An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister elected by the parliament heads the government; the president, also elected by the parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. In December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from the Civil Contract party, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the December 10 preliminary assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that should be preserved through further election reforms.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Nikol Pashinyan was initially elected by parliament on May 8 following largely peaceful nationwide protests throughout the country in April and May, called the “velvet revolution.” The new government launched a series of investigations to prosecute systemic government corruption, and the country held its first truly competitive elections on December 9.

Human rights issues included torture; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; police violence against journalists; physical interference by security forces with freedom of assembly; restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children; and worst forms of child labor.

The new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels of government and law enforcement. On July 3, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) pressed charges against some former high-ranking officials in connection with their alleged roles in post-election clashes in 2008, when eight civilians and two police officers were killed.

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.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns that the government did not promptly and accurately report incidents of deaths in the army. According to independent (and separate) monitoring of noncombat deaths by the NGOs Peace Dialogue and Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor, there were 24 noncombat deaths reported during the first half of the year. In response to information requested by the NGO Peace Dialogue, the Ministry of Defense reported 31 such incidents for the same period. Human rights NGOs noted that, after years of rejection, the Ministry of Defense became more open following the May change in government in responding to requests for information on the number of deaths in the army. Nevertheless, discrepancies in the government and NGO numbers, partly due to different classification of what constituted military deaths by the Ministry of Defense and civil society, continued to contribute to the overall mistrust of official information.

In an illustrative example, on May 6, the Ministry of Defense reported the death of conscripted soldier Levon Torosyan from a gunshot wound in a military unit located in Tavush region. The 6th Garrison Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee classified the death as suicide and charged Torosyan’s fellow soldier, Valodya Hokhikyan, with insulting Torosyan; Hokhikyan pled guilty. Ruben Martirosyan, an expert from Peace Dialogue, which represented the victim’s family, observed Torosyan’s autopsy and noted the presence of a hemorrhage in his genital area and abrasions on both elbows, inflicted shortly before his death. According to Martirosyan, this and other evidence led him to conclude Torosyan was killed and that the official investigators were covering up the circumstances of the death through pressuring witnesses and falsifying evidence. On August 24, SIS launched a criminal investigation into Martirosyan’s allegations. According to Peace Dialogue, this was the first case in recent years when, parallel to the investigation of a death in the armed forces, a criminal investigation was opened to assess possible violations of the law by the investigative body. Both investigations were ongoing at year’s end.

On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan dismissed the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Movses Hakobyan. Many of the families of soldiers who died under noncombat conditions, who continued to demand investigation of the deaths, alleged that Hakobyan was instrumental in covering up such deaths. According to media reports, law enforcement bodies reopened investigations into some of the older noncombat death cases.

Pashinyan’s government gave new impetus to accountability for the events surrounding the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. According to the government, in the period from July 3 until late fall, SIS launched several new criminal cases re-examining these events. The criminal cases entailed charges of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in offering a bribe, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 post-election events. High profile suspects in those cases included former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, and former president Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan was charged on July 27 with Article 300.1 of the criminal code, overthrowing the constitutional order, in connection with the March 1 2008 protests. On August 13, the court of appeals released him from pretrial detention. After a Court of Cassation determination that presidential immunity did not apply to his charges, he was arrested again on December 7. The investigations into the cases were ongoing at year’s end.

Concluding a visit from September 15-20, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic noted the steps taken by the government to finally establish responsibility for the 10 deaths, but stressed that “this should be done carefully and in strict adherence to the principles of rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and guarantees of fair trial, in order to dispel any accusations of alleged revenge politics or selective justice.”

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Dushanbe. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties and injuries among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces tortured or otherwise abused individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, the relevant provisions do not criminalize inhuman and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials who engaged in these practices, although there were several reports of investigations under these charges.

Police abuse of suspects during their arrest, detention, and interrogation remained a significant problem, especially during the largely peaceful “velvet revolution.” For example, on April 23, Hayk Hovhannisyan, a doctor and lecturer at Yerevan State Medical University, was beaten by police officers. According to Hovhannisyan’s account, he was trying to protect students from police violence, when five or six officers dragged him out of a taxi and kicked him in his face and body, resulting in head injuries, a concussion, and a broken cheekbone. Mistreatment occurred in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. According to observers, police used arrest as a form of punishment. Criminal justice bodies relied on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as access to a lawyer by those summoned to the police as witnesses, as well as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient.

According to government statistics, since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code, only two cases on charges of torture were sent to the courts.

Human rights lawyers and the ombudsman’s office recorded numerous instances of alleged violations of human rights of protestors, civilians, and journalists, including reports of excessive use of force and beatings by police officers, plainclothes officers, and gangs during the April protests. According to the Ministry of Health, 127 citizens sought medical assistance in the period from April 13-23.

According to official information, the Investigative Committee launched 25 criminal cases into violent incidents that occurred in the period from April 13 to 23. Six of the 25 cases were sent to the courts with charges against nine persons, including Andranik Isoyan, the assistant to former member of parliament (MP) Mihran Poghosyan. One case was suspended, and 14 were merged with other criminal cases. Investigation continued into four cases against 19 persons including the mayor and deputy mayor of Masis. The Masis mayor, Davit Hambardzumyan, was charged with organizing the mass disorders on April 22, when a gang of armed men wearing surgical masks attacked peaceful protesters with stones, batons, and tasers. Hambardzumyan also was charged with hooliganism for another violent incident involving firearms that occurred the same day.

In addition, the SIS investigated two criminal cases regarding violence against protestors during the April 13-23 protests. The investigation of the two cases that included 164 victims, of which 13 were journalists, was in progress at year’s end.

Two criminal cases against three police officers from Abovyan region Arsen Arzumanyan, head of Kotayk branch of police Koyayk regional administration and two police operatives, Areg Torosyan and Arsen Torosyan were sent to the courts on charges of obstructing journalists’ activities. Lieutenant-general Levon Yeranosyan, the former chief of the internal police troops, faced charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences for his role in the violence against protesters. Police conducted 22 internal investigations into police behavior during the April 13-23 protests.

On May 13, the SIS charged the commander of the Yerevan Police Department Escort Battalion, Armen Ghazaryan, with torture for his role in the June 2017 police beatings of four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer during an altercation. The defendants suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in the beatings. At year’s end the investigation continued.

According to a September 24 statement made by Protection of Rights without Borders, SIS suspended the case examining violence against protesters who were supporting the Sasna Tsrer takeover of the police station in Erebuni in 2016.

On March 21, the office of the ombudsman issued an ad hoc report on the situation in psychiatric institutions noting violations of human rights. Such violations included legal gaps in regulating compulsory treatment, expired medication and absence of alternative treatment options, inappropriate use of means of restraint, lack of specialized personnel, absence of mechanisms for urgent stationary psychiatric assistance, overcrowding, discrimination, inadequate housing and sanitary conditions, inadequate food, lack of exercise, and other problems. On April 23, Dainius Puras, the UN special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, issued a report on his fall 2017 visit to the country. According to the report, the country’s mental health system contained elements of outdated models and practices, including easy and frequent hospitalization of individuals with mental health conditions, overmedication, and long-term confinement for those “chronic patients.” The special rapporteur noted that in a number of the institutions, patients had been confined for long periods, sometimes for 10 to 15 years, not because they needed to be hospitalized but due to the lack of adequate care structures at the community level.

According to the prosecutor general’s office, in 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, 84 patients died in psychiatric institutions. In 80 cases, the causes of death were determined to be various diseases; criminal cases were not launched due to the absence of crimes. In three deaths, criminal cases were initiated on charges of inducing someone to commit suicide, two of which were later dropped due to the absence of a crime. The investigation of the third case was in progress.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted in a 2016 report on its visit to the country that a significant number of patients in two psychiatric clinics appeared to be deprived of their liberty. Although they had signed agreements of voluntary admission, the patients no longer wished to remain in the hospitals.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and systemic corruption; overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level, and was almost resolved at the cell level, but conditions in some cases were harsh and life threatening. Prisons generally lacked accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

Physical Conditions: According to observers, media reports and ad hoc reports of the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, during the year prison conditions continued to remain as described in the 2016 CPT report. The CPT noted material conditions of detention at Nubarashen Prison remained unacceptable. According to the PMG, detention conditions in some cells of the Nubarashen Prison constituted torture and degrading and inhuman treatment. According to the CPT, many cells were damp, affected by mold, poorly lit and ventilated, dirty, and infested with vermin. For most inmates, water was only available at certain hours. Inmates relied on their families for food, bedding, and hygiene items. According to the CPT, similar conditions were observed in other penitentiary establishments.

Human rights observers and the PMG expressed concern about the physical conditions of Armavir penitentiary, the country’s newest prison. The prison did not have an air ventilation or cooling system. PMG monitors who visited the prison on July 13 registered temperatures of 45 degree Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) inside cells, with no constant water supply. According to the PMG, the ventilation and cooling system was removed from the original construction plan due to lack of resources.

According to the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates was one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. In one illustrative case, the penitentiary service of the Ministry of Justice announced that, on August 11, Moldovan citizen Vasile Gruiya was found hanged from his belt in his cell in Armavir Prison. According to the penitentiary service, Gruiya, a detainee, had been aggressive since his admission on August 6 and had attempted self-mutilation. To stabilize him, his mother was allowed to see him and prison psychologists worked with him for three days. According to media reports, Gruiya’s family did not believe that he could have committed suicide, since he was informed that he would be released in a few days. Media also reported Gruiya’s mother claimed her son was killed by another detainee and that he told her he had received death threats. According to official information, the forensic examination of Gruiya’s body discovered numerous injuries inflicted shortly before his death with a blunt object. The criminal investigation into his death was in progress as of year’s end.

The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG noted the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to statistics published by the PMG, from 2011 to 2017, there were 27 suicides in prison. In 2017, 607 cases of self-mutilation were registered compared with 879 in 2016. The most self-mutilation incidents in 2017 were registered in Nubarashen and Armavir prisons. According to the PMG, the prison administration did not appropriately investigate the cases and did not determine the culpability or negligence of prison staff. In 2017 the PMG made several requests to the Ministry of Justice to allow additional psychologists on its staff to enter prisons but was denied.

On May 3, the SIS announced it charged several employees of the Armavir Prison with torturing a convict, after prison staff had applied physical force to an inmate, but the case was dropped after law enforcement determined the physical force was legitimate.

According to human rights organizations, in addition to the poor physical condition of the facilities, an organized criminal structure dominated prison life. Prison officials reportedly delegated authority to select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy and used them to control the inmate population.

Former inmates and many human rights observers raised the problem of systemic corruption and bribery in the penitentiaries. On June 29, a group of convicts addressed a letter to the prime minister, which asserted that corruption continued everywhere in the penitentiary system, with the exception of the Vardashen Prison, which was used primarily for foreigners and former government officials. The letter’s authors claimed that each cell paid bribes that ranged from 300,000 to 600,000 drams ($635 to $1,250) per month to the prison’s administration, local criminal authorities, and others.

There also were reports of medical negligence. In an illustrative example, on February 14, media outlets reported the December 2017 death of convicted prisoner Arega Avetisyan in the Abovyan Prison. Prior to her death the PMG had requested Avetisyan’s release based on health grounds. According to the PMG, Avetisyan suffered a stroke and was given care by another prisoner. After the request, Avetisyan underwent a medical examination that determined her medical condition did not necessitate her release. Authorities opened a criminal case on charges of medical negligence, which was ongoing by year’s end.

There was no progress in investigating the April 2017 death of convicted prisoner Hrachya Gevorgyan in the Armavir Penitentiary.

Health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care including mental health care. There was also a serious shortage of medication.

According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, LGBTI individuals experienced the worst prison conditions. They were frequent targets of discrimination, violence, psychological and sexual abuse and were forced by other inmates to perform degrading labor. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned such treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual males or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten criminal prison rules” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating jobs such as cleaning the toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. The PMG reported a case in the Nubarashen Penitentiary in May when prison staff revealed an LGBTI inmate’s sexual identity to his parents, after which he became depressed and self-mutilated. Despite deteriorating health, he was not provided medical assistance for weeks, and was transferred to the prison hospital penitentiary only after the involvement of the PMG.

Administration: Authorities did not routinely conduct credible investigations nor take action in a meaningful manner to address problems involving the mistreatment of prisoners, disputes and violence between inmates, or widespread corruption.

Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visitations. Heads of prisons and detention facilities arbitrarily used their discretion to deny prisoners and detainees visitation, contact with families, or the ability to receive periodicals.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the CPT, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers. In December 2017, the Minister of Health established a civil society group to carry out monitoring of psychiatric institutions.

There were limits, however, to domestic independent monitoring. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose case the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted that the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision could not apply to the PMG. There were also restrictions on the PMG’s ability to check food quality in the prisons.

Improvements: In May the parliament approved amendments to the penitentiary code, probation law, the criminal code, and the criminal procedural code to address gaps in the early release program. The amendments, which went into effect on June 23, abolished independent commissions formed to consider requests for early release, transferring their functions to the penitentiary and state probation services. Based on the advisory reports of the two institutions, the court makes the final recommendation on early release. On October 16, a Yerevan trial court made an unprecedented decision to release an inmate, who had been serving a life sentence since 1996, on a 10-year probation. On July 12, parliament adopted changes to the penitentiary code that doubled the number of short- and long-term visits for persons convicted of especially grave crimes and for those serving life sentences. The changes, which came into force on August 4, allowed six short-term and two long-term visits during the year.

During the year the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs developed and approved, with international funding, an anger management training program for female and juvenile inmates of Abovyan prison. In addition, Abovyan inmates received training in English language, computer literacy, cooking, crochet and felting, therapeutic exercise/yoga, hairdressing, career planning, and entrepreneurship.

On November 1, a decree came into force that allowed inmates deprived of the opportunity to meet with their relatives due to distance or illness to have two 20-minute video calls per month.

On December 16, the government allocated 270 million drams ($556,000) to the Ministry of Justice for correctional facility renovations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

While 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, police arbitrarily detained citizens, including during the largely peaceful protests in April and May leading to the “velvet revolution.”

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The SIS is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. Police conduct initial investigations and detentions before turning a case over to the Investigative Committee. The NSS and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president based on the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the SIS and Investigative Committee chiefs based on recommendations from the prime minister.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the NSS, the SIS, police, and the Investigative Committee, and the new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Although the law requires law enforcement officers to obtain warrants or have reasonable suspicion in making arrests, authorities on occasion detained and arrested suspects without warrants or reasonable suspicion. By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours, the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. Judges rarely denied police requests for detention warrants or reviewed police conduct during arrests. According to observers, police did not keep accurate records and either backdated or failed to fill out protocols of detention and arrest.

The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option, and judges employed it at an unprecedented scale following the May change in government. The Helsinki Association and human rights lawyers pointed out that the law does not define a maximum for the amount of bail and reported bureaucratic barriers when individuals sought to get bail money back after release. In practice, the judicial system and law enforcement bodies placed the burden of proof on suspects to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation, when courts determined the form of pretrial preventive measures.

Defendants were entitled to representation by an attorney from the moment of arrest, and the law provides for a public defender if the accused is indigent. According to human rights observers, few detainees were aware of their right to legal representation. Observers indicated police often avoided granting individuals their due process rights by summoning and holding, rather than formally arresting, them, under the pretext that they were material witnesses rather than suspects. Police were thereby able to question individuals without giving them the benefit of a defense attorney.

In its 2016 report, the CPT reported observing the practice of persons being “invited” (usually by telephone) to come to police stations for what was presented as informal talks. Such talks could last several hours or even days, as the examiners sought to elicit confessions or collect evidence before declaring the persons interviewed a suspect and informing them of their rights.

Arbitrary Arrest: According to international organizations and human rights observers, police and NSS personnel often detained or arrested individuals without a warrant or probable cause. Human rights organizations stated such detentions were often a way to begin an investigation, with authorities hoping the suspect would confess and make further investigation unnecessary.

Between April 16 and April 23, the police detained 1,236 persons, including 121 minors, in connection with the “velvet revolution.” In many cases, individuals were detained simply for being at a certain location, regardless of whether they participated in a protest. In some cases, their rights to legal representation were not respected, and they were held beyond the legal three-hour limit without charges or access to a lawyer. In one high-profile example, on April 22, police arrested members of parliament Nikol Pashinyan, Ararat Mirzoyan, and Sasun Mikayelyan. Pashinyan was taken into custody at an undisclosed location and was released after more than 24 hours on April 23.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a chronic problem. According to the government, as of October 31, 36 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees. Some observers saw police use excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.

Although the law requires prosecutors to present a well-reasoned justification every two months for extending pretrial custody, judges routinely extended detention on unclear grounds. Authorities generally complied with the six-month limit in ordinary cases and a 12-month limit for serious crimes as the total time in pretrial detention. Once prosecutors forward their cases to court for trial, the law does not provide time limits on further detention but indicates only that a trial must be of “reasonable length.” Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Prosecutors tended to blame trial delays on defense lawyers and their requests for more time to prepare a defense. Severely overburdened judicial dockets at all court levels also contributed to lengthy trials.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to legal experts, suspects had no practical opportunities to appeal the legality of their arrests. In cases where the courts ruled on a pretrial detention, another court was unlikely to challenge its ruling.

Amnesty: On November 1, the National Assembly adopted a general amnesty proposed by the government, resulting in the release of 523 convicts from prisons as of November 23.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. After the May change in government, distrust in the impartiality of judges continued, and some human rights lawyers stated there were no legal safeguards for judicial independence.

Attorneys reported that in the past, the Court of Cassation dictated the outcome of all significant cases to lower-court judges. In February, with implementation of 2015 constitutional amendments, the High Judicial Council (HJC) was formed; on March 5, former Constitutional Court chair Gagik Harutyunyan was elected head of the HJC. Many observers blamed the HJC for abuse of power and for appointing only judges who were connected to the previous ruling party. Attorneys also stated the HJC’s control of the appointments, promotions, and relocation of judges weakened judicial independence.

According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed, with some hearings scheduled as far ahead as 2020.

Authorities generally complied with court orders.

NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns about the reliance of courts on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.

Human rights NGOs highlighted abuses of human rights of persons serving life sentences. According to these NGOs, individuals serving such sentences lacked the opportunity to have their sentences meaningfully reviewed by courts when changes in criminal law could possibly have resulted in less severe punishment. According to human rights groups, one of the greatest obstacles to justice for those serving life sentences was the court-ordered destruction of case files and evidence. This action deprived convicts of the opportunity to have their cases reviewed based on forensic analysis using new technologies, such as DNA testing.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right.

The law provides for presumption of innocence, but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities informed defendants in detail of the charges against them, and the law required the provision of free language interpretation when necessary. The law requires that most trials be public but permits exceptions, including in the interest of “morals,” national security, and the “protection of the private lives of the participants.” Defendants have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and the law requires the government to provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside of Yerevan.

According to the law, defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular, the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system.

Following the “velvet revolution,” many judges released from pretrial detention many suspects in politically sensitive cases. According to human rights groups, since no other circumstances had changed in their cases, this was an indication that, before the April/May events, judicial decisions to hold those suspects in detention, instead of on bail were politically motivated.

Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it.

In an illustrative case spanning several years, criminal proceedings against Karen Kungurtsev, who some NGO groups believe is innocent, continued. On July 20, the Cassation Court sent the case back to the trial court and ordered Kungurtsev’s release on bail. In July 2017 the criminal court of appeal had reversed the 2015 acquittal of Kungurtsev on charges of attempted murder of Davit Hovakimyan, sentencing him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of a NSS official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to pin the crime on Kungurtsev.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

Following the post “velvet revolution” release of certain individuals considered by some local human rights NGOs to be political detainees, there were no reports of political prisoners or detainees in the country.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Although citizens had access to courts to file lawsuits seeking damages for alleged human rights violations, the courts were widely perceived as corrupt. Citizens also had the option of challenging in Constitutional Court the constitutionality of laws and legal acts that violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. According to lawyers, lower courts did not adhere to precedents set by the Cassation Court, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.

Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal to the ECHR cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation but did not meaningfully review the cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts often did not follow the applicable ECHR precedent.

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

The constitution prohibits unauthorized searches and provides for the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications. Law enforcement organizations did not always abide by these prohibitions.

Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, attorneys claimed judges often authorized wiretaps, the interception of correspondence, and searches without receiving the compelling evidence required by law, rendering the legal procedures largely a formality.

Before the May change in government, there were numerous reports of authorities tapping telephone communications, email, and other digital communications of individuals the government wanted to keep under scrutiny, including human rights defenders, activists, and political figures. According to some human rights observers, authorities maintained “dossiers” of activists, political figures, and others that were used to exert pressure on a person. Following the “velvet revolution,” many activists and human rights defenders expressed their belief that they were no longer under surveillance.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. Before the “velvet revolution,” the government exerted economic pressure on media outlets for favorable and uncritical coverage. Broadcast and many large-circulation print media generally practiced self-censorship, expressing views sympathetic to their owners or advertisers–a mix of government officials and wealthy business people. Small-circulation print and online media outlets tended to be more critical.

There were several instances of violence against journalists in connection with their coverage of the protests leading to the “velvet revolution.” After the May change in government, the media environment became more free as some outlets began to step away from self-censorship; however, some still refrained from critical comments of the new government not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting that would not reflect the political, economic, and other sympathies of the given outlet.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government in private and online without fear of arrest. On June 18, however, Prime Minister Pashinyan posted on Facebook a comment denouncing as “antistate” propaganda carried by some television stations. While he did not mention any specific channels, according to some media watchdogs, the statement had a chilling effect on the media climate (see section 3).

Press and Media Freedom: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, even after the “velvet revolution,” replacing one government perspective with the other.

Social media users freely expressed opinions about the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of fake social media accounts and attempts to manipulate the media, however, increased dramatically after the “velvet revolution.” According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” fake Facebook groups and fake stories, to attack the government. In one example, a video circulated on September 17 supposedly showing Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan calling himself “crazy” and “absolutely abnormal.” The Union of Informed Citizens media watchdog published a document alleging the video was fake because of several inconsistencies in the video.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited or no revenues from advertising.

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the “velvet revolution” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders and controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating in a manner similar to MIS.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent.

The March 23 law governing the structure and activities of government envisions that government sessions would be held behind closed doors; this restriction, however, was removed soon after Nikol Pashinyan’s government took office. Along the same lines, the City of Yerevan attempted to restrict the access of media outlets to municipal hearings, but the move was widely criticized and never materialized.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of violence and professional intimidation against journalists during the April protests that led to the change in government. An estimated 22 reporters and camera operators were abused by police during April 13-23. While using cameras to film the protests and arrests, several reporters were assaulted by police officers. There were cases in which police damaged reporters’ equipment to prevent them from filming. Reporters also were injured by police using special means, such as stun grenades and nonlethal weapons. A number of media representatives reported being attacked by police in plain clothes. A total of 11 criminal cases were filed in connection with the incidents; charges were brought in five of the cases, and three cases ultimately ended up in court.

On April 14, a group of demonstrators led by then opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan broke into the Public Radio building, demanding coverage of their protest. The protesters broke one of the studio doors and seized key radio studios. The criminal charge of organizing mass disorders was later dropped.

In February, MediaLab.am founder and editor Marianna Grigoryan received death threats on social media after publishing a satirical cartoon mocking then defense minister Vigen Sargsyan. The user sending the threats was identified as a former defense serviceman. The international community and media watchdogs expressed concerns over these threats and demanded those responsible be held accountable. The Prosecutor General’s office initiated criminal proceedings on February 6 and forwarded the case to the investigative committee for an inquiry. At year’s end the investigation was ongoing.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. There were no disruptions to internet services during the nationwide April-May protests leading to the “velvet revolution,” with many media outlets providing live video coverage of the events and protest leaders and participants using the internet, social media platforms, and live broadcasting to address the population directly.

On April 11, the YouTube channels of Factor.am and Armlur.am were blocked for 24 hours. Several media outlets reported cyberattacks during the year from unknown sources.

The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 70 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s spring civic uprising changed the perception and practice of academic freedom in the country. Students joined together to protest against corrupt practices in universities. In February, a group of student activists formed the Yerevan State University (YSU) Restart group, which aimed to voice concerns and draw attention to corruption at universities. In April, YSU Restart activists joined the protests against then president Sargsyan becoming prime minister and called on students nationwide to boycott classes and join the campaign. As the protests grew, the management of some universities and public schools locked the doors to prevent students, teachers, and professors from leaving the facility to join the protests. Police used force against students to clear sit-ins and blocked streets. Many students were arrested and taken to police stations, but usually were released the same day. During the protests, there were no cases of university leadership expelling students from school or firing faculty members for missing classes (i.e. participating in protests). After the May change in government, YSU Restart organized protests against the rector of Yerevan State University without threats of repercussion.

The “velvet revolution” led to demands for education system leaders to resign. For example, the rector of Shirak State University was forced to resign due to protests against him for corruption and for firing faculty members who criticized him.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. In some instances, the government restricted those freedoms.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly and after the spring “velvet revolution,” the new government generally respected these rights.

A local NGO, the Armenian Helsinki Committee (AHC), examined the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, especially focusing on the protest period of April-May. The April rallies were unprecedented in terms of the number of participants as compared to rallies held in earlier years, with estimates of 100,000-150,000 protesters at some points. From April 13 to April 15, NGOs reported no instances of police interference with assemblies and marches, but the situation changed after April 16, when in response to Nikol Pashinyan’s call for a “decentralized struggle,” numerous citizens organized and held rallies and marches in various parts of Yerevan as well as in the regions.

AHC found many instances of disproportionate use of force, violence, and abuse of official powers by the police at assemblies from April 16 to April 23. For example, on April 16 and on April 22, members of an unknown police unit threw 11 flash grenades into the crowds without proper warning. As a result, 40 citizens and six police officers sought medical assistance. Reporters from 168?am and Factor.am news websites also sustained injuries.

According to the police report, from April 16 to April 26, 1,283 persons were forcibly brought to police departments, including 1,144 in Yerevan, 918 of whom were also subjected to administrative detention. The majority of the demonstrators were held in administrative detention for no more than three hours, in accordance with the law, although some detainees reported being held longer. Some were brought to police departments but were not allowed to make a phone call. Lawyers who cooperated in a hotline organized by human rights defenders reported in many cases officers prevented them from meeting with their clients. In some cases, obstacles for lawyers to enter police departments were removed after intervention from the ombudsman’s office.

There were incidents of violence by masked assailants. On April 22, for example, more than 50 individuals on Erebuni Street attacked protesters with electroshock weapons, truncheons, and stones and verbally abused them. Many of the attackers wore masks that covered their faces. More than 20 police officers were present when the incident occurred, but did not interfere to stop the assaults. A reporter, a cameraman from Shant TV, and a cameraman from Factor TV were hurt during the incident.

The SIS opened investigations into more than 50 criminal cases of police abuse of power accompanied by violence during the assemblies held from April 13 to May 8. Later, those cases were merged into a single criminal case and an investigative group was established. More than 60 episodes of violence were under investigation within the framework of that criminal case, with reporters, lawyers, and numerous citizens recognized as aggrieved parties.

In November the UN special rapporteur on peaceful assembly and association noted, “Armenia has come a long way with recent reforms and the adoption of new laws that regulate the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; however authorities need to ensure the consistent enforcement of the current regulations.”

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. Under the Law on Public Organizations, in force since February 2017, some NGOs have legal standing to act on behalf of their beneficiaries limited to environmental issues in court. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.

On October 29, the Ministry of Justice proposed draft amendments to the Law on Public Organizations that generated intense public debate. For example, on November 16, the Transparency International Anticorruption Center (TIAC) released a statement expressing concerns the draft amendments would introduce problematic changes to the reporting requirements for civil society organizations. The draft proposed to toughen the reporting for civil society organizations by extending reporting requirements to all organizations regardless of their sources of funding. In addition, the amendments would require personal information of the donors as well as members, governing bodies, staff and volunteers who have received funding. According to TIAC, the draft would put an unreasonable and disproportionate burden on public organizations.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and laws 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.

In April 2017, the country held parliamentary elections, thereby choosing the first legislative body to govern under the new constitution. In conjunction with amendments to the electoral code, this shifted the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, eliminating the direct election of the president and mayors of two major cities and introducing a complex proportional electoral system that many characterized as semi-majoritarian. After the end of Serzh Sargsyan’s second presidential term on April 9, the parliament elected him on April 17 as the first prime minister under the new constitution. On April 23, however, Sargsyan resigned following nationwide protests. On May 8, under public pressure, the parliament elected opposition leader and member of parliament Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On December 9, the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated but free and competitive campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won 70.44 percent of the vote and most seats in Parliament; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.27 percent and 6.37 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE/Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) December 10 preliminary report noted that “early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms.…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote-buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote-buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by one contestant, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

ODIHR observers stated that “contestants were able to conduct their campaigns freely; fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression and movement were fully respected during the campaign.” At the same time they emphasized that disinformation, as well as inflammatory exchanges between some contestants, on social networks, were noted during the campaign. Among the few issues that marred the electoral process, the observers noted that “the integrity of campaign finance was undermined by a lack of regulation, accountability, and transparency. For example, contrary to previous ODIHR and Venice Commission recommendations, organizational expenses such as for office space, communication, transportation, and staff were not considered election-related and therefore could remain unreported, “undermining the transparency of campaign finance.” Other shortcomings highlighted by OSCE observers included the narrow legal standing for submitting electoral complaints, contrary to previous ODIHR and Venice Commission recommendations.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties. Prior to the “velvet revolution,” however, authorities suppressed political pluralism in other ways.

While political pluralism expanded after the May change in government, observers noted increased radicalization in society, reflected most acutely in social media, that shrank the space for criticism of the new government, since any dissent was labeled as “counterrevolutionary” by Civil Contract supporters. Some opposition political actors alleged that the new government directed public pressure against them.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. Although the percentage of female members of the parliament and the Yerevan City Council increased from 2017, the participation of women remained low in these and other decision making structures. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected on October 21.

The OSCE’s preliminary statement following the December 9 parliamentary elections noted that all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender quota requirement and women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not ensure the same proportion of representation of women in the parliament, as half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns – women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies observed. Some women candidates were a target of disparaging rhetoric because of their gender.

There are government-mandated seats in the parliament for the country’s four largest ethnic minorities: Yazidi, Kurds, and the Assyrian and Russian communities. Four members of the parliament represented these constituencies.

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

Following the May change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the new government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. On November 8, however, Daniel Ionnisyan of the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) NGO announced via Facebook post that the Investigative Committee had launched a criminal case against one of the UIC’s Fact Investigation Platform (FIP) reporters. The reporter had contributed to an October 18 FIP report on a recorded phone conversation with a public school principal in Hrazdan. The recording revealed that the principal was planning to engage school staff and students in the political rally of an independent mayoral candidate (the son of an MP from My Step party).

After the “velvet revolution,” some Facebook users politically affiliated with the former government and media outlets started a smear campaign against civil society organizations funded by the Open Society Foundation and government officials whom they alleged were directly or indirectly affiliated with the foundation.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. Civil society generally approved of the work of the ombudsman’s office during the April-May protests. According to the human rights defender’s website, the office worked 24 hours a day during protests to ensure human rights protections. For the first half of the year, the office reported an unprecedented number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased trust in the institution and new public expectations.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 11 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met in Dushanbe.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; criminalization of libel; physical attacks on journalists; arbitrary interference with privacy; interference in the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association through intimidation; incarceration on questionable charges; harsh physical abuse of selected activists, journalists, and secular and religious opposition figures; blocking of websites; restrictions on freedom of movement for a growing number of journalists and activists; refoulement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

The government did not prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.

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 the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

In July and August, the government announced that security services had killed five individuals who allegedly resisted police during their arrest. The authorities claimed the individuals were involved in the July 3 attempted murder of Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev and the subsequent July 10 killing of two police officers. Human rights defenders alleged the five individuals had not resisted arrest and that police and state security services planned the killings in advance.

On September 26, Teymur Akhundov died in the Gazakh Police station after he was summoned for questioning. Akhundov’s family alleged his death was caused by physical abuse by police.

On September 13, State Border Service private Huseyn Gurbanov died under unclear circumstances. Authorities stated he committed suicide, but family members publicly alleged members of his unit killed him during a hazing ritual.

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met in Dushanbe. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the ECHR accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

As of November 20, local human rights organizations reported at least 31 noncombat-related deaths in security forces, including suicides and soldiers killed by fellow service members.

b. Disappearance

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

The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that 3,868 citizens were registered as missing because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, more than 4,496 persons remained unaccounted for because of the conflict.

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

While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions.

On July 18, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published reports of six visits it conducted to the country between 2004-17. In the reports the CPT stated its overall impression of the situation in the country was that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic. The 2017 CPT delegation reported receiving numerous credible allegations of severe physical abuse that it stated could be considered torture, such as truncheon blows to the soles of the feet and infliction of electric shocks. The goal of the alleged abuse reportedly was to force the detainees to sign a confession, provide other information, or accept additional charges. In contrast to previous visits, the delegation also reported receiving allegations of what it termed “severe ill treatment/torture” by the State Customs Committee, the State Border Service, and the Armed Forces.

In January 2017 authorities arrested prominent blogger and Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) chairman Mehman Huseynov in the Nizami district of Baku for allegedly resisting police. In a news conference the following day, he stated police tortured him while he was in their custody. The head of Nizami police pressed charges against Huseynov for criminal defamation; in March 2017 a Baku court convicted him and sentenced him to two years in prison (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

There were also reports of torture in prisons. In one example, media reported family member claims that in April imprisoned deputy head of the Muslim Unity Movement Abbas Huseynov was severely beaten and left chained in an isolation cell in Gobustan Prison. He was subsequently chained to an iron post in the prison yard, exposed to the elements, from morning until night. This followed media and human rights lawyers’ reports in August 2017 of Huseynov’s torture in the same prison. Authorities did not investigate the allegations.

Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed mistreatment and delayed their access to an attorney–practices that opposition figures and other activists stated made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity. Authorities reportedly delayed the forensic examination of Yunus Safarov for 21 days after photos showing marks of severe abuse on his body were circulated in social media immediately after his arrest on charges of attempted murder of the then Ganja mayor.

On March 31, police from the Antitrafficking Department (ATD) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained youth activist Fatima Movlamli, who at that time was 17 years old and a legal minor. They held her incommunicado for five days on the premises of the Baku ATD, during which time they slapped her around the head and shoulders and threatened to rape her if she did not sign a document acknowledging she was involved in prostitution.

Local observers again reported bullying and abuse in military units during the year. For example, on August 3, private Fahmin Abilov committed suicide after reportedly suffering abuse. His commanding officer and two privates were arrested in connection with his death. The Ministry of Defense maintained a telephone hotline for soldiers to report incidents of mistreatment to hold unit commanders responsible.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to a reputable prison-monitoring organization, prison conditions were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, deficient heating and ventilation, and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they awaited trial. They reported those facilities lacked ventilation and proper sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks but housed women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions than male prisoners, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities, but that women’s prisons still suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The Ministry of Justice reported that during the year five children less than three years of age lived in adult prison facilities with their incarcerated mothers. Convicted juvenile offenders may be held in juvenile institutions until they are 20 years old.

While the government continued to construct new facilities, some Soviet-era facilities still in use did not meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.

Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by holding them in isolation cells. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.

Prisoners at times claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. An example of the latter was the denial of timely eye surgery by Baku prison authorities for Mahammad Ibrahim, an opposition Popular Front Party senior advisor, causing permanent damage to his sight. On September 29, just one day prior to his expected release, he was charged by prison officials with illegal possession of a knife, a violation that carries the possibility of up to six additional months of imprisonment. Another Popular Front Party member, Elnur Farajov, died on August 10 from cancer shortly after his release from prison. Family members said he was not properly treated for the disease while incarcerated.

Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or to receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement the food officially provided, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.

Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from bringing documents in and out of detention facilities. While the Ombudsman’s Office reported conducting systematic visits and investigations into complaints, activists reported the office was insufficiently active in addressing prisoner complaints by, for example, failing to investigate allegations of torture and abuse, such as those made by Muslim Unity Movement deputy chair Abbas Huseynov and N!DA activist Ilkin Rustamzade.

Authorities at times limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC. Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as to detainees held in facilities under the authority of the Ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs and the State Security Services.

The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between them and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.

A joint government-human rights community prison-monitoring group known as the Public Committee was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service. On some occasions, however, other groups that reportedly gave prior notification experienced difficulty obtaining access.

Improvements: On July 18, the CPT reported a presidential executive order had resulted in some improvements, mainly in reducing prison overcrowding. The CPT noted, however, that the national and international minimal standard for living space per inmate had not yet been achieved in pretrial facilities visited in October 2017, especially in Shuvalan and Ganja.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence issues. NGOs reported both services detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Activists reported the State Border Service played a role in facilitating detentions at the border of some who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Security Service, and the Foreign Intelligence Service. The government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse; widespread corruption resulted in limited oversight, and impunity involving the security forces was widespread.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.

According to the law, detainees are to be brought before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant placing the detainee in pretrial detention, placing the detainee under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. In practice, however, authorities at times detained individuals held for longer than 48 hours for several days without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office is to complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them.

A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year. The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. For example, media outlets reported that a lawyer was not able to gain access to Popular Front Party members Agil Maharremov, Ruslan Nasirli, and Babek Hasanov for days following their initial detention. Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access.

Human rights defenders stated that many of the more than 60 individuals detained after the attempted assassination of the mayor of Ganja and subsequent killing of two police officers in July were denied access to legal representation.

Police at times held politically sensitive and other suspects incommunicado for periods that ranged from several hours to several days. In March human rights defenders reported police illegally held youth activist Fatima Movlamli, a legal minor at the time, incommunicado for five days in the Baku Antitrafficking Department Crime before releasing her without charge. On May 12, Popular Front Party supporter Saleh Rustamov was detained and held incommunicado for 15 days.

Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information about detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information about detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on individuals to turn themselves in to police or to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of Popular Front Party activists Babek Hasanov, Ruslan Nasirli, and Agil Maharramov stated in November that, contrary to the law, authorities had prohibited all contact with their relatives since police detained them in May for alleged illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering. Human rights defenders stated the charges and isolation from family was punishment for their political activities.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.

In a high-profile example, on June 4, shortly after completing a degree program abroad and returning to the country, lawyer Emin Aslanov was arrested by police and held incommunicado for a day at the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Department to Combat Organized Crime. He was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention on charges of resisting police, but activists stated the arrest and detention were due to his past human rights work.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary did not rule independently in such cases, however, and in some cases the outcomes appeared predetermined.

Amnesty: On May 24, the president pardoned 634 prisoners, but human rights defenders considered few to be political prisoners, with the exceptions of Popular Front Party member Elnur Farajov, writer Saday Shakarli, and 10 religious activists.

There were reports authorities required prisoners to write letters seeking forgiveness for past “mistakes” as a condition of their pardon.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges did not function independently of the executive branch. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally insupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during the trial. Outcomes frequently appeared predetermined. Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.

The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council. The council appoints a judicial selection committee (six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar) that administers the judicial selection examination and oversees the long-term judicial training and selection process.

Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instruction from the presidential administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in cases of interest to international observers. There were credible allegations judges routinely accepted bribes.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial (although trials can be closed in some situations, for example, cases related to national security); to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated.

Judges at times failed to read verdicts publicly or explain their decisions, leaving defendants without knowledge of the reasoning behind the judgment. Judges also limited the defendant’s right to speak. For example, in the third appeal ruling of Ilgar Mammadov, the judge did not explain the court’s rationale for releasing him on August 13 with two years’ probation when he had only 18 months of his sentence remaining.

Authorities sometimes limited independent observation of trials by having plainclothes police and others occupy courtroom seats and, in some cases, by refusing entry to observers. For example, the Baku Grave Crimes Court allowed only restricted access to the hearings of activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available, but in some political cases, hearings were canceled at the last minute and rescheduled with limited notice.

Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or if a defendant requests a change of counsel.

The law limits representation in criminal cases to members of the country’s progovernment Collegium (bar association). The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases continued to shrink due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the collegium’s presidium, its managing body. Such measures–which included disciplinary proceedings resulting in censure and sometimes disbarment–intensified during 2017-18. For example, on June 11, the collegium voted to expel lawyer Irada Javadova after she voted against disbarring human rights attorney Yalchin Imanov in 2017. The collegium suspended human rights lawyers Fakhraddin Mehdiyev on January 22, Asabali Mustafayev and Nemat Karimli on April 23 for one year, and Agil Layij for six months on October 30. The collegium officially reprimanded lawyer Fuad Aghayev on July 10.

Other punitive tools employed by authorities against lawyers included correctional labor and financial penalties. For example, on November 23, the Binagadi district court fined and sentenced lawyer and human rights defender Aslan Ismayilov to one year of corrective labor for hooliganism after he allegedly slammed a door in the courtroom. Ismayilov was fined and sentenced to one and a half years corrective labor by the Sabayil district court for alleged criminal slander in a separate case July 31. Ismayilov stated the sentences were meant to punish him for his investigations of government corruption in the health sector.

Some activists estimated the number of remaining lawyers willing to take politically sensitive cases to be as low as four or five. The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku, which made it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal service.

Amendments to the law on legal representation came into force on February 5. The law previously permitted nonbar lawyers to represent clients in civil and administrative proceedings. Under the amended law, however, only members of the bar association are able to represent citizens in any legal process. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the amended law, asserting it had reduced citizens’ access to legal representation and further empowered the bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of human rights lawyers who are bar members in good standing.

During the year the collegium held examinations for lawyer-candidates and increased its membership from 900 to 1,500. Human rights defenders asserted new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases for fear they would be sanctioned by the collegium. Some activists and lawyer-candidates stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.

The constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence. Despite some defendants’ claims that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse, human rights monitors reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.

Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts most often ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.

With the exception of the Baku Court of Grave Crimes, human rights advocates also reported courts often failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Courts are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.

There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse.

The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

Political prisoners and detainees are entitled to the same rights as other prisoners, although restrictions on them varied. According to OC Media, political prisoners faced special prohibitions on reading and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.

In addition to the presidential pardon on March 24, on April 5, the Supreme Court conditionally released journalist Aziz Orujov, who was convicted in December 2017 for illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of office. On August 13, the Sheki Court of Appeals conditionally released the chairman of the opposition Republican Alternative Party, Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov had been incarcerated since 2013 despite rulings by the ECHR in 2014 and 2017 that his initial detention was illegal and that he had been denied a fair trial. On October 31, Ilgar Mammadov submitted a cassation appeal requesting full acquittal.

Nongovernmental estimates of political prisoners and detainees ranged from 128 to 156 at year’s end. According to human rights organizations, dozens of government critics remained incarcerated for politically motivated reasons as of November 23. The following individuals were among those widely considered political prisoners or detainees (also see sections 1.c., 1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 3, and 4).

On January 12, the Balakan District Court sentenced Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to a six year prison term. Authorities reportedly abducted Mukhtarli in Georgia on May 30 and subsequently arrested him in Azerbaijan on smuggling and related charges, which were widely considered politically motivated. On April 24, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. On September 18, the Supreme Court rejected Mukhtarli’s appeal of the verdict.

On January 23, the Gazakh District Court sentenced deputy chairperson of the opposition Popular Front Party Gozel Bayramli to three years imprisonment on charges of attempted smuggling of currency across the border. Human rights defenders stated the case was politically motivated and that authorities punished Bayramli for her role in organizing authorized political demonstrations. On April 20, the Ganja Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.

On May 5, the Shirvan Criminal Court sentenced the leader of the local branch of the opposition Musavat Party, Alikram Khurshudov, to five years in prison on charges of hooliganism. On August 31, the Shirvan Court of Appeal reduced his sentence to four and half years. Human right defenders asserted the charges were politically motivated.

On March 1, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada, his deputy, Abbas Huseynov, and 16 other persons. The court also rejected the appeal of Fuad Gahramanli, one of three deputy chairs of the secular opposition Popular Front Party, on March 1. In January 2017 the Baku Grave Crimes Court had sentenced Bagirzada and Huseynov to 20 years in prison. Sixteen other persons associated with the case received prison terms ranging from 14 years and six months to 19 years on charges including terrorism, murder, calling for the overthrow of the government, and inciting religious hatred. In a related case Gahramanli was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January 2017. Human rights defenders asserted the government falsified and fabricated the charges to halt the spread of political opposition in the country. In July 2017 the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the verdicts.

On June 25, the Supreme Court rejected the second appeal of prominent blogger and IRFS chairman Mehman Huseynov. In March 2017 a Baku court convicted him and sentenced him to two years in prison for alleged defamation. On August 24, a Baku Court rejected Mehman Huseynov’s request for early release. On October 17, Baku Court of Appeals upheld this verdict.

On March 6, The Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Fuad Ahmadli. In June 2017 the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Ahmadli, a member of the Youth Committee of the Popular Front Party, to four years’ imprisonment for alleged abuse of office and purportedly illegally accessing private information at the mobile operator where he worked. The Baku Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in August 2017. Human rights defenders stated he was punished for participating in protest actions and for criticizing the government on social media.

Other individuals considered by activists to be political detainees included Popular Front Party members Vidadi Rustamli, Agil Maharramov, Ruslan Nasirli, Babek Hasanov, party supporter Saleh Rustamov, and exiled Musavat Party activist Azad Hasanov.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.

Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were, therefore, reluctant to pursue compensation claims.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.

While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications, particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. There were indications the postal service monitored certain mail for politically sensitive subject matter.

Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes arrest family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, Elnur Seyidov, the brother-in-law of opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli, remained incarcerated since 2012 on charges widely viewed as politically motivated. Murad Adilov, the brother of journalist and Popular Front Party activist Natig Adilov, was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to six years in prison.

There were several examples of the use of politically motivated incarceration of relatives as a means of putting pressure on exiles. For example, in February authorities arrested and sentenced to administrative detention the nephews of exiled activist Ordukhan Temirkhan; some of his other relatives had been sentenced to administrative detention in 2017.

There were also reports authorities fired individuals from their jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country. For example during the year there were reports that Popular Front Party members were fired from their jobs after participating in a peaceful protest.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered nine journalists and bloggers and one poet to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli, who was sentenced to six years in prison on January 12 by the Balakan District Court. The Sheki Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on April 24 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal on September 18. Mukhtarli had been living in Georgia before he was reportedly abducted from Tbilisi in May 2017 (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, authorities arrested opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli four days after he gave a speech on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, at the grave of journalist Elmar Huseynov. In his speech, Bakhishli held President Aliyev responsible for Huseynov’s killing. On September 18, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Bakhishli had been sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention in late March and released a few days before his May 3 speech.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. Authorities placed activists in administrative detention for their critical social media posts. For example, on May 22, opposition Popular Front Party member Rahib Salimli was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after he used social media to call for the release of political prisoners.

Press and Media Freedom: Government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media throughout the year. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so. The 2018 IREX Media Sustainability Index stated that “mainstream news media are under the strict control of the ruling elite and only report news that suits its purposes.” No significant opposition printed publications remained in the country.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations.

Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network. On August 1, authorities shut the progovernment media holding company APA News Agency, further reducing sources of information in the country.

During the year authorities continued to pressure independent media outlets outside the country and those individuals associated with them in the country. In high-profile examples, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in 2015.

Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported journalists from independent media outlets were subject to physical and cyberattacks during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of physical attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. There were no indications that authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists that took place in prior years. Journalists and human rights defenders continued to call for full accountability for the 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. For example, Kanal 13 journalist Ismail Islamoglu stated publicly that police detained him on October 26 and subjected him to physical and psychological pressure for three days for his journalistic activities. In July the Prosecutor General’s Office opened criminal cases against websites Bastainfo.comand Criminal.az and interrogated their editors in chief and journalists for their reporting on the assault on Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev.

Most locally based media outlets relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing. Those not benefitting from this type of financing experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. In May 2017 the law was amended increasing the fine for libel from 100 to 1,000 manat ($58 to $580) to 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($580 to $875). The fine for slander was increased from 300 to 1,000 manat ($175 to $580) to 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($580 to $1,170). The law was also amended so that insulting the president could no longer be punished by fines, leaving judges with the sole options of punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, in March 2017 a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel for publicly stating that he was tortured by police.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives.

Some activists and journalists suspected the government was behind the hacking of several social media accounts. In high-profile examples involving activists, on January 9, the Facebook page of Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), was hacked and all posts on the page were deleted; on February 4, prominent NCDF member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook page was hacked. In an illustrative example involving the media, on January 29, the Facebook pages of independent media outlet Meydan TV were hacked.

In July and August, the Sabayil District Court granted the suits of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies and blocked access to Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az. On August 10, the Baku Court of Appeals court ruled to unblock Arqument. The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets including Azadliq, Turan, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by the authorities during the year.

The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2017 through May, showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. It stated that the government increasingly blocked access to news websites and noted cyberattacks against news websites and activists ahead of the April presidential election; new fines for distributing illegal content online; and the detention of journalists, bloggers, and social media users for their online publications.

According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 80 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who failed to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($290 to $580) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them unconstitutional. Authorities throughout the country routinely ignored applications for public rallies, effectively denying the freedom to assemble.

Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in periods of administrative detention up to 30 days. A total of 18 individuals were detained and sentenced to 15 to 30 days of administrative detention for their participation in government authorized opposition rallies on March 10, March 31, and April 14. Activists also stated that, as of April 15, more than 100 Popular Front party members were summoned or harassed by police and warned about participating in opposition demonstrations. In another high-profile example, Azer Gasimli and four other activists of the opposition Republican Alternative Party were arrested, charged with resisting police, and sentenced to administrative detention for their role in organizing an unauthorized march in the center of Baku on May 28 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Police summoned dozens of other participants and warned them not to take part in similar future events.

The government also prevented opposition groups from gathering to visit culturally important sites, a practice authorities previously permitted. For example, on November 17, police detained approximately 50 opposition activists, including PFP Chairman Ali Kerimli and NCDF Chairman Jamil Hasanli, for attempting to hold a procession through Martyr’s Alley to commemorate National Revival Day. Most activists were released the same day, but Kerimli and approximately eight others were held incommunicado until November 19, when Kerimli and five others were released with fines and three PFP activists were sentenced to 20 days of administrative detention.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.

Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.

In 2014 the president approved a number of amendments to the administrative code and the laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities that imposed additional restrictions on NGO activities and closed several loopholes for the operations of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The legislation also introduced some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors were required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The laws make unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidated and dissuaded potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricted their ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

In January 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued new regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. According to the new procedures, obtaining grant registration processes for multiple agencies were merged. The new procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities. The rules authorize the ministry to conduct inspections of NGOs, with few provisions protecting their rights, and provide the potential of harsh fines if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result a number of NGOs were unable to operate, the bank accounts of several NGOs remained frozen, and some NGO leaders were still prohibited from leaving the country.

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, no foreign NGOs had been able to register under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on submitted applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues related to democratic development. Some experts estimated up to 1,000 NGOs remained unregistered.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by interfering in the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On February 5, the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October to April 11. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. ODIHR concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

The OSCE/ODIHR cancelled its observation of the 2015 National Assembly elections when the government refused to accept its recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The country’s main opposition parties boycotted the election.

Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In February 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. They also observed significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: While there were 55 registered political parties, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The National Assembly has not included representatives of the country’s main opposition parties since 2010.

During the year authorities continued to take various measures to prevent the Republican Alternative Movement from incorporating itself as a political party. For example, in October and November 2017, the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group. On April 7 and 8, the group held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party, acknowledging the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration.

The Popular Front Party was initially denied a venue for its party congress by the Baku City Executive Authority. After losing a court challenge, the city provided a venue on April 1.

Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights defenders estimated at least 60 individuals associated with opposition political parties were detained and sentenced to administrative detention under these circumstances during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, at least 15 opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including the head of the Shirvan branch of the Musavat Party, Alikram Kurshudov, and all three deputy chairs of the Popular Front Party, Gozel Bayramli, Fuad Gahramanli, and Seymur Hezi.

Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and by employing economic pressure on their family members.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs, a cabinet-level position, was female, and 16.8 percent of members of the National Assembly were women.

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

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the high level of recent years. Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into organizations’ activities. As a result some human rights defenders left the country or remained unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as failure to return confiscated case files and office equipment of Intigam Aliyev, the travel bans on Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev, and frozen bank accounts.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds.

Government officials and state-dominated media outlets engaged in rhetorical attacks on human rights activists (and political opposition leaders; see section 3), accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country and working on behalf of foreign interests.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies, criticizing what authorities called interference in the country’s internal affairs. For example, government officials and members of the National Assembly criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the presidential election, stating it had been written in advance of the election to smear the country (see section 3).

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsman for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsman for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsman may refuse to accept cases of abuse that are more than a year old, anonymous, or already being handled by the judiciary. Human rights NGOs criticized the Ombudsman’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and the Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies.

Georgia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for an executive branch that reports to the prime minister, a unicameral Parliament, and a separate judiciary. The government is accountable to the Parliament. The president is the head of state and commander in chief. Under a controversial new constitution that came into force after the December 16 presidential inauguration following the October-November presidential elections, future presidents will not be elected by popular vote. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers described the first round of the presidential elections in October as competitive and professionally administered, although they raised concerns including the lack of a level playing field, voter intimidation, and fear of retribution. OSCE observers repeated these concerns after the second round in November and assessed that the candidates “were able to campaign in a free environment; however, one side enjoyed an undue advantage and the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.”

While civilian authorities maintained effective control of the Ministry of Defense, there were indications that at times they did not maintain effective control of domestic security forces.

Human rights issues included an allegation of an unjustified killing by security forces; arbitrary detentions and deprivation of life by Russian and de facto authorities of the country’s citizens along the administrative boundary lines (ABLs) with the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; unlawful interference with privacy; allegations of high level corruption of government officials; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

The government took steps to investigate some allegations of human rights abuses, but shortcomings remained. Such shortcomings included lack of accountability for the May 2017 reported abduction from Georgia and rendition to Azerbaijan of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.

De facto authorities in the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside central government control and were supported by several thousand Russian troops and border guards occupying the areas. A cease-fire remained in effect since 2008. Russian border guards restricted the movement of local populations. While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted.

De facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia restricted the rights, especially of ethnic Georgians, to vote or otherwise participate in the political process, own property, register businesses, and travel. Although de facto South Ossetian authorities refused to permit most ethnic Georgians driven out due to the 2008 conflict to return to South Ossetia, a special crossing arrangement existed for those from Akhalgori district. De facto authorities did not allow most international organizations regular access to South Ossetia to provide humanitarian assistance. Russian “borderization” of the ABLs continued, separating residents from their communities and livelihoods.

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 was one allegation that the government or its agents committed an unjustified killing. There was at least one report of de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of Georgia committed an arbitrary on unlawful killing.

Eighteen-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili died in a Tbilisi hospital on January 10 after security forces shot him during a counterterrorism raid in the Pankisi Gorge in December 2017. His father, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, alleged the killing was unjustified. The Public Defender emphasized the importance of a transparent, objective, and timely investigation; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the subsequent investigation as lacking integrity.

In February de facto South Ossetian authorities arrested ethnic Georgian and former soldier Archil Tatunashvili near the ABL. Tatunashvili died in custody. After initially refusing to return his remains, the de facto authorities released the body to Georgian authorities in March. An autopsy found that his organs had been removed, and the government determined Tatunashvili had been tortured.

In June the government published the “Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list,” named for Tatunashvili and another citizen, Giga Otkhozoria, who was killed by de facto Abkhaz authorities in 2016. The list named 33 alleged human rights violators accused of committing grave acts against Georgians in the occupied territories; the government imposed sanctions on the 33 persons named, including restrictions on finances, property, and movement.

On October 30, Tbilisi City Court found former deputy defense minister Davit Akhalaia guilty in connection with the high-profile murder of Sandro Girgvliani in 2006 and the kidnapping of Vamekh Abulashvili and Kakha Dabrundashvili in 2005. The court convicted Akhalaia of abuse of power, illegal deprivation of human liberty, and humiliation of human dignity, and it sentenced him in absentia to seven years and six months in jail.

The Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) announced October 17 that it was reinvestigating the 2008 death of Badri Patarkatsishvili, after the Office released audio tapes dating back to 2007 that appeared to reveal the premeditation of his murder. The CPO charged former government officials Levan Kardava, Revaz Shiukashvili, and Giorgi Merebashvili, who were heard on the tapes discussing different methods of murdering Patarkatsishvili that would make the cause of death appear natural. The CPO released an October 17 statement that the murder was planned “on former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s orders” because “Patarkatsishvhili was a political rival and the archenemy of the government.” Some observers, however, alleged the CPO released the tapes for political reasons in context of the presidential election. The investigation was ongoing as of November.

b. Disappearance

The government’s investigation into the reported kidnapping of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli by government officials in May 2017 appeared stalled. Concerns remained that the government was involved in Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Tbilisi and arrest by Azerbaijan authorities on the border with Georgia border (see section 1.d., Role of the Police and Security Apparatus).

There were frequent reports of detentions of Georgians along the ABLs of both the occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including the case of Archil Tatunashvili (see section 1.a.).

More than 2,300 individuals were still missing following the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia and the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. In its May report to parliament for 2017, the Public Defender’s Office (PDO)stated that effectively combating torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment remained “one of the most important challenges of the country.”

The PDO reported it asked the Office of the Chief Prosecutor to investigate 72 allegations of such mistreatment by police officers and prison staff between 2013-17; of these, the prosecutor’s office did not identify any perpetrators according to the PDO. The PDO reported an increase in the number of cases of mistreatment by police it referred to the CPO in 2017 and an increase in 2017 in the rate of injuries sustained by individuals admitted to temporary detention facilities and during or after administrative arrests. Of the 10 cases the PDO asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate in 2017, the prosecutor’s office had not identified any perpetrators according to the PDO’s report to parliament. The PDO continued to consider the existing system of investigation into alleged torture and other mistreatment by law enforcement officials neither effective nor independent. NGOs and the PDO continued to recommend the creation of an independent mechanism to investigate allegations of misconduct. They also continued to call for greater oversight of security officials.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) reported it submitted six complaints of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment from inmates in penitentiary facilities to the CPO for investigation. GYLA also reported it submitted 10 complaints of such treatment by law enforcement officers, compared with five in 2017. In an additional case, GYLA accused the mayor of Marneuli of degrading treatment (see section 3). The CPO opened investigations into the complaints, but had not reached a final decision in any of the cases as of mid-December.

On the 2015 alleged physical assault of lawyer Giorgi Mdinaradze by then head of the Vake-Saburtalo Police No. 5 Lasha Kvirkaia, in March the Tbilisi Court of Appeals upheld the Tbilisi City Court ruling that found Kvirkaia guilty of abuse of power but acquitted him on the charge of violence in October 2017. In response to the CPO’s appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that the abuse of power included violence and sentenced Kvirkaia to five years in prison on October 26. The PDO reported that the prosecution did not submit charges against any additional police officers who allegedly participated in the assault and noted the lower court hearings had been postponed a number of times because police officers called as witnesses did not appear in court.

As of mid-December, several former officials remained on trial at Tbilisi City Court in various cases of torture and other crimes allegedly committed during the time during the former government, including former deputy chief of the general staff Giorgi Kalandadze, former deputy culture minister Giorgi Udesiani, and former director of Gldani No. 8 prison Aleksandre Mukhadze (see Section 1.d). On February 27, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals upheld former deputy defense minister Davit Akhalaia’s 2016 conviction for conspiracy to commit murder and abuse of power during the 2006 Navtlughi special operation that resulted in the killing of three unarmed men. In April Tbilisi City Court convicted former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia of organizing torture and sexual violence.

In June Tbilisi City Court convicted former president Mikheil Saakashvili in absentia and sentenced him to six years in prison for abuse of power for ordering a physical assault of former member of parliament Valery Gelashvili. Ministry of Internal Affairs special forces attacked Gelashvili shortly after a 2005 dispute between Saakashvili and Gelashvili. The United National Movement opposition party claimed the case against Saakashvili was politically motivated.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

While overall prison and detention facility conditions improved, conditions in some old facilities were inhuman and lacked sufficient ventilation, natural light, minimum living space, and adequate health care.

Inmate-on-inmate violence, criminal subcultures, and informal management remained persistent systemic problems.

Physical Conditions: While the law requires authorities to hold persons in pretrial detention separately from convicted prisoners, the PDO reported overcrowding still led authorities to place persons held in pretrial detention and convicted prisoners together in several prison facilities, especially Gldani #8 and Kutaisi #2.

In July the Ministry of Corrections, which is responsible for the penitentiary system, became part of the Ministry of Justice. According to the Ministry of Justice, 15 prisoners died in the penitentiary system in 2017, compared with 27 in 2016.

While the Ministry of Justice maintained a special medical unit for prisoners with disabilities, the PDO reported prisons and temporary detention centers did not take into account the needs of persons with disabilities, including for medical services. The PDO also noted the majority of institutions failed to compile data on and register the needs of persons with disabilities. According to the Penitentiary Department, some facilities began to adapt their infrastructure to accommodate persons with disabilities (see section 6, Persons with Disabilities).

Prison conditions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were reported to be chronically substandard.

Administration: The PDO noted there was only one ombudsperson authorized to respond to complaints by prisoners and reported that obstacles such as a lack of information on their rights, fear of intimidation, distrust of the outcome, and lack of confidentiality could deter prisoners from filing complaints with judicial authorities. According to the Ministry of Justice, amendments to the administrative procedure code adopted in June 2017 improved complaint procedures as well as the complaint mechanism with regard to parole decisions.

According to the PDO, records on registering and distributing detainees in temporary detention centers were often incomplete or erroneous.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by international prison monitoring organizations, including the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and some local and international human rights groups. The national preventive mechanism operating under the PDO had access to penitentiaries, conducted planned and unscheduled visits, and was allowed to take photographs during monitoring visits. National preventive mechanism members, however, did not have unimpeded access to video recordings of developments in penitentiaries.

The ICRC had full access to prisons and detention facilities in undisputed Georgian territory and some access to prison and detention facilities in South Ossetia. The ICRC did not have access to prisons and detention facilities in Abkhazia.

Improvements: Following the 2017 introduction of house arrest as an alternative to incarceration for adult offenders, the government opened a prerelease center in January that offered both home and work release to inmates who had less than a year of their sentence left to serve. Authorities allowed female inmates with infants and children to leave facilities during the weekends after their child turned three and to keep a baby born in prison with them for up to three years. The government increased the number of local councils (i.e., parole boards) to six in an effort to improve the case review process. The Department of Corrections continued to develop a list of authorized documents inmates may retain in cells, including indictments, court judgments, receipts for personal property held upon intake, and up to 100 pages of their case files. The PDO reported that the Department had not finalized the list despite a 2015 recommendation to do so. In June 2017 Parliament passed legislation, which entered into force in January, to allow low risk inmates and inmates serving sentences in juvenile rehabilitation institutions to acquire higher education. Also in January the Ministry of Internal Affairs launched a project with UNICEF to provide psychological services to juveniles by December. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that during the year, it renewed training courses for Temporary Detention Department staff on recording detainees’ injuries, including by photograph, renovated two temporary detention facilities, and opened medical units in four facilities.

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/her arrest or detention in court. The government’s observance of these prohibitions was uneven.

As of November 7, the trial of former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili remained underway in Tbilisi City Court. In 2016 the CPO charged Adeishvili in absentia in connection with the alleged illegal detention and kidnapping of a former opposition leader, Koba Davitashvili, in 2007.

In January Tbilisi Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s July 2017 decision finding a former senior official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, David Devnozashvili, and the former director of Gldani Prison #8, Aleksandre Mukhadze, guilty of misuse of power in the 2011 “photographers’ case” in which the previous government arrested four photographers and charged them with espionage. The defendants appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which declared the appeal inadmissible in June. In response, the CPO motioned the Tbilisi Court of Appeals to revisit the 2011 decision against the photographers and acquit them of all charges. As of December, the case was ongoing.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of public order. The ministry is the primary law enforcement organization in the country and includes the national police force, the border security force, and the Georgian Coast Guard. The SSSG is the internal intelligence service responsible for counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and anticorruption efforts. The Ministry of Finance and the CPO have investigative services with police powers in financial investigations, and the CPO is required to investigate high-profile cases and other criminal offenses. The office may take control of any investigation if it determines doing so is in the best interest of justice (e.g., in cases of conflict of interest and police abuse cases). In certain politically sensitive cases investigated by the Prosecution Service–including the case of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and instances of political violence–impunity remained a problem.

The Ministry of Defense is responsible for external security, although the government may call on it during times of internal disorder.

While civilian authorities maintained effective control over the Ministry of Defense, senior civilian authorities reportedly did not always maintain effective control over the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the SSSG.

The effectiveness of government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse by law enforcement officials and security forces was limited, and domestic and international concern over impunity remained high.

There were large protests in May surrounding the conduct of law enforcement bodies’ investigation and prosecution of the killing of two juveniles that occurred in December 2017, known as the “Khorava Street murders.” Civil society groups questioned the investigation’s impartiality. As a result of the controversy, the country’s chief prosecutor resigned, and parliament, for the first time, set up an Investigative Commission in June. In September, the commission, headed an opposition party leader, concluded that the investigation was compromised in favor of former influential Prosecutor’s Office official Mirza Subeliani, as some investigatory procedures, including the questioning of witnesses and collection of material evidence, completely bypassed Subeliani and two of his relatives allegedly implicated in the crime. The commission also accused former Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze of either “negligence” or “abuse of power.” Government officials partially agreed with the commission’s conclusions that the investigation did not properly execute procedures regarding evidence collection, examinations, and questioning witnesses, but they also contested the claim that undue outside influence compromised the investigation. Zaza Saralidze, father of one of the boys killed, continued to lead protests.

During the year, the president, the public defender, local and international NGOs, and the international community continued to express concerns about impunity for government officials in connection with the reported May 2017 abduction and forced rendition of Azerbaijani freelance journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia to Azerbaijan. As of mid-December, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office claimed it continued to investigate the incident and was waiting for a response to its request to Azerbaijan’s government to interview Mukhtarli. The Public Defender’s Office, NGOs, and Mukhtarli’s wife criticized the investigation for its lack of urgency and transparency, as well as for the authorities’ refusal to grant Mukhtarli “victim status.” Such status would have allowed Mukhtarli’s lawyers to request special protection for the life, health, and property of Mukhtarli and his close relatives. NGOs accused investigators of ignoring alleged abuses of power by government authorities. These developments, combined with the government’s failure to issue an interim report on the investigation and the July comment of Vakhtang Gomelauri, the head of the SSSG, that “some investigations are never solved” added to concerns of government involvement in Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Tbilisi and arrest on the Azerbaijan-Georgia border.

There were reports of impunity for abuses of state resources, including politically motivated surveillance (see section 1.f.) and interference by SSSG officials (see section 3).

The CPO continued training prosecutors on proper standards for prosecuting cases of alleged mistreatment by public officials. In 2017 the CPO started 127 investigations for alleged mistreatment by penitentiary and law enforcement officers from 2013 to 2016. Of these, 17 persons faced prosecution proceedings in 2017: three police officers and 14 penitentiary employees.

The trial in the Tbilisi City Court against the former head of the Constitutional Security Department, Davit Akhalaia, and three additional former Ministry of Internal Affairs officials for their role in the violent dispersal of a protest in 2011 remained underway as of November.

In July prominent NGOs released a joint report addressing the police raids of Tbilisi nightclubs (see section 1.d.). The NGOs questioned the legitimacy of measures taken by law enforcement in the nightclubs, arguing their actions were excessive. Government officials defended their actions as appropriate and in line with international standards.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Law enforcement officers must have a warrant to make an arrest except in limited cases. The criminal procedure code provides that an arrest warrant may be obtained only where probable cause is shown that a person committed a crime for which conviction is punishable by imprisonment and that the individual may abscond or fail to appear in court, destroy evidence, or commit another crime. GYLA noted the law did not explicitly specify the role and powers of a judge in reviewing the lawfulness of arrests, and that courts often failed to examine the factual circumstances of the detention.

Upon arrest, a detainee must be advised of his or her legal rights. Any statement made after arrest but before a detainee is advised of his or her rights is inadmissible in court. The arresting officer must immediately take a detainee to the nearest police station and record the arrest, providing a copy to the detainee and his or her attorney. The Public Defender reported, however, that maintenance of police station logbooks was haphazard and in a number of cases the logbooks did not establish the date and time of an arrest.

Detainees must be indicted within 48 hours and taken to court within 72 hours. Anyone taken into custody on administrative grounds has the right to be heard in court within 12 hours after detention. Violating these time limits results in the immediate release of the person.

The law permits alternatives to detention. NGOs and court observers reported that the judiciary failed to use alternative measures adequately. The government also lacked a monitoring mechanism for defendants not in custody.

Detainees have the right to request immediate access to a lawyer of their choice and the right to refuse to make a statement in the absence of counsel. An indigent defendant charged with a crime has the right to counsel appointed at public expense. The threshold for aid was so low, however, that many low income defendants could not afford counsel during critical stages of criminal proceedings.

Detainees facing possible criminal charges have the right to have their families notified by the prosecutor or the investigator within three hours of arrest; persons charged with administrative offenses have the right to notify family upon request. The 2017 report of the national preventive mechanism released in July 2018 noted that this right was mostly observed. The Public Defender’s Office documented that 71 percent of detainees in 2017 made use of this right, compared to 56 percent in 2016. The law requires the case prosecutor to approve requests by persons in pretrial detention to contact their family.

Witnesses have the right to refuse to be interviewed by law enforcement officials for certain criminal offenses. In such instances, prosecutors and investigators may petition the court to compel a witness to be interviewed if they have proof that the witness has “necessary information.” The public defender reported that police continued to summon individuals as “witnesses” and later arrested them. According to the public defender, police used “involuntary interviews” of subjects, often in police cars or at police stations. The report of the national preventive mechanism for 2017 noted that police failed to advise interviewees of their rights prior to initiating interviews and failed to maintain records of individuals interviewed in police stations or vehicles.

Concerns persisted regarding the authorities’ use of administrative detention to detain individuals for up to 15 days without the right to an effective defense, defined standards of proof, and the right to a meaningful appeal.

Pretrial Detention: NGOs noted inconsistent application of the standards to grant bail or order detention. Although there was a noticeable improvement in the substantiation of motions and rulings, prosecutors and judges at times did not articulate a reasoned and specific justification for requesting or ordering detention and did not discuss the lawfulness of the detention. According to Supreme Court statistics, as of July, pretrial detention was used in 41.6 percent of cases compared with 32.8 percent for the same period in 2017. Trial monitors attributed the increase in detention rates to a decrease in substance abuse cases, which often resulted in the defendant being remanded released on bail, and an increase in reported domestic violence cases, which usually involved the detention of the defendant. PDO reported the increase did not necessarily reflect an increase of domestic violence or reliance on detention.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The criminal procedure code provides that in exigent circumstances, a person can be arrested without a court warrant. A person must be released immediately if the substantial breach of an arrest procedure has been identified. This decision can be made by a prosecutor or a judge at the first appearance hearing within 72 hours from the arrest. The law provides that the arrested person shall be fully reimbursed from the state budget for the damage incurred as a result of an unlawful and unjustified arrest. The national preventive mechanism noted that, as in previous years, persons under administrative arrest rarely exercised their right to a defense attorney in 2017. There is no meaningful judicial review provided by the code of administrative violations for an administrative arrest.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside of the judiciary.

The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, Transparency International, and others continued to raise concerns over a lack of judicial independence. During the year, they highlighted problems including the strengthening of an influential group of judges primarily consisting of High Council of Justice members and court chairs, that allegedly stifled critical opinions within the judiciary and obstructed proposals to strengthen judicial independence; the impact of the High Council’s powers on the independence of individual judges; manipulation of the case distribution system; a lack of transparency in the High Council’s activities; and shortcomings in the High Council’s appointments of judges and court chairpersons.

The president, the public defender, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to highlight shortcomings in the 2017 legislative package informally known as the “third wave of judicial reform.” They pointed to problems in the laws’ implementation and highlighted challenges to judicial independence, including flawed processes for selecting judges at all court levels, many to lifetime appointments, which left the judiciary vulnerable to political influence.

In May Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze resigned over allegations that his office improperly influenced the investigation of the Khorava Street murders (see section 1.d.). Civil society groups widely criticized Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani for nominating a new chief prosecutor in advance of the adoption of new constitutional rules designed to ensure impartiality in appointment of the chief prosecutor. The new constitution empowers a new 15-member Prosecutor’s Council, rather than the justice minister, to nominate the chief prosecutor.

In August Supreme Court Chief Justice and Chair of the High Council of Justice Nino Gvenetadze resigned. Civil society and opposition politicians widely believed she stepped down due to political pressure. Civil society organizations urged then-President Margvelashvili to nominate a new chief justice; the president declined to do so, saying he had “failed to achieve broad public consensus” over a candidate.

On December 24, the High Council of Justice (HCOJ) nominated 10 controversial candidates to the Supreme Court. Civil society, opposition, and some ruling party members accused the nominees, all of whom were alleged to be a part of, or closely affiliated with, the influential group of judges that civil society referred to as a “clan.” They also criticized the lack of a transparent nomination procedure or clear criteria for nominees. The non-transparent nature of the nominations immediately became a divisive issue within Parliament and, on December 27, the Chair of the Parliamentary Legal Issues Committee, a Georgian Dream member of parliament (MP), resigned in protest. That evening, the HCOJ granted a lifetime lower court appointment to Levan Murusidze, who had been accused of corruption. This prompted a major outcry, and several NGOs released a statement blaming Georgian Dream for not having the will to reform the judiciary. On December 28, Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze agreed that criteria for selecting judges had to be modified and, as of year’s end, the debate continued in Parliament.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial. The Public Defender reported numerous violations of the right to a fair trial, and NGOs noted this right was not enforced in some high profile, politically sensitive cases. NGOs reported courts were inconsistent in their approaches to closing hearings to the public and at times did not provide an explanation for holding a closed hearing.

Defendants are presumed innocent and must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have a right to be present at their trial and to have a public trial except where national security, privacy, or protection of a juvenile is involved.

In August, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Giorgi Mamaladze, who had been convicted in 2017 of “preparing for premeditated murder.” The Tbilisi Appeals Court had already upheld the original conviction in February. The PDO and NGOs consistently raised concerns that the investigation and court proceedings deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

The law allows for trial in absentia in certain cases where the defendant has left the country. The code on administrative offenses does not provide the necessary due process provisions including the presumption of innocence, especially when dealing with violations that can result in a defendant’s deprivation of liberty.

The law does not prescribe a maximum period for investigation of cases but stipulates a maximum period for trial if a suspect is arrested. The criminal procedure code requires trial courts to issue a verdict within 24 months of completing a pretrial hearing.

GYLA noted that unreasonable delays in cases and court hearings were a serious factor in limiting the right to timely justice. The requirement of a continuous trial was met only in jury trial cases. In bench trials with defendants not in custody, trials were scheduled with intervals as long as one month. GYLA also reported that judges were unable to maintain order in many cases. The Public Defender’s Office highlighted weak reasoning in court judgments.

Examples of delayed proceedings included the related cases of Temur Barabadze and founding Millennium Challenge Fund Georgia Chief Executive Officer Lasha Shanidze and his father Shalva. According to court documents, Barabadze was forced to testify against the Shanidzes under duress in 2009, but subsequently recanted his testimony. Pending for more than seven years, court hearings in Barabadze’s case began in spring 2017. Completion of judicial review of the Shanidzes’ 2011 embezzlement convictions based on Barabadze’s coerced testimony continued to await resolution of Barabadze’s case. In June Barabadze’s case was separated from the Shanidzes’ case, and the trial court acquitted him. The Prosecutor’s Office appealed the trial court’s decision, however, and the trial remained underway as of year’s end.

Defendants have the right to meet with an attorney of their choice without hindrance, supervision, or undue restriction. Defendants enjoy the right to have an attorney provided at public expense if they are indigent, but many did not always have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The Public Defender’s Office noted that while a state appointed lawyer generally was available for those in need, state appointed attorneys often were not present until submitting charges or plea bargaining.

In criminal proceedings, defendants and their attorneys have the right of access to prosecution evidence relevant to their cases no later than five days before the pretrial hearing and can make copies. Defendants have the right to question and confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf at trial. Defendants have the right to refuse to testify or incriminate themselves. While a defendant generally has the right to appeal a conviction, making an effective appeal under the administrative code was difficult. By law, defendants have 30 days to file an appeal once they receive the court’s written and reasoned judgment. Administrative sentences that entail incarceration must be appealed within 48 hours and other sentences within 10 days. On October 19, the Constitutional Court issued a decision in a case related to appeal procedure in administrative violation cases. It noted that the existing appeal procedures were substandard and declared them unconstitutional. Based on this decision, the existing provisions were scheduled to lose legal force on March 31, 2019 and be replaced by new procedures allowing meaningful appeals in cases of administrative violation.

By law a court must certify that a plea bargain was reached without violence, intimidation, deception, or illegal promise and that the accused had the opportunity to obtain legal assistance. Plea bargaining provisions in the criminal procedure code provide safeguards for due process, including the removal of a no contest plea and allowing charge bargaining. The evidentiary standard for plea agreements stipulates that evidence must be sufficient to find a defendant guilty, without a full trial of a case, and must satisfy an objective person that the defendant committed the crime. GYLA reported that courts did not fairly evaluate the voluntariness of a defendant’s plea agreement and that, out of 303 motions proposed by the prosecution, judges approved 98 percent (298). According to Supreme Court statistics for the first eleven months of the year, the rate of cases disposed of via plea agreements stood at 6.6 percent, while cases resolved by trial constituted 33.4 percent. During the same period, courts fully acquitted defendants in 7.1 percent of trials and partially acquitted them in 2.9 percent of trials. Of cases reviewed on their merits, courts terminated the prosecution in 3.1 percent of trials.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

Opposition party members and family members of prisoners stated the government held political prisoners. The government permitted international and domestic organizations to visit persons claiming to be political prisoners or detainees, and several international organizations did so.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, but there were concerns about the professionalism of civil judges and transparency in their adjudication. The constitution and law stipulate that a person who suffers damages resulting from arbitrary detention or other unlawful or arbitrary acts, including human rights violations, is entitled to submit a civil action. Individuals have the right to appeal court decisions involving alleged violation of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after they have exhausted domestic avenues of appeal.

There were reports of lack of due process and respect for rule of law in a number of property rights cases. NGOs also reported several cases in which groups claimed the government improperly used taxes on property to pressure organizations, as was the case with the International Black Sea University (see section 2.a.).

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

In Abkhazia, the de facto legal system prohibits property claims by ethnic Georgians who left Abkhazia before, during, or after the 1992-93 war, thereby depriving internally displaced persons of their property rights in Abkhazia.

In a 2010 decree, South Ossetian de facto authorities invalidated all real estate documents issued by the Georgian government between 1991 and 2008 relating to property in the Akhalgori Region. The decree also declared all property in Akhalgori belongs to the de facto authorities until a “citizen’s” right to that property is established in accordance with the de facto “law,” effectively stripping ethnic Georgians displaced in 2008 of their property rights in the region.

The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) had little indication that de facto South Ossetian authorities demolished houses belonging to Georgian internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Eredvi during the year, as they did in 2017, but EUMM observed scavengers at work.

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 nonconsensual electronic surveillance or monitoring operations without a warrant. NGOs, media, and others asserted that the government did not respect these prohibitions. For example, there were widespread reports that the government monitored the political opposition. Local and international NGOs also reported that government officials monitored independent Azerbaijani journalists and activists residing in the country. In a June 18 report, Transparency International/Georgia and the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center raised concerns about the State Security Service’s secret surveillance system due to lack of political neutrality and weak oversight.

As of year’s end, cases submitted to the Constitutional Court challenging a law on electronic surveillance were pending. The plaintiffs (NGOs and the PDO) asserted the law did not satisfy the requirements of a 2016 Constitutional Court ruling requiring an independent body to oversee electronic surveillance.

Some opposition politicians raised concerns that the government was prolonging a 2016 the investigation in order to justify monitoring political opponents allegedly involved in the recording or to sway voters ahead of the fall presidential elections (see Section 3). The investigation concerns audio tapes in which, allegedly, certain opposition leaders discuss organizing a revolution.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised concerns about the environment for media pluralism.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. On October 17, independent Iberia Television suspended broadcasting. The station’s owner alleged that the station’s financial problems were linked to government pressure. Iberia’s closure, and the 2017 merger of three television stations decreased media pluralism and increased the concentration of media outlets in favor of the ruling party. NGOs have criticized the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party and media monitoring organizations report GPB’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party.

On February 21, Parliament overrode President Margvelashvili’s January 15 veto of controversial amendments to the Law on Broadcasting that Parliament initially passed in December 2017. While the GNCC supported the amendments that had been initiated by GPB management, NGOs, private television stations, and opposition parties heavily criticized the amendments for enabling the GPB to receive additional revenue from commercial advertising and rendering the station’s restructuring process opaque.

Members of the GPB board elected by the ruling party frequently criticized NGOs, particularly in response to a July 2017 letter a group of 24 NGOs sent to high-level foreign officials that cited a “deteriorated media environment.” GPB published a series of articles deriding the civil sector for this critique, prompting the Media Advocacy Coalition to issue a statement in defense of the civil sector in February.

By law, media outlets are obligated to disclose information about their owners. While media ownership transparency allowed consumers to judge the objectivity of news, laws obliging broadcasters to disclose information about their financial sources were not fully enforced.

Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding media pluralism and political influence in the media, especially against those critical of the government. Concerns persisted concerning government interference with and criticism of pro-opposition bias in some media outlets, in particular in the country’s most widely viewed television station, Rustavi 2. In March 2017, the ECHR suspended the Supreme Court’s decision to transfer Rustavi 2’s ownership to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. The ECHR’s review of the case remained pending at year’s end. Rustavi 2 struggled financially because of frozen assets and an overdue tax bill. In April a number of NGOs and rights groups reaffirmed their support for the ECHR’s interim measure on Rustavi 2 because it allowed the station to maintain its editorial independence.

Violence and Harassment: Crimes against media professionals, citizen reporters, media outlets were rare; however, during the year there were at least three reports of such violence. For example, in March members of the far-right group Georgian March damaged a car and injured a Rustavi 2 journalist during a protest against the station’s high-profile anchor, Giorgi Gabunia, who had referenced Jesus Christ in an on-the-air joke about Georgian Dream Party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili’s tree collection. Georgian March filed a complaint to the station and demanded Gabunia’s apology for insulting their religious sentiment. NGOs and human rights advocates considered the protesters’ actions criminal offenses, such as coercion, illegal restriction of liberty, violence, damage of property, and unlawful interference with the journalist’s professional activities. GYLA called upon the relevant bodies to investigate the matter. The Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an investigation and arrested several individuals for hooliganism, all of whom were subsequently released on bail. The pretrial hearings continued as of November 7.

Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged that Georgian Dream party chair and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili exerted a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in court decisions against Rustavi 2.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both occupied regions remained restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained about unauthorized surveillance. Surveillance laws introduced in 2017 attracted criticism for allowing excessive access to user data (see section 1.f.).

According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately two-thirds of the population used the internet. High prices for services and inadequate infrastructure limited access, particularly for individuals in rural areas or with low incomes.

Insufficient information was available about internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

NGOs continued to raise concern that the government improperly pressured schools that Turkish authorities alleged to be linked to the Gulen movement, which they accused of responsibility for the 2016 coup attempt. After the 2017 closure of two secondary schools and arrest of their general director, Mustafa Cabuk, on a Turkish government extradition request (Cabuk was released in February, see section 2.d.), officials began to impose administrative pressure on the International Black Sea University, a leading private institution, citing tax liens on the university’s properties as a reason to prevent it from taking on new students.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; government respect for those rights was uneven.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of assembly. Human rights organizations expressed concern, however, about provisions in the law, including the requirement that political parties and other organizations give five days’ notice to local authorities to assemble in a public area, thereby precluding spontaneous demonstrations. NGOs reported that police sometimes restricted freedom of assembly. For example, on December 17, 14 NGOs accused the authorities of restricting opposition access to the site of a planned Inauguration Day demonstration on December 16. The government responded that it had provided an area for demonstrations, but that protestors had refused to use it. As of mid-December, two supporters of Georgian Dream and one opposition activist were in detention after inauguration day incidents. Two Georgian Dream activists were arrested after allegedly assaulting an opposition activist in Velistsikhe, and opposition leader Davit Kirkitadze was arrested after he reportedly assaulted a police officer who was blocking the highway with a bus. Kirkitadze and his supporters claimed his arrest was politically motivated. NGOs also stated police abused the administrative offences code to detain participants of peaceful assemblies based on articles 166 (petty hooliganism), 173 (non-compliance with a lawful order of a law enforcement officer), and 150 (defacing the appearance of a self-governing unit).

There were several protests in May, including those against raids on popular nightclubs and in support of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). In May LGBTI organizations were unable to hold a sanctioned IDAHOT rally due to safety concerns following large rallies attended in part by far right groups that threatened violence against LGBTI supporters. Several LGBTI activists still met in front of the State Chancellery under heavy police presence. The PDO reported violence against LGBTI individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem, and that the government has been unable to respond to this challenge.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

There were reports that some government representatives and supporters of the ruling party pressured political opposition figures and supporters and state employees (see Section 3).

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. On December 16, a new constitution, approved in September 2017, went into effect. The constitution eliminated direct election of the president and maintained the current parliamentary electoral system until 2024.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: An OSCE/Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission assessed that the October 28 first round of the presidential elections “was competitive and professionally administered.” While they recognized that candidates campaigned freely and voters had a genuine choice, the observers raised concerns about the “misuse of administrative resources,” an “unlevel playing field,” “sharp polarization of the private media, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric,” “legal changes that increased the representation of the ruling party at all election administration levels,” and “insufficient transparency in the selection of nonpartisan members” that “undermined the perception of impartiality.”

OSCE/ODIHR’s election observation mission stated that the November 28 second round of the presidential election was marked by an undue advantage for the ruling party backed candidate and that “the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.” The assessment said the “increased misuse of administrative resources further blurred the line between party and state” and that private media showed sharp polarization while public media did not ensure editorial independence and impartiality and “displayed a clear bias against the opposition.” The observation mission reported the handling of election complaints “often lacked proper consideration of substance, and commissions took narrow or inconsistent interpretations of the law, all of which impacted the right to effective remedy.” The National Democratic Institute (NDI) stated reports of intimidation of state employees to vote for the ruling party backed candidate, or not to vote, “were widespread ahead of the run-off, including firsthand accounts from family members of NDI staff.” In a November 27 joint statement, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, Transparency International Georgia, and GYLA also reported widespread intimidation before the run-off, with “employees of municipal public institutions, private sector employees, socially vulnerable voters and voters with previous conviction” pressured. Most reportedly were urged to vote for the ruling party backed candidate or were threatened because of their support for the opposition candidate. Municipal employees reported dismissal threats.

In August United National Movement (UNM) party members released an audio recording allegedly demonstrating ruling Georgian Dream party collusion with the Central Election Commission (CEC) to stack district and precinct election commissions with Georgian Dream supporters. Several opposition parties called for the resignation of the CEC chairperson. The CEC promised a strong response if the allegations of collusion were substantiated. Several election monitors raised the issue in their reports, and the chair of the Krtsanisi district election commission resigned. In October, the CEC concluded there was no collusion or violations and closed the investigation.

Political Parties and Political Participation:

Establishing accountability for political violence remained a problem, including for a number of attacks on opposition figures before the second round of the presidential election. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported in November 22 people were charged with violent crimes. In one such incident in Akhalkalaki, four UNM activists were beaten and sustained injuries serious enough to require hospitalization for several days; the Ministry of Internal Affairs charged five Georgian Dream activists with violence. In some other cases, the Ministry rejected opposition assertions that assaults were election related.

NDI noted that “most striking about this election were the aggressive, personalized, and unprecedented attacks by senior state officials against…civil society organizations and their leaders in the days and weeks leading up to election day” (see section 5).

Following a June assault by the then mayor of Marneuli on a citizen whom he forced to apologize to “41” (Georgian Dream’s ballot number) and whose face he smeared with his own urine, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into those involved, including the mayor, United National Movement MP Azer Suleymanov, a Georgian Dream member of the Marneuli Sakrebulo (city council) Ramin Allahverdiyev, and one of the mayor’s relatives of Marneuli’s mayor. The mayor was charged with degrading and inhumane treatment and faced five to 10 years in prison if convicted. The trial was underway as of November 7.

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

De facto authorities in Abkhazia stripped ethnic Georgians of their Abkhaz “citizenship” in 2014, preventing them from participating in elections. Ethnic Georgians willing to apply for Abkhaz “passports” generally did not receive them in time to participate in elections due to extensive delays. Ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia were also required to accept a South Ossetian “passport” and “citizenship” to participate in political life.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups in most instances operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Tension between the government and a number of leading NGOs increased, however, especially in the run-up to presidential elections. Soon after 13 NGOs highlighted concerns about indications of high level corruption (see Section 4) and informal clan rule in early October, prominent members of the government launched verbal attacks on those groups and their leaders. The Public Defender and NGOs expressed alarm regarding these attacks on civil society, asserting that a coordinated government attack on civil society harmed democracy. Also in October, the Speaker of Parliament labeled a prominent civil society leader “an accomplice to fascists” for asserting that a television director’s provocative comments did not violate the election code. Some government officials accused NGOs of publishing unsubstantiated accusations against the government, for example, when the NGOs reported a confidential source had alleged that government officials printed false identification cards in advance of presidential elections.

Some government officials accused NGOs of alleged political bias and publishing unsubstantiated accusations against the government, for example, when the NGOs reported a confidential source had alleged that government officials printed false identification cards in advance of presidential elections.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted. In March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for immediate access for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and international and regional human rights mechanisms to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June the OHCHR reported that de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had not granted the requested access and expressed concern that, despite repeated requests since 2011, these de facto authorities had never granted it access. The OHCHR stated that the lack of access raised legitimate questions and concerns about the human rights of the populations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Government Human Rights Bodies: NGOs viewed the Public Defender’s Office, which has a mandate to monitor human rights and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination, as the most objective of the government’s human rights bodies. The amended constitution that came into force December 16 limits the public defender to one six-year term in office.

The public defender’s authority does not include the power to initiate prosecutions or other legal actions but the office can recommend action, and the government must respond. While the office generally operated without government interference and was considered effective, the public defender reported that government offices at times responded partially or not at all to inquiries and recommendations, despite a requirement to respond to information requests within 10 days and initiate follow up action within 20 days. Among government offices that failed to satisfy such requests in 2017, the Public Defender’s Office report highlighted the SSSG and the Ministry of Justice and its entities.

The public defender retains the right to make nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies to investigate particular human rights cases. The public defender must submit an annual report on the human rights situation for the calendar year but can also make periodic reports. The office may not report allegations of torture unless the victim gives clear consent or a monitor from the office witnesses the torture.

By law the chief prosecutor is responsible for protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights unit of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office monitored overall prosecution and supervised compliance with national and international human rights standards. The unit reviews statistical and analytical activities within the prosecution system and is responsible for examining and responding to recommendations of national and international institutions involving human rights. The Human Rights Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office also have mandates to monitor and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination.

The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which is designed to cover Abkhazia and South Ossetia and includes security actors from the government, Russia, and de facto authorities of the breakaway regions, considered human rights abuses reported in the occupied territories and along the ABL. Due to a dispute over agenda items, however, the IPRM meetings in Gali (Abkhazia) have been suspended since June. IPRM meetings in Ergneti (South Ossetia) resumed in December following a three-month suspension. De facto authorities in the occupied territories did not grant representatives of the Public Defender’s Office access.

Human Rights Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future