police of 500 kilograms of cocaine in Hamburg on a vessel of the government-owned Barska Plovidba shipping firm a few days earlier. Prosecutors in Pljevlja charged Cabarkapa with violating the law that prohibits public mockery of the state, its flag, coat of arms, or national anthem and allows for a penalty of up to one year in prison. The law also prohibits changing the national anthem and performing it in a manner that impugns the state’s reputation and dignity and provides that violators may be fined up to 20,000 euros ($24,000). Several NGOs and journalists from the media outlets Dan and Vijesti shared the offending posts on social media, protesting the arrest and claiming that it impermissibly restricted freedom of opinion and expression provided by the constitution. In July, Cabarkapa was sentenced to two months in prison for defamation of the state and its symbols. The judgment was under appeal at year’s end.

Over the first eight months of the year, media outlets reported that police and prosecutors sanctioned at least a dozen persons on suspicion of causing panic or disrupting public peace and order through posts online. Separately, police and prosecutors temporarily detained several individuals in March and April on suspicion of causing panic by posting false information inflating the numbers of persons said to be infected with or died from COVID-19 and accusing authorities of hiding real data.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.

The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to attribute its difficulties making regular tax payments to unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution. It complained of large government subsidies to the national public broadcaster, favoritism towards progovernment media when distributing public funds through advertising and project tenders, and a favorable disposition towards foreign-based media compared with local outlets. On November 19, the Commercial Court rejected for the second time the 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijestis parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M television for Pink M allegedly violating legal provisions on loyal competition by defaming and discrediting Vijesti in a series of reports in 2013-14. Vijesti announced it would appeal the Commercial Court’s decision to the Appellate Court, which in 2018 annulled the same Commercial Court’s ruling and returned the case for a retrial. Vijesti also alleged that the judiciary selectively applied defamation laws when independent media are involved.

Violence and Harassment: Unsolved attacks from previous years and an atmosphere of intimidation against media critical of the government continued to be a serious problem.

There was no progress in solving the 2018 shooting of Vijesti investigative reporter Olivera Lakic in front of her home in Podgorica. In February 2019, police announced that they had solved the case, identifying a criminal ringleader and eight members of his gang, which had also been accused of other serious criminal offenses. While initially police qualified the attack on Lakic as attempted murder, when the police announcement was made, the offense was reduced to criminal association with the goal of inflicting severe injuries. Only one of the nine individuals was imprisoned for other crimes. Formal charges in the Lakic case have still not been brought.

On April 8, police reported they had solved a nine-year-old case and arrested two persons suspected of setting fire to five Vijesti vehicles in three separate attacks in 2011 and 2014. A prosecutor from the Basic Prosecution Office in Podgorica pressed charges against a local criminal who had allegedly hired the two perpetrators to destroy the newspaper’s vehicles. On June 10, the Basic Court in Podgorica dropped charges against the alleged mastermind of the attacks because prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to corroborate the charges.

In October 2019, the High Court of Bijelo Polje fined Nova M, the company that acquired Pink M in 2018, for defaming Vijestis owners, Zeljko Ivanovic and Miodrag Perovic. Ivanovic and Perovic sued Pink M for its misleading reporting connecting them to a former Vijesti journalist suspected of collecting and distributing child pornography. Separately, 20 journalists from Vijesti individually sued Pink M for similarly attacking their reputations by misleadingly linking them to the accused. On January 28, the court ordered Nova M to pay a fine to one of the Vijesti journalists. An additional 19 cases were adjudicated in favor of the journalists but were still before either the basic or high courts. Vijesti criticized state institutions for alleged inefficiency in preventing progovernment tabloids from smearing independent media.

In December 2019 journalist Vladimir Otasevic, who worked for the independent daily newspaper Dan, was assaulted photographing controversial businessman Zoran Becirovic in the company of High State Prosecutor Milos Soskic in a shopping mall in Podgorica. Becirovic had previously been questioned by the State Special Prosecutor’s Office over alleged witness intimidation. According to media reports, Becirovic’s bodyguard, Mladen Mijatovic, grabbed Otasevic by the neck, hit him with his shoulder, and verbally threatened him. The assault reportedly occurred in the presence of Soskic, who according to media reports “remained silent” and did nothing to stop the incident. The incident received additional attention as Mijatovic was employed by the Ministry of Interior and did not have permission to work as a private bodyguard. The Ombudsman’s Office, media outlets, NGOs, and opposition political parties condemned the attack and urged authorities to investigate the role of the state prosecutor and the Interior Ministry’s employee in the incident. The Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica refused a request for Mijatovic to be criminally processed and launched a misdemeanor procedure against Mijatovic on January 30, which was pending at year’s end.

Media outlets reported that more than two-thirds of the 85 attacks on journalists since 2004 remained unsolved or did not result in sentences. Observers also noted that most of the attacks targeted independent or pro-opposition journalists and media professionals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”

On July 10, the Basic Court of Niksic confirmed in a retrial its previous ruling, that parliament dismissed RTCG council member Nikola Vukcevic illegally, and ordered the state or parliament to pay court expenses to Vukcevic. In late 2017, parliament dismissed Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic from the RTCG council allegedly over conflicts of interest. The case has gone through several court appeals since 2017, with the Supreme Court issuing a nonbinding advisory opinion in 2019 declaring that courts lacked the authority to adjudicate cases challenging the right of parliament to dismiss disobedient independent individuals and could not force reappointments as specific performance. While the Niksic Basic Court’s ruling was not yet final, legal analysts did not believe either Vukcevic or Djurovic would be reinstated to their positions, as those positions were filled by other individuals. Instead, they may only be entitled to compensation in civil proceedings for the damage they suffered. NGOs and opposition politicians asserted that the dismissals, which were followed by the replacement of the RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija, and the director of the broadcaster’s television section ,Vladan Micunovic, were part of a coordinated campaign by former ruling party DPS to regain control of the RTCG.

In its October country report on the country, the European Commission (EC) noted that Montenegro made no progress on freedom of expression during the reporting period. The report highlighted the arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens for content they posted or shared online, the unresolved attacks on journalists, and the issue of the national public broadcaster RTCG’s editorial independence and professional standards as points of concern. The report also stated, “The growing volume of regionwide disinformation further polarized the society in the aftermath of the adoption of the law on freedom of religion and during the electoral campaign.”

In the Freedom House Nations in Transit report released on May 6, the country was downgraded from a semiconsolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime. Freedom House noted that the overall media environment remained fractious and the development and sustainability of professional commercial media remained uncertain.

Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. A lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed to self-censorship and biased coverage of events.

Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings. The government increasingly employed existing insult laws throughout the year against persons posting comments critical of the state or state officials on social media (see Freedom of Speech).

In a new trial on April 23, the Supreme Court repeated its 2015 decision to fine the independent weekly newspaper Monitor for defaming President Milo Djukanovic’s sister, Ana Kolarevic. Kolarevic sued the weekly for its 2012 reports on her alleged role in the controversial privatization of the national telecommunication company, Telekom Crna Gora. The case was returned to the Supreme Court for retrial after the Constitutional Court in July 2019 overturned the 2015 Supreme Court decision for violating Monitors constitutional right to freedom of expression.

On October 8, the High Court of Podgorica found investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic guilty in a retrial and sentenced him to one year in prison for drug trafficking, according to news reports. The court acquitted him of charges of criminal organization. Martinovic, an investigative freelance journalist who covered organized crime, spent 14 months in pretrial detention from 2015 to 2017 and therefore will not serve additional time according to the same reports. In 2019 the High Court sentenced Martinovic to 18 months in prison for being part of an international drug smuggling network, but an appellate court overturned the verdict in September and sent the case back for retrial. Martinovic claimed his contact with convicted criminals was solely in the context of his work reporting on organized crime. Martinovic stated he would appeal the decision, calling the decision a “political decision of the court.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called the ruling a “missed opportunity to bring justice” to Martinovic and stated “the ruling sends a wrong message to journalists…and will have a chilling effect on the country’s media.”

Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for Media: On July 27, parliament adopted two new media laws, a general law on media and a law on the RTCG.

The law on media introduced a number of new measures, including providing for the establishment of a fund to support media pluralism and diversity by providing financial assistance to commercial media; providing for greater transparency in media ownership by requiring outlets to make public information about shareholders who own more than 5 percent of a media company; requiring ministries and other public institutions to report the funds they have provided to media through both advertising and other means; and establishing a regulatory system for online media. Civil society and independent media criticized some of the law’s provisions, particularly one that obliges journalists to disclose their sources if a prosecutor deems it necessary to protect national security, territorial integrity, or public health. The NGO Center for Investigative Journalism stated that the restrictions imposed on journalists could damage investigative journalism and discourage potential journalistic sources from speaking to the media.

The new law on the RTCG introduced, inter alia, measures to increase the RTCG’s transparency, including requiring the managing council to inform the public in a more regular and comprehensive manner about its activities. The law also establishes an ombudsman position in the RTCG to make it more responsive to citizens’ complaints and demands; issues defined criteria for the selection of RTCG managing council members to prevent the selection of party officials; and abolishes a requirement that the RTCG conclude an agreement with the government as a precondition for receiving public funds, which was perceived as a way the government could influence the RTCG’s independence. The NGO Media Center claimed that, despite the government’s declared intention to decrease political influence over the public broadcaster, the way the law defines the parliament’s role in the appointment and dismissal process of the RTCG managing council, including allowing members of parliament to vote on the NGO-proposed candidates, shows that it wanted to retain control over the RTCG.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association and the government generally respected this right.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were credible reports that the government selectively restricted freedom of peaceful assembly in conjunction with the issuance of health measures by the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through arbitrary arrests, detentions, and fines (see section 1.d.). Public gatherings within 164 feet of government buildings are prohibited.

Police asserted that they prohibited gatherings that would disturb public peace and order, cause public transmission of COVID-19, or interfere with traffic. In some cases, authorities offered protesters alternate locations for demonstrations. In a few cases, police detained protesters for questioning or charged them with misdemeanors.

On June 24, when police arrested 17 opposition members, including former mayor Marko Carevic and local assembly speaker Krsto Radovic in Budva, who refused to relinquish power after losing elections, ongoing protests escalated, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. That same night, demonstrations erupted outside of police headquarters in the capital of Podgorica as well as in the central and northern cities of Niksic, Berane, Bijelo Polje, and Pljevlja, with protesters throwing stones at police in what officials of the former ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), called well scripted actions from familiar playbooks of past pre-election periods. Police in turn used force to detain dozens of demonstrators in what observers characterized as excessive use of force. In total, police arrested 41 individuals, and prosecutors brought criminal and misdemeanor charges against 54 opposition officials and supporters across the country. Nine police officers were injured during the clashes with protesters.

Several NGOs criticized the government for issuing confusing and inconsistent announcements of limits on both outdoor and indoor public gatherings to contain the spread of COVID-19. The most drastic measures were announced at the end of June, when the government banned all religious gatherings and political gatherings in open spaces, even with social distancing. That ban was later extended to include private events. In July the NGOs HRA and Institute Alternativa requested the Constitutional Court assess the constitutionality of the prohibition on public gatherings and suspend the ban on the grounds that it introduced disproportionate and excessive limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and that it was discriminatory in character. In addition, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations called on the Police Administration to ensure consistent application of police authorities and health regulations to all public gatherings, regardless of their character, purpose, or organizers.

In February the army chief of staff, General Dragutin Dakic, issued a statement warning that while soldiers were free to practice their faith, they were not allowed to participate in the ongoing Serbian Orthodox Church-organized religious processions (litije), characterizing them as “political” protests. Dakic stated, “There is no place in the Armed Forces for those who defend the church from the law, since a soldier is expected to defend the state in line with the law and the constitution.” Dakic added that “taking part in the protests, which are obviously political, which feature only the flags of another country, is unacceptable.” In June the ombudsman issued an opinion asserting that the army intervened arbitrarily and violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly with its verbal order banning participation in the litije. The ombudsman emphasized that the order had no clear basis in the law because it did not prevent military personnel from participating in protests or political rallies “if they do not wear military uniforms or parts of uniforms while attending those events.” He also stated that freedom of assembly is a basic democratic right and, like the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, it a foundation of society and cannot be interpreted narrowly.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

At the end of March, the Ministry of Health adopted a series of temporary measures to restrict movement to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public health. The measures banned movement on weekdays between 7:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., between 1:00 p.m. on Saturday and 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, and between 11:00 a.m. on Sunday and 5:00 a.m. on Monday, except for persons performing regular work duties or providing essential public services. Authorities suspended intercity passenger traffic except for transportation related to the movement of goods, medicines, and emergency medical services, utility services, supply of fuel and electricity, and transportation of employees and to allow persons who were outside their place of residence to return home. The measures prohibited going to beaches, rivers, lakes, and picnic areas, suspended international passenger traffic except to repatriate the country’s nationals, and required that persons who did return be quarantined for 14 days after arrival.

Members of the former opposition Democratic Front (DF) alliance claimed the government acted inappropriately, as it lacked the authority for such actions without invoking a state of emergency. The government put forth three legal bases for acting without a declaration of a state of emergency that were broadly supported by the legal community and civil society.

During the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic between March and May, the restrictions on freedom of movement disproportionately affected residents of the largely Romani community in the Vrela Ribnicka neighborhood in Podgorica. At the beginning of April, the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCB) decided to apply self-isolation measures on 23 residential buildings in Vrela Ribnicka after a resident from the neighborhood was hospitalized for COVID-related complications. The densely populated and economically disenfranchised neighborhood predominantly consists of 243 Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, and Bosnian refugees displaced during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The NCB provided basic supplies and hygiene products to those in self-isolation, and the local police guarded the buildings and enforced isolation measures. While similar movement restrictions were imposed in other locations, including Biokovac near Bijelo Polje, the quarantine on Vrela Ribnicka remained in effect far longer than in the other locations.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Ministry of Interior statistics indicated that 15,248 displaced persons (DPs) from the former Yugoslavia had applied to resolve their residency status as of September. Of the 12,379 completed applications, 12,194 received permanent resident status while 185 received temporary resident status; 164 applications were still pending. Individuals with temporary residence still needed support to acquire permanent residence because they still needed to acquire identity documents, such as birth and citizenship certificates, to get their passports.

Persons whose applications for “foreigner with permanent residence” status were pending with the Ministry of Interior continued to hold the legal status of DPs or IDPs. Some persons who were entitled to apply faced difficulties in obtaining the required documentation, particularly in regularizing previously unregistered births or paying the fees required to procure documents.

With support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government, together with the government of Kosovo, continued to assist displaced Roma and Balkan-Egyptians in obtaining personal identification documents under a Montenegro-Kosovo agreement on late registration of births of persons born outside the hospital system. By the end of 2019, approximately 1,400 persons received assistance through this cooperation. Some 40 others remained in need of Kosovo documents to be able to acquire permanent residence status in Montenegro. The process, supported by UNHCR, facilitated the registration of births of persons born in Montenegro or Kosovo, especially Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children.

Conditions for IDPs and DPs from the Yugoslav wars varied. Access to employment, health care, and social services was sometimes limited due to language barriers, insufficient integration programs, lack of documentation, or unclear or inconsistent administrative procedures. According to UNHCR’s livelihood study launched in 2018, many remained vulnerable, in need of support to become self-reliant, and continued to live below the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic additionally affected livelihood prospects of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. According to two UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments on the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic in Montenegro undertaken in April and June, 38.5 percent (in April) and 75 percent (in May) of refugees from the former Yugoslavia with a pending status had lost their jobs or income, as had 52.4 percent (in April) and 38.5 percent (in May) of refugees from the former Yugoslavia with temporary residence.

Together with Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country was a party to the Regional Housing Program, facilitated by international donors, to provide durable solutions for up to 6,000 DPs and IDPs in the country. A number of DPs and IDPs continued to live in substandard dwellings, struggled to pay rent for private accommodation, faced problems obtaining sustainable livelihoods, or feared eviction from illegally occupied facilities known as informal collective centers, mostly in the coastal municipalities.

Restricted access to employment pushed many DPs into gray-market activities. Poor economic prospects particularly affected Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and IDPs from Kosovo in urban areas due to their low levels of schooling and literacy, high unemployment, and other obstacles to full integration in society. The high unemployment rate also affected the aging Kosovo-Serb population in the Berane area.

Although the law gives foreigners with permanent residence the full scope of rights of citizens with the exception of the right to vote, DPs and IDPs from the former Yugoslavia sometimes had limited access to employment, education, property ownership, and specialized medical care due to the difficulty of obtaining official documents. IDPs could find opportunities if they showed flexibility in accepting jobs that did not necessarily reflect their education or experience or did not insist on a labor contract.

The government continued to encourage IDPs and DPs to return to their places of origin, but repatriation was essentially nonexistent due to the preference of many IDPs and DPs to remain in the country out of fear of reprisals in their countries of origin or a lack of resources or the lost bond with their country or place of origin. During the first eight months of the year, the situation worsened due to movement restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19 and related health concerns.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee or subsidiary protection status, and the government established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities did not employ methods for managing mixed migration movements effectively, such as prioritization or accelerated procedures. Observers noted that attention and readiness to address the increased mixed flow of migrants remained focused on border control aspects, as authorities reported 1,589 illegal border crossings during the first eight months of the year. To reduce irregular migration, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in July began assisting with border management by deploying personnel to areas where the country borders the EU.

During the first surge of the COVID-19 outbreak between March 16 and June 5, the country closed its borders and suspended access to asylum procedures. The Reception Center for Foreigners and Asylum Seekers in Spuz became a self-quarantine facility, and persons accommodated there had to follow generally applied restrictions on movement. A new reception center for foreigners and asylum seekers opened in July at Bozaj, on the border with Albania, that could accommodate up to 60 persons.

While transitory movement through the country resumed at the end of May, access to asylum procedures remained inconsistent. Families and vulnerable asylum seekers were admitted to reception centers after a 14-day quarantine in a separate part of the center. Authorities, however, increasingly returned single men trying to register their intention to apply for asylum directly to the Albanian border, then pushed them back into Albania. While the official number of migrants and asylum seekers registered after May grew steadily, observers believed their actual number grew exponentially, as migrants and asylum seekers bypassed reception centers and stayed in private hostels and abandoned houses. During the first eight months of the year, 1,702 persons registered their intention to apply for asylum with the Border Police. Of this number, 409 persons (24 percent) applied for asylum with the Ministry of Interior. In the same period, three persons were granted asylum status.

In addition to the pandemic-related suspension of asylum procedures, asylum seekers were negatively affected by continued delays in interviewing and decision-making after procedures resumed. During the first eight months of the year, authorities conducted 28 interviews, compared with a total of 78 interviews in 2019. As of October, 24 asylum seekers continued to wait for interview slots. Of the total applications filed, as of the end of August, 25 asylum seekers had actively pursued their asylum claim; the claims had been pending for eight to 27 months, although the deadline for decision-making is set at six months but can be extended under circumstances foreseen by law up to 21 months. Of 409 asylum applications, only three (0.7 percent) were approved; lack of follow through on applications contributed significantly to this figure.

Access to Basic Services: Once the asylum procedure is initiated, asylum seekers are granted access to free health care and education for minor applicants in line with international standards, although barriers to access, including language and cultural differences, sometimes limited practical access. During the year the Ministry of Interior decided to facilitate the effective access to the labor marker for asylum seekers who were in the asylum procedure for longer than nine months in line with the law. Previously, this right was largely theoretical as asylum seekers were not able to register with the Employment Agency without a personal identification number (PIN) issued by the ministry. A working group formed in 2020 between the ministry and UNHCR proposed a way for issuance of PIN numbers within the existing legislative framework. As of September, asylum seekers residing in the country for more than nine months could get a PIN number from the Ministry of Interior’s branch office in Podgorica, which would allow them to register with the Employment Agency. Many refugees had difficulties obtaining documents, and thus accessing services such as health care, due to language barriers.

According to the two UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments on the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that were conducted in April and June, all asylum seekers in private accommodation lost their (informal) jobs in April. While 33 percent regained an income by June, 66.7 percent remained jobless. Similarly, 91.7 percent of refugees lost their jobs in April; 21 percent regained employment by June, leaving some 70 percent jobless.

Durable Solutions: A path to citizenship for refugees is available but requires evidence that the applicant had renounced citizenship in his or her country of origin. The government provided support for the voluntary return or reintegration of DPs from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed access to the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services and naturalization in the country, but they did not have the right to vote.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. During the first eight months of the year, the Ministry of Interior did not approve any of the 404 requests submitted for subsidiary protection. By law, persons granted subsidiary protection are entitled to a facilitated integration plan for three years after receiving status. The integration plan is tailored to the individual’s particular needs and includes support in accessing education, Montenegrin language classes, employment, and the provision of accommodation for up to two years. Beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status may appeal a decision relating to their entitlements before the Administrative Court.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held parliamentary elections on August 30. The elections were competitive and took place in an environment highly polarized over issues of religion and national identity. ODIHR stated the elections were overall transparent and efficient but highlighted that the ruling party gained an undue advantage through misuse of office and state resources and dominant media coverage. ODIHR also found the State Election Commission did not entirely fulfill its regulatory role, leaving many aspects related to voter registration unaddressed and failing to provide clear recommendations for protecting the health of voters and for facilitating mobile voting by voters in quarantine. ODIHR further noted the elections took place amid concerns about the government’s inconsistent adherence to the constitution, including: calling early elections without shortening parliament’s mandate; introducing pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings and rallies without parliament calling a state of emergency; and initiating criminal proceedings and arrests for several members of parliament without a prior waiver of their immunity by parliament.

The European Network of Election Monitoring Organization (ENEMO) and ODIHR observers noted that election day was calm and peaceful but identified a few cases of minor irregularities that did not affect the electoral process. Unlike the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, all parties accepted the election results. ODIHR found that the lack of independent campaign coverage by media further undermined the quality of information available to voters.

The country held presidential elections in 2018. The ODIHR observation mission to the elections noted in its final report that although the candidate nominated by the governing party held an institutional advantage, fundamental freedoms were respected. Candidates campaigned freely, and media provided the contestants with a platform to present their views. The technical aspects of the election were adequately managed, although observers noted the transparency and professionalism of the State Election Commission remained issues of concern. Election day proceeded in an orderly manner despite a few observed procedural irregularities.

After several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Appellate Court began a hearing on September 7 on the Podgorica High Court’s May 2019 conviction of 13 individuals for their role in plotting a failed coup to disrupt the country’s 2016 parliamentary elections. The persons convicted included two leaders of the opposition DF political alliance, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, and two alleged Russian intelligence officers. Appeals of the convictions were pending as of year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties were able to form and operate freely. The former ruling DPS and its government, however, often mixed official business and party prerogatives, and there were reports the government used the purchase of public advertising selectively to support media outlets offering favorable coverage. Election observers noted that extensive visits and inaugurations by the president, prime minister, and local DPS government officials during the campaign appeared to blur the line between the state and the ruling party, given that their media appearances were at times used to promote party accomplishments and visibility rather than to conduct strictly official matters. As in previous elections, independent observers found that the DPS gained an undue advantage through various forms of misuse of office and state resources, such as offering temporary employment in the public sector and distributing extraordinary welfare benefits to “vulnerable” groups based on unclear criteria. Official investigations were initiated in two cases, based on allegations of pressure to vote for the DPS. Nevertheless, in the August 30 election, opposition parties won a majority of the seats in parliament for the first time in 30 years.

The trial of Nebojsa Medojevic, a leader of the DF, along with 11 other DF members for alleged money laundering linked to DF financing during the 2016 elections, continued during the year. The DF accused the prosecutor’s office of acting under the influence of the former ruling party DPS and bringing false charges against it to reduce DF’s influence in the country as the strongest opposition group.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws formally limit the participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Although the law requires that at least 30 percent of a political party’s candidates be female, women held only 22 percent (18 of 81) of delegate seats in the parliament, down from 23 (28 percent) in the previous parliament. In the national government, women held four out of 17 ministerial seats. At the beginning of October, NGOs focusing on women’s rights expressed frustration not only with the lower representation of women in the new parliament, but also the absence of women from political negotiations on the composition of the new government thus far.

Traditionally, the largest minority groups in the country (i.e., Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, and Croats) had representatives in parliament; Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians remained unrepresented. In the August 30 parliamentary elections, the two Croatian electoral lists did not pass the election threshold needed to win seats in parliament. Although the law provides representation to minority-affiliated parties that win less than 3 percent of the vote or constitute less than 15 percent of the population, the law does not apply to the Romani community. At the end of 2019, the Democratic Roma Party became the first Romani political party established in the country. Mensur Shalaj, the leader of the party, was also a member of the Roma Council. The Democratic Roma Party did not participate in the August 30 parliamentary elections.

The law also provides for positive discrimination in the allocation of electoral seats at the municipal level for minorities constituting 1.5 to 15 percent of the population. There were no political representatives of Roma, Ashkali, or Balkan-Egyptians at the municipal level.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and corruption remained a problem. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. Officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The public viewed corruption in hiring practices based on personal relationships or political affiliation as endemic in the government and elsewhere in the public sector at both local and national levels, particularly in the areas of health care, higher education, the judiciary, customs, political parties, police, the armed forces, urban planning, the construction industry, and employment. Corruption and low public trust in government institutions were major issues in the August 30 parliamentary elections.

The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (APC) continued to operate and expand its capabilities and program offerings, but domestic NGOs were critical of the agency’s lack of transparency and described periodic working group meetings with them as cosmetic and superficial. The European Commission noted continued problems related to the credibility, independence, and effectiveness of the agency.

Agencies tasked with fighting corruption acknowledged that cooperation and information sharing among them was inadequate; their capacity improved but remained limited. Politicization, poor salaries, and lack of motivation and training of public servants provided fertile ground for corruption.

Corruption: Most citizen reports of corruption to the APC involved public administration, the private sector, and the judiciary. Shortly before the August 30 elections, the portal IN4S released video footage of Dusica Vulic, an activist of the Podgorica board of the former ruling party DPS, inquiring about the party affiliation of a potential candidate for a position in the army. In the video, a girl named Marija, accompanied by a man, inquired about what it takes to become a soldier, explaining that she was previously rejected by the army despite having participated in a summer military camp and personally receiving praise from Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic. Vulic told Marija that professional engagement in the army required a positive opinion of the local board of the DPS, that the candidate declare himself as a Montenegrin, and that the candidate show sympathy for DPS, meaning a promise to vote for the party in elections. Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the DPS denied the authenticity of the video, and following an investigation, the Basic State Prosecutor’s Office indicted Vulic on September 7 for the criminal offense of violation of freedom of choice in voting. Vulic’s trial began on October 12 in the Basic Court in Podgorica, where she denied attempting illegally to influence Slavoljub Markovic, Marija Markovic, and Predrag Konatar to vote for the DPS electoral list during national parliamentary elections on August 30. The trial was pending as of the end of the year.

The Special State Prosecutor’s Office, in cooperation with the Special Police, continued to make arrests in operation Klap, a nationwide anticorruption campaign against tax officials, private companies, and individuals. As of June, criminal charges have been filed against 24 individuals and 14 companies suspected of creating a criminal organization, tax evasion, abuse of official position, forgery of an official document, and committing bankruptcy fraud. Nine of the charged suspects cooperated with authorities and negotiated plea bargains. Through their illegal activities, the suspects were estimated to have damaged the state budget by approximately six million euros ($7.2 million).

Police corruption and inappropriate government influence on police behavior remained problems. Impunity remained a problem in the security forces, according to the NGOs Human Rights Action and Network for Affirmation of the NGO Sector (MANS). NGOs cited corruption, lack of transparency, and the ruling political parties’ influence over prosecutors and officials of the Ministry of Interior as obstacles to greater effectiveness. They noted there was no clear mechanism to investigate instances of impunity. There was also a widespread view that personal connections influenced the enforcement of laws. Low salaries sometimes contributed to corruption and unprofessional behavior by police officers.

Human rights observers continued to express concern over investigative delays (even factoring in the difficult operating environment because of COVID-19) and the low number of prosecutions of security force personnel accused of human rights abuses. Police did not provide information about the number of human rights complaints against security forces or investigations into complaints. The prosecutor’s office, which is responsible for investigating such abuses, seldom challenged the Police Administration’s finding that its use of force was reasonable. Human rights observers claimed citizens were reluctant to report police misconduct due to fear of reprisals.

Watchdog groups alleged that the continuing police practice of filing countercharges against individuals who reported police abuse discouraged citizens from reporting and influenced other police officers to cover up responsibility for violations. An external police oversight body, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations, stated that identification of police officers who committed alleged abuses was problematic because officers wore masks and were not willing to admit personal responsibility. Although part of their uniform, the masks contributed to de facto impunity because police officers who perpetrated abuses could not be identified, and their units and commanders were unwilling to identify one of their members.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials to report any increases in value of personal property of more than 5,000 euros ($6,000) or any gift exceeding 50 euros ($60) to the APC. Violations of the obligation to file and disclose are subject to administrative or misdemeanor sanctions. Most officials complied with the requirements in a timely fashion. In the first eight months of the year, however, the agency filed 326 requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings against public officials who did not submit regular annual reports on income and assets or for breaking campaign finance laws. Of those proceedings, 161 (82 percent) resulted in sanctions, including 109 fines totaling 44,090 euros ($53,000) and 52 warnings.

During and after the August 30 parliamentary elections, the APC initiated 293 procedures related to the use of public resources in the election campaign, of which 123 concerned excessive monthly spending and 101 concerned improper hiring of temporary and part-time employees. In September the agency also initiated misdemeanor proceedings against the former ruling DPS because two party donors who contributed a combined total of 5,600 euros ($6,700) were not on the voter list and thus were ineligible to make campaign contributions to political parties. The NGO MANS nevertheless filed several initiatives against the APC for failure to comply with provisions of the law pertaining to publication of oversight reports on its public website and for failing to enforce deadlines and publish price lists for political advertising on media outlets.

In May, Speaker of Parliament Ivan Brajovic was summoned to give a statement in the Special Prosecutor’s Office following accusations made by SDP Member of Parliament Rasko Konjevic that fugitive businessman Dusko Knezevic had paid off approximately 50,000 euros ($60,000) of debt incurred on a credit card issued to Brajovic by Knezevic’s Atlas Bank. The State Special Prosecutor’s Office acknowledged it had been investigating financial transactions between Brajovic and Knezevic since 2017. The NGO MANS also called on the State Special Prosecutor’s Office to prosecute Brajovic based on extensive documents it received and made public allegedly showing that Brajovic made a deal with persons tied to Knezevic, which enabled him to sell a piece of his land near Podgorica for an inflated amount (150,000 euros ($180,000)) to settle his debt with Atlas Bank. As of September, no charges had been filed in the case. In a similar case in 2019, Knezevic made public documentation showing that Atlas Bank had settled a credit card debt of 16,000 euros ($19,000) held by President Djukanovic. The APC declined to investigate that case, determining that settling a public official’s debt on a credit card could not be considered as a gift.

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

Several domestic and international human rights groups operated, generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were usually cooperative and responsive to the views of international groups, but some domestic NGOs assessed this cooperation as uneven and noted that the government selectively ignored their requests for information under the Law on Free Access to Information. In its 2019 Progress Report on Montenegro, the European Commission identified as “matters of serious concern” the practice of “controversial dismissals of prominent nongovernmental organizations’ representatives from key institutions and bodies” and a growing trend among public institutions of responding to requests for information by declaring it to be classified.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman served within the Office of the Protector of Human Rights to prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as well as discrimination. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights may investigate alleged government human rights violations and inspect such institutions as prisons and pretrial detention centers without prior notification. It may access all documents, irrespective of their level of secrecy, relating to detainees or convicts and talk to prisoners or detainees without the presence of officials. The office may not act upon complaints about judicial proceedings in process, except when the complaint involves delays, obvious procedural violations, or failure to carry out court decisions. The ombudsman may propose new laws, ask the Constitutional Court to determine whether a law violates the constitution or treaty obligations, evaluate particular human rights problems upon request of a competent body, address general problems important for the protection and promotion of human rights and freedoms, and cooperate with other organizations and institutions dealing with human rights and freedoms. Upon finding a violation of human rights by a government agency, the ombudsman may request remedial measures, including dismissal of the violator, and evaluate how well the agency implemented the remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($600 to $3,000). The government and courts generally implemented the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. The ombudsman operated without government or party interference and enjoyed cooperation from NGOs.

Parliament has a six-member Standing Committee for Human Rights and Freedoms. Many observers continued to perceive its contribution as insignificant and criticized its apparent sole focus on how international and European institutions assessed the country.

Some NGOs and international organizations criticized the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights for being reactive rather than proactive, stating that its capacity remained limited and needed further strengthening.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: These acts are illegal, and authorities generally enforced the law. In most cases the penalty provided by law for rape, including spousal rape, is one to 10 years in prison, although the law permits lower sentences in cases where there are exceptionally extenuating circumstances or a significant lack of evidence. Actual sentences were generally lenient, averaging three years. Judges often used questionable methods, including forcing confrontations between victims and perpetrators, to assess the credibility of victims. NGOs expressed concern about the security of the courtrooms where victims were often forced to meet with abusers. In one case a convicted perpetrator assaulted a domestic violence survivor in front of a judge while being escorted into the courtroom by prison staff. Despite that incident and the testimony of several experts, including NGO representatives and the victim’s lawyer, the perpetrator was acquitted by the judge. Domestic violence is generally punishable by a fine or a one-year prison sentence. According to NGO reports, domestic violence survivors continued to experience difficulties having their cases prosecuted in the judicial system, promoting an atmosphere of impunity for abusers. This problem was further compounded by the additional constraints put on prosecutors and the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases police were quick to dismiss allegations of domestic violence, particularly for young couples, noting that the problems would be resolved over time. Even when their cases were tried in court and they received a judgment in their favor, survivors noted the sentences imposed on perpetrators were lenient and dominated by suspended sentences and fines. Lengthy trials, economic dependency, societal norms, and a lack of alternative housing often forced survivors and perpetrators to continue to live together.

Domestic violence is generally punishable by a fine or a one-year prison sentence. According to NGO reports, domestic violence survivors continued to experience difficulties having their cases prosecuted in the judicial system, promoting an atmosphere of impunity for abusers. This problem was further compounded by the additional constraints put on prosecutors and the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases police were quick to dismiss allegations of domestic violence, particularly for young couples, noting that the problems would be resolved over time. Even when their cases were tried in court and they received a judgment in their favor, survivors noted the sentences imposed on perpetrators were lenient and dominated by suspended sentences and fines. Lengthy trials, economic dependency, societal norms, and a lack of alternative housing often forced survivors and perpetrators to continue to live together.

Police response to domestic violence was also reported to be substandard, with officers often counseling women to “forgive” their attackers or to “not harm their (the attackers) job prospects.” Cases involving perpetrators who were also public officials remained problematic. The trial against a police officer who attacked and injured a woman in a nightclub in 2019 was still ongoing 15 months after the incident and a year since the start of the trial. Other institutions’ responses were also problematic. According to NGOs, social centers have increasingly taken actions to keep victims and abusers together in order to preserve the family structure or pay one-time assistance for rent, rather than accommodating victims in licensed shelters and providing other needed support to them, including psychological and legal support.

The country aligned its legislation with the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, but domestic violence remained a persistent and common problem. The law permits survivors to obtain restraining orders against abusers. When the abuser and survivor live together, authorities may remove the abuser from the property, regardless of ownership rights. In practice this was rarely done, and NGOs reported that, as a result of the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 restrictive measures, women were actually spending more time with abusers. Domestic violence was a serious problem in all communities.

According to NGOs and the ombudsman, female survivors of domestic violence often complained that government-run social welfare centers did not respond adequately to their appeals for help. NGOs reported that state institutions did not provide physical protection for survivors.

The government, in cooperation with an NGO, operated a free hotline for victims of family violence. As a part of COVID-19 measures, the government imposed a curfew barring citizens from leaving their homes between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. the following morning, which was accompanied by an increase in the number of reported domestic violence cases. The government promoted use of the NGO SOS Hotline in Niksic and the UNDP developed the mobile application “Be safe” as tools for domestic violence victims to call for help. NGOs continued to report that, despite some progress, particularly in the law, government agencies responded inadequately to prevent domestic violence and help survivors recover. According to NGOs, because of the restrictive COVID-19 measures, authorities failed to address domestic violence in a timely manner, leaving survivors with limited support. The NGO Women’s Rights Center stated that perpetrators often confiscated victims’ phones and not all victims were able to use digital tools, which limited reporting.

In March, NGOs reported that police in Niksic refused to accept the complaint and call for help of a Romani survivor of domestic violence seeking safe refuge at a police station, despite being accompanied by a caseworker from the NGO Center for Roma Initiatives who was there to support the survivor and help her find safe accommodations. The survivor, who was from Kosovo and primarily spoke Albanian and had only a limited knowledge of the Montenegrin language, was a trafficking victim who entered Montenegro illegally in December 2019 after escaping a forced marriage in Kosovo. In Montenegro, she was initially forced into a marriage with a man in Bar and then to a man in Herceg Novi.

During her first marriage in Kosovo, the survivor first became the victim of domestic violence from her husband’s family. Her second marriage to a man in Montenegro was equally abusive, with her husband taking her personal documents to keep her under control. She then fled her second husband’s family home to Niksic to stay with an acquaintance’s family, although she once again encountered domestic violence. While she was not subject to physical violence from either of the families she stayed with in Montenegro, the survivor claimed that she endured mental and emotional abuse. A male friend of the acquaintance’s family in Niksic, who offered to provide her with a ride and help the survivor escape, turned on her and attempted to rape her. While in Niksic, the survivor came into contact with the Center for Roma Initiatives and she was advised to file a complaint for forced marriage and trafficking, domestic violence, and attempted rape with the police. Because the survivor was from Kosovo, the police refused to act without first receiving permission from a health-sanitary inspector due to COVID-19 restrictions, even though she had been living in Montenegro since December 2019. Under the government’s preventative health measures, health-sanitary inspectors worked with the police and oversaw decisions pertaining to quarantine and self-isolation for individuals seeking to enter Montenegro during the pandemic. The health-sanitary inspector required the victim and the NGO caseworker who followed her to self-isolate for 14 days, a period later extended to 28 days. Homeless and unable to find accommodation due to the requirement that she self-isolate for 14 days, the survivor spent the night in front of the police station with her eight-month-old baby after which she returned to her abuser, as she risked facing criminal charges for violating public health measures. The Center for Roma Initiatives remained in touch with the survivor and continued to advocate on her behalf with police, who finally agreed to allow her to be accommodated at the shelter run by the NGO SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence Niksic in mid-April. Shortly thereafter, the Department for Combatting Trafficking in Persons at the Ministry of Interior took up the survivor’s case, and in June she was transferred to the Shelter for Victims of Trafficking in Persons.

The Center for Roma Initiatives claimed that the harsh treatment of the survivor and the NGO caseworker at the hands of the police and the health-sanitary inspector was due to discrimination based on their Romani ethnicity. Their unwillingness to accept the survivor’s complaint caused her considerable anguish as she feared for her life, both from her second husband’s family and from the man who tried to rape her, who she often saw passing by the house where she lived. After her return to the home of her second husband’s family, she faced renewed mental and emotional abuse and significant pressure to leave the house as soon as possible. The case was under investigation, and NGOs continued to monitor it closely.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Child marriage continued to be a problem in Romani communities (see Child, Early, and Forced Marriage subsection under Children, below). Although illegal, in many Romani communities, the practice of paying a traditional “bride price” of several hundred to several thousand euros for girls and women to be sold into or purchased from families across the border in Kosovo or Albania led to concerns about trafficking in persons. The potential to be “remarried” existed, with some girls being sent back to their families, being resold, and the money then given to the former spouse’s family. These practices were rarely reported, and police rarely intervened, viewing the practices as “traditional.” These practices led to girls withdrawing from school at a rate much higher than boys, limiting their literacy and ability to provide for themselves and their families, essentially trapping them in these situations. At the end of 2019, the government established a team for the formal identification of victims of trafficking. Since the beginning of the year, the team identified two victims of forced child marriage, and it continued to evaluate additional potential cases of forced child marriages. In June, police filed criminal charges for human trafficking against a 43-year-old individual from Podgorica who allegedly arranged an illicit marriage for his 17-years-old daughter in exchange for 5,000 euros ($6,000). The multi-institutional Human Trafficking Task Force initiated several cases in which police intervened and the girls and women were given status as victims of trafficking in persons.

In June, police filed criminal charges for human trafficking against a 43-year-old individual from Podgorica who allegedly arranged an illicit marriage for his 17-years-old daughter in exchange for 5,000 euros ($6,000). The multi-institutional Human Trafficking Task Force initiated several cases in which police intervened and the girls and women were given status as victims of trafficking in persons.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is not defined as a crime under the law. According to the Center for Women’s Rights, sexual harassment, including street harassment, of women occurred often, but few women reported it. Public awareness of the problem remained low. Victims hesitated to report harassment in the workplace due to fears of employer reprisals and a lack of information about legal remedies. Stalking or predatory behavior with physical intimidation is punishable by law with a fine or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. All property acquired during marriage is joint property. The government enforced these laws somewhat effectively. The NGO SOS noted, however, that women often experienced difficulty in defending their property rights in divorce proceedings due to the widespread public belief that property belongs to the man. Sometimes women ceded their inherited property and inheritance rights to male relatives due to tradition and pressure from their families. Men consequently tended to be favored in the distribution of property ownership, sometimes limiting a woman’s options in the cases of domestic violence or divorce. Women continued to experience discrimination in salaries and access to pension benefits (see section 7.d.).

The Department for Gender Equality worked to inform women of their rights, and parliament has a committee on gender equality. The government has a 2017-21 strategy on gender equality. In January the government published the Gender Equality Index for Montenegro, one of a series of indices that measure inequalities in EU member states and countries in the EU accession process. The index measured labor, money, knowledge, time, power, health, and violence. The index value for Montenegro was 55 (out of 100 points). The largest inequality between men and women was noted in the category of power (35.1), followed by time (52.7), knowledge (55.1), money (59.7), and work (65.2). The highest equality was reported in health (86.9).

According to Romani rights NGOs, one-half of Romani women between the ages of 15 and 24 were illiterate. Romani women often faced double discrimination based on their gender and ethnicity.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Although illegal, medical professionals noted that gender-biased sex selection took place, resulting in a boy-to-girl ratio at birth of 110 to 100. The government did not actively address the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from their parents and, under some circumstances, by birth in the country, through naturalization, or as otherwise specified by international treaties governing the acquisition of citizenship. Registration of birth, a responsibility of the parents, is required for a child to have the necessary documents to establish his or her citizenship. Births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions were registered automatically. The parents of Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children not born in hospitals registered their births at much lower rates than other groups, mostly due to lack of awareness of the registration process or the parents’ own lack of identification documents. It was difficult for the unregistered children of Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents to access such government services as health care, social allowances, and education. Of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian children in primary school, 10 percent were not registered.

Education: The law provides for free, compulsory elementary education for all children. Secondary education is free but not compulsory. Enrolment in secondary education starts at the age of 14 or 15. NGOs reported that the end of elementary education represented one of the most vulnerable moments for Romani children, especially Romani girls, as without school attendance monitoring, children were left to their parents and were vulnerable to “traditional” marriages. According to a UN Rapid Social Impact Assessment of COVID-19’s impact between April and June, in households with children under the age of 18, while 78 percent had a television set, only 63 percent had a computer or laptop with an internet connection and just 39 percent had a tablet with an internet connection. A multiple indicator cluster survey from 2018 sponsored by UNHCR and UNICEF in the country found that only 89.5 percent of Romani households had a television, compared with 99.1 percent of total households and only 15.3 percent had a computer compared with 61.1 percent of total households, putting Romani children at a greater disadvantage for distance learning than other students.

Child Abuse: Child abuse laws are covered by the 2017-21 strategy for the prevention and protection of children from domestic violence. Penalties range from a year in prison for violence without a weapon to 12 years for actions that result in the victim’s death; however, severe penalties were rarely seen and short prison stays, suspended sentences, or even small fines were the norm.

In September media outlets reported that an individual in Ulcinj was arrested for forcing a child to commit theft in February. The Basic Court in Ulcinj sentenced the perpetrator to 360 hours of public work over a six-month period. According to media reports, the perpetrator had a criminal record for theft and had been sentenced before for the same crime.

The Ministry of Health reported that child abuse remained a problem, with every third child subject to emotional abuse, while every fourth child was a victim of physical abuse. Many children, particularly high school students, were exposed to alcohol, drugs, and violence. The ombudsman noted that child sexual abuse victims were usually girls between the ages of 14 and 16. The abusers were mostly close relatives of the children, and abuse usually occurred at home. The very low number of reported cases of sexual violence against children raised concerns about identification of victims. To address the problem of child abuse, the government developed, in conjunction with UNICEF, The Strategy for Exercising the Rights of the Child 2019-2023. The strategy set out a comprehensive “whole of government” approach to improving the conditions for exercising children’s rights in all areas covered by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols.

Authorities prosecuted child abuse when they had cases with enough evidence, and the government worked to raise public awareness of the importance of reporting cases. Facilities and psychotherapy assistance for children who suffered from family violence were inadequate, and there were no marital or family counseling centers. Authorities sometimes placed juvenile victims of domestic violence in the children’s correctional facility in Ljubovic or in the orphanage in Bijela.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 in most cases, but persons as young as 16 may marry with the consent of a court or a parent. Punishment for arranging forced marriages ranges from six months to five years in prison, but convictions were rare, generally owing to a lack of evidence or poor understanding of the law.

Child marriage was a serious problem in the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities. There continued to be reports of underage girls being sold into “traditional” or “arranged” marriages without their consent, including to persons in neighboring countries. These marriages generally did not meet the criteria necessary for legal, documented marriages. As such, they were difficult to track and regulate, regardless of legality. In March the government launched the “Children are Children” campaign to raise the awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage in the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities and explain the applicable regulations and procedures for protecting children from arranged marriages. The campaign was conducted by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, and the Police Administration in cooperation with the NGO Center for Roma Initiatives and focused on working with members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities in Podgorica, Niksic, Tivat, and Berane.

The custom of buying or selling virgin brides continued in the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities. Brides found not to be virgins prior to marriage faced severe repercussions, including violence, from the groom’s family, their family, and the community at large.

The government implemented some measures to prevent underage marriage, including enforcing mandatory school education.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering or procuring for prostitution, and the country partially enforced the law. The age of sexual consent is 18. There is a statutory rape law. Sexual activity with a juvenile carries a prison sentence of up to three years. Paying a juvenile for sexual activity carries a prison term of three months to five years. Authorities may fine or imprison for one to 10 years any person found guilty of inducing a minor into prostitution.

Child pornography is illegal, and sentences for violators range from six months in prison for displaying child pornography to eight years for using a child in the production of pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community population was estimated to be approximately 400 to 500 individuals. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The government was implementing the Strategy for Integration of Persons with Disabilities 2016-2020, but NGOs claimed it did not do so effectively. During the year a network of 10 NGOs that worked with persons with disabilities continued to coordinate and monitor implementation of the government’s strategy. The NGO Youth with Disabilities stated that although the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is in charge of the register of persons with disabilities established pursuant to the strategy, there were problems consolidating information on persons with disabilities that had been collected by different state institutions and included new data from persons who had not previously registered with any institution.

Authorities generally enforced the requirement that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but most public facilities, including buildings and public transportation, were older and lacked access. Although election laws specifically require accessible polling places, according to NGOs, approximately 65 percent of polling stations remained inaccessible during the August 30 national parliamentary elections. In addition, ballot templates for persons with visual disabilities were missing in 17 percent of polling stations. Individual abuses of the right to vote with a proxy voter were also reported.

Some recent renovations of existing government buildings took accessibility into account, such as the beginning of construction on a central elevator at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The plan was only at its initial stages, however, and had yet to realize a completely accessible building.

Despite legal protections, persons with disabilities often hesitated to bring legal proceedings against persons or institutions seen to be violating their rights. Observers ascribed this reluctance to the adverse outcomes of previous court cases or, according to the ombudsman, to insufficient public awareness of human rights and protection mechanisms relating to disabilities. Several discrimination cases that the NGO Association of Youth with Disabilities initiated against the Ministry of Finance, a health center in Podgorica, the Montenegrin Fund for Solidarity Housing Construction, , and social centers in Podgorica, Tivat, and Budva continued through the year, while a discrimination case against the postal service was resolved in favor of the person with disabilities.

The Council for Care of Persons with Disabilities, chaired by the minister of labor and social welfare, has responsibility for policies protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. It consists of the Ministries of Health; Labor and Social Welfare; Education; Sports; Finance; Justice; Human and Minority Rights; Sustainable Development and Tourism, as well as the Secretariat for Legislation, the State Employment Agency, and five NGOs, all of which provided assistance and protection in their respective spheres through the year.

According to NGOs, services at the local level to children with mental and physical disabilities remained inadequate. Associations of parents of children with disabilities were the primary providers of these services. The law permits parents or guardians of persons with disabilities to work half time, but employers did not respect this right.

The government made efforts to enable children with disabilities to attend schools and universities, but the quality of the education they received and the facilities to accommodate them remained inadequate at all levels. There are three models of education for children with disabilities in the country: mainstream schools, special classes at mainstream schools, and resource centers, of which there were three in the country. The laws governing education also provide for the creation of special commissions by municipalities to provide guidance in the educational process for children with disabilities. Such guidance does not apply to other children.

The NGO Association of Youth with Disabilities of Montenegro stated that the last two models are tantamount to segregation of students with disabilities, which is considered to be a form of discrimination under the law. The NGO’s monitoring of the education of children and young persons with disabilities showed that commissions often referred them to a limited number of primary and secondary schools and that no child with a disability was sent to a gymnasium (a prestigious preparatory school for students who will continue on in postsecondary education), which was unacceptable.

NGOs also stated that supported-living assistance at home and similar services were not provided to families and parents of children with disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the schooling of children with disabilities, many of whom remained without adequate teaching assistance. Paid leave was not ensured to some parents of children with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities were often institutionalized or encouraged towards institutions, which perpetuated stigmatization. The NGO Association of Youth with Disabilities of Montenegro reported two cases of human rights violations in institutions catering to persons with disabilities during the year. The Ombudsman’s Office confirmed the violation in both cases.

The first case involved a child who used the services of the day care center in Niksic. Workers at the center used scotch tape to bind a child and then wrapped the child in a carpet, and officials claimed this was the method to “calm a child.” The parent submitted a request for the day care center to provide video footage of the center from the day of the incident, but the center employees claimed the camera was not working at that time. The ombudsman issued an opinion in which the violation was confirmed, but due to sensitivity of the child data contained in the opinion, it is not available to the public.

Persons with physical disabilities had difficulty obtaining high-quality medical devices to facilitate their mobility through health and social insurance.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians remained the most vulnerable victims of discrimination, mainly as a result of prejudice and limited access to social services due to a lack of required documentation. The law on citizenship and its accompanying regulations makes obtaining citizenship difficult for persons without personal identity documents or those born outside of a hospital. Access to health-care services, including childbirth, remained challenging for members of these communities due to their lack of medical-care cards.

According to the Roma Education Fund, the poverty rate among Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians remained higher than for the general population. Many Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians lived in illegal squatter settlements that often lacked services, such as public utilities, medical care, and sewage disposal. NGOs reported that several Romani neighborhoods did not have running water, which prevented, for instance, the Vreli Ribnicki Romani community from complying with health recommendations. The NGO Young Roma stated, however, that one of the biggest problems of the Romani community living in illegal squatter settlements was the risk of eviction, especially in the southern part of the country.

The Ministry of Human and Minority Rights stated that the government continued to provide housing for marginalized groups, including Roma.

The government’s implementation of its Strategy for Social Inclusion of Roma and BalkanEgyptians 2016-2020 resulted in some improvement in the number of Romani children attending school, access to health care, and access to housing. According to the NGO Young Roma, the state employment agency, in conjunction with international organizations, financed the employment of three individuals as associates for the social inclusion of Roma and Balkan-Egyptians in the area of education over the previous three years. NGOs reported that, although the number of Romani children attending school increased, they continued to face limitations in the area of education. The NGO Young Roma reported that its research showed the average score of Romani children in schools was 2.23 out of 5–just above passing–which reduced their chances of continuing later education. The NGO Pihren Amenica stated that Romani children were additionally disadvantaged due to the shift to online schooling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as not all families had access to electricity or computers to facilitate virtual learning (also see section 6, Children).

Albanians and Bosniaks in the southern and northeastern parts of the country frequently complained about central government discrimination and economic neglect. Ethnic Serb politicians claimed that the government discriminated against the Serbian national identity, language, and religion.

Following the August 30 parliamentary elections, media outlets reported several cases of physical and verbal attacks on members of the Bosniak community in Pljevlja. On September 2, unknown assailants smashed windows at the Islamic Community in Pljevlja and left the message, “The black bird will fly; Pljevlja will be Srebrenica.” The cases raised ethnic tensions and concerns about future attacks on Bosniaks and increased fear among Muslim communities. The attacks were condemned by different political actors, other religious groups, and the international community, all of whom called for peace and tolerance. Authorities visited Pljevlja and former minister of interior Mevludin Nuhodzic stated that everything would be done to identify the perpetrators. Although the Islamic community facility was covered by security cameras, police failed to identify the perpetrators and an investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

Government-supported national councils for Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Muslims, Croats, and Roma represented the interests of those groups. NGOs, legal observers, and media outlets continued to accuse the government of misappropriating money from a fund established to finance the national councils.

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

The law forbids incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation and prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The presence of an anti-LGBTI bias motive is an aggravating circumstance when prosecuting hate crimes.

During the year the NGO LGBT Forum Progress submitted more than 219 complaints to police of online discrimination, hate speech, and verbal abuse, including comments on social media, and asked authorities to press charges against the commenters. According to NGOs, as a result of COVID-related restrictions on movement, many LGBTI persons returned to their primary residences where they experienced an increase of hate, abuse, discrimination, and rejection by family members. Many of them searched for psychosocial and legal support. LGBTI centers run by NGOs were closed due to the pandemic, limiting their ability to provide support to the LGBTI community.

In January 2019 the Supreme Court annulled a 2018 Constitutional Court decision that prohibiting the gathering of the LGBTI community in Niksic in 2015 violated the right to peaceful assembly of members of the organizations LGBT Forum Progress and Hiperion. Instead of reversing the original decision of the Administrative Court based on the Constitutional Court’s resolution of the legal issue at the heart of the case, however, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Administrative Court for reconsideration. The NGO Human Rights Action criticized the Supreme Court for not exercising its authority to issue a final decision in the case, arguing that the court’s action caused further unnecessary delays and weakened legal protection for the freedom of assembly in the country. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

Every police station had an officer whose duties included monitoring observance of the rights of LGBTI persons. During the year a “team of confidence” between police and LGBTI NGOs continued working to improve communication between police and the community. The government also formed the National Focal Point Network composed of representatives from local municipalities to promote LGBTI rights at the local level.

During the year the national team formed by the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights to monitor implementation of the National Strategy for the Improvement of the Quality of Life of LGBTI Persons in Montenegro 2019-2023 worked to increase the capacity of institutions involved in the protection of individuals against discrimination, particularly in the judicial system. The NGOs Juventas and Queer of Montenegro reported they cooperated with the team to help local authorities create and approve local action plans to fight homophobia and transphobia and improve the quality of life for LGBTI persons. During the year four municipalities (Podgorica, Kolasin, Bijelo Polje, and Kotor) adopted local action plans.

The government did not provide funds for operating the LGBTI shelter in the coming year, although the National Strategy for the Improvement of the Quality of Life of LGBTI Persons in Montenegro 2019-2023 anticipated that the shelter would be fully funded for the duration of the strategy.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The NGOs Juventas and the Montenegrin HIV Foundation stated persons with HIV/AIDS were stigmatized and experienced discrimination, although most discrimination was undocumented. Observers believed fear of discrimination, societal taboos relating to sex, and the lack of privacy of medical records discouraged many persons from seeking testing for HIV. NGOs reported patients often faced discrimination by medical personnel and received inadequate treatment. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people had difficulty or were unable to access HIV testing, and medical personnel failed to provide adequate treatment.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers, including members of the armed forces, to form and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. To represent workers in collective bargaining at the enterprise level, a union must count at least 20 percent of the workforce in the enterprise as members. To act as a worker representative in a sector, group, or branch of industry, a trade union must include at least 15 percent of the total workforce in that sector, group, or branch. The law prohibits discrimination against union members or those seeking to organize a union and requires the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity.

During the year a new labor law took effect that is intended to strengthen the protection of employees’ rights, increase flexibility in the labor market, and suppress the informal economy through a number of new measures. The new law creates an obligation for employers to consult with a labor union (or employee representatives) and notify the Employment Agency about the consultations in cases of a collective layoff (i.e., dismissal of at least 20 employees over a 90-day period); creates an obligation for all employment agreements to contain a reference to bargaining agreements being applied with the employer; and requires that all employer bargaining agreements must be registered with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.

The government generally enforced the law. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those under other laws related to denials of civil rights.

While the government generally respected freedom of association, employers often intimidated workers engaged in union activity. According to the Union of Free Trade Unions, workers in the trade sector were intimidated when establishing their union, and they belonged to the category of workers whose rights were the most endangered.

Workers exercised their right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining, although not always without employer interference.

Although allowed by law, collective bargaining remained rare. The government continued to be party to collective negotiations at the national level. Only the union with the largest registered membership at any given level was entitled to bargain, negotiate settlements of collective labor disputes, and participate in other government bodies.

The right to strike is restricted for public servants whose absence from work would jeopardize public interests, national security, the safety of persons and property, or the functioning of the government. International observers noted that the range of professions in which strikes are proscribed exceeds international standards. Employers may unilaterally establish minimum service requirements if negotiations with trade unions fail to lead to an agreement.

Management and local authorities often blocked attempts to organize strikes by declaring them illegal, citing lack of legally required advance notice, which ranges from two to 10 days, depending on circumstances. There were reports from employees in both the private and public sectors that employers threatened or otherwise intimidated workers who engaged in union organizing or in other legal union activities. In some cases private employers reduced workers’ salaries or dismissed them because of their union activities.

Workers in privatized or bankrupt companies had outstanding claims for back pay and severance. In some cases workers were not able to collect on their claims, despite valid court decisions in their favor. Several local governments failed to pay their staff for months at a time. Unpaid wages, factory closures, and growing poverty led to some protests and labor strikes, including a strike of workers for a municipal company in Pljevlja and a transport company in Berane.

Trade unions claimed workers were largely unaware of their rights and afraid of retaliation if they initiated complaints.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and authorities made efforts to investigate or identify victims of forced labor in the formal economy. Penalties under the law for offenses related to forced labor were commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

In January police operated the “Call Center” action and reported that 93 Taiwanese persons were found and arrested in three locations in Podgorica. The investigation showed that 37 persons, of whom 25 were men and 12 were women, were victims of forced labor and received the status of trafficking in persons victims. The status of an additional 40 persons involved in the case was still unknown. The traffickers restricted the movement of their victims and used force and threats to commit fraud through the internet against persons from Asian-language areas. Montenegrin police in cooperation with Taiwanese police returned the victims and perpetrators to their country of origin, where prosecutions were ongoing.

There were reports of Romani girls forced into domestic servitude and of children forced to beg, mostly by their families (see section 7.c.). Migrants from neighboring countries were vulnerable to forced labor during the summer tourist season, although to a lesser extent during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no reports of prosecutions or convictions.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The official minimum age for employment is 15. Children younger than 18 may not engage in jobs that require difficult physical labor; overtime; work at night , underground or underwater work; or work that “may have a harmful effect or involve increased risk to their health and lives,” although the law allows employees between the ages of 15 and 18 to work at night in certain circumstances. The government generally enforced these restrictions in the formal, but not the informal, economy.

Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The Labor Inspectorate investigated compliance with the child labor law only as part of a general labor inspection regime. The Labor Inspectorate reported that few cases of child labor were identified in informal workplaces. In these cases, the Labor Inspectorate imposed fines and inspectors ordered employers to acquire necessary documentation to meet the legal requirements permitting child labor. The government did not collect data specifically on child labor.

Many parents and relatives forced Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children to work at an early age to contribute to their family’s income. They engaged in begging at busy intersections, on street corners, door to door, and in restaurants and cafes or in sifting through trashcans. While many working children were from the country, a large percentage of those between the ages of seven and 16 were from nearby countries, mainly Kosovo and Serbia. Police generally returned the children they apprehended to their families.

In villages, children usually worked in family businesses and agriculture. Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children worked chiefly during the summer, typically washing car windows, loading trucks, collecting items such as scrap metal, selling old newspapers or car accessories, or working alongside their parents as day laborers. Many internally displaced Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children were forced to engage in begging or manual labor. Police asserted that begging was a family practice rather than an organized, large-scale activity, but this claim was disputed by several NGOs. Begging was readily observable, particularly in Podgorica and the coastal areas during the summer. During a March operation dubbed “Beggar,” police identified children forced to beg and prosecuted their parents, who faced misdemeanor charges. The children were returned to their families.

Despite operation “Beggar,” police seldom pressed charges against the adult perpetrators. Authorities placed victims of forced child labor who did not have guardians in the children’s correctional facility in Ljubovic. After leaving the facility, most children returned to forced begging. Romani NGOs tried to raise awareness of the problem and suggested the government did not provide sufficient resources to rehabilitate children begging and living on the street.

Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children, and section 7.b.). In 2019 the supreme state prosecutor indicted one individual for trafficking four children for the purpose of labor exploitation. The case remained pending.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion or other affiliation, national origin, citizenship, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, language, pregnancy, marital status, social status or origin, membership in political and trade union organizations, or health conditions, including HIV-positive status and other communicable diseases. The government did not enforce antidiscrimination laws and regulations effectively, and there were instances of discrimination on these bases. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other crimes related to denials of civil rights.

Persons with disabilities faced significant discrimination in employment despite affirmative action programs that provided significant financial incentives to employers to hire persons with disabilities. Although the state employment agency did not track the employment rate of persons with disabilities, it reported that 25.6 percent of unemployed persons were persons with disabilities. In addition, the NGO the Association of Youth with Disabilities reported that approximately 3,021 persons with disabilities were employed in the country. Advocates noted there were too few training programs for persons with disabilities to contribute significantly to their economic integration. Neither governmental entities nor private employers hired many persons with disabilities. NGOs reported employers often chose to pay fines rather than employ a person with a disability.

In late July, parliament passed a number of amendments to the Law on Pension and Disability Insurance, one of which changed the previous mandatory retirement age for both men and women from 67 to 66 for men and 64 for women, prompting outcries of gender-based discrimination. The amendments arose from the government’s consultation and public debate with the Union of Free Trade Unions, which asked for the right to earn a pension at the age of 65 for men and 62 for women, with the possibility to continue working until the age of 67 for all workers. In September the Association of Judges in Montenegro submitted an initiative to the Constitutional Court challenging the amendments, claiming that they violated the constitution and international treaties, which prescribe equality between women and men. More specifically, the Association claimed that if the amendments were implemented, a large number of judges would need to retire in the next year, including Supreme Court president Vesna Medenica, who would need to retire in the summer of 2021. In November the Constitutional Court agreed to begin proceedings on the initiative; a decision on the initiative was not expected until 2021.

Women were also, at times, subject to discrimination based on their marital status, pregnancy, or physical appearance. Employers did not respect all their legal obligations to pregnant women and sometimes reduced their responsibilities or fired them after they returned from maternity leave. A disproportionate share of women held jobs with lower levels of responsibility than men. Employers promoted women less frequently than men. Some job announcements for women explicitly included discriminatory employment criteria, such as age and physical appearance. Employers at times violated women’s entitlement to a 40-hour workweek, overtime, paid leave, and maternity leave. Societal expectations regarding women’s obligations to the family reduced their opportunities to obtain jobs and advance in the workplace. Nevertheless, an increasing number of women served in professional fields, such as law, science, and medicine. Women accounted for less than 9 percent of personnel in the armed forces and National Police Force.

According to the Union of Free Trade Unions, gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination existed in the workplace, but most victims were discouraged from reporting incidents due to several systemic issues. Very few employed women recognized certain behaviors as gender-based violence and harassment, and often it was very difficult for them to assess whether there was gender discrimination. Even when instances of gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination were clear, many victims were reluctant to report the violations due to few examples of successful prosecutions and fear of reprisal.

In 2019 the NGO Women’s Right Center published a study in which 34 percent of survey respondents said they had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment at work. Every tenth respondent said that a colleague or superior proposed to have sex with them, and 6 percent said they faced such sexual advances more than once. In addition, 5 percent of the respondents said that they had been forced to have sexual intercourse with their colleague or supervisor. In 71 percent of cases, the respondents stated that the person perpetrating the sexual harassment was in a higher position than they. Approximately half of the respondents who had experienced sexual harassment at work said they told someone about the incidents, while the other half said they did not tell anyone due to shame or fear of losing their jobs.

The law does not mandate equal pay for work of equal value. Women were not permitted to work in the same industries as men, as the government designated some jobs too dangerous to have women working in them, and women were not allowed to work the same night hours as men. Women also faced discrimination in access to pension benefits, as the legal age at which men and women could retire and access both full and partial pension benefits were not equal.

As part of COVID-19 health measures, the government decided to close kindergartens and schools, and parents of children under the age of 11 were entitled to take paid leave. In practice, however, private employers did not respect these measures and recipients were required to trade days off for holidays if seeking paid time off. Trade unions and NGOs reported that although the government partly subsidized one payment, employees were not receiving the full amount. Employees, especially women, often did not report such violations due to the risk of losing their jobs.

Bosniaks, who accounted for 9 percent of the country’s population, traditionally constituted 6 percent of the government workforce. Roma, displaced persons, refugees, and migrant workers faced employment discrimination. Migrant workers usually came from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, or Albania to work on construction sites and in agriculture. There were also instances of discrimination against unregistered domestic and foreign workers.

In July the Basic Court in Podgorica ruled that between 2009 and 2019, the Ministry of Defense committed severe forms of prolonged and repeated discrimination against the Trade Union of Defense and the Army of Montenegro. The court forbade any further discriminatory actions against the union. In the explanation of the sentence, the judge indicated that the ministry and general headquarters of the army systematically discriminated against the president of the union and its members for performing work activities related to the union. In 2018 the ombudsman issued an opinion recommending that the discriminator take adequate measures to eliminate uneven treatment within 30 days.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

According to the National Statistics Office, the national monthly minimum wage, was slightly above the government’s absolute poverty line. Significant portions of the workforce, particularly in rural areas and in the informal sector, earned less than the minimum wage.

The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week, and total work time cannot exceed 48 work hours per week on average within a four-month period, but seasonal workers often worked much longer. During the year new labor laws came into effect that provide new protections for employees with regard to required overtime, night work, and the duration of fixed-term employment contracts.

The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

Many workers, particularly women employed in the commercial, catering, and service industries, worked unpaid overtime, and employers sometimes forced them to work on religious holidays without additional compensation or to forgo their rights to weekly and annual leave. Employers sometimes failed to pay the minimum wage, other employee benefits, or mandatory contributions to pension funds. Employees often did not report such violations due to fear of retaliation. The practice of only formally paying a worker the minimum wage, thus being responsible for lower mandatory contributions, and giving the employee cash payments as a supplement was common. Also common was the practice of signing short-term work contracts or having lengthy “trial” periods for workers instead of signing them to permanent contracts as prescribed by law.

Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals, sometimes taking years. This led to an increase in the number of persons seeking recourse through alternative dispute resolution. Most disputes reviewed by the Agency for Peaceful Resolution of Labor Disputes involved accusations of government institutions violating laws on overtime, night work, holidays, social insurance contribution requirements, or other administrative regulations.

The government set occupational health and safety standards that were current and appropriate for the main industries. Regulations require employers and supervisors to supply and enforce the use of safety equipment, conduct risk assessment analysis, and report any workplace deaths or serious injuries within 24 hours.

The Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing wage, hour, and occupational health and safety laws. The number of labor inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance in the formal economy. Resources, remediation efforts, and investigations were not adequate to successfully identify, enforce, or prevent violations in the informal economy. The Union of Free Trade Unions reported that approximately 40,000 persons were employed in the informal economy. Penalties for violations of occupational health and safety standards were generally commensurate with those for other similar crimes in the formal sector. Labor inspectors have the legal authority to close an establishment until it corrects violations or to fine owners who commit repeated violations, although they rarely exercised this right in practice. Labor inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections.

Employment in the construction, energy, wood-processing, transportation, and heavy industries presented the highest risk of injury. During the first eight months of the year, the Labor Inspectorate registered 13 worker injuries, of which nine were serious injuries and four resulted in death.

The most frequent reasons cited for unsafe working conditions were the lenient fines for violations of safety rules, failure to use safety equipment, lack of work-related information and training, inadequate medical care for workers, and old or inadequately maintained equipment.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Montenegro
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.​


Note: Except where otherwise noted, all references in this report exclude the secessionist region of Transnistria.

The Republic of Moldova is a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections. The constitution provides for executive and legislative branches as well as an independent judiciary and a clear separation of powers. The president serves as the head of state and the prime minister serves as the head of government, appointed by the president with parliament’s support. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament. Presidential elections were held on November 1, and a run off on November 15, in which former prime minister Maia Sandu defeated the incumbent president, Igor Dodon, with 57.7 percent of the vote, making her the country’s first female president. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observers noted in their preliminary findings that fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected, but divisive campaigning and polarizing media coverage hindered voters’ access to quality information. Local and international election observers noted other irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote-buying of voters from the Transnistria region. Parliamentary elections in February 2019 met most Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe, and other international commitments, although observers noted allegations of vote buying and misuse of administrative resources.

The national police force reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and is the primary law enforcement body, responsible for internal security, public order, traffic, and criminal investigations. The agencies under the ministry are the General Police Inspectorate, Border Police, the Emergency Situations Inspectorate, Carabinieri (a quasi-militarized gendarmerie responsible for protecting public buildings, maintaining public order, and other national security functions), the Bureau for Migration and Asylum, the Internal Protection and Anticorruption Service, and the Material Reserves Agency. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture by government employees; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; criminal libel laws; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.

While authorities investigated reports of human rights abuses, they rarely prosecuted and punished officials accused of human rights violations or corruption. Impunity remained a major problem.

Significant human rights issues in separatist-controlled Transnistria included: forced disappearance by “authorities”; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by “authorities”; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the “judiciary;” arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, the existence of criminal libel laws, and overly restrictive “laws” on nongovernmental organizations; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; existence of the worst forms of child labor.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for investigating all killings involving security forces. Both the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defense have internal audit sections responsible for investigating misconduct and ensuring the professional integrity of its personnel. There is no specialized body specifically tasked with reviewing deaths at the hands of police or security forces to determine if they were justified.

In separatist-controlled Transnistria, there was at least one report of a politically motivated killing. On June 10, a 43-year-old businessman, Vadim Ceban, was found dead near his home in Tiraspol, reportedly beaten to death with a shovel. Ceban had openly criticized Transnistrian “authorities” and Russian officials on social media and was one of several local businessmen trying to fight oligarch Viktor Gushan and his Sheriff Corporation’s monopoly over the region’s economy. Ceban posted an image on a popular Transnistrian Facebook group saying, “Sheriff Repent!!!” one week before his death. No suspects have been identified in Ceban’s killing. Civil society activists condemned Ceban’s killing as politically motivated.

b. Disappearance

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

In Transnistria abductions by “security forces” became more common throughout the year. Between October 6 and 8, there were reports of at least four abductions of Moldovan citizens from their homes in the Security Zone, including two Moldovan government employees, by Transnistrian “state security.” After initially refusing to acknowledge or comment on the incident, separatist “authorities” acknowledged the “arrest” of the two Moldovan government employees and released them on October 8. The others remained in separatist custody (see section 1.d.).

There were also reports throughout the year of the disappearances of ordinary Moldovan citizens and Transnistria residents in the Transnistrian region. On August 31, Moldovan citizen Constantin Mamontov disappeared while passing through Transnistria on his way from Ukraine to government-controlled territory in Moldova. After Moldovan government authorities requested information from separatist “authorities” on Mamontov’s whereabouts on September 4, the “authorities” finally confirmed Mamontov’s detention on September 10. The human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Promo-LEX reported on September 13 that Mamontov managed to escape from the region after 13 days of illegal detention and having his whereabouts kept secret by separatist “authorities.” Promo-LEX asserted that Mamontov’s disappearance suggested retaliation by members of Transnistria’s “law enforcement” for their comrade, Andrei Samonii, a former Transnistrian militia member, who was arrested by Moldovan government authorities and sentenced to 15 years in prison for kidnapping, illegally detaining, and torturing Constantin Mamontov and his spouse on charges of stealing in 2015.

After defecting from the Transnistrian “army” and fleeing to government-controlled territory in 2015, Alexandru Rjavitin disappeared while visiting family in Transnistria in December 2019. Rjavitin reappeared in the Transnistrian “army” in January but reportedly escaped in June and was presumed to have returned to government-controlled territory.

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

While the law prohibits such practices, the antitorture prosecution office reported allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, mainly in detention facilities. Reports included cases of mistreatment in pretrial detention centers in police stations, particularly in regional police inspectorates. Impunity persisted and the number of prosecutions for torture initiated was far below the number of complaints filed.

The Office of the Prosecutor General’s antitorture division reported a decrease in mistreatment and torture cases during the year. During the first six months of the year, prosecutors received 262 allegations of mistreatment and torture, which included 241 cases of mistreatment, eight torture cases, and nine cases of law enforcement using threats or intimidation, including the actual or threatened use of violence, to coerce a suspect or witness to make a statement. In comparison authorities reported 456 allegations of mistreatment and torture during the first six months of 2019.

In September the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report detailing the findings from its January-February visit to the country. The report noted that the persistence of a prison subculture that fostered interprisoner violence and a climate of fear and intimidation, reliance on informal prisoner leaders to keep control over the inmate population, and a general lack of trust in the staff’s ability to guarantee prisoner safety remained serious concerns. The CPT reported several allegations of physical mistreatment (punches and kicks) by prison officers at Penitentiary No. 13 in Chisinau, the excessive use of force by staff when dealing with agitated inmates at the penitentiaries in Chisinau (No. 13), Cahul (No. 5), and Taraclia (No. 1) and excessively tight handcuffing at the Chisinau and Taraclia prisons.

In September a man was reportedly beaten in custody at the Cimislia Police Inspectorate’s Temporary Detention Isolator by one of the facility’s officers. The Moldovan Institute for Human Rights (IDOM) noted that during an audit of the facility, its monitor encountered a shirtless man in custody with bruises and injuries covering his face, arms, and torso. The man claimed that during questioning after his initial arrest, he was punched in the face by one of the facility’s officers and subjected to further physical abuse throughout his detention. The IDOM monitor conducting the audit reported seeing a laceration on the bridge of the man’s nose. The case was reported to the Anti-Torture Prosecutor’s Office, which was investigating at year’s end.

As of October, two criminal cases continued from the 2017 death of Andrei Braguta. Thirteen police officers are accused of inhuman treatment and torture against Braguta, and two doctors from Penitentiary No. 16, where Braguta died, are accused of workplace negligence. Braguta died in a pretrial detention facility in Chisinau in 2017 after being severely beaten by fellow inmates and being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment by prison authorities. In an August press conference, Braguta’s parents expressed concern regarding the impunity of the 13 police officers and two doctors involved in the case. According to them, 100 out of 140 court hearings have either been postponed or canceled since 2017. This claim was independently verified by Promo-Lex.

In Transnistria there were reports of allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in detention facilities, including denial of medical assistance and prolonged solitary confinement. There was no known mechanism to investigate alleged acts of torture by Transnistrian “security forces.” Promo-LEX noted that “authorities” perpetrated most inhuman and degrading treatment in the Transnistrian region in order to obtain self-incriminating confessions. Transnistrian “law enforcement” bodies did not publicly report any investigations or prosecutions for torture or inhuman treatment by Transnistrian “security forces” during the year.

In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case, Cazac and Surchician vs. Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation, holding the Russian Federation responsible for violating articles of the European Convention on Human Rights that prohibit torture and provide the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial; the right to respect for private and family life, and the right to an effective remedy. The case stemmed from the 2010 detention of Ilie Cazac by Transnistrian “law enforcement authorities,” who subsequently tried, convicted, and sentenced Cazac to 14 years in prison for “high treason.” During his time in pretrial detention and in prison after conviction, the ECHR found that Cazac was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Cazac reported being threatened with beating and infection with HIV. He also reported being: drugged; denied food, water, sleep, and the use of a toilet for extended periods; exposed to cellmates with active tuberculosis; and placed in a constant state of psychological stress and intimidation. Cazac was “pardoned” by Transnistrian “authorities” and released in 2011. The ECHR ordered the Russian Federation to pay Cazac and Surchician a total of 42,000 euros ($50,000) for nonpecuniary damages and 4,000 euros ($4,800) for costs and expenses.

The Transnistria-based human rights NGO MediaCenter reported continuing violations of detainees’ rights in Transnistrian prisons, pretrial detention centers, and centers for persons with special needs. Serghey Mantaluta, sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison on charges of smuggling and insulting an “official,” was denied medical assistance after a bone fracture and kept in solitary confinement without access to a toilet. Children at the Hlinaia residential center for orphans with special needs were reportedly subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment, including beating, dunking in washbasins, and other forms of corporal punishment.

Defense attorney Veaceslav Turcan alleged that his client, Ghenadyi Kuzmiciov, formerly Transnistria’s “minister of internal affairs,” suffered from inhuman detention conditions throughout the year. Kuzmiciov was abducted from government-controlled territory in 2017 and transported to Transnistria, where in 2019 he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of smuggling and illegal possession of firearms. Turcan stated that Kuzmiciov has been in solitary confinement and denied access to visitors, mail, and other outside communications since 2017.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Despite reconstruction work and minor improvements at several detention facilities, conditions in most prisons and detention centers remained harsh, owing to poor sanitation, lack of privacy, insufficient or no access to outdoor exercise, and a lack of facilities for persons with disabilities. During the year additional restrictions and lockdowns were put in place in the prisons for an extended period due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical Conditions: Prisons and detention centers were overcrowded. In a September report following its visit to the country in January-February, the CPT noted the existence of large-capacity dormitories, low staffing levels in prisons, and insufficient health-care personnel.

Health care was inadequate at most penitentiaries and worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic because of a lack of protective equipment. While government regulations require authorities to separate individuals suspected of suffering from tuberculosis from other detainees, authorities reportedly colocated individuals with various diseases with persons with an unconfirmed diagnosis of tuberculosis, potentially exposing them to the disease. Most penitentiaries lacked appropriate facilities for persons with disabilities, which led to inhuman and degrading treatment. There were 36 deaths in penitentiary facilities registered as of October, including five pretrial detainees. The National Penitentiary Administration reported heart disease and cancer as main causes of death among prison inmates. According to Promo-LEX, the deficient administration of health services in penitentiaries led to a low quality of medical services provided to prison inmates, which in many cases led to death. Independent monitors noted the existence of two parallel healthcare systems in the country: the public healthcare system and the unaccredited healthcare system in penitentiaries, as well as a lack of coordination between the two.

As of August 25, National Penitentiary Administration officials confirmed 30 cases of COVID-19 among inmates and 68 cases among prison staff since the start of the pandemic. Inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 were generally transferred to the prison medical facility at Penitentiary No. 16 in Pruncul for treatment.

Temporary detention facilities, located mostly in the basements of police stations, generally lacked natural light, adequate ventilation, and sewage systems. Human rights NGOs also noted facility staff did not feed pretrial detainees on the days of their court hearings–which in some cases meant they received no food for a day. In most cases detainees did not have access to potable water on the days of their court hearings.

In February the government applied a six-month moratorium on a compensatory mechanism enacted in January 2019 that allowed detainees to request a reduction of their sentences for poor detention conditions. According to a 2019 National Penitentiary Administration report, over 90 percent of detainees filed requests based on the compensatory mechanism. Courts examined 1,800 requests, reduced sentences by a total of 436,000 days, and released 128 persons from prison. Observers and legal NGOs noted that wealthy and politically connected individuals benefited from this mechanism more often than ordinary prisoners. In December 2019 former prime minister Vlad Filat was released from Penitentiary No. 13 in Chisinau after serving approximately three-and-a-half years of a nine-year sentence after the Chisinau District Court ruled that he had been held in “inhuman and degrading conditions.”

As in previous years, conditions at Penitentiary No.13 in Chisinau were reported the worst in the country. Detainees held there complained of detention in basement cells that did not meet national or international standards. Allegations of inhuman treatment persisted. In multiple cases the ECHR found that detention conditions in Penitentiary No. 13 were contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Cells were overcrowded (up to 16 inmates housed in an area measuring 258 square feet), unhygienic, and lacked ventilation, natural light, or permanent access to water for personal hygiene.

In separatist-controlled Transnistria, mistreatment of detainees remained a major problem. The Transnistrian “ombudsman” received 53 complaints from individuals detained in Transnistrian prisons. The Transnistrian “ombudsman” noted a slight decrease of complaints from detainees during the year. The “ombudsman” received four complaints about medical care in the prison system, which the “ombudsman” considered unfounded. According to Promo-LEX reports, detention conditions in Transnistria did not improve during the year, despite a 2019 report from the Transnistrian “ombudsman” indicating that detention conditions had improved. Transnistrian “authorities” continued to deny access for independent evaluation of detention center conditions.

Administration: Internal investigation procedures in the penitentiary system remained weak, and detainees had restricted access to complaint mechanisms. While detainees generally had the right to submit complaints to judicial authorities, they reported censorship and retaliatory punishment by prison personnel or other inmates before or after filing complaints. Prison administrations restricted the inmates’ access to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most court hearings of pretrial detainees were held online.

The CPT noted a chronic shortage of custodial staff in prisons, which led to a reliance on informal prisoner leaders to keep control over the inmate population, often through violence.

According to the Transnistrian “ombudsman,” there are 1,824 individuals serving prison terms in Transnistrian “department of corrections” institutions as of January 1.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights observers, including the CPT. Prison officials generally allowed observers to interview inmates in private. Prison administrations applied COVID-19 related restrictions on monitoring visits since the start of the pandemic.

Human rights NGOs from both Transnistria and government-controlled areas of the country reported being denied access to Transnistrian prisons by separatist “authorities.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was granted extremely limited access to individual prisoners by “authorities” on a case-by-case basis. There were no reports of any independent monitoring of detention facilities in the Transnistrian region. According to the Transnistrian “ombudsman” (an institution which is not independent of the ruling regime), detention conditions slightly improved during 2019. Most pretrial detention cells lacked personal beds for detained individuals and toilet facilities, and was qualified by the Transnistrian “ombudsman” as an “infringement against human dignity.”

Improvements: According to human rights NGOs, the situation in police station detention facilities slightly improved due to renovations. Based on the Ombudsman’s Torture Prevention Division recommendations, some pretrial detention units within police stations ceased operating or underwent repairs in line with minimum detention standards.

The CPT noted improvements of the material conditions at the prisons in Chisinau, Cahul, Taraclia, and several police detention facilities. During the year the National Penitentiary Administration piloted and expanded the use of video conferencing to facilitate inmate participation in court hearings. The country lacks adequate staff for prisoner transport, and increased access to justice via video conferences reduces the physical hardships for inmates to be transferred from prisons to courts, where they must often wait for many hours in difficult conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Nonetheless, selective justice remained an issue and lawyers complained of instances in which their defendants’ rights to a fair trial were denied.

In Transnistria there were frequent reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. De facto “authorities” reportedly engaged with impunity in arbitrary arrest and detention. In January in the case Cazac and Surchician vs. Republic of Moldovan and the Russian Federation, the ECHR held Russia responsible for violating provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights including the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, and the right to an effective remedy (see section 1.c.).

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law allows judges to issue arrest warrants based on evidence from prosecutors. Authorities must promptly inform detainees of the reasons for their arrest and describe the charges against them. Authorities may detain suspects without charge for 72 hours.

Once charged, a detainee may be released pending trial. The law provides for bail, but authorities generally did not use it due to a lack of practical mechanisms for implementation. In lieu of confinement, the courts may also impose house arrest or travel restrictions. The Superior Council of Magistrates reported that judges rarely applied alternative arrest measures. The law provides safeguards against arbitrary use of pretrial detention and requires noncustodial alternatives wherever possible. Judges disproportionally used noncustodial alternative detention mechanisms in cases with political implications.

Detainees have the right to a defense attorney. The government required the local bar association to provide representation to indigent defendants, but the government frequently delayed reimbursement of legal fees. Indigent defendants often did not have adequate counsel.

According to the CPT report issued in September, despite the law requiring that suspects be granted access to a lawyer from the moment they are detained, some criminal suspects were only granted access to legal counsel after initial questioning by police.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary pretrial detention continued to be a problem during the year. In April the Legal Resources Center of Moldova (LRCM) submitted a communication to the ECHR on existing protections and authorities’ efforts to prevent unjustified detention based on the Sarban group of cases that consists of 14 ECHR judgments against the country for various violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, most related to pretrial detention. The LRCM concluded that the high rate of remand and weak justification for remand orders remained a problem. Even though the number of pretrial detention orders (1,864) in 2019 was lower than in previous years, judges did not properly examine remand requests. In 2019 the approval rate for remand requests reached an all-time high–93.5 percent–compared with 88.4 percent in 2018. According to the LRCM, alternative preventive measures (such as home detention and release on recognizance) were used only to a limited extent and the high rate of arbitrary remand was also due to insufficient judicial independence and prosecutorial bias by many investigative judges as well as a high caseload, which impeded a thorough examination of case materials.

In its earlier reports, the ombudsman noted judges continued to order pretrial detention for persons with serious illnesses and the National Penitentiary Administration allowed lengthy pretrial detention of persons with worsening health conditions which in some cases led to death. During the year five persons died in pretrial detention.

In separatist-controlled Transnistria, arbitrary arrests were common throughout the year. On August 31, Moldovan citizen Constantin Mamontov was apprehended by separatist “law enforcement” while transiting the territory and detained illegally for 13 days (see section 1.b.). A Transnistrian “court” in Camenca had previously twice denied warrants to arrest Mamontov requested by Transnistrian “authorities” for an alleged 2015 theft, and the local militia arrested Mamontov for the third time on hooliganism charges. Mamontov escaped and swam across the Nistru River to government-controlled territory after being ordered released for a third time by the “court.” Mamontov was previously abducted from government-controlled territory in 2015 and beaten by Transnistrian local militia. Mamontov’s arrest came two weeks after one of his abusers, militia “officer” Andrei Samonii, was convicted in August by a Moldovan court for kidnapping and torture and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Human rights NGO Promo-LEX believed Mamontov’s arbitrary arrest was intended either as revenge for Samonii’s imprisonment or to facilitate a possible prisoner swap for Samonii.

On October 6, Transnistrian “state security” (“MGB”) abducted a Moldovan police officer, Andrei Amarfi, from his home in Camenca district in separatist-controlled territory. On October 7 and 8, three other Moldovan citizens residing in Camenca–Alexandru Puris, Adrian Glijin, and Stanislav Minzarari–were abducted by the “MGB.” Transnistrian “authorities” later announced espionage and high treason charges against all four. Amarfi was the Moldovan police officer sent in 2015 to retrieve Mamontov and his wife from separatists after they were kidnapped and tortured. Puris, an employee of Moldova’s Public Services Agency, processed Andrei Samonii’s application for a Moldovan passport in January and notified Moldovan police of his presence on government-controlled territory, leading to his arrest. Both Amarfi and Puris testified at Samonii’s kidnapping and torture trial. On October 8, following a telephone call between President Dodon and Transnistrian “leader” Krasnoselsky, separatist “authorities” announced that Amarfi and Puris were released from pretrial arrest but were not permitted to leave the region while charges remained pending. Glijin and Minzarari remained in custody as of November. Separatist “authorities” acknowledged that the arrests were related to Samonii’s conviction and imprisonment and have suggested that the “Camenca Four” could be released if Samonii was returned to separatist-controlled territory.

Pretrial Detention: The law permits pretrial detention for up to 30 days, which the courts may extend, upon the request of prosecutors, in 30-day increments for up to 12 months, depending on the severity of the charges. Pretrial detention lasting from several months to one year was common. In line with the ombudsman’s recommendations, the Prosecutor General’s Office decreed on March 19 that, as a COVID-19 preventative measure, pretrial arrests could only be requested in extreme circumstances. As a result the number of pretrial detainees decreased during the state of emergency and the public health state of emergency that followed.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, government officials’ failure to respect judicial independence remained a problem. The establishment of an electronic case management system increased transparency in the assignment of judges to cases. Nonetheless, selective justice continued to be a problem, and lawyers complained of violations of defendants’ rights to a fair public trial.

In a September report analyzing ECHR judgments against Moldova since the country joined the European Convention of Human Rights in 1997, the LRCM found that the failure to respect the right to a fair trial was the most frequent human rights violation reported to the court (200 out of 616 human rights violations).

Media representatives and NGOs were concerned about limitations on access to data on the national courts’ information portal developed by the Ministry of Justice’s Agency for Court Administration. Civil society and journalists complained that, because there was no search option, they could not find the names of those involved in court cases, nor could they determine who adjudicated or prosecuted a case. The courts restricted public access to the final judgement issued in a high-profile case involving a former intelligence service head on national security grounds.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial. Although the law presumes the innocence of defendants in criminal cases, judges’ remarks occasionally jeopardized the presumption of innocence.

Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, and of their right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to a lawyer and to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence. The law requires the government to provide an attorney to indigent defendants. The practice of appointing temporary defense lawyers without allowing them to prepare adequately was common and undermined the right to legal assistance. Defendants can request postponement of a hearing if attorneys need additional time for preparation. Interpretation is provided upon request and was generally available. Judges can delay hearings if additional time is needed to find interpreters for certain uncommon languages. Defendants may refuse to provide evidence against themselves, unless they plead guilty and the judge reviews and endorses their guilty plea. The law provides a right to appeal convictions to a higher court on matters of fact and law.

Justice NGOs noted that courts repeatedly delayed hearings without justification in high profile cases. In one example, hearings on a criminal appeal by Ilan Shor, the leader of the Shor Party, a member of parliament, and the mayor of Orhei, were delayed throughout the year.

In Transnistria, “authorities” disregarded fair trial procedures and denied defendants a fair trial. Attorneys in Transnistria reported that “authorities” regularly denied accused individuals the right to an attorney of their choosing and that trials were often held in secret without public announcement of charges.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of numerous alleged politically motivated criminal cases initiated by the former ruling Democratic Party of Moldova. Many of the cases were initiated against political rivals of the former party leader, Vlad Plahotniuc, and some prosecutors reported being pressured to pursue cases selectively of corruption, money laundering, and fraud against certain individuals, while ignoring or dropping charges against others who were tied to Plahotniuc’s network. Many of those involved in these politically motivated cases saw their cases proceed more quickly than others in the justice system. In addition many of those subjected to pretrial detention were held in Penitentiary No. 13 in Chisinau, which was notorious for its poor conditions and violence between inmates. On October 27, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had closed 19 out of 38 alleged politically motivated cases. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued to investigate the remaining 19 cases through the year.

In Transnistria there were reports of several political prisoners held during the year, many of whom were held for exercising their freedom of expression or criticizing the de facto authorities. Oleg Horjan, the leader of the Communist Party and formerly the sole opposition member of the “Supreme Soviet” (“parliament”) of Transnistria, continued to serve a four-and-a-half year sentence in Hlinaia Penitentiary on assault charges and for “insulting” de facto authorities. Human rights lawyers and NGOs have called the charges politically motivated. Horjan’s lawyers and family alleged that he was subject to abuse in detention. Transnistrian “authorities” denied the Moldovan ombudsman access to his place of detention. In early August, Horjan went on a hunger strike to protest restrictions by the Hlinaia penitentiary administration, including solitary confinement and denial of visits, mail or other outside communications, and reading materials. He was reportedly hospitalized in the prison infirmary on September 10 after his health had rapidly deteriorated and then moved to the Tiraspol Veteran’s Hospital on September 15 in serious condition. Horjan was returned to prison after ending his hunger strike on September 23.

Tatiana Belova and her spouse, Serghei Mirovici, were arrested in August 2019 for insulting Transnistrian “leader” Vadim Krasnoselsky on social media. Transnistrian “authorities” kept Belova and Mirovici’s arrest, pretrial detention, and trial secret. In March, Belova and Mirovici were sentenced to three years in prison in a closed trial without a defense attorney. On July 14, Belova was released following “an admission of guilt,” request for clemency, and promise to refrain from all political activity. Human rights activists asserted that the actions were coerced. Mirovoci remained imprisoned and was reportedly on a hunger strike as of September 10.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law allows citizens to seek damages in civil courts for human rights violations. Under the constitution, the government is liable when authorities violate a person’s rights by administrative means, fail to reply in a timely manner to an application for relief, or commit misconduct during a prosecution. Judgments awarded in such cases were often small and not enforced. Once all domestic avenues for legal remedy are exhausted, individuals may appeal cases involving the government’s alleged violation of rights provided under the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR. Citizens who have exhausted all available domestic remedies may also submit a written communication to the UN Human Rights Committee. As of July there were 1,096 applications filing complaints against the state pending before the ECHR.

While the government declared a zero-tolerance policy toward torture, alleged victims of torture frequently lacked access to effective civil judicial remedies, especially in cases involving mistreatment in penal institutions.

A mediation law establishes an alternative mechanism for voluntarily resolving civil and criminal cases and sets forth rules for professional mediators. Under the law, a nine-member mediation council selected by the Minister of Justice coordinates the mediators’ activity.

Property Restitution

The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration and the Guidelines and Best Practices. Although the law provides for restitution of private property confiscated during the “totalitarian regimes which controlled Moldovan territory between 1917 and 1992 and for citizens who were subject to reprisals based on political, national, religious, or social grounds,” it does not apply to communal or religious property confiscated from minority groups. The law specifically refers to private property restoration for victims of the Soviet regime. The government has enacted no laws concerning restitution of communal property nor made progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens.

A 2010 report published by the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad catalogued 100 Jewish communal properties in Moldova, including cemeteries, monuments, houses, hospitals, colleges, and other buildings, most of which are not owned or controlled by the country’s Jewish community. While a few properties, such as the Hay Synagogue in Chisinau and the Cahul Synagogue in Cahul, have been returned to the Jewish community by the state, in most cases Jewish organizations have had to purchase or lease communal and religious properties from the government in order to regain possession. Purchased properties include the Wooden (or Lemnaria) Synagogue and the Rabbi Tsirelson Synagogue and Yeshiva, both in Chisinau.

The Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC), subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC), under the Romanian Orthodox Church, were engaged in litigation over control of approximately 718 churches, monasteries, and monuments designated by the government as national heritage assets, most of which are controlled by the MOC under a 2007 agreement between the church and the government. The BOC also sued the government to annul the 2007 agreement.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau has submitted a case to the ECHR seeking restitution for a Catholic school property seized by Soviet authorities which is now part of the Moldovan Presidency Building complex. The Catholic Diocese of Chisinau and the government agreed to seek an amicable settlement to the ECHR case but have not reached an agreement on the transfer of an alternative state-owned property to the diocese as restitution.

The country’s Lutheran community has repeatedly petitioned the government for compensatory state-owned land as restitution for the former site of Saint Nicholas Lutheran Church in central Chisinau. The church was seized by Soviet authorities in 1944 and demolished in 1962. The Presidency Building now occupies the former site of the church.

For more information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see that Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020 at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress.

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

The constitution prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence unless necessary to ensure state security, economic welfare or public order, or to prevent crimes. Government agents often failed to respect these prohibitions. Wiretap and surveillance practices continued during the year, although reportedly with fewer cases of politically motivated surveillance operations than during the Democratic Party of Moldova-led government.

Reports of illegal wiretaps of the telephones of political leaders; surveillance; threats against family members; and intimidation against regional representatives of ruling and opposition parties continued during the year and intensified closer to the November 1 presidential elections. In September 2019 the interim prosecutor general announced the initiation of criminal cases against four Interior Ministry employees, three prosecutors, and four judges by the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office for wiretapping of politicians, civil society activists, and journalists between 2017 and 2019. The investigations continued as of year’s end. In July a group of five persons who were under surveillance in 2019, including two civil society leaders, a member of an opposition political party, and two journalists, sent a complaint to the ECHR alleging illegal wiretapping and surveillance by authorities in 2019. Opposition parties reported the unsanctioned use of personal data of citizens abroad during the preliminary registration of voters for the November 1 presidential elections.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression and allows individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. Restrictions apply only in cases when such discussion poses a threat to national security, territorial integrity, public order, or safety. Nonetheless, there were allegations that authorities did not always respect freedom of expression for the press. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Concentration of ownership of major media outlets in the hands of a few political figures, and oligarchs further limited the independence of the press.

Freedom of Speech: In Transnistria a 2020-2026 Strategy for Combating Extremism was approved on March 20 that provides “authorities” new repressive tools to silence dissent and further repress freedom of expression, complementing the existing 2007 “law” on fighting extremism activities. There were at least five individuals facing charges pursuant to the “antiextremism” law for publicly criticizing the de facto “authorities” during the year.

Larisa Calic, a writer from Transnistria, was charged with extremism after she published a book about violent hazing and corruption in the Transnistrian “army.” Calic fled Transnistria and was in hiding. Alexandr Samonii, a member of the Tiraspol “city council” for the opposition Communist Party, has been under investigation since June 2 for extremism based on social media postings in which he criticized the ruling regime in Transnistria. Samonii reportedly fled Transnistria and remained in hiding. Individuals such as Oleg Horjan, Tatiana Belova, and Serghei Mirovici (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees) were sentenced to prison for criticizing “authorities” by “insulting a public official,” an act which is prohibited under the region’s “criminal code.”

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to media, NGOs, and international monitors, independent media were active and expressed a plurality of views but were often marginalized by larger outlets owned or controlled by a few politicians and oligarchs. Large media outlets pressured smaller outlets, including by colluding to prevent advertisers from buying advertising space from those smaller outlets, which brought several to the brink of closing. Prominent journalists left key outlets acquired by oligarchs. Internal and external propaganda and manipulation, concentration of ownership of mass media in the hands of some politicians and oligarchs, unfair competition within the television advertising market, and limited independence of the broadcasting regulatory authority, the Audiovisual Council (CCA), were among the major problems that restricted independent media space.

Oligarchs closely supervised content and maintained editorial control over reporting from outlets they owned or controlled. Russian news channels rebroadcast in the country continued to disseminate propaganda and presented distorted information about regional and international events.

Media outlets supportive of President Dodon and the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova expanded their dominance in the media market, replacing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vlad Plahotniuc as having the largest media holdings.

On March 24, during the state of emergency that was declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCA issued a ruling blocking media outlets from criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic or reporting information that contradicted the government or World Health Organization’s official statements. The CCA cancelled the order on March 26 after public outcry from NGOs, opposition parties, and diplomatic missions.

On July 9, parliament approved the appointment of three new CCA members; opposition parliamentarians claimed the selection process was not transparent or inclusive.

Independent media NGOs and watchdogs accused the CCA and the public broadcaster, Teleradio Moldova, of progovernment bias. The NGOs also noted the government discriminated against media outlets that were not affiliated with President Dodon or the Socialist Party by refusing them access to senior officials for interviews.

On October 26, the CCA penalized TV8 with a 7,000 lei (approximately $400) fine for “not ensuring impartiality” during the talk show “Natalia Morari’s Politics.” The CCA ruled that the show failed to uphold impartiality and balance of opinion when one of the guests on the talk show, lawyer Ștefan Gligor, said there were risks of election fraud in the upcoming November 1 presidential election. The CCA stated that TV8 failed to give airtime to the opposing view. TV8 representatives stated that the channel ensured balance of opinion throughout the show and did not limit the right to freedom of expression. TV8 characterized the CCA’s action as an attempt to silence media discussion of possible electoral fraud and “an attack on freedom of expression.” On October 31, the Chisinau Court of Appeal struck down the CCA fine and ruled that TV8 did not violate the requirement for balance of opinion. On November 1, the Supreme Court of Justice affirmed the Court of Appeal ruling cancelling the fine.

Media freedom in separatist-controlled Transnistria remained a concern despite the local “authorities’” declarations that they would promote competition and media freedom. During the year, Freedom House again assessed the Transnistrian region’s media as “not free.” Transnistrian television channels and radio stations are regulated by the “state media service” and “state telecommunications service.” The “state media service” oversees “state-run” media and “state” policy in the information sector.

Two organizations controlled the Transnistrian mass media market: the “Public Agency for Telecommunication,” which controlled official news information agencies, newspapers, and one of the two most popular television channels; and Sheriff Holding, a business conglomerate with considerable influence in the Transnistrian “Supreme Soviet.”

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of government and political leaders obstructing freedom of the press by restricting the media’s ability to cover events. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Female journalists, in particular, were subjected to intimidation.

On May 20, the Nordnews.md portal team was denied access to the headquarters of the Drochia district council where President Dodon met representatives of local public authorities. Employees of the State Protection and Guard Service (SPPS) also prohibited filming of the presidential motorcade.

On May 18, journalist Natalia Cebotari was fined 2,400 lei (approximately $140) by police for alleged defamation for her coverage of abusive and unhealthy work conditions at a textile factory in the town of Ceadir-Lunga that had also violated COVID-19 safety guidelines. She was charged only after the factory manager filed a complaint with local police. The media community condemned the move as interference with media freedom.

There were also reports of government officials initiating lawsuits against media outlets for their investigative reporting into corruption allegations and the officials’ personal assets.

In January, Deputy Prosecutor General Ruslan Popov filed a defamation lawsuit against the Center for Independent Journalism in response to two investigative reports implicating him in corruption.

In May the Ziarul de Garda newspaper was targeted in a defamation lawsuit by President Igor Dodon in response to an investigation revealing his wealth and assets. The second hearing was scheduled for September, but did not take place due to Dodon’s refusal to attend. The hearing was postponed to November.

Censorship or Content Restriction: In many cases, journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the sponsors or owners of their media outlets, many of whom are politicians or oligarchs connected to political parties.

Journalists voiced concern that a personal data protection law restricted journalists’ access to information. In addition investigating journalists complained of problems accessing websites of legal entities. Journalists also noted that a March 18 decision by the Emergency Situation Commission’s to extend the deadline for authorities to respond to public information requests from 15 days to 45 days during the state of emergency, undermined the public’s right to access to information.

In Transnistria journalists similarly practiced self-censorship and avoided criticizing separatists’ goal of independence or their “foreign policy” to avoid “official” reprisals.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are punishable by a fine, community service, being barred from holding certain public offices for a period of months, or a combination of these punishments. Defamation is not a crime, but individuals and organizations can be sued civilly for defamation. Some newspapers practiced self-censorship and avoided controversial issues due to concerns that government officials and other public figures could use slander or defamation accusations to retaliate against critical news reports (see the Natalia Cebotari case under Violence and Harassment, above).

As modified in March 2019, the “law” in Transnistria criminalizes public insults of the region’s “leader,” which may be punished by a fine or up to five years in prison.

On April 7, Transnistrian “law enforcement” arrested Irina Vasilachi, a civic activist and opposition politician, after she accused Igor Nebeigolova, a close ally of former Transnistrian “leader” Igor Smirnov, of corruption and criminal activity on her YouTube channel, where she posted videos criticizing the Transnistrian leadership and its associates. Vasilachi was found guilty of slander and fined the equivalent of $170. Irina Vasilachi fled the region for Chisinau with her children on December 20, fearing arrest in a criminal case opened against her in Transnistria on accusations of using force against Transnistrian law enforcement officials on April 7. Tatiana Belova and Serghei Mirovici were similarly arrested and received three-year prison sentences for “insulting” the Transnistrian “leader” online (see also section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Internet Freedom

The government did restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

On March 20, the country’s national intelligence agency, the Information and Security Service, blocked 52 online news portals for the duration of the 60-day state of emergency period, claiming that the sites were spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Transnistria the agency on telecommunication services ordered the second largest internet service provider (ISP), Linkservice in Transnistria, operating in Bender/Tighina, to cease operations on January 12 due to violations of the region’s ISP “regulations.” On April 28, an “appeals court” allowed Linkservice to continue its operations throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency in the region. Internet users and civil society in Transnistria suggested that the region’s largest ISP, Sheriff-controlled Inderdnestrcom, was trying to eliminate its competitors in the ISP market in Transnistria.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The National Extraordinary Public Health Commission restricted public gatherings and cultural events during a state of emergency and public health state of emergency imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no other government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events outside of quarantine restrictions.

In Transnistria Latin-script schools continued to be the subject of a dispute between the government and separatist “authorities” in Transnistria. COVID-19 quarantine measures imposed by “authorities” obstructed the free movement of Latin-script schools’ staffs and students across the administrative line from March until September 1. Teachers could not cross the line to receive their salaries from the government. Starting September 1, Latin-script school students and staffs were once again allowed to cross the administrative line with proper identification.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; authorities imposed additional restrictions during the state of emergency declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of assembly. While the government usually respected this right, there were several exceptions.

On July 16, a group of veterans from the 1992 Transnistria conflict protested the government’s failure to improve veterans’ services. Police prevented protesters from erecting tents outside the parliament building, leading to clashes between law enforcement and the protesters. Civil society and opposition claimed riot police violently dispersed the protesters and disproportionately used crowd-dispersing methods, such as batons, Tasers, and tear gas. Several protesters were arrested for allegedly assaulting police, and an opposition member of parliament claimed to have witnessed police beating a protester. Human rights NGOs condemned police actions against the protesters, calling them “disproportionate and unjustified.”

The government also banned public gatherings during the COVID-19 state of emergency, but allowed small-scale gatherings of up to 50 persons during the subsequent public health state of emergency, provided that participants respected social distance. “Authorities” in Transnistria continued to restrict freedom of assembly and generally refused permits for public protests.

“Authorities” in Transnistria continued to restrict freedom of assembly and generally refused permits for public protests.

Ghenadie Ciorba, a civil society activist and opponent of the Transnistrian regime, was charged with extremism for organizing a July 2 protest on the Ribnita-Rezina Bridge against travel restrictions imposed by the Transnistrian “authorities” under the pretext of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. He remained in pretrial detention at year’s end. Nine other protesters received administrative fines.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association and states that citizens are free to form parties and other social and political organizations, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits organizations “engaged in fighting against political pluralism, the principles of the rule of law, or the sovereignty and independence or territorial integrity” of the country.

In Transnistria separatist “authorities” severely restricted freedom of association, granting it only to persons they recognized as “citizens” of the region. All activities had to be coordinated with local “authorities”; groups that did not comply faced criminal charges and harassment by “security forces.” “Authorities” strictly prohibited organizations favoring reintegration with the rest of the country and prosecuted several individuals for organizing or leading an extremist group–charges that carry a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government restricted foreign travel and closed or partially closed international borders with neighboring countries.

In Transnistria “authorities” continued to restrict travel to and from the region and imposed additional travel restrictions during the year, citing concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-country movement: Transnistrian “authorities” continued to impose restrictions on travel to and from the region and installed 37 (later reduced to 11) illegal checkpoints in the Nistru Valley Security Zone without Joint Control Commission authorization on the pretext of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Movements through separatist checkpoints were subject to prior approval from the Transnistrian “COVID-19 crisis center,” headed by the Transnistrian “minister of interior,” Ruslan Mova. The Moldovan government, Moldovan human rights NGOs, and Transnistria residents condemned the movement restrictions as abusive and a human rights violation.

Foreign Travel: Although citizens generally may depart from and return to the country freely, there were some limitations on emigration and COVID-19-related travel restrictions. The law requires individuals to settle before emigrating all outstanding financial obligations with other persons or legal entities. The government did not strictly enforce this requirement. The law also provides that close relatives who are financially dependent on a potential emigrant must concur before the prospective emigrant may depart the country. Authorities did not enforce this law.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s borders with Ukraine and Romania remained closed or partially closed for most of the year. Moldovan citizens and permanent residents, accredited diplomats, and those with preapproved travel were permitted to enter the country during the state of emergency and there were no restrictions on departing the country.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The law does not define the concept of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and authorities do not report any official data on IDPs as such.

Nevertheless NGOs such as Promo-LEX and a 2004 Norwegian Refugee Council report estimated that approximately 130,000 persons were displaced by the 1992 conflict in Transnistria, with approximately 51,000 of them residing in government-controlled territory. IDPs may include victims of forced displacement by the Transnistrian “authorities,” former combatants, and persons who left the separatist-controlled region for political reasons.

Transnistrian “authorities” denied Moldovan veterans of the 1992 Transnistria conflict access to the region. The Moldovan Reintegration Policy Bureau noted three cases during the year in which separatist “authorities” issued three-year expulsion orders for veterans whose permanent domicile was located in separatist-controlled territory.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: On July 15, the Buiucani branch of the Chisinau Court found former Security and Information Service director Vasile Botnari guilty of the illegal deportation of seven Turkish teachers (the verdict was sealed until September). The teachers had been forcibly returned to Turkey in 2018, where they were imprisoned. The court ordered Botnari pay a fine of 88,000 lei ($5,300) and he was given a five-year ban on holding public office. Botnari was also ordered to reimburse the state 125,000 euros ($150,000) for damages to the teachers’ families as a result of a 2019 ECHR ruling that their human rights had been violated. Botnari was also ordered to pay the 348,432 lei ($21,000) cost of renting the plane used for the deportation. Prosecutors initially requested a three-year prison sentence for Botnari but did not appeal the court’s July 15 ruling. Opposition parties criticized the judiciary for the unusually lenient sentence and called on prosecutors to reopen the investigation. Prosecutions against the former deputy head of the intelligence service and the head of the Bureau for Migration and Asylum were dropped during the year.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The process for obtaining formal refugee status was slow, but conducted in line with international and European standards. Authorities issued refugees identity cards valid indefinitely; beneficiaries of humanitarian protection received identification documents valid for three years; and asylum seekers received temporary identification cards. UNHCR provided refugees financial support. A temporary accommodation center administered by the Bureau of Migration and Asylum was available for asylum seekers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government halted deportations of asylum seekers but did not formally extend their visas. The law does not allow unemployed asylum seekers to purchase state health insurance, but asylum seekers still had access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country has a policy of presumptive denial of asylum seekers from Ukraine displaced by the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. The country had previously accepted Ukrainian asylum seekers but determined that Ukraine’s process for protecting and resettling internally displaced persons was sufficient. The majority of displaced Ukrainians preferred to transit Moldova, then seek asylum in the EU.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 246 persons registered in the national asylum system as of July.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR, there were 1,899 persons registered as stateless in the country, 73 percent of whom resided in Transnistria. According to immigration law experts, the majority of stateless persons fell into one of two categories: 1) former citizens of the Soviet Union residing in Moldova who are ineligible for Moldovan citizenship and do not hold another country’s citizenship; and 2) Moldovan citizens who renounced their citizenship in order to acquire another citizenship and have not notified Moldovan authorities of any subsequent acquisition of citizenship. Experts assessed that most persons in the second category, especially Transnistria residents, are not actually stateless and have mostly acquired Russian citizenship or another nationality. There were 7,956 Moldovan citizens who did not possess any valid documentation of Moldovan citizenship but who did have Soviet passports endorsed by the Moldovan Public Services Agency, which serve as a prima facie proof of citizenship. There were an additional 1,547 persons of indeterminate citizenship status.

Stateless persons and refugees may gain citizenship through naturalization. The law allows a refugee or stateless person who has resided legally in the country for eight years to seek citizenship. The family reunion process for naturalized refugees was burdensome. The government issued residence permits for a period of up to one year to stateless persons temporarily residing in the country at a cost ranging from approximately 400 to 1,280 lei ($23.40 to $75) depending on the speed of service, with higher prices for expedited processing. Trafficking victims received residence permits free of charge.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential elections were held on November 1, with a runoff November 15, in which former prime minister Maia Sandu defeated the incumbent president, Igor Dodon, with 57.7 percent of the vote, making her the country’s first female president. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observers noted in their preliminary findings that fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected, but divisive campaigning and polarizing media coverage hindered voters’ access to quality information. Local and international election observers noted other irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote buying of voters from the Transnistria region. Parliamentary elections in February 2019 met most Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe, and other international commitments, although observers noted allegations of vote buying and misuse of administrative resources.

Due to challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided a limited election observation mission that primarily monitored the campaign climate, campaign financing, and media freedom in the lead up to the elections with a limited presence observing election-day procedures. Local observers worked to largely fill this gap. International and local observers from ODIHR and local NGO Promo-LEX released preliminary reports November 2 and 16, noting the elections generally respected fundamental freedoms and preliminary results reflected voters’ will. Observers noted some election irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote-buying of voters from the Transnistria region.

A pre-election report by the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations found some deficiencies and electoral code violations, including: unclear electoral legislation which allowed for varying interpretations of the law; negative campaign tactics and candidates’ use of hate speech; candidates making electoral promises which are not within the president’s powers to fulfill; and unlawful campaigning during the candidate signature collection process.

On March 15, authorities conducted parliamentary by-elections in single-mandate district No. 38 in Hincesti after the parliamentary seat became vacant. Opposition parties and civil society criticized the government for conducting elections amid COVID-19 outbreaks in two district villages. On March 16, an entire village was quarantined. Promo-LEX reported correct voting procedures were generally followed but that the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of clear health and safety precautions led to low turnout.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties reported fewer incidents of intimidation and politically motivated criminal cases against their members by authorities. Some 20 parliamentarians from the Democratic Party of Moldova defected to join the Pro Moldova Party or the Shor Party amid allegations of bribery and intimidation. Pro Moldova parliamentarians complained of alleged intimidation, wiretapping, and illegal surveillance. Political migration resumed on the eve of the November 1 presidential elections. Several days before the election, five Pro Moldova members of parliament announced their defection from the party and their merger with the Shor Party parliamentary faction to create a new “For Moldova” Platform. As of mid-November, the “For Moldova” Platform consisted of 16 members.

Several alleged politically motivated cases against members of parliament and political party leaders ensued throughout the year. On July 2, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a criminal investigation into a complaint by parliamentarian Stefan Gatcan alleging he was kidnapped, threatened, and forced to resign from parliament after defecting from the ruling Party of Socialists to join Pro Moldova. After reportedly fleeing the country, Gatcan withdrew his criminal complaint and returned to parliament and the Party of Socialists.

On March 13, the Supreme Court of Justice ordered Shor Party candidate Vitalie Balinschi to be removed from the ballot in the parliamentary by-election for the single-mandate district No.38 in Hincesti two days before the election. Balinschi was removed from the ballot for exceeding the electoral expenditures threshold. The Shor Party complained that the removal was politically motivated, and independent election monitors noted that similar infractions committed by other candidates were not punished.

The criminal case against Gheorghe Petic, the leader of the opposition Dignity and Truth Platform Party branch in Ungheni, was under review at year’s end. Petic was sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment on charges of rape after harshly criticizing the ruling party’s leadership and the country’s Border Police for allegedly covering up illegal smuggling activities, in what Petic alleged was a politically motivated case. In July 2019, after the Democratic Party of Moldova ceded power, Petic was released from detention and his case was sent for reconsideration to the district court.

After he fled the country in June 2019 due to alleged threats against him and his family, prosecutors in May charged former Democratic Party of Moldova chairman Vladimir Plahotniuc for his role in a $1 billion banking fraud in 2014-15, issued an arrest warrant, and sought his extradition.

Court hearings in Shor Party leader Ilan Shor’s case resumed in September after an almost two-year delay. Shor was appealing his seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for large-scale fraud and money laundering related to the 2014 billion dollar banking fraud. In November the case was put on hold again after the judge examining the case resigned, allegedly under pressure, and Shor’s lawyers appealed a nonconstitutionality exception clause to the Constitutional Court.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the ability of women and members of minority groups to participate in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides that each gender must have a minimum of 40 percent of candidates on the party lists of candidates for parliamentary and local elections. As of September, 35 percent of national legislature candidates were women, and 25 percent of the elected positions in the national legislature were occupied by women. The law provides for a 10 percent financial supplement from the state budget for political parties to promote female candidates elected in single-mandate districts. The law requires that 20 percent of public subsidy allocations to parties and candidates be used to promote women candidates. The law provides for sanctions against political parties that publicly promote discriminatory messages or stereotypes, use discriminatory language in mass media, or fail to meet the required gender quotas. Civil society observers reported this law was not enforced.

The president, Maia Sandu, is a woman.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government failed to implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Despite some improvement, corruption remained a serious problem. Corruption in the judiciary and other state structures was widespread.

The law authorizes the National Anticorruption Center to verify wealth and address “political integrity, public integrity, institutional integrity, and favoritism.” The National Integrity Authority (NIA), which was formed to check assets, personal interests, and conflicts of interest of officials, was not fully operational due to prolonged delays in selecting integrity inspectors, as required by law. The former ruling coalition harshly criticized both the National Anticorruption Center and the NIA for lack of action in investigating corrupt officials. For example the National Anticorruption Center detained 10 persons on corruption charges in 2018, including three judges from the Court of Appeals, two judges from the Chisinau Central Court, and a prosecutor from the Chisinau prosecutor’s office. During preliminary hearings in April, only seven of the 10 suspects showed up in court; the cases continued at year’s end. In December, Socialist and Shor Party members of parliament adopted a law that limited NIA powers and reduced the term for asset reviews for dignitaries from three years to one year following their term in office. The opposition criticized the law and challenged its constitutionality at the Constitutional Court.

Corruption: Two key anticorruption institutions, the NIA and the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency, made limited progress on investigations of illicit enrichment or asset seizures.

The 2019 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index report noted that the government hindered anticorruption efforts through stagnant reform of the judiciary, lack of true investigation of banking fraud and state capture, and lack of progress in recovering stolen money. The report concluded that these practices were indicative of high-level corruption and political corruption, which led to what it labelled “state capture” (i.e., private interests significantly influencing a state’s decision-making processes).

On June 24, the Prosecutor General’s Office decided against opening an investigation into alleged corruption by President Igor Dodon after a video was released showing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vladimir Plahotniuc handing Dodon a plastic bag during a private meeting. The Prosecutor’s Office stated there was not sufficient evidence that a crime was committed to open an investigation.

In 2016 the Anticorruption Prosecution began a criminal case to investigate 30 million lei (over $1.3 million) transferred before that year’s presidential election from an offshore company in the Bahamas that allegedly ended up on the accounts of some Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova members of parliament. No progress was reported in the investigation as of year’s end.

The criminal investigation of former Supreme Court of Justice president Ion Druta and four other judges accused of money laundering and illicit enrichment that began in September 2019 continued during the year. In July the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office announced it was still waiting for financial investigation data from the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency before it could send the case to court. In December the Chisinau Court of Appeals canceled the Superior Council of Magistrates decision that allowed Druta’s criminal investigation and closed the case.

On October 26, the Superior Council of Magistrates approved a request to reinstate five judges detained in September 2016 on money laundering charges in the “Russian Laundromat” scheme that illegally channeled millions of dollars through the Moldovan banking and legal system. The requests for reinstatement came after the Prosecutor General’s controversial September decision to drop the money laundering investigation against 13 judges involved in the scheme. It was also ruled that the five judges would receive approximately five million lei ($300,000) in damages for back pay from the state budget. The decision drew criticism from anticorruption advocates, opposition parties, and civil society.

Financial Disclosure: Laws require financial disclosure by public officials, including state officials, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and local officials holding leadership positions. The NIA has the legal power to apply sanctions. The law provides that officials who fail to declare their assets may be dismissed from office and barred from holding public office. NIA integrity inspectors have authority to alert relevant authorities, the Tax Office and the Prosecutor’s Office, and request seizure of illegally acquired assets by a court decision. The law requires the heads of state enterprises and local councilors to submit income statements and provides for an online system for wealth and interest statement submissions. By law officials must make public income statements within 30 days of their appointment and before March 31 of each year for the duration of their term in office.

Both opposition and ruling coalition members of parliament sent multiple requests to the NIA to verify assets and incomes of other parliamentarians. Consideration of those requests continued at the year’s end.

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

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

Authorities in Chisinau did not have full access to or control over the Transnistrian region. According to local and international experts, authorities in Transnistria continued to monitor and restrict activities of human rights NGOs. There were credible reports that no human rights NGO in the region investigated serious human rights violations due to fear of repression and harassment from authorities.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There are three human rights bodies in the country: The Office of the People’s Ombudsman, the Agency for Interethnic Relations, and the Council for the Prevention of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality (Equality Council). The People’s Ombudsman and the Equality Council are independent institutions that report to parliament, while the Agency for Interethnic Relations is part of the government. All three institutions were fully operational and active in reporting on human rights issues during the year.

The law provides for the independence of the people’s ombudsman from political influence and appointment to a seven-year, nonrenewable term. The Office of the People’s Ombudsman may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the Office of the People’s Ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights conditions, including in prisons and other places of detention. A separate ombudsman for children’s rights operates under the same framework within the Office of the People’s Ombudsman.

The Equality Council is responsible for reviewing complaints of discrimination and making recommendations, but lacks enforcement powers.

The Agency for Interethnic Relations oversees and implements state policies in the area of interethnic relations and the use of languages in the country.

Parliament also has a separate standing committee for human rights and interethnic relations, but the committee’s powers and areas of oversight were narrowed during the year.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law defines domestic violence as a criminal offense, provides for the punishment of perpetrators, defines mechanisms for obtaining restraining orders against abusive individuals, and extends protection to unmarried individuals and children of unmarried individuals. The law covers five forms of domestic violence–physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and spiritual. The maximum punishment for family violence offenses is 15 years’ imprisonment. The law also criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, or forcible sexual assault and establishes penalties for violations ranging from three years to life in prison. It requires, however, that the victim prove they were subjected to violence. Domestic violence resulting in “nonsignificant bodily harm” falls under the Contraventions Code, rather than the Criminal Code, and may be punished by a fine or community service.

The law provides for cooperation between government and civil society organizations, establishes victim protection as a human rights principle, and allows third parties to file complaints on behalf of victims. The international NGO La Strada operated a hotline to report domestic violence, offered victims psychological and legal aid, and provided victims options for follow-up assistance. The Women’s Law Center also offered legal, psychological, and social support to domestic violence victims. During the year 10 centers providing assistance to domestic violence victims were operational in the country. An additional two centers provided counselling and resocialization services to family aggressors.

In July parliament adopted legislation to improve reporting in domestic violence cases, streamline the victims’ referral system and the use of restriction orders, improve access to state-guaranteed legal assistance for domestic and sexual violence victims, and expand the use of electronic monitoring devices in domestic violence cases. Rape remained a problem, and there were no specific governmental rape prevention activities.

In its concluding observations on its sixth periodic report on the country in March, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted concerns about the high prevalence of gender-based violence against women, including domestic violence and economic and psychosocial violence, and underreporting of gender-based violence against women, in particular domestic violence, due to fear of stigmatization and revictimization. The committee also noted limited financial compensation in gender-based violence cases, a lack of shelters and victims’ support services, including psychosocial counselling, legal assistance, and rehabilitation programs, particularly in rural areas and Transnistria.

Police reported a similar number of domestic violence criminal cases during the year with 1,409 cases registered in the first nine months, including 10 domestic violence cases that resulted in death. The General Police Inspectorate issued 3,205 restraining orders. From January to September, the courts issued 534 protection orders.

Police protection of victims and proper execution of protective orders improved slightly; the law requires that authorities issue protective orders within 24 hours. This provision was often not implemented, however, particularly for protection order requests filed on Fridays and examined by the courts the next Monday. A law adopted during the year authorizes the Ministry of Justice to expand the use of electronic devices for monitoring accused aggressors in domestic violence cases.

Police and human rights NGOs reported an increase in domestic violence complaints during the COVID-19 state of emergency and the subsequent state of public health emergency. From January through April, the General Police Inspectorate reported a 24 percent increase in the number of complaints of domestic violence received, and the Women’s Law Center reported that the number of calls to their domestic violence hotline doubled during the state of emergency. NGOs attributed the increase to domestic violence victims staying in isolation with their abusers for lengthy periods of time without the ability to seek assistance. From March 17 to May 31, the NGO La Strada’s Women and Girls’ Trust Line received 390 calls, including 247 complaints of domestic violence. During the state of emergency (March 17-May 15), shelters for domestic violence victims did not accept new applicants to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Authorities did not take steps to provide placement for survivors. While police and courts established protection measures for victims of violence, in most cases a lack of coordination between members of local multidisciplinary teams (which are meant to bring together law enforcement, health professionals, social workers, spiritual leaders, and local public officials to assist victims) left victims without the resources and protections the courts intended to provide for them.

According to La Strada, the subject of sexual violence remained sensitive for the country. Societal attitudes affected the behavior and the reticence of sexual violence victims to report incidents. Sexual abusers frequently used information technologies to threaten, frighten, humiliate, or cause the victim not to report abuses to law enforcement agencies. Specialists responsible for intervening in sexual violence cases were affected by prejudice and stereotypes and sometimes contributed to the victimization of or discrimination against victims of sexual crimes. Media outlets sometimes reinforced stereotypes and contributed to social stigma in their reporting on cases of sexual violence.

In Transnistria domestic violence without “substantial bodily harm” (such as broken bones or a concussion) remains an administrative, rather than criminal, offense only punishable by a fine.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. The law provides criminal penalties for sexual harassment ranging from a fine to a maximum of three years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits sexual advances that affect a person’s dignity or create an unpleasant, hostile, degrading, or humiliating environment in a workplace or educational institution. There are no criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment in employment. According to NGOs, law enforcement agencies steadily improved their handling of sexual harassment cases, addressing harassment of students by university professors and several instances of workplace harassment. Civil society groups, however, criticized the judicial system for displaying inadequate concern for the safety of victims and for not holding perpetrators accountable for their behavior.

According to an informative note on a January bill published by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection calling for the review of national legislation on sexual harassment, one in five women in the country experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Similarly, a 2018 Partnership for Development Center survey concluded that one in five women reported being sexually harassed by a teacher. Societal attitudes and lack of interest from law enforcement discouraged victims from reporting instances of sexual harassment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women and men enjoy the same legal status in family, labor, property, nationality, inheritance law, and in the judicial system. The law requires equal pay for equal work, which authorities generally respected. The law requires that women fill a minimum of 40 percent of decision-making positions in government and political offices; prohibits sexist and discriminatory language and images in the media and advertising; and spells out employers’ responsibilities in ensuring that workplaces are free of discrimination and sexual harassment. The law also establishes a minimum quota of 40 percent female representation on the electoral lists of political parties and sanctions for noncompliance. During the February 2019 parliamentary elections, 41.8 percent of candidates were women on the political parties’ electoral lists and over 25 percent of members of parliament were women. During the November presidential elections, only one woman ran for office. While launching his electoral campaign for the second round, incumbent president Igor Dodon made gender-based discriminatory statements against his political opponent in the runoff, Action and Solidarity Party leader Maia Sandu.

According to a report issued in February by the Union for HIV Prevention and Harm Reduction and Promo-LEX, female drug users, sex workers, and inmates were the most vulnerable to multiple risks, such as HIV or AIDS, human trafficking, harassment, and violence due to discrimination, criminalization, stigmatization, and exclusion from society. Despite such vulnerabilities authorities did not protect basic rights to health care and justice for women in these categories.

Discrimination with respect to employment, pay, and access to pension benefits persisted in the country (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Persons may acquire citizenship through birth to a citizen parent, birth in the country to stateless persons, birth to parents who cannot transmit their citizenship to the child, or through adoption by citizen parents. Registration of birth is free of charge for all citizens. The lack of registration certificates for a number of children, especially in rural areas and in Romani families, remained a problem.

Education: Primary education was free and compulsory until the ninth grade. Education of Romani children remained a problem; only half of Romani children attended school and one in five attended preschool. According to Romani representatives, absenteeism and school dropout rates in Romani communities stemmed from poverty and fear of discrimination.

All schools, kindergartens, and other educational institutions closed and were replaced with online schooling during the COVID-19 state of emergency that began on March 17. While some schools had the necessary resources and human capacity to hold classes online, most educational institutions, particularly in rural areas, failed to provide proper education through the end of the academic year. At the start of the new academic year on September 1, there were 11 schools out of 1,252 that remained closed due to COVID-19 cases among teachers and students. An additional eight schools closed after the school year started. By September 14, there were over 200 COVID-19 cases in schools in Chisinau; 1,325 students and 57 teaching and technical staff from 21 educational institutions were quarantined and there were 35 active cases in kindergartens.

Child Abuse: Although the law prohibits child neglect and specific forms of abuse, such as forced begging, child abuse remained a problem. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection has noted that social norms created a permissive environment for violence against children at home and at school.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research reported 4,738 cases of violence against children in the first half of the 2019-20 academic year. Some 2,171 children reported physical violence and 1,316 children reported neglect, while there were 40 cases of labor exploitation and 17 of sexual abuse. Local public authorities failed to monitor all cases of abuse against children, claiming a lack of experts. The ombudsman for children’s rights stated that most child neglect cases were due to alcohol abuse in the family.

An April study by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse noted that children were exposed to more risks during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased psychosocial stress, a sense of fear and panic generated by the pandemic, the suspension of school activity, infection with coronavirus or quarantine, access to and improper use of disinfectants and alcohol, their increased vulnerability to exploitation for child labor, social discrimination, and the limited availability of services for children with disabilities. Following the closure of schools and kindergartens, 32 children who were left home unsupervised died from accidents in the first six months of the year.

A special unit for minors in the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Juvenile Justice Unit, is responsible for ensuring that particular attention and expertise are devoted to child abuse victims and child offenders.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men. There were no official statistics regarding child marriages.

Child marriage was most common in Romani communities, where it was reportedly acceptable to marry off girls between the ages of 12 and 14. This either took the form of a forced marriage, whereby a girl is married off to an adult man against her will, or an arranged marriage, whereby “match makers” arranged for two children to be married in the future. In such cases marriage takes place without official documentation or registration. After marriage, girls commonly dropped out of school to take on household duties.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The exploitation of a child in a commercial sex act is punishable by 10 to 12 years’ imprisonment. Authorities punished commercial sex with minors as statutory rape. The law prohibits the production, distribution, broadcasting, import, export, sale, exchange, use, or possession of child pornography, for which the punishment is one to three years’ imprisonment and fines. These laws were generally enforced. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The country is a destination for child sex tourism. According to the International Organization for Migration’s 2020 Violence against Children and Youth Survey report for Moldova, 7.6 percent of girls and 5.4 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 experienced sexual violence in the previous year.

The Prosecutor’s Office to Combat Organized Crime and Special Cases is responsible for investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse cases, and the Antitrafficking Bureau of the Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for investigating and prosecuting child trafficking and child sexual exploitation. During the first 10 months of the year, law enforcement officials identified 42 victims of child online sexual exploitation, ranging in age from eight to 17 years old. La Strada’s Child Safeguarding Team registered 81 new cases of child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse that included 27 cases of child pornography, 21 cases of child trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and 33 cases of sexual abuse. Law enforcement bodies referred 63 cases for assistance.

Institutionalized Children: During the year the number of children placed in residential institutions decreased to 961, including 195 children with disabilities. The government also operated family-type homes, maternal centers, and daycare centers that provided various services for deinstitutionalized children, including children with disabilities. Another 26 mobile teams assisted over 840 beneficiaries across the country, including 485 children with disabilities. Children raised in residential institutions were at greater risk of unemployment, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and suicide as adults compared with their peers raised in families. According to human rights watchdogs and the ombudsperson for children’s rights, legal protective mechanisms to prevent recidivism and reinstitutionalization of homeless children were not functional during the year.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at HYPERLINK “” HYPERLINK “https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html”https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community numbered between 1,600 and 30,000 persons (depending on source and definition), including up to 2,000 living in Transnistria.

According to the Jewish community, anti-Semitic discourse, hate speech, and instigation to discrimination and violence against members of the Jewish community, especially on the internet, was a systemic problem. Publications related to the community’s activities were often followed by discriminatory comments or verbal insults that were not banned on such platforms, including blaming the Jewish community for the spread of COVID-19. Online security was another problem during the pandemic. In April the Jewish community reported a case of unauthorized individuals accessing an online Zoom session conducted by the community’s rabbi during a daily Torah lesson. The unknown perpetrators intimidated Zoom participants and posted insulting photographs and videos for several minutes.

The Jewish community reported two acts of vandalism during the year. Unknown individuals made an anti-Semitic inscription at an exhibit dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Chisinau-Tel Aviv twin cities agreement. The community registered a complaint with police, and the case was pending at year’s end. In a second case, unknown individuals vandalized and drew anti-Semitic graffiti on 82 tombs at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau. The Jewish community sent a complaint to the police and called on the authorities to adopt legal mechanisms that would prevent and punish Holocaust denial, the glorification of Nazi leaders or the use of Nazi symbols. The Chisinau police department opened a criminal case. According to the Jewish cemetery director, the perpetrators vandalized an unprecedented number of tombstones on the nights of October 30 through November 1. In reaction the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research, which oversees the Jewish History Museum, which includes the Jewish cemetery, announced the installation of video surveillance equipment at the cemetery to prevent similar incidents in the future. In November the government also adopted amendments to the criminal code; strengthened sanctions for “acts of vandalism and desecration of tombs, monuments or places revered by persons belonging to various religious groups;” and imposed higher fines and imprisonment terms of up to four years. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration condemned the acts of vandalism, noting “the destruction of Jewish gravestones and monuments is a barbaric attack not only on the memory of the Jews from the Republic of Moldova, but is also challenging the entire Moldovan society.”

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to public facilities, health services, or the provision of other government services, but authorities rarely enforced the law.

Investigation of degrading treatment of patients in psychoneurological institutions was deficient. In most cases prosecutors refused to investigate complaints submitted by patients, questioning the accuracy of allegations made by persons with mental disabilities. According to Promo-LEX, most prosecutors and investigators lacked technical skills to investigate acts of violence or torture in psychiatric institutions. Authorities also lacked a regulatory framework for the psychological assessment of victims of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment in psychiatric institutions.

During the first nine months of the year, members of the Council for Prevention of Torture, as part of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (NMPT), conducted preventive visits to residential institutions for persons with disabilities. The NMPT identified a number of problems in such institutions, including a shortage of personnel in most residential institutions, including of medical staff in institutions hosting persons with disabilities; verbal and physical abuse by personnel of persons with disabilities; involuntary confinement of patients; insufficient qualified staff at specialized institutions for children with disabilities; and lack of complaint mechanisms.

During its monitoring activities, the Moldovan Institute of Human Rights identified systemic deficiencies in psychiatric hospitals and temporary placement centers for persons with disabilities. Experts reported cases of forced medication without a legally mandated court order. Patients isolated in temporary placement centers reported the administration of psychotropic drugs without consent and mistreatment by personnel. The institute also found deficiencies in documentation, investigation, and management of cases involving persons with mental or psychosocial impairments by police, prosecutors, judges, and health service providers. While all institutions are required to document and report any unexplained injuries to the Anti-Torture Prosecutor’s Office, officials at the Codru Psychiatric Hospital reported no such cases during the year, despite IDOM monitors finding numerous patients with visible injuries during the course of their audit.

According to the Moldovan Institute of Human Rights, Balti Psychiatric Hospital lacked a separate ward for patients who committed crimes, leaving them to be housed and treated alongside civilly committed and voluntarily committed patients. Persons with different types of disabilities and widely different ages were sometimes lodged in the same rooms, and unjustified restrictive measures were sometimes applied. There was no separation of persons who were civilly committed as presenting a danger to themselves or others from those who voluntarily committed themselves in any of the country’s three psychiatric hospitals.

During the March 17 to May 15 state of emergency declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all “closed institutions” including psychiatric hospitals and temporary placement centers for persons with disabilities (“social care centers”), suspended discharges, keeping patients and residents involuntarily confined. Visitors and outside monitors were also denied access to these facilities during the state of emergency “as a quarantine measure.” Independent monitors reported that stresses imposed on patients, residents, and staff by the quarantine measures led to an increase in mistreatment cases and hurt the mental health of patients and residents.

The law requires new construction and transportation companies’ vehicles to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Authorities implemented the provisions of the law only to a limited extent. While many newly built or reconstructed buildings were accessible, older buildings often were not. According to the disability rights NGO Motivation, more than 70 percent of public institutions lacked access ramps for persons with disabilities. Persons with mobility disabilities complained about the lack of access to public transportation and public institutions as well as the shortage of designated parking places. Despite some improvements during the year, city authorities and construction companies often disregarded legal requirements on accessibility for persons with mobility impairments.

An audit on the accessibility of polling stations conducted by the Central Electoral Commission and the UN Development Program in 2019 found that only 1 percent of 612 stations assessed were fully accessible for wheelchair-bound persons. Most polling stations had no ramps or accessible toilets, narrow entrances, and dark hallways, which led to many persons with disabilities requesting mobile ballot boxes. According to Central Election Commission data, there were 170,000 persons with disabilities of voting age. There were no measurable improvements to these metrics reported in the year.

The government continued the deinstitutionalization of persons with disabilities and provided alternative community-based services under the National Program of Deinstitutionalization of People with Intellectual and Psychosocial Disabilities from residential institutions for 2018-26. Deinstitutionalization was temporarily halted during the COVID-19 state of emergency from March 17 to May 15.

Human rights observers criticized the country’s guardianship system. A person placed under guardianship loses all standing before the law and cannot perform social and legal acts, such as marriage, voting, claiming social benefits, and consenting to or refusing medication. Most residential institutions lacked proper accommodation for persons with mobility impairments.

Most schools were poorly equipped to address the needs of children with disabilities. Some children with disabilities attended mainstream schools, while authorities placed others in segregated boarding schools, or they were home schooled. Although the law provides for equal employment opportunities and prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities (with the exception of jobs requiring specific health standards), many employers either failed to provide accommodations or avoided employing persons with disabilities.

According to NGOs providing services for persons with mobility impairments, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected persons with disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs. Authorities suspended the provision of most health-care rehabilitation and social services during the state of emergency and public health state of emergency, negatively affecting the physical and psychological condition of persons with disabilities.

In Transnistria the “law” provides for protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the areas of education, health care, and employment. According to the latest 2019 report of the Transnistrian “ombudsman,” there were 17,121 persons with disabilities registered in Transnistria as of December 2019, including 1,304 children with disabilities (aged under 18 years old). The same report noted 188 patients as of October 2019 in the region’s only psychiatric institution in Vyhvatintsy village. Reliable information about the treatment of persons with disabilities in Transnistria was generally unavailable, but there were reports that children with disabilities rarely attended school and lacked access to specialized resources.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Roma continued to be one of the most vulnerable minority groups in the country and faced a higher risk of marginalization, underrepresentation in political decision making, illiteracy, and social prejudice. Roma had lower levels of education, more limited access to health care, and higher rates of unemployment than the general population (see section 7.d.). According to a study released during the year by the Partnership for Development Center, the employment rate among Roma was only 6.4 percent. The unemployment rate among the Romani community stood at 45 percent. Romani women were particularly vulnerable to social exclusion and discrimination.

Approximately 60 percent of Romani families lived in rural areas. Some Romani communities lacked running water, sanitation facilities, and heating. Other problems facing Roma included lack of emergency health-care services in secluded settlements, unfair or arbitrary treatment by health practitioners, and lower rates of health insurance coverage. Authorities lacked an effective mechanism to address vulnerable families whose children did not attend school.

According to a 2019 survey of 476 Romani women from 48 localities conducted by the Roma Women Network in Moldova, the most serious problems reported were limited access to education, the job market, medical services, and information about health and hygiene. The survey showed that only 36.6 percent of Romani women attended some form of state-guaranteed education, while 57.8 percent said they did not have an opportunity to continue their studies. About 84.7 percent of respondents were unemployed, and many of them alleged that they were subject to discrimination when trying to get a job. According to the survey, one-third of women reported discrimination when consulting a doctor; 70 percent of women reported not having access to information about health and hygiene. There were no measurable improvements to these metrics reported in during the year.

According to Romani leaders, the community faced a high rate of emigration and the state did not provide financing for Romani community mediators, as prescribed by law. A total of 54 Romani community mediators were active during the year. The government earmarked 3.5 million lei ($210,000) for Romani community mediators during the year, but its 2016-20 action plan for the community was unfunded.

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

The law prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, but societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity continued. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported verbal and physical abuse. In most cases police were reluctant to open investigations against the perpetrators. According to a survey conducted by the Antidiscrimination Council in 2018, the LGBTI community had the lowest societal acceptance rate of any minority group.

In June the NGO Genderdoc-M organized the 19th annual Moldova Pride Festival. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, events were conducted almost exclusively online. Genderdoc-M rented three billboards bearing the festival’s theme, “I Am Close to You but You Don’t Know Me,” to carry information about LGBTI pride for one month. The company leasing the billboards removed the signs after two weeks, reportedly at the request of Chisinau city government. Genderdoc-M filed a complaint with the Equality Council, which had not ruled on the matter at year’s end.

A 2019 Promo-LEX report, Hate Speech and Discrimination in the Public Space and Media, noted that hatred and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity dropped by approximately 30 percent in 2019 compared to 2018. The LGBTI community remained among the groups that were most vulnerable to hate speech and was subjected to some of the most aggressive and violent speech registered by authorities. During the electoral campaign for the November 15 runoff presidential election, President Igor Dodon promised to ban LGBTI parades.

Genderdoc-M reported eight verbal and nine physical assaults against LGBTI individuals during the year. On May 8, the parents of a 15-year-old girl reportedly beat her after they were told that she was a lesbian. The girl filed a complaint at the Securuel police station in Riscani, Chisinau, with the support of Genderdoc-M representatives. The responding police officer initially refused to accept the complaint and called the girl’s parents to the station. Only after a Genderdoc-M representatives threatened to call the national emergency number did the officer begin recording the complaint and call a victims specialist. Genderdoc-M later filed a complaint against the officer with the Ministry of Interior.

On April 15, a young man was walking in central Chisinau when a minibus stopped next to him and several individuals forced him into the vehicle. He was taken to an alley where a group of assailants beat him and threatened him using derogatory terms for homosexuals. He was forced to put a condom on his head and then forced to eat a second condom. The attackers threatened to set him on fire and additional unspecified violence if he reported the attack. The attack was recorded on one of the attackers’ cell phone and later posted on social media. Police were investigating the attack at year’s end.

Civil society organizations reported that, although transgender individuals were allowed to change their names (e.g., from a male to a female name) on legal identity documents, including passports, the government did not permit them to update gender markers to reflect their gender identity. Transgender individuals also experienced employment discrimination (see section 7.d.).

In Transnistria consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal, and LGBTI persons were subjected to official as well as societal discrimination. A young gay man in Transnistria was reported to be under investigation by “authorities” for refusing conscription into the separatist military. He expressed fear of violence and discrimination within the “military” and relocated to Moldovan government-controlled territory to escape persecution.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons living with HIV continued to face societal and official discrimination.

The law prohibits hospitals and other health institutions from denying admission or access to health-care services or requesting additional fees from persons with HIV or suspected of being HIV-positive. Prison inmates with HIV or AIDS faced high levels of discrimination by both prison staff and other inmates. Official practice requires that positive HIV test results be reported to the public health sector’s infectious disease doctor. In some cases positive test results were also reported to the patient’s family physician, a practice to which many HIV-positive individuals objected.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides workers the right to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. The government generally respected these rights with limitations. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law does not allow government workers and workers in essential services, such as law enforcement, judges, holders of public administration offices, health-care providers, and public utility employees, to strike. The law prohibits strikes during natural disasters, epidemics, and pandemics as well as in times of state emergency. Authorities may impose compulsory arbitration at the request of one party to a dispute. There are no particular groups of workers excluded from or covered differently by relevant legal protections.

The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Worker organizations were independent of the government, political parties, employers, or employers’ associations. There were no reports that the government, political parties, or employers interfered in the functioning of workers’ organizations. Prosecutors may reject appeals by trade unions alleging antiunion behavior, and authorities did not punish alleged violations of the trade union law. Workers exercised the right to strike by conducting legal strikes.

There is a mechanism to monitor and enforce labor laws through the State Labor Inspectorate (SLI) and the Prosecutor General’s Office, but it failed to monitor effectively and enforce the rights to collective bargaining and to organize. The law does not provide effective sanctions for violations of freedom of association, or stipulate penalties for violating trade union rights. Penalties for the deliberate failure to negotiate and amend collective agreements or the violation of negotiated terms were not commensurate with those of other laws related to civil rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, with exceptions. The law and a government decision allow central and local authorities as well as military bodies to mobilize the adult population under certain conditions, such as in the event of a national disaster, and to employ such labor to develop the national economy. The government did not invoke this provision during the year. Penalties for persons who engage workers in forced labor were commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources, inspections, and remediation for forced labor were generally inadequate. Men and women were subjected to labor trafficking within the country and in other parts of Europe and the Middle East. Internal trafficking occurred in all regions of the country, focused mostly on farms and begging in larger towns. Internal trafficking for begging and labor exploitation, particularly in the agriculture and construction sectors, was steadily on the rise. Official complicity in trafficking continued to be a significant problem that the government attempted to curb by prosecuting those involved.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 15. The law permits juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 to work under special conditions, including shorter workdays (35 hours per week and no night, weekend, holiday, or overtime work). With written permission from a parent or guardian, 15-year-old children may work. Work for children who are 15 or 16 should not exceed 24 hours per week. Children younger than 18 are not allowed to perform hazardous and dangerous activities in 30 industries, including construction, agriculture, food processing, and textiles. The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and provides for three to 15 years’ imprisonment for persons engaging children in such activities. Under aggravated circumstances, courts can increase the sentence to life imprisonment. These penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes. Authorities did not effectively enforce legal protections, and child labor remained a problem, especially in the agriculture and construction industries. The government was unable to make unannounced inspections and could only take action on a violation directly related to a complaint. If child labor violations were observed during a complaint based inspection, the government did not have the authority to take action.

Parents who owned or worked on farms often sent children to work in fields or to find other employment. Children left behind by parents who had emigrated abroad also worked on farms. The vast majority of child laborers worked in family businesses or on family farms.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on sex, age, race, color, nationality, religion, political opinion, social origin, residence, disability, HIV-positive status, and membership or activity in trade unions, as well as other criteria. The law requires employers to provide for equal opportunity and treatment of employees without discrimination, to apply the same criteria to assess each employee’s work, and to provide equal conditions for men and women relating to work and family obligations. The law defines and prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other crimes related to denial of civil rights. The law does not mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value.

Discrimination on the basis of sex in access to pension benefits persisted in the country. The age at which men and women can retire with either full or partial benefits is not equal, nor is the mandatory retirement age for men and women.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, minority status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV-positive status. Gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace is common in the country. Pregnant women reported being denied employment opportunities, since such employment was associated with additional benefits payable after childbirth.

The law also stipulates that the Equality Council be responsible for reviewing complaints of discrimination and making recommendations. As of September the council made decisions on 193 cases of alleged discrimination, 3.2 percent more than in 2019.

In Transnistria job segregation “laws” ban women from more than 300 jobs. Prohibited occupations include a wide variety of occupations deemed “too dangerous or demanding” for women, including welding, pouring, driving, snow blowing, gas extracting, and climbing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage that is less than the poverty level. According to the National Trade Union Confederation (NTUC), as of July salary arrears were more than 20.9 million lei ($1.2 million).

The law sets the maximum workweek at 40 hours with overtime compensation, provides for at least one day off per week, and mandates paid annual leave of at least 28 calendar days (government holidays excluded). Different paid leave plans may be used in some sectors, such as education, health care, and public service. The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. Foreign and migrant workers have the same legal status as domestic workers.

The government sets occupational safety and health standards. According to labor law, workers can remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The labor code requires work contracts for employment but the central government did not have an effective mechanism to monitor compliance. In the agricultural sector, approximately 63 percent of workers were employed informally, according to NTUC.

Government efforts to enforce requirements for minimum wage, work hours, and occupational health and safety standards were limited and ineffective. The law requires the government to establish and monitor safety standards in the workplace but inspections could only occur when a complaint was received and not all complaints met the criteria for a workplace inspection. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

Labor inspectors were generally required to give advance notice before conducting labor investigations and were generally prohibited from conducting onsite inspections if the information sought could be obtained in writing, which undercut their enforcement ability. The 10 sectoral inspection agencies responsible for occupational health and safety controls did not have sufficient trained staff to carry out adequate inspections. In the first eight months of the year, the SLI reported 334 unplanned inspections in areas defined by law as “labor relations,” 42 in “salary payments” and 46 in “occupational safety and health.” Labor inspectors could not confirm that any of these unplanned inspections were unannounced. In person, onsite inspections were suspended during the state of emergency declared between March 17 and May 15, and the moratorium continued under the public health state of emergency that continued from May 16 to the end of the year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A thriving informal economy accounted for a significant portion of the country’s economic activity. According to the International Labor Organization, 30.9 percent of the total employed population had an informal job. Workers in the informal economy did not have the same legal protections as employees in the formal sector. No government social programs targeted workers in the informal economy who were hardest hit by the COVID lockdowns during the year.

Poor economic conditions led enterprises to spend less on safety equipment and to pay insufficient attention to worker safety. There is a consensus among stakeholders that after the change in the legislation governing labor inspections, occupational safety and health standards in the workplace worsened during the year. In the first eight months of the year, the SLI reported 231 work accidents involving 235 victims. The SLI also reported 13 work-related deaths. Enterprise committees investigated 170 cases of temporary incapacitation resulting from work accidents, involving 171 persons.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Moldova
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.​


Mexico is a multiparty federal republic with an elected president and bicameral legislature. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement party coalition won the presidential election in July 2018 in generally free and fair multiparty elections and took office in December 2018. Citizens also elected members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, governors, state legislators, and mayors.

The National Guard, state, and municipal police are responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order. The National Guard, which began operations in June 2019, is a civilian institution reporting to the Secretariat of Public Security and Civil Protection. On December 31, 2019, the Federal Police was disbanded, and on May 4, all remaining assets and personnel were transferred to the National Guard. The bulk of National Guard personnel are seconded from the army and navy and have the option to return to their services after five years. State preventive police report to state governors, while municipal police report to mayors. The Secretariat of National Defense and Secretariat of the Navy also play a role in domestic security, particularly in combating organized criminal groups. The constitution was amended in 2019 to grant the president the authority to use the armed forces to protect internal and national security, and courts have upheld the legality of the armed forces’ role in law enforcement activities in support of civilian authorities through 2024. The National Migration Institute, under the authority of the Interior Secretariat, is responsible for enforcing migration law and protecting migrants. Although authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, there were instances in which security force elements acted independently of civilian control. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of the involvement by police, military, and other government officials and illegal armed groups in unlawful or arbitrary killings and forced disappearance; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions in some prisons; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention; violence against journalists and human rights defenders; serious acts of corruption; impunity for violence against women; violence targeting persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity and extremely low rates of prosecution remained a problem for all crimes, including human rights abuses. The government’s federal statistics agency estimated 94 percent of crimes were either unreported or not investigated. There were reports of some government agents who were complicit with international organized criminal gangs, and there were low prosecution and conviction rates in these abuses.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs, and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, bribery, intimidation, and other threats, resulting in high levels of violence, particularly targeting vulnerable groups. The government investigated and prosecuted some of these crimes, but the vast majority remained in impunity.

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

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

There were several reports government entities or their agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often with impunity. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) is responsible for independently investigating security force abuses, including killings, and can issue formal recommendations for prosecution. State human rights commissions investigate state police forces and can issue similar recommendations. State and federal prosecutors are independent of the executive branch and have the final authority to investigate and prosecute security force abuses. Organized criminal groups were implicated in numerous killings, acting with impunity and at times in collusion with corrupt federal, state, local, and security officials.

On May 4, Giovanni Lopez died in police custody after police allegedly beat him for three hours. Municipal police officers from Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jalisco, arrested Lopez for resisting arrest and transported him to their precinct after witnesses said he intervened when police attempted to arrest his neighbor. On June 5, the governor announced three municipal police officers had been arrested for Lopez’ death.

On July 3, the newspaper and website El Universal presented a video of soldiers in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which showed them approaching a truck after a gun battle with suspected cartel members. One of the soldiers discovered a combatant still alive and subsequently received orders to kill the wounded person. A total of 12 persons died in the encounter: nine suspected cartel members who allegedly initiated the gun battle with the army patrol and three bound and gagged kidnapped victims the cartel members were transporting in their trucks when the firefight broke out. The Prosecutor General’s Office and the Secretariat of National Defense launched separate investigations into the incident.

As of September the six federal police agents accused of murder and attempted murder of 16 unarmed civilians in Apatzingan, Michoacan, in 2015 remained in pretrial detention, pending conclusion of the trial.

Environmental activists, the majority from indigenous communities, continued to be targets of violence. In January, Homero Gomez, an indigenous and environmental rights defender, went missing and was later found dead (see section 6, Indigenous People). As of October 15, no suspects had been arrested.

Criminal organizations carried out widespread killings and other illegal activities throughout the country. On April 3, a clash between La Linea cartel and the Sinaloa cartel left 19 persons dead in Madera, Chihuahua.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of numerous forced disappearances by organized crime groups, sometimes with allegations of state collusion. In its data collection, the government often merged statistics on forcibly disappeared persons with missing persons not suspected of being victims of forced disappearance, making it difficult to compile accurate statistics on the extent of the problem.

Investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime of forced disappearance were rare. According to the Attorney General’s Office, from October 2013 to August 2018, courts issued eight convictions and 17 acquittals for forced disappearance, and another 18 sentences were in the appeals process.

At the federal level, the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Forced Disappearances was investigating 980 cases of disappeared persons, while other federal offices were investigating 1,000 additional cases as of August, according to the human rights organization SERAPAZ. Some states made progress investigating this crime. From January to July 2019, prosecutors in Veracruz State opened 573 investigations into disappearances, but family members alleged the prosecutors undercounted the actual number of cases.

In February a federal judge in Monterrey sentenced five marines to 22 years in prison and ruled the secretary of the navy should publicly apologize for the 2013 forced disappearance of Armando Humberto del Bosque Villarreal in Colombia, Nuevo Leon. Hunters found the body of del Bosque in a forest outside the naval base two months after he disappeared. The sentences were the first against the armed forces in Nuevo Leon. On December 2, a judge reversed the sentence for failures in the formulation of the accusation, finding that the marines should have been tried according to the General Law on Forced Disappearances of Persons approved in 2017 and not the federal penal code, which was repealed with the passing of the previous rule.

The federal government and states continued to implement the 2017 General Law on Forced Disappearances. By December all 32 states had met the requirement to create state search commissions, according to the National Search Commission (CNB). Through a nationwide assessment process, the CNB revised the government’s official number of missing or disappeared persons repeatedly during the year as additional data became available. As of December the CNB reported there were 79,658 missing or disappeared persons in the country. Some cases dated back to the 1960s, but the vast majority occurred since 2006. The year 2019 had the second-highest number of cases on record, with 8,345 reported missing or disappeared, up from 7,267 cases reported in 2018. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) commended the government for providing a more accurate accounting and urged the government to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute cases.

Nationwide, the CNB reported the exhumation of the remains of at least 2,361 persons in 1,413 clandestine graves between December 1, 2018, and November 30, 2020. In July the CNB reported that between January 2006 and June 2020, officials located 3,978 clandestine graves and exhumed 6,625 bodies. The same report noted that between December 1, 2018, and November 2020, of the 894 bodies identified, 506 were returned to families.

In July the CNB launched a public version of the National Registry of Disappeared and Missing Persons. Between January and June, it received 5,905 reports of missing persons and located 3,078 alive and 215 deceased. In December 2019 the government created the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification to bring together national and international forensic experts to help identify 37,000 unidentified remains held in government facilities, but as of September it was not fully operational.

During the year the government raised the CNB’s budget to $32.8 million, a 55 percent increase over the 2019 budget. Nonetheless, according to NGOs, the state search committees often lacked the human and financial resources to fulfill their mandate. For example, those in Campeche, Sonora, Tabasco, and Tlaxcala had fewer than five employees on staff, according to an NGO assessment of human rights in the country. Civil society and families of the disappeared stated the government’s actions to prevent and respond to disappearances were largely inadequate and lacked sufficient resources to address the scale of the problem.

On June 26, the bodies of 14 persons were found in Fresnillo, Zacatecas. The state prosecutor general’s office transferred the remains to the Zacatecan Institute of Forensic Sciences, but as of October no arrests had been made.

Jalisco disappearances data remained under scrutiny as more mass graves were discovered. The NGO Mexican Center for Justice for Peace and Development criticized Jalisco’s recordkeeping practices for complaints related to disappeared persons, accusing the Jalisco Prosecutor General’s Office of lacking a methodology for data collection and not being transparent in information sharing. The NGO tallied 2,100 unsolved disappearances from July 2019 to August 2020 (and 9,286 persons unaccounted for overall since the 1960s). The Jalisco Prosecutor General’s Office and the Jalisco Forensics Institute were unable to process increasing numbers of cases, with dozens of sets of human remains discovered during the year.

In November authorities announced the discovery of 113 bodies in a mass grave in El Salto, Jalisco. As of December relatives were able to identify 30 of the bodies. Another mass grave was being excavated in Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jalisco, where 25 bodies were found.

The federal government created a National System for the Search of Missing Persons as required by law but as of August had not established the required National Forensic Data Bank. The Prosecutor General’s Office owned a previous genetics database, which consisted of 63,000 profiles, and was responsible for the new database. The previous platform lacked interconnectivity between states and failed to connect family members effectively to the remains of their missing relatives.

Investigations continued into the disappearances of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. Victims’ relatives and civil society continued to criticize handling by the Attorney General’s Office of the original investigation, noting there had been no convictions related to the disappearances of the 43 students. On July 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced forensic scientists at the University of Innsbruck conclusively identified the remains of one of the 43 disappeared students, Christian Alfonso Rodriguez Telumbre. This was the first identification made in the case in more than five years.

In June 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office created the Special Unit for the Investigation and Litigation of the Ayotzinapa case. As of October the unit brought charges against former officials for failing to conduct an adequate investigation and using torture to coerce confessions but had not charged anyone for the disappearances of the students.

In March a federal judge issued an arrest warrant for Tomas Zeron, who led the investigation of the case by the former criminal investigations unit in the Attorney General’s Office at the time of the students’ disappearances. Zeron was wanted on charges related to his conduct of the investigation, including torturing alleged perpetrators to force confessions, conducting forced disappearances, altering the crime scene, manipulating evidence, and failing to perform his duties. He was believed to be in Israel, and the government requested that the Israeli government issue an arrest warrant and extradite him.

Also in March a federal judge issued arrest warrants against four government officials and a marine for torturing detainee Carlos Canto Salgado and obstruction of justice in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case. In June the Prosecutor General’s Office arrested Jose Angel Casarrubias, also known as “El Mochomo,” a leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel that allegedly collaborated with security forces to disappear the students. A judge later ordered his release due to lack of evidence, but the Prosecutor General’s Office detained him again shortly thereafter on separate organized-crime-related charges. As of September the Prosecutor General’s Office detained the head of the Federal Investigative Police, Carlos Gomez Arrieta, who handed himself in, and another high-level official, Blanca Alicia “N” from the Public Ministry, who allegedly tampered with evidence. On November 12, authorities arrested Captain Jose Martinez Crespo, the first arrest of a soldier in the case and one of the officers in charge of the army battalion in Iguala the night of the disappearances. Prosecutors charged him with forced disappearance and colluding with the Guerrero Unidos cartel. By December the Federal Prosecutor’s Office had requested 101 arrest warrants related to the case, of which 63 were issued and 47 carried out, leading to 78 arrests.

In August 2019 a judge dismissed charges against Gildardo Lopez Astudillo for his alleged role in the Ayotzinapa case after finding the evidence collected against him was obtained through torture and arbitrary detention. The Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the dismissal, and as of October the decision was pending.

As of November no alleged perpetrators of the disappearances had been convicted, and 78 of those initially accused were released due to lack of evidence, generally due to irregularities in their detention, including confessions obtained through torture.

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

Federal law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the admission of confessions obtained through illicit means as evidence in court. Despite these prohibitions, there were reports of security forces torturing suspects.

In November 2019 the NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights released a 12-year study on torture, which registered 27,342 investigations from 2006 to 2018. There were 10,787 federal investigations and 16,555 state-level investigations, of which 50 resulted in sentences, 15 of which were later exonerated.

Between January and August 20, the CNDH registered 25 complaints of torture and 132 for arbitrary detention. The majority of these complaints were against authorities in the Prosecutor General’s Office, Federal Police, Interior Ministry, and the navy. As of April, 20 of 32 states had specialized prosecutor’s offices for torture as called for by law.

On July 27, Adolfo Gomez was found dead in his jail cell in Chiapas. Authorities declared Gomez hanged himself, but his family said his body showed signs of torture. Gomez was arrested with his wife Josefa in an operation that authorities stated uncovered a trafficking ring of 23 children, but later evidence showed the children were all members of the same extended family and were with their relatives. In August the Chiapas State Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed Gomez committed suicide and announced the arrest of the director and two penitentiary center employees accused of flagrant omission in their duty of care. The accused were released shortly after.

Impunity for torture was prevalent among the security forces. NGOs stated authorities failed to investigate torture allegations adequately. As of January 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating 4,296 torture-related inquiries under the previous inquisitorial legal system (initiated prior to the 2016 transition to an accusatorial system) and 645 investigations under the accusatorial system. A 2019 report by the Prosecutor General’s Office stated it brought charges in one torture case during that year. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) signed an agreement with the government in April 2019 to provide human rights training to the National Guard, but as of October the OHCHR reported no training had been carried out.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers were often harsh and life threatening.

Physical Conditions: According to the Federal Prison System, as of June there were 210,287 inmates in 295 state and federal facilities with a designed capacity of 221,574. Some prisons were undersubscribed while others were overcrowded. According to online media El Economista, 46 percent of prisoners shared a cell with five or more other inmates and 13 percent shared a cell with 15 or more inmates. The state of Baja California had the highest number of overcrowded cells.

The CNDH’s 2019 National Diagnostic of Penitentiary Supervision reported that state prisons were understaffed and suffered from poor sanitary conditions as well as a lack of opportunities for inmates to develop the skills necessary for social reintegration. The report singled out Guerrero, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz as the states with the worst prison conditions. The CNDH noted significant understaffing at all levels in federal prisons, which affected access to programs, activities, and medical services and promoted segregation of inmates.

Organized criminal groups reportedly continued to oversee illicit activities from within penitentiary walls. The National Prison Administration reported that during an enforcement operation from May to July, it detected nearly 15,000 cell phones in use in 21 prisons around the country and cancelled 16,500 cell phone numbers. On February 20, authorities transferred 27 inmates from Nuevo Laredo’s state prison to Altamiro Federal Prison, according to the Ministry of Public Security in Tamaulipas. This followed an earlier transfer of seven prisoners from Nuevo Laredo to federal prison on January 29. Experts believed the transfers were likely an attempt to break cartel control of Nuevo Laredo’s prisons.

According to civil society groups, migrants at some detention centers faced abuse when commingled with gang members and other criminals.

As of August 17, a total of 2,686 prisoners had contracted COVID-19, 263 had died of the disease, and 3,755 were released to prevent further contagion, according to the NGO Legal Assistance for Human Rights. In response to a civil society organization lawsuit, a Mexico City court ruled authorities must implement COVID-19 detection and preventive health protocols for detainees and their families in prisons in Mexico City and psychiatric wards nationwide. As of September only three states had complied with all or nearly all the court-mandated health measures, according to the NGO Documenta.

The CNDH, in its report on COVID-19 measures in holding facilities, found most detention facilities could not comply with social distancing measures or several other health recommendations due to lack of space, personnel, or equipment.

NGOs alleged the National Migration Institute (INM) failed to take effective steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 among migrants. After initial criticism the INM released or repatriated migrants in its detention facilities to mitigate the spread of infection.

Administration: Authorities did not always conduct investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. In September the NGOs Citizens in Support of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the governor of Nuevo Leon urging investigations into reports of abusive conditions in the state’s prisons as well as the deaths of three inmates during the year. The NGOs noted only one of the three deaths was being investigated. As of October the governor had not responded to the letter.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by the International Committee of the Red Cross, CNDH, and state human rights commissions.

In January more than 20 NGOs and international organizations stated the INM denied them entry to migratory stations to access migrants who arrived in a caravan on January 18-21, preventing independent oversight and denying information to the NGOs. The INM resumed granting access after public criticism.

Improvements: Federal and state facilities continued to seek or maintain international accreditation from the American Correctional Association. As of August, six state facilities received accreditation, raising the total number of state and federal accredited facilities to 98. The six states demonstrated compliance with numerous standards, including written policies and procedures ensuring continual staff training and increased accountability of staff and inmates.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Federal law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government sometimes failed to observe these requirements. Between January and August, the CNDH recorded 132 complaints of arbitrary detention.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution allows any person to arrest another if the crime is committed in his or her presence. A warrant for arrest is not required if an official has direct evidence regarding a person’s involvement in a crime, such as having witnessed the commission of a crime. In a 2018 report, Mexico Evalua, a domestic think tank, determined 90 percent of all arrests fell under this category. This arrest authority, however, is applicable only in cases involving serious crimes in which there is risk of flight. Bail is available for most crimes, except for those involving organized crime and a limited number of other offenses. In most cases the law requires detainees to appear before a judge for a custody hearing within 48 hours of arrest, during which authorities must produce sufficient evidence to justify continued detention. This requirement was not followed in all cases, particularly in remote areas of the country. In cases involving organized crime, the law allows authorities to hold suspects up to 96 hours before they must seek judicial review.

The procedure known in Spanish as arraigo (a constitutionally permitted form of pretrial detention employed during the investigative phase of a criminal case before probable cause is fully established) allows, with a judge’s approval, for certain suspects to be detained prior to filing formal charges. Following the introduction of the accusatorial justice system, however, there was a significant reduction in the number of persons detained in this manner, falling from more than 1,900 in 2011 to 21 in 2018.

Some detainees complained of a lack of access to family members and to counsel after police held persons incommunicado for several days and made arrests arbitrarily without a warrant. Police occasionally failed to provide impoverished detainees access to counsel during arrests and investigations as provided for by law, although the right to public defense during trial was generally respected. Authorities held some detainees under house arrest.

Arbitrary Arrest: Allegations of arbitrary detentions persisted throughout the year. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and NGOs expressed concerns regarding arbitrary detention and the potential for it to lead to other human rights abuses.

The Jalisco State Commission for Human Rights reported at least 118 complaints against police for arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, and abuse of power after statewide protests on June 4-9 following the death of Giovanni Lopez, who died in municipal police custody in Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, and authorities did not always release promptly those detained unlawfully. The accusatorial justice system allows for a variety of pretrial measures, including electronic monitoring, travel restrictions, and house arrest, that reduced the use of the prison system overall, including the use of pretrial detention. The law provides time limits and conditions on pretrial detention, but federal authorities sometimes failed to comply with them, since caseloads far exceeded the capacity of the federal judicial system. Violations of time limits on pretrial detention were endemic in state judicial systems. The OHCHR documented cases in the states of Mexico and Chiapas in which detainees remained for more than 12 years in pretrial detention. A constitutional reform passed in February 2019 increased the number of crimes for which pretrial detention is mandatory and bail is not available, including armed robbery, electoral crimes, fuel theft, and weapons possession.

Reports indicated women suffered disproportionately from pretrial detention. As of June, 54 percent of women in federal prison and 46 percent in municipal and state prisons were in pretrial detention, while 39 percent of men in the federal and local judicial system were in pretrial detention, according to a report from the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection. In October authorities announced they would comply with the recommendation of the OHCHR’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and release Brenda Quevedo Cruz, who had spent 11 years in prison without trial. Quevedo Cruz remained in detention at year’s end.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, court decisions were susceptible to improper influence by both private and public entities, particularly at the state and local level, as well as by transnational criminal organizations. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders, and arrest warrants were sometimes ignored. Across the criminal justice system, many actors lacked the necessary training and resources to carry out their duties fairly and consistently in line with the principle of equal justice.

Trial Procedures

In 2016 all civilian and military courts officially transitioned from an inquisitorial legal system based primarily upon judicial review of written documents to an accusatorial trial system reliant upon oral testimony presented in open court. In most states alternative justice centers employed mechanisms such as mediation, negotiation, and restorative justice to resolve minor offenses outside the court system.

Under the accusatorial system, judges conduct all hearings and trials and follow the principles of public access and cross-examination. Defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence and to a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to attend the hearings and to challenge the evidence or testimony presented. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law also provides for the rights of appeal and of bail in most categories of crimes. Defendants have the right to an attorney of their choice at all stages of criminal proceedings. By law attorneys are required to meet professional qualifications to represent a defendant. Not all public defenders were qualified, however, and often the state public defender system was understaffed. The administration of public defender services was the responsibility of either the judicial or the executive branch, depending on the jurisdiction. According to the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, most criminal suspects did not receive representation until after their first custody hearing, thus making individuals vulnerable to coercion to sign false statements prior to appearing before a judge.

Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed, although interpretation and translation services into indigenous languages were not always available. Indigenous defendants who did not speak Spanish sometimes were unaware of the status of their cases and were convicted without fully understanding the documents they were instructed to sign.

The lack of federal rules of evidence caused confusion and led to disparate judicial rulings.

On July 29, legislators approved a law making all judicial sentences public. The increased transparency could discourage discriminatory and arbitrary sentences, according to various NGOs.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have access to an independent judiciary in civil matters to seek civil remedies for human rights violations. For a plaintiff to secure damages against a defendant, authorities first must find the defendant guilty in a criminal case, a significant barrier due to the relatively low number of criminal convictions.

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

The law prohibits such practices and requires search warrants. There were some complaints of illegal searches or illegal destruction of private property. By law the government legally collected biometric data from migrants.

According to the NGO Freedom House, “Researchers continued to document cases of journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and political figures targeted with Pegasus spy software. After denying they existed, in February 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office provided evidence of Pegasus licensing contracts in 2016 and 2017.” Freedom House also reported that by March 2019 Citizen Lab and domestic NGOs had documented at least 25 cases of journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and political figures being targeted with the Pegasus software, which is sold exclusively to governments. A 2019 study by WhatsApp and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found the government continued to use Pegasus.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained a significant source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, at times constrained freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech: Journalists could criticize the government and discuss matters of general interest with no restrictions. Politicians publicly discredited and criticized such journalists, however.

On July 16, more than 80 Baja California journalists signed a letter to the CNDH denouncing Governor Jamie Bonilla’s verbal attacks against the newspaper La Voz de la Frontera, newspaper Reforma correspondent Aline Corpus, the regional magazine Semanario Zeta, and its director Adela Navarro.

Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor, the director of NOTIMEX, the government’s news agency, ordered journalists to eliminate or not publish content about certain government institutions and officials, according to the newspaper Aristegui News, the digital media Signa Lab, and the NGO Article 19.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction but often self-censored due to fear of reprisal. Journalists in Nogales, Sonora, said they were aware of unspoken red lines in covering organized crime and that crossing lines, such as mentioning the name of an alleged assailant, could result in personal harm.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were killed or subjected to physical and cyberattacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) in response to their reporting. This limited media’s ability to investigate and report, since many of the reporters who were killed covered crime, corruption, and local politics. High levels of impunity, including for killings or attacks on journalists, resulted in self-censorship and reduced freedom of expression and the press.

Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity, consistent with high levels of impunity for all crimes. The NGO Article 19 reported that as of December 2019, the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99 percent. According to Article 19 and media reporting, as of December, six journalists had been killed because of their reporting.

From January to June, Article 19 documented 406 attacks against journalists and media, a 45 percent increase from the same period in 2019. According to Article 19, between January and June, journalists reported 40 death threats, 91 cases of intimidation or harassment, and 47 physical attacks. Public officials carried out 199 of the recorded attacks, according to Article 19. The NGO recorded 68 attacks carried out by public officials against journalists and media outlets reporting on COVID-19.

Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists, a unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office, secured 19 convictions for various related crimes out of 1,311 cases of attacks against journalists. In 2019, 43 percent of physical attacks against journalists originated with public officials. Although 75 percent of those came from state or local officials, federal officials and members of the armed forces were also suspected in 7 percent of attacks against journalists, according to Article 19’s 2018 report. In March the Interior Ministry recognized government authorities perpetrated attacks against the press.

On August 20, Juan Nelcio Espinosa, an independent journalist in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, died while in police custody. Reports indicated he was detained with a colleague on charges of alleged violence against security forces. The Coahuila State Prosecutor General’s Office reported the journalist experienced breathing problems and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Espinosa’s family accused police of killing him and said police had previously threatened him.

Between 2012 and April 2020, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received more than 1,200 requests for protection for journalists and human rights defenders. As of June, 398 journalists were beneficiaries of Mechanism protection. Since 2018, seven journalists under Mechanism protection had been killed.

In early August, Pablo Morrugares, journalist and director of the digital news portal PM Noticias, which carried out investigations on criminal operations in Guerrero, was shot and killed by armed men in a restaurant in Iguala. He had received threats since 2015, and the state issued protective measures. The police officer assigned to guard him was also killed in the attack. Hours earlier he reported Tlacos, an organized crime group, was responsible for a recent spate of killings.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported some state and local governments censored media. Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of media and newsrooms, and threats or retributions against their families, among other reasons. There were reports of journalists practicing self-censorship due to threats from criminal groups and government officials.

In 2018 Article 19 reported the government, despite reductions in its advertising budgets, continued to have a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies. According to Article 19, no information was available concerning the criteria through which the government chooses media outlets for public advertising.

Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander; however, eight states have criminal laws on these acts. In Baja California Sur, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, and Yucatan, the crime of defamation is prosecuted, with penalties ranging from three days to five years in prison and fines ranging from five to 500 days of minimum salary for committing defamation or slander, both considered “crimes against honor.” Slander is punishable under the criminal laws of the states of Campeche, Colima, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, Yucatan, and Zacatecas, with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison and monetary fines. In July 2019 the state of Hidalgo abrogated the slander law. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.

In addition to criminal libel and defamation laws, civil law defines “moral damage” as similar to defamation, concerning harm to a person’s “feelings, affections, beliefs, dignity, honor, reputation, and privacy,” according to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists. A 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court removed the cap on fines for moral damages, leaving journalists vulnerable to exorbitant fines. In January a Mexico City court ordered academic Sergio Aguayo, a columnist of the daily newspaper Reforma, to pay a fine of $530,000 in moral damages to former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira. On July 29, the Supreme Court agreed to analyze the case but as of October had not issued a ruling.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized criminal groups exercised a grave and increasing influence over media outlets and reporters, threatening individuals who published critical views of crime groups. Concerns persisted regarding the use of physical violence by organized criminal groups in retaliation for information posted online, which exposed journalists, bloggers, and social media users to the same level of violence faced by traditional journalists.

On August 22, a federal judge sentenced Juan Carlos “El Larry” Moreno Ochoa to 50 years in prison for the 2019 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent who reported on organized crime and corruption.

The threat against journalists by organized crime was particularly high in Guerrero. Journalists in Iguala, Guerrero, received messages through social networks, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, from unknown contacts, threatening them and their families, according to Article 19. Following the August 2 killing of Pablo Morrugares, the El Diario de Iguala newspaper published a note blaming organized crime and Governor Hector Astudillo Flores’ administration for violence against journalists and impunity. On August 4, attackers fired multiple shots at the building housing the printing facilities of El Diario de Iguala.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns about online manipulation tactics, high levels of violence against digital reporters, and investigations surrounding abusive surveillance practices. The report noted political partisans launched social media campaigns against journalists who criticized President Lopez Obrador’s daily livestreamed press conferences.

A trend on social media also saw public officials blocking critical journalists and media from following their social media accounts. In March 2019, however, the Supreme Court ordered the Prosecutor General of Veracruz to unblock and allow a journalist to follow his Twitter account.

Article 19 noted that according to Google Transparency reports between 2012 and June 2018, the executive and judiciary branches filed 111 requests to remove content from the web, including two instances in which the reason cited was “criticism of government.”

Digital media journalists covering stories such as crime, corruption, and human rights violations experienced physical violence and online abuse. Online discrimination, harassment, and threats were problems particularly for women journalists and politicians, as well as any individuals and organizations advocating for women’s rights.

NGOs alleged provisions in secondary laws threatened the privacy of internet users by forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for two years, providing real-time geolocation data to police, and allowing authorities to obtain metadata from private communications companies without a court order. While the Supreme Court upheld the provisions, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access user metadata.

On May 12, Article 19 and ITESO, a Jesuit university in Guadalajara, published a report on attacks against journalists orchestrated by Sanjuana Martinez, director of NOTIMEX. Ten witnesses with direct knowledge of the NOTIMEX newsroom told Article 19 of the existence of a WhatsApp chat called “the Avengers N.” The chat was used by the agency’s executives–at the behest of Martinez–to order journalists to create fake Twitter accounts and post messages against voices critical of NOTIMEX leadership. Former NOTIMEX director of international news Manuel Ortiz said Martinez ordered him and his collaborators to attack prominent journalists who questioned the appointment of Martinez as the head of the state news agency. Article 19 noted the attacks were very serious, putting at risk the lives and careers of journalists.

Journalists who asked difficult questions of the president during the daily press conference received attacks via Twitter. Tweets disseminated their identities and their media outlets and also made veiled threats.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws restricting public demonstrations. Government failures to investigate and prosecute attacks on protesters and human rights defenders resulted in impunity for these crimes, consistent with high impunity rates for all crimes.

On July 10, Guanajuato state police detained protesters and supporters during a protest led by women in Guanajuato. From a group of 60 protesters, state police arrested four women and a member of the Guanajuato state human rights commission. All detainees were later released. The CNDH and OHCHR condemned the excessive use of force by police.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of asylum seekers and other migrants, including by threats and acts of kidnapping, extortion, and homicide.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights identified 28 incidents of mass forced internal displacement due to violence in 2019 (defined as the displacement of at least 10 families or 50 individuals). These episodes took place in eight states and displaced 8,664 persons. A total of 16 of the episodes were caused by violence generated by armed organized groups, such as drug cartels. Others were caused by land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, or local political disputes. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of displaced persons. From December 2019 to September, clashes between factions of the Sinaloa cartel in and around Tepuche, Sinaloa, displaced hundreds of families. While an unknown number of persons returned, the state commission for attention to victims of crime in Sinaloa estimated 25 families remained displaced.

According to civil society organizations, an armed group continued to displace Tzotzil indigenous persons from their homes in Los Altos de Chiapas, placing the group at an elevated risk of malnutrition and health maladies.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The press, international organizations, and NGOs reported victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials. There were numerous instances of criminal armed groups extorting, threatening, or kidnapping asylum seekers and other migrants. In September 2019 the Migrant Organizations Network (Redodem, a group of NGOs that shelter migrants) reported that in 2019, federal, state, and municipal police, as well as INM agents, committed at least 298 robbery and kidnapping crimes against migrants.

Media reported criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from their relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on the groups’ behalf. Particularly in locations such as Tamaulipas, the government often did not confront organized crime groups targeting migrants. In a June report, Human Rights Watch identified in Tamaulipas alone at least 32 instances of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of migrants and asylum seekers–mostly by criminal organizations–in the three months between November 2019 and January. Those instances involved at least 80 asylum seekers kidnapped and 19 kidnapping attempts. At least 38 children were among those kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.

In July 2019 authorities arrested six police officers from the Coahuila Prosecutor General’s Office and detained one on homicide charges, after the officers participated in an operation resulting in the death of a Honduran migrant. Initial police reports indicated the migrant shot at officers conducting a counternarcotics raid, but Coahuila prosecutor general Gerardo Marquez stated in August 2019 that no shots were fired by the migrant. Three days after the shooting, the Prosecutor General’s Office determined police officer Juan Carlos (last name withheld by authorities) was likely responsible for killing the migrant and stated it would recognize the migrant as a victim and pay reparations to the family. As of November an agreement regarding compensation was pending.

Access to Asylum: Federal law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection to those fleeing persecution or facing possible torture in their country of origin; this right was generally respected in practice. The government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protections. The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to asylum and the asylum procedure, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, and integration in local communities (including access to school, work, and other social services) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status.

The Secretariat of Government declared the asylum system “essential,” allowing the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) to continue registering new asylum requests and processing pending claims throughout the COVID-19 crisis. From January to July, COMAR received approximately 22,200 applications for asylum. From January to August, COMAR processed an estimated 17,600 cases, including approximately 26,500 individuals.

Civil society groups reported some migration officials discouraged persons from applying for asylum. NGOs and international organizations stated INM in some instances conducted expedited repatriations without sufficient measures to assure individuals were aware of their right to claim asylum or international protection, but there was no evidence to indicate this was a systemic practice.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Federal law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: International observers considered the 2018 presidential, legislative, gubernatorial, and other local elections to be generally free and fair, with only minor reports of irregularities. Local commentators pointed to the electoral authorities’ quick and transparent publishing of results as increasing citizen trust in the electoral and democratic system as a whole.

Political Parties and Political Participation: During the electoral season (September 2017 to June 2018), 48 candidates were killed. In Guerrero, 14 candidates were killed, followed by five in Puebla. Of the victims, 12 were members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, 10 belonged to the Party of the Democratic Revolution, seven to the National Regeneration Movement, six to the National Action Party, five to the Citizens’ Movement, two to the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico, and one each to the Social Encounter Party and the Labor Party; the remainder did not have a party affiliation. As of July 2019 the killings resulted in one arrest. In comparison with the 2012 elections, there were 10 times more killings of 2018 candidates.

In October the Electoral Tribunal granted registration to three new political parties: Solitary Encounter Party, Progressive Social Networks, and Social Force for Mexico. The same tribunal rejected registration challenges from four other parties, including former president Felipe Calderon’s Free Mexico Party, which the National Electoral Institute argued did not produce sufficient evidence of the origin of certain funding it received. Authorities declared 10 political parties eligible to participate in the 2021 midterm elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides for the right of indigenous persons to elect representatives to local office according to “uses and customs” law (see section 6, Indigenous People) rather than federal and state electoral law.

In May 2019 congress unanimously approved a constitutional reform on gender parity that establishes a requirement to observe parity in the designation of public officials at every level (federal, state, local) in all three branches of government. The reform states the principle of gender parity should be observed in the designation of cabinet members, selection of candidates for public office by every political party, and designation of members of the judiciary. In accordance with the reform, the Senate elected Monica Fernandez president of the Senate for one year during the legislative session beginning September 1. She became the fourth woman to preside over the Senate and the first since 1999.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government took steps to enforce the law more effectively. In February 2019 congress approved a constitutional reform expanding the catalogue of crimes subject to pretrial detention to include acts of corruption (see section 1.d., Pretrial Detention). A 2018 constitutional reform increased the number of illicit activities for which the government may seize assets, including acts of corruption. Although by law elected officials enjoy immunity from prosecution while holding public office, state and federal legislatures have the authority to waive an official’s immunity.

Corruption: On July 8, former governor of Chihuahua Cesar Duarte was arrested in Florida pursuant to a Mexican extradition request on charges he diverted millions of dollars in public funds.

On July 17, authorities extradited Emilio Lozoya, former director of PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company, from Spain. As of August, Lozoya was being held on pretrial house arrest. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a corruption investigation against Lozoya for receiving bribes in connection with the Odebrecht case. The Prosecutor General’s Office also obtained an arrest warrant against Lozoya’s mother, accused of money laundering, and in July 2019 Interpol agents arrested her in Germany. Lozoya accused high-level politicians of multiple parties of complicity in his corrupt acts.

As of September former social development minister Rosario Robles remained in pretrial detention pending criminal proceedings for her participation in an embezzlement scandal known as Estafa Maestra. She faced allegations of involvement in the disappearance of billions of pesos (hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars) allocated for welfare programs during her tenure as minister. The Prosecutor General’s Office was seeking a prison sentence of 21 years.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all federal- and state-level appointed or elected officials to disclose their income and assets, statements of any potential conflicts of interests, and tax returns. The Public Administration Secretariat monitors disclosures with support from each agency. Regulations require disclosures at the beginning and end of employment, as well as annual updates. The law requires declarations be made publicly available unless an official petitions for a waiver to keep the filing private. High-ranking public officials must include information related to their spouses and dependents to prevent conflicts of interest, but this information is to remain private. The Secretariat of Public Function investigated the asset declaration of Federal Electricity commissioner Manuel Bartlett Diaz. In December 2019 the result exonerated him and declared he rightfully excluded from his asset declaration the real estate and business holdings of his adult children and girlfriend.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were mostly cooperative and responsive, with the president, cabinet officials, or both meeting with human rights organizations, such as the OHCHR, IACHR, and CNDH. Some NGOs alleged individuals who organized campaigns to discredit human rights defenders at times acted with tacit support from government officials. As of June the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists protected approximately 865 human rights defenders, 400 journalists, and 1,260 other individuals.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The CNDH is a semiautonomous federal agency created by the government and funded by the legislature to monitor and act on human rights violations and abuses.

In November 2019 NGOs questioned the independence of Rosario Piedra Ibarra after her election as president of the CNDH, citing her membership in the ruling political party and friendship with President Lopez Obrador.

The CNDH may call on government authorities to impose administrative sanctions or pursue criminal charges against officials, but it is not authorized to impose penalties or legal sanctions. If the relevant authority accepts a CNDH recommendation, the CNDH is required to follow up with the authority to verify it is carrying out the recommendation. The CNDH sends a request to the authority asking for evidence of its compliance and includes this follow-up information in its annual report. When authorities fail to accept a recommendation, the CNDH makes that known publicly. It may exercise its power to call before the Senate government authorities who refuse to accept or enforce its recommendations.

All states have their own human rights commissions. The state commissions are funded by state legislatures and are semiautonomous. State commissions do not have uniform reporting requirements, making it difficult to compare state data and therefore compile nationwide statistics. The CNDH may take on cases from state-level commissions if it receives a complaint that the state commission has not adequately investigated the case.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Federal law criminalizes rape of men and women, including spousal rape, and conviction carries penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is criminalized in 24 of the 32 states. There were high rates of impunity for these crimes, consistent with high impunity rates for all crimes.

On April 30, authorities arrested Jesus Guerra Hernandez, mayor of Ruiz, Nayarit, for rape of a minor. As of October 20, there was no further information on this case.

Federal law prohibits domestic violence and stipulates penalties for conviction of between six months’ and four years’ imprisonment. Of the 32 states, 29 stipulate similar penalties, although sentences were often more lenient. Federal law criminalizes spousal abuse. State and municipal laws addressing domestic violence largely failed to meet the required federal standards and often were unenforced.

The Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System repor