China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available. In an April 21 report, Amnesty International declared the country executed potentially thousands of individuals in 2020.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps. There were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives had died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release. In January, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported the 82-year-old Uyghur poet Haji Mirzahid Kerimi died in prison while serving an 11-year sentence for writing books that were later blacklisted. According to RFA, Kerimi was arrested in 2017 as part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) campaign to censor “dangerous” literature. RFA also reported Kurbanjan Abdukerim died in February shortly after his release from an internment camp. During the three years of his detainment, Abdukerim family reported he had lost more than 100 pounds and that the cause of his death was unknown.
Disappearances through multiple means continued at a nationwide, systemic scale.
The primary means by which authorities disappeared individuals for sustained periods of time is known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL). RSDL codifies in law the longstanding practice of the detention and removal from the public eye of individuals the state deems a risk to national security or intends to use as hostages. The primary disappearance mechanism for public functionaries is known as liuzhi. Per numerous reports, individuals disappeared by RSDL and liuzhi were subject to numerous abuses including but not limited to physical and psychological abuse, humiliation, rape, torture, starvation, isolation, and forced confessions.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, since families were often not provided information concerning the length or location of the detention.
Amnesty International reported in April that Ekpar Asat, also known as Aikebaier Aisaiti, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur, had been held in solitary confinement since 2019 in Aksu Prefecture. He was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 shortly after participating in a program in the United States and subsequently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
In July officials at Tongji University in Shanghai confirmed that Uyghur research scientist Tursunjan Nurmamat had been detained after Nurmamat suddenly went silent on social media in April. Further details on Nurmamat’s case and whereabouts were unknown.
Professional tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for approximately three weeks after her November 2 accusation on social media that former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her. Her reappearance, via what appeared to be tightly controlled and staged video clips, raised concerns that authorities were controlling her movement and speech (see section 6, Women).
Former lawyer Tang Jitian, a long-time advocate for Chinese citizens, has been held incommunicado since December 10, reportedly in connection with his plans to attend Human Rights Day events in Beijing. Subsequently there were reports that authorities had sent a video to his former wife telling his family to remain quiet.
In 2020, four citizen journalists disappeared from public view after authorities in Wuhan took them into custody. Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua (who was released after two months in April 2020), Zhang Zhan, and Fang Bin had interviewed health-care professionals and citizens and later publicized their accounts on social media during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in Wuhan. Media reported November 24 that Fang Bin was in custody in Wuhan, the first news of his location since his arrest in February 2020. On September 30, Chen Qiushi appeared on social media but said he could not talk about what happened to him. In November according to reports from her family and lawyer in media, Zhang Zhan, who had been sentenced in December 2020 to four years’ imprisonment, remained in detention and has been on an intermittent hunger strike.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such harassment.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force-fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
Zhang Zhan, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in December 2020 for her activities as a citizen journalist during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, was not allowed family visits by Shanghai prison authorities. When Zhang went on a hunger strike, prison officials force-fed her, tying and chaining her arms, torso, and feet.
In August after 21 months in detention, human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was indicted. Ding was detained in 2019 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day.
On March 22, Zhang Wuzhou was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison for “obstructing official duty, provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Following her arrest in June 2020, Zhang was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 2020 account as reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
As of November human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng remained in a Nanjing prison serving a four-year sentence. In April he was treated in a hospital for nerve damage from an unknown incident suffered in prison. He was convicted in June 2020 for “inciting subversion of state power” and was held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced into a stress position for an extended period.
As of November human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who was reportedly tortured while in RSDL, was still in pretrial detention. Chang, known for his successful representation of HIV and AIDS discrimination cases, was detained in October 2020 after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January 2020 round of RSDL.
In December 2020 Niu Tengyu was sentenced to a 14-year jail term by the Maonan District People’s Court in Guangdong for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” “violating others’ privacy,” and “running an illegal business” in a case that has been linked to the leak of the personal information of President Xi’s daughter. According to RFA, Niu’s lawyers alleged that prior to the trial, Niu was stripped, suspended from the ceiling, and his genitals burned with a lighter. They also alleged he was beaten so badly that he lost use of his right hand.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). In an October report on CNN, a former PRC police detective now living in Europe who had multiple tours of duty in Xinjiang confirmed many of these specific allegations in what he described as a systematic campaign of torture.
In March, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy released a comprehensive assessment of the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang to examine “whether China bears State responsibility for breaches of Article II of the Genocide Convention, in particular, whether China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs as defined by Article II of the Convention.” The report included contributions of more than 30 scholars and researchers and found that the PRC has implemented a campaign designed to eliminate Uyghurs, in whole or in part. The report stated, “[h]igh-level officials gave orders to ‘round up everyone who should be rounded up,’ ‘wipe them out completely,’ ‘break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.’” The report noted the PRC has also pursued a “dual systematic campaign of forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women of childbearing age and interning Uyghur men of child-bearing years, preventing the regenerative capacity of the group.”
In June, Amnesty International released a report that documented the accounts of more than 50 former detainees regarding the torture, mistreatment, and violence inflicted on them in camps in Xinjiang. The report detailed the systematic use of detainment and “re-education” centers to target Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang. The report concluded, “according to the evidence Amnesty International has gathered, corroborated by other reliable sources, members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been subjected to an attack meeting all the contextual elements of crimes against humanity.” Further, it elaborated on violence and detention stating, “Amnesty International believes the evidence it has collected provides a factual basis for the conclusion that the Chinese government has committed at least the following crimes against humanity: imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; and persecution.”
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and the CCP to investigate corruption and other offenses, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports.
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Official media reported the Ministry of Public Security directly administered 23 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane. While many of those committed to mental health facilities were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, there were also reports of activists, religious or spiritual adherents, and petitioners involuntarily subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Public security officials may commit individuals to psychiatric facilities and force treatment for “conditions” that have no basis in psychiatry.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often life threatening or degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives when allowed to receive them. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
The lack of adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities at times withheld medical treatment from political prisoners. Multiple NGOs and news agencies reported detainees at “re-education” centers or long-term extrajudicial detention centers became seriously ill or died.
Political prisoners were sometimes held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. In some cases authorities did not allow dissidents to receive supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Deaths from beatings occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
In Xinjiang authorities expanded internment camps for Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims. Buzzfeed reported in July that the map of detention centers “neatly fits the geography of counties and prefectures across Xinjiang, with a camp and detention center in most counties and a prison or two per prefecture.” The report estimated that the government had built enough detention space to hold up to 1.01 million individuals. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Xinjiang Data Project satellite analysis indicated that Xinjiang has 385 detention centers. In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons to hold detainees. The Associated Press reported in October that authorities have closed or repurposed the makeshift detention centers found in cities, but in their place have built larger detention centers outside the cities. According to Human Rights Watch, these camps focused on “military-style discipline and pervasive political indoctrination of the detainees.” Detainees reported pervasive physical abuse and torture in the camps and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
In July the Associated Press estimated one detention center in Dabancheng, Xinjiang could hold 10,000 persons. Associated Press reported that during a tour of the facility it observed detainees “in uniform rows with their legs crossed in lotus position and their backs ramrod straight” where they watched videos of CCP propaganda. In October, CNN interviewed a former Chinese police officer who served multiple tours in Xinjiang and was directly involved in the severe physical mistreatment and violence undertaken against Uyghurs and other ethnic minority communities. The officer stated, “We took (them) all forcibly overnight. If there were hundreds of people in one county in this area, then you had to arrest these hundreds of people.” During interrogations, police officers would “kick them, beat them (until they’re) bruised and swollen, … Until they kneel on the floor crying.” “Interrogation” methods included shackling persons to a metal or wooden “tiger chair” (rendering them immobile), sexual violence against men and women, electrocutions, and waterboarding. The source said inmates were forced to stay awake for days and denied food and water. The former police officer stated that 150,000 police officers had been recruited to participate in the province-wide “strike hard” campaign and that there were arrest quotas they had to meet. Authorities accused detainees of terror offenses, but the source said he believed “none” of the hundreds of prisoners he was involved in arresting had committed a crime.
Administration: The law states letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was observed. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions, their results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Authorities denied many prisoners and detainees reasonable access to visitors and correspondence with family members. Some family members did not know the whereabouts of their relatives in custody. Authorities also prevented many prisoners and detainees from engaging in religious practices or gaining access to religious materials.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities considered information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities to be a state secret, and the government did not permit independent monitoring.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained systemic. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest. (See section 1.b., Disappearance, for a description of RSDL and liuzhi.)
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
There were allegations of detainee abuse and torture in the official detention system, known as liuzhi, of the National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI; see section 4). Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse was unclear.
On March 14, Li Qiaochu was arrested for her human rights advocacy and involvement with fellow activists involved in the nationwide crackdown of lawyers and activists who participated in 2019 meetings in Xiamen, Fujian. Her first visit with her lawyer was on August 27, who reported that her mental health had deteriorated. At year’s end she was still detained in Shandong Province on suspicion of “subverting state power.”
On October 1, more than 170 Uyghurs in Hotan, Xinjiang, were detained by the National Security Agency of Hotan on the country’s national day, according to Radio Free Asia. They were accused of displaying feelings of resistance to the country during flag-raising activities. Among those detained were at least 40 women and 19 minors.
On September 19, journalist Sophia Huang and activist Wang Jianbing were detained in Guangzhou, according to the rights group Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network). Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong on September 20 for the United Kingdom, where she intended to pursue graduate studies. Media reported that both were being held incommunicado under RSDL on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power.” As of year’s end they remained detained in Guangzhou, and no one was allowed to see the pair.
In September, PRC authorities released Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China and allowed them to return to Canada, shortly following the release by Canadian authorities of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou. Kovrig and Spavor had been detained since December 2018, after the arrest in Canada of Meng. For months the two Canadian citizens were held in RSDL before being charged with a crime and were denied access to lawyers and consular services. Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, remained in detention as his sentence was reviewed. After Meng’s arrest, Schellenberg’s sentence for drug-smuggling crimes was increased from 15 years’ imprisonment to a death sentence.
There were no statistics available for the number of individuals in the liuzhi detention system nationwide. Several provinces, however, publicized these numbers, including Heilongjiang with 376 and Jilin with 275 detained, both in 2020. One provincial official heading the liuzhi detention system stated suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security officials sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed, although lengthy detention without access to lawyers before charges were filed were common. The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one; is blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill; is a minor; or faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so. Lawyers reported significant difficulties meeting their clients in detention centers, especially in cases considered politically sensitive. According to the South China Morning Post, a new legal aid law introduced in August that will enter into force in 2022 stipulates that legal consultation, the drafting of legal documents, representation in cases, labor arbitration and mediation will be paid for by legal aid centers set up central and local government.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret these provisions.
Under certain circumstances the law allows for residential surveillance in the detainee’s home, rather than detention in a formal facility. With the approval of the next-higher-level authorities, officials also may place a suspect under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases. Human rights organizations and detainees reported the practice of residential surveillance at a designated location left detainees at a high risk for torture, since being neither at home nor in a monitored detention facility reduced opportunities for oversight of detainee treatment and mechanisms for appeal.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious advocates and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political activists and religious adherents, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including commonly a six-month stay in a detoxification center. The government maintained similar rehabilitation centers for those charged with prostitution or with soliciting prostitution.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges, as well as what constitutes a state secret, remained poorly defined and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights advocates. It was unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, commercial activity, and government activity. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports authorities arrested or detained lawyers, religious leaders or adherents, petitioners, and other rights advocates for lengthy periods, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Authorities subjected many of these citizens to extralegal house arrest, denial of travel rights, or administrative detention in different types of extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials, annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang. Security agents took some of those not placed under house arrest to remote areas on so-called vacations.
In March activist Chen Jianfang, detained in Shanghai since 2019, was tried for “inciting subversion of state power.” A verdict was not announced following the trial, and Chen remained in detention. After Chen fired her court-appointed lawyer, she was not allowed to meet with a replacement lawyer.
In May, Wang Aizhong, a leader of the “Southern Street Movement” which advocates for the freedom of political expression, was detained by Guangzhou police under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and then formally arrested in July. According to the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, authorities told Wang’s wife he was arrested for his social media posts and for giving foreign media interviews.
On June 4, Gao Heng was arrested by Guangzhou police for posting on social media a picture of himself holding a sign commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. Gao last met with a lawyer in prison in July pending his trial. No details of what he has been charged with or his current status have been publicly released.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. From 2015 to 2018, authorities held many of the “709” detainees (referring to the government crackdown on human rights lawyers that began on July 9, 2015) and their defense attorneys in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers. Statistics were not published or made publicly available, but lengthy pretrial detentions were especially common in cases of political prisoners.
At year’s end Beijing-based lawyer Li Yuhan, who defended human rights lawyers during the “709” crackdown, remained in detention at the Shenyang Detention Center; she has been held since 2017 and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” On July 12, Li met with her lawyer who reported that Li was urged to confess to her “crimes”; she refused. On October 21, her case went to trial, but no verdict was rendered. Due to Li’s poor health, her attorney submitted multiple requests to Shenyang authorities to release Li on medical parole, but the request was repeatedly denied.
As of September 8, the Ganjingzi District Court in Dalian City had not tried Ren Haifei, a Falun Gong practitioner held without trial and without charges since June 2020. Ren was arrested without a warrant, hospitalized for severe injuries suffered after his initial arrest, and remanded to the Dalian Yaojia detention center after release from the hospital where he has remained. Ren Haifei was previously incarcerated from 2001 to 2008 for his Falun Gong beliefs and for participating in peaceful protests related to the government’s treatment of other Falun Gong practitioners. Ren’s trial was first scheduled for July; however, authorities postponed the trial, citing COVID-19 concerns.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In February, United Kingdom media regulator Ofcom cancelled the broadcast license of China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, for having insufficient editorial independence from the PRC government and the CCP. In July 2020 Ofcom found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review. Remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court required trials to be open to the public, except in cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or – if requested by a party to the proceedings – commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations stipulate that foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, except those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All-China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All-China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. On November 21, China Change reported that more than 40 lawyers lost their license due to their human rights work since 2016. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of numerous lawyers who took on sensitive cases such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All-China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In October the association issued new guidelines that banned lawyers from speaking about cases publicly, including organizing press conferences and petitions, publishing open letters, or engaging in any public advocacy work.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment, physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
On February 2, media reported that Ren Quanniu, a human rights lawyer based in Zhengzhou who represented activists and journalists, learned the Henan Provincial Judicial Department had revoked his license. In March judicial authorities in Zhengzhou informed the Henan Guidao Law Firm where Ren worked that it must shut down. Media further reported that in early July municipal authorities had blacklisted Ren and prohibited him from starting his own legal consultancy business.
In October the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Lin Qilei’s legal license on the basis that the law firm to which Lin belonged had been deregistered, despite multiple attempts by Lin to apply for registration. Lin’s firm, Beijing Ruikai Law Firm, had handled many cases on behalf of religious adherents and prodemocracy supporters.
On December 16, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Liang Xiaojun’s legal license, citing his social media posts that were critical of Marxism and referred to the Falun Gong as a religion. Liang represented many human rights defenders, activists, and other disbarred lawyers during his legal career.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also stipulate detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients, had limited time to review evidence, and were not allowed to communicate with defendants during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
Under the law lawyers are assigned to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences.
In December 2020 the Shenzhen Yantian District People’s Court sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists to prison terms between seven months and three years for illegal border crossing. After the activists were captured by PRC authorities in August 2020, they were held incommunicado. Lawyers hired by their families were barred from meeting with the activists; the court only allowed state-appointed lawyers to be present during the closed-door trial.
In July, three members of the antidiscrimination NGO Changsha Funeng – Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three” – were sentenced in a secret trial to two to five years in prison. Despite a legal requirement to do so, the sentences were not made public, and the families were informed through informal channels. Changsha Funeng had assisted in litigating cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners. Government security forces continued to harass and intimidate former political prisoners and their family members.
In January media reported that family members of detained lawyer Chang Weiping experienced harassment. After the family protested in front of the Gaoxin branch of the Baoji Municipal Public Security Bureau, Chang’s parents were summoned for multiple rounds of interrogation. They found a closed-circuit television camera installed outside their home and had their mobile phones confiscated. Chang’s wife, Chen Zijuan, was visited by authorities multiple times, during which authorities warned her not to conduct public advocacy for her husband and pressured her to delete her social media posts regarding her husband.
On August 25, the South China Morning Post reported on the broad use of the crime “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” against journalists, activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens to suppress free speech. In August, two activists, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, were convicted of the crime after archiving censored internet materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti, Rahile Dawut, and Hushtar Isa, brother of Uyghur World Congress president Dolkun Isa; Tibetan Dorje Tashi; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, Li Yuhan, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; citizen journalist Zhang Zhan; Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde; and others.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent regarding the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In June 2020 Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February, RFA reported based on official sources that Bakihaji Helil was sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison after returning early from his religion studies at al-Azhar University in Egypt following Xinjiang authorities’ harassment of his family.
PRC media and authorities continued to harass and defame women who spoke about rape and sexual abuse in Xinjiang internment camps. Qelbinur Sedik, a Xinjiang camp teacher who fled China and now lives abroad, was repeatedly targeted by PRC media and received direct video messages from local Xinjiang police threatening reprisal against her family members still in Xinjiang. The BBC reported that Xinjiang police used social media to threaten Uyghurs living in Europe.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In February, Hong Kong Free Press reported the PRC used “proof-of-life” videos to dispute or undermine claims of several foreign citizens about the disappearance and treatment of their relatives in China. For example the PRC published a video of Memet Tohti Atawulla’s brother who had disappeared during the PRC’s crackdown in Xinjiang. The PRC filmed the family of Sayragul Sauytbay, who since leaving China in 2018 has publicly criticized the PRC’s treatment of Kazakh persons and other Muslims in China, accusing Sayragul of “theft, deception, child abuse, and sexual immorality.” Similarly, Hong Kong Free Press reported “Kuzzat Altay’s father disowns him on camera” and “Zumrat Dawut’s brother suggests that her father’s death was due to her political activism.”
In March, Reuters reported PRC officials used press conferences to attack women abroad who provided eyewitness accounts of their experiences in Xinjiang internment camps. The report quoted a Xinjiang official publicly claiming, “Everyone knows about her inferior character. She’s lazy and likes comfort, her private life is chaotic, her neighbors say that she committed adultery while in China.” In May, Reuters reported PRC officials routinely harassed young Uyghur activists living abroad. Uyghurs faced threats from PRC hackers, intimidating phone calls, and bullying on social media.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports the PRC attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On July 20, according to the Associated Press, Moroccan authorities arrested Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan in Casablanca based on an Interpol red notice (a request from a government for a person’s arrest). The South China Morning Post reported on August 2 that Interpol had rescinded the red notice for Aishan after advocacy groups raised concerns that the red notice system was being used to repatriate Uyghur dissidents back to China. Aishan had previously lived in Turkey where he was an active member of the Uyghur diaspora and an outspoken critic of the PRC. Aishan was still detained in Morocco at year’s end.
The NSC-CCDI led the PRC’s transnational fugitive recovery efforts, Operations Fox Hunt and Sky Net. Although these efforts ostensibly targeted economic crimes, media reported they were sometimes politically motivated and targeted dissidents who lived overseas. On February 24, state-sponsored CGTN reported that through “Sky Net 2021,” a total of 1,421 fugitives, including 28 red notice fugitives, were brought back to China in 2020.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The government pressured foreign countries to repatriate or deny visas to Uyghurs who had left China. COVID-19 measures, such as checkpoints, health-app restrictions, and COVID-19-related lockdowns restricted individuals’ freedom of movement.
In November lawyer Xie Yang attempted to visit imprisoned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s family but was warned by two police officers to not go. Shortly after, his COVID-19 health verification mobile phone app went from green to red, which effectively restricted his movement.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the PRC attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having those countries take adverse action against specific individuals. In Kazakhstan, media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained at least 10 protesters at the PRC embassy who were demanding the release of family members being held in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Baibolat Kunbolatuly to 10 days in jail for staging protests outside the Chinese consulate to demand answers about his brother’s detention in Xinjiang. According to RFA on October 1 (the PRC’s national day), Kazakh police detained eight ethnic Kazakh protesters in Nur-Sultan who were demanding the release of relatives being held in Xinjiang.
On June 30, the Chinese Embassy in France sent a letter to the editorial office of French youth newspaper Mon Quotidien condemning its article regarding forced labor in Xinjiang. According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese Embassy also circulated a petition calling for the withdrawal of the article.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. A new civil code entered into force on January 1, introducing articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities routinely monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, social media apps, and other digital communications intended to remain private, particularly of political activists. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province, who in April was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison. In June 2020 Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July 2020 the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology – including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps – coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, surveillance cameras, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. In May the BBC reported Chinese technology companies had developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify members of ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.” Government entities collected genetic data from residents in Xinjiang with unclear protections for sensitive health data.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to operate a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help solve criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system monitored Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas, infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, and a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location.
Although the government’s goal was to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. These systems collected vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. These agencies often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. For example, there were reports individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them regarding their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although officials faced criminal penalties for corruption, the government and the CCP did not implement the law consistently or transparently. Corruption remained rampant. Many cases of corruption involved areas heavily regulated by the government, such as land-usage rights, real estate, mining, and infrastructure development, which were susceptible to fraud, bribery, and kickbacks. Court judgments often could not be enforced against powerful special entities, including government departments, state-owned enterprises, military personnel, and some members of the CCP.
Transparency International’s analysis indicated corruption remained a significant problem in the country. There were numerous reports of government corruption – and subsequent trials and sentences – during the year.
By law the NSC-CCDI is a government and CCP body charged with rooting out corruption and discipline inspection (enforcing conformity). Its investigations may target any public official, including police, judges, and prosecutors; the commission can investigate and detain individuals connected to targeted public officials. The NSC-CCDI is vested with powers of the state and may conduct investigations against any employee who performs a public duty; that includes doctors, academics, and employees of state-owned enterprises. There were credible reports that the NSC-CCDI investigations and detentions by liuzhi were sometimes politically motivated. According to Safeguard Defenders’ analysis of NSC-CCDI official documents of a select few provinces, in those provinces the NSC-CCDI placed at least 5,909 individuals into liuzhi since its creation in 2018. Nationwide, Safeguard Defenders estimated that 52,000 individuals were placed into liuzhi since 2018.
Corruption: In numerous cases government prosecutors investigated public officials and leaders of state-owned enterprises, who generally held high CCP ranks, for corruption.
While the tightly controlled state media apparatus publicized some notable corruption investigations, in general very few details were made public regarding the process by which CCP and government officials were investigated for corruption. Observers also said that corruption charges were often a pretext for purging political rivals.
In October the NSC-CCDI detained former vice ministers of public security, Fu Zhenghua and Sun Lijun. The South China Morning Post reported that Fu Zhenghua was being held for “serious violations” of party discipline. Sun Lijun was expelled from the CCP and faced trial for “serious violation of discipline rules and law.” According to state media, Sun accepted bribes and gifts and misused his position to “achieve his political objectives.” The South China Morning Post reported in August that the NSC-CCDI was investigating Peng Bo, a former deputy chief of the CAC, for accepting bribes and expelled him from the party. Published accusations that Peng strayed from CCP plans regarding the “propaganda struggle over the internet,” “sought benefits from internet companies,” “resisted investigations by the party and engaged in superstitious activities,” and violated the “eight-point requirements on frugal living, visited private clubs frequently and accepted invitations to extravagant banquets and dinners” may indicate that corruption was not the primary reason for the investigation into Peng.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were no credible reports that the Special Administrative Region (SAR) or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
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 and there were few reports of such abuse. According to a June Amnesty International report, prisoners in detention did not report abuse due to fear of retaliation. Other observers in direct contact with those in the detention facilities did not report witnessing or seeing evidence of abuse in the facilities.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were reports of prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Wall-fare, an independent prisoners’ rights organization, submitted a petition signed by 100,000 persons requesting that in very hot weather, prisoners have access to cold water, better ventilation, and extra showers, as some facilities lacked air conditioning. Wall-fare disbanded in September after the security secretary announced that some groups were giving prisoners items such as chocolates and hair clips to recruit them to endanger national security.
In October, one individual detained under the National Security Law (NSL) accused the agency responsible for the SAR’s prisons and detention centers of intercepting letters sent to her on the grounds that they would “affect order in the prison,” arguing that the agency’s standards had become stricter on political grounds.
Physical Conditions: Some activists raised credible concerns that individuals in pretrial detention for charges related to the NSL were kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. In some cases, activists alleged these individuals were subjected to 24-hour lighting, excessively hot or cold temperatures, or other degrading conditions.
Administration: The government investigated allegations of problematic conditions and documented the results in a publicly accessible manner. There was an external Office of the Ombudsman.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted legislators and justices of the peace to conduct prison visits. Justices of the peace may make suggestions and comments on matters, such as physical conditions, overcrowding, staff improvement, training and recreational programs and activities, and other matters affecting the welfare of inmates.
The Independent Police Complaints Council is the Hong Kong police watchdog, responsible for investigating alleged corruption or abuses. The SAR government announced in November 2020 that it would appeal a court ruling that month that declared the complaints council incapable of effective investigation, as it lacked necessary powers and was inadequate to fulfill the SAR’s obligations under the Basic Law to provide an independent mechanism to investigate complaints against the Hong Kong police.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Under the NSL, however, the Hong Kong Police Force made several arbitrary arrests. The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s Security Bureau. The Immigration Department of the Security Bureau controls passage of persons into and out of the SAR as well as the documentation of local residents. The Security Bureau and police continue to report to the chief executive. The National Security Department of the police force, however, which was established by the NSL, operates under the supervision of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, and the NSL permits the embedding of mainland security personnel within the department. In addition, the NSL established a Committee on National Security within the SAR government that reports to the PRC government, as well as an Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong that is staffed by members of the PRC security agencies who may not be prosecuted under the SAR’s legal system. Therefore, it was no longer clear if the SAR’s civilian authorities maintain effective autonomous control over the city’s security services.
Security forces targeted nonviolent protesters, opposition politicians, and prodemocracy activists and organizations during the year. Multiple sources also reported suspected members of the PRC central government security services in the SAR were monitoring political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized the PRC central government’s policies.
At the time of its passage, the SAR and PRC claimed the NSL was not retroactive. Despite that claim, international observers have noted that the police National Security Department, created by the NSL, used its sweeping investigative powers to find evidence of “sedition” prior to the establishment of the NSL and charge individuals under both the NSL and colonial-era sedition laws. Some of the evidence cited included individuals’ opinion posts online.
On January 6 and 7, authorities arrested 55 political activists for participating in the July 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election. Of those arrested, 47 were charged under the NSL with subversion.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police generally apprehended suspects openly when they observed them committing a crime or with warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police were also required to charge or release arrested suspects promptly. The government respected this requirement and generally brought arrested persons before a judicial officer within 48 hours. Detainees were generally informed promptly of potential charges against them. There was a functioning bail system that allowed persons not charged to post bail to be released from detention pending the filing of charges. Such “police bail” included requirements that the arrestee submit to monthly check-ins at a police station. There was no defined period under the law within which the government was required to file charges. Activists argued that the bail system left the arrested in legal purgatory. After arrest, by law the Department of Justice investigates to determine the appropriate charges for the arrestee. Police have the authority to require individuals arrested under the NSL to surrender their travel documents while an investigation is continuing, including if they are not formally charged, and there were reports police exercised this authority in numerous NSL cases. Interviews of suspects must be videotaped.
Under NSL charges, democracy activists were increasingly denied bail, and the threshold for bail was higher. Bail conditions under the NSL place the burden of proof on the defendant to convince the judge that he or she would not “continue to commit acts endangering national security” and are adjudicated only by specially designated national security judges. Jeremy Tan, a former pan-democratic politician facing NSL charges, was denied bail in part based on an email invitation from a foreign consulate, while another former lawmaker, Claudia Mo, was denied bail in part based on interviews and text messages with international press. In November a SAR court denied bail to Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive officer (CEO) of Apple Daily parent company Next Digital, in apparent response to international condemnation of the executive’s arrest as an infringement on freedom of the press. Prosecutors cited a statement by the Media Freedom Coalition, signed by 21 governments, as well as a separate statement by the United Kingdom foreign secretary, as evidence of a close association between Cheung and “foreign political groups.”
Observers criticized SAR authorities for the treatment of the 47 individuals charged under the NSL in connection with the unofficial 2020 pan-democratic primary election. Police and prosecutors arrested, detained, and charged these individuals as a group, then immediately demanded a lengthy pretrial period to investigate the allegations made against them.
In February the Court of Final Appeal, the highest SAR court, reversed a ruling by a lower court granting bail to Jimmy Lai, media owner and democracy activist. The Court of Final Appeal decision stated that the courts have no power to review the NSL’s constitutionality, including provisions where the Basic Law and the NSL may be in conflict, such as bail standards.
Authorities generally allowed detainees access to a lawyer of their choice, but some legal experts stated that during initial bail hearings, many of the 47 persons charged with subversion for organizing or participating in the unofficial 2020 pan-democratic primary faced delays obtaining access to their lawyers. The first defendant in an NSL trial, Tong Ying-kit, requested that two additional pro bono barristers be permitted to join his legal team. The specially designated national security judges stated that with the addition of the barristers, the defendant might no longer be eligible for legal aid, forcing the withdrawal of the proposed two additional lawyers.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, its independence was limited in NSL cases. Arrests and prosecutions appeared to be increasingly politically motivated. The SAR’s highest court stated that it was unable to find the NSL or any of its provisions unconstitutional, or to review the NSL based on incompatibility with the Basic Law or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Activists voiced concern about NSL proceedings because those charged under the NSL face stricter bail conditions; may be denied due process (see below) and a fair and public trial (see below); and may face extradition to the mainland for trial. In bail hearings, the NSL places the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than the prosecution, as is otherwise the case in most criminal matters. Local Chinese Communist Party-controlled media entities in the SAR put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile 2020 case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay, but these rights were not always upheld. Some defendants in drug and drug trafficking cases waited several years to go to trial. Some charged with violations related to the 2019 protest movement may not face trial until 2023 due to a backlog in the judiciary’s caseload. Many of those charged with NSL violations have been remanded into custody and have been awaiting trial for several months because of the NSL’s high threshold for granting bail. Tong Ying-kit was charged and denied bail in July 2020 and was held in custody until his hearing on July 30. Jimmy Lai, arrested in December 2020, then temporarily released on bail, was returned to custody on December 31, 2020. His first trial was not held until the end of May, when he was convicted on a non-NSL charge of “unauthorized assembly” for participation in a 2019 peaceful protest. Given the special requirements for bail in NSL cases, the newness of the law, and COVID-19 pandemic related delays, persons charged under the NSL face longer-than-average pretrial delays.
Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is by law considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court levels. Under the NSL, SAR authorities may direct that a panel of three specially designated national security judges hear a case instead of a jury. In the trial of the first NSL defendant, Tong Ying-kit, the secretary of justice issued a certificate for the case to be heard by such a three-judge panel.
An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal. In October SAR authorities proposed limiting the right of defendants receiving legal aid to choose their own lawyers, as well as the number of legal aid and judicial review cases that each lawyer may take per year. Some lawyers, activists, and experts have criticized the proposal as restricting defendants’ right to the counsel of their choice and limiting activists’ abilities to challenge authorities’ actions.
SAR courts are charged with interpreting provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (the legislature). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected.
The chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. Some activists have described this NSL provision, which enables SAR authorities to hand pick the pool of judges to hear national security cases, as inconsistent with judicial independence. In multiple cases, SAR prosecutors have argued that defendants accused of charges that do not fall under the NSL should be tried by these specially designated national security judges, claiming that the cases involved “national security.”
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in cases involving foreign countries, serious situations, or major and imminent threats to national security to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
SAR authorities detained and imprisoned a growing number of individuals during the year because of expressed and, in some cases, presumed, political views and participation in nonviolent political activities.
Local and international observers noted that with few exceptions, those charged with NSL violations, sedition, or unauthorized assembly were peacefully exercising freedoms of expression, political participation, assembly, and association provided for in the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For example, activists and legal experts have commented that the 47 individuals charged with violating the NSL for participation in the 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election have been accused of subversion for allegedly planning to use a mechanism described in the Basic Law to cause the chief executive to resign.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Territory
The NSL claims jurisdiction over any individual, regardless of location, deemed to be engaged in one of the four vaguely defined criminal activities under the NSL: “secession;” subversion; terrorist activities; or collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. There are reportedly standing NSL-related arrest warrants against 30 individuals, all residing abroad, one of whom has foreign citizenship and has resided outside the SAR and mainland China for more than 20 years. Although reported in state-controlled media, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of these warrants.
The amendment to the SAR’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, effective October 8, also known as the antidoxing amendment, increases the criminal penalties for individuals who are “reckless” with others’ personal information as well as for staff of internet service providers or online platforms that do not comply with doxing-related requests. The only territorial limit on the application of the law is that the concerned individual was present in the SAR at the time of the incident or was a SAR resident, raising concerns that the amendment may be used to prosecute individuals located outside the SAR who criticize SAR officials.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
For apolitical court cases, there is an independent and impartial judiciary for civil matters and access to a court to file lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations by SAR agencies or persons, except for employees of the National Security Department, as well as the Central Government Liaison Office, depending on interpretations of the law.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, but there were multiple reports the SAR government failed to respect these prohibitions, including credible reports that PRC central government security services and the Beijing-mandated Office for Safeguarding National Security monitored prodemocracy and human rights activists and journalists in the SAR. Some of those arrested under the NSL, including some of the 55 individuals arrested in January in connection with the July 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election, were required to forfeit personal mobile and computer devices, including before they were formally charged. Police made repeated requests to technology companies for access to individuals’ private correspondence. SAR authorities froze bank accounts of former lawmakers, civil society groups, and other political targets.
Technology companies, activists, and private citizens increasingly raised concerns about the right to privacy and protection of data. The antidoxing amendment passed in October allows the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data to seize and access any electronic devices on the premises without a warrant if they suspect a doxing-related offense has been committed or may be committed. In June the Executive Council approved a proposal to mandate real name registration for subscriber identity module cards and to allow authorities to access telecommunications data without a warrant.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were, however, reports of government corruption and a growing culture of impunity from prosecution for police and security sector officials.
Corruption: Opposition activists claimed that three senior government officials were treated leniently after attending a group dinner in violation of social distancing regulations in March. The Department of Justice cleared a senior police official in the National Security Department of illegal misconduct for visiting an unlicensed massage parlor where illegal sex services were reportedly being offered, although six women were arrested and four ultimately charged from the same police raid. The officer was subsequently reassigned to lead the police force personnel and training department.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports that government security agencies and their informal allies committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the government-directed campaign against illegal drugs. Various government bodies conducted a limited number of investigations into whether security force killings were justifiable, such as the national police Internal Affairs Service, the armed forces’ Center for Law of Armed Conflict (formerly Human Rights Office), and the National Bureau of Investigation. Impunity remained a problem, however. Killings of activists, judicial officials, local government leaders, and journalists by government allies, antigovernment insurgents, and unknown assailants also continued.
In March, nine human rights activists were killed and six arrested in an operation conducted by security forces in Laguna, Rizal, and Batangas Provinces, dubbed afterwards by the media as “Bloody Sunday.” The crackdown happened two days after public remarks by President Duterte encouraged law enforcement authorities to kill communist rebels, saying, “If there’s an encounter and you see them armed, kill, kill them, don’t mind human rights, I will be the one to go to prison, I don’t have qualms.” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra announced that investigating the operation would be a priority for the government’s Inter-Agency Committee on Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture, and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Persons (also known as the AO35 committee). As of July, however, human rights organizations reported no significant developments in the case and the completion of one crime scene investigation related to the AO35 committee’s work.
Law enforcement authorities conducted approximately 20,000 antidrug operations from January to August 1, according to government data. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, one of the lead agencies implementing the government’s drug war alongside the Philippine National Police (PNP), reported on the government’s official drug war tracker (#RealNumbersPH) 180 suspects killed and 34,507 arrested during drug operations conducted from January to August.
The reported number of extrajudicial killings varied widely, as the government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) used different definitions. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent government agency responsible for investigating possible human rights violations, investigated 100 new complaints of alleged extrajudicial or politically motivated killings as of August. The cases involved 130 victims and allegedly were perpetrated by 39 PNP and eight Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) personnel, five insurgents, three local government officials, and 45 unidentified persons. The commission also investigated 49 specifically drug-related extrajudicial killings with 53 victims, and suspected PNP or Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency involvement in 45 of these new complaints and unidentified persons in four cases.
In July media reported on a study on extrajudicial killings by the Violence, Democracy, and Human Rights in the Philippines project of the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center. The study assessed state violence in the country, noting that drug-related killings “remained persistent across the years,” with 2016, 2018, and 2021 recognized as the “bloodiest years,” averaging two to three persons killed a day. The study also highlighted that drug war hotspots remained consistent: Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, and Nueva Ecija Provinces. During the year there were notably intensified operations in West Mindanao, particularly in Davao del Sur and South Cotabato Provinces. From January to June, the NGO Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center documented 18 deaths of minors in antidrug operations.
Media reported continued attacks on human rights defenders. In July, hours before President Duterte’s State of the Nation address, two activists, Marlon Napire and Jaymar Palero, who were spray painting Duterte Ibagsak (Oust Duterte) on a bridge in Albay, Bicol Province, were shot and killed by police. Police asserted that Palero, a member of a farmer’s organization in Albay, and Napire, a member of human rights organization Karapatan’s Bicol chapter, were armed, which led police to shoot them. Karapatan condemned the killing, asserting that the two activists were unarmed and carrying only cans of paint. Witnesses claimed not hearing any gunshots when the police officers left the area with Palero and Napire in custody. Palero’s mother questioned police claims of a shootout and, having recovered the body hours later, insisted her son’s battered face, removed nails, and gunshot wounds showed signs of torture.
Local and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch described widespread impunity for killings. There were no prosecutions or convictions for extrajudicial killings in the year to October and three since the start of the drug war in 2016. In June 2020 the Department of Justice formed a committee to investigate drug-related deaths from police operations. As of October, the committee investigated and established administrative liability in 52 of the 61 cases the PNP opened for the committee’s review. The departmental investigation, while being conducted just for show according to many in civil society, released information pushing back against the PNP self-defense narrative, as the early investigation results uncovered incomplete police records and that many victims tested negative for gunpowder residue. The PNP’s Internal Affairs Service investigated killings of 463 suspects from 400 antidrug operations from January to July.
Civil society organizations accused police of planting evidence, tampering with crime scenes, unlawfully disposing of the bodies of drug suspects, and other actions to cover up extrajudicial killings. In April, seven police officers from the Valencia City, Bukidnon Province police drug enforcement unit were relieved from duty for allegedly planting evidence on a suspect killed in a buy-bust operation; all were under investigation as of October. The PNP Northern Mindanao Regional Internal Affairs Service also recommended the relief of the Valencia City police chief over the incident. On March 10, a video circulated online showing a man, said to be a police officer, putting a revolver beside a corpse. The Regional Internal Affairs Service stated the person who uploaded the video reported the incident happened on February 20 in Barangay Batangan in Valencia City.
President Duterte continued to maintain lists (“narco-lists”) of persons he claimed were suspected drug criminals, including government, police, military, and judicial officials. In June a former Maguindanao town mayor, who was on a government narco-list, was killed after allegedly grabbing his police escort’s service firearm while enroute to the Philippine National Police headquarters after his arrest in Batangas City.
The armed forces’ Center for Law of Armed Conflict, formerly the Human Rights Office but with the same functions, reported no cases of forced disappearance attributed to or implicating the armed forces from January to July. The CHR, however, reported eight persons were victims of abduction and forced disappearance from January to August. Armed forces members perpetrated two of these cases; communist insurgents, another two; national police members, one; alleged members of the National Bureau of Investigation, one; and those responsible for the remaining cases were unidentified.
In September, Karapatan confirmed the body of farmers’ group organizer Elena Tijamo was found in Manila. In June 2020 unidentified individuals in civilian clothing removed Tijamo from her home on Bantayan Island. Tijamo was an executive with an agricultural organization that the military in 2019 had declared to be a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New People’s Army (NPA). Tijamo’s family said they were still able to communicate with her after her abduction and that she said her abductors would release her after the pandemic lockdowns ended.
Kidnappings were common and predominantly for criminal purposes (i.e., ransom); in the past they were carried out for both pro- and antigovernment political motives as well. Terrorist groups were implicated in many Mindanao kidnappings. In July the PNP’s Anti-Kidnapping Group reported that seven men, later identified as five policemen and two civilians, kidnapped and burned to death Muslim businesswoman Nadia Casar. Her body was found 11 days after the kidnapping. The involved policemen were dismissed and as of October were in police custody along with one of the civilian suspects. The other civilian remained at large.
The law allows family members of alleged victims of disappearances to compel government agencies to provide statements in court about what they know about the circumstances surrounding a disappearance (or extrajudicial killing) and the victim’s status. Evidence of a kidnapping or killing requires the filing of charges, but in many past cases evidence and documentation were unavailable or not collected. Investigative and judicial action on disappearance cases was insufficient.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture, and evidence obtained through its use is inadmissible in court. According to the CHR, however, members of the security forces and police were accused of routinely abusing and sometimes torturing suspects and detainees. Common forms of abuse during arrest and interrogation reportedly included electric shock, cigarette burns, and suffocation.
As of August, the CHR had investigated 21 cases of alleged torture involving 25 victims; it suspected police involvement in 17 of the cases. The NGO Task Force Detainees of the Philippines monitored one torture case as of October, which happened in 2012 but was reported to the task force in early 2021.
In July the CHR investigated the death and alleged torture of Carlo Layaoag, a person with a mental disability who was accused of stealing cable wires in Barangay 3, Coron, Palawan Province. In a video shared by police, two men, one reportedly a town councilor, were seen publicly harassing Layaoag. Another video showed a man trying to use a handsaw to cut Layaoag, who was brought to the police station afterwards. Police noticed Layaoag’s condition and took him to the hospital where he died the next day. Torture charges were filed against the town councilor and the others involved after the results of the report were released.
NGOs and media reported local governments and law enforcement authorities used physical and psychological abuse, including shaming, as punishment for community quarantine curfew violators. Under the torture statutes, the public parading or shaming of a person is illegal when used to undermine a person’s dignity and morale. In April village officials in General Trias, Cavite Province, detained 28-year-old Darren Penaredondo for curfew violations. According to media reports, Penaredondo and others were taken to the local municipal plaza by police, made to do 100 push-ups, and then forced to repeat the exercise because they were not in sync, ultimately completing 300 repetitions. Penaredondo then reportedly struggled to walk home, where he lost consciousness and died hours later.
Reports of rape and sexual abuse of women in police or protective custody continued. On April 5, authorities accused 11 Cebu City police officers of robbery, extortion, and the rape of two women detained separately at the Cebu City police station for alleged possession of firearms and illegal drugs. One woman claimed that the officers searched her house without a warrant, took her belongings and, after not finding any firearms, arrested her, and brought her into a secret room, instead of a detention cell. She was later forced by one of the police officers, Staff Sergeant Celso Colita, to withdraw money. Colita took the cash from her and allegedly brought her to a motel where she was raped. The second woman claimed she was physically tortured by officers who attempted to submerge her head in a pail of water to force her to confess where she kept her “drug money.” The PNP Central Visayas Unit and the CHR began investigating the complaints, and the police station chief was relieved from duty. On April 19, however, the woman allegedly raped by Sergeant Colita was shot and killed. The CHR Central Visayas office revealed she had been receiving threats from Colita. Police stated Colita took his own life while being questioned about the complainant’s death.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, particularly in the PNP. Human rights groups continued to express concern about abuses committed by the national police and other security forces and noted little progress in reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations. The AFP’s Center for Law of Armed Conflict reported that, from January to October, no member of the military was under investigation for alleged extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, or other rights abuses.
In April the Office of the Ombudsman cleared officers from the Manila Police District’s Raxabago Station 1 of involvement in a 2017 incident in which 12 individuals were found detained in a secret cell hidden behind a bookshelf, citing “not enough proof of bad faith.” The CHR insisted, however, that the Manila police clearly violated human rights standards, as well as the PNP mandate to “serve and protect,” and characterized the decision as a setback in the efforts to stop police abuse and improve accountability.
Human rights groups continued to express concern about the contribution of corruption to abuses committed by the PNP and other security forces and noted little progress in implementing and enforcing reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations.
The national police’s institutional deficiencies and the public perception that corruption in the police was endemic continued. The PNP’s Internal Affairs Service remained largely ineffective. The PNP, however, reported that its internal cleansing program led to 166 persons facing disciplinary sanctions between March and August; 75 of the 166 were dismissed from service, 48 penalized with one rank demotion, and 43 suspended.
In October the Quezon City Regional Trial Court acquitted 19 police officers, led by Police Superintendent Marvin Marcos, allegedly involved in the 2016 killing of former Albuera, Leyte, mayor Roland Espinosa while the mayor was in police custody. Media and other observers widely criticized the decision as unjust and corrupt. The 19 officers were charged with killing Espinosa in his cell after President Duterte tagged him as a drug criminal along with many other government, police, and judicial officials. Marcos, the former chief of the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group Region 8, was promoted to chief of the 12th Region group 15 months after the Espinosa killing.
To try to ensure dismissed personnel would not be rehired, in August, PNP chief Eleazar ordered the Directorate for Personnel and Records Management to create a database of officers removed from service and that all appeals filed by dismissed personnel be immediately resolved. The PNP’s Counter-Intelligence Task Force also monitored police personnel suspected of illegal activities.
Efforts continued to reform and professionalize the national police through improved training, expanded community outreach, and salary increases. Human rights modules were included in all PNP career courses, and the police Human Rights Affairs Office conducted routine training nationwide on human rights responsibilities in policing. Several NGOs suggested that national police training courses should have a follow-up mechanism to determine the effectiveness of each session.
The military routinely provided human rights training to its members, augmented by training from the CHR. Successful completion of these courses is required to complete basic training and for induction, promotion, reassignment, and selection for foreign schooling opportunities. According to the AFP’s Center for Law of Armed Conflict, internal human rights training was conducted from the general headquarters level down to battalion units, totaling hundreds of training exercises annually. From January to August, various military service units conducted human rights-related training programs, seminars, or workshops with the CHR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other NGOs.
The Congressional Commission on Appointments determines whether senior military officers selected for promotion have a history of human rights violations and solicits input from the CHR and other agencies through background investigations. The congressional commission may withhold a promotion indefinitely if it uncovers a record of abuses. Violations, however, do not preclude promotion.
Witnesses to abuses were often unable to obtain protection. The CHR operated a small witness protection program that was overburdened by witnesses to killings in the drug war. The loss of family income due to the relocation of a family member was also, in some cases, a barrier to witnesses’ testimony. The Office of the Ombudsman also reported that witnesses often failed to come forward or to cooperate in police abuse or corruption cases. This problem sometimes followed pressure on witnesses and their families or arose from an expectation of compensation for their cooperation.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, as of September the government continued to investigate two cases of child rape involving Philippine peacekeepers in Liberia in 2017 and Haiti in 2020.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were often harsh and life-threatening and included gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, physical abuse, and a chronic lack of resources including medical care and food.
NGOs reported abuse by prison guards and other inmates was common, but they stated that prisoners, fearing retaliation, generally declined to lodge formal complaints.
Gang activity was rampant in most prisons. Domestic and foreign media reports suggested that, given inadequate staffing levels, gangs effectively served as the de facto sources of discipline and many services. Violence between gangs and individual members of different gangs was common.
Physical Conditions: The Bureau of Corrections, under the Department of Justice, administered seven prisons and penal farms nationwide for individuals sentenced to prison terms exceeding three years. Bureau of Corrections facilities operated at four times their operating capacity of 11,981, holding 48,337 prisoners.
The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, under the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the PNP, controlled 470 city, district, municipal, and provincial jails that held pretrial detainees, persons awaiting final judgment, and convicts serving sentences of three years or less. The bureau reported its jails operated at 397 percent over designated capacity as of July. The Dasmarinas City jail for men in Cavite Province was one of the most congested jails in the country; with an official capacity of 53 inmates, as of July it held 1,191 detainees. The Commission on Audit annual report for 2020, released in September, noted that jail congestion remained the biggest problem in the justice system and highlighted the most overcrowded Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) detention centers: those in Zamboanga Peninsula (921 percent over capacity) and Metro Manila (745 percent). The audit commission noted that although the total jail population decreased from 2018 to 2019, the congestion rate only decreased by 1 percent, possibly attributable to the temporary closure of various jail facilities nationwide for reconstruction or redevelopment.
Persistent congestion resulted in health and sanitation problems among inmates. Overcrowding in detention facilities contributed to the continued spread of COVID-19 among inmates. From January to July, the BJMP reported 20 COVID-19-related deaths while the Bureau of Corrections reported 32 confirmed and suspected COVID-19-related inmate deaths. COVID-19 vaccines were made available to inmates in Bureau of Corrections and BJMP facilities.
Prison authorities did not uniformly enforce regulations that require holding male and female inmates in separate facilities and, in national prisons, overseeing them with guards of the same sex. In some facilities authorities did not fully segregate juveniles from adults. The prison services reported insufficient custodial and escort personnel, especially in large jails, with a national average of approximately 55 prisoners assigned to each custodial staff member. In larger prisons the ratio was higher; for example, in the New Bilibid Prison, one prison guard oversaw 135 prisoners.
Opportunities for prisoner recreation, education, and self-improvement were rare.
Poor sanitation, inadequate ventilation, poor access to natural lighting, and a lack of potable water were chronic problems in detention and correctional facilities and contributed to health problems. From January to July, the prison services reported 1,045 total inmate deaths. There were some reported deaths of high-profile prisoners due to COVID-19, most notably of two witnesses against Senator Leila de Lima (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Prison authorities reported that most deaths resulted from illness. Authorities provided Bureau of Corrections inmates with medical care; however, some medical services and treatments were not available. In such cases authorities referred inmates to an outside hospital. Inmates received a medicine allowance of 15 pesos ($0.30) per day.
Juveniles younger than 18 were typically released by court order or following a petition by the Public Attorney’s Office, the inmate’s private lawyer, or through NGO-led appeals. As of July juveniles made up less than 1 percent of the prison population.
The law exempts minors from criminal liability. Drug syndicates often used minors as runners, traffickers, cultivators, or drug den employees. Rescued minors are turned over to the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (social welfare department). Police stations had youth relations officers to attempt to ensure that authorities treated minor suspects appropriately, but in some cases they ignored procedural safeguards, and facilities were not child friendly. The law mandates that the social welfare department provide shelter, treatment, and rehabilitation services to these children. The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, an agency supervised by the Department of Justice, reported conditions in its rehabilitation centers (called Bahay Pag-asa or Houses of Hope) were worse than in jails, citing the lack of furniture such as beds and cabinets in some centers. There were 85 Bahay Pag-asa centers in the country, 82 run by local government units and three by NGOs. Additionally, several local governments established and managed youth centers that provided protection, care, training, and rehabilitation for these children and other at-risk youth.
Administration: Prisoners, their families, and lawyers may submit complaints to constitutionally established independent government agencies, and the CHR referred complaints it received to the appropriate agency.
Prison services suspended visits since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, however, authorities generally allowed prisoners and detainees to receive visitors, but local NGOs reported that authorities periodically restricted family visits for some detainees accused of insurgency-related crimes. Prison officials noted that security concerns and space limitations at times also restricted prisoner access to visitors.
Muslim officials reported that while Muslim detainees could observe their religion, Roman Catholic mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to prison populations of both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic prisoners and detainees.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted international monitoring groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other civil society groups, such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, free and timely access to jails and prisons. The constitution grants the CHR authority to visit jails, prisons, or detention facilities to monitor the government’s compliance with international treaty obligations. The commission continued its jail visitation program throughout the year but with additional pandemic-related restrictions and protocols required by jail management, such as wearing personal protective equipment and presenting a negative RT-PCR COVID-19 test. Some jails in areas under certain community quarantine classifications also allowed virtual jail visitation.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court; however, the government and its agents frequently disregarded these requirements. As of August the Office of the Ombudsman, an independent agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting charges of public abuse and impropriety, did not receive any complaints of arbitrary detention committed by law enforcement agencies or the armed forces.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by an authorized official are required for an arrest unless the suspect is observed attempting to commit, in the act of committing, or just after committing an offense; there is probable cause based on personal knowledge that the suspect just committed an offense; or the suspect is an escaped prisoner. When one of the above criteria is met and an arrest takes place without a warrant, the court subpoenas the suspect allowing for a preliminary investigation. Authorities are required to file charges within 12 to 36 hours for arrests made without warrants, depending on the seriousness of the crime. In terrorism cases the law permits warrantless arrests and detention without charges for up to 24 days.
Detainees have the right to bail, except when held for capital offenses or those punishable by a life sentence. The bail system largely functioned as intended, and suspects were allowed to appeal a judge’s decision to deny bail. The law provides an accused or detained person the right to choose a lawyer and, if the suspect cannot afford one, to have the state provide one. An underresourced Public Attorney’s Office, however, limited access of indigent persons to public defenders.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued to detain individuals, including juveniles, arbitrarily and without warrants on charges other than terrorism, especially in areas of armed conflict.
As of August the Office of the Ombudsman, an independent agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting charges of public abuse and impropriety, had not received any complaints of arbitrary detention committed by law enforcement agencies or the armed forces. There were, however, numerous credible allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions by security forces. The NGO Center for Trade Union and Human Rights documented the illegal arrest of seven labor union leaders from January to July.
In March the center recorded the illegal arrest of the leader of the farmers’ group Alyansa ng Magbubukid ng Gitnang (Central) Luzon, Joseph Canlas, after a raid conducted by the PNP and its Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Central Luzon for alleged possession of firearms and explosives. Canlas, who died of COVID-19 at the detention cell in May, was previously “red-tagged” (the act of labelling, branding, naming, and accusing individuals or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists, or terrorists that is used as a strategy by state agents against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State’) for allegedly recruiting members of the NPA.
Ethnic Lumad (an indigenous group in Mindanao) activist and Karapatan paralegal officer Renalyn Tejero was, with 32 others in the Caraga region, red-tagged in November 2020 by a group calling itself the Movement Against Terrorism. Authorities arrested Tejero on March 21 on charges of murder and attempted murder. Activist groups stressed Tejero was targeted for trumped up charges due to her affiliation with the Karapatan organization, an NGO focused on human rights defense.
In July the Supreme Court barred the Manila and Quezon City courts from authorizing search warrants in other localities following complaints by several human rights groups of abuse, mass arrests, and killings of activists. These groups called these warrants “death warrants” and asserted they resulted in the nine deaths in the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” killings.
The CHR investigated 40 alleged illegal detention cases involving 62 victims from January to August, of which 33 were perpetrated by the PNP, one by the AFP, three by local government officials, and three by unidentified persons.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem due largely to the slow and ineffectual justice system. Approximately 98 percent of prisoners in BJMP facilities were pretrial detainees; the balance were convicted criminals serving less than three-year sentences. Pending cases were not evenly distributed among the courts, which resulted in some severely overburdened courts. Large jails employed paralegals to monitor inmates’ cases, prevent detention beyond the maximum sentence, and assist with decongestion efforts. The BJMP helped expedite court cases to promote speedy disposition of inmates’ cases. Through this program authorities released 39,112 inmates from BJMP jails from January to July. Nonetheless, pretrial detention more than the possible maximum sentence was common, often extending over many years.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary; although the government generally respected judicial independence, pressure, threats, and intimidation directed at the judiciary from various sources were reported by NGOs. In July the Integrated Bar of the Philippines condemned attacks on lawyers in the Duterte administration. Six lawyers were killed in the year to July; there have been few indictments for these killings.
Media reported a March request by the Calbayog City, Samar Province, police that the Calbayog Regional Trial Court provide it with a list of lawyers representing persons affiliated with the communist party. The request raised concerns among human rights groups such as the National Union of People’s Lawyers that, if granted, it would facilitate attacks on human rights lawyers.
Corruption through nepotism, personal connections, and bribery continued to result in relative impunity for wealthy or influential offenders. Insufficient personnel, inefficient processes, and long procedural delays also hindered the judicial system. These factors contributed to widespread skepticism that the criminal justice system delivered due process and equal justice.
Trials took place as a series of separate hearings, often months apart, as witnesses and court time became available, contributing to lengthy delays. There was a widely recognized need for more prosecutors, judges, and courtrooms. As of June 2020, approximately one-third of authorized bench positions (563 positions) were unfilled. Sharia court positions continued to be particularly difficult to fill because applicants must be members of both the Sharia Bar and the Integrated Bar. The 56 authorized district and circuit sharia courts do not have criminal jurisdiction. Training for sharia court prosecutors was brief and considered inadequate.
The constitution provides for the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial. Trials were generally public, but not timely, and judicial impartiality was widely questioned. The law requires that all persons accused of crimes be informed of the charges against them and grants rights to counsel, adequate time to prepare a defense, and a speedy and public trial before a judge. No criminal proceeding goes forward against a defendant without the presence of a lawyer. The law presumes defendants are innocent. They have the right to confront witnesses against them, be present at their trial, present evidence in their favor, appeal convictions, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The court may appoint an interpreter for free if necessary. If the court’s interpreter makes serious mistakes, a party may challenge the interpretation. The government generally implemented these requirements, except for the right to a speedy trial.
Although the law provides that cases should be resolved within three months to two years, depending on the court, trials effectively had no time limits. Government officials estimated it took an average of five to six years to obtain a decision.
Authorities respected a defendant’s right to representation by a lawyer, but poverty often inhibited access to effective legal counsel. The Public Attorney’s Office, which reports to the Department of Justice, did not have the necessary resources to fulfill its constitutional mandate and used its limited resources to represent indigent defendants at trial rather than during arraignments or pretrial hearings. During pretrial hearings courts may appoint any lawyer present in the courtroom to provide on-the-spot counsel to the accused.
Sentencing decisions were not always consistent with legal guidelines, and judicial decisions sometimes appeared arbitrary.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Under the law, the government defines political prisoners as those who may be accused of any crime against national security. Using this definition, the Bureau of Corrections reported 146 political prisoners as of August. This included persons in maximum-, medium-, and minimum-security prisons and self-identified political prisoners in Davao, which alone held most political prisoners. The BJMP does not track political prisoners and defines prisoners based only on security risk.
Various human rights NGOs maintained lists of incarcerated persons they considered political prisoners. The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines tracked what it defined, based on motivation but excluding persons guilty of or charged with crimes against persons or property, as political prisoners and detainees, most of whom were in pretrial detention. From January to July, the task force recorded 76 political prisoners and 294 political detainees. The task force noted that in most cases, authorities mixed political prisoners with the general inmate population, except in the New Bilibid Prison, where they held most political prisoners in maximum-security facilities.
Four years after her arrest, opposition senator Leila de Lima remained in police detention on a charge of conspiracy to commit drug trading. Prosecutors used a variety of legal tactics to delay arraignment, including filing new and amending previous charges. In August, one of her accusers, a convicted drug lord named Vicente Sy, died in prison, reportedly of COVID-19. De Lima’s camp noted, however, that when Sy testified in court in 2020 he recanted his earlier testimony, saying he never met or gave money to de Lima. The prosecution subsequently filed charges against de Lima for contempt of court after she made statements about the case in public. In July 2020 officials reported that de Lima accuser Jaybee Sebastian, a prison gang leader, died of COVID-19. De Lima’s case began in 2016 after she opened Senate hearings into killings related to the drug war. Although detained, de Lima had access to media and some visitors before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her case attracted widespread domestic and international attention, with many observers denouncing the charges as politically motivated.
The government permitted regular access to political prisoners by international humanitarian organizations.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Most analysts regarded the judiciary as independent in civil matters. Complainants have access to local trial courts to seek civil damages for, or cessation of, human rights abuses. There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for civil complaints, although overburdened local courts often dismissed these cases. No regional human rights tribunals could hear an appeal from the country. Civil cases are subject to the same delays and corruption as criminal proceedings.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The government generally respected citizens’ privacy, although leaders of communist and leftist organizations and rural-based NGOs complained of routine surveillance and harassment. Although the government generally respected restrictions on search and seizure within private homes, searches without warrants continued. Judges generally declared evidence obtained illegally to be inadmissible.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
For decades the country has contended with armed Muslim separatist movements represented by groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front; a communist insurgency supported by a nationwide NPA presence; and violence by smaller transnational terrorist organizations, such as ISIS-East Asia, the Abu Sayyaf Group, Maute Group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (hereafter Bangsamoro Front), and other terrorist groups and criminal syndicates. Additionally, interclan rido (feuds) violence continued in Mindanao, causing civilian deaths and displacement. Government agencies, often with support from UN agencies and other international donors, assisted those displaced by internal conflict (see section 2.e.). The AFP’s Center for Law of Armed Conflict reported that 166 international humanitarian law violations by communist terrorist groups were endorsed to the AO35 committee for further investigation from January to June.
Killings: Armed clashes between government and insurgent, separatist, and terrorist forces frequently led to deaths on both sides. For example on August 20, security forces clashed with members of the NPA. Two rebels and one soldier died. One of the rebels killed was Kerima Tariman, a poet, activist, and former managing editor of the official student publication of the University of the Philippines. In another case on August 26, NPA rebels killed two unarmed Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary members in San Isidro, Northern Samar. The two were on their way to a military Community Support Program activity conducting development social work for villagers.
NGOs sometimes linked the killing of activists to counterinsurgency operations by government security forces, particularly the military (see section 6, Indigenous Peoples). The NGO Front Line Defenders documented 25 killings of human rights defenders in 2020, of whom 21 were environmental, land, and indigenous peoples’ rights activists.
The NPA, ISIS-East Asia, Abu Sayaf Group, Maute Group, Ansar al-Khalifa, Bangsamoro Front, and other violent extremist groups used roadside bombs, ambushes, suicide bombings, and other means to kill political figures and other civilians, including persons suspected of being military and police informers. On September 18, alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters terrorists wounded eight persons when an improvised bomb exploded in a town plaza in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. Datu Piang mayor Victor Samama told the press he was convinced the bombing was perpetrated by the same Bangsamoro Front members who stormed the town in December 2020 and burned a police car while firing at the police station.
Abductions: Armed criminal and terrorist groups kidnapped civilians for ransom. The NPA and some separatist groups were also responsible for kidnappings. Authorities reportedly facilitated ransom payments on behalf of victims’ families and employers through unofficial channels. The security forces at times attempted to rescue victims. From January to August, the AFP’s Center for Law of Armed Conflict recorded three cases of hostages by terrorist organizations involving four civilians, with two of the cases filed at the courts. Three Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped by the Abu Sayaf Group on the border with Malaysia and taken to Sulu Province. The PNP rescued the victims and arrested one of the captors when their boat capsized as they were fleeing a government rescue operation.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Leftist and human rights activists reported abuse of detained insurgents, separatists, and terrorists by police and prison officials. In March the Communist Party of the Philippines accused state forces of torturing and killing former NPA leader Antonio Cabanatan and his wife Florenda Yap, who were abducted in Oton town, Iloilo Province, in December 2020, the 52nd anniversary of the NPA’s founding. Cabanatan, along with Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, were the two remaining names on a Department of Justice list of 600 individuals it intended to designate as terrorists, but which was eventually trimmed down to the two. Activists Randy Malayao, Randy Echanis, and Zara Alvarez, all on the original list of 600, were killed in 2019-20.
Multiple sources reported the NPA sought to intimidate government officials and attacked or threatened businesses, power stations, farms, and private communication facilities to enforce collection of extortion payments, or so-called revolutionary taxes.
Child Soldiers: The use of child soldiers, particularly by terrorist and antigovernment organizations, remained a problem, especially in some parts of Mindanao affected by low-level violence. In the year to July, the national police’s Women and Children Protection Center rescued seven child soldiers from armed antigovernment groups. The AFP’s Center for Law of Armed Conflict recorded 10 children used as soldiers by communist terrorist groups from January to June. There was no evidence of use or recruitment of child soldiers by government units. During the year the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict verified the recruitment and use of 12 children by armed groups, including Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Front, and the NPA. UNICEF monitored the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts and the release of child soldiers. Government reporting mechanisms on child soldiers provided inconsistent data across agencies and regions, especially in conflict-affected areas, which made it difficult to evaluate the problem’s scale. The NPA continued to claim it did not recruit children as combatants but admitted that it recruited, trained, and used them for noncombat purposes, such as cooking.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, but the government did not implement these laws effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Prolonged delays in the justice system reinforced the perception of impunity for the security forces and for national, provincial, and local government actors accused of corruption and human rights abuses.
Corruption: To combat corruption, the constitution established the independent Office of the Ombudsman, an appellate-level anticorruption court, and the Commission on Audit. All three organizations were consistently allocated budgets below what they requested, but they actively collaborated with the public and civil society and appeared to operate independently and use their limited resources effectively. Despite government efforts to file charges and obtain convictions in many cases, officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with relative impunity.
Between January and July, the Office of the Ombudsman won 125 convictions in 235 corruption cases. The total number of cases in this period dropped by more than 50 percent from the previous year, and the conviction rate decreased to 53 percent from 69 percent in the same period in 2020.
In the state of the nation address, President Duterte declared he had fired 43 Bureau of Immigration officials over an alleged corruption scam that permitted thousands of Chinese nationals to enter the country illegally in 2020 to work in the online gaming industry. On July 28, however, Justice Department secretary Menardo Guevara told media the “fired” officials had returned to work after a six-month suspension without pay, although they had not yet been given assignments pending conclusion of departmental investigations into their cases. Criminal charges against the officials were reportedly still pending in the Office of the Ombudsman as of October.
The Senate opened an investigation in September into government-procured COVID-19 personal protective equipment from a small manufacturer owned by a friend and previous economic advisor to President Duterte. The firm allegedly received a disproportionate number of the contracts. Duterte barred his cabinet members from attending Senate hearings related to the probe.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).
Officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny in August 2020 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. In December 2020 investigations published by the independent outlets Bellingcat and The Insider identified eight FSB officers suspected to have been involved in Navalny’s poisoning based on telephone records and travel data as well as an inadvertent confession by one of the FSB officials. On June 11, Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation published the results of an investigation that alleged the doctors who treated Navalny at a hospital in Omsk falsified his original medical records to hide evidence of his poisoning. At year’s end Russian Federation representatives continued to reject requests to open an investigation into the circumstances of Navalny’s poisoning and repeated denials that he had been poisoned by a nerve agent.
In an investigation published on January 27, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel implicated several of the same FSB officials in the deaths of at least two other Russian activists between 2014 and 2019: Timur Kuashev, a journalist critical of Russia’s invasion of Crimea who died in 2014, and Ruslan Magomedragimov, an activist for the Lezgin ethnic minority group who died in 2015. According to reporting at the time, both died of apparent poisoning, although neither death was investigated by authorities as suspicious. In another joint investigation, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel reported on February 12 that some of the same FSB officials had followed opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza immediately preceding his poisoning with an unknown substance in two assassination attempts in 2015 and 2017. On June 10, Bellingcat and The Insider reported that the same FSB officers were also implicated in the 2019 poisoning and near death of writer, journalist, and Russian government critic Dmitriy Bykov.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets continued to publish reports indicating that, from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. In February the news outlet Novaya Gazeta published information corroborating previous reports that Chechen security officials extrajudicially executed 27 residents of the Republic of Chechnya in 2017. As part of its investigation into the abuses, Novaya Gazeta interviewed former Chechen police sergeant Suleyman Gezmakhmayev, who testified that his police regiment, the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment, carried out mass arrests and some of the extrajudicial killings of the 27 residents between December 2016 and January 2017. Media reported that Chechen police officers subsequently sought to force Gezmakhmayev to recant his testimony by putting pressure on relatives who remained in Chechnya. On March 15, presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov told reporters that the government was aware of Novaya Gazeta’s investigations into the extrajudicial executions in Chechnya but did not have the prerogative to investigate. Media outlets reported that the former head of the regiment, Aslan Iraskhanov, was appointed head of Chechnya’s police at the end of March. According to human rights organizations, as of December authorities had failed to open investigations into the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTQI+ persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTQI+ persons in the republic.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on February 27, a prisoner, Adygzhy Aymyr-ool, was found dead at the Irkutsk Penal Colony No. 25 (IK-25) prison with signs of torture on his body. Relatives of Aymyr-ool told media that he had previously complained of beatings and poor detention conditions. The Federal Penitentiary System Office of the Irkutsk Region told media it would investigate the cause of his death but denied reports detailing signs of a violent death. On October 5, the human rights group Gulagu.net announced it had obtained more than 1,000 leaked videos showing Russian prison officials torturing and sexually abusing inmates or forcing inmates to subject other inmates to such abuse in the Saratov region and elsewhere.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. On February 19, Ukraine filed a complaint against the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for its role in the “political assassinations of opponents.” Ukraine claimed that “operations to target the alleged opponents of the Russian state are carried out in Russia and on the territory of other states, including the member states of the Council of Europe, outside the situation of armed conflict.” On December 15, a German court sentenced a Russian citizen, Vadim Krasikov, to life in prison for killing a former Chechen rebel commander of Georgian nationality, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, in a Berlin park in 2019. Prosecutors claimed that Krasikov traveled to Germany under an alias and belonged to a special unit of the FSB. The presiding judge concluded that “the central government of the Russian Federation was the author of this crime.”
The country continued to engage in armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths, widespread displacement of persons, and other abuses to Russia-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s armed forces conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).
Since 2017 the country provided the Central African Republic Army unarmed military advisors under the auspices of parameters established by the UN Security Council sanctions regime. According to a report presented by the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to the UN Security Council Committee on May 20, the Russian advisors actively participated in, and often led, combat operations on the ground and participated in abuses against civilians, including cases of excessive use of force, harsh interrogation tactics, numerous killings of civilians, and looting of homes on a large scale (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the Central African Republic).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 19 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Chechnya was the most affected region, with five law enforcement officers injured and six suspected armed insurgents killed.
There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August 2020 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 896 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.
There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year.
Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists, LGBTQI+ persons, and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. For example, in September 2020 Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and moderator of 1ADAT, a social media channel that was highly critical of Kadyrov, was kidnapped and subjected to abuse and humiliation in a disturbing video, reportedly by officers of the Akhmat Kadyrov Post and Patrol Service Regiment of the Chechen Police. Media outlets reported in January that the Investigative Committee of Gelendzhik in Krasnodar Kray opened an investigation into Tepsurkayev’s disappearance. As of December, however, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown. On October 19, the ECHR found Russian state agents responsible for the disappearance and torture of Tepsurkayev and ordered the Russian Federation to pay 26,000 euros ($29,900) in compensation.
On June 23, the ECHR ordered Russia to pay damages of almost two million euros ($2.3 million) to the relatives of 11 persons, mainly from the ethnic Avar minority, who went missing in Chechnya in 2005 during an operation by a military unit composed of ethnic Chechens. In its ruling, the ECHR stated that Russia had violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life.
There were reports Russia-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
There were reports of deaths because of torture (see section 1.a., above).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.
There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. Police used excessive force and harsh tactics to encircle and detain protesters during countrywide protests in late January and early February calling for the release of Aleksey Navalny, who was detained on January 17 upon his return to Russia and sentenced to prison on February 2 (see section 1.d.). On April 26, the online news outlet Meduza published an article detailing multiple instances of excessive use of force and harsh treatment against detainees held in custody during the April 21 protests in St. Petersburg. In one example, police detained a protester for filming the arrests and shocked him with a taser on the way to the police van, “triggering symptoms of cardiac arrythmia,” according to Meduza.
There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on March 31, Navalny initiated a hunger strike to protest authorities’ failure to provide him a requested medical examination and treatment for pain and loss of mobility in his legs after he was transferred on March 15 to the Penal Colony No. 2 (IK-2) in the Vladimir region (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest and Detention). Prison authorities also subjected Navalny for months to hourly wake-ups through the night by prison authorities on the pretense that he was a “flight risk.” Navalny likened this treatment to torture through sleep deprivation. On April 23, he ended his hunger strike after being permitted access to outside medical care. On June 28, a Moscow district court rejected Navalny’s request to be removed from the “prone to escape” list. Navalny continued to be treated as a flight risk until October 11, when he was instead designated an extremist and a terrorist.
Several activists affiliated with Navalny and his political activities or the Anticorruption Foundation also reported being tortured or abused by security officials while in their custody. Alena Kitayeva, a volunteer for Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol, who was issued a 12-day administrative arrest in February, accused police officers of torture after they placed a bag over her head and threatened her with a stun gun if she did not provide them her cell phone password.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned without basis under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture during and following their arrest. For example, on October 4, during coordinated home raids by Interior Ministry and National Guard forces targeting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Irkutsk, four members of the group alleged that they were severely beaten, one of whom additionally alleged he was tortured. One member, Anatoliy Razdabarov, was allegedly kicked in the head and kidneys and threatened with rape, while his wife Greta was dragged by her hair before being beaten. Nikolay Merinov was hit in the face with a blunt object, breaking one of his teeth and knocking him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, an officer was sitting on him and beating him. Merinov’s wife Liliya reported she was also dragged by her hair and physically assaulted.
There were reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. For example, on October 24, newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on the case of Salman Mukayev, a Chechen man who was detained and allegedly tortured in 2020 because security forces, based on a text message, believed him to be gay. The officers reportedly suffocated Mukayev with a bag, kicked him, subjected him to electric shocks for hours and attempted to co-opt him to identify members of the LGBTQI+ community in Chechnya. After his release, Mukayev fled Russia.
There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on January 27, authorities forcibly hospitalized Siberian shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev after he renewed his 2019 calls to “expel” Vladimir Putin from power and missed a court-mandated appointment related to his May 2020 detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). In mid-March the Yakut psychiatric hospital declared Gabyshev insane. On July 26, the Yakutsk City Court ruled that Gabyshev be confined indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory intensive treatment.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On May 27, the online media outlet 29.ru published an article describing the abuse of a 21-year-old conscript, Dmitriy Lapenkov, who was serving in the city of Yurga in Kemerovo Oblast. Lapenkov’s mother told the outlet he was subjected to severe hazing, including being forced to take an unknown tablet and call relatives to ask for large sums of money. He was subsequently transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the city of Novosibirsk in an incoherent state. His mother claimed he had sustained a brain injury because of beating.
There were reports that Russia-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. In most cases where law enforcement officers or other government officials were publicly implicated in human rights abuses, authorities denied internal and external requests for independent investigation and engaged in disinformation campaigns or other efforts to obfuscate such allegations. The government’s propensity to ignore serious human rights allegations along with the uneven application of the rule of law and a lack of judicial transparency resulted in impunity for most perpetrators.
The few investigations into official abuses that were conducted often concerned allegations of torture in detention and pretrial detention facilities that were exposed by whistleblowers or independent media. For example, on June 28, the Kanavinskiy District Court of Nizhny Novgorod sentenced former police officers Aleksey Khrulev and Nikolay Atamashko to two and one-half years in prison for abuse of office with violence. In 2015 the officers detained and beat Leonid Murskiy until he signed a confession for selling drugs.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. In March 2020 Amnesty International stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of COVID-19 infection among prisoners and detainees. According to a Council of Europe report released on April 8, the mortality rate of the Russian prison population in 2019 increased by more than 12 percent, compared with the previous year.
Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on February 8, media outlets reported that the Russian Investigative Committee brought charges of torture and extortion against the former head and staff of detention center No. 1 in Makhachkala. According to an investigation conducted from 2015 to 2019, the former head of the center, Daud Davydov, and two of his subordinates regularly beat a former investigator of the Investigative Committee, who was himself accused of torture and illegal imprisonment. The detention center officials faced charges of abuse of power with the use of violence, extortion, fraud with the use of an official position, and bribery by a group of persons. As of October no date was set for the court case.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the lawyer of Pavel Sheremet, a detainee in the regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1 in Saratov, told media that inmates at the facility beat and sexually assaulted Sheremet on June 3. Media outlets reported that the prosecutor’s office of the Saratov Region initiated an investigation into the allegations, although as of October no further information was available on the outcome of the case.
There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on March 3, authorities detained the head of the Irkutsk penal colony No. 6 (IK-6) after reports emerged that he condoned the rape and beating of prisoner Takhirzhon Bakiyev by prison staff. According to media reporting, on January 20, after transferring to IK-6 from another facility, Bakiyev was placed in a “torture squad,” where, with the knowledge and complicity of the prison guards, his cellmates then proceeded to rape and beat him before tying him up. Videos obtained by the NGO Gulagu.net in October documented numerous cases of prisoners in the Saratov region being enlisted or coerced by prison officials to abuse and in some cases rape other inmates.
Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, in early April the former governor of Khabarovsk Kray, Sergey Furgal, contracted COVID-19 while detained in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center, according to his lawyer. NGOs reported that approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment, with treatment provided only to inmates with a CD4 white blood cell count below a certain level. NGOs reported the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were occasionally interrupted.
There were reports that political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on March 2, the New York Times reported that prisoners in the isolation unit of penal colony IK-2, including Aleksey Navalny, were forced to stand for hours with their hands clasped behind their backs and were forbidden from making eye contact with prison guards. Former political prisoners described having to carry out meaningless tasks multiple times a day and being sent to the “punishment brigade” for minor infractions, conditions that one prisoner described as psychologically harrowing. In March media outlets reported that authorities issued 20 violations to Navalny in his first month of prison, including for getting out of bed 10 minutes before the scheduled “wake up” command. On January 20, Navalny filed a complaint to the ECHR concerning the poor conditions of his detention center, which he characterized as a “friendly concentration camp.” On April 16, the ECHR gave the government of Russia notice it should respond by July 12. No public announcement concerning Russia’s response had been made by year’s end.
During the year media coverage of multiple allegations of torture at several penal colonies and testimony from victims and their family members prompted investigations by the Federal Penitentiary System. In one example, on February 23, the Investigative Committee opened an investigation into abuse of power after media published two videos of abuse at penal colony No. 1 (IK-1) in Yaroslavl. Staff at the prison had previously been convicted of torture-related crimes stemming from a separate 2018 video depicting the abuse of an inmate. In May media outlets reported that the Investigative Committee had detained 10 staff members of the IK-1 prison, although as of July, no information was available on the outcome of the investigation. On October 5, after the release of numerous videos depicting the torture and rape of inmates in the Saratov regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1, the Federal Penitentiary System opened an investigation into abuses at the facility.
Administration: While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.
By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a given detention center.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.
There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists and activists for reporting torture. For example, Vladimir Taranenko, an employee of the human rights organization Siberia Pravovaya detained in pretrial detention facility No. 1 of the Kemerovo region on extortion charges, told media on July 6 that he had been tortured by prison authorities who sought access to the Siberia Pravovaya YouTube channel. Siberia Pravovaya provides legal assistance to convicts and prisoners and publishes accounts of prison abuse on its YouTube channel, and human rights defenders alleged that Taranenko was prosecuted on fabricated charges because of his activism.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants.
After an arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both the detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing, either in person or through a video link. In May the State Duma adopted and President Putin signed into law amendments to the penal code that prohibit lawyers from bringing “communications technologies on the grounds of a correctional institution,” effectively barring lawyers from bringing their cell phones or other recording devices into detention facilities when meeting with their clients.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
Detainees had trouble obtaining adequate defense counsel. While the law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, investigators sometimes did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. For example, on July 6, Aleksey Vorsin, an opposition activist and former head of Aleksey Navalny’s Khabarovsk headquarters, was denied his request to replace his court-appointed public defender with legal representation of his choosing on procedural grounds. Vorsin was charged with repeated participation in protests and received a three-year suspended sentence. Moscow-based international human rights organization Memorial, which regularly publishes a list of political prisoners in Russia, considered Vorsin’s incarceration politically motivated.
In many cases, especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
There were reports that security services sometimes held detainees in incommunicado detention before officially registering the detention. This practice usually coincided with allegations of the use of torture to coerce confessions before detainees were permitted access to a lawyer. The problem was especially acute in the Republic of Chechnya, where incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.
Media reported that police used facial recognition technology to detain several individuals days after public demonstrations, with some instances of misidentification leading to the arrest of the wrong individuals. For example, the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda published an interview on July 16 with a Moscow municipal deputy, Vladimir Zalishchak, who, after attending the January 23 demonstrations in Moscow as a representative of the state, was arrested by police based on facial recognition software placing him at the protest. A court quickly sentenced Zalishchak to 15 days’ detention without permitting him access to a lawyer. Media outlets reported that Moscow police also detained several activists and journalists identified using facial recognition technology as attendees of the peaceful rally in support of Navalny on April 21. The director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, Natalia Zviagina, characterized the use of facial recognition technology to identify and target protesters as “extremely disturbing.”
There were also reports that authorities targeted lawyers involved in the defense of political prisoners. For example, on April 30, security forces searched the hotel room of human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov and detained him for allegedly disclosing data related to the case of former Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020), a charge he denied. On July 17, Komanda 29 (Team 29), the lawyer’s association led by Pavlov, announced its decision to legally dissolve after the Prosecutor General’s Office blocked its website on July 16 for allegedly affiliating with the Czech NGO Spolecnost Svobody Informace (Freedom of Information Society), which was designated an “undesirable foreign organization” on June 29 (see section 2.b.).
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations or single-person pickets, such as those organized January 23 and 31 and February 2 and 14 calling for Navalny’s release (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees, and section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).
On February 4, police in the city of Nizhny Novgorod arrested 20-year-old Salekh Magamadov and 17-year-old Ismail Isayev and forcibly transferred them to Chechnya, where their whereabouts were unknown to their lawyers and family members for several days. According to human rights organizations, the two men were targeted for having operated a social media channel critical of the government and for their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. As of December, Magamadov and Isayev remained in detention in Chechnya’s capital Grozny for having allegedly aided an illegal armed group, charges that human rights organizations called fabricated.
Police detained single-person picketers in Moscow and other regions of the country. In one example, on February 2, police in Mari El opened a case against the leader of the For New Socialism movement, Dmitriy Mishin, for “violating the procedure for holding a picket” after he hung banners expressing support for Navalny on several snowmen. The charge was dropped on April 9. On August 21, at least eight journalists were detained while conducting separate single-person protests against the “media foreign agent” law outside FSB headquarters in Moscow.
During the year human rights monitoring groups reported an increase in so-called carousel arrests, in which police immediately rearrest protest participants upon exiting detention facilities after having completed court-ordered administrative sentences. In contrast to earlier cases of protesters being arrested multiple times, the new charges filed against these activists and journalists stemmed from the same underlying activities or events, allowing authorities to impose lengthy periods of detention for minor infractions. For example, OVD-Info reported that from May to July, members of the Pussy Riot movement were repeatedly sentenced up to the 15 days’ maximum administrative detention for disobeying a police officer. One of the activists, Veronika Nikulshina, was sentenced three times in three months to 15-day detentions, including on July 2, the day after her release from a June 16 detention. Her lawyer speculated that the systematic detentions were intended to prevent the movement from organizing demonstrations during a European soccer championship match hosted in Russia.
There were reports that Russia-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent were not available. By law pretrial detention may not normally exceed two months, but the court has the power to extend it to six months, as well as to 12 or 18 months if the crime of which the defendant is accused is especially serious. For example, Yuriy Savelyev, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was held in pretrial detention from October 2019 to December 2020 prior to being sentenced to six years in prison for participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization.” Media outlets reported that the Eighth Cassation Court of Kemerovo ruled on March 29 that his lengthy pretrial detention was illegal.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. Due to problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2020 courts acquitted 0.34 percent of all defendants.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it was common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. A Yekaterinburg-based legal and human rights NGO indicated many defense attorneys did not vigorously defend their clients and that there were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial, defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also may review their file following the completion of the criminal investigation.
Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation was typically poor. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal.
The law provides for trial by jury in criminal cases if the defendant is charged with murder, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and certain other serious crimes. Nonetheless, trials by jury remained rare, and most verdicts and sentences were rendered by judges. The acquittal rate in trials by jury was higher (23 percent in 2019) than in trials before a judge (0.34 percent in 2020), although acquittals by jury were sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Chechnya head Kadyrov.
In some cases judicial authorities imposed sentences disproportionate to the crimes charged. For example, on January 15, Pavel Zelenskiy, an employee of Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation, was detained and charged with “public calls for extremist activities” for writing a pair of tweets in response to the October 2020 suicide of journalist Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina; see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). A Moscow court sentenced Zelenskiy to two years in prison on April 16. Memorial considered Zelenskiy to be a political prisoner.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of December 7, Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 426 names, including 343 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising freedom of religion or belief. Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be three to four times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included opposition activists and politicians, including Aleksey Navalny and his associates (see section 1.d.); journalists jailed for their work, such as members of the student publication DOXA and Chernovik editor Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; individuals jailed for participating in the 2019 Moscow protests as well as the nationwide protests during the year; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Muslim groups, and other religious groups.
Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and attempted murder; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.
On January 17, authorities detained anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny at the Sheremetyevo Airport upon his return to Moscow from Berlin where he had been recovering from his poisoning by a Novichok nerve agent (see section 1.a.). Russian authorities justified the detention with a December 2020 order for Navalny to “register” with authorities to stay in compliance with the terms of the suspended prison sentence he received following conviction in the Yves Rocher “money laundering” case, which was set to expire December 30. The ECHR had previously characterized Navalny’s conviction in the Yves Rocher case as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” and ordered the Russian government to pay Navalny compensation.
Alleging Navalny had violated the terms of his probation when he failed to appear, the Simonovskiy District Court of Moscow scheduled a hearing on January 29 to adjudicate the prison authorities’ request that he serve out his suspended sentence – for which he had already served his time – in prison. Human rights experts believed at the time that authorities sought to discourage Navalny from returning to Russia ahead of the State Duma elections on September 19. Navalny nonetheless voluntarily returned on January 17. Independent Russian and international journalists accompanied him on his return flight and live-streamed his trip, including the plane’s diversion from its original destination airport in an apparent attempt to avoid his awaiting supporters, as well as his detention by security authorities at customs control.
After being delayed access to his lawyer, Navalny was sentenced on January 18 in a makeshift court hearing at the Khimki police station to 30 days in pretrial detention. Independent observers characterized the hearing as a “mockery of justice.” On February 2, the Simonovskiy District Court of Moscow ruled to convert Navalny’s suspended sentence into a prison sentence of three and one-half years, which was subsequently reduced to two years and eight months to account for the time he had previously spent under house arrest. During the hearing the prosecutor and prison authorities claimed not to know Navalny’s whereabouts in the fall of 2020, when he had been in a well publicized coma and receiving medical care in Germany following his poisoning by the Russian government.
On February 16, the ECHR issued a ruling that obliged Russian authorities to release Navalny from pretrial detention due to threats to his safety. Russian authorities dismissed the ECHR ruling as undue interference in the Russian judicial system and claimed it was without merit after a 2020 constitutional amendment gave Russian law primacy over international law or any treaty to which Russia is a party. On March 2, authorities transferred Navalny from the SIZO-1 detention center near Moscow to the penal colony No. 2 in the Vladimir Region, a prison notorious for having some of the harshest conditions in the country. In the subsequent months, Navalny’s associates reported that his health deteriorated and that prison authorities routinely restricted his access to his lawyers. The courts repeatedly denied Navalny’s efforts to appeal the basis for his detention or challenge the conditions of his detention. In response to the conditions of his detention, Navalny went on a hunger strike from March 31 to April 23 (see section 1.c.). At year’s end Navalny remained in prison. Memorial, Amnesty International, and other prominent human rights organizations considered Navalny to be a political prisoner.
According to Memorial, Navalny had been charged in 11 other politically motivated criminal cases since 2011. In one case, on February 20, a Moscow court found Navalny guilty of defamation after he criticized participants in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package on social media (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). The court fined Navalny 850,000 rubles ($11,500).
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: On August 6, a court in Austria sentenced an ethnically Chechen Russian citizen, Sarali Akhtayev, to life in prison after finding him guilty of murdering Chechen dissident Mamikhan Umarov near Vienna in July 2020. Investigators were unable to establish a definitive motive for the crime, although some members of the Chechen exile community in Austria believed the murder was politically motivated. In addition to maintaining a blog critical of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Umarov had given testimony in murder trials involving Chechens. Soon after Umarov’s death, purported relatives of Umarov released a video in which they took responsibility for Umarov’s killing and called on Austrian authorities to release suspects held in connection with his murder.
On September 21, the ECHR ruled in favor of the widow of Russian whistleblower Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in the United Kingdom in 2006, finding that the Russian government was responsible for Litvinenko’s death. The court concluded there was a strong prima facie case that the two men who poisoned Litvinenko, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitriy Kovtun, had been acting as agents of the Russian state. It noted that the Russian government had failed to provide any other satisfactory and convincing explanation of the events or to counter the findings of the British inquiry. The court also found that Russian authorities had not carried out an effective domestic investigation capable of leading to the establishment of the facts and, where appropriate, the identification and punishment of those responsible for the murder.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: On March 26, authorities detained Yuriy Zhdanov, the father of Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov, for alleged abuse of office. On May 19, the Investigative Committee for the Arkhangelsk Region instead charged Zhdanov with the more serious charges of forgery and fraud on a large scale that carry up to 10 years in prison if convicted. On July 19, Zhdanov’s pretrial detention was extended, and his trial did not commence until October 25. On December 20, Zhdanov was given a three-year suspended sentence and released nine months after his initial detention. Memorial recognized Zhdanov as a political prisoner.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that authorities attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. For example, on February 10, a Moscow court ordered the arrest of a prominent Navalny associate, Leonid Volkov, who resided in Lithuania at the time, on charges of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized rallies, an offense that could be punished by up to three years in prison. The warrant was sent via Interpol to Lithuanian authorities, who refused to enforce it on the grounds that it was politically motivated.
On July 21 in Warsaw, Polish authorities detained Yevgeniy Khasoyev, a human rights activist from Buryatiya, at the request of Moscow’s Interpol office. Khasoyev’s lawyer told media that he was detained for 48 hours while a Polish court decided on Russia’s extradition request. Khasoyev had left Russia in March after authorities charged him with “threatening violence against a government official.” Khasoyev characterized the case as politically motivated and an effort to hinder his activism in Buryatiya, where he defended the interests of victims of police violence and those detained during pro-Navalny protests earlier in the year. On October 26, a Warsaw district court declined to extradite Khasoyev to Russia. According to Khasoyev, the judge said it was obvious Russian authorities were trying to defame Khasoyev because he had provided legal support to pro-Navalny protesters.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often were not effective. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, it was very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights were violated typically sought redress in the ECHR after domestic courts ruled against them. Amendments to the constitution that were approved in a nationwide vote in July 2020 and signed into law in December 2020 established the primacy of Russian domestic law over international law by providing that decisions by interstate bodies interpreted in a manner contrary to the constitution are not enforceable in the country. Many experts interpreted the provision as giving Russian courts greater power to ignore rulings from international human rights bodies, including the ECHR; the courts had already set a precedent by declaring such bodies’ decisions “nonexecutable.”
Property Seizure and Restitution
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. No legislation or special mechanism in the country addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the laws’ provisions, claims may only be made by states and not individuals.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed after 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. On July 1, President Putin signed into law a bill that allows security services to obtain data on the location of mobile telephones without a court order for a period of 24 hours, or 48 hours in the case of a missing minor. Prior to the adoption of this amendment, even though the Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, the FSB was not required to show it.
Law enforcement officials reportedly accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority.
The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.
Authorities punished family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. On January 27, police detained Aleksey Navalny’s brother Oleg (see section 1.d.) the same day as police searched the houses of at least 13 Navalny associates, including those of his wife Yuliya and his colleague Lyubov Sobol, as well as the headquarters of “Navalny Live,” Navalny’s anticorruption YouTube channel. Critics characterized the police tactics as efforts to punish or pressure Navalny, who remained detained at the time. In subsequent months authorities exerted similar pressure on the families of Navalny’s associates residing outside of the country, such as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, and Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of the Anticorruption Foundation.
According to a December 2020 study by the information and analytical agency TelecomDaily, the country had more than 13 million closed-circuit television cameras in 2020, with approximately one-third of these installed by the government and the rest by businesses and individuals to protect private property. By the end of 2020, approximately 200,000 government surveillance cameras were installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its “Safe City” program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. During the demonstrations on April 21 (see section 1.d.), authorities used facial recognition data to identify protesters, sometimes incorrectly, days after the demonstration.
In 2020 the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTQI+ persons. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest, although as of October no related arrests were reported.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government acknowledged difficulty in enforcing the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption was widespread throughout the executive branch, including within the security sector, as well as in the legislative and judicial branches at all levels. Its manifestations included bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and improper use of official position to secure personal profits. While there were prosecutions for bribery, a general lack of enforcement remained a problem. Official corruption continued to be rampant in numerous areas, including education, military conscription, health care, commerce, housing, social welfare, law enforcement, and the judicial system. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, at the start of the year, corruption-related crimes increased by approximately 12 percent compared with the previous year, with the total amount of material damage caused by corruption crimes exceeding 63 billion rubles ($851 million) in 2020. Bribery accounted for half of the detected corruption crimes. The Prosecutor General’s Office reported that approximately one-third of bribery cases related to “petty bribery” of less than 10,000 rubles ($135) given by citizens to police officers, schoolteachers, and prison authorities. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, published in January, assessed corruption in the country as high.
There were reports of corruption by government officials at the highest level. During the year Aleksey Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation and other investigative news outlets reported on previously undisclosed properties owned by President Putin, his family, and his close associates. In a widely viewed video expose released on January 19, Navalny’s investigative team documented the excesses of a luxury estate on the Black Sea coast that they traced back to President Putin and his inner circle. The investigation tracked corrupt proceeds from illicit deals and the president’s own alleged misuse of office to fund the property’s construction, which Navalny’s team estimated cost 74 billion rubles (one billion dollars) to construct and furnish.
Authorities selectively sentenced officials on corruption-related charges. For example, on March 22, a court in Moscow sentenced the governor of the Penza region, Ivan Belozertsev, to two months in prison on allegations that he accepted 31 million rubles ($420,000) in bribes in 2020. The Investigative Committee also opened investigations into Belozertsev for embezzlement of three billion rubles ($40.5 million) and falsification of election results in the 2020 election for governor.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were public reports or credible allegations the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in January that Buddhist monk Tenzin Nyima died in late December 2020 or early January after suffering severe beatings over the course of many months. Sources told HRW that the beatings and other mistreatment left Tenzin in a coma, severely malnourished, and likely paralyzed when he died. Phayul.com reported in May that Norsang (no last name), held incommunicado after his 2019 detention for refusing to participate in People’s Republic of China (PRC)-led political re-education training, was allegedly tortured to death. According to the report, Norsang died in 2019 while in the custody of local security officials, who did not reveal his death until May.
There were no credible reports of disappearances, although the whereabouts of many persons detained by security officials was unknown (see information on incommunicado detention in section 1.c., below).
Gen Sonam, a senior manager of the Potala Palace, was reportedly detained in 2019, and his whereabouts remained unknown.
The whereabouts of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the second most prominent figure after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism’s Gelug school, remained unknown. Neither he nor his parents have been seen since they were disappeared, allegedly by or on behalf of PRC authorities in 1995, when he was six years old.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
According to sources, police and prison authorities employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners. There were reports that PRC officials severely beat some Tibetans who were incarcerated or otherwise in custody. In February the Tibet Sun reported Kunchok Jinpa, a political prisoner serving a 21-year sentence, died in a hospital shortly after his release from prison. According to the report, Kunchok died from a severe brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings he endured in prison.
Reports from released prisoners indicated some were permanently disabled or in extremely poor health because of the harsh treatment they endured in prison. Former prisoners also reported being isolated in small cells for months at a time and deprived of sleep, sunlight, and adequate food. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in March that Gangbu Rikgye Nyima, serving a 10-year sentence for participation in protests, was released in February, a year early. According to RFA, the release came about because Gangbu’s health had deteriorated badly due to beatings and torture in prison.
RFA reported in September that Tibetan monk Thabgey Gyatso was released after serving 12 years of his 15-year sentence. Sources told RFA that “due to harsh treatment in the prison, his vision and overall health have become very weak.”
Impunity for violations of human rights was pervasive. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses in previous years.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Physical Conditions: Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening due to inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. According to individuals who completed their prison terms in recent years, prisoners rarely received medical care except in cases of serious illness.
Administration: Independent observers with access to members of the Tibetan community believed that in many cases officials denied visitors, including attorneys, access to detained and imprisoned persons.
Independent Monitoring: There was no evidence of independent monitoring or observation of prisons or detention centers.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. Legal safeguards for detained or imprisoned Tibetans were inadequate in both design and implementation.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Public security agencies are required by law to notify the relatives or employer of a detained person within 24 hours of their detention but often failed to do so when Tibetans and others were detained for political reasons. Pretrial bail procedures are codified under the PRC law, but Tibetans and others who have been detained for politically sensitive reasons are denied access to pretrial release. According to criminal law, public security officers may detain persons for up to 37 days without formally arresting or charging them. Further detention requires approval of a formal arrest by the prosecutor’s office; however, in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest.
When a suspect is formally arrested, public security authorities may detain the person for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated. After the completion of an investigation, the prosecutor may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may then detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings.
Despite the laws and regulatory procedures, incommunicado detention was a common practice. In one case, multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news agencies reported Tibetan writer Go Sherab Gyatso was arrested in October 2020 in Chengdu, Sichuan; no further information about his whereabouts or the charges was released. Media and NGOs also reported that Rinchen Tsultrim’s whereabouts remained unknown. Rinchen had been detained in late summer 2019 at the Ngabao Public Security Bureau in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and was allegedly charged with “incitement to split the country.”
Arbitrary Arrest: Derung Tsering Dhundrup, a senior Tibetan scholar who was also the deputy secretary of the Sichuan Tibet Studies Society, was reportedly detained in 2019. Local reports suggested he was released in April under strict parole conditions; his whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.
On July 6, HRW published an extensive report on a crackdown, beginning in 2019, on monks in the Tengdro Monastery in Tingri County, TAR. The crackdown began after police searched the mobile phone of monk Choegyal Wangpo and found images of the Dalai Lama and records of messages with Tibetans overseas. Police reportedly detained, interrogated, and beat Wangpo and then raided a nearby village, detaining approximately 20 monks and subjecting villagers to political re-education sessions. One monk, Lobsang Zoepa, reportedly took his own life in protest. Most of the monks were released but four, including Wangpo, were held for more than a year before being tried in secret and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
Tibet.net reported a case in which Konmay (no last name), a Tibetan monk in Ngaba, Sichuan, was arrested in July for unknown reasons.
On July 6, Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 19 monks and approximately 40 Tibetans in Dza Wonpo in Ganz Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture, Sichuan Province. Those held allegedly possessed pictures of the Dalai Lama. Media reported the arrests followed several months of heightened restrictions and surveillance in the area. On August 25, authorities summoned residents ages 18 and older to a town meeting, with penalties for failure to attend. At the meeting, authorities demanded that residents “follow the Communist party” and prohibited residents from keeping pictures of the Dalai Lama or sharing “sensitive information” with Tibetans in exile, according to media reports.
Pretrial Detention: Security officials frequently violated the legal limits for pretrial detention, and pretrial detention periods of more than a year were common. Individuals detained for political or religious reasons were often held on national security charges, which have looser restrictions on the length of pretrial detention. Many political detainees were therefore held without trial far longer than other types of detainees. Authorities held many prisoners in extrajudicial detention centers without charge and never allowed them to appear in public court.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: This right does not exist in the TAR or other Tibetan areas.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
There is no judicial independence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the PRC government in law or practice. In August for example, the TAR Higher People’s Court announced the hiring of six court clerks. Among the job requirements was successful passage of a “political background check” by candidates and all their family members. In cases that authorities claimed involved “endangering state security” or “separatism,” trials often were cursory and closed.
In July HRW issued a report detailing the September 2020 denial of a fair trial to four Tibetan monks from the Tengro Monastery in Tingri County, TAR. The report indicated that the four were arrested for having foreign contacts. Their access to lawyers and to the evidence used against them was restricted and no details of their trial were made public.
Criminal suspects in the PRC have the right to hire a lawyer or other defense representation, but many Tibetan defendants, particularly those facing politically motivated charges, did not have access to legal representation while in pretrial detention. In many cases lawyers were unwilling to take clients due to political risks or because Tibetan families often did not have the resources to cover legal fees. In rare cases, defendants were denied access to legal representation entirely. For example, Tashi Wangdui, a Tibetan HIV and AIDS awareness campaigner sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for “endangering state security,” has been denied access to any of his lawyers since his conviction.
While some Tibetan lawyers are licensed in Tibetan areas, observers reported they were often unwilling to defend individuals in front of ethnic Han judges and prosecutors due to fear of reprisals or disbarment.
Local sources noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin, with government interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak Mandarin. Court decisions, proclamations, and other judicial documents, however, generally were not published in Tibetan.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
An unknown number of Tibetans were detained, arrested, or sentenced because of their political or religious activities.
FreeTibet.net reported in November that well-known Tibetan writer Lobsang Lhundup (pen name: Dhi Lhaden) had been sentenced to four years in prison. Lobsang had been arbitrarily detained in Chengdu in 2019 before the FreeTibet.net report indicated he was charged with “disrupting social order.” According to the report, Lobsang was sentenced after a “secret trial”; no further details were provided.
Outside observers examined publicly available information and, as of late May, identified between 500 and 2,000 Tibetans known or believed to be detained or imprisoned by PRC authorities in violation of international human rights standards. Of the 115 cases for which there was information available on sentencing, punishment ranged from 15 months’ to life imprisonment. These data, for both overall detentions and sentencing, were believed to cover only a small fraction of the actual number of political prisoners.
In January official media reported that in 2020 the TAR prosecutor’s office approved the arrest and prosecution of 74 individuals allegedly for “threatening” China’s “political security.” Details, including the whereabouts of those arrested, were unknown.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet, many as refugees in India and Nepal.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: The Tibetan overseas community is frequently subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. In September the Jamestown Foundation reported on tactics PRC officials used to target Tibetan activists overseas and the Tibetan diaspora community. The report described the secret infiltration of communities, reporting on Tibetans, and the use of disinformation. The report also indicated that Chinese consulates abroad often collect data from family members applying for visas to use the information to identify and target Tibetans in the PRC. Media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the mobile phones of officials in the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and of several leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration, the overseas Tibetan community’s governance organization. The PRC government at times compelled Tibetans in China to pressure family members seeking asylum overseas to return.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that the PRC continued to put heavy pressure on Nepal to implement a border systems management agreement and a mutual legal assistance treaty, as well as to conclude an extradition treaty that could result in the refoulement of Tibetan refugees to the PRC. Nepal does not appear to have implemented either proposed agreement and postponed action on the extradition treaty.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Authorities electronically and manually monitored private correspondence and searched, without warrant, private homes and businesses for photographs of the Dalai Lama and other forbidden items. Police routinely examined the cell phones of TAR residents in random stops or as part of other investigations to search for “reactionary music” from India or photographs of the Dalai Lama. Authorities also questioned and detained some individuals who disseminated writings and photographs over the internet or listened to teachings of the Dalai Lama on their cell phones. Authorities continued to employ pervasive surveillance systems, including the use of facial recognition and smart identity cards.
The “grid system,” an informant system also known as the “double-linked household system,” facilitated authorities’ efforts to identify and control persons considered “extremist” or “splittist.” The grid system groups households and other establishments and encourages them to report problems to the government, including financial problems and political transgressions, in other group households. Tibet.net reported in March that TAR authorities issued new regulations designed to encourage Tibetans to spy on each other. The article noted that the PRC often tests the loyalty of Tibetans by having them report on each other. Authorities rewarded individuals with money and other forms of compensation for their reporting. The maximum reward for information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to the government increased to 300,000 renminbi ($42,800), six times the average per capita GDP in the TAR, according to local media.
According to sources in the TAR, Tibetans frequently received telephone calls from security officials ordering them to remove from their cell phones photographs, articles, and information on international contacts the government deemed sensitive. Security officials visited the residences of those who did not comply with such orders. Media reports indicated that in some areas, households were required to have photographs of PRC President Xi Jinping in prominent positions and were subject to inspections and fines for noncompliance. In a May case, media reported local officials sentenced a Tibetan herder from Qinghai Province for having “Tibet-related” material on his mobile phone.
The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with Tibetans in exile.
Individuals in Tibetan areas reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China. Pharul.com reported in August that in April PRC authorities ordered Tibetans in Shigatse Prefecture, Dingri County, TAR to provide a list of their relatives living overseas. The demand followed similar efforts elsewhere in the TAR. Failure to do so would result in these individuals losing PRC-provided benefits.
The government also interfered with the ability of persons to find employment. Media reports in May noted that advertisements for 286 positions of different types in the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
PRC law provides criminal penalties for corrupt acts by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively in Tibetan areas, and high-ranking officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption in Tibetan areas; some low-ranked officials were punished.
Corruption: Local sources said investigations into corruption in the TAR and autonomous prefectures were rare.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were credible allegations that the government contributed to civilian deaths in connection with its fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) organization in the southeast although civilian deaths continued to decline in recent years (see section 1.g.). The PKK continued to target civilians in its attacks; the government continued to work to block such attacks. The law authorizes the Ombudsman Institution, the National Human Rights and Equality Institution, prosecutors’ offices, criminal courts, and parliament’s Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of security force killings, torture, or mistreatment, excessive use of force, and other abuses. Civil courts, however, remained the main recourse to prevent impunity.
According to the International Crisis Group, from January 1 to November 15, a total of 25 civilians, 51 security force members, and 268 PKK militants were killed in the country and surrounding region in PKK-related clashes. Human rights groups stated the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK.
The PKK continued its campaign of attacks on government security forces, resulting in civilian deaths. PKK attacks focused particularly on southeastern provinces. In October the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources reported that a PKK attack killed two electricity workers in Bingol Province after the group detonated a remote-controlled explosive while a vehicle carrying the workers passed.
There were credible reports that the country’s military operations outside its borders led to the deaths of civilians (see section 1.g.). In August press outlets reported that Turkish airstrikes on what may have been a makeshift medical facility in the Sinjar District of Iraq killed four medical staff in addition to members of a militia affiliated with both the PKK and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.
According to the Baran Tursun Foundation, an organization that monitors police brutality, police killed 404 individuals for disobeying stop warnings between 2007 and 2020. According to the report, 92 were children. Police killed six individuals in 2020 according to the report. In June suspect Birol Yildirim died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody in the Esenyurt district in Istanbul. Authorities subsequently arrested 12 police officers on charges of beating Yildirim to death. The case against the officers continued at year’s end.
By law National Intelligence Organization (MIT) members are immune from prosecution as are security officials involved in fighting terror, making it harder for prosecutors to investigate extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by requiring that they obtain permission from both military and civilian leadership prior to pursuing prosecution.
Domestic and international human rights groups reported instances of disappearances that they alleged were politically motivated.
In February human rights groups reported that Huseyin Galip Kucukozyigit, a former legal advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office who was dismissed after the 2016 coup attempt, may have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Kucukozyigit last contacted his family in December 2020; his relatives believed he was abducted. Authorities initially denied Kucukozyigit was in official custody. In September, Kucukozyigit’s daughter announced on social media that she received a telephone call from him and that he was in Sincan Prison in Ankara.
Human rights organizations appealed for authorities to investigate the disappearance of Yusuf Bilge Tunc, one of seven men reportedly “disappeared” by the government in 2019. Six of the seven surfaced in 2019 in police custody on terrorism charges, but Tunc’s whereabouts remained unknown.
The government declined to provide information on efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but domestic and international rights groups reported that some police officers, prison authorities, and military and intelligence units employed these practices. Domestic human rights organizations, bar associations, political opposition figures, international human rights groups, and others reported that government agents engaged in threats, mistreatment, and possible torture of some persons while in custody. Human rights groups asserted that individuals with alleged affiliation with the PKK or the Gulen movement were more likely to be subjected to mistreatment, abuse, or possible torture.
Reports from human rights groups indicated that police abused detainees outside police station premises and that mistreatment and alleged torture was more prevalent in some police facilities in parts of the southeast. A consortium of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), told the press in July “police violence has become a part of daily life” and observed that authorities increasingly intervened in peaceful protests and demonstrations. In the first 11 months of the year, the HRFT reported receiving complaints from 531 individuals alleging they were subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment while in custody or at extracustodial locations. In the same period, the Human Rights Association of Turkey (HRA) reported, at least 415 individuals applied to the NGO alleging torture or other forms of mistreatment. The HRA reported that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report police abuse due to fear of reprisal.
In early January police violently dispersed protests over President Erdogan’s January 1 appointment of rector Melih Bulu at Bogazici University in Istanbul, using water cannons and tear gas. Police subsequently raided houses and detained 45 students in the protests. Amnesty International reported that the students alleged torture and mistreatment at the time of detention and while in custody. According to student reports, police pushed and hit them during detention. At least eight students reported forced strip searches, and two students from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community reported that police threatened them with rape with a truncheon and verbally abused them regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity. Amnesty stated that at least 15 students reported mistreatment during medical examinations at a hospital following detention.
Protests continued throughout the year, mainly in Istanbul. Human Rights Watch estimated that police detained more than 700 protesters since January in at least 38 cities. Human rights groups reported police frequently used excessive force during detentions, injuring protesters. For example, in February, Human Rights Watch reported police kicking protesters who were not resisting arrest. Videos showed protesters’ significant injuries, such as broken teeth and lacerations. In April human rights groups reported that police grabbed some students by the throat and threw them to the ground (see additional information in section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
The government asserted it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture and has abolished statute of limitations for cases of torture. In its World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch stated, “A rise in allegations of torture, mistreatment and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in police custody and prison over the past four years has set back Turkey’s earlier progress in this area. Those targeted included persons accused of political and common crimes. Prosecutors did not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity for members of the security forces and public officials implicated.” According to Ministry of Justice statistics from 2020, the government opened 2,199 investigations into allegations of torture and mistreatment. Of those, 917 resulted in no action being taken by prosecutors, 816 resulted in criminal cases, and 466 in other decisions. The government did not release data on its investigations into alleged torture.
NGOs and opposition politicians reported that prison administrators used strip searches punitively both against prisoners and visitors, particularly in cases where the prisoner was convicted on terrorism charges. The HRA documented 174 allegations of enforced strip searches in 2020. In a June report, the HRA’s Batman branch in the southeastern part of the country noted that prisoners reported strip searches during prison transfers, often executed with force that HRA alleged amounted to battery.
In February the family of the jailed former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayor of Hakkari, Dilek Hatipoglu, alleged that security guards beat her after she refused to undress for a strip search. Press outlets reported that Hatipoglu had a black eye at a court hearing that she attended that month. In 2016 a court sentenced Hatipoglu to 16 years and three months in prison on terrorism charges.
Some military conscripts reportedly endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in death or suicide. Human rights groups reported suspicious deaths in the military, particularly among conscripts of minority Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds. The government did not systematically investigate such incidents or release data on them. The HRA and HRFT reported at least 13 deaths of soldiers performing compulsory military service were the result of accidents or occurred under suspicious circumstances during the first 11 months of the year. In April an ethnically Romani soldier, Caner Sarmasik, committed suicide while on duty. A Romani NGO alleged Sarmasik’s commanders severely hazed him due to his Romani identity. Several opposition parliamentarians requested that the Ministry of Defense investigate the death. The government did not release information on its efforts to address abuse through disciplinary action and training.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons generally met standards for physical conditions (i.e., infrastructure and basic equipment), but significant problems with overcrowding resulted in conditions in many prisons that the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) found could be considered inhuman and degrading in its 2017 and 2019 visits. While detention facilities were generally in a good state of repair and well ventilated, many facilities had structural deficiencies that made them unsuitable for detention lasting more than a few days.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of March the country had 374 prisons with a capacity for 250,756 inmates and an estimated total inmate population of 283,481.
If separate prison facilities for minors were not available, minors were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Children younger than six were allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers. The NGO Civil Society in the Penal System estimated that as of August, 345 children were being held with their mothers. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities as convicted prisoners.
The government did not regularly release data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members. In February the Ministry of Justice announced 50 prisoners had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The Ministry of Justice has not released updated figures on prisoner deaths due to COVID-19.
In December the HRA reported 28 deaths in prison related to illness, violence, or other causes.
Human rights organizations and CPT reports asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, lighting, food, and health services. Human rights organizations also noted that prison overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions exacerbated health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that prisoners feared reporting health problems or seeking medical care, since a positive COVID-19 result would lead to a two-week quarantine in solitary confinement. The NGO Civil Society in the Penal System reported prison facilities did not allow for sufficient social distancing due to overcrowding and that prison administrators did not provide regular cleaning and disinfection services. Prisons also did not provide disinfectant, gloves, or masks to prisoners, but instead sold them at commissaries. According to a March survey of prisoners by the NGO Media and Law Studies Association conducted in five facilities, 56 percent of respondents reported not having sufficient hygienic supplies during the pandemic.
According to Ministry of Justice prison and correctional facilities statistics, as of September there were seven medical doctors, 154 dentists, 81 nurses, 839 psychologists, and 444 other health workers serving the prison population. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. NGOs reported that prison wardens rather than health-care officials often decided whether to allow a prisoner’s transfer to a hospital.
Reports by human rights organizations suggested that some doctors refused to issue medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal. As a result, victims were often unable to get medical documentation of their abuse.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
Administration: Authorities at times investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhuman or degrading conditions but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or disclose publicly whether actions were taken to hold perpetrators accountable. Some human rights activists and lawyers reported that prisoners and detainees were sometimes arbitrarily denied access to family members and lawyers.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. The Ministry of Interior reported that under the law, prisons were to be monitored by domestic government entities including the Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey and the Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Human Rights. International monitors included the CPT, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. NGOs such as the HRA and Civil Society in the Penal System published periodic reports on prison conditions based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court, but numerous credible reports indicated the government did not always observe these requirements.
Human rights groups noted that following the 2016 coup attempt, authorities continued to detain, arrest, and try hundreds of thousands of individuals with alleged ties to the Gulen movement or the PKK under terrorism-related charges, often with questionable evidentiary standards and without the full due process provided for under law (see sections 1.e. and 2.a.). Domestic and international legal and human rights groups criticized the judicial process in these cases, asserting that the judiciary lacked impartiality and that defendants were sometimes denied access to the evidence underlying the accusations against them.
On the fifth anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt in July, the Ministry of Interior announced that authorities had detained 312,121 and arrested 99,123 individuals since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation with the Gulen movement, which the government designated as a terrorist organization. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the government detained 29,331 and arrested 4,148 individuals for connections with the Gulen movement.
The courts in some cases applied the law unevenly, with legal critics and rights activists asserting court and prosecutor decisions were sometimes subject to executive interference.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires that prosecutors issue warrants for arrests unless the suspect is detained while committing a crime. The period for arraignment may be extended for up to four days. Formal arrest is a measure, separate from detention, which means a suspect is to be held in jail until and unless released by a subsequent court order. For crimes that carry potential prison sentences of fewer than three years’ imprisonment, a judge may release the accused after arraignment upon receipt of an appropriate assurance, such as bail. For more serious crimes, the judge may either release the defendant on his or her own recognizance or hold the defendant in custody (arrest) prior to trial if there are specific facts indicating the suspect may flee, attempt to destroy evidence, or attempt to pressure or tamper with witnesses or victims. Judges often kept suspects in pretrial detention without articulating a clear justification for doing so.
While the law generally provides detainees the right to immediate access to an attorney, it allows prosecutors to deny such access for up to 24 hours. In criminal cases the law also requires that the government provide indigent detainees with a public attorney if they request one. In cases where the potential prison sentence for conviction is more than five years’ imprisonment or where the defendant is a child or a person with disabilities, a defense attorney is appointed, even absent a request from the defendant. Human rights observers noted that in most cases authorities provided an attorney if a defendant could not afford one.
Under antiterror legislation adopted in 2018, the government may detain without charge (or appearance before a judge) a suspect for 48 hours for “individual” offenses and 96 hours for “collective” offenses. These periods may be extended twice with the approval of a judge, amounting to six days for “individual” and 12 days for “collective” offenses. Human rights organizations raised concerns that police authority to hold individuals for up to 12 days without charge increased the risk of mistreatment and torture.
The law gives prosecutors the right to suspend lawyer-client privilege and to observe and record conversations between accused persons and their legal counsel. Bar associations reported that detainees occasionally had difficulty gaining immediate access to lawyers, both because government decrees restricted lawyers’ access to detainees and prisons – especially for those attorneys not appointed by the state – and because many lawyers were reluctant to defend individuals the government accused of ties to the 2016 coup attempt. Human rights organizations reported the 24-hour attorney access restriction was arbitrarily applied and that in terrorism-related cases, authorities often did not inform defense attorneys of the details of detentions within the first 24 hours, as stipulated by law. In such cases rights organizations and lawyers’ groups reported attorneys’ access to the case files for their clients was limited for weeks or months pending preparations of indictments, hampering their ability to defend their clients.
Some lawyers stated they were hesitant to take cases, particularly those of suspects accused of PKK or Gulen movement ties, for fear of government reprisal, including prosecution. Many lawyers defending persons accused of terrorism have faced criminal charges themselves. This practice disproportionately affected access to legal representation in the southeast, where accusations of affiliation with the PKK were frequent and the ratio of lawyers to citizens was low. Government intimidation of defense lawyers also at times involved nonterror cases.
According to human rights organizations, as of January authorities had prosecuted more than 1,600 lawyers, arrested 615, and sentenced 450 to lengthy prison terms on terrorism-related charges since the 2016 coup attempt. Of the arrested lawyers, 15 were active or former presidents of provincial bar associations. In May prosecutors opened a terrorism investigation into lawyer and former president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Cihan Aydin, based on a 2019 statement of the bar association’s Women’s Rights Center calling for an end to the country’s military action in Syria and for diplomatic resolution of the conflict. The International Committee of Jurists and other human rights groups called for authorities to stop prosecution of Aydin.
Arbitrary Arrest: Although the law prohibits holding a suspect arbitrarily or secretly, there were numerous reports that the government did not observe these prohibitions. Human rights groups alleged that in areas under curfew or in “special security zones,” security forces detained citizens without official record, leaving detainees at greater risk of arbitrary abuse.
The deputy chair of the Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), reported that in February individuals identifying themselves as police detained one member of the Workers’ Party of Turkey and two members of a student organization, forced them into a car, and interrogated them for hours.
In April a doctor at a state hospital in Osmaniye Province reported that he was arrested after refusing to treat a public prosecutor who did not have an appointment. The public prosecutor threatened the doctor, who later received a summons to the courthouse where he was detained and released on the same day. The doctor filed a complaint against the prosecutor. The Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for the district, decided not to pursue the complaint after reviewing the file.
Pretrial Detention: The maximum time an arrestee can be held pending trial with an indictment is seven years, including for crimes against the security of the state, national defense, constitutional order, state secrets and espionage, organized crime, and terrorism-related offenses. Pretrial detention during the investigation phase of a case (before an indictment) is limited to six months for cases that do not fall under the purview of the heavy criminal court, referred to by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) as the central criminal court, and one year for cases that fall under the heavy criminal court. The length of pretrial detention generally did not exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crimes. For other major criminal offenses tried by high criminal courts, the maximum detention period remained two years with the possibility of three one-year extensions, for a total of five years. For terrorism-related cases, the maximum period of pretrial detention during the investigation phase is 18 months, with the possibility of a six-month extension.
Rule of law advocates noted that broad use of pretrial detention had become a form of summary punishment, particularly in cases that involved politically motivated terrorism charges.
The trial system does not provide for a speedy trial, and trial hearings were often months apart, despite provisions in the code of criminal procedure for continuous trial. Trials sometimes began years after indictment, and appeals could take years more to reach conclusion.
According to May statistics of the Ministry of Justice, 38,034 persons were held in pretrial detention, accounting for approximately 13 percent of the overall prison population.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees’ lawyers may appeal pretrial detention, although antiterror laws limited their ability to do so. The country’s judicial process allows a system of lateral appeals to criminal courts of peace for arrest, release, judicial control, and travel ban decisions that substitutes appeal to a higher court with appeal to a lateral court. Lawyers criticized the approach, which rendered ambiguous the authority of conflicting rulings by horizontally equal courts. In addition, since 2016 sentences of less than five years’ imprisonment issued by regional appellate courts were final and could not be appealed. Since 2019 the law provides for defendants in certain types of insult cases or speech-related cases to appeal to a higher court.
Detainees awaiting or undergoing trial have the right to a review in person with a lawyer before a judge every 90 days to determine if they should be released pending trial.
In cases of alleged human rights violations, detainees have the right to apply directly to the Constitutional Court for redress while their criminal cases are proceeding. Nevertheless, a backlog of cases at the Constitutional Court slowed proceedings, preventing expeditious redress.
Refugee-focused human rights groups alleged authorities prevented migrants placed in detention and return centers from communicating with the outside world, including their family members and lawyers, creating the potential for refoulement as migrants accept repatriation to avoid indefinite detention. COVID-19 preventative measures exacerbated these issues.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary remained subject to influence, particularly from the executive branch.
The executive branch exerts strong influence over the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), the judicial body that assigns and reassigns judges and prosecutors to the country’s courts nationwide and is responsible for their discipline. Out of 13 total judges on the board, the president directly appoints six: the executive branch and parliament appoint 11 members (seven by parliament and four by the president) every four years; the other two members are the presidentially appointed justice minister and deputy justice minister. The ruling party controlled both the executive and the parliament when the existing members were appointed in 2017. Although the constitution provides tenure for judges, the HSK controls the careers of judges and prosecutors through appointments, transfers, promotions, expulsions, and reprimands. Broad leeway granted to prosecutors and judges challenges the requirement to remain impartial, and judges’ inclination to give precedence to the state’s interests contributed to inconsistent application of laws. Bar associations, lawyers, and scholars expressed concern regarding application procedures for prosecutors and judges described as highly subjective, which they warned opened the door to political litmus tests in the hiring process.
The judiciary faced several problems that limited judicial independence, including intimidation and reassignment of judges and allegations of interference by the executive branch. Directly following the 2016 coup attempt, the government suspended, detained, or fired nearly one-third of the judiciary, who were accused of affiliation with the Gulen movement. The government in the intervening years filled the vacancies and expanded hiring of new personnel, increasing the overall number of judges and prosecutors to above precoup levels, but the judiciary continued to experience the effects of the purges. A 2020 Reuters international news organization analysis of Ministry of Justice data showed that at least 45 percent of the country’s prosecutors and judges had three years or less of legal professional experience.
A June survey by the research company KONDA found that 64 percent of respondents did not trust the justice system. Among those of Kurdish background, 85 percent responded they did not trust the justice system.
Observers raised concerns that the outcome of some trials appeared predetermined or pointed to judicial interference. Human rights groups reported that in politically sensitive cases, judges frequently barred journalists and observers from the courtroom, interrupted defendants’ statements, did not allow them to speak, or handed down a decision without listening to the defendant’s statement.
Prominent philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala remained in prison at year’s end despite European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings for his release and a 2020 acquittal decision. In December the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers voted to launch infringement proceedings in Turkey over the nonimplementation of the ECHR ruling in Kavala’s case. In August a court merged a case against him and eight others in connection with the 2013 Gezi Park protests with a case against the football fan club Besiktas Carsi. The Besiktas Carsi case involved 35 members of the club accused of various offenses related to the Gezi Park protests. In April the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appeals court, overturned the 2015 acquittal of the 35 Besiktas Carsi members. Kavala was charged with espionage and “undermining the constitutional order” in connection with his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt; “attempting to overthrow the government” in connection with the 2013 Gezi Park protests; and “membership in an armed group,” “resisting officers of the law,” “staging demonstrations in violation of the law,” and “possessing unlicensed weapons” in connection with the Besiktas Carsi case. Kavala’s lawyers argued that the philanthropist was not involved with Besiktas Carsi and was being prosecuted for political reasons.
The country has an inquisitorial criminal justice system. The system for educating and assigning judges and prosecutors fosters close connections between the two groups, which some legal experts claimed encouraged impropriety and unfairness in criminal cases.
There are no military courts, and military justice is reserved for disciplinary action, not criminal cases.
Lower courts at times ignored or significantly delayed implementation of decisions reached by the Constitutional Court. The government rarely implemented ECHR decisions, despite the country’s obligation to do so as a member of the Council of Europe. According to the NGO European Implementation Network, the country has not implemented 64 percent of ECHR decisions from the previous 10 years. For example, it has not implemented the ECHR decision on the illegality of pretrial detention of former Constitutional Court judge Alparslan Altan, who was arrested and convicted following the 2016 coup attempt. In February the Court of Cassation upheld Altan’s 11-year prison sentence, and he remained in prison at year’s end. On December 8, President Erdogan stated that Turkey does not recognize ECHR rulings in the Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas’ cases (see Political Prisoners and Detainees), and he described the rulings as “null and void.” He also stated, “We do not recognize the decision of the European Union [sic] above the decision of our judiciary.”
The constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial, although bar associations and rights groups asserted that increasing executive interference with the judiciary and actions taken by the government through state of emergency provisions jeopardized this right.
The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence and the right to be present at their trials. In several high-profile cases, defendants appeared via video link from prison, rather than in person. Judges may restrict defense lawyers’ access to their clients’ court files for a specific catalogue of crimes (including crimes against state security, organized crime, and sexual assault against children) until the client is indicted.
A single judge or a panel of judges decides all cases. Courtroom proceedings were generally public except for cases involving minors as defendants. The state increasingly used a clause allowing closed courtrooms for hearings and trials related to security matters, such as those related to “crimes against the state.” Attendance of observers and witnesses in the courtroom was also limited during the year due to COVID-19 countermeasures. Court files, which contain indictments, case summaries, judgments, and other court pleadings, were closed except to the parties to a case, making it difficult for the public, including journalists and watchdog groups, to obtain information on the progress or results of a case. In some politically sensitive cases, judges restricted access to Turkish lawyers only, limiting the ability of domestic or international groups to observe some trials.
Defendants have the right to be present at trial and to consult an attorney of their choice in a timely manner, although legal advocates have asserted the government coerced defendants to choose government-appointed lawyers. Observers and human rights groups noted that in some high-profile cases, these rights were not afforded to defendants. Individuals from the southeast were increasingly held in prisons or detention centers far from the location of the alleged crime and appeared at their hearing via video link systems. Some human rights organizations reported that hearings sometimes continued in the defendant’s absence or while the defendants’ voice was not heard when video links purportedly failed.
Defendants have the right to legal representation in criminal cases and, if indigent, to have representation provided at public expense. Defendants or their attorneys could question witnesses for the prosecution, although questions must usually be presented to the judges, who are expected to ask the questions on behalf of counsel. Defendants or their attorneys could, within limits, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to testify or confess guilt and the right to appeal. The law provides for court-provided language interpretation when needed. Human rights groups alleged interpretation was not always provided free of charge, leaving some poor, non-Turkish-speaking defendants disadvantaged by the need to pay for interpretation.
Observers noted the prosecutors and courts often failed to establish evidence to sustain indictments and convictions in cases related to supporting terrorism, highlighting concerns regarding respect for due process and adherence to credible evidentiary thresholds. In numerous cases authorities used secret evidence or witnesses to which defense attorneys and the accused had no access or ability to cross-examine and challenge in court, particularly in cases related to national security. The government occasionally refused to acknowledge the use of evidence from, or to provide information about, secret witnesses during open court proceedings and in interactions with defense.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The number of political prisoners remained a subject of debate at year’s end. On the fifth anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt in July, the Ministry of Interior announced that authorities had detained 312,121 and arrested 99,123 individuals since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation with the Gulen movement. NGOs estimated that at least 8,500 individuals were held in pretrial detention or were imprisoned following conviction for alleged links with the PKK. Some observers considered some of the individuals detained on terrorism or other charges to be political prisoners, particularly when charges stemmed from affiliation with the Gulen movement or journalistic work, a position the government disputed.
Prosecutors used a broad definition of terrorism and threats to national security and, according to defense lawyers and opposition groups, in some cases used what appeared to be legally questionable evidence to file criminal charges against and prosecute a broad range of individuals, including media workers, human rights activists, opposition politicians (primarily of the HDP), suspected PKK sympathizers, alleged Gulen movement members or affiliates, and others critical of the government. In some cases charges resulted in government seizure of company, charity, or business assets.
Human rights groups alleged many detainees had no substantial link to terrorism and were detained to silence critical voices or weaken political opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly the HDP or its partner party, the Democratic Regions Party.
As of year’s end, seven former HDP parliamentarians and six HDP comayors were in detention following arrest. According to the HDP, since July 2015 at least 5,000 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members were incarcerated for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech. Since 2019 the Ministry of Interior suspended 48 of 65 elected HDP mayors in the southeast based on allegations of support for terrorism related to the PKK. Six additional HDP mayors were not permitted to assume office following the 2019 elections on the grounds that they had been dismissed from their public jobs by governmental decrees. Because the mayors were suspended but not removed, pursuant to 2018 antiterror legislation, local residents did not have the opportunity to elect other representatives. The government appointed officials to govern these 48 municipalities in lieu of the removed elected mayors. Of the suspended mayors, authorities arrested 39. By August 2019 the government had suspended most of the mayors elected in the southeast in March 2019, including the HDP mayors of the major southeastern cities Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Van. The government suspended most mayors for ongoing investigations into their alleged support for PKK terrorism, largely dating to before their respective elections.
The Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office continued prosecution of 108 individuals, including former HDP cochairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag and other officials of the HDP and the HDP’s sister party, the Democratic Regions Party, for their alleged instigation of violence in the 2014 Kobane protests. A total of 28 defendants were arrested and held in detention at the start of the case. The Kobane protests erupted over perceived government inaction in response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) takeover of the majority-Kurdish town of Kobane, Syria, and resulted in at least 37 deaths, including of two police officers. In February prosecutors submitted a summary of proceedings to lift the parliamentary immunity of nine HDP parliamentarians, including cochair Pervin Buldan in connection with the Kobane protest charges. In June the court ruled for the release with an international travel ban of former Kars comayor Ayhan Bilgen, arrested in 2020, and three other defendants in the case. Court proceedings continued at year’s end. Prosecutors charged the defendants with “disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state,” multiple counts of homicide and attempted homicide, and insult charges.
Former HDP cochair and presidential candidate Demirtas remained in prison on terrorism charges in connection with the Kobane case, despite 2018 and 2020 ECHR rulings for his release. He has been imprisoned since 2016. In April a court granted the prosecutors’ request to merge the case against Demirtas with the main Kobane case. In March in a separate case, a court sentenced Demirtas to three-and-a-half years in prison for insulting President Erdogan during a 2015 speech. In 2020 the Constitutional Court ruled that Demirtas’s lengthy pretrial detention violated his rights, but he was not released on the basis of an investigation into the Kobane case.
In March parliament expelled HDP member Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu after the country’s top appeals court upheld his sentence for “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” In 2018 Gergerlioglu was sentenced to two years and six months in prison in connection with social media posts made in 2016. Police arrested Gergerlioglu in April, who was briefly hospitalized before transferring to prison. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that Gergerlioglu’s conviction violated his “right to be elected and to engage in political activities” and his “right” to personal liberty and security. Authorities released him from prison. Gergerlioglu regained his status and rejoined the parliament the same month.
In January the Constitutional Court ruled for a second time in favor of CHP parliamentarian Enis Berberoglu after a lower court refused to implement its earlier September 2020 ruling. Parliament expelled Berberoglu in June 2020 after a conviction for revealing MIT activities in Syria. Similar to its September 2020 ruling, the Constitutional Court’s January ruling found the government’s handling of Berberoglu’s case had violated his rights to be elected and to engage in political activities and his right to personal liberty and security. Berberoglu regained his parliamentary status in February.
Students, artists, and association members faced criminal investigations for alleged terrorism-related activities. The government did not consider those in custody for alleged PKK or Gulen movement ties to be political prisoners and did not permit access to them by human rights or humanitarian organizations.
Credible reports claimed that authorities subjected some persons jailed on terrorism-related charges to abuses, including long solitary confinement, unnecessary strip and cavity searches, severe limitations on outdoor exercise and out-of-cell activity, denial of access to prison library and media, slow medical attention, and in some cases the denial of medical treatment. Reports also alleged that authorities subjected visitors of prisoners accused of terrorism-related crimes to abuse, including limiting access to family and degrading treatment by prison guards, including strip searches.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
The government engaged in a worldwide effort to apprehend suspected members of the Gulen movement. There were credible reports that the government exerted bilateral pressure on other countries to take adverse action against specific individuals, at times without due process. According to a report by several UN special rapporteurs in May 2020, the government reportedly coordinated with other states to forcibly transfer more than 100 Turkish nationals to Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt. The UN rapporteur’s report specified that 40 individuals were subjected to enforced disappearance. In its February report on transitional repression, Freedom House documented 58 cases of individuals whom Turkey renditioned from 17 countries since 2014 but assessed that additional cases were not documented by public sources. Freedom House has concluded that since 2014 Turkey carried out the highest number of renditions without due process in the world.
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: There were credible allegations that Turkish intelligence forces kidnapped alleged members of the Gulen movement in third countries and returned them to Turkey to stand trial.
In July, President Erdogan announced that Turkish intelligence forces captured and returned to Turkey from the Kyrgyz Republic Orhan Inandi, the head of the Gulen-movement-associated Sapat educational network. Inandi is a dual citizen of Turkey and the Kyrgyz Republic. Inandi’s wife reported him missing in May, and he was considered a missing person until Turkish authorities announced he was in their custody. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Kyrgyz authorities did not cooperate or have knowledge of Inandi’s rendition and urged Turkey to return Inandi. A lawyer for the Inandi family alleged Inandi was tortured and that his arm was broken while his whereabouts were unknown.
In May authorities released a statement that Selahaddin Gulen, the nephew of Fethullah Gulen whom the government blamed for the 2016 coup attempt, was in government custody after he was captured by the country’s intelligence forces in another country. Gulen vanished in Kenya earlier in May. Human Rights Watch reported that Kenyan police arrested Gulen in October 2020 because of an INTERPOL red notice from Turkey and opened extradition proceedings against him. The INTERPOL red notice reportedly related to a child molestation charge against Gulen. Once in Turkey, Gulen faced charges of managing an armed terrorist organization. Human Rights Watch further reported Gulen sought asylum in Kenya and that a Kenyan court ordered a ruling halting deportation proceedings in March. Kenyan authorities did not confirm their involvement in the rendition.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Relatives of individuals who fled the country for fear of politically motivated abuse reported that security forces used threats and intimidation to pressure them to reveal the individual’s location or encourage them to return to Turkey.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that the government attempted to use INTERPOL red notices to target specific individuals located outside the country, alleging ties to terrorism connected to the 2016 coup attempt or to the PKK, based on little evidence. Freedom House reported that since the 2016 coup attempt, the country had uploaded tens of thousands of requests in INTERPOL for persons the government designated as affiliated with the Gulen movement. There were also reports that individuals faced complications related to erroneous lost or stolen passport reports the government filed against suspected Gulen movement supporters in the years directly following the coup attempt. Targeted individuals often had no clearly identified role in the attempted coup but were associated with the Gulen movement or had spoken in favor of it. The reports to INTERPOL have led to individuals’ detention or prevented them from traveling.
In June an Istanbul court upheld an extradition order for Can Dundar, the former editor in chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, convicted and sentenced in absentia to 27 years’ imprisonment for reporting on alleged illicit arms shipments by Turkish intelligence officers to Syria. Dundar lived in exile in Germany. The court also approved a Ministry of Justice request to seek an INTERPOL red notice for Dundar.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The government continued to refuse to renew the passports of some citizens with temporary residency permits in other countries on political grounds, claiming they were members of “Gulenist” organizations; these individuals were unable to travel outside their countries of residence.
Bilateral pressure: There was evidence the government applied bilateral pressure on other countries to secure their assistance with renditions without full due process.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, although this differed in practice. Citizens and legal entities such as organizations and companies have the right to file a civil case for compensation for physical or psychological harm, including for human rights violations. On constitutional and human rights issues, the law also provides for individuals to appeal their cases directly to the Constitutional Court, theoretically allowing for faster and simpler high-level review of alleged human rights violations within contested court decisions. Critics complained that, despite this mechanism, the large volume of appeals of dismissals under the state of emergency and decreased judicial capacity caused by purges in the judiciary resulted in slow proceedings.
As of September 30, the Constitutional Court had received 40,286 applications and found rights law violations in 6 percent of applications, according to official statistics. Of the 2020 applications, 27 percent remained pending. Citizens who have exhausted all domestic remedies have the right to apply for redress to the ECHR; however, the government rarely implemented ECHR decisions.
The Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures has adjudicated appeals of wrongfully dismissed civil servants since 2017. The commission reported that as of the end of October, it had received 126,758 applications, adjudicated 118,415 cases, approved 15,050, and rejected 103,365. Critics complained the appeals process was opaque, slow, and did not respect citizens’ rights to due process, including by prohibiting defendants from seeing the evidence against them or presenting exculpatory evidence in their defense.
Property Seizure and Restitution
In multiple parts of the southeast, many citizens continued efforts to appeal the government’s 2016 seizures of properties to reconstruct areas damaged in government-PKK fighting (see section 1.g.).
According to the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund of Turkey, as of May the government had seized 796 businesses worth an estimated 70.2 billion lira ($7.5 billion) since the 2016 coup attempt. A March 2020 NGO report estimated that 302 billion lira ($32.2) billion in businesses and business assets, including from media outlets, schools, universities, hospitals, banks, private companies, and other holdings were confiscated since the 2016 coup attempt in breach of domestic regulations.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
While the constitution provides for the “secrecy of private life” and states that individuals have the right to demand protection and correction of their personal information and data, the law provides the MIT with the authority to collect information while limiting the ability of the public or journalists to expose abuses. Oversight of the MIT falls within the purview of the presidency and checks on MIT authorities are limited. The MIT may collect data from any entity without a warrant or other judicial process for approval. At the same time, the law establishes criminal penalties for conviction of interfering with MIT activities, including data collection or obtaining or publishing information concerning the agency. The law allows the president to grant the MIT and its employees’ immunity from prosecution.
Police possess broad powers for personal search and seizure. Senior police officials may authorize search warrants, with judicial permission required to follow within 24 hours. Individuals subjected to such searches have the right to file complaints; however, judicial permission occurring after a search had already taken place failed to serve as a check against abuse.
Security forces may conduct wiretaps for up to 48 hours without a judge’s approval. As a check against potential abuse of this power, the State Inspection Board may conduct annual inspections and present its reports for review to parliament’s Security and Intelligence Commission. Information on how often this authority was used was not available. Human rights groups noted that wiretapping without a court order circumvented judicial control and potentially limited citizens’ right to privacy. Some citizens asserted that authorities tapped their telephones and accessed their email or social media accounts. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
In February, Yuksel Kepenek, the CHP mayor of Honaz in Denizli Province, reported finding a listening device in his office. Kepenek blamed government authorities for installing the device.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Ministry of Interior’s General Security Directorate announced it would monitor social media users’ posts that “disrupt public order” by spreading panic. The ministry gained the authority to search social media accounts as part of a “virtual patrol” for terrorist propaganda, insults, and other crimes in 2018. The Constitutional Court ruled in March 2020 that such surveillance was unconstitutional and that police must seek a court order to gather information on the identity of internet users or request user identity information from internet providers. The Ministry of Interior, however, continued to monitor social media accounts, and courts continued to accept evidence collected through the program. The ministry announced that it examined 5,934 social media accounts in the month of January and detained 118 individuals because of investigations. The ministry has not shared updated monthly information on social media account surveillance since January. Following the outbreak of massive wildfires in July, the minister of interior announced that the ministry examined 3,246 accounts for provocative information and took legal action against 172 users. The HRA reported that the Ministry of Interior examined a total of 98,714 social media accounts, detained 1,175 individuals, and arrested 52 because of the investigations in the first nine months of the year.
The law allows courts to order domestic internet service providers to block access to links, including to websites, articles, or social media posts. Authorities routinely blocked access to news sites. The NGO EngelliWeb reported that in 2020 authorities blocked 5,645 news site addresses on the internet. In 81 percent of the cases, site administrators removed the publication following the block.
Human rights groups asserted that self-censorship due to fear of official reprisal accounted in part for the relatively low number of complaints they received regarding allegations of torture or mistreatment.
Using antiterror legislation, the government targeted family members to exert pressure on wanted suspects. Government measures included cancelling the passports of family members of civil servants suspended or dismissed from state institutions, as well as of those who had fled authorities. In some cases the Ministry of Interior cancelled or refused to issue passports for the minor children of individuals outside the country who were wanted for or accused of ties to the Gulen movement. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the provisions of the Passport Law allowing the Ministry of Interior to cancel passports violated freedom of travel rights protected by the constitution. The court found that passport cancellations on terrorism grounds must be subject to judicial review. The Constitutional Court ruled that its decision will go into effect in July 2022 and obligated the executive branch to develop new regulations within that timeframe.
Government seizure and closure during the previous five years of hundreds of businesses accused of links to the Gulen movement created ambiguous situations for the privacy of client information.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
Occasional clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK and its affiliates in the country continued throughout the year and resulted in the injury or deaths of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government continued security operations against the PKK and its affiliates in various areas of the east and southeast. Authorities issued curfews of varying duration in certain urban and rural areas and also decreed “special security zones” in some areas to facilitate counter-PKK operations, which restricted access of visitors and, in some cases, residents. Portions of Hakkari Province and rural portions of Tunceli Province remained “special security zones” most of the year. PKK attacks claimed the lives of civilians, as did kidnappings. Residents of these areas reported they occasionally had very little time to leave their homes prior to the launch of counter-PKK security operations.
Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including extrajudicial killings, the arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. One such group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, allegedly committed serious human rights abuses, including abduction and torture, and was reportedly involved in looting private property from civilians and barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes. Multiple credible sources also held the group responsible for the unlawful killing of Hevrin Khalaf, a Syrian Kurdish politician, in 2019. Ahrar al-Sharqiya also integrated numerous former ISIS members into its ranks.
A coalition of 34 NGOs assessed some TSO abuses were part of a systematic effort to enforce demographic change targeting Kurdish Syrians. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria reported on the frequent presence of Turkish officials in Syrian National Army (SNA) detention facilities, including in interrogation sessions where torture was used. The SNA is a coalition of TSOs. The justice system and detention network used by SNA forces reportedly featured “judges” appointed by Turkey and paid in Turkish lira, suggesting the SNA detention operations acted under the effective command of Turkish forces. The Commission of Inquiry for Syria asserted these and other factors reflected effective Turkish control over certain areas of Syria. The government denied responsibility for conduct by opposition groups it supported but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and asserted that the Turkish-supported SNA had mechanisms in place for investigation and discipline. (For more information, see the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria).
Killings: According to the International Crisis Group, from mid-2015 to November 15, a total of 593 civilians and 226 individuals of unknown affiliation died in PKK-related fighting in the country and surrounding region.
The HRA reported that as of December, three civilians were killed during clashes between security forces and the PKK within the country’s borders.
The PKK kidnapped soldiers and police personnel as hostages in 2015 and 2016 and later took them to PKK camps in northern Iraq. In February the PKK killed the 13 unarmed hostages when the Turkish military launched a hostage rescue operation in northern Iraq’s Gara region.
PKK tactics reportedly included targeted killings and assault with conventional weapons, vehicle-borne bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). At times, IEDs or unexploded ordnance, usually attributed to the PKK, killed or maimed civilians and security forces. TSO clashes with groups the Turkish government considered to be affiliated with the PKK resulted in civilian deaths in Syria. (For more information, see the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria).
Abductions: The PKK abducted or attempted to abduct civilians (see Child Soldiers, below).
Human Rights Watch and the Commission of Inquiry for Syria reported that SNA forces detained and unlawfully transferred Syrian nationals to Turkey. (For more information, see the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria).
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria reported on the frequent presence of Turkish officials in TSO detention facilities, including in interrogation sessions where torture was used.
Human rights groups alleged that police, other government security forces, and the PKK abused some civilian residents of the southeast. There was little accountability for mistreatment by government authorities.
Child Soldiers: The government and some members of Kurdish communities alleged the PKK recruited and forcibly abducted children for conscription. A group of mothers continued a sit-in protest they began in Diyarbakir in 2019 alleging the PKK had forcibly recruited or kidnapped their children and demanding their return. According to the Directorate of Communications of the Presidency, 438 children escaped and left the PKK between January 2014 and June 2020.
Human rights groups and international bodies reported the government provided operational, equipment, and financial support to an armed opposition group in Syria that recruited child soldiers (see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Extensive damage stemming from government-PKK fighting led authorities in 2016 to seize certain properties in specific districts of the southeast. Authorities stated that the purpose of the seizures was to facilitate postconflict reconstruction. Many of these areas remained inaccessible to residents at year’s end. In Diyarbakir’s Sur District, the government had not returned or completed repairs on many of the seized properties, including the historic and ancient sites inside Sur, such as the Surp Giragos Armenian Church and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Church. The government allocated 30 million lira ($3.8 million) to renovate four churches; renovations on two of them were completed. Some affected residents filed court challenges seeking permission to remain on seized land and receive compensation; many of these cases remained pending at year’s end. In certain cases, courts awarded compensation to aggrieved residents, although the latter complained awards were insufficient. The overall number of those awarded compensation was unavailable at year’s end.
Government actions and adverse security conditions impacted individuals’ ability to exercise their freedoms, including limiting journalists’ and international observers’ access to affected areas, which made monitoring and assessing the aftermath of urban conflicts difficult.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Parliament entrusts the Court of Accounts, the country’s supreme audit institution, with accountability related to revenues and expenditures of government departments. Outside this audit system, there was no dedicated regulator with the exclusive responsibility for investigating and prosecuting corruption cases and there were concerns regarding the impartiality of the judiciary in the handling of corruption cases. According to Transparency International, the public procurement system has consistently declined in transparency and competitiveness, with exceptions to the Public Procurement Law widely applied.
While opposition politicians frequently accused the ruling party of corruption, there were only isolated journalistic or official investigations of government corruption during the year. Journalists and civil society organizations reported fearing retribution for reporting on corruption issues. Authorities continued to pursue criminal and civil charges against journalists reporting on corruption allegations. Courts and RTUK regularly blocked access to press reports regarding corruption.
In May the state-run Anadolu Agency fired reporter Musab Turan after he asked government officials about corruption allegations against Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu during a press conference. Anadolu Agency issued a statement that Turn was fired for lacking “journalistic principles” and propagating “political propaganda.” The statement also said that Anadolu requested that prosecutors open a terrorism investigation into Turan. Fahrettin Altun, the presidency’s communications director, wrote on Twitter, “Those who seek to harm the respectability of our state will pay the price.”
Corruption: There were several credible press allegations of corruption throughout the year. For example, in June the opposition-leaning Cumhuriyet published a series of reports on the conclusions of an Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality probe into corruption allegations of excessive public spending on projects benefiting the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which was closely linked to ruling AKP figures. Under prior AKP leadership, Istanbul municipal officials reportedly colluded with the public-housing authority KIPTAS in a series of opaque real estate transactions apparently aimed at avoiding open bidding. One such deal saw a contract for a public cultural center repurposed for use by TUGVA. TUGVA and another AKP-linked foundation were also allocated municipal luxury cars and toll passes. Investigators estimated the total losses to the public at approximately $1.6 billion. Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu directed municipality officials to initiate the probe when he took office in 2019. The Ministry of the Interior took over the investigation in December 2020 after which progress appeared to have stalled.
In October a former TUGVA employee leaked to a journalist documents suggesting the government allocated thousands of state-owned dormitory buildings for exclusive use by TUGVA members and channeled generous subsidies to TUGVA and other AKP-aligned foundations via state-owned banks. The whistleblower also shared purported lists of TUGVA-nominated candidates for jobs within the police, judiciary, and military. TUGVA officials denied the authenticity of the documents. RTUK fined opposition Halk TV for its coverage of the allegations regarding TUGVA.
In April authorities investigated accusations that seven municipalities in the southeast issued official visa-exempt passports in exchange for bribes, allowing individuals to travel to Europe. The scheme was allegedly discovered after most participants in municipality-organized visits to Germany claimed asylum while abroad and did not return to Turkey.
There were no high-profile prosecutions of officials on corruption charges during the year.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports that the Maduro regime committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Although the regime did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and regime-supported colectivos, carried out hundreds of such killings during the year. In September the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela also noted, for the second consecutive year, concern regarding “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detentions, and torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence.” The FFM report stated “real and perceived opponents or critics” of the Maduro regime increasingly included individuals and organizations that documented, denounced, or attempted to address human rights or social and economic problems in the country. The FFM concluded that it had reasonable grounds to believe the justice system had played a significant role in the state’s repression of government opponents.
The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office for Protection of Human Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials. There was, however, no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported a reduction in the rate of killings in the context of security operations or protests, yet the number remained high. No official data was available, but the NGO Monitor de Victimas reported 87 extrajudicial killings by the National Scientific, Criminal, and Investigative Corps (CICPC), Special Action Forces (FAES), Bolivarian National Guard, and Bolivarian National Police in greater Caracas from June 2020 to March 2021. The NGOs Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights (PROVEA) and Fundacion Gumilla documented 825 extrajudicial killings in the context of security operations or protests in the first half of the year.
According to the OHCHR, there were fewer allegations of extrajudicial killings attributed to FAES since September 2020 but more attributed to other forces, including state and municipal police forces and the CICPC.
On January 8-9, members of FAES, the Bolivarian National Police, and other security forces killed at least 24 persons, including two minors, in a police operation in Caracas’ La Vega parish. Investigations by human rights NGOs determined that at least 14 deaths constituted extrajudicial killings. Families of victims refuted the argument that the deaths stemmed from “resistance to authority,” the charges alleged by the Maduro regime to justify killings committed by security forces. The families reported security forces entered their homes without a warrant, robbed and killed the victims, and altered the crime scene to suggest a violent confrontation. Although human rights NGOs and international organizations demanded an investigation, the Maduro regime attorney general and human rights ombudsman did not issue a statement responding to the allegations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and other international organizations demanded the regime investigate and convict the security forces responsible for the violence. No arrests had been made as of November regarding any of these killings.
The Maduro regime attorney general reported that from 2017 through February, 1,019 officers were accused of homicide, torture, or inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment, but only 177 were convicted for such crimes, with no reference to arbitrary killings. The regime did not release details on officer convictions or other investigations of security officers involved in killings. The OHCHR found that investigations of human rights violations committed by regime security forces were hampered by the regime’s refusal to cooperate, tampering with evidence, judicial delays, and harassment of relatives of victims. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. In many cases the regime appeared to be scapegoating low-level functionaries while allowing high-level officials who issued the illegal orders to continue in their positions.
On March 21, the armed forces launched a military operation against a group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia dissidents (FARC-D) in Apure State. NGOs denounced serious human rights violations committed by Maduro regime security forces during the operation. PROVEA reported that members of the notoriously violent FAES kidnapped a family of five in El Ripial, executed them, and dressed the bodies with uniforms and weapons to suggest an affiliation with FARC-D. Local residents reported intense fear of members of the armed forces and noted that FAES officers seized cell phones to monitor communications.
Maduro regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez criticized coverage of the violence by media outlets and NGOs as the propagation of “falsehoods and terror.” The attorney general designated a special commission to investigate human rights violations committed during the conflict, but as of October the investigation had not resulted in charges.
The NGO Foro Penal confirmed incidents of forced disappearances continued and said the forced disappearances were deployed by the state to control and intimidate opponents. This practice also extended to family members to coerce them to turn in relatives. In 2019 Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) officials arrested Hugo Marino Salas, a civilian who had worked as a military contractor, but authorities did not respond to habeas corpus petitions filed by his relatives, and his whereabouts remained unknown as of November, according to OHCHR documentation. Foro Penal documented 33 disappearances through the end of May, with 14 persons still missing as of November.
The Maduro regime continued to deny requests by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country to conduct an investigation. On September 21, the Working Group requested the regime clarify the status of 20 disappearance cases in a report it presented to the UN Human Rights Council.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were credible reports that Maduro-aligned security forces regularly tortured and abused detainees. As of November the Maduro regime had not revealed information regarding individuals convicted or accused of torturing or abusing detainees.
The Maduro regime-aligned Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups and the FFM reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. The FFM also found that at times judges ordered pretrial detention in Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) or DGCIM facilities, despite the risk or commission of torture, even when detainees in court rooms denounced, or displayed signs consistent with, torture. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal. The OHCHR found that in some cases doctors issued false or inaccurate medical reports intended to cover up signs of torture.
Media and NGOs reported that beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military controlled by the Maduro regime. Cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were also reported during the year. Regime-aligned authorities reportedly subjected detainees to asphyxiation, electric shock, broken bones, being hung by their limbs, and being forced to spend hours on their knees. Detainees were also subjected to cold temperatures, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation; remained handcuffed for extended periods of time; and received death threats to themselves and their relatives. Detainees reported regime-aligned security forces moved them from detention centers to houses and other clandestine locations where abuse took place. Cruel treatment frequently involved Maduro regime authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs detailed reports from detainees who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence by security units. The OHCHR noted instances of detainees telling judges they had been tortured or mistreated but then returned to the custody of those allegedly responsible for the reported mistreatment. In some cases the alleged perpetrators were called to testify against the victims in the criminal processes against them. The OHCHR continued to receive allegations of such cases, with no precautionary measures taken by judges or prosecutors to protect the alleged victims or address related due process concerns.
The Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America continued to denounce the construction of new places of torture utilized by FAES and colectivos. NGOs reported new torture patterns employed by military authorities, including the use of continuous loud noise, metallic spikes applied to the face, cells without ventilation or light, and exposure to the point of hypothermia.
Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in Maduro regime custody, including political prisoners who died in custody. As of October Foro Penal reported that 50 of the 260 individuals detained on politically motivated grounds were in a critical health situation. The health reports detailed muscle problems, severe fractures, hernias, and high blood pressure. Foro Penal also noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials.
The NGO Una Ventana por la Libertad (UVL) denounced the shooting and killing of Daniela Figueredo by a police officer while in custody in Zamora, Miranda State, on March 13. The officer was allegedly attempting to sexually assault the victim. The NGO also denounced that seven other prisoners in the cell were sexually assaulted and raped by police officers.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Despite continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, the Maduro regime took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses. Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. NGOs noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police.
On November 3, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced a formal investigation into crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela under the Maduro regime and signed a memorandum of understanding “to facilitate cooperation and mutual assistance to advance accountability for atrocity crimes.”
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP), prison capacity was approximately 21,200, while the estimated population was 37,500 inmates as of October. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 177 percent on average across detention facilities, exacerbated by the excessive use of pretrial detention. Generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis, which had become the main cause of death among inmates. Lack of water and cleaning supplies, inadequate access to recreation and sunlight, and insufficient food also increased the risk of respiratory diseases. The OVP reported that deaths from malnutrition rose during the year.
Male and female inmates were held together in most prisons. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks; however, a local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Maduro regime security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, although separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.
The CICPC and SEBIN detention facilities, police station jails, and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Long delays in court proceedings and prison transfers created a parallel system that held prisoners in police station jails, in some cases for years, although these facilities were designed to hold individuals only for 48 hours. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A UVL study of 111 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 311 percent overcrowding. These centers had a designed capacity of 3,702 persons; as of April they housed 11,527 detainees. The UVL also found that only 9 percent of facilities provided medical services, one in 26 detention centers had potable water, 16 percent had running water, 22 percent did not have regular trash collection, 63 percent lacked proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity. None of the centers had proper infrastructure for persons with disabilities.
The Bolivarian National Guard and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The Maduro regime failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with one guard for every 100 inmates instead of one for every 10, as recommended by international standards. Armed gangs, known as pranes, exercised de facto control within some prisons and used these bases to operate criminal networks on the outside.
According to the OVP, between January and June, 170 prisoners died in prisons and pretrial detention centers. Some deaths resulted from detention center riots and unsafe prison conditions. On February 7, a grenade exploded in the Monagas Police Coordination Center, killing two prisoners killed and injuring 26. Official reports claimed the deaths resulted from a riot, but media reported one of the inmates was handling a grenade, indicating the lax security controls inside prisons.
There are no gender-oriented policies that address female-specific prison needs. According to the OVP, the female population was 2,327 inmates (6.6 percent of the total population), with only one prison dedicated exclusively to women. That facility, the Feminine Orientation Institute, with a designed capacity of 350, was overcrowded with 533 women. Pregnant or lactating women lacked proper facilities, medical assistance, prenatal supplements, and basic hygiene goods. Women were also victims of sexual violence, abuse, and torture, and they were frequently asked for sexual favors in exchange for food or water. NGOs reported guards knew and tolerated these abuses and sometimes were also accomplices.
The OVP reported inmate deaths were due to generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons, with 73 percent the result of tuberculosis and malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. The UVL and OVP reported that in 98 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food that families purchased for inmates and extorted families attempting to bring food into prisons. The NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for medical attention.
On January 3, indigenous political prisoner Salvador Franco died in regime custody after he was denied court-ordered medical attention due to his declining health. Franco and 12 other members of the Pemon indigenous community had been in the custody of the Maduro regime since 2019 for their alleged participation in an uprising against the regime. Human rights NGOs denounced the arbitrary arrest, torture, and violations of due process during the detention of the Pemon political prisoners. On February 12, the regime released the 12 surviving political prisoners, although they remained subject to restrictions of movement and other unspecified court orders. (See section 6, Indigenous Peoples for more.)
On August 29, military officer Gabriel Medina died in La Pica Prison, in Monagas State, after being held for three months for allegedly attempting to kidnap regime vice president Diosdado Cabello. Medina died due to respiratory arrest after requesting but not receiving medical attention for more than 30 days.
Administration: The Maduro regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding credible allegations of mistreatment or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes, violent uprisings, and massacres.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, every other week until the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to visit restrictions. In some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. For political prisoners, prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits by family and legal representation. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers experienced lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days. The OHCHR conducted visits of eight detention centers, and the Red Cross was allowed access to three.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. NGOs such as Foro Penal, the Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions; however, Maduro regime authorities rarely granted detainees the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions in court, even though the right to petition is stipulated under law. Regime authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals and raided their homes without a warrant. The OHCHR found that in several cases the Maduro regime issued warrants retroactively or forged the warrant’s date of issuance. Foro Penal maintained that detentions were often conducted without a warrant, which were provided retroactively by complicit prosecutors and judges. Detainees were presented without proper defense before a court days after being disappeared; public defenders were imposed in violation of detainees’ right to choose their own lawyers.
The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention. The law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, release on bail is not afforded to persons charged with certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 266 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and August 16. More than 10 cases were referred to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, but the cases received no response from the regime.
On January 12, five members of the UNAIDS-affiliated HIV-prevention NGO Azul Positivo were detained in Zulia State by military police without explanation. They were released on February 10, but the charges they faced, relating to terrorism, terrorism financing, and money laundering, were not dropped.
The Maduro regime arbitrarily detained 15 journalists from January to July, according to a report from the NGO Un Mundo Sin Mordaza.
On July 2, SEBIN officers arrested Javier Tarazona, director of the domestic human rights NGO Fundaredes, two days after he held a news conference alleging links between members of the Maduro regime and illegal armed groups accused of human rights abuses (see section 5). He and two other Fundaredes workers were detained in Falcon State. As of November, two had been released, but Tarazona remained in custody without trial and in need of medical treatment (see section 5).
In November 2020 unionized oil worker Guillermo Zarraga was detained in Coro, Falcon State, without a warrant. He was later transferred to a military facility, the DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, with no contact with family or lawyers through October.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the Maduro regime attorney general, there were 22,759 persons in pretrial detention in December 2020, representing more than two-thirds of the total prison population. According to the UVL, approximately 70 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges. The OHCHR also observed the routine use of pretrial detention without due consideration of alternative measures to detention, even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FFM found that judges ordered pretrial detention as routine, rather than an exceptional measure, and without providing sufficient or appropriate justification.
Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events that led to the detention. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
On June 12, Rodney Alvarez, a Ferrominera (state-owned industrial iron firm) union leader, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after waiting in pretrial detention for 10 years.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed and hearings postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Maduro regime authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the Maduro regime at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to the International Commission of Jurists, 85 percent of judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the Supreme Court (TSJ) Judicial Committee. The IACHR also reported the judiciary operated with opacity, which obfuscated whether judges were appointed according to established procedures or political imperatives. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence to make proregime determinations. The OHCHR reported that lower courts received instructions from the TSJ on cases, especially those of a political nature, and observed that TSJ decisions related to the legitimate National Assembly were inconsistent and raised concerns regarding politicization. Low salaries for judges at all levels increased the risk of corruption.
There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent impunity rate for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights abuses.
NGOs reported the lack of independence of the judiciary impeded the normal functioning of investigations and judicial processes and highlighted the fragility of norms and procedures.
The September FFM report noted judges interviewed by the OHCHR experienced regular threats of dismissal, or pressure to resign or seek early retirement. The judges alleged the presidents of the criminal judicial circuits were responsible for many such threats for retaliatory or coercive purposes. Former judges and prosecutors reported they and their family members had been subjected to threats and intimidation, including phone tapping, surveillance, and monitoring.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. These requirements were often ignored, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,300 state and municipal public defenders, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected due to attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.
Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal.
The FFM and OHCHR reports concluded that authorities frequently violated the rights to a fair trial without undue delay and to legal counsel. Lack of judicial independence allowed authorities to use the judiciary to arbitrarily prosecute opponents and led to rampant impunity of rights violations.
The OHCHR documented cases in which the Maduro regime prevented lawyers from meeting with defendants and denied them confidentiality or access to case files. The OHCHR also identified that in the context of COVID-19, restrictions were placed on lawyers’ visits to detention places and at times used as an additional tool of the state to manipulate trial procedures. The excessive application of these restrictions impeded the right of prisoners to effectively access legal assistance, communicate freely and privately with counsel, and prepare an adequate defense.
Trial delays were common. Trials in absentia were permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender whom the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”
In eight cases documented by the OHCHR, public defenders were appointed against the defendants’ express will, preventing access to legal counsel of their choice. For example, two foreign citizens who did not speak Spanish were represented, without understanding the proceedings, by a public defender. The UVL reported that, with the intention of lowering overcrowding in detention centers, 29 prisoners were pressured to accept charges to be released.
The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of fewer than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” such as community service or any other condition imposed by the court.
The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the organic code of military justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs and the IACHR expressed concern regarding the Maduro regime’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, since 2014 military courts had processed 872 civilians.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 260 political prisoners in regime custody as of October, 50 of whom were in a critical state of health. Since 2014, a total of 15,761 persons had been detained for political reasons, many without knowing the charges against them or having access to legal defense. Foro Penal recorded more than 9,400 persons remained subject to arbitrary criminal proceedings for political reasons under precautionary measures. The regime routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.
According to Foro Penal, the state security forces that detained the most political prisoners were DGCIM, FAES, municipal police, the Bolivarian National Guard, and CICPC.
On February 25, legitimate National Assembly deputy Gilberto Sojo was arbitrarily imprisoned by FAES agents without a warrant or an evident excuse. Sojo, previously a victim of the Maduro regime’s arbitrary detentions, was released on September 3.
In July legitimate National Assembly deputy Freddy Guevara livestreamed his detention without a warrant by SEBIN officers on one of the main highways in eastern Caracas. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab publicly accused Guevara of maintaining links with Colombian paramilitary groups and announced without providing evidence that Guevara was to be prosecuted for terrorism, assault on the constitutional order, treason against the homeland, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Guevara’s lawyers were not allowed access to him, in violation of Guevara’s right to defense and due process. Guevara remained imprisoned in the SEBIN headquarters of El Helicoide in Caracas until August 15, when he was released with the condition of reporting to a court every 30 days.
As of November political leader and journalist Roland Carreno, arrested in October 2020, remained arbitrarily detained on grounds of conspiracy, weapons smuggling, and terrorism financing, despite facing serious health problems.
The six executives of the state-owned petroleum company’s (PDVSA) U.S.-based CITGO remained in prison, serving eight- to 13-year sentences delivered in a November 2020 trial marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. Since their arrest in 2017, they had been granted house arrest twice but subsequently reimprisoned each time, most recently in October. Family members expressed concern regarding the deteriorating health of some of the men and the potential for contracting COVID-19 in prison.
Political prisoner and former Chavez defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel died in regime custody on October 12, the third political prisoner death of the year and 10th since 2014. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab tweeted that Baduel died of complications from COVID, but Baduel’s family denied he was ill and claimed he was killed. Baduel, also a former general in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, was jailed from 2009 to 2015 on politically motivated charges after he broke with Chavez and again from 2017 until his death. A lawyer for the family told press that Baduel’s son, also detained by the regime, was threatened with torture in an attempt to force him to declare that his father had died of COVID. Other family members and the lawyer were also threatened. The OHCHR called for an independent investigation to determine the cause of death.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that the Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools, including Interpol Red Notices, for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On May 11, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Leopoldo Lopez, former political prisoner and opposition leader. The regime sentenced Lopez in absentia to 14 years’ imprisonment for allegedly instigating violence during protests in 2014.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the Maduro regime generally failed to respect these prohibitions. In many cases, particularly regarding the political opposition, regime-aligned authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, and interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted both politically motivated and indiscriminate household raids. Throughout the year media reports documented raids by security forces on the homes of opposition party politicians, their relatives, and members of independent media. NGO offices were also subject to arbitrary raids and their work equipment seized.
State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. Furthermore, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the regime in monitoring communications of political opponents. Technical attacks against media outlets appeared to be linked to the armed forces.
China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation), provided the Maduro regime with technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an identity card called carnet de la patria (homeland card). To force citizens to comply, the regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, subsidized fuel, and in some instances COVID vaccinations. Citizens essentially had no choice but to obtain and use the card despite the known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China National Electronics Import-Export Company also supported, financially and technologically, these surveillance methods.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, systematic institutional weakening, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.
Corruption: According to Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, during 2020, 802 persons were convicted for corruption, with a total of 2,274 convicted since August 2017, although observers claimed regime statistics were unreliable. From January to June, 269 public prosecutors were charged and 24 convicted of corruption. Between February and July, 51 senior managers at companies and state-owned institutions were prosecuted on corruption grounds.
Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. No data were publicly available on the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities.
The NGO Transparencia Venezuela reported an increase of corruption in the country amid the pandemic crisis, highlighting the opacity of the vaccination plan and the purchase of medical equipment from the governments of Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran. NGOs also documented an increase in bribes requested by military and police during the quarantine periods in exchange for allowing citizens to move freely throughout the country.