Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control some portions of the country. On September 28, Afghanistan held presidential elections after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reschedule the election multiple times. To accommodate the postponements, the Supreme Court extended President Ghani’s tenure. The IEC delayed the announcement of preliminary election results, originally scheduled for October 19, until December 22, due to technical challenges in vote tabulations; final results scheduled for November 7 had yet to be released by year’s end.

Three ministries share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Afghan National Police (ANP), under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a community-based self-defense force. The Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The NDS functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. The investigative branch of the NDS operated a facility in Kabul, where it held national security prisoners awaiting trial until their cases went to prosecution. Some areas were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently.

Armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on civilians and targeted killings of persons affiliated with the government.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by security forces and antigovernment personnel; reports of torture by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; government corruption; lack of accountability and investigation in cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. The Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) used child soldiers as suicide bombers and to carry weapons. Other antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 8,239 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with 62 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. Taliban propaganda did not acknowledge responsibility for civilian casualties, separating numbers into “invaders” and “hirelings.” The group also referred to its attacks that indiscriminately killed civilians as “martyrdom operations.”

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature is also more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms. This monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law remained inconsistent and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the Access to Information Law and that therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they seek.

Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-related figures attempting to influence how they are covered in the news. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 13 journalists were killed in connection to their work in 2018, including nine journalists killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing. Local NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan released findings that violence against journalists declined by 50 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of 2018. In February, two journalists, Shafiq Arya and Rahimullah Rahmani, were shot and killed by unknown assailants at local radio station Radio Hamsada in Takhar Province.

A rapid expansion in the availability of mobile phones, the internet, and social media provided many citizens greater access to diverse views and information. The government publicly supported media freedom and cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to media.

Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media is also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks. According to news reports, a Samaa radio station was forced to shut down its operations for the third time since 2015 because of threats from a local Taliban commander.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio over other forms of media.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. On May 2, Presidential Protective Service guards at the palace physically assaulted a broadcast journalist from 1TV television. In June an NDS employee beat the Ariana News reporter and cameraperson who was covering the controversial closing of an Afghan-Turk school in Kabul.

The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported three journalists killed in the first six months of the year. It recorded 45 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 50 percent decrease from the first six months of 2018. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 18 instances of violence, half as many as in 2018 when 36 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K also declined sharply from 2018–from 37 cases to seven cases. The organization insisted the reduction was not due to better protection from the government but rather due to a lower number of suicide attacks by antigovernment forces, as well as media companies’ adaptation to the reality of violence by not sending journalists for live coverage of suicide attacks and other self-imposed safety measures.

The Taliban continued to attack media organizations and warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.” In June the Taliban commission threatened media to stop transmitting “anti-Taliban advertisements” within one week or “reporters and staff members will not remain safe.”

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.

In 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the AGO, it did not increase protection for journalists.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the AJSC, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Farah, Laghman, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, Sar-e Pul, Uruzgan, and Zabul.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. A survey by an NGO supporting media freedom showed more than one-half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information and found that one-third of government offices did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public. Most requests for information from journalists who lack influential connections inside the government or international media credentials are disregarded and government officials often refuse to release information, claiming it is classified.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

Women in some areas of the country say their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.

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

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.

There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment.

Academic freedom is largely tolerated in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there has been growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Government security forces and the Taliban have both taken over schools to use as military posts. The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.

The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. In January the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, voted to reject a presidential decree that would have given police broad authority to prevent demonstrations.

The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The 2009 law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, AGO, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership while government employees. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. In August the Taliban captured Dasht-e-Archi District, Kunduz Province and Pul-i-Khumri District, Baghlan Province, blocking roads leading to the Kabul highway for more than two weeks.

Internal population movements increased during the year because of armed conflict and an historic drought. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported more than 380,289 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January 1 to November 6. The displacements caused by conflict surpassed by approximately 85,000 the number of those displaced by natural disaster during the year. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. All 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.

Limited humanitarian access because of the deteriorating security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal and physical security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived in constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP camps reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

Access to Asylum: The government had yet to adopt a draft national refugee law or asylum framework. Nonetheless, UNHCR registers, and mitigates protection risks of approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. The country also hosts some 76,000 Pakistani refugees who fled Pakistan in 2014; UNHCR registered some 41,000 refugees in Khost Province and verified more than 35,000 refugees in Paktika Province.

Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. The IOM reported undocumented returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 504,977 from January 1 to December 29, with 485,096 from Iran and 19,881 from Pakistan. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 2,000 returns as of June 22. In addition to these numbers, there were 23,789 undocumented Afghan returnees from Turkey.

NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children as a significant challenge and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The right to vote may be stripped for certain criminal offenses. For instance, in September the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) reportedly fined Border and Tribes minister Gul Agh Shirzai and removed his right to vote for improper campaign activities. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups and widespread allegations of fraud and corruption interfered with, but did not derail, the presidential election.

Recent Elections: The presidential election was originally scheduled for April but was postponed until September 28. Official turnout figures were not released by year’s end, but according to media reports, low voter turnout resulted from security threats, less robust campaigning by candidates, voter apathy, the decoupling of the presidential and provincial elections that traditionally helped drive local mobilization networks, and cultural sensitivities regarding mandatory photographs for women voters, among other factors. According to the United Nations, the Taliban carried out a deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation, including on polling centers located in schools and health facilities during the presidential election. It found these attacks targeting the electoral process caused 458 civilian casualties (85 killed and 373 injured) from the start of the top-up registration on June 8 through September 30, two days after the presidential election. These figures include 100 incidents on September 28, the day of the election, resulting in 277 civilian casualties (28 killed and 249 injured). According to the United Nations, civilian casualty levels were higher on September 28 than on polling day for the first round and second rounds of the 2014 presidential election. On December 22 (after its October 19 deadline), IEC officials released preliminary results, indicating that President Ghani secured re-election with 50.64 percent of the vote. Final results had yet to be released by year’s end. Although election experts noted technical improvements in the electoral procedures, there were concerns regarding the electoral bodies’ ability to ensure transparency during the results tabulation process. The ECC investigation into approximately 16,500 electoral complaints continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Political Party Law of 2003 grants parties the right to exist as formal institutions. The law provides that any citizen 25 years old or older may establish a political party. The law requires parties to have at least 10,000 members from the country’s 34 provinces to register with the Ministry of Justice, conduct official party business, and introduce candidates in elections. Only citizens 18 years old or older and who have the right to vote may join a political party. Certain members of the government, judiciary, military, and government-affiliated commissions are prohibited from political party membership during their tenure in office.

In large areas of the country, political parties could not operate due to insurgencies and instability.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. The October 2018 parliamentary election produced approximately the same level of female voter turnout as in the 2010 parliamentary election; however, there was an increase in the participation of female candidates. Absent reliable data, civil society, think tanks, and election monitoring organizations assessed that women’s participation across the country varied according to the security conditions and social norms. There was lower female voter turnout in provinces where communities purposely limited female participation in the democratic process, where lack of security was a concern, or both. Conflict, threats, financial constraints, corruption, conservative family members, and a greater number of polling centers available to male voters than women, put female voters at a disadvantage. Women reported security threats in the provinces of Maidan, Nuristan, Paktiya, Uruzgan, Wardak, and Zabul. Men in these provinces prohibited women from signing voter registration documents, thereby denying them the right to vote. There were reports some men declared voting a sin, and those who demonstrated some degree of flexibility said women should vote for male candidates. Ahead of the September 28 presidential election, members of a women’s association in the eastern province of Khost reportedly stated they would not be able to vote because they viewed as offensive a voter identification requirement to have their photos taken.

The constitution specifies a minimum number of seats for women and minorities in the two houses of parliament. For the Wolesi Jirga, the constitution mandates that at least two women shall be elected from each province (for a total of 68). The IEC finalized 2018 parliamentary election results in May, and 418 female candidates contested the 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga in the 2018 parliamentary election. In Daikundi Province a woman won a seat in open competition against male candidates, making it the only province to have more female representation than mandated by the constitution. The constitution also mandates one-half of presidential appointees must be women. It also sets aside 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga for members of the Kuchi minority (nomads). In the Meshrano Jirga (upper house of the National Assembly), the president’s appointees must include two Kuchis and two members with physical disabilities. One seat in the Meshrano Jirga and one in the Wolesi Jirga is reserved for the appointment or election of a Sikh or Hindu representative, although this is not mandated by the constitution.

Traditional societal practices continue to limit women’s participation in politics and activities outside the home and community, including the need to have a male escort or permission to work. These factors, in addition to an education and experience gap, likely contributed to the central government’s male-dominated composition. The 2016 electoral law mandates that 25 percent of all provincial, district, and village council seats “shall be allocated to female candidates.” Neither district nor village councils were established by year’s end.

Women active in government and politics continued to face threats and violence and were targets of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. No laws prevent minorities from participating in political life, although different ethnic groups complained of unequal access to local government jobs in provinces where they were in the minority. Individuals from the majority Pashtun ethnic group have more seats than any other ethnic group in both houses of parliament, but they do not have more than 50 percent of the seats. There was no evidence authorities purposely excluded specific societal groups from political participation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Reports indicated corruption was endemic throughout society, and flows of money from the military, international donors, and the drug trade continued to exacerbate the problem. Local businessmen complained government contracts were routinely steered to companies that pay a bribe or have family or other connections to a contracting official.

According to prisoners and local NGOs, corruption was widespread across the justice system, particularly in connection with the prosecution of criminal cases and in arranging release from prison. For example, as in previous years, there were multiple reports that judges would not release prisoners who had served their sentences without receiving payment from family members. There were also reports that officials received unauthorized payments in exchange for reducing prison sentences, halting investigations, or outright dismissing charges.

During the year Freedom House reported inadequately trained judges and extensive corruption in the judiciary, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups.

During the year there were reports of “land grabbing” by both private and public actors. Most commonly, businesses illegally obtained property deeds from corrupt officials and sold the deeds to unsuspecting prospective homeowners who were later prosecuted. Other reports indicated government officials confiscated land without compensation with the intent to exchange it for contracts or political favors. There were reports provincial governments illegally confiscated land without due process or compensation in order to build public facilities.

Corruption: UNAMA found that from the Anti-Corruption Justice Center’s (ACJC) inception in 2016 to mid-May, the ACJC tried 223 defendants in 57 cases before its trial chamber and 173 defendants in 52 cases before its appellate chamber. Of its cases against 117 accused, 36 were decided after appeal to the Supreme Court, the report stated. It also issued 127 warrants and summonses of which only 13 warrants and 39 summonses could be executed to date, with only a single defendant tried as a result. According to UNAMA, the number of defendants tried in their absence before the ACJC remained high at 20 percent. The number of cases has declined since 2017, and the rank of the accused generally dropped, although the amounts ordered by the court in compensation, restitution, and confiscation marginally increased.

A series of violent attacks by insurgents against Afghan judges, prosecutors, and prison officials during the year made members of the judicial sector increasingly fearful in carrying out their duties. According to Afghan government and media reports, since 2015 an estimated 300 judges, prosecutors, prison personnel, and other justice workers were killed, injured, or abducted. During the year at least 29 were targeted: three judges, one court clerk, three prosecutors, and 14 prison officials were killed; three prosecutors and two prison officials were injured; and three prisons officials were taken hostage. Justice professionals came under threat or attack for pursuing certain cases–particularly corruption or abuse-of-power cases–against politically or economically powerful individuals.

According to various reports, many government positions, including district or provincial governorships, ambassadors, and deputy ministers could be suborned. Government officials with reported involvement in corruption, the drug trade, or records of human rights abuses reportedly continued to receive executive appointments and served with relative impunity. Former minister of communication and information technology, Abdul Razaaq Wahidi, was accused of corruption in the form of embezzling revenue from a mobile phone tax. Although convicted by a lower court, in July an appeals court acquitted Wahidi.

There were allegations of widespread corruption, and abuse of power by officers at the Ministry of Interior. Provincial police reportedly extorted civilians at checkpoints and received kickbacks from the drug trade. Police reportedly demanded bribes from civilians to gain release from prison or avoid arrest. Senior Ministry of Interior officials also refused to sign the execution of arrest warrants. In one case Ministry of Interior officers served as the protective detail of warrant-target Major General Zamari Paikan and drove him in a Ministry of Interior armored vehicle. The Ministry of Defense also provided protection to Paikan. The ACJC convicted General Paikan in absentia for corruption in 2017 and sentenced him to 8.5 years’ imprisonment, but the Ministry of Interior had yet to arrest him by year’s end.

On August 15, former Kabul Bank chief executive Khalilullah Ferozi was released to house arrest reportedly for health reasons. Presidential candidate and former NDS head Rahmatullah Nabil alleged that the release came after a $30 million donation to President Ghani’s re-election campaign. Following the bank’s collapse in 2010, Ferozi was convicted in 2013 and ordered, along with bank founder Sherkhan Farnood, to repay more than $800 million in embezzled funds. Ferozi’s release came with less than a year left in his sentence. Farnood died in prison in 2018.

Financial Disclosure: A 2017 legislative decree established the Administration on Registration and Assets of Government Officials and Employees (Registration Administration) under the administrative office of the president. All government officials, employees, and elected officials are required to declare their assets. The Registration Administration was responsible for collecting, verifying, and publishing information from high-ranking government officials. Under the law all government officials and employees must submit financial disclosures on all sources and levels of personal income for themselves and their immediate family annually and when they assume or leave office. Individuals who do not submit forms or are late in submission are subject to suspension of employment, salary, and travel bans. The AGO imposed travel bans on individuals who did not submit their forms; however, the bans were not regularly enforced, especially for high-level officials. For instance, although the website of the Administrative Office of the Palace showed several high-ranking government officials failed to register their assets, it was public knowledge they frequently travelled internationally. Employment and salary bans were not imposed.

As of April the Registration Administration successfully registered assets of nearly 17,000 government employees. Verification of assets continued to be slow and problematic for the administration due to lack of organized systems in some government offices. Public outreach by the Registration Administration allowed civil society and private citizen the opportunity to comment on individual declarations. As of April, 141 members of the lower house of parliament declared their assets and 68 members of the upper house of parliament registered their assets.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights activists continued to express concern that human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

The penal code incorporates crimes against humanity provisions from the Rome Statute.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds. The independence of the institution was called into question following the abrupt replacement of all nine commissioners on July 17, immediately prior to the July 28 start of the presidential campaign and after the presidential palace rejected a list of 27 candidates submitted by the AIHRC Appointment Committee nine months prior. UNAMA released a statement calling for a “truly independent national human rights institution.” Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotic, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the law remain a serious challenge. The law criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code also explicitly criminalizes statutory rape and, for the first time, prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always fully enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW including through EVAW prosecution units.

Prosecutors and judges in remote provinces were frequently unaware of the EVAW law or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.

The penal code criminalizes forced virginity testing except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the individual. Awareness and enforcement of this change remained limited. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order virginity tests in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subject to virginity tests.

The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW law. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals, compounded by parallel legal systems and ineffective institutions of state, such as the police and justice systems. Women’s shelter operators in the western province of Herat reported the number of women seeking legal aid and protection in that province increased during the year.

Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a family matter, domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions operated at the primary and appellate levels in at least 22 provinces.

Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.

In June the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head Keramuddin Karim and fined him one million dollars (one million Swiss francs) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players alleged that Karim threatened them with ruin if they did not comply when he sexually assaulted them in a locked room in his office. Women who rebuffed his advances were labeled “lesbians” and expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. In October and December, respectively, FIFA’s Ethics Committee found Sayed Aghazada, former general secretary of the Afghanistan Football Federation, and Mohammad Hanif Sediqi Rustam, the former assistant to Karim, guilty of abuses relating to the sexual abuse, banning them for five years and fining them $10,000 (10,000 Swiss francs), because they determined Aghazada and Rustam were aware Karim abused multiple players but failed to prevent or report the abuse. The AGO indicted Karim on counts of rape, but the court sent the case back to the AGO for further investigation before trial. Police did not execute a June arrest warrant against Karim, a former governor.

At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because the local interpretation of “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the AGO issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs report instances of baad still practiced, often in remote provinces. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not been criminalized and remained widespread.

Honor killings continued throughout the year. According to media reporting, in May a Taliban court in Shahrak District, Ghor Province, shot and killed a boy and girl for allegedly having an extramarital affair.

Sexual Harassment: The Antiharassment Law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. The AIHRC reported more than 85 percent of women and children faced various forms of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families. Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms and customs with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization.

In July media reported on allegations of sexual harassment at the highest levels of the government. Former female government employees accused senior government ministers of repeated harassment and attempted physical assault. Allegations have arisen against close aides of President Ashraf Ghani, although the government denied these accusations. In late July the government formed a special secretariat to deal with reports of sexual harassment, operating within the framework of the AIHRC. Nevertheless, senior officials continued to promote and participate in a culture of sexual harassment. According to media reporting, in August, two senior security officials fled after raping a young woman in central Bamiyan Province during Eid-ul-Fitr.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system.

Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW law, and judges would sometimes replace those charges with others based on the penal code.

The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.

Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not transfer citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.

Education: Education is mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years for primary school and three years for lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that 3.7 million children were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, and continuing conflict, among other reasons, 60 percent of whom are girls. Only 16 percent of the country’s schools are for girls, and many of them lack proper sanitation facilities. UNAMA also noted that armed groups tried to restrict girls’ access to education. In April armed men on motorcycles set fire to two girls’ schools outside Farah City in Farah Province. Both were badly damaged, and the attack ended classes indefinitely for nearly 1,700 girls. Graffiti on the nearby walls championed the “Islamic Emirate,” leading to a suspicion of Taliban ties.

Key obstacles to girls’ education included poverty, early and forced marriage, insecurity, a lack of family support, lack of female teachers, and a lack of nearby schools.

Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, also hindered access to education, particularly in areas controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban and other extremists threatened and attacked school officials, teachers, and students, particularly girls, and burned both boys’ and girls’ schools. There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubt that the judicial system would respond. There were reports that both insurgent groups and government forces used school buildings for military purposes. School buildings were damaged, and students were injured in Taliban attacks on nearby government facilities.

Child Abuse: The penal code criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for conviction of beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child, ranges from a cash fine of 10,000 Afghanis ($130) to one year in prison as long as the child does not sustain a serious injury or disability. Conviction of endangering the life of a child carries a penalty of one to two years in prison or a cash fine of 60,000 to 120,000 Afghanis (approximately $800 to $1,600).

Police reportedly beat and sexually abused children. Children who sought police assistance for abuse also reported being further harassed and abused by law enforcement officials, particularly in bacha bazi cases, deterring victims from reporting their claims. NGOs reported a predominantly punitive and retributive approach to juvenile justice throughout the country. Although it is against the law, corporal punishment in schools, rehabilitation centers, and other public institutions remained common.

In November human rights defenders exposed the sexual abuse of at least 165 schoolboys from six high schools in Logar Province, alleging that teachers, headmasters, and local authorities were implicated in the abuse. Teachers would often film videos of rapes and threaten to post videos if victims spoke out. The release of videos and exposure of the scandal led to at least five honor killings of the victims. Two human rights defenders were subsequently placed in NDS detention after exposing the allegations, forced to apologize for their reporting, and continued to face threats after their release. Several officials rejected the allegations. The AGO investigation into the scandal reportedly suffered from a lack of public and political support, insufficient investigation time, and faulty investigation mechanisms, including public interviews.

There were reports some members of the military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. During the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented credible reports of four cases of sexual violence involving five children carried out by parties to the armed conflict. Two girls were raped by antigovernment elements, and three boys were raped, used for bacha bazi, or both by the ALP and ANP. According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend.

The government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The penal code criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on the 2017 Law to Combat Crimes of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling in Migrants (TIP Law), which includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. Article 660 of the penal code even details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment if convicted of up to 15 years’ imprisonment if convicted. UNAMA reported the convictions of two civilian perpetrators of bacha bazi in Takhar Province. Nevertheless, no police officer has ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi.

The Ministry of Interior operates CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, as CPUs did not oversee the ALP, which also recruited children. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient CPU reporting channels to identify children, prevent them from joining the security forces, and provide shelter, services, and family reintegration.

Early and Forced Marriage: Despite a law setting the legal minimum age for marriage at 16 years for girls (15 years with the consent of a parent or guardian or the court) and 18 years for boys, international and local observers continued to report widespread early and forced marriages throughout the country. By EVAW law those convicted of entering into or arranging forced or underage marriages are subject to at least two years’ imprisonment; however, implementation was limited.

By law a marriage contract requires verification that the bride is 16 years old (or 15 years old with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.

There were reports from Badakhshan Province that Taliban militants bought young women to sell into forced marriage. The UN Development Program Legal Aid Grant Facility reported women increasingly petitioned for divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, the penal code provides that, “[i]f an adult male has intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, his act shall be considered rape and the victim’s consent is invalid.” The penal code also treats nonstatutory rape of a child as an aggravated form of the offense, punishable if convicted by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The EVAW Law prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for conviction of forcing an underage girl into prostitution. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the TIP Law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.

Child Soldiers: In 2016 the Law on Prohibition of Children’s Recruitment in the Military became effective. Under the penal code, conviction of recruitment of children in military units carries a penalty of six months to one year in prison. There were reports the ANDSF and progovernment militias recruited and used children, and the Taliban and other antigovernment elements recruited children for military purposes (see section 1.g.). Media reported that local progovernment commanders recruited children younger than 16 years. The Taliban and other antigovernment groups regularly recruited and trained children to conduct attacks.

Displaced Children: During the year NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee and drought-displaced families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The government utilized a policy and action plan for the reintegration of Afghan returnees and IDPs, in partnership with the United Nations; however, the government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, many of them unaccompanied minors, remained limited, and it relied on the international community for assistance. Although the government banned street begging in 2008, NGOs and government offices reported large numbers of children begging and living in the streets of major cities.

Institutionalized Children: Living conditions for children in orphanages were poor. NGOs reported as many as 80 percent of children between ages four and 18 in orphanages were not orphans but from families unable to provide them with food, shelter, schooling, or all three. Children in orphanages reported mental, physical, and sexual abuse and occasionally were victims of trafficking. They did not have regular access to running water, heating in winter, indoor plumbing, health-care services, recreational facilities, or education. Security forces kept child detainees in juvenile detention centers run by the Ministry of Justice, except for a group of children arrested for national security violations who stayed at the detention facility in Parwan. NGOs reported these children were kept separate from the general population but still were at risk of radicalization.

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

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination against citizens and requires the state to assist persons with disabilities and to protect their rights, including the rights to health care and financial protection. The constitution also requires the state to adopt measures to reintegrate and provide for the active participation in society of persons with disabilities. The law provides for equal rights to, and the active participation of, such persons in society. Observers reported that both the constitutional provisions and disabilities rights law are mostly ignored and unenforced.

Persons with disabilities faced barriers such as limited access to educational opportunities, inability to access government buildings, lack of economic opportunities, and social exclusion due to stigma.

Lack of security remained a challenge for disability programs. Insecurity in remote areas, where a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities lived, precluded delivery of assistance in some cases. The majority of buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities, prohibiting many from benefitting from education, health care, and other services.

In the Meshrano Jirga, authorities reserved two of the presidentially appointed seats for persons with disabilities. By law 3 percent of all government positions are reserved for persons with disabilities, but government officials acknowledged the law was not enforced.

Disability rights activists reported that corruption prevented some persons with disabilities from receiving benefits. There were reports that government officials redirected scholarship funds for persons with disabilities to friends or family through fraud and identity theft. NGOs and government officials also reported that associations of persons with disabilities attempted to intimidate ministry employees in an effort to secure benefits such as apartments.

Ethnic tensions between various groups continued to result in conflict and killings. Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued along class, race, and religious lines in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse, and detention. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara ANP officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country. During the year ISIS-K continued escalating attacks against Shia, predominately Hazara, communities. In August, ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall of a young Hazara couple in a predominately Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons, including 15 children, and wounding 143 others. Although the bride and groom survived, many of their friends and family (most of them women, children, and other civilians) were among the dead and wounded. Hazaras were among the causalities, but most victims were non-Hazara Shias and Sunnis. ISIS-K cited a sectarian motive for the attack.

Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs and harassment in school, as well as verbal and physical abuse in public places. In early March a young Sikh shopkeeper was abducted and killed in Kabul. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council of Afghanistan, there were approximately 550 members of the Sikh and Hindu community in the country, down from 900 members in 2018. According to the council, many families continued to leave the country, going to India and elsewhere due to antigovernment threats and what they perceive to be inadequate government protection.

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under Islamic sharia law, conviction of same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death, flogging, or imprisonment. Under Article 646 of the penal code, conviction of sex between men is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and sex between women with up to one year of imprisonment. There were reports of harassment and violence by society and police. The law does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent. LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government. Even registered organizations working on health programs for men who have sex with men faced harassment and threats by the Ministry of Economy’s NGO Directorate and NDS officials. LGBTI individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape by society at large.

There were no confirmed reports of discrimination or violence against persons with HIV/AIDS, but there was reportedly serious societal stigma against persons with AIDS. While the penal code allows for the distribution of condoms, the government restricted distribution to married couples.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result the application of labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees. The government issued a decree in 2016 mandating the nationalization of property belonging to several trade unions. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not sufficiently criminalize forced labor and debt bondage. Men, women, and children are exploited in bonded labor, where an initial debt assumed by a worker as part of the terms of employment is exploited, ultimately entrapping other family members, sometimes for multiple generations. This type of debt bondage is common in the brickworks industry. Some families knowingly sold their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi (see section 7.c.).

Government enforcement of the law was ineffective; resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate; and the government made minimal efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The labor law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years but permits 14-year-olds to work as apprentices, allows children 15 years old and older to do light nonhazardous work, and permits 15- through 17-year-old children to work up to 35 hours per week. The law prohibits children younger than 14 years from working under any circumstances; that law was openly flouted, with poverty driving many children into the workforce. The law also bans the employment of children in hazardous work that is likely to threaten their health or cause disability, including mining and garbage collection; work in blast furnaces, waste-processing plants, and large slaughterhouses; work with hospital waste; drug-related work; security-guard services; and work related to war.

Poor institutional capacity was a serious impediment to effective enforcement of the labor law. Labor inspectors do not have legal authority to inspect worksites for compliance with child labor laws or impose penalties for non-compliance. Other deficiencies included the lack of penalty assessment authorization for labor inspectors, inadequate resources, labor inspector staffing, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations.

Child labor remained a pervasive problem. Child laborers worked as domestic servants, street vendors, peddlers, and shopkeepers. There was child labor in the carpet industry, brick kilns, coalmines, and poppy fields. Children were also heavily engaged in the worst forms of child labor in mining, including mining salt; commercial sexual exploitation including bacha bazi (see section 6, Children); transnational drug smuggling; and organized begging rings. Some forms of child labor exposed children to land mines. Children faced numerous health and safety risks at work. There were reports of recruitment of children by the ANDSF during the year. Taliban forces pressed children to take part in hostile acts (see section 6, Children).

Also, see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination and notes that citizens, both “man and woman,” have equal rights and duties before the law. It expressly prohibits discrimination based on language. The constitution contains no specific provisions addressing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, or age. The penal code prescribes a term of imprisonment of not more than two years for anyone convicted of spreading discrimination or factionalism.

Women continued to face discrimination and hardship in the workplace. Women made up only 7 percent of the workforce. Many women faced pressure from relatives to stay at home and encountered hiring practices that favored men. Older and married women reported it was more difficult for them than for younger, single women to find jobs. Women who worked reported they encountered insults, sexual harassment, lack of transportation, and an absence of day care facilities. Salary discrimination existed in the private sector. Female journalists, social workers, and police officers reported they were often threatened or abused. Persons with disabilities also suffered from discrimination in hiring.

Ethnic Hazaras, Sikhs, and Hindus faced discrimination in hiring and work assignments, in addition to broader social discrimination (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rates for workers in the nonpermanent private sector and for government workers were below the poverty line.

The law defines the standard workweek for both public- and private-sector employees as 40 hours: eight hours per day with one hour for lunch and noon prayers. The labor law makes no mention of day workers in the informal sector, leaving them completely unprotected. There are no occupational health and safety regulations or officially adopted standards. The law, however, provides for reduced standard workweeks for children ages 15 to 17, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and miners and workers in other occupations that present health risks. The law provides workers with the right to receive wages, annual vacation time in addition to national holidays, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, health insurance for the employee and immediate family members, and other incidental allowances. The law prohibits compulsory work without establishing penalties and stipulates that overtime work be subject to the agreement of the employee. The law also requires employers to provide day care and nurseries for children.

The government did not effectively enforce these laws. Inspectors had no legal authority to enter premises or impose penalties for violations. Resources, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations were inadequate and insufficient to deter violations.

Employers often chose not to comply with the law or preferred to hire workers informally. Most employees worked longer than 40 hours per week, were frequently underpaid, and worked in poor conditions, particularly in the informal sector. Workers were generally unaware of the full extent of their labor rights under the law. Although comprehensive data on workplace accidents were unavailable, there were several reports of poor and dangerous working conditions. Some industries, such as brick kiln facilities, continued to use debt bondage, making it difficult for workers to remove themselves from situations of forced labor that endangered their health or safety.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term, keeping her in office as prime minister, in an improbably lopsided December 2018 parliamentary election that was not considered free and fair and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. During the campaign there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. International election monitors were not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were approved to conduct domestic election observation.

The security forces encompassing the national police, border guards, and counterterrorism units such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) maintain internal and border security. The military, primarily the army, is responsible for national defense but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The security forces report to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the military reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive NGO laws and restrictions on the activities of NGOs; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, where elections were not found to be genuine, free, or fair; significant acts of corruption; criminal violence against women and girls; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; restrictions on independent trade unions and workers’ rights; and the use of the worst forms of child labor.

There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.

The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The 2016 Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.

The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrimes, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA for suppressing freedom of expression and criminalizing free speech.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure. In October the World Economic Forum found press freedom declined over the past year.

The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced a threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as social stigma associated with having a criminal record.

On October 21, police arrested Munir Uddin Ahmed, a district correspondent of the newspaper New Nation and former general secretary of Khulna Press Club, in a case filed under the DSA for mistakenly posting on his Facebook a photograph of the Chittagong Metropolitan police commissioner instead of the Bhola superintendent of police. Although the court twice denied Ahmed’s bail, the Khulna Metropolitan Magistrate court rejected a police request to interrogate him. Observers commented police interrogation–known as remand–occasionally involved mistreatment of the detained. Ahmed remained in prison at year’s end.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media outlets alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. Reporters without Border alleged media self-censorship was growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”

Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists reportedly received threats after publishing their stories.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

On January 2, the newspaper Daily Star reported the government detained Khulna reporter Hedait Hossain Molla to investigate accusations he violated the DSA by reporting “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during the 2018 general elections. Following the elections, Molla reported that official initial elections results showed the number of votes cast was higher than the number of eligible voters. A Khulna elections official later corrected the official vote tally, lowering the number of votes cast, but reporters had already published their stories. Molla was then arrested under the DSA for spreading false information. Although Molla was released on bail, he was obliged to appear regularly before the court, since the case remained active.

Journalists claimed the government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. In April the government cancelled the publishing rights of Juger Chinta, a daily newspaper in Narayanganj. This move sparked a human chain protest in Narayanganj. Journalists claimed the government penalized Juger Chinta because it published reports criticizing the ruling party’s local member of parliament (MP).

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. As of July a total of 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the act with more than 80 individuals arrested.

In March law enforcement arrested Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Council member Mahfuza Khter Kiron for allegedly defaming the prime minister after saying on a television talk show that Prime Minister Hasina was neglecting football in the country in favor of cricket, maintaining a double standard rewarding the cricket team’s successes, but ignoring those of the football team. In April, Kiron was granted bail, but the charges against her were not dropped.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.

In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.

In March the government blocked al-Jazeera’s English news website hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. Joban, a local news and discussion site that published a summary of the article in Bengali, was also inaccessible during that time. No other local or foreign outlets covered the story.

In the past, the country’s security services instructed the BTRC to block websites by emailing all International Internet Gateways. During the year the Department of Telecommunications and the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center launched a new system that allowed the agencies to block websites centrally without having to involve the BTRC.

Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.

According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

While the government allowed the primary opposition party, the BNP, to hold political rallies throughout the country during the year, the government occasionally imposed restrictions. In July, Chittagong Metropolitan Police gave the BNP conditional permission to organize a rally the evening prior to the event. Conditions for the rally included making paper copies of the permit for all rally participants, estimated at 100,000-200,000 persons before the event took place.

In September, 80 BNP leaders were apprehended immediately before a Rajshahi rally. BNP leadership alleged the Rajshahi Metropolitan Police (RMP) arrested the party leaders to weaken the rally. RMP said 150 individuals were arrested in the same timeframe, all for drug peddling, and none for political activities.

During the year police used force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. In July leaders and activists with Left Democratic Alliance (LDA) protested a proposed gas price hike. Newspaper New Age reported police injured 25 LDA marchers when police charged them for trying to remove barbed wire barricades placed by police along the protest route.

The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).

The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5). In August the government announced a number of NGOs, including foreign-funded relief organizations, were no longer allowed to operate in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, following a peaceful rally commemorating the two-year mark of the 2017 Rohingya crisis (see section 5).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.

In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.

The government did not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was that the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country. While the refugees were able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.

Foreign Travel: Some senior civil society representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country. The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.

Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces.

In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act to curtail the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission. The amended act failed to resolve the disputes during the year as tribal leaders insisted on establishing a governing framework for the law before hearing disputes for resolution. In 2017 the government reappointed Justice Mohammad Anwarul Haque chair of the commission for three years. The Land Ministry formulated rules for implementation of the act, but the rules had not been officially promulgated by year’s end.

The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.

f. Protection of Refugees

Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, approximately one million Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population was younger than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner provided coordination.

The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military again became more active in the refugee camps. In September the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the army would begin taking over security tasks the police and other law enforcement agencies had held since 2017. In the same month, the government introduced restrictions on telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar. This move limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. As of August the IOM identified 96 Rohingya trafficking victims from the camps, the overwhelming majority for labor exploitation. While the majority of the victims were women and girls, there were indications many Rohingya men and boys did not self-identify, nor did they seek services following their return. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.

International organizations reported an increase in gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.

Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.

Refoulement: According to UNHCR, the government sent six Rohingya back to Burma in September in a possible incident of refoulement. There were no other reported cases of potential refoulement or forced repatriation. On August 22, authorities sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up and transport anyone ready to return to Burma. They called off the initiative when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed the country’s commitment to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns, based on informed consent. On September 27, at the United Nations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underscored voluntariness and safety as necessary requirements for any repatriation.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government was working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers and other criminals.

Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In November the government began erecting fencing to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling.

Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.

Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.

Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue that hindered the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.

Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certification of students having attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. Rahima Akter, a Rohingya woman, hid her identity to enroll in Cox’s Bazar International University to study law. In October 2018 Rahima was featured in a video by the Associated Press in which she discussed her dreams to study human rights. The video went viral and revealed her identity. In September the university expelled her for being Rohingya.

Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.

The estimated 300,000 Urdu-speaking population (known as Biharis, originally Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then East Pakistan before the 1971 war of independence) were formerly stateless but received Bangladeshi citizenship through a 2008 court case that directed the Election Commission to issue national identity cards to every member of the community who applied and met the legal and administrative requirements. Nevertheless, members from this community said their requests to obtain passports were rejected by immigration officers due to their address. The overwhelming majority of this population still resided in refugee-like camps established by the International Community for Red Cross in the 1970s, when many believed they would return to Pakistan following the 1971 Liberation War.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her AL party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December 2018 parliamentary election that was not considered free nor fair and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With 96 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Despite their initial announcement of a boycott of the newly formed parliament, terming it illegitimate, the BNP MPs-elect, except BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, joined the parliament session on April 29. Parliament conferred the official status of the opposition to the Jatiya Party, a component of the AL-led governing coalition, which seated 22 members in parliament. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely.

During the December 2018 national elections, the government did not grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the Election Commission to conduct domestic election observation.

On March 11, Dhaka University held its first Dhaka University Central Students’ Union election after more than 20 years, with 47,000 students registered to vote. Students alleged the election was marred by ballot-box stuffing in favor of the ruling AL-backed candidates by teachers responsible for conducting the election.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted and imprisoned in February 2018 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. She was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal due to more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. The BNP maintained police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges prior to the 2018 national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.

Opposition activists faced criminal charges. Leaders and members of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), the largest Islamist political party in the country, could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Although Jamaat was deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members continued to be denied. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and they practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse responses from the government. AL-affiliated organizations such as their student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups.

On October 7, Abrar Fahad Rabbi, a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) was beaten to death over suspected involvement with the group Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, and following several Facebook posts criticizing recent bilateral agreements with India. A medical examiner determined Fahad died from internal bleeding and excessive pain after being subject to repeated blows of blunt force from cricket stumps. In the days following his death, authorities arrested 18 persons, including BUET BCL leadership, in connection with Fahad’s death. A BCL leader confessed to beating Fahad along with other BCL leaders. This incident sparked student protests across the country, and civil society spoke out against political student organizations carrying out violence under a culture of impunity. On October 11, the BUET vice chancellor declared a ban on political activities of all student organizations in response to Fahad’s killing. On November 13, police filed a charge sheet accusing 25 BUET students in Farhad’s killing.

The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in the previous years remained unresolved. Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs. In some instances, the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted the broadcasting of opposition political events. Unlike in the preceding years, the government allowed BNP limited freedom to hold a few rallies and form human chains demanding release of jailed BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and free and fair elections.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In July 2018 parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 additional years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women in parliament. These female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionately to their parliamentary representation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption remained a serious problem. In July the ACC chairman stated the commission suffered from a crisis of public trust, since most of the ACC’s investigations were only against petty instances of corruption.

The ACC leadership were also suspected in corruption. In July, Khandaker Enamul Basir, a former ACC director, was arrested on charges of bribery in a corruption case involving top-ranking Deputy Inspector General of Police Miznur Rahman. The ACC found Rahman earned 4.63 crore BDT ($550,000) between 1998 and 2018, but only 1.35 crore BDT ($160,000) came from legal sources. Rahman claimed Basir accepted a bribe to clear Rahman of graft allegations, an accusation that led to Basir’s removal from the ACC and arrest.

In August 2018 parliament enacted a law prohibiting the arrest of any public servant by the ACC without permission from the government before framing charges by the court. Campaigners for good governance and transparency decried the provision, saying it shielded corrupt officials.

The government took steps to address widespread police corruption through continued expansion of its community-policing program and through training.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires candidates for parliament to file statements of personal wealth with the Election Commission. The law does not require income and asset disclosure by officials.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.

Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the government’s strategy to reduce the effectiveness and inhibit operations of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for public criticism of government policies.

The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar. Odhikar continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events, and planned to close operations due to funding constraints at the end of the year.

On November 14, a local magistrate mobile court ordered human rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) to leave its main Dhaka office in two months. The magistrate also fined the organization 200,000 BDT ($2,400) for violating a law that prohibits commercial activities from operating in a residential space. ASK Executive Director Sheepa Hafiza called the order “illegal” and told reporters ASK would move the matter to the judicial court to refute allegations the organization committed an offense. Hafiza further said the government’s move “shrank the activities of rights bodies.”

The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals.

Numerous NGOs entered the country in response to the August 2017 Rohingya influx. In August the NGO Affairs Bureau imposed restrictions and suspensions on a number of NGOs in Cox’s Bazar, following an August 25 peaceful rally commemorating the two-year mark of the 2017 Rohingya crisis (see section 2.b.). The government did not publicly disclose all the names of those NGOs.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not respond to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country. The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh reported 15 other pending requests for UN special rapporteurs to visit the country, including the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. Nasima Begum, former senior secretary in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, was appointed NHRC chairman in September. This appointment prompted quick criticisms from civil society, who questioned the government’s selection process, and larger discussions on the commission’s effectiveness and independence as all members were government bureaucrats. The NHRC’s primary activities are to investigate human rights violations, address discrimination in law, educate the public about human rights, and advise the government on key human rights issues.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of a female by a male and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the female is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Credible human rights organizations agreed the first half of the year saw an alarming increase in rape cases, with ASK, the Human Rights Support Society, and the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP) estimating 630-738 women raped between January and June, figures higher than the same timeframe of the previous year. In comparison, the BMP reported a total of 942 women were raped in all of 2018.

There were reports of sexual violence with impunity. In August authorities in Khulna removed two policemen, including the officer in charge (OC) of Khulna Government Railway police station, for dereliction of duty following reports police had detained and gang-raped a woman. According to the woman’s family, she was detained inside a train by Railway Police in Khulna’s Phultala Railway Station and then taken to a police residential building. There, according to her family, she was raped by the OC and four other policemen. When the victim’s family learned of her detention, they went to the police station, where police demanded 1.5 lakh BDT ($1,800) for her release, alleging first she had stolen a mobile phone, and later alleging drug possession. Following public criticism, police filed a case against the OC under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act.

According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove, using medical evidence, a rape occurred.

In April 2018 the High Court released a 16-point guideline on the handling of rape cases by law enforcement personnel and other parties to the matter. The guidelines came in response to a 2015 writ petition following complaints of delays in recording rape cases. According to the guidelines, the OC of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical and DNA tests are required to be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. The High Court guidelines also stipulated every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim are required to be recorded in the presence of a lawyer, social worker, protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some media and NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries, despite recent legal changes prohibiting dowry demands. Apparently to stop abuse of the 1980 Dowry Prohibition Act, parliament adopted the Dowry Prohibition Act of 2018, which imposes a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of 50,000 BDT, ($590), or both for demanding or giving dowry.

On September 11, Shova Rajmoni Hosna died following a series of dowry-related beatings from her husband. Hosna, the daughter of a political leader, and her family claimed her husband beat her regularly to demand dowry. While her body bore multiple injury marks, the doctors ruled her case a suicide, a finding human rights advocates sharply questioned. Her husband was arrested in connection with her death.

A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of fatwas (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions, village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.

Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.

Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims, usually women, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were frequently related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land disputes.

Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, harassment, also known as “Eve teasing,” was common according to multiple NGOs.

On March 27, Nusrat Jahan Rafi accused her madrassah (Islamic school) principal of touching her inappropriately when he summoned her to his office. Accompanied by her family, she went to the police station to file a sexual harassment complaint. The officer in charge filmed the interview and shared it broadly online. Police then arrested the principal. According to a police report, while in detention, the principal ordered students loyal to him to intimidate Nusrat’s family to withdraw charges against him, and if unsuccessful, to kill Nusrat. On April 6, according to Nusrat’s statement, she was lured to a building rooftop where male students disguised in burqas again pressured her to withdraw the case. When she refused, they gagged and bound her, doused her with kerosene, and set her on fire. During her ride to the hospital, fearing she would not survive, Nusrat recorded a statement of the events on her brother’s mobile phone and identified her attackers as students in the madrassah. On April 10, Nusrat died from her injuries. Following her death, authorities charged 16 persons, including the madrassah principal, in connection with her death. On October 24, the Feni Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal sentenced the 16 individuals to death. A leading human rights activist welcomed the verdict but said the judgment was a “blanket” judgment and suggested the tribunal should have sentenced the perpetrators individually based on the severity of their involvement.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection of the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death.

Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. The government suspended birth registrations for Rohingya refugees born in Cox’s Bazar. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through eighth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, despite free classes, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school.

Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. The law prohibits child abuse and neglect with a penalty of up to five years, a fine of one lakh BDT ($1,180), or both. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the law was not fully implemented, and juvenile cases–like many other criminal cases–often lagged in the judicial system. In 2016 the government, with support from UNICEF, launched “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. The Department of Social Services, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, operated the hotline, which received approximately 80,000 calls a year on average and was accessible from anywhere in the country. The hotline center provided services such as rescue, referral, and counseling.

In July, BSAF published a report estimating nearly 500 instances of child rape in the first half of the year, an increase of 41 percent compared with 2018. The report said children as young as two were among the rape victims and cited a failure of the law and order situation in the country as reason for the increase in child rape.

During the year former students detailed multiple allegations of sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic madrassahs. According to AFP, in July at least five madrassah teachers were arrested on rape charges against boys and girls under their care. In one instance, senior students were held for the rape and beheading of an 11-year-old orphan. BSAF commented these crimes had not been reported previously due to the sensitivity of the subject but were “widespread and rampant.” Many smaller schools had few teachers and had no oversight from governing bodies.

Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. A 2017 law includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government did not implement the recommendations raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this act. In 2017 the High Court ruled the government should explain why the provision allowing the marriage of a minor should not be declared illegal in response to a writ petition filed by Bangladesh National Women Lawyer Association. The association’s petition argued the Muslim Family Law describes marriage as a “contract,” and a minor could not be a party to a contract.

According to government data, 52 per cent of girls were victims of child marriage in 2011. UNICEF’s 2018 report estimated this figure at 59 per cent.

In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and the selling or distributing of such material is prohibited. In June the NGO Terre des Hommes-Netherlands released a report stating street children were the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation but had little legal redress due to a lack of social and financial support and a lengthy criminal justice system. The report said although the government took “necessary legal and institutional measures to combat commercial sexual exploitation, children face multiple challenges in accessing justice.” The report found 75 percent of female children living on Dhaka streets were at risk of sexual exploitation. Underage girls working in brothels were able to produce notarized certificates stating they were older than age 18, and some NGOs claimed that corrupt government and law enforcement officials condoned or facilitated these practices. In May human traffickers brought 23 teenage Rohingya girls from refugee camps to Dhaka (ref. 2.f.). Police speculated the girls were potential victims of forced prostitution.

Displaced Children: See section 2.d.

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

There was no Jewish community in the country, but politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.

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

The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, and the government took measures to enforce these provisions more effectively. NGOs reported the government took cases of violence based on discrimination against disabled persons seriously, and official action was taken to investigate and punish those responsible for violence and abuses against those with disabilities.

Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. For example, government buildings had no accommodations for disabled individuals. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees had not been activated. In many cases local authorities were not aware of their responsibilities under this law. A report prepared by several NGOs in 2016 highlighted negligence in areas such as accessibility in physical structures; access to justice; rights of women with disabilities; freedom from exploitation, violence, and abuse; the right to education, health, and a decent work place; the right to employment; and political rights and representation.

The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. The law also created a 27-member National Coordination Committee charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.

According to the NGO Action against Disability, some children with disabilities did not attend public school due to lack of special accommodation, but data was not readily available. The government trained teachers about inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities.

The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.

The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Department of Social Services, and National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

According to The Daily Star, in the 2019 budget money allocated towards the disabled was 0.31 of the total government budget. Allowances made up 85 percent of the total allocation, displacing other services and resource needs for the disabled. Disability rights organizations pointed out this allocation was not enough to cover the significant number of students with disabilities studying in different schools, colleges, and universities.

The government took official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.

Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government established 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.

Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility in elections.

There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons. Police did not file charges against Muslim villagers accused of vandalizing and burning approximately 30 Hindu houses in Rangpur in 2017 in response to a rumored Facebook post demeaning Islam.

NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) had restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.

The CHT indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which had not been fully implemented–specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system composed of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.

Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported deforestation to support Rohingya refugee camps caused severe environmental degradation in their land, adversely affecting their livelihoods. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas.

The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year. In July, three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu faked residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land in order to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban.

The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence causing dozens of deaths. The factional clashes between and within United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF) and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reported many leaders of these factions were engaged in extortion and smuggling of money, drugs, and arms. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remained unresolved. During the year NGOs warned intraparty violence in CHT had sharply risen.

In April, UPDF leader and indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma disappeared after he left his house for an organizational event. Human rights groups and activists pressed the government to investigate his disappearance and claimed Chakma’s criticisms of government activities played a direct factor in his disappearance. No investigation had begun at year’s end. Many observers compared this case with the 1996 disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, another indigenous rights activist and dissident. Despite 39 officers investigating the 1996 case, police in 2018 said they found only “initial proof” of her abduction, while admitting an overall failure to identify the culprit, and concluded the chances of recovering Kalpana Chakma remained unlikely.

Reports of sexual assaults that occurred in 2018 on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel remain unresolved. In January 2018 security personnel allegedly raped an 18-year-old Marma girl and sexually assaulted her 13-year-old sister during a raid on the village of Orachhari in Rangamati. The accused officials publicly denied any incidence of rape but administratively confined the personnel member accused of the rape to battalion headquarters. Police filed a report on insistence from civil society but prevented media and NGO personnel from talking to the victims.

Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.

The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.

Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.

The government took positive steps to increase LGBTI inclusion. In January the government announced hijra (third gender) candidates who identify as women were eligible for national parliamentary election, and in April the government included hijra as a separate sex category on the national voters list. On October 14, the country elected the first transgender woman into local office: Sadia Akhter Pinky was elected vice chairman of the Kotchandpur subdistrict in Jhenaidah, a neighborhood near Khulna.

In July police pressed charges against eight members of Ansar al-Islam, a banned militant group, for the 2016 death of Xulhaz Mannan, a LGBTI human rights activist, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy.

Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.

Vigilante killings occurred. From July to September, mob violence erupted over false social media rumors of children being kidnapped and sacrificed as offerings for the construction of the Padma Bridge. Odhikar estimated at least 20 individuals were killed by mob violence between July and September. On July 20, housewife Taslima Begum was publicly lynched after a mob wrongly suspected her of child abduction. The issuance of illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations said cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 20 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Ministry of Labor and Employment may grant approval for registration of a union. The ministry may request a court to dissolve the union if membership falls below 20 percent. Generally, the law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units. NGOs reported the approval rate for union registration applicants declined significantly over the past year. Registration applications were often rejected or challenged for erroneous or extrajudicial reasons outside the scope of the law.

The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Fire-fighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions. The Ministry of Labor and Employment may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Export processing zones (EPZs), which do not allow trade union participation, are a notable exception to the labor law. On February 28, the government enacted a new labor law for the EPZs. These laws continued to deny EPZ workers the right to form or join a union.

Prospective unions continued to report rejections based on reasons not listed in the labor law. The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported that the country had 7,823 trade unions, covering nearly three million workers, with 596 unions in the garment sector. This figure included 574 new unions in the garment sector formed since 2013. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. According to the Solidarity Center, a significant number of the unions in the ready-made garment sector ceased to be active during the year due to factory closures or alleged unfair labor practices on the part of employers, and it became increasingly harder to register unions in larger ready-made garment factories. After a sharp increase in trade union applications in 2014, there was a decline every year thereafter.

The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example, the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.

The government occasionally targeted union leaders. During wage protests in December 2018 and January, police dispersed protesters using tear gas, water cannons, batons, and rubber bullets, reportedly injuring dozens of workers and killing at least one. In the aftermath, factory owners filed cases against thousands of workers. More than 50 workers and union leaders were arrested and spent weeks in jail. According to Solidarity Center, most if not all of the cases against hundreds of workers remained pending at year’s end. Several companies also illegally suspended or terminated thousands of workers without proper severance payments. In some cases, factory management exploited the situation to target active union leaders and to blacklist them from employment. Other intimidation tactics included frequent police visits to union meetings and offices, police taking pictures and video recordings of union meetings, and police monitoring of NGOs involved in supporting trade unions. While most workers from the 2016 widespread Ashulia labor unrest were reinstated, labor leaders had cases pending against them despite international pressure to resolve these cases.

In response to unrest in the Dhaka industrial suburb of Ashulia in 2016, the government formed a permanent tripartite consultative council to address labor concerns in the garment industry. NGOs said the tripartite consultative council was not functioning. The state minister for labor and employment and the ministry’s deputy secretary serve as president and secretary of the 20-member council. The council also includes six representatives from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, six additional representatives from the government, and six worker representatives. The council was supposed to meet at least three times a year, but the president may convene meetings as needed. Labor leaders expressed concern that worker representatives were appointed, not elected, and that some of the appointed council members were either not active in the ready-made garment industry, were leaders of very small federations, or were closely aligned with industry.

Legally registered unions recognized as official Collective Bargaining Agents (CBAs) are entitled to submit charters of demands and bargain collectively with employers. This occurred rarely, but instances were increasing. The law provides criminal penalties for unfair labor practices such as retaliation against union members for exercising their legal rights. Labor organizations reported that in some companies, workers did not exercise their collective bargaining rights due to their unions’ ability to address grievances with management informally or due to fear of reprisal.

The law includes provisions protecting unions from employer interference in organizing activities; however, employers, particularly in the ready-made garment industry, often interfered with this right. Labor organizers reported acts of intimidation and abuse, the termination of employees, and scrutiny by security forces and the intelligence services, a tactic used to chill the organizing environment. Labor rights NGOs alleged that some terminated union members were unable to find work in the sector because employers blacklisted them. The BGMEA reported that some factory owners complained of harassment from organized labor, including physical intimidation, but statistics and specific examples were unavailable.

According to the labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). A 2018 amendment to the labor law states there shall not be any participation committee if any registered trade union exists in a factory. Employers often selected or appointed workers for the PC instead of permitting worker elections to determine those positions. Employers also failed to comply with laws and regulations to ensure the effectiveness and independence of PCs. The International Labor Organization’s Better Work Bangladesh program found 75 percent of factories had ineffective or nonfunctional PCs.

A separate legal framework under the authority of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) governs labor rights in the EPZs, with approximately 458,000 workers. EPZ law specifies certain limited associational and bargaining rights for worker welfare associations (WWAs) elected by the workers, such as the rights to bargain collectively and represent their members in disputes, but prohibits unions within EPZs. While an earlier provision of the EPZ law banning all strikes under penalty of imprisonment expired in 2013, the law continues to provide for strict limits on the right to strike, such as the discretion of the BEPZA’s chairperson to ban any strike he views as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead, eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. The BEPZA has its own inspection regime with labor counselors that function as inspectors. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. There were no reports of legal strikes in the EPZs.

The government adopted standard operating procedures regarding union registration. With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, the labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but reinstatement was rarely awarded.

The government did not always enforce applicable law effectively or consistently. For example, labor law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. It also establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses are insufficient to deter violations. Inspection mechanisms that enforce laws against forced labor did not function effectively. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were inadequate. The law also provides that victims of forced labor have access to shelter and other protective services afforded to trafficking victims.

Some individuals recruited to work overseas with fraudulent employment offers subsequently were exploited abroad under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage. Many migrant workers assumed debt to pay high recruitment fees, imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies and illegally by unlicensed subagents.

Children and adults were also forced into domestic servitude and bonded labor that involved restricted movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The 2018 amendment of the labor law establishes the minimum age for work as 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18, with no exceptions. The government reported all labor inspectors were notified on the amendment, including the changes to the light work provisions for children. Formerly, the law had allowed children ages 12 or 13 to perform light work. Minors may work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories and mines or up to seven hours per day and 42 per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through eighth grade. Several factors contributed to children not attending school, such as inadequate access to water and sanitation facilities and the costs associated with education, including books and uniforms.

The Labor and Employment Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and authorities rarely enforced child labor laws outside the export-garment and shrimp-processing sectors. Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children.

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including forced child labor in the production of dried fish and bricks. Children also performed dangerous tasks in the production of garments and leather goods. Laws do not cover children working in the informal sector, and hazardous work prohibitions are not comprehensive. Moreover, the number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce.

The law specifies penalties that were not sufficient to deter violations of child labor laws. The government occasionally brought criminal charges against employers who abused domestic servants.

Child labor was widespread in the informal sector and in domestic work. According to a 2016 Overseas Development Institute report based on a survey of 2,700 households in Dhaka’s slums, 15 percent of six- to 14-year-old children were out of school and engaged in full-time work. These children were working well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation.

According to the International Labor Organization, agriculture was the primary employment sector for boys and services was the main sector for girls. According to Young Power in Social Action, an NGO working to protect the rights of shipbreakers in Chittagong, 11 percent of the shipbreaking workforce was younger than 18. NGOs, such as Shipbreaking Platform, reported laborers worked long hours without training, safety equipment, holidays, adequate health care, and also without contractual agreements.

Children frequently worked in the informal sector in areas including the unregistered garment, road transport, manufacturing, and service industries.

In 2018 the government funded and participated in programs that include the goal of eliminating or preventing child labor, including a $35 million government-funded three-year project that seeks to identify 100,000 child laborers, reintegrate the children into schools, and provide livelihood support for their parents.

Rohingya children residing in refugee camps were vulnerable to forced labor. Rohingya girls were trafficked from the camps to Dhaka or other countries for domestic servitude. Rohingya children recruited to work outside the refugee camps were reported to be underpaid or unpaid, subjected to excessive working hours, or in bonded labor.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, but it does not prohibit other discrimination based on sex, disability, social status, caste, sexual orientation, or similar factors. The constitution prohibits adverse discrimination by the state on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and expressly extends that prohibition to government employment; it allows affirmative action programs for the benefit of disadvantaged populations.

The lower-wage garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers, making up more than 50 percent of the total ready-made garment workforce, according to official statistics, although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions and generally earned less than their male counterparts, even when performing similar functions. A 2017 Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute and Oxford University study found women earned lower wages in export-oriented garment factories, even after controlling for worker productivity. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of the wage gap remained even after controlling for skills, which the study attributed to higher mobility for male workers. Women were also subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment. In June a human rights NGO concluded, after conducting survey research, that 80 percent of female garment workers reported experiencing gender-based violence on the job.

In the tea industry, female workers faced discrimination. Male workers received rice rations for their female spouses, but female tea workers’ male spouses were not given rice rations, as they were not considered dependents.

Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The board may convene at any time, but it is supposed to meet at least every five years in a tripartite forum to set wage structures and benefits industry by industry. During the year the board failed to include a legitimate workers’ representative. Without a workers’ representative, garment workers did not have a voice in negotiations to set the new minimum wage. By law the government may modify or amend wage structures through official public announcement in consultation with employers and workers. The minimum wage was set for $94 a month and fixed for the ready-made garment sector only. This wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation (which averaged 6 to 8 percent annually since 2010, according to World Bank data), but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors.

Wages in the apparel sector often were higher than the minimum wage, and wages in the EPZs typically were higher than general wage levels, according to the BEPZA. In November 2018 a BEPZA circular declared the minimum wages and other benefits for workers employed in different enterprises in the EPZs. Among the lowest minimum wages were those for tea packaging at 3,060 BDT ($36.14) a month, as of December 2018. A Transparency International Bangladesh report found more than 90 percent of tea worker families shared a single room with domestic animals without proper access to safe water, electricity, or health care. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation, but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors.

By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours, but it may be extended to 60 hours, subject to the payment of an overtime allowance that is double the basic wage. Overtime cannot be compulsory. Workers must have one hour of rest if they work for more than six hours a day or a half-hour of rest for more than five hours’ work a day. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week.

The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The law states that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year. The days and dates for such festivals are supposed to be fixed by the employer in consultation with the CBA, if any, or on the recommendation of the participation committee in absence of the CBA.

Labor law implementing rules outline the process for the formation of occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported that approximately 2,175 safety committees were formed as of July 2018. The committees include both management and workers nominated by the CBA or, in absence of CBA, workers representatives of the factory’s worker participation committee. Where there is no union or worker participation committee, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.

The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, overtime pay, and occupational safety and health laws. Although increased focus on the garment industry improved compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors, and penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations. A labor rights NGO found 95 percent of factories did not comply with overtime limits.

DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. On March 4, a fire broke out at an apparel warehouse in Ashulia, damaging the entire factory. According to DIFE’s website, they last visited the factory on October 26, 2013. There were also criticisms regarding DIFE’s complaint mechanism. In the current system, a worker has to enter his or her name, position, and identity number in DIFE’s complaint form. Once received, DIFE issues a letter to factory management with reference to the complaint form. This provides inadequate protections to workers and raises doubts on the efficacy of the mechanism for filing complaints.

The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,138 workers and injured more than 2,500. In the aftermath of the collapse, private companies, foreign governments, and international organizations worked with the government to inspect more than 3,780 garment factories. Many factories began to take action to improve safety conditions, although remediation in many cases proceeded slowly due to a range of factors, including failure to obtain adequate financing. Two initiatives formed by international brands, Nirapon (including most North American brands and continuing the work of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety) and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord,” consisting mostly of European brands), continued to oversee the inspection and remediation efforts of ready-made garment factories producing for Accord and Nirapon members while government oversight of factories outside of these initiatives remained limited. The two brand-led initiatives covered only member factories in the ready-made garment industry, leaving thousands of other garment and nongarment factories without oversight. Boiler or chemical-related explosions increased the focus on nonfire industrial accidents.

In May a court-ordered memorandum of understanding established guidelines for a transition process for the Accord to begin to hand over authority to the government. In this transition the ready-made garment Sustainability Council was established, including representation from the BGMEA, international brands, and trade union federation leaders.

The court case against the owner of Rana Plaza and 40 other individuals on charges including murder began in 2016. Rana received a maximum three-year sentence for failing to declare his personal wealth to an antigraft commission. The murder trial against Rana and others repeatedly stalled, however, due to appeals and High Court stay orders.

A trial against those implicated in the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire started in 2015 after charges were brought against 13 individuals, including chairman Mahmuda Akhter and managing director Delwar Hossain, in September 2015. The case was ongoing.

Workers’ groups stated safety and health standards established by law were sufficient, and more factories took steps toward compliance. The law provides for penalties that did not deter violations. Many ready-made garment employers failed to adequately train workers on safety and hazardous materials, provide required equipment, or ensure functioning Safety Committees, all required by law.

Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely. In the ready-made garment sector, employers often required workers to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to the Solidarity Center, workers often willingly worked overtime in excess of the legal limit. Employers in many cases delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits.

Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector that employed most workers, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reported 51.3 million workers in the informal labor sector in 2016, which was 86.2 percent of the total labor force.

In February a fire broke out in Chawkbazaar, a historic Dhaka neighborhood, when a compressed natural gas-powered car caught on fire. The blast ignited other cylinders used at street-side restaurants. Very quickly, a plastics store and a shop illegally storing chemicals also burst into flames. The fire–which analysts assessed may have been averted had proper building violations been addressed–killed at least 70 persons.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

Bhutan is a democratic, constitutional monarchy. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the head of state, with executive power vested in the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. In 2018 the country held its third general elections, in which approximately 71 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. International election witnesses reported the elections were generally free and fair.

The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) is responsible for internal security. The Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) is responsible for defending against external threats but also has responsibility for some internal security functions, including counterinsurgency operations, protection of forests, and security for prominent persons. The RBP reports to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, and the king is the supreme commander in chief of the RBA. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: political prisoners; criminal libel laws; restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association; restrictions on domestic and international freedom of movement; trafficking in persons; and child labor.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression: Defamation can carry criminal penalties, and citizens were cautious in their expression, especially as it related to criticism of the royal family. Local contacts reported increased use of social media to raise complaints of official misconduct or abuse.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a variety of views. The law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information, although there were no official restrictions on the media. The law also prohibits media outlets from supporting political parties and prohibits outlets from endorsing candidates during the election period. Journalists engaged in self-censorship, especially relating to the royal family, and were hesitant to criticize politicians with whom they had personal relationships. The government controlled the majority of media outlets, and there were barriers to the creation of private outlets.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Public expression is generally free from censorship, although citizens often engage in self-censorship relating to the royal family. In 2017, legislation established an independent body, the Media Council, tasked with monitoring the media to determine what content is harmful or offensive. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report noted “press advocates fear that the new body will further erode press freedom and contribute to greater self-censorship,” although the report noted there were no instances of this during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: In its Freedom in the World 2019 report, Freedom House noted that individuals could use defamation laws to retaliate against critics.

The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government officials stated the government did not block access, restrict content, or censor websites.

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully, the government retains the right to restrict assembly. The law permits the government to control the public’s right to assembly “to avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and declaring curfew. Freedom House noted government permission for public gatherings was “sometimes denied.” The law prohibits “promotion of civil unrest” as an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony among different nationalities, racial groups, castes, or religious groups.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government permitted the registration of political parties pursuant to relevant election laws and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) deemed “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” NGOs in the country maintained formal or informal connections to members of the royal family, although this was not legally mandated. In its Freedom in the World 2019 report, Freedom House stated the government did not permit the operation of NGOs working on the status of Nepali-speaking refugees, but that other local and international NGOs worked with relative freedom from official scrutiny. Under the law all NGOs must register with the government. To register an NGO, an individual must be a citizen, disclose his or her family income and assets, provide his or her educational qualifications, and disclose any criminal record (see also section 5).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited freedom of movement and repatriation. Freedom of movement was sometimes restricted based on the location of one’s permanent residence. Additionally, the government was generally reluctant to repatriate Nepali-speaking refugees who currently live outside of the country.

In-country Movement: The law establishes different categories of citizenship and determines whether a person may be granted a “route permit” to travel internally, which primarily affected foreigners married to a citizen and their children and those who were permitted to reside in the country to conduct business.

Foreign Travel: The law establishes different categories of citizenship under which foreign travel may be restricted. NGOs reported these restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis, although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father also were affected. Citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.

Exile: In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for citizenship.

At the end of 2018, after years of international efforts resulting in the resettlement of thousands of refugees, UNHCR reported approximately 6,500 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in the two refugee camps it administered in Nepal.

There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese citizenship by refugees in Nepal.

Citizenship: The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. The government may restore citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, there were 690 new displacements in disasters during 2016, the last year for which data is available.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees, but some refugees were eligible for residence permits.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reported that since the 1960s, the country had sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. Tibetan officials reported the Tibetans had largely successfully integrated into society. According to the CTA’s 2017-18 annual report, the latest for which information is available, 1,847 Tibetan refugees lived in the country; approximately 1,654 of them had refugee resident permits. No records indicated any of these refugees held work permits. The Tibetan population was decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopted Bhutanese citizenship, according to the Department of Immigration.

Freedom of Movement: Tibetan refugees reportedly encountered difficulties traveling within and outside the country. Many Tibetan refugees faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India. Some restrictions on movement exist based on categories of citizenship, which have the greatest impact on Nepali-speaking citizens.

Employment: Reports suggested some Tibetan refugees could not obtain security clearances for government jobs or obtain licenses to run private businesses. While Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, the CTA previously reported that at least 13 refugees received business licenses and others found public-sector employment under temporary government contracts.

Access to Basic Services: The government stated Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens, although some reports stated Tibetans could not enroll in higher education.

Durable Solutions: The government continued to delay implementing a process to identify and repatriate refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship.

A nationwide census in 1985 resulted in a determination that many Nepali-speaking persons in the country were not citizens, effectively rendering them stateless. The government alleged they were not citizens because they could not prove they had been resident in the country in 1958. Officials repeated the census in 1988-89 in the southern districts. During the second round of the census, those who were deemed not to be citizens in 1985 could apply for citizenship provided they met certain conditions. The government categorized those who did not meet the new criteria as illegal immigrants and expelled them. According to NGOs an unknown number of Nepali-speaking stateless persons remained in the country, mainly in the south. Officials conducted the last census in 2017. While no records exist, civil society sources estimated 1,000 families were stateless, but other estimates put the figure as high as 30,000 persons.

For a child to qualify for citizenship, both parents must be citizens. NGOs and media sources highlighted the existence of stateless children born to unwed mothers who were unable to prove the identity of the father of the child. Government reports indicated that 20 children in the kingdom fell into this category.

Stateless persons cannot obtain “no objection certificates” and security clearance certificates, which are often necessary for access to public health care, employment, access to primary and secondary education, enrollment at institutions of higher education, travel documents, and business ownership. The National Commission for Women and Children stated children without citizenship were eligible for public educational and health services.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: The government successfully held national elections in 2018. Voter participation stood at approximately 66 percent in the first round and 71 percent in the second. International witnesses generally considered the elections free and fair. There were no reports of significant irregularities during the election process.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution states that political parties shall promote national unity and shall not resort to regionalism, ethnicity, or religion to incite voters for electoral gain. Political parties are required to be broad based, have a national membership, not be limited to a particular region or other demographic constituency, and not receive money or other assistance from foreign sources. The government provided funding only for general elections and maintained rigid guidelines on party financing. Four parties contested the 2018 elections.

Participation of Women and Minorities: Women were underrepresented in public office. Women occupied 15 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Seven of the 10 women candidates who contested the National Assembly election won, up from three in the previous election. There are also four women in the upper house or National Council, including two elected members.

As part of the country’s strict separation of religion from politics, the law barred ordained members of the clergy, including Buddhist monks and nuns, from participating in politics. This prohibition meant clergy could not vote or run for office. No other laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process.

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 isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The government took an active role in addressing official corruption through the Public Accounts Committee in the National Assembly and the Royal Audit Authority, which monitored the use of government funds. The Anticorruption Commission (ACC) is authorized to investigate cases of official corruption and allows citizens to submit information to its website regarding corrupt practices. The constitution enables the ACC to act as an independent body although its investigative staff were primarily civil servants answerable to the Royal Civil Service Commission. Based on the UN Convention against Corruption, the 2011 Anticorruption Act expanded the mandate of the ACC to cover the private sector and enhanced the ACC’s investigatory powers and functions. The ACC has the authority to suspend the registration of civil society organizations under investigation and two suspensions were ongoing according to government figures.

The 2018 ACC report detailed 182 complaints of “abuse of functions,” 23 of embezzlement, seven of bribery, and 121 other related corruption offenses. Approximately one-fourth of corruption complaints were against government ministries, which saw a substantial increase in complaints from the prior year, while there was a reduction in complaints against local governments. The ACC forwarded 19 cases for investigation.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, and persons working for NGOs using public resources, their spouses, and dependents to declare their income, assets, and liabilities.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. According to international NGOs, local civil society organizations practiced self-censorship to avoid issues perceived as sensitive by the government. Sensitive issues included women’s rights and environmental issues, as well as issues related to the Nepali-speaking community. The government did not permit human rights groups established by the Nepali-speaking community to operate by categorizing them as political organizations that did not promote national unity (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not renew its agreement with the ICRC allowing it to make prison visits to persons detained for crimes against the security of the state after their agreement expired in 2013. The ICRC continued to engage with the government to facilitate prison visits for Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Assembly Human Rights Committee conducted human rights research on behalf of the National Assembly. The Civil Society Organization (CSO) Authority has the legal authority to regulate civil society operations. Of the 51 registered CSOs, 41 were categorized as public-benefit organizations and 10 as mutual-benefit organizations. Two CSOs had ongoing registration suspensions pending ACC investigation.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The penal code makes no reference to gender in its definition of rape. In cases of rape involving minors, sentences range from five to 15 years in prison. In extreme cases, a person convicted of rape may be imprisoned for life. Spousal rape is illegal and prosecuted as a misdemeanor. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) stated in its 2018 Annual Report that there were 22 sexual offenses committed against women during the year, including eight cases of rape. A report from the National Commission for Women and Children in March found more than two in five women experienced at least one form of sexual, physical, psychological, or economic violence.

The law prohibits domestic violence. Penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence range from a prison sentence of one month to three years. Offenders also face a fine of the daily national minimum wage (approximately $3) for 90 days. Three police stations housed women and child protection units to address crimes involving women and children, and eight police stations housed desks with officers specifically devoted to women and children’s issues. A dedicated toll-free helpline exists to report violence against women and children. The government trained police on gender issues, and allowed civil society groups to undertake further efforts, including operation of a crisis and rehabilitation center. Freedom House reported that cultural taboos resulted in the underreporting of domestic violence, although reports have increased in recent years. In its 2018 Annual Report, the OAG noted one case of domestic violence during the year and highlighted antidomestic violence “dissemination programs” in schools and in nationwide community outreach.

Sexual Harassment: The Labor Employment Act has specific provisions to address sexual harassment in the workplace. NGOs reported these provisions were generally enforced.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal inheritance for sons and daughters. In some areas, however, traditional inheritance practices stipulate inheritance is matrilineal and that daughters inherit family land. It is not normal practice for daughters to assume their father’s name at birth or their husband’s name upon marriage in most of the country.

The law mandates the government take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination and exploitation of women, including trafficking, abuse, violence, harassment, and intimidation, at work and at home. The government generally enforced this law.

Birth Registration: Under the constitution, only children whose parents are both citizens acquire citizenship at birth. Parents must register a birth before a child turns one year old, after which a petition must be filed with the king to be granted citizenship. Civil society groups noted disproportionate barriers to citizenship faced by Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa communities and the wives of noncitizens.

Education: The government provides 11 years of universal free education to children, although education is not compulsory. Gender parity at the primary level has been achieved. Girls have unequal access to the country’s secondary and tertiary schools because of their distance, their lack of adequate sanitation, and transportation difficulties.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse and provides for a minimum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for perpetrators.

Early and Forced Marriage: The statutory minimum age of marriage for both men and women is 18. UNICEF data from 2017 indicated that 26 percent of women were married before the age of 18. The Bhutan Multiple Indicator Survey (BMIS) Report estimated in 2010 that 7 percent of marriages occurred before the age of 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, including child pornography, child prostitution, and the sale of children. Authorities generally enforced the law. The legal age of consent is 16 for both boys and girls. The OAG stated in its 2018 Annual Report there were 61 sexual offenses committed against children during the year, including 38 cases of rape and 17 cases of child molestation.

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

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

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

The constitution specifically protects the rights of citizens with disabilities. The law directs the government to attend to the security of all citizens in the “event of sickness and disability.” The law requires that new buildings allow access for persons with disabilities, but the government did not enforce this legislation consistently. There were reports hospitals were generally accessible to persons with disabilities, but residential and office buildings were not.

No government agency had specific responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

The law establishing different categories of citizenship and governing domestic and international travel restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis and foreign-born individuals. Reports suggested that some Nepali-speaking citizens could not obtain security clearances, which are required to obtain a passport, secure government jobs, enroll in higher education, and obtain licenses to run private businesses. The government claimed Nepali speakers were proportionally represented in civil service and government jobs. In its Freedom in the World 2019 report, Freedom House stated some ethnic Nepalis who lacked a security clearance certificate sometimes faced difficulties in starting a business. The property registration process could also be lengthy for some. The government did not permit the operation of NGOs working on the status of ethnic Nepali issues, and that ethnic Nepali persons, who speak Nepali, sometimes faced employment discrimination and other forms of bias.

The constitution provides for equal protection of the laws and application of rights but does not explicitly protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Laws against “sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature” exist. The penal code imposes penalties of up to one year in prison for engaging in prohibited sexual conduct, although this was not generally enforced.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community reported instances of discrimination and social stigma based on sexual orientation.

The law does not provide any distinct legal status for transgender individuals, nor does it provide explicit protections.

While NGOs claimed persons with HIV/AIDS faced no widespread stigma, observers noted such persons feared being open about their condition.

The government provided free medical and counseling services to persons with HIV/AIDS and maintained programs meant to prevent discrimination.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions. Workers can form a union with the participation of at least 12 employees from a single workplace. There is no national trade union. The law does not mention the right to conduct legal strikes. Most of the country’s workforce engages in agriculture, a sector that is not unionized.

The law provides for the right of workers to bargain collectively with employers. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Violators may face misdemeanor charges and be compelled to pay damages.

The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The law grants workers the right to pursue litigation.

Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were respected, although there were few employee unions. No unions formed during the year.

According to a media report, there are two wage rates in the country: the national minimum wage rate, and the national work force wage rate. The national minimum wage rate applies to anyone working in the country irrespective of nationality. The national work force wage rate, which is higher, applies only to Bhutanese nationals. The country’s minimum wage when converted to a monthly income was above the poverty line.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce applicable laws. The law makes exceptions with regard to prison labor, work that might be required during an emergency, and work required for “important local and public” celebrations. The law criminalizes trafficking for illegal, but not exploitative, purposes. Violations of the law with respect to worst forms of child labor, forced and compulsory labor, improvement notice, prohibition notice, nonpayment of compensation, minimum age of admission into employment, employing foreigners without permit, and not complying with permits issued by the government are felonies subject to three to five years’ imprisonment. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. In addition, labor inspectors often mediated cases of nonpayment of wages and passport withholding in lieu of civil or criminal investigations.

Some domestic servants working in private homes, including Indian children, where the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources lacks jurisdiction are victims of forced labor. Officials relied on citizens to report forced labor of domestics directly to police. In addition civil society reported traffickers exploited Bhutanese students in forced labor abroad, including through student-worker programs (see section 7.c).

Migrant workers from India who worked in the country’s construction and hydropower sectors and Indian women and girls who worked in domestic service or as caregivers were vulnerable to forced labor. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources noted approximately 54,972 migrants worked in the country as of June 2018, mostly from India. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources registered foreign migrant workers in the country, monitored working conditions, and produced and disseminated pamphlets advising workers of their rights, including full and prompt payment of wages and entitlement to retain personal identity documents. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime noted an increase in Indian child domestic workers in local homes, noting they were often brought in illegally and were hard to track. Young, rural citizens were transported to urban areas, generally by relatives, for domestic work, and some of these individuals were subjected to domestic servitude. Unconfirmed reports suggested that girls who worked as entertainers in drayungs (karaoke bars) were subjected to labor and sex trafficking through debt and threats of physical abuse.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for employment is 13, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than age 18 are prohibited from working in dangerous occupations, including mining, construction, sanitary services, carpet weaving, or serving in bars.

While child labor laws were generally enforced, the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources reported that limited resources placed constraints on the number of inspections conducted and inspectors employed. Penalties included up to nine years’ of nonbailable imprisonment and were generally sufficient to deter violations.

Children performed agricultural and construction work, completed chores on family farms, or worked in shops and restaurants after school and during holidays. Child labor also occurred in hotels and automobile workshops. Girls were employed primarily as domestic workers, where they were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits employment discrimination for employees and job applicants and prescribes equal pay for equal work. Nepal-based organizations representing refugees claimed that Nepali-speaking citizens were subject to discrimination with respect to employment and occupation (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was greater than the national poverty level. The law defines the workday as eight hours per day with a one-hour lunch break, and employers are required to grant regular rest days; however, these laws were sometimes difficult to enforce. According to one media report, although the government extended maternity leave by three months in 2016, most organizations in the private sector had not implemented the new rule. Work in excess of the legal workday was mandated to be paid at 1.5 times the normal rate.

Government occupational safety and health standards are current and appropriate. Labor regulations grant workers the right to leave work situations that endanger their health and safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The government generally enforced minimum wage, work hours, and occupational health and safety standards, fines and imprisonment effectively in the formal sector. Such penalties generally were sufficient to deter violations. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to cover the country’s industries. Labor regulations were not effectively applied in the informal sector.

India

Executive Summary

India is a multiparty, federal, parliamentary democracy with a bicameral legislature. The president, elected by an electoral college composed of the state assemblies and parliament, is the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of government. Under the constitution, the country’s 28 states and nine union territories have a high degree of autonomy and have primary responsibility for law and order. Electors chose President Ram Nath Kovind in 2017 to serve a five-year term, and Narendra Modi became prime minister for the second time following the victory of the National Democratic Alliance coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election. Observers considered the parliamentary elections, which included more than 600 million voters, to be free and fair, although with isolated instances of violence.

The states and union territories have primary responsibility for maintaining law and order, with policy oversight from the central government. Police are under state jurisdiction. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) controls most paramilitary forces, the internal intelligence bureaus and national law enforcement agencies, and provides training for senior officials from state police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; torture by prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners in certain states; restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech, censorship, and site blocking; overly restrictive rules on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); frequent reports of widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence and discrimination targeting minorities based on religious affiliation or social status; and forced and compulsory child labor, including bonded labor.

Despite government efforts to address abuses, a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under-resourced court system contributed to a small number of convictions.

Separatist insurgents and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, and Maoist-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians, and recruited and used child soldiers.

On August 5, the government announced major changes to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, converting the state into two separate union territories. In the ensuing security crackdown, authorities detained thousands of residents, including local political leaders; shut down mobile and internet services; and imposed restrictions on movement. As of December the government had taken steps to restore normalcy, including partial restoration of telephone and mobile services, but had not yet announced a timeline for local assembly elections.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to HRW, however, sedition and criminal defamation laws were used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or opposed state policies. In certain cases, local authorities arrested individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. Freedom House, in its most recent report, asserted that freedom of expression was weakening in the country and noted the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. The report stated authorities have used security, defamation, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media outlets. In some instances the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from media outlets that criticized the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship.

On January 10, Assam’s prominent academic Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested in Guwahati and charged with sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. On January 11, Gohan and Gogoi were awarded interim bail, and Mahanta was awarded absolute bail. On February 15, Gohan and Gogoi were given absolute bail. Gogoi was later arrested on December 10 while protesting the enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act; his case was referred to the National Investigation Agency for sedition, criminal conspiracy, unlawful association, and assertions prejudicial to national integration.

On March 10, filmmakers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals joined a protest in Kolkata against the “unofficial ban” on the Bengali feature film Bhabishyater Bhoot (Spirits of the Future), a political satire by director Anik Datta. Media reported that two days after the film’s release on February 15, most cinema halls in West Bengal refused to screen the film, citing unofficial pressure from authorities. The government’s film certification board had already cleared the film. Following an April 11 Supreme Court order, the West Bengal government paid a fine of two million rupees ($30,000) to the film’s producer.

On April 28, police in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada prevented film director Ram Gopal Varma from addressing a press conference in the city to promote his movie, Lakshmis NTR, which portrays the life of former state chief minister N.T. Rama Rao. Varma alleged that police acted under pressure from the ruling Telugu Desam Party, which opposed the movie’s release during national elections. Police claimed that Varma was not allowed to address a press conference as prohibitory orders were in force during the conduct of the elections.

In late April, BJP Party workers in Assam allegedly attacked journalists in the Nalbari, Tinsukia, and Jorhat Districts when the journalists were covering the national elections. On May 6, Trinamool Congress Party workers in West Bengal allegedly attacked journalists covering elections in several locations.

On July 21, Tamil Nadu police arrested a 24-year-old man in Nagapattinam District for consuming beef soup in a Facebook posting. Police filed charges against him for disturbing peace and communal harmony. Four others were arrested on July 11 for allegedly attacking the accused but were later granted bail.

On July 28, two men shot and killed Pradeep Mandal, a journalist with Hindi daily Dainik Jagran in Bihar’s Madhubani town. Media outlets reported that he was targeted for exposing bootleggers’ syndicates in the state. Bihar has imposed a prohibition on the sale and consumption of liquor.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.

According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and, in some areas, blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement. Several journalists reported that the heavy deployment of security forces, accompanied by a communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir from early August, severely hampered the freedom of the press in Jammu and Kashmir. Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Srinagar-based newspaper the Kashmir Times, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in August stating that journalists were not allowed to move freely in Jammu and Kashmir. The petition also claimed the intimidation of journalists by the government and security forces. On September 1, authorities stopped another Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, from flying to Germany to participate in a program organized by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index identified physical attacks on journalists and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for non-English language journalists, those in rural areas, and female journalists. Journalists working in “sensitive” areas, including Jammu and Kashmir, continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions, and local affiliates reported increased fears of violence. Attacks on journalists by supporters of Hindu nationalist groups increased prior to the May national elections, according to the report. Reports of self-censorship due to fear of official or public reprisal were common, including the use of Section 124a of the penal code, which includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.

The Editors Guild of India claimed the government limited press freedom by exerting political pressure and blocking television transmissions. The guild separately called for authorities to restore communications in Jammu and Kashmir, where a prolonged communications shutdown limited media freedom.

On July 12, Hyderabad police arrested journalist Revathi Pogadadanda, reportedly in connection with a six-month-old case registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Police allegedly did not produce an arrest warrant at the time of arrest and released her on bail a week later. Pogadadanda alleged her arrest was part of the government’s vindictive action against her mentor and senior journalist Ravi Prakash, who had published two interviews online accusing the Telangana chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, and a prominent industrialist, P.V. Krishna Reddy, of corruption in a multimillion dollar public transport scam. On October 5, Prakash was arrested on allegations of corporate fraud. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced both arrests.

The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were some accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books due to material that government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.

Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018.

On April 8, the Manipur High Court ordered the release of television journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem. Police arrested Wangkhem in November 2018 under the National Security Act for criticizing the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his social media posts.

On May 26, the Bengaluru police filed a “first information report”–a report prepared by police upon first receipt of information of a possible crime–against Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Kannada daily Vishwavani, for allegedly publishing derogatory remarks against K. Nikhil, son of then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Police did not make any arrests.

On May 29, six unidentified persons grievously injured journalist Pratap Patra in Balasore District of Odisha. Patra alleged he was attacked after publishing an investigative article on May 8 against a local sand miner, who had been illegally quarrying sand. The article led authorities to levy a fine of 1.6 million rupees ($23,000) on the sand-mining company. Police arrested three individuals on June 2.

On June 8, Uttar Pradesh police arrested and filed criminal charges against a freelance journalist for allegedly posting a video of a woman claiming to be in a relationship with state chief minister Yogi Adityanath. On June 11, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the journalist and chastised the Uttar Pradesh government for the arrest.

Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.

A right to information response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in 2017 revealed that at least 20,030 websites were blocked at that time. The government proposed rules in February that would give it broad latitude to demand content removal from social media sites, which civil society organizations felt could be used to stifle free speech.

Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.

Several individuals in Telangana were either arrested or disciplined during the year for making or posting critical comments through videos and social media platforms about Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao and other leaders of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi Party. On April 24, Telangana police arrested Thagaram Naveen for producing and sharing a derogatory video about Rao. On April 30, Hyderabad police arrested Chirpa Naresh for posting abusive comments and sharing morphed images of Rao and then member of parliament K. Kavitha.

On May 25, police arrested tribal rights activist and academic Jeetrai Hansda for a Facebook post defending his community’s right to eat beef. Hansda was arrested in response to a complaint filed in 2017 by the Hindu nationalist students’ organization ABVP under charges that he violated sections of the Indian Penal Code that govern insults to religious feelings and attempts to promote enmity between groups of people.

On August 14, police in Assam registered a complaint against Gauhati University research scholar Rehana Sultana over a two-year-old Facebook post, allegedly about the consumption of beef. According to media reports, police took note after the two-year-old post resurfaced.

National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. In August 2018 numerous outlets reported that the Indian Department of Telecom was seeking the views of telecom companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders on ways to block mobile apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram, “in cases where national security or public order are under threat.”

There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, and censorship of online content. There were also reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.

In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media, but it upheld the government’s authority to issue orders to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to these rules, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or state level.

According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 134 times in 2018, the highest annual figure ever recorded. The NGO also reported that, through August, the central and state governments on 77 occasions temporarily shut down the internet in different locations across the country. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions during periods of political unrest. In February mobile internet connections were blocked for four days in Manipur after protests occurred in the state. Landline connections remained offline for more than one month in parts of the state, while mobile telephone, mobile data, and internet connections took longer to be restored. The government frequently curtailed internet access during periods of violence and curfew in Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally in other parts of the country, particularly Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. In December, in response to protests concerning the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, internet shutdowns were again used throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used Section 144 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure that empowers authorities to maintain public peace and stability, as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.

From August to mid-October, the government imposed severe restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir, citing security concerns. On August 4, the government suspended all communications, including internet, mobile telephones, and landlines, across Jammu and Kashmir. Several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court protesting the government’s actions, including a plea by social activist Tehseen Poonawalla, who maintained that the communications shutdown amounted to a suspension of freedom of speech and deprivation of personal liberty under the constitution. On August 13, the Supreme Court granted the government additional time to keep the restrictions in place, noting that the situation was “sensitive.” NGOs maintained that the suspension of communications adversely affected the daily lives of residents, preventing them from reaching loved ones and accessing health care as well as causing financial stress to businesses reliant upon it. Landlines were restored in September. On October 14, postpaid mobile telephone access was restored; government authorities noted text messaging would be restored on January 1. Prepaid mobile telephones and the internet mostly remained blocked.

NGOs asserted that this approach bypassed some safeguards in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, including oversight by a review committee. A UNESCO report stated that one-half of the shutdowns were reported from Jammu and Kashmir, where in the first four months of the year, there were 25 reported cases of internet shutdown.

Requests for user data from internet companies continued to rise. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 37,385 data requests in 2018, a 70 percent rise from 2017. Google also highlighted an increase in government requests for user data in its 2018 Transparency Report, receiving 24,404 user-data disclosure requests. Twitter reported 777 account information requests from the government during the same period.

In its Freedom in the World 2019 country report for India, Freedom House noted that central and state governments frequently suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted that the legal basis for internet shutdowns was not always clear, creating issues of accountability and legal remedy.

Press outlets reported several instances in which individuals were arrested or detained for online activity. In January an Indian politician from Tamil Nadu was arrested for posting an altered picture of Prime Minister Modi with a begging bowl. Several media outlets reported on a spate of arrests of individuals in connection with social media posts following the February 14 attack on Indian troops in Pulwama District in Jammu and Kashmir. Press outlets reported that police continued to arrest individuals under section 66A of the Information Technology Act for sending offensive messages, despite a Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) continued to allow governmental agencies to monitor electronic communications in real time without informing the subject or a judge. The CMS is a mass electronic surveillance data-mining program installed by the Center for Development of Telematics, a government-owned telecommunications technology development center. The CMS gives security agencies and income tax officials centralized access to the telecommunication network and the ability to hear and record mobile, landline, and satellite telephone calls and Voice over Internet Protocol, to read private emails and mobile phone text messages, and to track geographical locations of individuals in real time. Authorities can also use it to monitor posts shared on social media and track users’ search histories on search engines, without oversight by courts or parliament. This monitoring facility was available to nine security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The law governing interception and monitoring provides an oversight mechanism to prevent unauthorized interceptions. Punishment for unauthorized interception includes fines, a maximum prison sentence of three years, or both.

The government occasionally applied restrictions on the travel and activities of visiting foreign experts and scholars. Academics continued to face threats and pressure for expressing controversial views.

On April 3, Odisha Tourism Department authorities canceled a book reading session by noted historian William Dalrymple, which was originally scheduled for April 5-8 at the Mukteswar heritage temple in Bhubaneswar. The cancellation followed a police complaint filed by a Hindu nationalist who claimed that the reading would hurt the sentiments of Hindus. The activist, Anil Dhir, alleged that ritualistic worship happens in the temple, and it would hurt the sentiments of Hindus if the temple were “misused.” Police, however, cited the ongoing elections and enforcement of a model code of conduct as justification for canceling the event.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.

Security forces, including local police, often disrupted demonstrations and reportedly used excessive force when attempting to disperse protesters.

There were sometimes restrictions on the organization of international conferences. Authorities required NGOs to secure approval from the central government before organizing international conferences. Authorities routinely granted permission, although in some cases the approval process was lengthy. Some human rights groups claimed this practice provided the government tacit control over the work of NGOs and constituted a restriction on freedoms of assembly and association.

NGO Human Rights Forum alleged that police routinely denied permission to the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist New Democracy to organize a public meeting on June 10 against the Supreme Court decision on eviction of forest dwellers. The NGO criticized police for failing to provide justification for their decision. Many indigenous persons who came to participate in the public meeting were arrested, and many others were prevented from reaching Hyderabad, the NGO alleged.

The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government required “prior approval” for some NGOs to receive foreign funds, suspended foreign banking licenses, or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without the proper clearances or that mixed foreign and domestic funding. In other instances, the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations. Further FCRA requirements announced in September require NGOs to file an additional affidavit declaring that, among other things, the entity has not been prosecuted or convicted in engaging in propagation of sedition. The government has used sedition laws to prosecute those critical of government.

Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by MHA officials who they said were purportedly under pressure to demonstrate strict enforcement of the law. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on nonpublic investigations by the Intelligence Bureau.

Some NGOs alleged they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues, such as human rights or environmental activism. The Center for Promotion of Social Concerns and its partner program unit People’s Watch continued court proceedings against the nonrenewal of their FCRA license. In June, acting on an MHA complaint, the CBI filed a first information report against Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and the NGO Lawyers Collective, an organization run by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, alleging discrepancies in the utilization of foreign funds. On July 11, the CBI accused Grover and Jaising of violating FCRA provisions and raided their home and offices. On July 25, the Bombay High Court stated the CBI allegation against Lawyers Collective–about mixing FCRA funds with domestic funding–was “vague and arbitrary,” and it directed the CBI not to take any coercive steps in relation to the first information report until August 19. Civil society groups, including HRW and the International Commission of Jurists, criticized the CBI action as “dubious” and politically motivated.

In October 2018 the Enforcement Directorate, a government agency that investigates financial crimes, raided the premises of Amnesty International India’s Bengaluru office and froze its bank accounts on suspicion it had violated foreign funding guidelines. On July 25, media outlets reported that after the completion of the directorate’s probe, the agency issued a show-cause notice to Amnesty International India for alleged contravention of Foreign Exchange Management Act provisions for an amount of more than 510 million rupees ($7 million).

Amnesty International India disputed the validity of the charges and alleged the harassment and intimidation of its staff. The 2018 raid on Amnesty came days after the Enforcement Directorate searched the premises of environmental nonprofit Greenpeace India in Bengaluru, also for allegedly violating foreign funding rules. In February a letter by three UN special rapporteurs to the government expressed serious concerns at the “smear campaign” and actions taken against Amnesty International India and Greenpeace, saying the ability to access foreign funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association.

On February 28, the government outlawed the religious-political organization Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir under the UAPA for alleged support of extremism and militancy. On March 22, the government similarly banned another Kashmiri organization, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which supports the independence of the union territory. Political parties and civil society groups in the state described these bans as an attack on civil liberties.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. In 2015 the implementation of a land-boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh enfranchised more than 50,000 previously stateless residents, providing access to education and health services.

The country hosts a large refugee population, including 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased challenges regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, all other refugees were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.

In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The MHA and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas.

Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”

The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.

Citizenship: On May 28, Assam Border Police arrested 52-year-old Mohammed Sanaullah, a war veteran and 2017 army retiree, and put him in Goalpara detention center for illegal immigrants after declaring him a foreigner following Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise. The Gauhati High Court released him on June 8.

In July a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam’s Jorhat District declared Indian Border Security Force officer Muzibur Rahman and his wife Jargin Begum as foreigners.

On December 12, the Citizenship Amendment Act received assent from the president. The act provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims. The act does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few reported instances.

Authorities located IDP settlements throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. Estimates from January to June suggested that conflicts and violence displaced 6,800 persons, while natural disasters displaced 2.17 million persons.

Estimating precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence was difficult, because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).

National policy or legislation did not address the issue of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs, but it had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.

On July 2, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs assured the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes that the tribal persons displaced from Chhattisgarh due to Maoist violence would be provided land in other states, but the land would be provided only after the ministry completed a comprehensive survey and verified identification of all IDPs. According to the Raipur-based NGO CGNet Swara Foundation, approximately 30,000 tribal persons were displaced from Chhattisgarh and were living mainly in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees like any other foreigners. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to forced returns and abuse. The country has historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.

The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.

Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations, such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.

NGOs observed an increase in antirefugee (specifically anti-Rohingya) rhetoric throughout the year in advance of state and national elections, which reportedly led to an increased sense of insecurity in refugee communities. In October 2018 the Supreme Court rejected a plea to stop the deportation of seven Rohingya immigrants from Assam. The court noted the individuals, held in an Assam jail since 2012, were arrested by Indian authorities as illegal immigrants and that Burma was ready to accept them as their nationals. According to media reports, the nationality of the immigrants was confirmed after the Burmese government verified their addresses in Rakhine State. Rights groups said the government’s decision to deport them placed them at risk of oppression and abuse. According to HRW, the government deported the seven ethnic Rohingya Muslims to Burma where “they are at grave risk of oppression and abuse.” HRW further noted, “The Indian government has disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders.”

Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues. Police in Mizoram rescued a dozen Rohingya refugees from a suspected trafficking operation in May.

Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least 17 Rohingya were returned since September 2018, according to UNHCR. At least 26 non-Rohingya refugees have been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.

The identity card issued by UNHCR is the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.

In July 2018 the MHA instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The MHA directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.

In August the government finalized the NRC in Assam. The NRC is a Supreme Court-ordered citizenship list containing names of Indian citizens in an effort to identify foreign nationals living in the state. The NRC found nearly two million persons ineligible for citizenship in Assam. The government has established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions in individual cases. News reports indicated the government was in the process of constructing 10 centers to detain illegal immigrants. On December 23, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation of the government’s intention to do so.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.

UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited. Nonetheless, the government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but it did permit asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingyas detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.

The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.

After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state. The central government approved the extension of funding to run the camps until 2020.

Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers.

Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized national identity (Aadhaar) card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. The government allowed UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers to apply for long-term visas that would provide work authorization and access to higher education, although the rate of renewal for long-term visas slowed significantly. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.

The government began issuing long-term visas to refugees from other countries in 2014, but UNHCR reported that the government did not regularly issue long-term visas during the year.

According to UNHCR and an NGO working with Rohingya in Hyderabad, government of Telangana authorities provided food supplies through public distribution system, postnatal care for mothers, periodic immunization, and a bridge school for children along with three meals a day. Further, the Telangana Open School Society waived the Aadhaar card requirement for Rohingya students to appear for high school examination.

The government did not fully comply with a 2012 MHA directive to issue long-term visas to Rohingya. It has reportedly slowed renewals for those with long-term visas significantly, limiting access to formal employment in addition to education, health services, and bank accounts.

Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times, such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.

Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.

The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.

By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained Indian citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at an Indian consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities can also confer citizenship through registration under specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years. Tibetans reportedly sometimes faced difficulty acquiring citizenship despite meeting the legal requirements.

On August 20, the MHA announced that “noninclusion of a person’s name in the NRC does not by itself amount to him or her being declared as a foreigner” and that it would allow 120 days for individuals to appeal against their exclusion from the list. The MHA assured that those excluded from the NRC would be given adequate opportunity to present their case before foreigners’ tribunals in Assam with legal assistance from the state government. In addition to 100 existing tribunals, the Assam government planned to establish 200 foreigners’ tribunals immediately to deal with cases of individuals who would be excluded. Addressing concerns regarding the four million residents excluded from the draft NRC, the Assam government on August 1 claimed that the rate of exclusion in the districts bordering Bangladesh was lower than the state average. The government’s earlier request for fresh verification of a segment of the population included in the NRC was rejected by the court on July 23. In August the office published the final version of the list excluding about 1.9 million persons.

According to UNHCR and NGOs, the country had a large population of stateless persons, but there were no reliable estimates. Stateless populations included Chakmas and Hajongs, who entered the country in the early 1960s from present-day Bangladesh and groups affected by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. In September 2017 the central government stated it would appeal to the Supreme Court to review its 2015 order to consider citizenship for approximately 70,000 Chakma and Hajong refugees. Media outlets quoted then minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju as saying the Supreme Court order was “unimplementable.”

Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While these certificates alone do not entitle refugees to Indian citizenship, refugees may present Indian birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship.

UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 95,230 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu were “hill country” Tamils. While Sri Lankan law allows “hill country” refugees to present affidavits to secure Sri Lankan citizenship, UNHCR believed that until the Sri Lankan government processes the paperwork, such refugees were at risk of becoming stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: The Election Commission of India is an independent constitutional body responsible for administering all elections at the central and state level throughout the country. During the year voters re-elected the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the country’s general elections, which involved more than 600 million eligible voters. During the year the seven states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim, Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand held elections for their state assemblies. Observers considered these elections free and fair, although with isolated instances of violence.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides for universal voting rights for all citizens 18 and older. There were no restrictions placed on the formation of political parties or on individuals of any community from participating in the election process. The election law bans the use of government resources for political campaigning, and the Election Commission effectively enforced the law. The commission’s guidelines ban opinion polls 48 hours prior to an election, and exit poll results may not be released until completion of the last phase (in a multiphase election).

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they freely participated. The law reserves one-third of the seats in local councils for women. Religious, cultural, and traditional practices and ideas prevented women from proportional participation in political office. Nonetheless, women held many high-level political offices, including positions as cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and state chief ministers.

The constitution stipulates that, to protect historically marginalized groups and provide for representation in the lower house of parliament, each state must reserve seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population in the state. Only candidates belonging to these groups may contest elections in reserved constituencies. While some Christians and Muslims were identified as Dalits, the government limited reserved seats for Dalits to Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. Members of minority populations have previously served as prime minister, president, vice president, cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, members of parliament, and state chief ministers.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials at all levels of government. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: Corruption was present at all levels of government. On July 10, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh informed parliament’s lower house that the CBI registered 412 corruption-related cases from January until May 1. Between 2016 and June 30, the CBI registered 61 corruption cases against 86 government officials and achieved convictions against 26 persons in 20 cases. Singh also stated that 1,889 cases of corruption were referred to the CBI in 2018 through an internal government mechanism and that 43,946 corruption-related complaints were received by the Central Vigilance Commission in 2018 and 2019, of which 41,755 were dismissed. NGOs reported the payment of bribes to expedite services, such as police protection, school admission, water supply, and government assistance. Civil society organizations drew public attention to corruption throughout the year, including through demonstrations and websites that featured stories of corruption.

Media reports, NGOs, and activists reported links among politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, militant groups, and security forces in infrastructure projects, narcotics trafficking, and timber smuggling in the northeastern states.

In July multiple complaints of criminal corruption were lodged against opposition party leader and Member of Parliament Azam Khan alleging that he illegally obtained farmers’ land for the Mohammad Ali Jauhar University, which he founded in 2006. Khan was a cabinet minister in Uttar Pradesh at the time. In November criminal charges were filed against Khan’s wife and son as well, both of whom were opposition members of the state’s Legislative Assembly. More than 84 cases have been registered against Khan, and probes have been conducted by central government authorities into money laundering as well. The cases remained under investigation at year’s end.

In several sex trafficking cases in government-funded shelter homes uncovered in 2018, victims alleged in a few cases that government officials facilitated the trafficking and, in three cases, were clients of shelter residents exploited in sex trafficking.

In Deoria, despite multiple letters from the district government to cease sending vulnerable women and children to a shelter operating without proper registration, three police superintendents sent at least 405 girls to the shelter over two years, where shelter employees exploited many in sex trafficking. The Uttar Pradesh state government requested a report from all shelter homes in the state, initiated investigations, and arrested the owner of the shelter.

In a separate case in Agra in October 2018, a judge sentenced a government-run shelter warden to life imprisonment on conviction of selling shelter residents into sex trafficking.

Financial Disclosure: The law mandates asset declarations for all officers in the Indian Administrative Services. Both the Election Commission and the Supreme Court upheld mandatory disclosure of criminal and financial records for candidates for elected office.

In September 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the judiciary could not disqualify politicians facing charges related to serious offenses and stop them from contesting elections. The court asked parliament to frame laws to bar those accused of crimes from being able to run for elected office.

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

Most domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. In some circumstances, groups faced restrictions (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). There were reportedly more than three million NGOs in the country, but definitive numbers were not available. The government generally met with domestic NGOs, responded to their inquiries, and took action in response to their reports or recommendations. The NHRC worked cooperatively with numerous NGOs, and several NHRC committees had NGO representation. Some human rights monitors in Jammu and Kashmir were able to document human rights violations, but periodically security forces, police, and other law enforcement authorities reportedly restrained or harassed them. Representatives of certain international human rights NGOs sometimes faced difficulties obtaining visas and reported that occasional official harassment and restrictions limited their public distribution of materials.

On February 8, the Gujarat High Court granted anticipatory conditional bail to activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, who faced charges of corruption and misappropriation of funds. In 2017 the Supreme Court had rejected their relief plea. Additional charges were filed in May 2018 for allegedly securing and fraudulently misusing 14 million rupees ($200,000) worth of government funds for educational purposes between 2010 and 2013. The activists claimed authorities filed the case in retaliation for their work on behalf of victims of the 2002 Gujarat riot. The case continued at year’s end. On August 7, the Gujarat High Court quashed complaints registered against Setalvad in 2014, which alleged she had uploaded objectionable images of Hindu deities on a social media platform.

On July 4, unidentified gunmen shot a human rights activist’s daughter in Imphal, Manipur. The activist’s organization advocated for indigenous people’s rights, and the activist claimed that security agencies have persecuted the NGO since 2006. He also claimed police refused to register a complaint.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny the United Nations access to Jammu and Kashmir and limited access to the northeastern states and Maoist-controlled areas. The government refused to cooperate with the special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council following a June 2018 OHCHR publication, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Kashmir, which cited impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice as key human rights challenges in Jammu and Kashmir. The government rejected OHCHR’s report as “false, prejudicial, politically motivated, and [seeking] to undermine the sovereignty of India.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC is an independent and impartial investigatory and advisory body, established by the central government, with a dual mandate to investigate and remedy instances of human rights violations and to promote public awareness of human rights. It is directly accountable to parliament but works in close coordination with the MHA and the Ministry of Law and Justice. It has a mandate to address official violations of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violations, intervene in judicial proceedings involving allegations of human rights violations, and review any factors (including acts of terrorism) that infringe on human rights. The law authorizes the NHRC to issue summonses and compel testimony, produce documentation, and requisition public records. The NHRC also recommends appropriate remedies for abuses in the form of compensation to the victims or their families.

The NHRC has neither the authority to enforce the implementation of its recommendations nor the power to address allegations against military and paramilitary personnel. Human rights groups claimed these limitations hampered the work of the NHRC. Some human rights NGOs criticized the NHRC’s budgetary dependence on the government and its policy of not investigating abuses that are older than one year. Some claimed the NHRC did not register all complaints, dismissed cases arbitrarily, did not investigate cases thoroughly, rerouted complaints back to the alleged violator, and did not adequately protect complainants.

Of 28 states, 24 have human rights commissions, which operated independently under the auspices of the NHRC. In six states, the position of chairperson remained vacant. Some human rights groups alleged local politics influenced state committees, which were less likely to offer fair judgments than the NHRC. In the course of its nationwide evaluation of state human rights committees, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) observed most state committees had few or no minority, civil society, or female representatives. The HRLN claimed the committees were ineffective and at times hostile toward victims, hampered by political appointments, understaffed, and underfunded.

The Jammu and Kashmir commission does not have the authority to investigate alleged human rights violations committed by members of paramilitary security forces. The NHRC has jurisdiction over all human rights violations, except in certain cases involving the army. The NHRC has authority to investigate cases of human rights violations committed by the MHA and paramilitary forces operating under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the northeast states and in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the 2018 OHCHR Report on the Human Rights Situation in Kashmir, there has been no prosecution of armed forces personnel in the nearly 28 years that the AFSPA has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape in most cases, although marital rape is not illegal when the woman is older than 15. Official statistics pointed to rape as one of the country’s fastest-growing crimes, prompted at least in part by the increasing willingness of victims to report rapes, although observers believed the number of rapes remained vastly underreported. According to one study, based on the government’s National Family Health Survey, an estimated 99 percent of rape cases went unreported.

Law enforcement and legal recourse for rape victims were inadequate, and the judicial system was overtaxed and unable to address the problem effectively. Police sometimes worked to reconcile rape victims and their attackers; in some cases they encouraged female rape victims to marry their attackers. The NGO International Center for Research on Women noted that low conviction rates in rape cases was one of the main reasons sexual violence continued unabated. The NGO Lawyers Collective noted the length of trials, lack of victim support, and inadequate protection of witnesses and victims remained major concerns. Doctors continued to carry out an invasive “two-finger test” to speculate on sexual history, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that the test violated a victim’s right to privacy.

Incidents of rape continued to be a persistent problem, including gang rape, rape of minors, and rape by government officials. On July 12, the NHRC notified the government of Haryana of the alleged rape of a student by her teacher in Haryana’s Panipat District. The teacher threatened the girl to keep quiet after she became pregnant. Police were conducting an investigation.

In August 2018 parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill to increase the minimum mandatory punishments for rape from seven years’ to 10 years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for the rape of a girl younger than 16 increased from 10 years’ to between 20 years’ and life imprisonment; the minimum sentence of gang rape of a girl younger than 12 was punishable by either life imprisonment or the death penalty. On February 19, the MHA launched the Investigation Tracking System for Sexual Offences, an online analytic tool for states and union territories to monitor and track time-bound investigations in sexual assault cases in accordance with Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2018.

Incidents of gang rape of minors remained prevalent. On June 9, six individuals, including four police officials, were convicted for a 2018 gang rape and murder of a girl in Jammu and Kashmir. Another accused was a minor and is to be tried in a juvenile court.

On November 28, the burned body of a woman was found in Shadnagar, a town in Telangana State. The woman, a 27-year-old veterinary student, had been approached by a group of men in Hyderabad when her motorbike had a flat tire. The men agreed to assist her and lured her to a secluded spot where they gang-raped and killed her. Her body was subsequently wrapped in a blanket, doused with kerosene, and set ablaze in an underpass. Four men were arrested on November 28. Nationwide protests erupted in response to the incident, calling for an end to violence against women, and in some cases, protesters asked for the accused to be handed over to them. On December 6, all four of the accused were shot and killed by police as they purportedly tried to flee during a crime scene reconstruction.

Women in conflict areas, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, as well as vulnerable Dalit or tribal women, were often victims of rape or threats of rape. National crime statistics indicated Dalit women were disproportionately victimized compared with other caste affiliations. After the abrogation of Article 370 canceled the region’s autonomy, removing provisions that blocked non-Kashmiris from owning land, Uttar Pradesh BJP Legislative Assembly member Vikram Saini was quoted as saying, “Muslim Party workers should rejoice in the new provisions. They can now marry the white-skinned women of Kashmir.” Media reports related instances of soldiers threatening Kashmiri families with taking away their daughters for marriage.

Domestic violence continued to be a problem. The latest available NCRB data estimated the conviction rate for crimes against women was 23 percent. Acid attacks against women continued to cause death and permanent disfigurement. In February 2018 the Delhi government announced it would cover 100 percent of the medical expenses for victims of acid attacks in all private hospitals within the National Capital Territory of Delhi. In May 2018 the Supreme Court approved assistance for victims of acid attacks under the Compensation Scheme for Women Victims, Survivors of Sexual Assault, and Other Crimes 2018. The scheme outlined a maximum assistance of 800,000 rupees ($11,500) for injuries from acid attacks.

The government made efforts to address the safety of women. In August 2018 the minister of state for women and child development told the lower house of parliament the government allocated 29 billion rupees ($410 million) toward enhancing women’s safety in eight cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai. Projects included increased surveillance technology, capacity building, and awareness campaigns. In August the Tamil Nadu government began the “Amma Patrol,” a dedicated 40-vehicle unit to provide rapid response to prevent violence against women and girls. The state cofunds the program with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the MHA.

On June 28, the minister for women and child development, Smriti Irani, told the lower house of parliament that 462 one-stop crisis centers for women were set up during the previous three years, including 291 since 2018. More than 220,000 women sought support from the centers. The centers provide medical, legal, counseling, and shelter services for women facing violence. In September 2018 the government launched an online National Database on Sexual Offenders. The registry included accused and convicted sexual offenders. Only police and legal authorities had access to data.

On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay five million rupees ($70,400) compensation to Bilkis Bano, a rape survivor of the Gujarat 2002 riots. During the communal riots, a pregnant Bano was gang-raped, and 14 members of her family, including her two-year old daughter and mother, were killed. After the court trial, the 12 persons accused were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. On September 30, the Supreme Court gave the Gujarat government two weeks to pay Bano, besides providing her a job and government accommodation. The court passed the order after it was apprised by Bano’s legal counsel that the amount had not been paid to her, despite the court’s April order.

The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill 2019 banned the practice of “triple talaq” or instant divorce effective August 1. Some women seeking relief under this law experienced domestic violence. For example, on August 19, a 22-year-old woman in Shravasti District of Uttar Pradesh was burned alive by her husband and in-laws for approaching police after the man gave the woman “triple talaq.” Criminal charges were filed against the family on August 22.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, between 70 and 90 percent of Dawoodi Bohras, a population of approximately one million concentrated in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Delhi, practiced FGM/C.

In July 2018 the Supreme Court heard a public interest case seeking to ban the practice of FGM/C. The government, represented by Attorney General K. K. Venugopal, told the court that it supports the petitioners’ plea that the practice be punishable under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. Days after a September 2018 meeting between the prime minister and the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who supports the practice of FGM/C, the government reportedly reversed its position, and the attorney general stated the matter should be referred to a five-member panel of the Supreme Court to decide on the issue of religious rights and freedom.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law forbids the acceptance of marriage dowry, but many families continued to offer and accept dowries, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. NCRB data showed that authorities arrested 20,545 persons for dowry deaths in 2016. Most states employed dowry prohibition officers. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling makes it mandatory for all trial courts to charge defendants in dowry-death cases with murder. “Sumangali schemes” affected an estimated 120,000 young women. This labor scheme, named after the Tamil word for “happily married woman,” is a form of bonded labor in which young women or girls work to earn money for a dowry to be able to marry. The promised lump-sum compensation is normally withheld until the end of a contractual agreement to work three to five years of employment and sometimes goes partially or entirely unpaid. While in bonded labor, employers reportedly subjected women to serious workplace abuses, including severe restrictions on freedom of movement and communication, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking.

“Sumangali schemes” affected an estimated 120,000 young women. This labor scheme, named after the Tamil word for “happily married woman,” is a form of bonded labor in which young women or girls work to earn money for a dowry to be able to marry. The promised lump-sum compensation is normally withheld until the end of a contractual agreement to work three to five years of employment and sometimes goes partially or entirely unpaid. While in bonded labor, employers reportedly subjected women to serious workplace abuses, including severe restrictions on freedom of movement and communication, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking.

So-called honor killings remained a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana; they were usually attributable to the victim’s marrying against his or her family’s wishes. In March 2018 the Supreme Court ordered state governments to identify districts, subdivisions, and villages that witnessed incidents of honor killings to take remedial, preventive, and punitive measures to stop these crimes. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments must create special cells in all districts for individuals to report harassment and threats to couples of intercaste marriage.

On August 27, a court issued Kerala’s first-ever conviction in an honor-killing case and sentenced 10 individuals to “double imprisonment” for the killing of a 24-year-old Dalit, Christian Kevin Joseph. The man had eloped with a woman from another caste and married her despite her family’s rejection of the relationship. The woman’s brother was among those convicted, while her father was among four others acquitted for lack of evidence. In its ruling the court noted the continuing prevalence of caste prejudice in Indian society.

There were reports women and girls in the devadasi system of symbolic marriages to Hindu deities (a form of so-called “ritual prostitution”) were victims of rape or sexual abuse at the hands of priests and temple patrons, including sex trafficking. NGOs suggested families exploited some girls from lower castes in sex trafficking in temples to mitigate household financial burdens and the prospect of marriage dowries. Some states have laws to curb sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls in temple service. Enforcement of these laws remained lax, and the problem was widespread. Some observers estimated more than 450,000 women and girls were exploited in temple-related prostitution.

On August 20, the Andhra Pradesh High Court acting chief justice, C. Praveen Kumar, expressed concern over the poor implementation of the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988, noting that there were no convictions in the state under the act. In Telangana, about 2,000 women remained bound under the Jogini system, as the devadasi system is known in the state.

No federal law addresses accusations of witchcraft; however, authorities may use other legal provisions as an alternative for a victim accused of witchcraft. Most reports stated villagers and local councils usually banned those accused of witchcraft from the village. Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam, and Jharkhand have laws criminalizing persons who accuse others of witchcraft. In 2018 a total of 73 cases of witchcraft, including 18 deaths, were reported from Odisha.

On March 17, Adarmani Hansda, a tribal woman from Ishwarpur village in West Bengal, was killed and four others injured after a village court accused them of practicing witchcraft. According to media reports, Hansda allegedly used “black magic” to cause several individuals to become ill in the village. Police rescued the four other women and admitted them to the hospital.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. Authorities required all state departments and institutions with more than 50 employees to operate committees to prevent and address sexual harassment, often referred to as “eve teasing.” By law sexual harassment includes one or more unwelcome acts or behavior, such as physical contact, a request for sexual favors, making sexually suggestive remarks, or showing pornography. Employers who fail to establish complaint committees face fines of up to 50,000 rupees ($700).

Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced and involuntary sterilization. The government has promoted female sterilization as a form of family planning for decades and, as a result, it made up 86 percent of contraceptive use in the country. Some women, especially poor and lower-caste women, reportedly were pressured by their husbands and families to have tubal ligations or hysterectomies. The government provided monetary compensation for the wage loss, transportation costs, drugs and dressing, and follow-up visits to women accepting contraceptive methods, including voluntary sterilization. There were no formal restrictions on access to other forms of family planning; however, despite recent efforts to expand the range of contraceptive choices, voluntary sterilization remained the preferred method due to the costs and limited availability of alternative contraceptive choices.

Policies penalizing families with more than two children remained in place in seven states, but some authorities did not enforce them. There were reports that these policies created pressure on women with more than two children to use contraception, including permanent methods such as sterilization, or even termination of subsequent pregnancies. Certain states maintained government reservations for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children and reduced subsidies and access to health care for those who have more than two. According to the NGO Lawyers Collective, such policies often induced families to carry out sex selection for the second birth to assure they have at least one son without sacrificing future eligibility for political office.

To counter sex selection, almost all states introduced “girl child promotion” schemes to promote the education and well-being of girls, some of which required a certificate of sterilization for the parents to collect benefits.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination in the workplace and requires equal pay for equal work, but employers reportedly often paid women less than men for the same job, discriminated against women in employment and credit applications, and promoted women less frequently than men.

Many tribal land systems, including in Bihar, deny tribal women the right to own land. Other laws or customs relating to the ownership of assets and land accord women little control over land use, retention, or sale.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to the most recent census (2011), the national average male-female sex ratio at birth was 106 to 100. On June 27, Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani informed the upper house of parliament that reports from the Health Management Information System of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed the male/female sex ratio at birth improved from 108.3 to 100 to 107.4 to 100. The law prohibits prenatal sex selection, but authorities rarely enforced it. In March 2018 the government announced the expansion of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) project in all 640 districts across the country. The Ministry of Finance, also in 2018, issued a report that indicated 63 million women were statistically “missing” due to sex-selective abortions. The government launched the program in 2015 to prevent gender-biased sex selection, promote female education, and ensure the survival and protection of girls. Government data revealed sex ratio at birth showed improving trends in 104 out of 161 districts between 2015 and 2017. In January media outlets quoted government figures declared in parliament by Minister of State for Women and Child Development Virendra Kumar to report that more than 56 percent of funds for the program were utilized in media and advertisement-related activities, and less than 25 percent were distributed to states and districts for program implementation. The reports alleged the government failed to release more than 19 percent of the funds.

According to media reports, the taboo and fear of giving birth to a girl child drove some women toward sex-selective abortion or attempts to sell the baby. Dowry, while illegal, carried a steep cost, sometimes bankrupting families. Women and girl children were ostracized in some tribal communities.

In July the Uttarakhand government ordered a probe after media reports highlighted that not a single girl child was born among 65 children in 16 villages in the last six months. Authorities suspected that health facilities were conducting illegal sex determination tests and abortions.

Birth Registration: The law establishes state government procedures for birth registration. UNICEF estimated authorities registered 58 percent of national births each year. Children lacking citizenship or registration may not be able to access public services, enroll in school, or obtain identification documents later in life.

Education: The constitution provides free education for all children from ages six to 14, with a compulsory education age up through age 15, but the government did not always comply with this requirement. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Report revealed that enrollment rates for both male and female students dropped by nearly 30 percent between primary and secondary school. Additionally, the report found that, while girls had a slight lead in primary and secondary education enrollment rates, boys had greater educational attainment at all levels. The NGO Pratham’s 2018 Annual Status of Education Report noted in January that the percentage of out-of-school girls decreased in the 11-14 age group and the 15-16 age group: 4.1 percent of girls in the 11-14 age group dropped out of school in 2018, compared with 10.3 percent in 2006. For girls in the 15-16 age group, the percentage dropped to 13.5 percent in 2018 from 22.6 percent in 2006. Children from marginalized groups also faced barriers to accessing education. Teachers sometimes subjected these children to discrimination and harassment.

According to UNICEF more than 60 percent of secondary-school-age children with disabilities did not attend school. Additionally, as the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, children may be encouraged to leave school before the completion of compulsory education.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, but it does not recognize physical abuse by caregivers, neglect, or psychological abuse as punishable offenses. Although banned, teachers often used corporal punishment. The government often failed to educate the public adequately against child abuse or to enforce the law.

On September 26, a Supreme Court-appointed juvenile justice committee released a report stating that since August 5, police in Jammu and Kashmir had detained 144 children younger than 18, including a nine-year-old. The children were often detained because of allegations they were throwing stones at law enforcement officers. Many of the detained children were reportedly from the city of Srinagar in Kashmir. Police reportedly informed the committee that all children arrested and lodged in police stations were released on the same day, apart from two children who remained in juvenile homes. One of those two juveniles was reportedly released in mid-October while, as of early November, the other remained detained.

The government sponsored a toll-free 24-hour helpline for children in distress.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law sets the legal age of marriage for women at 18 and men at 21, and it empowers courts to annul early and forced marriages. The law does not characterize a marriage between a girl younger than 18 and a boy younger than 21 as “illegal,” but it recognizes such unions as voidable. The law also sets penalties for persons who perform, arrange, or participate in child marriages. Authorities did not consistently enforce the law nor address girls who were raped being forced into marriage.

According to international and local NGOs, procedural limitations effectively left married minors with no legal remedy in most situations. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey, 27 percent of women between 20 and 24 married before the age of 18, and 2017 UNICEF data revealed 7 percent of the same group of women married before the age of 15.

The law establishes a full-time child-marriage prohibition officer in every state to prevent child marriage. These individuals have the power to intervene when a child marriage is taking place, document violations of the law, file charges against parents, remove children from dangerous situations, and deliver them to local child-protection authorities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits child pornography and sets the legal age of consent at 18. It is illegal to pay for sex with a minor, to induce a minor into prostitution or any form of “illicit sexual intercourse,” or to sell or buy a minor for the purposes of prostitution. Violators are subject to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine.

Special courts to try child sexual abuse cases existed in all six Delhi courts. Civil society groups observed, however, that large caseloads severely limited judges’ abilities to take on cases in a timely manner. Lack of training in handling forensic evidence also adversely affected case handling.

NGOs noted a significant increase of death penalty sentences for those convicted of egregious cases of sexual assault of children. In 2018 trial courts sentenced 162 persons to death, which was the highest in two decades. At the same time, the Supreme Court commuted death sentences in 11 out of 12 cases that came before it. Supreme Court justice Kurian Joseph expressed concern about the constitutionality of the death penalty in an opinion, highlighting that the death penalty lacks deterrent and reformatory purpose. NGOs suggested within a dominantly punitive environment, the Supreme Court judge’s views were indicative of the understanding of how punitive justice may not be as effective as is widely presumed.

In May the Delhi High Court examined the extended delays of child sexual abuse cases in Delhi, numbering 6,414 cases, and directed the Delhi government to establish 18 more fast-track courts to address pending cases.

The movement toward harsher punishments for child sexual abuse continued. On August 1, parliament passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The act seeks to protect children from offenses such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography and provides stringent punishment for sexual crimes against children and death penalty in cases of aggravated sexual assault.

Child Soldiers: No information was available on how many persons younger than 18 were serving in the armed forces. The UN Children and Armed Conflict report outlined allegations that at least five children were recruited by, and joined, militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir and at least two of these children were killed in encounters with security forces. NGOs estimated at least 2,500 children were associated with insurgent armed groups in Maoist-affected areas as well as insurgent groups in Jammu and Kashmir.

Displaced Children: Displaced children, including refugees, IDPs, and street children, faced restrictions on access to government services (see also section 2.d.).

Institutionalized Children: Lax law enforcement and a lack of safeguards encouraged an atmosphere of impunity in a number of group homes and orphanages.

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights estimated that 1,300 of the country’s approximately 9,000 shelters for vulnerable individuals were not registered with the government and operated with little or no oversight. In several cases government-funded shelter homes continued to operate despite significant gaps in mandatory reporting and allegations of abuse, at times due to alleged political connections. Police documented at least 156 residents, including sex trafficking victims, missing from six shelters as of March; at least one shelter owner had reportedly sold some of the women and girls for prostitution.

A 2018 report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences documented abuse “varying in forms and degrees of intensity” that was reported to be prevalent in almost all 110 government-funded women- and child-care institutions surveyed in Bihar State. The report noted “grave concerns” in 17 institutions that required immediate attention. NGOs commended the Bihar government for undertaking the study and allowing the investigator full authority and independence to report on all institutions in the state. The Supreme Court was overseeing investigations into the shelter-home abuse cases. NGOs reported some subsequent positive actions by some state governments to address these reports. As of January the CBI had only initiated investigations into nine of the 17 homes.

The Calcutta Research Group reported police sometimes separated families detained at the India-Bangladesh border in the state of West Bengal by institutionalizing children in juvenile justice homes with limited and restricted access to their families.

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

Jewish groups from the 4,650-member Jewish community cited no reports of anti-Semitic acts during the year.

The Gujarat government accorded the Jewish community minority status, making the community eligible for government entitlements for faith minorities in 2018.

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

The constitution does not explicitly mention disability. The law provides equal rights for persons with a variety of disabilities, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 increased the number of recognized disabilities, including persons with Parkinson’s disease and victims of acid attacks. The law set a two-year deadline for the government to provide persons with disabilities with unrestricted free access to physical infrastructure and public transportation systems.

The law also reserves 3 percent of all educational places and 4 percent of government jobs for persons with disabilities. The government allocated funds to programs and NGOs to increase the number of jobs filled. In 2017 a government panel decided that private news networks must accompany public broadcasts with sign language interpretations and closed captions to accommodate persons with disabilities.

Despite these efforts, problems remained. Private-sector employment of persons with disabilities remained low, despite governmental incentives. Discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care was more pervasive in rural areas, and 45 percent of the country’s population of persons with disabilities were illiterate. There was limited accessibility to public buildings.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare estimated 25 percent of individuals with mental disabilities were homeless. Mainstream schools remained inadequately equipped with teachers trained in inclusive education, resource material, and appropriate curricula. Patients in some mental-health institutions faced food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. HRW reported women and girls with disabilities occasionally were forced into mental hospitals against their will.

On February 11, the government of Andhra Pradesh issued an order increasing the quota for recruitment and promotion for persons with disabilities from the existing 3 percent to 4 percent. The new order defined persons with disabilities to include persons with autism, mental disorders, multiple disabilities, and intellectual disabilities.

In Odisha participation of persons with disabilities in the works the state government executed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) increased during the year ending in March, compared with the preceding 12 months. While 83 persons with disabilities secured 100 days of employment during 2017-2018, 105 persons secured employment in 2018-2019. According to state government officials, a coordinator has been appointed at different levels of administration in each district to work toward increasing the participation of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups in the MGNREGA program.

The constitution prohibits caste discrimination. The registration of castes and tribes continued for the purpose of affirmative action programs, as the federal and state governments continued to implement programs for members of lower-caste groups to provide better-quality housing, quotas in schools, government jobs, and access to subsidized foods. Data published in the UN’s 2019 Multidimensional Poverty Index showed a “positive trend” between 2006 and 2016 that lifted 271 million people out of poverty. Previous reports showed Muslims, members of the Scheduled Tribes, and Dalits experienced the greatest reduction in poverty. Discrimination based on caste, however, remained prevalent, particularly in rural areas. Critics claimed many of the programs to assist the lower castes suffered from poor implementation, corruption, or both.

The term Dalit, derived from Sanskrit for “oppressed” or “crushed,” refers to members of what society regarded as the lowest of the Scheduled Castes (SC). According to the 2011 census, SC members constituted 17 percent of the population (approximately 200 million persons).

Although the law protects Dalits, there were numerous reports of violence and significant discrimination in access to services, such as health care and education, access to justice, freedom of movement, access to institutions such as temples, and marriage. Many Dalits were malnourished. Most bonded laborers were Dalits, and those who asserted their rights were often victims of attacks, especially in rural areas. As agricultural laborers for higher-caste landowners, Dalits reportedly often worked without monetary remuneration. Reports from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination described systematic abuse of Dalits, including extrajudicial killings and sexual violence against Dalit women. Crimes committed against Dalits reportedly often went unpunished, either because authorities failed to prosecute perpetrators or because victims did not report crimes due to fear of retaliation.

Dalit rights activists in Telangana decried the role that village development committees (VDCs) played in the state. Activists alleged that upper-caste individuals–who controlled most VDCs, which acted as parallel institutions to democratically elected village councils–often resorted to social boycott of Dalits who questioned decisions taken by the VDCs. According to a February 25 news report, Dalits of a village in Nizamabad District faced social boycott for 62 days on the orders of a VDC dominated by upper-caste individuals. The VDC ordered the boycott following a dispute over construction of a library on a piece of land given to the Dalits.

NGOs reported Dalit students were sometimes denied admission to certain schools because of their caste, required to present caste certification prior to admission, barred from morning prayers, asked to sit in the back of the class, or forced to clean school toilets while being denied access to the same facilities. There were also reports teachers refused to correct the homework of Dalit children, refused to provide midday meals to Dalit children, and asked Dalit children to sit separately from children of upper-caste families.

Manual scavenging–the removal of animal or human waste by Dalits–continued despite its legal prohibition. HRW reported that children of manual scavengers faced discrimination, humiliation, and segregation at village schools. Their occupation often exposed manual scavengers to infections that affected their skin, eyes, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. Health practitioners suggested children exposed to such bacteria were often unable to maintain a healthy body weight and suffered from stunted growth.

On June 14, seven persons, including four sanitation workers, died of asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank in a hotel in Dabhoi town of Vadodara District in Gujarat. Police arrested the hotel owner on charges of murder and violation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. The Gujarat government announced financial assistance for the families of the victims.

The constitution provides for the social, economic, and political rights of disadvantaged groups of indigenous persons. The law provides special status for indigenous individuals, but authorities often denied them their rights.

In most of the northeastern states, where indigenous groups constituted the majority of the states’ populations, the law provides for tribal rights, although some local authorities disregarded these provisions. The law prohibits any nontribal person, including citizens from other states, from crossing a government-established inner boundary without a valid permit. No one may remove rubber, wax, ivory, or other forest products from protected areas without authorization. Tribal authorities must also approve the sale of land to nontribal persons.

On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of forest dwellers in 21 states. Media reported more than 1.3 million land claims, each potentially representing a household, had been rejected. Experts estimated that the legal order could result in more than eight million tribal people leaving forest areas that their ancestors have inhabited for centuries. The Supreme Court later stayed the eviction order until November 26 and ordered the 21 states to file affidavits with details on how they had processed claims.

In September 2018 the Supreme Court decriminalized same-sex relations in a unanimous verdict. Activists welcomed the verdict but stated it was too early to determine how the verdict would translate into social acceptance, including safe and equal opportunities at workspaces and educational institutions.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons faced physical attacks, rape, and blackmail. LGBTI groups reported they faced widespread societal discrimination and violence, particularly in rural areas. Activists reported that transgender persons continued to face difficulty obtaining medical treatment. Some police committed crimes against LGBTI persons and used the threat of arrest to coerce victims not to report the incidents. With the aid of NGOs, several states offered education and sensitivity training to police.

On August 28, the Tamil Nadu state government issued an order banning sex-reassignment surgeries on intersex infants and children, except under life-threatening circumstances. The order follows a ruling from the Madras High Court in April, in which the court observed that a parent’s consent could not be considered the consent of the child. The April ruling acknowledged a World Health Organization report, which referred to sex-reassignment surgery of intersex individuals as “intersex genital mutilation.” As part of the court direction, Tamil Nadu’s director of medical education has to constitute a four-member committee to assess individual cases before determining whether reassignment surgery falls under the life-threatening circumstances exception.

Three transgender candidates contested the elections to the Odisha state legislature in April. Although none of them won, activists stated their presence was a step forward in the political empowerment of the transgender community after the 2014 Supreme Court verdict recognized the transgender community.

The number of new HIV cases decreased by 57 percent over the past decade. According to official government records, there were 191,493 newly diagnosed cases in 2017. The epidemic persisted among the most vulnerable and high-risk populations that include female sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, and persons who inject drugs. UNAIDS 2018 data indicated that new HIV infections were declining among sex workers and men who have sex with men, although stigma related to key populations continued to limit their access to HIV testing and treatment. The data showed 79 percent of individuals were aware of their HIV status and that 71 percent living with HIV were on HIV treatment.

The National AIDS Control Program prioritized HIV prevention, care, and treatment interventions for high-risk groups and advocated for the rights of persons living with HIV. Antiretroviral drug stock outages in a few states led to treatment interruption. The National AIDS Control Organization worked actively with NGOs to train women’s HIV/AIDS self-help groups. Police engaged in programs to strengthen their role in protecting communities vulnerable to human rights violations and HIV.

In September 2018 the Ministry of Health announced the creation of rules to implement the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2017 in response to a public interest litigation filed with the Delhi High Court. The bill was designed to prevent discrimination in health care, employment, education, housing, economic participation, and political representation for those with HIV and AIDS.

Societal violence based on religion and caste and by religiously associated groups continued to be a serious concern. Muslims and lower-caste Dalit groups continued to be the most vulnerable. MHA data for 2016-2017 showed that 703 incidents of communal (religious) violence occurred in which 86 persons were killed and 2,321 injured. According to the NHRC, there were 672 cases of discrimination and victimization against Scheduled Castes and 79 cases against minorities in 2018-2019.

On June 18, a mob attacked 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. The police rescued Ansari from the mob, but he died of his injuries in the hospital. The police arrested 11 persons and suspended two police officials, but police dropped murder charges against the accused, contending that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest due to stress. In September, after allegations of attempted tampering of the case, police reversed their request and submitted supplementary charges in September, seeking punishment for the accused.

On July 17, the Madhya Pradesh state assembly passed the Anti-Cow Slaughter Amendment Act of 2019 that includes imprisonment of six months to three years and a fine of 25,000-50,000 rupees ($350-$700) for those convicted of committing violence in the name of cow protection. The amended law allows cattle transportation from Madhya Pradesh to other states with special permission, a reversal from earlier provisions.

Media outlets reported more than 20 instances of mob lynching of individuals believed to be child abductors. On August 27, two brothers taking their nephew to a doctor were attacked by a mob in Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh, on the suspicion of being child abductors. One of the men died in the attack. Police arrested five persons who led the attack.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join unions and to bargain collectively, although there is no legal obligation for employers to recognize a union or engage in collective bargaining. In the state of Sikkim, trade union registration was subject to prior permission from the state government. The law limits the organizing rights of federal and state government employees.

The law provides for the right to strike but places restrictions on this right for some workers. For instance, in export processing zones (EPZs), a 45-day notice is required because of the EPZs’ designation as a “public utility.” The law also allows the government to ban strikes in government-owned enterprises and requires arbitration in specified “essential industries.” Definitions of essential industries vary from state to state. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and retribution for involvement in legal strikes and provides for reinstatement of employees fired for union activity. In October, 48,000 workers of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) went on strike. The unions were demanding that the TSRTC be merged with the state government, so workers were able to obtain full benefits. After almost 45 days, the transport workers returned to work with no resolutions reached between labor unions and the state government of Telangana State.

Enforcement of the law varied from state to state and from sector to sector. Enforcement was generally better in the larger, organized-sector industries. Authorities generally prosecuted and punished individuals responsible for intimidation or suppression of legitimate trade union activities in the industrial sector. Civil judicial procedures addressed abuses because the Trade Union Act does not specify penalties for such abuses. Specialized labor courts adjudicate labor disputes, but there were long delays and a backlog of unresolved cases.

Employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively in the formal industrial sector but not in the larger, informal economy. Most union members worked in the formal sector, and trade unions represented a small number of agricultural and informal-sector workers. Membership-based organizations, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, successfully organized informal-sector workers and helped them to gain higher payment for their work or products.

An estimated 80 percent of unionized workers were affiliated with one of the five major trade union federations. Unions were independent of the government, but four of the five major federations were associated with major political parties.

State and local authorities occasionally used their power to declare strikes illegal and force adjudication. Labor groups reported that some employers continued to refuse to recognize established unions, and some, instead, established “workers’ committees” and employer-controlled unions to prevent independent unions from organizing. EPZs often employed workers on temporary contracts. Additionally, employee-only restrictions on entry to the EPZs limited union organizers’ access.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but forced labor, including bonded labor for both adults and children (see section 7.c.), remained widespread.

Enforcement and compensation for victims is the responsibility of state and local governments and varied in effectiveness. The government generally did not effectively enforce laws related to bonded labor or labor-trafficking laws, such as the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. On August 27, the Madras High Court found a rice mill owner guilty of holding six workers, including three women, under bondage in his mill, and the court sentenced the owner to a three-year prison term. The workers were each awarded compensation of 50,000 rupees ($700). When inspectors referred violations for prosecution, court backlogs, inadequate preparation, and a lack of prioritization of the cases by prosecuting authorities sometimes resulted in acquittals. In addition, when authorities did report violations, they sometimes reported them to civil courts to assess fines and did not refer them to police for criminal investigation of labor trafficking.

Penalties under law varied based on the type of forced labor and included fines and prison terms; not all were sufficiently stringent. For example, bonded labor was specifically criminalized under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which prescribes sufficiently stringent penalties, and the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, which prescribes penalties that were not sufficiently stringent.

The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the federally funded, state-run Centrally Sponsored Scheme assisted in the release of 2,289 bonded laborers during the period from April through December 2018. Many NGOs reported delays of more than one year in obtaining release certificates for rescued bonded laborers. Such certificates were required to certify that employers had held them in bondage and entitled them to compensation under the law. The NGOs also reported that in some instances, they failed to obtain release certificates for bonded laborers at all. The distribution of initial rehabilitation funds was uneven across states. The majority of bonded labor victim compensation cases remained tied to a criminal conviction of bonded labor. As authorities often registered bonded labor cases as civil salary violations in lieu of bonded labor, convictions of the traffickers and full compensation for victims remained rare.

Estimates of the number of bonded laborers varied widely. Media reports estimated the number at 18 million workers in debt bondage. Most bonded labor occurred in agriculture. Nonagricultural sectors with a high incidence of bonded labor were stone quarries, brick kilns, rice mills, construction, embroidery factories, and beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) production.

Bonded labor continued to be a concern in many states.

On August 19, police and civil officials in Kolar District of Karnataka rescued 10 tribal workers, including two girls and a boy, from a construction site. Nine of the 10 rescued persons belonged to two families and had worked as bonded laborers for three years. State officials stated that the workers were denied wages to account for a loan of 60,000 rupees ($845) each that they took from labor agents. In Tamil Nadu release certificates were not handed to bonded labor from Odisha, who were rescued from Tiruvallur District in 2018. This deprived them of interim compensation and rehabilitation.

Bonded laborers from Odisha were rescued from brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka during the year. In March, 96 workers were rescued in Koppal and Yadgir Districts of Karnataka, while 40 workers, including nine children, were rescued in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh in April.

Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members lived and worked under traditional arrangements of servitude in many areas of the country. Although the central government had long abolished forced labor servitude, these social groups remained impoverished and vulnerable to forced exploitation, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

All of the worst forms of child labor were prohibited. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 14. The law also prohibits the employment of children between the ages of 14 and 18 in hazardous work. Children are prohibited from using flammable substances, explosives, or other hazardous material, as defined by the law. In 2017 the Ministry of Labor and Employment added 16 industries and 59 processes to the list of hazardous industries where employment of children younger than 18 is prohibited, and where children younger than 14 are prohibited from helping, including family enterprises. Despite evidence that children work in unsafe and unhealthy environments for long periods of time in spinning mills, garment production, carpet making, and domestic work, not all children younger than 18 are prohibited from working in occupations related to these sectors. The law, however, permits employment of children in family-owned enterprises involving nonhazardous activities after school hours. Nevertheless, child labor remained widespread.

Law enforcement agencies took actions to combat child labor. State governments enforced labor laws and employed labor inspectors, while the Ministry of Labor and Employment provided oversight and coordination. Nonetheless, gaps existed within the operations of the state government labor inspectorate that might have hindered adequate labor law enforcement. Violations remained common. The law establishes penalties that are insufficient to deter violations, and authorities sporadically enforced them. The fines collected are deposited in a welfare fund for formerly employed children.

The Ministry of Labor and Employment coordinated its efforts with states to raise awareness about child labor by funding various outreach events, such as plays and community activities.

The majority of child labor occurred in agriculture and the informal economy, in particular in stone quarries, in the rolling of cigarettes, and in informal food service establishments. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children).

In July, Telangana police rescued 67 children younger than 14, all hailing from Bihar, from bangle-making factories in Hyderabad. Six persons were arrested. The children were locked in a tiny room and lived in inhuman conditions, besides being made to work for nearly 17 hours a day. The children were given “release certificates” recognizing them as bonded laborers, which qualified them to receive 25,000 rupees ($350) as interim relief and 300,000 rupees ($4,200) as compensation. The children were sent back to Bihar in August.

During Operation Smile in July, Telangana police and other government officials rescued 3,470 children from bonded labor and begging schemes. Police fined 431 employers 1.87 million rupees ($26,300) and registered cases against seven employers. It was unclear if police filed any trafficking or bonded labor charges.

In August the International Labor Organization commenced a three-year project in partnership with the Telangana government covering the entire cotton supply chain from farm to factory, to identify the presence of child labor, bonded labor, and gender discrimination.

In Telangana, local groups cited flaws in the implementation of a bridge-school program meant for rescued child laborers under the government’s National Child Labor Project, noting that the state has no way of knowing if rescued child laborers have dropped out of school and returned to work. State government officials agreed that, following the 2016 amendments to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, state surveys no longer identified the number of children working in family enterprises, bonded labor, and nonhazardous work environments.

Forced child labor, including bonded labor, also remained a serious problem. Employers engaged children in forced or indentured labor as domestic servants and beggars, as well as in quarrying, brick kilns, rice mills, silk-thread production, and textile embroidery.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Provisions in the constitution and various laws and regulations prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status with respect to employment and occupation. A separate law prohibits discrimination against individuals suffering from HIV/AIDs. The law does not prohibit discrimination against individuals with communicable diseases or based on color, religion, political opinion, national origin, or citizenship.

The government effectively enforced the law and regulations within the formal sector. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The law and regulations, however, do not protect those working within the informal sector (industries and establishments that do not fall under the purview of the Factories Act), who made up an estimated 90 percent of the workforce.

Discrimination occurred in the informal sector with respect to Dalits, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities. Gender discrimination with respect to wages was prevalent. Foreign migrant workers were largely undocumented and typically did not enjoy the legal protections available to workers who are nationals of the country.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Federal law sets safety and health standards, but state government laws set minimum wages, hours of work, and additional state-specific safety and health standards. The daily minimum wage varied but was more than the official estimate of poverty-level income. State governments set a separate minimum wage for agricultural workers. Laws on wages, hours, and occupational health and safety do not apply to the large informal sector. On December 9, a building fire in New Delhi killed 43 persons. The building did not have appropriate fire licenses and was illegally operating as a factory.

The law mandates a maximum eight-hour workday and 48-hour workweek as well as safe working conditions, which include provisions for restrooms, cafeterias, medical facilities, and ventilation. The law mandates a minimum rest period of 30 minutes after every four hours of work and premium pay for overtime, but it does not mandate paid holidays. The law prohibits compulsory overtime, but it does not limit the amount of overtime a worker can perform. Occupational safety and health standards set by the government were generally up to date and covered the main industries in the country.

State governments are responsible for enforcing minimum wages, hours of work, and safety and health standards. The number of inspectors generally was insufficient to enforce labor law. State governments often did not effectively enforce the minimum wage law for agricultural workers. Enforcement of safety and health standards was poor, especially in the informal sector, but also in some formal-sector industries. Penalties for violation of occupational safety and health standards were not sufficient to deter violations.

Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in the informal sector. Small, low-technology factories frequently exposed workers to hazardous working conditions. Undocumented foreign workers did not receive basic occupational health and safety protections. In many instances workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.

On April 10, a total of 10 female workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act program in the Narayanpet District of Telangana died in a landslide. Civil society activists cited unsafe work conditions as leading to the fatal accident, noting that the workers were resting in the shade of a mud mound, which collapsed and killed them. The Telangana government announced that cash compensation, housing, employment, and education would be provided to the immediate family members of the deceased.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. The law grants former president Nursultan Nazarbayev broad, lifetime authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observation mission judged that the June 9 presidential election, in which President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev received 71 percent of the vote, was marked by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and overall showed “scant respect for democratic standards.” In 2017 the country selected 16 of 47 senators and members of the parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in concurrence with the presidential administration.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security (KNB) oversees border security, internal and national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The KNB reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, led by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; and the outlawing of independent trade unions.

The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for those in positions of authority as well as for those connected to government or law enforcement officials.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including detention, imprisonment, criminal and administrative charges, laws, harassment, licensing regulations, and internet restrictions.

After her May visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism Fionualla Ni Aolain expressed deep concern at the use of counterterrorism and extremism laws to target, marginalize, and criminalize the work of civil society. “Nonviolent criticism of State policies can effectively constitute a criminal offense,” she wrote, “as the provisions on extremism and terrorism have been applied to criminalize the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and of thought, which is incompatible with a society governed by rule of law and abiding by human rights principles and obligations.”

Journalists and media outlets exercised self-censorship to avoid pressure by the government. The law provides for additional measures and restrictions during “social emergencies,” defined as “an emergency on a certain territory caused by contradictions and conflicts in social relations that may cause or have caused loss of life, personal injury, significant property damage, or violation of conditions of the population.” In these situations, the government may censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to authorities 24 hours before issuance or broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations may be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. Regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and to seize temporarily sound-enhancing equipment.

Freedom of Expression: The government limited individual ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in local media. The law prohibits insulting the president or the president’s family, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.63 million tenge ($32,793) and imprisonment for up to seven years.

In May the Almaty City Court rejected the appeal of Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev, who were sentenced to eight and seven years’ imprisonment respectively in December 2018 on charges of advocating for terrorism. Supporters and human rights advocates called the case against them politically motivated and asserted that the video of masked figures calling for jihad that served as the primary evidence for their conviction was fabricated by the government. Zhumagulov was a supporter of the banned DCK opposition organization. Abishev, who denied any connection to DCK, was an advocate for land reform and other political issues.

On April 21, authorities arrested activists Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov for displaying a banner with slogans urging free and fair elections during the Almaty marathon. Both were convicted of violating the law on organizing a rally and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Amnesty International recognized the activists as prisoners of conscience.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media was severely limited. Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. The lack of transparency in media ownership and the dependence of many outlets on government contracts for media coverage are significant problems.

Companies allegedly controlled by members of the former president Nazarbayev’s family or associates owned many of the broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the nationwide television broadcasters. Regional governments owned several frequencies, and the Ministry of Information and Social Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system.

All media are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Social Development, although websites are exempt from this requirement. The law limits the simultaneous broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a locally based station’s weekly broadcast time. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to create programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision. Foreign media broadcasting does not have to meet this requirement.

Violence and Harassment: Independent journalists and those working in opposition media or covering stories related to corruption and rallies or demonstrations reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors. On July 22, a group of 20 women interfered with the work of and attacked journalists who were covering a news conference at the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Almaty. They entered the building before a press conference regarding three women arrested on charges of participation in the DCK banned opposition movement, including Oksana Shevchuk. Five of the women punched and attacked a journalist and others destroyed or attempted to destroy the journalists’ equipment. Police determined the incident was “arbitrary behavior” and did not press charges.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters Saniya Toiken and Svetlana Glushkova were separately taken to court in cases that human rights defenders called politically motivated. Toiken had been covering protests by unemployed workers in Zhanaozen in February, and Glushkova had reported on unsanctioned rallies following the transition of presidential power in March. Glushkova was found guilty of assault for allegedly pushing a 17-year-old girl during a protest in what observers called a fabricated charge.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law enables the government to restrict media content through amendments that prohibit undermining state security or advocating class, social, race, national, or religious discord. Owners, editors, distributors, and journalists may be held civilly and criminally responsible for content unless it came from an official source.

By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Authorities continued to charge bloggers and social media users with criminal violations due to their online posts.

On October 15, Saryarka District Court No. 2 in Nur-Sultan sentenced civil activist Serik Zhakhin to one year of restricted movement and a two-year ban on using social media or participating in rallies for using social media to support DCK, which is banned as an extremist organization. Restricted movement is a probation-like penalty, with a curfew and other limitations. According to the court, Zhakhin posted information about DCK on his Facebook page. The court also ordered that he pay a fine of 20,250 tenge ($53) and perform community service. Zhakhin denied the allegations and said he was not an extremist. Zhakhin had been under pretrial detention from June 7 until his release on restricted movement.

In September 2018 Ablovas Jumayev received a three-year prison sentence on conviction of charges of inciting social discord because he posted messages critical of the government to a 10,000-member Telegram messenger group and allegedly distributed antigovernment leaflets. Jumayev denied the leafleting charges, stating that the leaflets were planted in his car. On Telegram, he had criticized the president’s appointment of a regional police chief. On July 29, a court ruled to change Jumayev’s sentence to restricted movement and a restriction on political activism, and released him.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides enhanced penalties for libel and slander against senior government officials. Private parties may initiate criminal libel suits without independent action by the government, and an individual filing such a suit may also file a civil suit based on the same allegations. Officials used the law’s libel and defamation provisions to restrict media outlets from publishing unflattering information. Both the criminal and civil codes contain articles establishing broad liability for libel and slander, with no statute of limitation or maximum amount of compensation. The requirement that owners, editors, distributors, publishing houses, and journalists prove the veracity of published information, regardless of its source, encouraged self-censorship at each level.

The law includes penalties for conviction of defamatory remarks made in mass media or “information-communication networks,” including heavy fines and prison terms. Journalists and human rights activists feared these provisions would strengthen the government’s ability to restrict investigative journalism.

On September 24, the Saryagash City Court sentenced journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov to two years and 10 months imprisonment on charges of libel. Batyrbekov published a post on his personal social media page with the title “Idiocy in Kelesi,” criticizing the head of the local department of education. The court determined that the Batyrbekov’s post insulted the honor of the official. Domestic NGO Adil Soz called Batyrbekov a “prisoner of freedom of speech,” and international NGO Reporters Without Borders included him on its 2019 list of imprisoned journalists.

National Security: The law criminalizes the release of information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the president, as well as economic information, such as data on mineral reserves or government debts to foreign creditors. To avoid possible legal problems, media outlets often practiced self-censorship regarding the president and his family.

The law prohibits “influencing public and individual consciousness to the detriment of national security through deliberate distortion and spreading of unreliable information.” Legal experts noted the term “unreliable information” is overly broad. The law also requires owners of communication networks and service providers to obey the orders of authorities in case of terrorist attacks or to suppress mass riots.

The law prohibits publication of any statement that promotes or glorifies “extremism” or “incites discord,” terms that international legal experts noted the government did not clearly define. The government subjected to intimidation media outlets that criticized the president; such intimidation included law enforcement actions and civil suits. Although these actions continued to have a chilling effect on media outlets, some criticism of government policies continued. Incidents of local government pressure on media continued.

In March authorities brought charges against Serikzhan Bilash, who led the Chinese ethnic Kazakh advocacy organization Atajurt, for inciting interethnic hatred. The basis for the charge was a video clip in which Bilash called for “jihad” against the Chinese. Bilash and his supporters said that in the full speech he immediately clarified that he meant not a violent jihad, but an informational campaign–a “jihad of words.” Faced with the likelihood of a long prison sentence, Bilash pled guilty to the offense August 16 and agreed to cease his activism, in exchange for his freedom.

The government exercised comprehensive control over online content. Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believed the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakhtelecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government.

In January 2018 amendments to the media law entered into force. The amended law prohibits citizens from leaving anonymous comments on media outlet websites, which must register all online commenters and make the registration information available to law enforcement agencies on request. As a result most online media outlets chose to shut down public comment platforms.

The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry controlled the registration of “.kz” internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.

The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandated surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, required visitors to present identification to use the internet, demanded internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorized law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users.

In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites.

The law allows the prosecutor general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. The prosecutor general may suspend communication services in cases where communication networks are used “for criminal purposes to harm the interests of an individual, society, or the state, or to disseminate information violating the Election Law…or containing calls for extremist or terrorist activities, riots, or participation in large-scale (public) activities carried out in violation of the established order.”

According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2019 report, where the country is listed as “not free,” “internet freedom in Kazakhstan deteriorated markedly” in the period from June 2018 to May 31, 2019, primarily in connection with unrest triggered by the presidential transition. The report noted that the government disrupted mobile internet connections, throttled access to social media, and temporarily blocked independent news websites.

During demonstrations in May and on election day, June 9, some users reported that access to the internet was intermittently, and at times completely, blocked, including access to VPN services. These outages coincided with protests in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Shymkent, and elsewhere, eliminating the potential to livestream and share live updates from protest scenes on social media and internet news platforms. International cybersecurity NGO NetBlocks reported that these outages were consistent with in-country internet providers blocking the internet. International NGO Reporters Without Borders expressed concerns about censorship related to coverage of peaceful demonstrations. The government denied responsibility.

Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to Freedom House’s report, “the government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored internet traffic and online communications. The report stated that “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”

On February 13, the Almaty City Court rejected the appeal of Aset Abishev, who was sentenced in November 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for supporting an extremist organization on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote or shared in support of the banned DCK opposition movement. Media reported that Abishev told the court he did not believe it was a crime to express opinions critical of the government. “If the desire for teachers to receive a decent salary or for children to study and be fed for free in schools is extremism, then I am guilty. But I have not committed any illegal or violent actions,” he said.

The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although general restrictions, such as the prohibition on infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family, also applied to academics. Many academics practiced self-censorship. In September the Anti-Corruption Agency started an investigation into Karaganda Buketov State University, where the head of the university was suspected of offering a $5,000 (almost two million tenge) bribe to the chairman of the Board of Scientific Fund of the Ministry of Science and Education to get support for the university’s scientific projects and other undefined favors. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right. The law defines unsanctioned gatherings, public meetings, demonstrations, marches, picketing, and strikes that upset social and political stability as national security threats.

The law includes penalties for organizing or participating in illegal gatherings and for providing organizational support in the form of property, means of communication, equipment, and transportation, if the enumerated actions cause significant damage to the rights and legal interests of citizens, entities, or legally protected interests of the society or the government.

By law organizations must apply to local authorities at least 10 days in advance for a permit to hold a demonstration or public meeting. Opposition figures and human rights monitors complained that complicated and vague procedures and the 10-day notification period made it difficult for groups to organize public meetings and demonstrations and noted local authorities turned down many applications for demonstrations or only allowed them to take place outside the city center.

During and just after the presidential election from June 9-13, police detained thousands of citizens across the country, and in particular in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent, for taking part in peaceful, although unsanctioned opposition rallies and demonstrations critiquing the presidential election. The Interior Ministry reported detention of about 4,000 citizens, 3,000 of whom were released within three hours; 677 citizens were sentenced to short-term imprisonments (five to 15 days) and 305 were fined. According to human rights activists and media, police and special forces indiscriminately detained those in the protest areas, sometimes with bodily force, including passers-by, senior citizens, and journalists. An Interior Ministry official called the protesters “radically-minded elements trying to destabilize public order.”

The law provides for limited freedom of association, but there were significant restrictions on this right. Any public organization set up by citizens, including religious groups, must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, as well as with the local departments of justice in every region in which the organization conducts activities. The law requires public or religious associations to define their specific activities, and any association that acts outside the scope of its charter may be warned, fined, suspended, or ultimately banned. Participation in unregistered public organizations may result in administrative or criminal penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, the closure of an organization, or suspension of its activities.

NGOs reported some difficulty in registering public associations. According to government information, these difficulties were due to discrepancies in the submitted documents. (See section 5 regarding government restrictions on the registration of human rights organizations.)

Membership organizations other than religious groups, which are covered under separate legislation, must have at least 10 members to register at the local level and must have branches in more than one-half the country’s regions for national registration. (See section 3 and section 7.a. for more information about political parties and labor unions, respectively.)

Under the 2015 NGO financing law, all “nongovernment organizations, subsidiaries, and representative offices of foreign and international noncommercial organizations” are required to provide information on “their activities, including information regarding the founders, assets, sources of their funds and what they are spent on….” An “authorized body” may initiate a “verification” of the information submitted based on information received in mass media reports, complaints from individuals and entities, or other subjective sources. Untimely or inaccurate information contained in the report, discovered during verification, is an administrative offense and may carry fines up to 63,125 tenge ($164) or suspension for three months if the violation is not rectified or is repeated within one year. In extreme cases criminal penalties are possible, which may lead to a large fine, suspension, or closure of the organization.

The law prohibits illegal interference by members of public associations in the activities of the government, with a fine of up to 404,000 tenge ($1,049) or imprisonment for up to 40 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 505,000 tenge ($1,311) or imprisonment for no more than 50 days. The law does not clearly define “illegal interference.”

By law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The law is not clear regarding the delineation between actions an NGO member may take in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization.

The law establishes broad reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets; it also requires labeling all publications produced with support from foreign funds. The law also sets out administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Despite some regulatory restrictions, the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government required foreigners who remained in the country for more than five days to register with migration police. Foreigners entering the country had to register at certain border posts or airports where they entered. Some foreigners experienced problems traveling in regions outside their registration area. The government’s Concept on Improving Migration Policy report covers internal migration, repatriation of ethnic Kazakh returnees, and external labor migration. In 2017 the government amended the rules for migrants entering the country so that migrants from Eurasian Economic Union countries may stay up to 90 days. There is a registration exemption for families of legal migrant workers for a 30-day period after the worker starts employment. The government has broad authority to deport those who violate the regulations.

Since 2011 the government has not reported the number of foreigners deported for gross violation of visitor rules. Individuals facing deportation may request asylum if they fear persecution in their home country. The government required persons who were suspects in criminal investigations to sign statements they would not leave their city of residence.

Authorities required foreigners to obtain prior permission to travel to certain border areas adjoining China and cities in close proximity to military installations. The government continued to declare particular areas closed to foreigners due to their proximity to military bases and the space launch center at Baikonur.

Foreign Travel: The government did not require exit visas for temporary travel of citizens, yet there were certain instances in which the government could deny exit from the country, including in the case of travelers subject to pending criminal or civil proceedings or having unfulfilled prison sentences, unpaid taxes, fines, alimony or utility bills, or compulsory military duty. Travelers who present false documentation during the exit process could be denied the right to exit, and authorities controlled travel by active-duty military personnel. The law requires persons who had access to state secrets to obtain permission from their employing government agency for temporary exit from the country.

Exile: The law does not prohibit forced exile if authorized by an appropriate government agency or through a court ruling.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

There were 561 recognized refugees in the country as of July, but there were no persons recognized as refugees during the first nine months of the year. Both the number of refugee applications and the approval rate by the government declined considerably during the last two years compared with prior years.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR legal partners may appeal to the government and intervene on behalf of individuals facing deportation. The law and several implementing regulations and bylaws regulate the granting of asylum and refugee status.

The Refugee Status Determination outlines procedures and access to government services, including the right to be legally registered and issued official documents. The Department of Migration Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducts status determination procedures. Any individual located within the country who seeks asylum in the country has access to the asylum procedure. According to UNHCR, the refugee system falls short of the international standard regarding access to asylum procedures and access to the territory of Kazakhstan. Authorities remain reluctant to accept asylum applications at the border from persons who lack valid identity documents, citing security concerns. A person, however, who crosses the border illegally may be prosecuted in criminal court, and subsequently may be viewed as a person with criminal potential, a negative factor in the asylum decision.

In October 2018 migration authorities rejected the asylum claim of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national, because she had not shown that she was persecuted while living in Xinjiang, China. Sauytbay subsequently appealed the rejection of her asylum through the courts, which had not made a final decision when she left Kazakhstan to seek asylum in Sweden in June.

A legislative framework does not exist to manage the movement of asylum seekers between the country’s borders and authorities in other areas. There are no reception facilities for asylum seekers. The government does not provide accommodation, allowances, or any social benefits to asylum seekers. The law does not provide for differentiated procedures for persons with specific needs, such as separated children and persons with disabilities. Asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs are not entitled to financial assistance. There are no guidelines for handling sensitive cases, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) cases.

Employment: Refugees faced difficulties in gaining employment and social assistance from the government. By law refugees have the right to work but cannot engage in individual entrepreneurship. Refugees faced difficulties in accessing the labor market due to local employers’ lack of awareness of refugee rights, with the result that most refugees work on the informal economy.

Access to Basic Services: All refugees recognized by the government receive a refugee certificate that allows them to stay in the country legally. The majority of refugees have been residing in the country for many years. Their status as “temporarily residing aliens” hinders their access to the full range of rights stipulated in the 1951 convention and the law. Refugee status lasts for one year and is subject to annual renewal. In 2018 it became possible for refugees to apply for permanent residency if they have a valid passport. Some refugees have already received permanent residency in 2018 and 2019, and they are to be eligible to become Kazakhstani citizens after five years. The law also lacks provisions on treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs. Refugees have access to education and health care on the same basis as citizens, but they have no access to social benefits or allowances.

UNHCR reported cordial relations with the government in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

The government was generally tolerant in its treatment of local refugee populations.

Consistent with the Minsk Convention on Migration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the government did not recognize Chechens as refugees. Chechens are eligible for temporary legal resident status for up to 180 days, as are any other CIS citizens. This temporary registration is renewable, but local migration officials may exercise discretion over the renewal process.

The government has an agreement with China not to tolerate the presence of ethnic separatists from one country on the territory of the other.

The constitution and law provide avenues to deal with those considered stateless, and the government generally took seriously its obligation to ease the burden of statelessness within the country. The country contributes to statelessness because application for Kazakhstani citizenship requires renunciation of citizenship of the country of origin, with no guarantee that Kazakhstani citizenship will be granted. As of July 1, 7,476 persons were officially registered by the government as stateless. The majority of individuals residing in the country with undetermined nationality, with de facto statelessness, or at heightened risk of statelessness, are primarily those who have no identity documents, have invalid identity documents from a neighboring CIS country, or are holders of Soviet-era passports. These individuals typically resided in remote areas without obtaining official documentation.

A 2017 law allows the government to deprive Kazakhstani citizenship to individuals convicted of a range of grave terrorism and extremism-related crimes, including for “harming the interest of the state.” According to UNHCR and the government, no one has yet been deprived of citizenship under this law. Instead, during the year the government repatriated hundreds of Kazakhstanis who joined international terrorist organizations and their families, prosecuting the fighters in criminal court and providing social services to family members.

According to UNHCR the law provides a range of rights to persons recognized by the government as stateless. The legal status of officially registered stateless persons is documented and considered as having permanent residency, which is granted for 10 years in the form of a stateless person certificate. According to the law, after five years of residence in the country, stateless persons are eligible to apply for citizenship. Children born in the country to officially recognized stateless persons who have a permanent place of residence are recognized as nationals. A legal procedure exists for ethnic Kazakhs; those with immediate relatives in the country; and citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan, with which the country has agreements. The law gives the government six months to consider an application for citizenship. Some applicants complained that, due to the lengthy bureaucratic process, obtaining citizenship often took years. In summary the law does not provide a simplified naturalization procedure for stateless persons. Existing legislation prevents children of parents without identity documents from obtaining birth certificates, which hindered their access to education, free health care, and freedom of movement.

Persons rejected or whose status of stateless persons has been revoked may appeal the decision, but such appeals involved a lengthy process.

Officially recognized stateless persons have access to free medical assistance on the level provided to other foreigners, but it is limited to emergency medical care and to treatment of 21 contagious diseases on a list approved by the Ministry of Health Care and Social Development. Officially recognized stateless persons have a right to employment, although not with the government. They may face challenges when concluding labor contracts, since potential employers may not understand or be aware of this legal right.

UNHCR reported that stateless persons without identity documents may not legally work, which led to the growth of illegal labor migration, corruption, and abuse of authority among employers. Children accompanying stateless parents were also considered stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government severely limited exercise of this right.

Although the 2017 constitutional amendments increased legislative and executive branch authority in some spheres, the constitution concentrates power in the presidency itself. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, cabinet, prosecutor general, the KNB chief, Supreme Court and lower-level judges, and regional governors. A presidential decree signed October 9 requires most of these appointments to be made in consultation with the chairman of the Security Council, a position that was granted in 2018 to then president Nazarbayev for his lifetime.

The 2018 law on the first president–the “Leader of the Nation” law–established then president Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, granted him lifetime membership on the Constitutional Council, allows him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulates that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.

The Mazhilis (the lower house of parliament) must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the Senate must confirm the president’s choices of prosecutor general, the KNB chief, Supreme Court judges, and National Bank head. Parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent.

Recent Elections: President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down on March 20 and, under the constitution, the presidency immediately passed to the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thereafter, the government conducted presidential elections on June 9. Out of seven presidential candidates, Tokayev won with 70.96 percent of the vote. Amirzhan Kossanov, an opposition candidate, got 16.23 percent. According to ODIHR’s report, the election “offered an important moment for potential political reforms, but it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” ODIHR noted in its report a number of violations, such as ballot-box stuffing and problems with vote counting, including cases of deliberate falsification. Other issues included lack of transparency, such as by not releasing election results by polling station, and violations of the rights of assembly, expression, and association. Another issue ODIHR raised was the widespread detentions of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Overall, the conduct of the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards.”

ODIHR further observed that the problems went beyond election day itself. According to the final report, in recent years some opposition parties have either been banned or marginalized through restrictive legislation or criminal prosecution, and the ability of new political parties to register is significantly restricted by the Law on Political Parties. Moreover, the legal framework for candidate eligibility was highly restrictive. ODIHR also noted that 2017 constitutional and legislative amendments abolished self-nomination and introduced further eligibility requirements that significantly reduced the candidate pool, with requirements for education, residency, and experience in the civil service or elected government office.

The most recent elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, took place in 2016. Ruling Nur Otan party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party won seven seats. ODIHR noted irregularities and limitations on civil and political rights.

Of the 47 members of the Senate, 16 were selected by members of maslikhats–local representative bodies–acting as electors to represent each administrative region and the cities of national significance, Astana (now Nur-Sultan) and Almaty. Four incumbent senators were re-elected, and the majority of the newly elected senators were affiliated with the ruling Nur Otan Party.

In June 2018 the government amended the election law. One change reduced the independence of local representative bodies (maslikhats). Previously, citizens could nominate and vote for candidates running in elections for the maslikhats. Under the amended law, citizens vote for parties and parties choose who sits on the maslikhats.

Another change affected public opinion surveys. According to the amendments, only legal entities can conduct public opinion surveys about elections after notifying Central Election Commission (CEC). Such entities must be registered and have at least five years’ experience in conducting public opinion surveys. Violation of the law leads to a fine of 37,875 tenge ($98) for an individual and 75,750 tenge ($197) for an organization. The law also prohibits publishing election forecasts and other research related to elections and support for particular candidates or political parties online from five days before through the day of elections.

On June 7, the deputy prosecutor general reported that three individuals and four organizations had been fined for conducting unauthorized public opinion surveys on the internet and social media during the election campaign period. On May 30, the publishing house “Exclusive” was fined 75,750 tenge ($197) after conducting a poll on its YouTube channel and publishing the results on its Exclusive.kz website.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government required political parties to have 40,000 signatures for registration, with a minimum of 600 from each region. If authorities challenge the application by alleging irregular signatures, the registration process may continue only if the total number of eligible signatures exceeds the minimum number required. The law prohibits parties established on an ethnic, gender, or religious basis. The law also prohibits members of the armed forces, employees of law enforcement and other national security organizations, and judges from participating in political parties.

To register, a political party must hold a founding congress with a minimum attendance of 1,000 delegates, including representatives from two-thirds of the oblasts and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, and Almaty. Parties must obtain 40,000 signatures, with at least 600 signatures from each region and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, and Almaty, registration from the CEC, and registration from each regional election commission. Political parties must register members’ personal information, including date and place of birth, address, and place of employment. This requirement discouraged many citizens from joining political parties.

There were seven political parties registered, including Ak Zhol, Birlik, and the People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl” (merged from the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstan Social Democratic Party). The parties generally did not oppose Nur Otan policies.

Participation of Women and Minorities: Traditional attitudes sometimes hindered women from holding high office or playing active roles in political life, although there were no legal restrictions on the participation of women or minorities in politics.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Although the government took some steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, impunity existed, especially where corruption was involved or personal relationships with government officials were established.

Corruption: Corruption was widespread in the executive branch, law enforcement agencies, local government administrations, the education system, and the judiciary, according to human rights NGOs. In 2018 the president signed into law a set of amendments to the criminal legislation mitigating punishment for a variety of acts of corruption by officials, including decriminalizing official inaction, hindrance to business activities, and falsification of documents; significantly reducing the amounts of fines for taking bribes; and reinstituting a statute of limitation for corruption crimes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Agency on Combatting Corruption, the KNB, and the Disciplinary State Service Commission are responsible for combating corruption. The KNB investigates corruption crimes committed by officers of the special agencies, anticorruption bureau, and military. According to official statistics, 1,682 corruption-related offenses were registered during the first seven months of the year. The most frequent crimes were bribery (50 percent) and abuse of power (30 percent). The government charged 374 civil servants with corruption, and 873 cases were submitted to courts.

On August 22, the Mangystau Criminal Court convicted former deputy governor of Mangystau region Serik Amangaliyev of taking a bribe on a large scale and sentenced him to 10 years of imprisonment and a lifetime ban on government service. According to the court, in November 2018 Amangaliyev was detained at the Aktau airport with 115,000 euros, part of a 400,000 euros bribe from a representative of a Czech construction company who had asked Amangaliyev to select his company for a project.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials, applicants for government positions, and those released from government service to declare their income and assets in the country and abroad to tax authorities annually. The same requirement applies to their spouses, dependents, and adult children. Similar regulations exist for members of parliament and judges. Tax declarations are not available to the public. The law imposes administrative penalties for noncompliance with the requirements.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated with some freedom to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases, although some restrictions on human rights NGO activities remained. International and local human rights groups reported the government monitored NGO activities on sensitive issues and practiced harassment, including police visits to and surveillance of NGO offices, personnel, and family members. Government officials often were uncooperative or nonresponsive to their views.

In recent years the government refused three applications from Atajurt, an advocacy organization for the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China, to register. Each time, the stated basis for refusal was errors in Atajurt’s paperwork. In February the government fined Serikzhan Bilash 252,000 tenge ($654) for leading an unregistered organization. In September, Atajurt filed a claim in the Medeu district court of Almaty against the Ministry of Justice for its refusal to register the group. On September 25, the Ministry approved Atajurt’s registration under different leadership. As reported above, Bilash signed a plea agreement in connection with his criminal case for incitement of discord that banned him from political activism.

Feminita, an LGBTI initiative, submitted three applications to the Ministry of Justice to register as a legal entity after its establishment in 2017. Each application was refused, most recently in January, on the basis that the organization’s charter does not comply with the law on noncommercial organizations. After the third refusal, Feminita’s founders filed suit against the ministry, arguing that its failure to allow them registration violated their right to freedom of association and was discriminatory. On May 27, Medeu District Court in Almaty upheld the ministry’s refusals, concluding that the objectives in Feminita’s charter do not strengthen “spiritual and moral values” and “the role of the family” in society. On September 3, an Almaty appeals court affirmed this decision.

The International Legal Initiative, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Kadyr Kassiyet, the Legal Media Center, and PRI were among the most visibly active human rights NGOs. Some NGOs faced occasional difficulties in acquiring office space and technical facilities. Government leaders participated–and regularly included NGOs–in roundtables and other public events on democracy and human rights.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government invited UN special rapporteurs to visit the country and meet with NGOs dealing with human rights. The government generally did not prevent other international NGOs and multilateral institutions dealing with human rights from visiting the country and meeting with local human rights groups and government officials. National security laws prohibit foreigners, international organizations, NGOs, and other nonprofit organizations from engaging in political activities. The government prohibited international organizations from funding unregistered entities.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Presidential Commission on Human Rights is a consultative and advisory body that includes top officials and members of the public appointed by the president. The commission reviews and investigates complaints, issues recommendations, monitors fulfillment of international human rights conventions, and publishes reports on some human rights issues in close cooperation with several international organizations, such as UNHCR, the OSCE, the International Organization for Migration, and UNICEF. The commission does not have legal authority to remedy human rights violations or implement its recommendations in the reports.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs-led Consultative Advisory Body (CAB) for dialogue on democracy, human rights, rule of law, and legislative work continued to operate during the year. The CAB includes government ministries and prominent international and domestic NGOs, as well as international organization observers. The NGO community generally was positive regarding the work of the CAB, saying the platform enabled greater communication with the government regarding issues of concern, even if the CAB did not always produce results.

The Human Rights Ombudsman is nominated by the president and approved by the senate. He also serves as the chair of the Coordinating Council of the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture.

The ombudsman did not have the authority to investigate complaints concerning decisions of the president, heads of government agencies, parliament, cabinet, Constitutional Council, Prosecutor General’s Office, CEC, or courts, although he may investigate complaints against individuals. The ombudsman’s office has the authority to appeal to the president, cabinet, or parliament to resolve citizens’ complaints; cooperate with international human rights organizations and NGOs; meet with government officials concerning human rights abuses; visit certain facilities, such as military units and prisons; and publicize in media the results of investigations. The ombudsman’s office also published an annual human rights report. During the year the ombudsman’s office occasionally briefed media and issued reports on complaints it had investigated.

Domestic human rights observers indicated that the ombudsman’s office and the Human Rights Commission were unable to stop human rights abuses or punish perpetrators. The commission and ombudsman avoided addressing underlying structural problems that led to human rights abuses, although they advanced human rights by publicizing statistics and individual cases and aided citizens with less controversial social problems and issues involving lower-level elements of the bureaucracy.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape as a medium-gravity crime. The punishment for conviction of rape, including spousal rape, ranges from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. There were reports of police and judicial reluctance to act on reports of rape, particularly in spousal rape cases.

On July 26, a Kostanay city court sentenced two train conductors, Zhates Umbetaliyev and Kolkanat Kurmaniyazov, to 2.5 years in jail for raping a female passenger in September 2018. The victim had been travelling alone in a high-speed rail train compartment. The incident and light penalty sparked outrage among citizens on social networks and prompted a #MeTooTalgo movement among other victims. As a result, the railway company leadership sent a letter to the prosecutor general condemning the actions of the train conductors and requesting punishment appropriate to the gravity of the crime, and members of parliament called for amendments to harshen the penalties for sexual violence.

Legislation identifies various types of domestic violence, such as physical, psychological, sexual, and economic, and outlines the responsibilities of local and national governments and NGOs in providing support to domestic violence victims. The law also outlines mechanisms for the issuance of restraining orders and provides for the 24-hour administrative detention of abusers. The law sets the maximum sentence for spousal assault and battery at 10 years in prison, the same as for any assault. The law also permits prohibiting offenders from living with the victim if the perpetrator has somewhere else to live, allows victims of domestic violence to receive appropriate care regardless of the place of residence, and replaces financial penalties with administrative arrest if paying fines was hurting victims as well as perpetrators.

NGOs estimated that on average 12 women each day were subjected to domestic violence and more than 400 women died annually as a result of violence sustained from their spouses. Due in part to social stigma, research conducted by the Ministry of National Economy indicated that a majority of victims of partner abuse never told anyone of their abuse. Police intervened in family disputes only when they believed the abuse was life-threatening. Police often encouraged the two parties to reconcile. NGOs also noted that the lenient penalty for domestic violence–an administrative offense with a maximum penalty of 15 days imprisonment–does not deter even convicted offenders.

On August 2, the Almaty City Court placed Baurzhan Ashigaliyev under pretrial arrest for two months on charges of deprivation of freedom and assault against his wife, well known singer Kseniya Ashigaliyeva. According to Ashigaliyeva, her husband of seven years regularly beat her, but previous reports to police had resulted in no change in his behavior and no penalty to him. On July 28, he abducted Ashigaliyeva off the street, tied her up in the basement of a building, and beat her severely. Ashigaliyeva turned to police and also the “NeMolchi” (“Speak Out”) movement for help, asking the organization to raise awareness of her case and share photographs of her injuries on the internet in order to reduce stigma against speaking out about domestic violence. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

The government opened domestic violence shelters in each region. According to the NGO Union of Crisis Centers, there are 31 crisis centers throughout the country providing reliable services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence, including 10 government-funded shelters.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued in some remote areas. The law prescribes a prison sentence of eight to 10 years for conviction of kidnapping. A person who voluntarily releases an abductee is absolved of criminal responsibility; because of this law, a typical bride kidnapper is not necessarily held criminally responsible. Law enforcement agencies often advised abductees to sort out their situation themselves. According to civil society organizations, making a complaint to police could be a very bureaucratic process and often subjected families and victims to humiliation.

In October the Dzhetysu District Court of Almaty convicted three men of kidnapping an underage girl and sentenced each to seven years of restricted movement. According to the court, in August, a young man with the help of two friends organized the girl’s kidnapping. Earlier, the girl rejected his advances. He decided to track her down, kidnap her, and marry her. The three men grabbed her near her home as she was walking with her niece and forced her into their car. The victim managed to escape while they were driving on a busy road. All three defendants pleaded guilty. The victim told the court she forgave the culprits and asked that they not be put in prison.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. No law protects women from sexual harassment, and only force or taking advantage of a victim’s physical helplessness carries criminal liability in terms of sexual assault. In no instance was the law used to protect the victim, nor were there reports of any prosecutions. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace were hesitant to lodge complaints out of shame or fear of job loss.

In March 2018 a group of NGOs and media activists set up Korgau123, an organization to support victims of harassment, and launched a hotline.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights and freedoms for men and women. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. Significant salary gaps between men and women remained a serious problem. According to observers, women in rural areas faced greater discrimination than women in urban areas and suffered from a greater incidence of domestic violence, limited education and employment opportunities, limited access to information, and discrimination in their land and other property rights.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. The government registers all births upon receipt of the proper paperwork, which may come from the parents, other interested persons, or the medical facility where the birth occurred. Children born to undocumented mothers were denied birth certificates.

Child Abuse: School violence was a problem, and experts estimated two of three schoolchildren suffered or witnessed violence. Violence and abuse were particularly serious in boarding schools, foster homes and orphanages, and detention centers. An estimated 17,000 to 18,000 children suffered from either psychological or physical abuse by their parents. According to UNICEF, more than 75 percent of the public supported the use of corporal punishment for disciplining children, and children faced violence at home, schools, children’s group homes, and on the street. Children who were victims of such violence did not have easy access to adequate complaint mechanisms.

There were reports of selling newborn babies.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, but it may be reduced to 16 in the case of pregnancy or mutual agreement, including by parents or legal guardians. According to the United Nations Population Fund, about 3,000 early and forced marriages occurred annually. Many couples first married in mosques and then registered officially when the bride reached the legal age. The government did not take action to address the issue.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law does not specify the minimum age for consensual sex, but it provides for eight to 15 years in prison for individuals convicted of forcing boys or girls younger than age 18 to have sexual intercourse. UNICEF reported that data on sexual abuse of children, child prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking, and bride kidnapping and forced marriage of girls remains scarce, making it difficult to assess the scale of rights violations.

The law criminalizes the production and distribution of child pornography and provides administrative penalties to cover the sale of pornographic materials to minors. The country retains administrative penalties for child pornography. Perpetrators convicted of sexual offenses against minors receive a lifetime ban on working with children.

Displaced Children: Human rights observers noted that the number of street children, mainly in large cities, was high. According to the Children’s Ombudsman, the number of street children was increasing. The Children’s Rights Protection Committee reports that 1,805 street children, 219 orphans, 45 delinquent children and 19 children from problematic families were referred to Centers for Delinquent Children in the first half of the year. Of the total, 1,810 were returned to their families. The remaining children were sent to orphanages (199), foster families (28), or correctional boarding schools (seven).

Institutionalized Children: Incidents of child abuse in state-run institutions, such as orphanages, boarding schools, and detention facilities for delinquent children, were “not rare,” according to government sources. NGOs stated one-half the children in orphanages or closed institutions suffered from abuse by teachers or other children. According to the Children’s Rights Protection Committee, the number of orphans who lived in orphanages decreased from 6,223 in 2017 to 5,006 in 2019. The rest of the 19,867 orphan children were in foster or other home care. Since 2019, NPM members may conduct monitoring at all children’s institutions. NGOs and government representatives alike condemned the conditions in detention facilities for delinquent children and commented that the primary solution to problems like truancy and minor delinquency should not be removal of the child from the home.

In August media reported about gross neglect of orphans with disabilities at the Rudny Infant Home in Kostanay region. According to reports, the children were identified numerically rather than by name and held in poor sanitary conditions. The children had bedsores, in some cases had no clothes, and were rarely taken outside. After the reports the director of the Infant Home was removed from his post and the Kostanay region governor ordered that the children be moved to another orphanage.

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

Leaders of the Jewish community estimated that the country’s Jewish population was approximately 10,000. They reported no incidents of anti-Semitism by the government or in society.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care, and in the provision of other government services, but significant discrimination existed. The government took steps to remedy some barriers to persons with disabilities, including providing access to information. NGOs stated implementation of the law on disability was lacking.

The law requires companies to set aside 3 percent of their jobs for persons with disabilities, and the government enacted high-level enforcement measures to enhance economic opportunities as part of the president’s strategy 2050; nevertheless, there were reports persons with disabilities faced difficulty integrating into society and finding employment. The government identified the two biggest barriers facing persons with disabilities as poor infrastructure and lack of access to education, while persons with disabilities expressed difficulty accessing public transportation.

In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch determined that a majority of children with disabilities were not receiving quality inclusive education as required by the country’s commitments under the Convention on Persons with Disabilities. According to the report, the education system segregates and isolates children with disabilities. Most children are taught in separate classrooms with other children with disabilities. Thousands are in special schools for children with disabilities, often far from their homes. Others are educated at home, with a teacher visiting for a few hours per week. Children in closed psychiatric institutions receive very little or no education. Local NGOs similarly reported a very low rate of children with special needs attending school.

Some children with Down syndrome were able to attend privately funded specialized education centers, but they had limited capacity, which resulted in long waiting periods of up to 1.5 years.

Human rights observers noted multiple types of discrimination against persons with disabilities; some airlines refused to sell tickets to persons with disabilities seeking to travel alone and insisted that they should be escorted by assistants; doctors discouraged women who use wheelchairs from having children; and treatment of prisoners with disabilities in detention facilities remained a serious problem.

The government did not legally restrict the right of persons with disabilities to vote and arranged home voting for individuals who could not travel to accessible polling places. Election monitoring NGO Yerkindik Kannaty reported positive cooperation with the CEC on implementing requirements for access to polling stations for people with special needs. The NGO observed that more polling stations were accessible during the year compared with the 2016 elections.

There are no regulations regarding the rights of patients in mental hospitals. Human rights observers believed this led to widespread abuse of patients’ rights. NGOs reported that patients often experienced poor conditions and a complete lack of privacy. Citizens with mental disabilities may be committed to state-run institutions without their consent or judicial review, and the government committed young persons under the age of 18 with the permission of their families.

According to an NPM report, most of the hospitals required extensive renovations. Other problems observed included shortage of personnel, unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, poor food supply, overcrowding, and lack of light and air.

Members of the NPM may visit mental hospitals to monitor conditions and signs of possible torture of patients, but any institutions holding children, including orphanages, were not on the list of institutions NPM members may visit.

Kazakh is the official state language, although Russian has equal status as the language of interethnic communication. The law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in Kazakh. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language, but all prospective civil servants are required to pass a Kazakh language exam.

According to the constitution, no one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of origin; occupational, social, or property status; sex; race; nationality; language; religion or belief; place of residence; or any other circumstances. The country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity.

Although gender reassignment documentation exists, the law requires a transgender person to fulfill psychiatric and physical requirements before being able to receive identity documents that align with the person’s outward gender. Many individuals lived with nonconforming documents for years and reported problems with securing employment, housing, and health care.

There were no prosecutions of anti-LGBTI violence, although one investigation was ongoing in September. There were reports of anti-LGBTI violence, but there were no government statistics on discrimination or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a 2017 NGO survey within the LGBTI community, 48 percent of respondents experienced violence or hate because of their sexual orientation, and 56 percent responded they knew someone who suffered from violence. The most frequent forms of abuse were verbal insults, harassment, interference in private life, and physical assaults.

NGOs reported members of the LGBTI community seldom turned to law enforcement agencies to report violence against them because they feared hostility, ridicule, and violence. They were reluctant to use mechanisms such as the national commissioner for human rights to seek remedies for harms inflicted because they did not trust these mechanisms to safeguard their identities, especially with regard to employment.

On September 25, the Nur-Sultan police reported that two men were under pretrial detention for the investigation of sexual assault, beating, and extortion of a 21-year-old gay man in July. A medical examination showed that the young man sustained a head injury, broken bones, and numerous wounds and bruises, including burns. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end. According to the media, in July, two men locked the young man in an apartment and raped and assaulted him. The perpetrators then called his parents and relatives extorting money for his life. He managed to escape from the apartment and called police. Activists told media that beating, extortion, and harassment of LGBTI individuals was not uncommon, although typically unreported.

On July 30, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lesbian couple, finding an Almaty man guilty of violating their right to privacy. In January 2018 Eldar Mamedov posted on Facebook a video of two women kissing at a movie theater. The video soon went viral, with many negative remarks and threats to the women. Under local law, video cannot be publicized without the consent of the subjects. The women filed a case against Mamedov with the Almaty district court, which ruled in their favor. On appeal, however, the court overturned the decision, describing the behavior of the women as “immoral” and stating that local society “is not ready for open sexual relations between same-sex couples.” On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision and determined that the lower court violated the constitutional rights of the women.

In July, Victoria Berkkhodjayeva, a transgender woman serving a sentence in Zhaugashty, Almaty region, told authorities that in July she had been raped three times by a KNB officer. Berkkhodjayeva reported the incident to the Prosecutor General’s Office and to the Anti-Corruption Agency. Almaty region police launched an investigation into the case. In August media reported that a key witness in the case was engaged in a hunger strike to protest pressure put on her by prison authorities in connection with the case. In October media further reported that authorities had placed the KNB officer suspected of rape under arrest based on the results of forensic tests. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS, but stigma resulted in societal discrimination that continued to affect access to information, services, treatment, and care. The National Center for AIDS provides free diagnosis and treatment to all citizens.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for workers’ right to unionize, but limits workers’ freedom of association. The trade union law amended in 2017 restricts workers’ freedom of association by requiring existing independent labor unions to affiliate with larger, progovernment unions at the industry, sector, or regional level and by erecting significant barriers to the creation of independent unions.

In 2017 a southern regional court cancelled the registration of the Confederation of the Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CITUK), ordering its liquidation and removal from the national register. The Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (FTUK) is the successor to state-sponsored Soviet-era labor organizations and the largest national trade union association, with approximately 90 percent of union members on its rolls. The government exercised considerable influence on organized labor and favored state-affiliated unions over independent ones. Critics charged that the FTUK was too close to the government to advocate for workers effectively, was biased in favor of large employers and oligarchs, and that the law helped the FTUK in its unfair competition against independent labor unions.

In May 2018 the former chair of the Oil Construction Company (OCC) Trade Union, Amin Yeleussinov, who was sentenced to two years in prison in January 2017, was released on parole. Nurbek Kushakbaev, vice-chairperson of CITUK who was sentenced to two and a half years in April 2017, was also released on parole in May 2018. Civil society organizations called for their convictions–as well as that of former chairman of CITUK, Larisa Kharkova–to be vacated.

On July 17, a court in Shymkent sentenced Yerlan Baltabay, the leader of an independent union of petrochemical workers, to seven years’ imprisonment on charges of embezzlement of union dues. Human rights observers noted the parallels between Baltabay’s case and the investigation and ultimate conviction of Larisa Kharkova in 2017 and asserted that Baltabay was also targeted for his independent labor union activism. Baltabay appealed to the president for pardon, admitting his guilt and promising to compensate inflicted damages, and President Tokayev granted pardon on August 10. On September 23, Baltabay published an open letter on the website of the Human Rights Bureau, reasserting his innocence in the case and stating that he had only asked for pardon at the urging of the KNB. Baltabay did not repay the claimed damages and authorities returned him to prison on October 16.

The law provides for the right of workers to bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, and a court may order reinstatement of a worker fired for union activity. Penalties for violations of these provisions included fines and imprisonment of up to 75 days, but these penalties did not deter violations. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, as of March, 94.2 percent of large and medium enterprises had collective agreements. Earlier statistics showed that 33.4 percent of all working enterprises had collective agreements. FTUK reported in February that 31.2 percent, or two million out of 6.4 million employees, were members of trade unions in 2018.

The law provides for the right to strike in principle but imposes onerous restrictions that make strikes unlikely. For example, the right to strike may be granted only after the dispute is brought to a reconciliatory commission for consideration. In addition, by law there are a variety of circumstances in which strikes are illegal. A blanket legal restriction bars certain occupations from conducting a strike. Military and other security service members, emergency medical, fire, and rescue crews, as well as those who operate “dangerous” production facilities are forbidden to strike. By law such strikes are illegal.

Workers employed in the railway, transport and communications, civil aviation, healthcare, and public utilities sectors may strike, but only if they maintain minimum services, do not interrupt nonstop production processes (such as metallurgy), and leave key equipment unaffected. Numerous legal limitations restrict workers’ right to strike in other industries as well. Generally, workers may not strike unless a labor dispute cannot be resolved through compulsory arbitration procedures. Decisions to strike must be taken in a meeting where at least one-half of an enterprise’s workers are present. A written notice announcing a strike must be submitted to the employer at least five days in advance.

Employers may fire striking workers after a court declares a strike illegal. The law also enables the government to target labor organizers whose strikes are deemed illegal, including by imposing criminal charges and up to three years in prison for conviction of participation in strikes declared illegal by the court.

The labor code limits worker rights to make claims on their employers. For example, its Article 12 requires employers to negotiate any labor-related act with official employee representatives. If there are multiple official representatives, they have five days in which to form a unified body to discuss the proposed act. If the group cannot come to consensus, the employer may accept the act without the consent of the employees. Article 52 lists 25 reasons an employer may fire a worker.

Disagreements between unions and their employers may be presented to a tripartite commission composed of representatives of the government, labor unions, and employer associations. State-affiliated and independent labor unions participate in tripartite commissions. The tripartite commission is responsible for developing and signing annual agreements governing most aspects of labor relations.

Foreign workers have the right to join unions, but the law prohibits the operation of foreign unions and the financing of unions by foreign entities, such as foreign citizens, governments, and international organizations. Irregular migrants and self-employed individuals resided in the country were not per se exempt from the law. Approximately two million of the nine million economically active citizens were self-employed in the second quarter of the year.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except when it is a consequence of a court sentencing or a condition of a state of emergency or martial law.

The penal code provides for punishment of convicted traffickers and those who facilitate forced exploitation and trafficking, including labor recruiters who hire workers through deliberately fraudulent or deceptive offers with the intent to subject them to forced labor, or employers or labor agents who confiscate passports or travel documents to keep workers in a state of involuntary servitude. Conviction of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor and sexual exploitation is punishable by penalties that are sufficient to deter violations. Conviction of kidnapping and illegal deprivation of freedom with the purpose of labor or sexual exploitation is also punishable by penalties that were considered sufficient to deter violations.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for conducting checks of employers to reveal labor law violations, including exploitation of foreign workers. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for identifying victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation and initiating criminal proceedings. The government effectively enforced the laws to identify domestic victims of sexual exploitation, but it did not effectively enforce the laws to identify foreign victims and domestic victims of labor trafficking. The statistics on identification of foreign victims remained low; only two foreign victims were identified in 2018–one victim of sexual exploitation, and another victim of labor exploitation. Police conducted interagency operations to find victims of forced labor. Identification of forced labor victims, however, remained low and even decreased compared with 2018. Of 83 victims identified in 2018, 79 were victims of sexual exploitation, three victims of labor exploitation, and one victim of forced begging. In 2018 police investigated 106 criminal cases on human trafficking, and courts convicted 17 traffickers, all for sexual exploitation. The low number of foreign and labor victims identified in 2018 was among several reasons for the country’s downgrade to Tier 2 Watch List in the Department of State’s Annual Trafficking in Persons Report for 2019.

Migrant workers were considered most at risk for forced or compulsory labor. In 2018 according to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, 1.8 million people were registered as migrants in the country. The majority of migrant workers came from Uzbekistan, but there were also lesser numbers from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Migrant workers found employment primarily in agriculture and construction. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for handling issues related to migrant labor. In 2017 the government adopted a new Concept of Migration policy for 2017-2021 and an accompanying implementation plan. Together, these changes addressed both internal and external modern challenges, such as the excess of low-skilled labor due to increased inflow of labor migrants from other Central Asian countries and the deficiency of high-skilled labor in some sectors of the economy due to a low-level of education.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The general minimum age for employment is 16. With parental permission, however, children ages 14 through 16 may perform light work that does not interfere with their health or education. The law prohibits minors from engaging in hazardous work and restricts the length of the workday for employees younger than 18.

The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor; however, gaps exist in the legal framework to protect children adequately from worst forms of child labor. Prohibitions against the worst forms of child labor include criminal punishment under the penal code. Conviction of violation of minimum age employment in hazardous work, engaging minors in pornographic shows or production of materials containing pornographic images of minors, coercion of minors into prostitution, kidnapping or illegal deprivation of freedom of a minor for the purpose of exploitation, and trafficking in minors are punishable by penalties that were sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating criminal offenses and training criminal police in investigating the worst forms of child labor.

The law provides for noncriminal punishments for violations of the law, including written warnings, suspensions, terminations, the withdrawal of licenses for specific types of activities, administrative penalties or fines, and administrative arrest (only by court decision and only up to 15 days for violation of legislation in relation to minors). Such violations include employment of minors without an employment agreement, which is punishable by fine with suspension of the employer’s license. Untimely or incorrect payment of salaries, nonprovision of vacation or time off, excessive work hours, and discrimination in the workplace were also punishable by fines. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for enforcement of child labor laws and for administrative offenses punishable by fines.

The government has established institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of child labor laws and regulations, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. The government does not have a policy to address relevant forms of child labor. The complaint mechanism does not allow for anonymous individuals to report labor violations and, in the first nine months of the year, no case of child labor was reported to government hotlines.

In recent years, sporadic instances of children working below the country’s minimum age of employment were reported in agriculture, including producing vegetables, weeding, collecting worms, and harvesting cotton; in construction; in the markets and streets, including transporting and selling items; in domestic work; in gas stations, car washing, and working as bus conductors; or as waiters in restaurants. These forms of labor were determined by local legislation to be potentially hazardous and categorized as the worst forms of child labor. The majority of such situations, however, occur on family farms or in family businesses.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on gender, age, disability, race, ethnicity, language, place of residence, religion, political opinion, affiliation with tribe or class, public associations, or property, social, or official status. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases. The government effectively enforced the law and regulations. Discrimination is an administrative offense punishable by a fine that is not sufficient to deter violations. Some cases like illegal termination of labor contracts due to pregnancy, disability, or minority are considered a criminal offense and are punishable by penalties which are sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination, however, occurred with respect to employment and occupation for persons with disabilities, orphans, and former convicts. Disability NGOs reported that despite government efforts, obtaining employment was difficult for persons with disabilities. The law does not require equal pay for equal work for women and men. NGOs reported no government body assumed responsibility for implementing antidiscrimination legislation and asserted the law’s definition of gender discrimination does not comply with international standards. More women than men were self-employed or underemployed relative to their education level.

In June a fight occurred at Chevron-operated Tengiz oilfield between local and foreign workers, resulting in 45 injuries. One reason for the trouble was discontent among local workers who had complained of a wage discrepancy between local and foreign workers with similar qualifications. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection launched a series of inspections at companies employing foreign workers. The ministry reported the following violations: 1) foreign workers were paid 30-50 percent more than local workers; 2) local workers were paid in local currency, while foreign workers were paid in U.S. dollars; and 3) some foreign workers occupied positions that differed from that described on the work permits. These violations are punishable by fines, annulment of work permits, or deportation of a company’s foreign workforce.

In the first seven months of the year, the Labor and Social Protection Ministry fined companies with foreign ownership for over 300 violations in the cumulative amount of around 1 million tenge ($2,596).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

During the year the national monthly minimum wage was above the poverty line. As of August 2018, the government reported that 1.3 million citizens of a nine-million-person workforce were not registered as either employed or unemployed, meaning that they likely work in the informal economy. A Ministry of Finance spokesperson separately reported during the year that up to one third of workers were engaged in the informal economy, referencing 2015 government and international organization statistics. These workers were concentrated in the retail trade, transport services, agriculture, real estate, beauty and hair dressing salons, and laundry and dry cleaning businesses. Small entrepreneurs and their employees for the most part work without health, social, or pension benefits.

The law stipulates the normal workweek should not exceed 40 hours and limits heavy manual labor or hazardous work to no more than 36 hours per week. The law limits overtime to two hours per day, or one hour per day for heavy manual labor, and requires overtime to be paid at least at a 50-percent premium. The law prohibits compulsory overtime and overtime for work in hazardous conditions. The law provides that labor agreements may stipulate the length of working time, holidays, and paid annual leave for each worker.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law requires employers to suspend work that could endanger the life or health of workers and to warn workers about any harmful or dangerous work conditions or the possibility of any occupational disease. The law specifically grants workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without suffering adverse employment action.

Overtime pay for holiday and after-hours work is equal to 1.5 times regular salary. The decision on pay is made by the employer or in compliance with a collective agreement, and the amount of pay is based on so-called industry-specific wage multipliers, stipulated by the industrial agreements.

In July 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of China National Petroleum Corporation-AktobeMunayGas, owned by China National Petroleum Corporation, which in 2017 reduced the environmental allowance for 403 workers who reside in the ecologically challenging Aral Sea area from 50 percent to 20 percent. The company, supported by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, argued that only workers who both reside and work in the Aral Sea area are entitled to a 50 percent allowance. Those who resided in the Aral Sea area, but worked elsewhere, may claim only the 20 percent allowance.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection enforces the minimum wage, work-hour restrictions, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards. Under the entrepreneur code, labor inspectors have the right to conduct announced and unannounced inspections of workplaces to detect violations. Both types of inspections take place only after written notification. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Inspections based on risk assessment reports are announced in writing not less than 30 days prior the beginning of the inspection. There has been a presidential moratorium on announced inspections since 2014. Unplanned inspections are announced not less than one day prior the beginning of the inspection. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient. Ministry inspectors conducted random inspections of employers. In 2018 inspectors conducted 8,774 inspections and detected 11,976 violations of labor law. Wage arrears accounted for 20 percent of violations, unsafe work conditions 20 percent, and illegal employment or dismissal made up 14 percent of cases. In 2018 both the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, each in cooperation with other agencies, carried out additional inspection operations (raids) in areas where children were likely to engage in child labor.

The Human Rights Commission reported that the number of inspectors was insufficient. Moreover, the 2015 labor code introduced so-called employer’s declarations. Under this system, labor inspectors may extend a certificate of trust to enterprises that complied with labor legislation requirements. Certified enterprises are exempt from labor inspections for the three-year period. In the opinion of labor rights activists, such a practice may worsen labor conditions and conceal problems. By law any enterprise or company may form a production council to address labor safety issues from representatives of an employer and employees. These councils are eligible to conduct their own inspections of the employees’ work conditions. As of January there were 12,855 production councils and 17,751 volunteer labor inspectors.

There were reports some employers ignored regulations concerning occupational health and safety. Occupational safety and health conditions in the construction, industrial, and agricultural sectors often were substandard. Workers in factories sometimes lacked quality protective clothing and sometimes worked in conditions of poor visibility and ventilation. In 2018 the government reported 1,568 workplace injuries, of which 216 resulted in death. The government attributed many labor-related deaths to antiquated equipment, insufficient detection and prevention of occupational diseases in workers engaged in harmful labor, and disregard for safety regulations. The most dangerous jobs were in mining, construction, and oil and gas, according to an expert analysis of occupations with the highest fatalities.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that in 2018, 23 percent of workers labored in hazardous conditions. Approximately 39,000 work health and safety violations were reported in 2018. The government suspended operation of 827 facilities and three enterprises due to flagrant violations. Approximately 2,000 fines totaling over 147 million tenge (over $380,000) were imposed.

Some companies tried to avoid payments to injured workers. Critics reported that employers, the FTUK, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection were more concerned with bureaucracy and filling out reports on work-related accidents, than with taking measures to reduce their number. A minimal noncompliance with labor safety requirements may result in a company’s refusal to compensate workers for industrial injuries. In 30 percent of cases, workers themselves were blamed for violating occupational health and safety regulations.

In January the Ekibastuz city court awarded a former janitor of the Ekibastuz Combined Heat and Power Plant 3 million tenge (around $7,800) in damages after she developed bronchial asthma as a result of her work at the plant from 2000 to 2015. Bronchial asthma was recognized as an occupational disease in 2011 due to the high concentration of dust and gas in the air at the workplace.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The Kyrgyz Republic has a parliamentary form of government designed to limit presidential power and enhance the role of parliament and the prime minister. During presidential elections in 2017, the nation elected former prime minister and member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, to succeed outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the elections as competitive and well administered, but it noted room for improvement in the legal framework to prevent misuse of public resources in election campaigns and to deter vote buying more effectively.

The investigation of general and local crimes falls under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while certain crimes such as terrorism and corruption fall under the authority of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which also controls the presidential security service. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) prosecutes both local and national crimes. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: law enforcement and security services’ use of torture and arbitrary arrest; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including site blocking and criminal libel in practice; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons (LGBTI); and use of forced child labor.

While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute or punish officials known to have committed human rights abuses, especially those involved in corrupt activities, official impunity remained a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of Article 299 of the criminal code on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted Article 299 to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. According to NGOs, virtually all arrests under Article 299 resulted in convictions in 2018. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm violations of Article 299 arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional. Article 314 of the penal code that came into force in January requires an intent to distribute extremist materials be proven in order to convict of a crime. Article 314 replaces the provisions found previously in Article 299.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: As in earlier years, some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. The trend was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.

In recent years the government, security services, and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.

On August 14, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir expressed his concern over the closure of the television channel April TV in Bishkek and called for respect for diversity in media. On August 9, the security services sealed off channel April TV’s headquarters in Bishkek as part of a security operation, shutting it down. “I am concerned by the seizure of assets of the television channel April and the suspension of its operations,” the representative said. “While I am fully aware of the exceptional circumstances under which this decision was taken, I call on the relevant authorities to review this decision.” The representative also said the safety of journalists who cover political events must be respected by all actors, after media worker Aida Djumashova was injured during the raid on former president Atambaev’s home on August 7 and protesters attacked reporters with Vesti.kg, April and Kloop.kg in Bishkek on August 8. On November 21, April TV received permission to resume broadcasting, but on December 7, the Military Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit to prevent April TV from broadcasting further. The Media Policy Institute appealed to the court, asking that the ban on broadcasting be reversed. The institute released a statement asserting the Military Prosecutor’s Office did not have the authority to ban April TV from broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police, and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: As in previous years, journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from offices of the government to report in a particular way or to ignore specific news stories.

NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.

As the government transitions from an analog to a digital broadcasting system starting this year, individuals and news organizations can submit requests to the government to get a license for a television channel. The government controlled the licensing process, and civil society reported the government abused the licensing process by revoking licenses to individuals or organizations which broadcast content the government disagrees with. The government’s revocation of a license to operate a television channel can financially decimate a news outlet and shutter their operations.

Libel/Slander Laws: While libel is not a criminal offense except in narrowly prescribed instances, NGO leaders described the False Accusations Amendments, passed in 2014 as a practical “recriminalizing of libel.” Journalists noted the law exposed media to libel suits in civil courts that could bankrupt the outlets or journalists in their defense attempts. In 2015 the Constitutional Chamber narrowed the reach of the law, holding that henceforth it would apply only in cases of knowingly making false statements in a police report but not to statements in media, although subsequent decisions appeared to contradict that ruling. While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.

In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite the improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. The Supreme Court upheld a decision in the suit of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament (MP) Kozhobek Ryspaev against the newspaper Achyk Sayasat. The newspaper had to pay Ryspaev 300,000 soms ($4,300) in compensation. The newspaper editor in chief Nazgul Mamytova said the newspaper was likely to close. MP Ryspaev sued the newspaper due to an article that was published in August 2018, which stated Ryspaev was moving from one political party to another, and the author called him a “chameleon.”

The Adilet Legal Clinic reported the organization defended journalists and media outlets charged with libel and slander and that members of media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.

The government generally allowed access to the internet, including social media sites. There were no public credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. There were no reports during the year that the government blocked websites spreading “extremist” and terrorist materials without a court order. Media reported that, in August, courts blocked five social-media accounts and eight online-media channels, due to extremist content. In September, the Civic Initiative on Internet Policy reported on 359 internet resources that are subject for blockage by the government, including archive.org, soundcloud.com, and numerous links to Facebook and YouTube.

On November 24, the GKNB arrested Aftandil Jorobekov, a blogger and administrator of the popular Facebook page BespredelKG (LawlessnessKG), after he posted statements critical of President Jeenbekov and his relationship with former deputy state customs service head Raimbek Matraimov. The GKNB charged Jorobekov with inciting interregional discord under the criminal code. The charges against Jorobekov also cited posts written in response to his initial post by other users as evidence of his crime. According to the GKNB, “[Jorobekov’s posts] divided the users into opposing groups, provoked mutual insulting comments, which ultimately led to arousal in people of hatred towards each other in the form of inciting interregional hatred,” and it claimed that Jorobekov posted false and provocative information alleging the president was an accomplice in corruption. Jorobekov was released under house arrest on December 5. Numerous human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, criticized the arrest, calling it a blatant attempt to stifle criticism of the president.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Institutions providing advanced religious education must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The constitution provides for this right, although it took steps to limit peaceful assembly in Bishkek and Talas. Organizers and participants are responsible for notifying authorities of planned assemblies, but the constitution prohibits authorities from banning or restricting peaceful assemblies, even in the absence of prior notification. Local authorities, however, have the right to demand an end to a public action and, in the event of noncompliance, are empowered to take measures to end assemblies. In September the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek announced a ban on public assemblies in the center of Bishkek from September 17 to October 15. Press reported that in late September the GKNB investigated protesters in Talas under the criminal article forbidding the planning of violent activities against the state during preparations for peaceful protest on the environmental effects of mining.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. NGOs, labor unions, political parties, and cultural associations must register with the Ministry of Justice. NGOs are required to have at least three members and all other organizations at least 10 members. The Ministry of Justice did not refuse to register any domestic NGOs. The law prohibits foreign-funded political parties and NGOs, including their representative offices and branches, from pursuing political goals.

The government continued to maintain bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Kurdish People’s Congress, the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky.

As in recent years, numerous human rights activists reported continued arrests and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature (see section 1.d.). Most arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members occurred in the southern part of the country and involved ethnic Uzbeks. The government charged the majority of those arrested with possession of illegal religious material. In some cases NGOs alleged police planted Hizb ut-Tahrir literature as evidence against those arrested.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

Foreign Travel: The law on migration prohibits travel abroad by citizens who have or had access to information classified as state secrets until the information is declassified.

Citizenship: The law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The government did not use the law during the year.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to provide some protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In April the State Migration Service reported there were 193 refugees in the country, including 87 from Afghanistan.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law on refugees includes nondiscrimination provisions covering persons who UNHCR did not grant refugee status to when they left their country of origin and extends the validity of documents until a final decision on status is determined by a court.

Employment: The government grants legal permission to work to individuals UNHCR has determined are refugees and to whom the government has granted official residency status in the country. Not all refugees qualify for residency status according to the government. Individuals who UNHCR has determined are refugees, but to whom the government has not conferred legal residency, are not legally permitted to work, access medical services, or receive identity documents. Therefore, they are susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities.

Access to Basic Services: The government deemed individuals whom UNHCR determined ineligible for refugee status, as well as asylum seekers who lacked official status, as ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.

In July, UNHCR confirmed the country did not have any stateless individuals documented within its borders. During the year the remaining 50 stateless persons living in the country received local passports and acquired similar rights to citizens. UNHCR reported the government had issued approximately 13,431 individuals local passports since 2014.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In practice authorities and party officials responsible for administering elections engaged in some procedural irregularities.

Recent Elections: In October 2017 voters elected former prime minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov as president, with approximately 55 percent of the total vote. The OSCE deemed the elections competitive with 11 candidates who were generally able to campaign freely. Misuse of administrative resources, pressure on voters, and vote buying remained a concern.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Members of parliament are selected through a national “party list” system.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The election code requires the names of male and female parliamentary candidates be intermixed on party lists and that no more than 70 percent of candidates on a party list can be of the same gender. After voting occurred, party leaders regularly reordered the lists, often to the disadvantage of women. A 2017 amendment to the law on elections requires that MPs who resign their mandate be replaced by persons of the same gender. Women held fewer than 10 percent of parliamentary seats.

By law women must be represented in all branches of government and constitute no less than 30 percent of state bodies and local authorities. The law does not specify the level of the positions at which they must be represented.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for public officials convicted of corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Civil society and media reported numerous incidents of government corruption during the year. According to Transparency International, the government appears to selectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases. The practice of officials in all levels of law enforcement accepting the payment of bribes to avoid investigation or prosecution is a major problem. Law enforcement officers, particularly in the southern part of the country, frequently employed arbitrary arrest, torture, and the threat of criminal prosecution as a means of extorting cash payments from citizens (see section 1.d.).

Corruption: The GKNB’s anticorruption branch is the only government body formally empowered to investigate corruption. It is not an independent government entity; the branch’s work is funded from the GKNB’s operating budget. The branch limits its cooperation with civil society. The State Service to Combat Economic Crimes, also known as the Financial Police, investigates economic crimes, which sometimes includes corruption-related crimes.

On August 9, the government charged former president Atambaev with corruption for his alleged actions related to the modernization of the Bishkek Combined Heating and Power Plant and the ownership of property using a front person. Prior to his arrest, Atambaev refused to be interrogated by authorities about his role in a number of criminal cases. Atambaev’s arrest followed a GKNB raid on his compound that resulted in the death of one member of the Special Forces and injuries to more than 170 people. The government accused Atambaev of using violence against representatives of the authorities, organizing mass unrest, hostage taking, and murder in the wake of the raid.

Atambaev’s arrest followed the 2018 arrests of several high-profile political figures in connection to the Combined Heating and Power Plant, including two former prime ministers, the mayor of Bishkek, and the chief of the State Customs Service. On December 6, the Sverdlov District Court of Bishkek sentenced the two former prime ministers Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiev to 15 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively, for corruption and abuse of power related to the modernization of the Bishkek Combined Heating and Power Plant. The prosecution argued that Isakov and Satybaldiev knew the proposal to modernize the facility was contrary to the interests of the Kyrgyz Republic due to technical and technological shortcomings. Some Atambaev supporters alleged the two former prime ministers might have been prosecuted due to their connections with the former president.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all public officials to publish their income and assets. The State Personnel Service is responsible for making this information public. Officials who do not disclose required information may be dismissed from office, although the government did not regularly enforce this punishment.

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

Numerous domestic and international human rights organizations operated actively in the country, although government officials at times were uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.

Government actions at times appeared to impede the ability of NGOs to operate freely.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government permitted visits by representatives of the United Nations and other organizations in connection with the investigation of abuses or monitoring of human rights problems in the country, including those of the OSCE, ICRC, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Organization for Migration. The government provided international bodies largely unfettered access to civil society activists, detention facilities and detainees, and government officials.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman acts as an independent advocate for human rights on behalf of private citizens and NGOs and has the authority to recommend cases for court review. Observers noted the atmosphere of impunity surrounding the security forces and their ability to act independently against citizens, factors that limited the number and type of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Although the Ombudsman’s Office exists in part to receive complaints of human rights abuses and pass the complaints to relevant agencies for investigation, both domestic and international observers questioned the office’s efficiency and political independence.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. As in previous years, the government failed to enforce the law effectively, and many rape victims did not report their rape or sexual assault to police or NGOs. Penalties for conviction of sexual assault range from three to eight years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors rarely brought rape cases to court. Police generally regarded spousal rape as an administrative rather than criminal offense.

While the law specifically prohibits domestic violence and spousal abuse, violence against women and girls remained a significant yet underreported problem. Penalties for domestic violence convictions range from fines to 15 years’ imprisonment, the latter if abuse resulted in death. In May, HRW criticized the government for failing to prevent and punish violence against girls. In 2017 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that the number of registered cases of domestic violence was more than 7,000. In 2018 this figure increased by 14 percent to approximately 8,000 cases. According to the Women Democratic League, domestic abusers in 2018 killed 62 women and injured 288 women. HRW reported that, in the first three months of the year, police registered 2,701 cases of domestic violence, although data on injuries or deaths were not available. Among the domestic violence cases brought to court in 2018, prosecutors classified a significant number as administrative offenses or misdemeanors, which carry a lighter sentence. A January revision to the Code of Misdemeanors, however, does include a provision that criminalizes domestic violence.

Many women did not report crimes against them due to psychological pressure, economic dependence, cultural traditions, fear of stigma, and apathy among law enforcement officers. Civil society and media reported instances of spouses retaliating against women who reported abuse. The government provided offices to the Sezim Shelter (Sezim is the Kyrgyz word for crisis) in Bishkek for victims of domestic abuse and paid some of its expenses. International NGOs and organizations contributed funding to other shelters throughout the country. Despite this funding, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch questioned the government’s commitment to address the problem.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued. In 2018 the United Nations estimated kidnappers forced 13.8 percent of girls younger than age 24 into marriage. Men married to kidnapped brides were more likely to abuse their wives and limit their pursuit of education and employment. The negative effect of the practice extended to children of kidnapped brides. Observers reported there was a greater frequency of early marriage, polygamy, and bride kidnapping in connection with unregistered religious marriages. This also affected data availability on such marriages. In 2018 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that over the five past years, 895 individuals complained to the law enforcement authorities regarding bride kidnapping. In 727 cases victims did not file criminal cases against the perpetrators. Police and prosecutors criminally investigated 168 cases.

Some victims of bride kidnapping went to the local police to obtain protective orders, but authorities often poorly enforced such orders. NGOs continued to report that prosecutors rarely pursue kidnappers for bride kidnapping. Provisions of the penal code that entered into force in April establish penalties for bride kidnapping of 10 years in prison and a fine of 210,000 soms ($3,000).

In October local press reported on a video of the bride kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl in Talas. According to press, the girl in the video was forced to marry a 35-year-old man. After the release of the video on social media and in local media, the Talas police launched an investigation into the case.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits physical sexual assault but not verbal sexual harassment. Police did not actively enforce these laws. Media reported on widespread sexual harassment in the workplace and on public transportation.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women and men, but enforcement of the law was poor, and discrimination against women persisted.

As in previous years, data from NGOs working on women’s issues indicated women were less healthy, more abused, less able to work outside the home, and less able than men to determine independently the disposition of their earnings.

Birth Registration: Although the law provides that every child born in the country has the right to receive a birth certificate, local registration, and citizenship, some children were stateless (see section 2.d.). Children of migrant parents who moved to and acquired citizenship of another country had to prove both of their parents were Kyrgyz citizens to acquire Kyrgyz citizenship.

Education: The law provides for compulsory and free education for the first nine years of schooling or until age 14 or 15. Secondary education is free and universal until age 17. The government did not provide free basic education to all students. The system of residence registration restricted access to social services, including education for children who were refugees, migrants, or noncitizens. Families of children in public school often paid burdensome and illegal administrative fees.

Child Abuse: No specific law covers child abuse in the country. The Children Code regulates the role of different state institutions in ensuring, providing, and protecting children’s rights. According to NGO and UN reports, child abuse, including beatings, child labor, and commercial sexual exploitation of boys and girls continued to occur. According to the National Statistics Committee, more than 277,000 children are left without parental care due to labor migration from to Russia and other countries. The Child Protection League stated that violence against children left under guardianship of the migrants’ relatives occurs in almost all cases.

Early and Forced Marriage: Children ages 16 and 17 may legally marry with the consent of local authorities, but the law prohibits civil marriages before age 16 under all circumstances. Although illegal, the practice of bride kidnapping continued (see section 6, Women). The kidnapping of underage brides remained underreported.

In 2018 UNICEF estimated that 12.7 percent of married women between the ages of 20 and 49 married before age 18. A 2016 law criminalizes religious marriages involving minors; however, prosecutors did not file any cases of criminal charges for religious marriages involving minors.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sale of children younger than age 18, child trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography, as well as other sexual crimes against children. The law criminalizes the sale of persons and forced prostitution. It provides penalties for conviction of up to 15 years in prison if the victim is a child. The law also makes it a crime to involve someone in prostitution by violence or the threat of violence, blackmail, destroying or damaging property, or fraud. The government made limited efforts to enforce the law.

The criminal code prohibits the distribution of child pornography and the possession of child pornography with the intent to distribute. The law does not specifically define child pornography, and the criminal code does not fully criminalize computer-related use, access to child pornography online, or simple possession of child pornography.

According to UNICEF and local observers, children younger than age 18 in Bishkek were involved in prostitution. Although precise figures were not known, police stated that typical cases of children in prostitution involved young girls from rural areas who relocated to Bishkek for educational opportunities or to flee from an abusive family environment. Once in the capital, they entered the sex trade because of financial need. NGOs and international organizations reported law enforcement officials’ complicity in human trafficking by accepting bribes to drop cases, warning suspected traffickers prior to raids, and allowing traffickers to avoid punishment by offering victims payment to drop cases. Police allegedly threatened, extorted, and raped child sex-trafficking victims. The government reportedly did not investigate allegations of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Under the criminal code, it is illegal for persons ages 18 and older to have sexual relations with someone younger than age 16.

Displaced Children: As in previous years, there were numerous reports of child abandonment due to parents’ lack of resources, and large numbers of children lived in institutions, foster care, or on the streets. Approximately 80 percent of street children were internal migrants. Street children had difficulty accessing educational and medical services. Police detained street children and sent them home if an address was known or to a rehabilitation center or orphanage.

Institutionalized Children: State orphanages and foster homes lacked resources and often were unable to provide proper care. This sometimes resulted in the transfer of older children to mental health-care facilities even when they did not exhibit mental health problems. In August 2018 the Office of the Ombudsman called for the closure of the country’s sole children’s detention center, but as of September, the government had not closed the detention center. The ombudsman stated the center did not respect the right of juvenile detainees to education and medical services.

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

The Jewish population in the country was approximately 460. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, requires access to public transportation and parking, authorizes subsidies to make mass media available to persons with hearing or vision disabilities, and provides free plots of land for the construction of a home. The government generally did not ensure proper implementation of the law, and discrimination persisted. In addition persons with disabilities often had difficulty finding employment due to negative societal attitudes and high unemployment among the general population.

A lack of government resources made it difficult for persons with disabilities to receive adequate education. Although children with disabilities have the right to an education, the Association of Parents of Children with Disabilities stated schools often denied them entry. The government funded programs to provide school supplies and textbooks to children with mental or physical disabilities. The Association of Parents of Children with Disabilities reported efforts by the Ministry of Education and Science to improve the situation by promoting inclusive education for persons with disabilities.

According to UNICEF, the government and families institutionalized one-third of children with disabilities. As in previous years, psychiatric hospitals provided substandard conditions to their patients, stemming largely from inadequate funding. The government did not adequately provide for basic needs, such as food, water, clothing, heating, and health care, and did not adequately address overcrowded conditions.

Authorities usually placed children with mental disabilities in psychiatric hospitals rather than integrating them with other children. The government and families also committed other residents involuntarily, including children without mental disabilities who the government determined are too old to remain in orphanages.

The PGO is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with mental disabilities. According to local NGO lawyers, members of the PGO had no training and little knowledge of the protection of these rights and did not effectively assist citizens with disabilities. Most judges lacked the experience and training to make determinations whether it was appropriate to mandate committing persons to psychiatric hospitals, and authorities institutionalized individuals against their will.

Observers noted authorities had not implemented a 2008 law requiring employers to fulfill special hiring quotas for persons with disabilities (approximately 5 percent of work positions).

Tensions between ethnic Uzbeks–who comprised nearly 15 percent of the population–and ethnic Kyrgyz remained problematic, particularly in Southern Osh Oblast where ethnic Uzbeks make up almost one-half the population. Discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in business and government, as well as harassment and reported arbitrary arrests, illustrated these tensions. Ethnic Uzbeks reported that large public works and road construction projects in predominantly ethnic Uzbek areas, often undertaken without public consultation, interfered with neighborhoods and destroyed homes. Additionally, according to HRW, a 2016 Supreme Court study found that a majority of suspects prosecuted for terrorism and extremism, including under Article 299, were ethnic Uzbeks from the south.

The country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults or speech that supports LGBTI issues. LGBTI persons whose sexual orientation or gender identity was publicly known risked physical and verbal abuse, possible loss of employment, and unwanted attention from police and other authorities. Inmates and officials often openly victimized incarcerated gay men. Forced marriages of lesbians and bisexual women to men also occurred. The Labrys Public Foundation noted the continued practice of “corrective rape” of lesbians to “cure” their homosexuality. LGBTI NGOs reported harassment and continuing surveillance of their workers by security services.

In 2014 HRW released a report based on interviews with 40 LGBTI persons chronicling instances of official extortion, beatings, and sexual assault. The report described in detail how police patrolling parks and bars frequented by gay men would threaten them with violence and arrest or threaten to reveal their homosexuality to their families if they did not pay bribes. These practices, according to representatives of the LGBTI community, continued during the year. NGO leaders in the southern part of the country reported an even greater threat. During the year members of the LGBTI community reported that authorities regularly monitored chatrooms and dating sites in an effort to punish and extort those who were seeking homosexual sex through online venues.

On March 8, LGBTI groups participated in a march through Bishkek celebrating International Women’s Day. In the aftermath of the march, LGBTI participants reported receiving death threats in social media. Additionally, one parliamentarian used social media to call on people to beat homosexuals, claiming that their sexual orientation was in conflict with Kyrgyz traditions. The two largest LGBTI NGOs shuttered their offices for multiple weeks after threats against their workers.

On May 1, two attacks against members of the 8/365 Feminist/LGBTI Movement were organized by members of Kyrk-Choro, a nationalist movement. According to 8/365 activists, the first attack happened during a picnic of the 8/365 members at a stadium in Bishkek. They reported 10 to 12 Kyrk-Choro members threatened the 8/365 workers with violence. The second attack happened after 8/365 members left the stadium for Popeda Park in Bishkek. Upon arriving at the park, Kyrk-Choro pelted the 8/365 activists with eggs. In both incidents police refused to intervene, despite complaints against Kyrk-Choro. The leader of Kyrk-Choro, Zamirbek Kochorbaev, stated his group did not care about the law and was willing to use violence against LGBTI activists in the future.

While the law protects against discrimination and stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, persons with HIV continued to encounter high levels of stigma and discrimination. According to 2015 Stigma Index data, HIV-positive persons felt fear or experienced verbal abuse, harassment, and threats, with some reporting incidents of physical abuse and assault. Civil society reported that social stigma of positive HIV/AIDS status led to loss of employment and a lack of access to housing for individuals with such a status or LGBTI persons. A recent study conducted by Kyrgyz Indigo, an LGBTI advocacy organization, found that more than 70 percent of gay and bisexual men did not know their HIV/AIDS status.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides workers the right to form and join trade unions. The government effectively enforced these rights. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference and provides them the right to organize and bargain collectively. Workers may strike, but the requirement to receive formal approval made striking difficult and complicated. The law on government service prohibits government employees from striking, but the prohibition does not apply to teachers or medical professionals. The law does not prohibit retaliation against striking workers.

Many unions reportedly operated as quasi-official institutions that took state interests into consideration rather than representing workers’ interests exclusively. The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) remained the only umbrella trade union in the country. The government did not require unions to belong to the FTU. Labor rights advocates reported the existence of several smaller unaffiliated unions.

Workers exercised their right to join and form unions, and unions exercised the right to organize and bargain collectively. Union leaders, however, generally cooperated with the government. International observers judged that unions represented the interests of their members poorly. In past years some unions alleged unfair dismissals of union leaders and the formation of single-company unions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law specifically prohibits the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sex or labor exploitation and prescribes penalties that were sufficient to deter violations. Forced labor is also prohibited by the labor code and the code on children. The government did not fully implement legal prohibitions, and victim identification remained a concern.

The 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor reported cases of forced labor, mostly involving children in the agricultural sector, specifically cotton and tobacco (see section 7.c.).

See also the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods  and the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum legal age for basic employment at 16, except for work performed without a signed employment contract or work considered to be “light,” such as selling newspapers, in which children as young as 14 may work with the permission of a parent or guardian. The law prohibits employment of persons younger than age 18 at night, underground, or in difficult or dangerous conditions, including in the metal, oil, and gas industries; mining and prospecting; the food industry; entertainment; and machine building. Children ages 14 or 15 may work up to five hours a day, not to exceed 24 hours a week; children ages 16 to 18 may work up to seven hours a day, not exceeding 36 hours a week. These laws also apply to children with disabilities. Violations of the law incur penalties, which are sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the law and a lack of prosecution of violations continued to pose challenges to deterrence. Almost all child labor was in agriculture based on the 2014-2015 National Child Labor Survey.

Despite some advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, it remained a problem. According to recent reports, children continued to be engaged in agricultural work in cotton cultivation; tobacco production; growing rice, potatoes, sugar beets, and wheat; and raising cattle and sheep. Reports indicated children worked in the industrial and services sectors as well. With regard to the industrial sector, children engaged in coal mining; brick making; and construction, including lifting and portering construction materials and cutting metal sheets for roofs. In the services sector, children worked in bazaars, including by selling and transporting goods; washing cars; working in restaurants and cafes; begging and shoe shining as part of street work; and providing domestic work, including child care. Examples of categorical worst forms of child labor in the country included: forced labor in raising cattle and sheep, sometimes as the result of human trafficking; commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking; and illicit activities, including trafficking drugs, as a result of human trafficking (see section 7.b.).

The PGO and the State Inspectorate on Ecological and Technical Safety (Inspectorate) are responsible for enforcing employers’ compliance with the labor code. According to the Inspectorate, inspectors conducted infrequent and ineffective child labor inspections to ensure appropriate enforcement of the labor laws. Since many children worked for their families or were self-employed, the government found it difficult to determine whether work complied with the labor code.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, language, origin, property, official status, age, place of residence, religion, and political convictions, membership in public organizations, or other circumstances irrelevant to professional capacities. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and the nature of penalties was insufficient to deter violations. Ethnic Uzbeks in the south also complained that discriminatory practices in licensing and registering a business with local authorities made starting a small business difficult.

On average employers paid women substantially lower wages than they paid to men. Women made up the majority of pensioners, a group particularly vulnerable to deteriorating economic conditions. In rural areas traditional attitudes toward women limited them to the roles of wife and mother and curtailed educational opportunities. Members of the LGBTI community reported discrimination in the workplace when they publicly disclosed their sexual orientation. Persons with HIV/AIDS-positive status faced discrimination regarding hiring and security of employment. Employers discriminated against persons with disabilities in hiring and limited their access to employment opportunities in the workplace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage, which is less than the official government’s 2015 poverty line. The law on minimum wage states it should rise gradually to meet the cost of living. The government did not effectively enforce laws related to the minimum wage. The Ministry of Social Development worked on increasing minimum wage to the minimum living wage, which is 5,292 soms ($76) per month. Recent reforms to administrative and criminal codes eliminated employer liability for late payment of wages, allowance, and other social benefits. It also eliminated liability for violating labor protections and safety regulations.

The standard workweek is 40 hours, usually with a five-day week. For state-owned industries, there is a mandated 24-hour rest period in a seven-day workweek. According to the labor code, overtime work cannot exceed four hours per day or 20 hours per week. The labor code also states workers engaged in overtime work must receive compensatory leave or premium pay of between 150 and 200 percent of the hourly wage. Compliance with these requirements differed among employers. For example, large companies and organizations with strong labor unions often abided by these provisions. Employers of small or informal firms where employees had no union representation often did not enforce these legal provisions.

The National Statistics Committee defined informal economic activity as household units that produce goods and services primarily to provide jobs and income to their members. In 2017 the government estimated that only 28.8 percent of the population worked in the formal sector of the economy, while the rest worked in the informal economy.

Factory operators often employed workers in poor safety and health conditions. The law establishes occupational health and safety standards that were appropriate to main industries, but the government generally did not enforce them. Penalties for violation of the law range from community service to fines and did not sufficiently deter violations. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment. The State Inspectorate on Ecological and Technical Safety (Inspectorate) is responsible for protecting workers and carrying out inspections for all types of labor problems. The government does not effectively enforce the law because it is not conducting labor inspections following a moratorium on all state inspections that went into force on January 1, 2019, and is set to expire on December 21, 2020. Even prior to the moratorium, the Inspectorate limited labor inspectors’ activities. The Inspectorate did not employ enough inspectors to enforce compliance. According to the International Labor Organization, the Inspectorate also lacked sufficient funding to carry out inspections. The law does not provide for occupational health and safety standards for workers in the informal economy.

Government licensing rules placed strict requirements on companies recruiting citizens to work abroad, and the Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Youth licensed such companies. The government regularly published a list of licensed and vetted firms. Recruiters were required to monitor employer compliance with employment terms and the working conditions of labor migrants while under contract abroad. Recruiters were also required to provide workers with their employment contract prior to their departure.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The Republic of Maldives is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In September 2018 voters elected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih president. Observers considered the election mostly free and fair despite a flawed pre-election process, which was overseen by the former administration. Parliamentary elections held on April 6 were well administered and transparent according to local and international observers.

Maldives Police Service (MPS) is responsible for internal security and reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is responsible for external security and disaster relief and reports to the Ministry of Defence. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by government authorities; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; trafficking in persons; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and the lack of a legal framework recognizing independent trade unions.

The government took some steps to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, and established investigative commissions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, and the government generally respected this right.

Freedom of Expression: Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment regulations prohibit publishing literary material without first seeking authorization from the National Bureau of Classification. The regulations define publication of literary material as “any writing, photograph, or drawing that has been made publicly accessible electronically or by way of printing, including publicizing or circulating on the internet.”

The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies. In September the MPS arrested a local citizen for “criticizing Islam” on his twitter profile, days after he reported receiving death threats online after he claimed he was an atheist and would encourage prosecular activities on his island. As of September the MPS was also investigating the death threats made against him.

On October 10, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment ordered the human rights-focused NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) to “suspend all activities” for the duration of an MPS investigation into “anti-Islamic” rhetoric used in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives,” which explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media and the work of religious organizations. The ministry cited Article 39 of the Associations Regulation in their suspension decision, which authorizes the Registrar of Associations to suspend associations for no more than a year in cases in which they “engage in any activity that under the laws and regulations of the Maldives is specified as an act that undermines national security or societal harmony.” In a press statement defending the suspension, the government argued the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted freedom of speech and expression could not be exercised “maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity.” The investigation was initiated at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs following an online campaign calling for the government to ban the MDC. Local media reported the MPS issued summons to the report authors and MDN Executive Director Shahindha Ismail to submit to police questioning. After the MPS found that the report mocked Islam, the government removed the MDC from the registry of associations on November 5, formally banning their activities.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Criticism of the government and debates on societal problems were commonplace, but media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Parliament Privileges Act allows authorities to force journalists to reveal their sources, but authorities did not routinely take advantage of this provision. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting on religion due to concerns about harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”

There were no known restrictions on domestic publications, nor were there prohibitions on the import of foreign publications or materials, except for those containing pornography or material otherwise deemed objectionable to Islamic values, such as Bibles and idols for worship. The restriction applies only to items for public distribution; tourists destined for resort islands were not prohibited from carrying Bibles and other religious paraphernalia for their personal use. In August, the Maldives Customs service confiscated 109 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam,” but no charges were pressed.

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

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) is the regulatory body mandated to enforce internet content restrictions on sites hosted within the country and to block domestic access to any websites. CAM maintained an unpublished blacklist of all offending websites. Although CAM did not proactively monitor internet content, it accepted requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites that allegedly violated domestic laws on anti-Islamism, pornography, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, and other prohibitions. The MPS reported it was investigating one website for unlawful content as of September. The MPS also reported receiving 15 complaints over online content posted on social media and closing seven of these cases due to lack of evidence while the remaining eight cases were still under investigation as of September.

In a January press statement, the MPS announced it was “meeting with” individuals posting online content that “disrupts public unity and peace” and those responding to such content “with verbal attacks that encourage violence and hatred.” The MPS went on to question former member of parliament Ibrahim Ismail to “clarify information” after he received online death threats following a report from an online news website claiming one of his tweets “insulted Prophet Muhammed”; independent reporter Aishath Aniya, who received death threats online for criticizing the design of a new mosque in Male City; Mohamed Siruhan, who allegedly operates a Facebook page that profiles citizens who the page claims are apostates; and religious scholar Sheikh Ali Zaid. The latter two had criticized Rasheed and Aniya over posts they believed “insulted Islam.” As of December, the MPS did not report any updates to this activity. Also in January, President Solih formed a ministerial committee to “find solutions to the issue of increasing criticism of Islam and related incidents,” but the committee had not revealed details of their activities as of December. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam since January with little action from authorities.

The law prohibits public statements contrary to the government’s policy on religion or the government’s interpretation of Islam. In response to the law, there were credible reports that academics practiced self-censorship. The government censored course content and curricula. Sunni Islam was the only religion taught in schools.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

The constitution provides for “freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State.” A 2013 law on peaceful assembly restricts protests outside designated areas, and a 2016 amendment to the law further restricts the designated areas for lawful protests in the capital city. Protesters must obtain prior written permission from the MPS to hold protests outside designated areas and from the Ministry of Home Affairs to hold protests within the designated area. Local civil society organizations continued to condemn the restrictions as unconstitutional, but noted permits were regularly issued and not used to stifle opposition viewpoints. In March the MPS dispersed a small gathering at the Artificial Beach in Male City after the Male City Council revoked their permission to use the area. The city council noted it had granted authority for opposition People’s National Congress (PNC) to use the area but argued there was no PNC presence at the gathering. Since November the MPS took action to disperse nonpreauthorized nightly protests in Male organized by the opposition in support of former president Abdulla Yameen.

In February the MPS deployed pepper spray to disperse opposition protestors gathered in a corridor near the cardiology center inside Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male in support of former president Abdulla Yameen. The MPS’ “Use of Force Review” committee announced they were investigating the incident but had not shared a final report as of December.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government imposed some limits on this freedom. The government allowed only clubs and other private associations that did not contravene Islamic or civil law to register.

NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.

The Political Parties Act restricts registration of political parties and eligibility of state funds to those parties with 10,000 or more members. A 2016 amendment to the act requires all political parties to submit fingerprints with each membership application, legalizing a 2011 Elections Commission requirement. Forms without fingerprints would be considered invalid, and those persons would not be counted as members of a political party. Transparency Maldives (TM) and the MDC raised concerns the law and subsequent amendments restricted the constitutional right to form and participate in political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities reported, however, that migrant workers who overstayed their visas were held in the Hulhumale Detention Center for weeks or sometimes even years while awaiting the necessary travel documents from their respective governments prior to deportation. NGOs also reported concerns with a September High Court ruling declaring migrant workers who are arrested cannot be released until they identify a local national who will take responsibility for monitoring them until the conclusion of a possible trial.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The law obligates the state not to expel, return, or extradite a person where there is substantial evidence to believe the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture. The HRCM’s sixth annual antitorture report investigating one case involving the government violating the principle of nonrefoulement in the case of one foreign detainee. HRCM reported the case remains under investigation and the foreigner remained in the country as of September.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: The parliamentary elections held in April were well administered and transparent according to the TM and international election observers. Despite an assessment the overall election was well administered, the TM highlighted issues of concern including unverified reports of vote buying, lack of transparency in political financing, abuse of state resources and barriers for women’s equal participation in the electoral process.

The presidential elections held in September 2018 were generally free and fair, despite a flawed pre-election process which was overseen by the previous administration, according to local and international observers. The international community and local observers identified several issues of concern during the pre-election phase, including the disqualification of opposition candidates, restrictions on monitoring and candidacy, widespread disenfranchisement of voters, appointment of loyalists in key positions at the Election Commission (EC), and misuse of government resources for former president Yameen’s campaign. Immediately after the election, local observers reported minor administrative issues on voting day, but no issues that could have affected the results of the election as announced by the EC. On October 10, 2018, Yameen formally contested the presidential election results on the grounds of fraud and vote rigging. On October 21, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled there was no constitutional basis to question the legality or results of the election, citing a lack of evidence in Yameen’s petition.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Former president Abdulla Yameen was sentenced in November to five years’ imprisonment for money laundering. The opposition alleges Yameen’s arrest in February, his detention until March, and a court order to freeze his bank accounts were intended to obstruct opposition campaigning for the parliamentary elections that took place in April.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women in the political process, and they did participate. The TM noted, however, a disproportionately low number of female candidates to contest the parliamentary elections in April. Of the total 350 parliamentary candidates, 35 were women, and only four women were elected to the 87-member parliament. Women’s rights activists highlighted lack of government and political party effort to encourage political participation of women. Legislation passed in December set aside 33 percent of local council seats in April 2020 elections for female candidates.

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. Nonetheless, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity and the government and judicial system have been slow to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption. Suspected cases of corruption in the judicial system also stymied the ability to provide additional oversight. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The independent Anti-Corruption Commission has responsibility for investigating corruption charges involving senior government officials. According to NGOs, executive interference, a narrow definition of corruption in the law, and the lack of a provision to investigate and prosecute illicit enrichment limited the commission’s work.

In December 2018 President Solih established a Presidential Commission on Corruption and Asset Recovery to investigate corruption cases originating between February 2012 and November 2018. As of December the commission had not issued a report of its findings.

In August parliament removed former Supreme Court judge Abdulla Didi over eight ethics standards violations, including alleged abuse of authority and receipt of a one million dollar bribe to sentence former president Mohamed Nasheed to jail under terrorism charges. Ghaniya Abdul Gahoor, Didi’s spouse and former deputy ambassador to Malaysia, was also removed from her position during the investigation.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires parliamentarians to submit annually to the secretary general of parliament a statement of all property owned, monetary assets, business interests, and liabilities. The constitution also requires the president and each cabinet minister to submit a similar statement to the auditor general and for each judge to submit a similar statement to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). It was unclear whether all officials submitted these statements, which do not require public disclosure. The law does not stipulate criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance and does not require the vice president to disclose income and assets.

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

A number of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views. The government deregistered and formally banned human-rights focused NGO MDN in November for using language the Ministry of Islamic Affairs argued criticized Islam in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives.”

NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCM is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to promote and protect human rights under the constitution, Maldivian Islamic law, and regional and international human rights conventions ratified by the country. NIC is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and employees, and it has the authority to forward any cases with criminal elements to police for further investigation. Both the ruling coalition and NGOs questioned the independence of the HRCM, which they reported was biased towards the former government.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape against both men and women, as well as spousal rape and domestic violence including physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, and financial abuse. The law also extends protection to wives against being forcibly impregnated by their husbands against medical orders and includes an extensive list of other abuses for which protection is provided. The law allows courts to issue restraining orders in domestic violence cases and criminalizes any actions against these orders. A man may be convicted of rape in the absence of a confession only if there are two male witnesses or four female witnesses willing to testify. In the case of a child, the burden of proof is lower. Penalties range from four-months’ to 10-years’ imprisonment, depending on factors such as the age of the victim.

NGOs and other authorities reported MPS officers were reluctant to make arrests in cases of violence against women within the family, believing such violence was justified. Reportedly, this made victims reluctant to file criminal cases against abusers. While the MPS received 387 cases of domestic violence as of September, only seven had been forwarded to prosecutors.

The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services received reports of rape, sexual offenses, and domestic violence and conducted social inquiry assessments of cases they submitted to the MPS. They also provided psychological support to victims during MPS investigations.

To streamline the process of reporting abuses against women and children, the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services established family and children’s service centers on every atoll in 2016. Residential facilities were established in only four of the centers to provide emergency shelter assistance to domestic violence and other victims. Authorities and NGOs both reported the service centers remained understaffed and underresourced, especially lacking budgets to travel to attend cases in islands. Staff employed at the centers lacked technical capacity and were forced to divide their time between administrative duties and casework. During the year the ministry began providing technical casework training to all social workers working in the centers, and reported having trained 99 percent of the staff as of September.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): There were no data on the frequency of FGM/C, although certain religious leaders have intermittently called for the practice to be revived since 2014. Authorities reported no recorded cases but local NGOs believed the practice persisted and societal stigma restricted public discussion of the issue.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: A 2015 amendment to the penal code states only Maldivian Islamic law penalties may be imposed for hadd (robbery, fornication, homosexual acts, alcohol consumption, apostasy) and qisas (retaliation in kind) offenses. Penalties could include hand amputation for theft and stoning to death for adultery. A woman was sentenced to death by stoning for extramarital sex in January, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence. No hadd penalties were enforced during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law bans sexual harassment in the workplace, detention facilities, and any centers that provide public services. NGOs reported that while the law requires all government offices to set up sexual harassment review committees, a significant number of government offices had failed to establish these committees or in cases where the committees had been set up, employees were unaware of their existence.

In contrast to previous years where no criminal charges were filed for cases of sexual harassment, the MPS reported forwarding two out of a total 45 received cases for prosecution. In July charges were filed for the first time against a local citizen accused of sexually harassing a woman on the street.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law prohibits gender discrimination including in workplaces, educational institutions, and service providers, such as hospitals, but discrimination against women remained a problem. NGOs reported authorities more readily accused women than men of adultery, in part because visible pregnancies made the allegedly adulterous act more obvious, while men could deny the charges and escape punishment because of the difficulty of proving fornication or adultery under Islamic law. Women’s rights activists reported that women who initiated divorce proceedings faced undue delays in court as compared to men who initiated divorce proceedings. According to women’s rights activists, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived through one’s parents. Under the law a child born of a citizen father or mother, regardless of the child’s place of birth, may derive citizenship. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported receiving cases where parents had either neglected to register their children or the Family Court had refused to register the marriages where the marriage ceremony was held outside of the country. In those instances, the Family Court subsequently refused to register any children born out of these marriages. The ministry received seven cases of denial of birth registration as of October.

Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through secondary school. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services handled 36 cases of children being deprived of education as of October. The ministry said this included schools’ refusal to enroll children due to missing identification documents or parental refusal to send children to school, in some cases based on religious reasons. Parents had either neglected to register their children in order to obtain necessary identification documents or the Family Court had refused to register the marriages of the parents in cases where the marriage ceremony was held outside of the country and subsequently refused to register any children born out of these marriages. The ministry reported in such cases the ministry was able to intervene to convince individual schools to enroll these children following consultation with the Ministry of Education. NGOs and activists noted the effect of religious extremism on child rights was an emerging issue but lacked a baseline study determining its prevalence.

Child Abuse: The law stipulates sentences of up to 25 years in prison for those convicted of sexual offenses against children. If a person is legally married to a minor under Islamic law, however, none of the offenses specified in the legislation is considered criminal. The courts have the power to detain perpetrators, although most were released pending sentencing and allowed to return to the communities of their victims. The MPS investigates and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services is in charge of following up on reports of child abuse, including cases of sexual abuse. Half of the total cases received by the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services as of July were cases of child abuse, the majority involving sexual abuse. Of the child abuse cases received by the MPS , 43 percent were also sexual abuse cases, with the MPS forwarding only 16 percent of these cases for prosecution as of September. Human rights activists reported the lack of effective coordination between authorities handling child abuse cases remained a problem.

Early and Forced Marriage: A new Child Rights Protection Act, ratified in November, prohibits any marriage of a child under 18 years of age, replacing a 2016 amendment to the Family Regulation under which the Family Court was required to petition the Supreme Court for approval for girls and boys under age 18 to marry. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services was also to submit an assessment of the proposed marriage to the Supreme Court. Such a marriage could have proceeded only after the Supreme Court granted the Family Court approval for the union. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported receiving five requests for assessments to carry out child marriages of 16 and 17 year olds but the ministry had yet to conduct any assessments as of the change in law. The Supreme Court reported there were no child marriages during the year, but NGOs reported anecdotal evidence that some child marriages were conducted outside of the legal system. In November local media reported a group of religious fundamentalists from Raa Maduvvari island had entered into unregistered, unlawful marriages with girls, some as young as nine years old. In two separate operations in December, the MPS arrested the parents of one minor girl and four males involved with the fundamentalist group. On December 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an Information Brief on the ongoing operations on the island, stating they were part of the government’s broader strategy in stopping and preventing the spread of violent extremist ideology in the country.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Child Rights Protection Act ratified in November prohibits using, procuring, and offering children for pornographic performances. The crime is punishable by imprisonment of five to 25 years. The act stipulates that a child between ages 13 and 18 involved in a sexual act is deemed not to have given consent, “unless otherwise proven.” The law also treats the prostitution of children by a third party as a form of human trafficking with exploitation under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, subject to a 15-year maximum sentence. The penal code allows the Prosecutor General’s Office to lodge multiple charges against a perpetrator for a single offense. For sex trafficking, this means the office can file charges for human trafficking under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and for prostitution under the Child Rights Protection Act and aggregate the penalties so perpetrators serve longer sentences for a single offense. During the year the MPS investigated six cases of child pornography, and forwarded two for prosecution as of July. It also investigated two reports of child prostitution, but closed both after finding no evidence of any prostitution. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services received two reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children as of July. The Ministry and NGOs reported that, although there have been no confirmed reports of child sex tourism, government authorities lack the capacity to monitor the guesthouse tourism sector in remote islands.

Institutionalized Children: Local NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) released a report in 2016 detailing abuses in government-run “safe homes.” ARC reported children routinely spent many months at these homes, although they were intended to be temporary stopovers for children being taken into state care. According to ARC, the safe homes were inadequately furnished and equipped, lacked basic essentials, and were often understaffed, resulting in inadequate care, protection, and education for institutionalized children. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported a ratio of two to three care workers per every 10 to 12 children housed in one of the two government children’s homes, while the other employed three care workers per every 20 children. The ministry also reported both homes housed more children than their capacity allowed. NGOs reported staff were untrained to care for several children with autism housed in these facilities. The country lacked a juvenile detention center, so youth offenders were cohoused with juvenile victims of abuse. During the year there were several reports of children in the two government children’s homes running away from the institutions. NGOs noted the incidents reflected the inadequate supervision of the children by overstretched workers. The HRCM also reported investigating one case of 10 employees of Kudakudhinge Hiya children’s home mistreating 22 children living in the home, as of December.

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

The public practice of religion other than Islam is prohibited by law, and the government did not provide estimates on the number of Jewish residents in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The constitution and law provide for the rights and freedom from most types of discrimination for persons with disabilities. Although the constitution provides for freedom from discrimination in access to employment for persons with disabilities, the Disabilities Act does not do so. The Disabilities Act provides for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities as well as financial assistance. The act mandates the state to provide a monthly financial benefit of not less than MVR 2,000 ($130) to each registered individual. NGOs reported the National Social Protection Agency (NSPA), which handles the National Registry, has strict conditions and a cumbersome screening process that prevent the majority of persons with disabilities from being registered. The NSPA requires an assessment from a medical center in Male City, which can cost up to MVR 40,000 ($2,600) for some families living in the islands who have to travel and stay in Male City for lengthy periods while the assessment is completed. The NSPA has also published the requirements for inclusion in the National Registry and has rejected several applications. NGOs noted inclusion on the registry is a precondition to access several other benefits provided for persons with disabilities, including priority in accessing social housing schemes and special accommodations during voting.

Although no official studies have been concluded, NGOs which operate throughout the country estimated as much as 10 percent of the total population of persons with disabilities had been subjected to various forms of abuse and 40 to 60 percent of girls or women with disabilities, especially those who are visually impaired, were subject to sexual abuse. The families of these victims often do not report these cases to authorities, because the police investigation and judicial process is inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

Government services for persons with disabilities included special educational programs for those with sensory disabilities. Inadequate facilities and logistical challenges related to transporting persons with disabilities between islands and atolls made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate in the workforce or consistently attend school. The vast majority of public streets and buildings were not accessible for wheelchair users.

The government integrated students with disabilities into mainstream educational programs at primary and secondary level. Most large government schools also held special units catering to persons with disabilities who cannot be accommodated in the mainstream classes. Each school also has a disability ambassador, and all teachers receive special training. Nonetheless, children with disabilities had virtually no access to transition support to higher secondary education.

Maldives Immigration reported approximately 200,000 legal foreign workers as of September, with an additional estimated 63,000 undocumented foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. NGOs reported government agencies implemented discriminatory policies towards expatriate laborers while Bangladeshi workers faced harassment and violence by local citizens. In an August statement, state-owned Waste Management Corporation announced many of their employees who are Bangladeshi were often subjected to physical violence and verbal attacks while on the job.

The law prohibits same-sex sexual conduct. Under the penal code, the punishment includes imprisonment of up to eight years, as well as a provision for a supplementary punishment of 100 lashes imposed under Maldives Islamic law. None of the legal provisions prohibiting discrimination covers discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. No organizations focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) problems in the country. There were no reports of officials complicit in abuses against LGBTI persons, although societal stigma likely discouraged individuals from reporting such problems. Local citizens who expressed support for LGBTI rights on social media reportedly were targeted for online harassment as “apostates” or irreligious. In July authorities filed murder charges against three male Bangladeshi migrant workers over the death of their colleague, a Bangladeshi man named Luthufaru, in May. The MPS reported the suspects had confessed to killing Luthufaru for unwanted advances and forced attempts to have sex. In November the MPS arrested two men for vandalizing a local coffee shop, allegedly due to the shop’s employment of an individual whose attire did not conform to gender stereotypes.

The trial of six men arrested in 2017 and charged in connection with the murder of Yameen Rasheed, a prominent blogger and social media activist who disappeared in 2017, continued during the year. Police initially stated a group of young men, unaffiliated with any organization, had killed Rasheed because they believed he mocked Islam and that they were investigating unspecified persons of interest who may have encouraged the suspects in committing the crime. Rasheed had received multiple death threats before his disappearance, which were reported to police, but according to Rasheed’s social media accounts, his friends, and family, police had not responded or investigated. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against citizens perceived to be critical of Islam. While the government announced intentions to look into the matter (see section 2.a.) in January, NGOs reported the government failed to take action in these cases.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides for workers’ freedom of association; however, there is no specific law protecting the right to freedom of association, which is required to allow unions to register and operate without interference and discrimination. As a result, the court system refused to recognize trade unions officially. Worker organizations are usually treated as civil society organizations or associations without the right to engage in collective bargaining. Police and armed forces do not have the right to form unions. The Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act effectively prohibits strikes by workers in the resort sector, the country’s largest money earner. Employees in the following services are also prohibited from striking: hospitals and health centers, electricity companies, water providers, telecommunications providers, prison guards, and air traffic controllers. The Home Ministry enforces the act by arresting workers who go on strike, but there were no such arrests during the year. In June resort workers from JA Manafaru went on a hunger strike to protest the resort management’s decision to dismiss several employees. The conflict was resolved, without any dismissals, after Tourism Minister Ali Waheed went to the resort and held discussions with the management and representatives of the resort workers’ association, Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM). TEAM noted this incident indicated the government is capable and willing to hold tripartite discussions even if it is not mandated under current domestic legislation.

The government did not always enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Relations Authority (LRA) is mandated to oversee compliance of the Employment Act and its related regulations. The Employment Tribunal examines and adjudicates legal matters arising between employers and employees and other employment problems, but its processes are cumbersome and complicated. In addition, because the LRA does not regularly screen labor violations such as nonpayment of wages for elements of trafficking, the Employment Tribunal adjudicates some potential trafficking cases. Violators who refused to correct violations or pay fines were referred to the courts, whose decisions often were ignored. The cases are heard in the Dhivehi language, which few foreign workers understood. Foreign workers may not file a case with the tribunal unless they appoint a representative to communicate for them in the local language. If an employer fails to comply with a decision of the tribunal, the case must be submitted to the Civil Court, which often delays decisions. TEAM reported the judicial system continued to delay final decisions on numerous such cases, some older than six years of age. The Employment Tribunal only hears cases submitted within three months for cases involving unfair dismissals and within six months of the alleged offense for all other violations of the Employment Act. A September 2018 amendment to the Employment Tribunal regulation that states dismissed or withdrawn appeals can only be resubmitted once, after paying a MVR 500 ($32) fine, was still in place. Previously, there was no restriction on the number of times such cases could be resubmitted.

Under the law, some workers’ organizations were established as civil society organizations, specifically in the tourism, education, health, and shipping (seafarers’) sectors, although these functioned more as cooperative associations and had very limited roles in labor advocacy. The Teachers Association of the Maldives (TAM) and TEAM were among the more active workers’ organizations, along with the Maldivian Ports Workers. In September the workers’ associations, including TEAM, TAM, Maldivian Ports Worker, and newly established Maldives Health Professionals Unions jointly registered an umbrella organization called the Maldives Trade Union Congress, which aims to work in solidarity for the rights of workers in all major industries.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

All forms of forced or compulsory labor are prohibited, but the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws.

Resources, inspections, and remediation were generally inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The foreign worker population, especially migrant workers from Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to forced labor in the construction industry, as were Sri Lankan and Indian women engaged in domestic work. Maldives Immigration detained undocumented workers at Hulhumale Detention Center, an immigration-processing center near Male, until deportation or repatriation. There were continued reports of bureaucratic delays in receiving passports from foreign missions for undocumented immigrants and substandard facilities at the immigration-processing center. Maldives Immigration reported it screened the workers for victims of trafficking, but there were reports some of the detained and deported undocumented workers should have been identified as trafficking victims.

Under the penal code, forced labor carries a penalty of up to eight-years’ imprisonment. Under section 29 of the Maldives Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, confiscation, alteration, or withholding of identity and travel documents is a crime, and perpetrators are subject to up to five-years’ imprisonment. In 2015 parliament approved the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons for 2015-19. The penalty for human trafficking is a maximum sentence of 10 years. As of December the MPS and Maldives Immigration reported they were investigating more than 35 labor recruiters or agencies allegedly engaged in fraudulent practices. In September, Maldives Immigration denied entry to two Bangladeshi nationals reportedly engaged in trafficking Bangladeshi migrant workers to the country. Employee associations reported concerns the alleged traffickers were deported with no further action or attempts to identify local traffickers who worked with them to traffic victims.

The LRA, under the Ministry of Economic Development, recommended to the ministry and Maldives Immigration the blacklisting of companies that violated the law, precluding the companies from bringing in new workers until violations were rectified the LRA reported, however, that the Ministry of Economic Development and Maldives Immigration did not always take their recommendations to blacklist and allowed companies to continue operations. In addition to blacklisting, the law allows a fine of not more than MVR 50,000 ($3,250) for forced labor and other violations of the Employment Act, but the LRA reported this amount was not sufficient to deter violations by large companies.

As of September, Maldives Immigration reported the number of documented foreign workers at approximately 200,000. They estimated there were an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, predominantly men from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Some of the foreign workers in the country were subject to forced labor in the construction and tourism sectors. Both the LRA and TEAM noted an increasing trend of resorts hiring third party subcontractors to work in departments such as maintenance, landscaping, and laundry services. These subcontractors reportedly hired undocumented migrant workers who received a lower salary, work longer hours, and often experience delays in payment of salaries and work without a legal employment contract. Most victims of forced labor suffered the following practices: debt bondage, holding of passports by employers, fraudulent offers of employment, not being paid the promised salary, or not being paid at all. Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were sometimes trapped in forced servitude, in which employers used threats, intimidation, and in some cases sexual violence to prevent them from leaving.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and sets the minimum age for employment at 16, with an exception for children who voluntarily participate in family businesses. The law prohibits employment of children under age 18 in “any work that may have a detrimental effect on health, education, safety, or conduct,” but there was no list of such activities. The law prescribes a fine of no less than MVR 1,000 ($65) and no more than MVR 5,000 ($325) for infractions.

The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Family and Child Protection Unit of the MPS are tasked with receiving, investigating, and taking action on complaints of child labor. According to the LRA, the MPS and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services none of the complaints received related to child labor or employment of minors. Additionally, the LRA found no cases of child labor during its regular labor inspections during the year. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, because no additional resources were dedicated specifically to uncover additional child labor cases.

Government officials and civil society groups reported concerns that some Bangladesh migrant workers in the construction and service sectors were under 18, but possessed passports stating they were older. Civil society groups also reported that minors were used in the transport of drugs for criminal gangs.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, color, sex, political opinion, religion, social origin, marital status, or family obligations. The government generally enforced those laws and regulations, with some exceptions that included unequal pay for women and discrimination in working and living conditions of foreign migrant workers, especially from Bangladesh.

According to NGOs, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law. The law and constitution prohibit discrimination against women for employment or for equal pay or equal income, but women tended to earn less than men for the same work and also because they tended to work in lower-paying industries. The absence of child-care facilities made it difficult for women with children to remain employed after they had children.

The Employment Act establishes an Employment Tribunal to examine and protect the rights of employers and employees in legal matters and other employment problems.

Discrimination against migrant workers was pervasive (see section 7.b.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The country does not have a national policy on minimum wage. Wages in the private sector were commonly set by contract between employers and employees and were based on rates for similar work in the public sector. According to 2016 Asian Development Bank statistics, 8.2 percent of citizens lived below the poverty level of MVR 29 ($1.90) per day.

The law establishes maximum hours of work, overtime, annual and sick leave, maternity leave, and guidelines for workplace safety. In March, President Solih announced civil servants would be allowed six months of maternity leave, instead of the previously allocated three months, and one month’s paternity leave instead of the previously allocated three days. The law provides for a 48-hour per week limit on work with a compulsory 24-hour break if employees work six days consecutively. Certain provisions in the law, such as overtime and public-holiday pay, do not apply to emergency workers, air and sea crews, executive staff of any company, or workers who are on call. Employee associations reported some government schools and hospitals placed a cap on overtime pay. The law mandates implementation of a safe workplace, procurement of secure tools and machinery, verification of equipment safety, use of protective equipment to mitigate health hazards, employee training in the use of protective gear, and appropriate medical care, but there were no national standards for safety measures, and as a result such measures were at the discretion of employers. The LRA also reported difficulties in assessing safety standards during inspections due to the lack of national standards. In January the government published safety regulations for the construction industry which requires employers to provide employees with safety equipment such as helmets, belts, and masks, but NGOs reported the government failed to monitor implementation of these standards. All employers are required to provide health insurance for foreign workers.

In 2013 parliament approved the country’s accession to eight core International Labor Organization conventions, but the government had not finalized the bills required for the conventions to be legislated into domestic law as of December.

The LRA and Employment Tribunal are charged with implementing employment law, and the LRA conducted workplace investigations and provided dispute resolution mechanisms to address complaints from workers. The most common findings related to lack of or problematic provisions included in employment contracts and job descriptions, overtime and other pay, and problems related to leave. The LRA preferred to issue notices to employers to correct problems, because cases were deemed closed once fines were paid. The LRA typically gave employers one to three months to correct problems but lacked sufficient labor inspectors and travel funding to enforce compliance.

Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, worked in unacceptable conditions, and were frequently forced to accept low wages to repay their debts with employment agencies, especially within the construction sector. Female migrant workers, especially in the domestic service sector were especially vulnerable to exploitation. Employers in the construction and tourism industry often housed foreign workers at their worksites. Some migrant workers were exposed to dangerous working conditions, especially in the construction industry, and worked in hazardous environments without proper ventilation. During the year there were multiple accidents at construction sites in Male, including the death of a migrant worker struck by a falling rock at a construction site in Hulhumale in February.

The Employment Act protects workers who remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

Nepal

Executive Summary

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

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

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture; arbitrary detention by government; site blocking and criminal defamation laws; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive NGO laws; restrictions on freedom of movement for refugees, notably resident Tibetans; significant acts of corruption; and use of forced, compulsory, and child labor.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although journalists, NGOs, and political activists said the government restricted media freedom by threatening journalists and news organizations that criticized the government. Journalists and NGOs said the criminal and civil codes and Privacy Act criminalize normal media activity, such as reporting on public figures, and triggered a significant increase in self-censorship by the media. Human rights lawyers and some journalists stated that both the constitution and civil code enable the government to restrict freedom of speech and press in ways they considered vague and open to abuse. For example, the constitution lists several circumstances under which laws curtailing freedom of speech and press may be formulated. These include acts that “jeopardize harmonious relations between federal units” and acts that assist a foreign state or organization to jeopardize national security. The constitution prohibits any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.”

Freedom of Expression: Citizens generally believed they could voice their opinions freely and often expressed critical opinions in print and electronic media without restriction. In February a popular folk singer released a satirical song criticizing government corruption; the singer removed his song from YouTube after allegedly receiving threats from the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s youth organization. In July the government attempted to limit freedom of expression for the members of Kathmandu’s Tibetan community by initially rejecting requests from the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday publicly. When Tibetan Buddhists held private events in the largest settlement in Kathmandu, police intervened to stop the celebration. On December 12, the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office was allowed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in Dhagkar Monastery, Swoyambhu following discussions with the Swoyambhu police officials.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with some exceptions. Several editors and journalists reported they faced intimidation by police and government officials and that vague provisions in laws and regulations prompted an increase in self-censorship by journalists.

Violence and Harassment: According to the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), the government did not make sufficient efforts to preserve the safety and independence of the media and rarely prosecuted individuals who attacked journalists.

Journalists stated that they continued to receive vague threats from officials in response to their investigative reporting on corruption. In June a ward chair in Birgunj attacked campaigner Piraj Yadav for requesting road construction costs under right to information provisions.

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

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

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

Libel/Slander Laws: In June authorities jailed a satirist for defamation under the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) after he lampooned a Nepali film on social media. Widespread public protests ensued, and authorities released him after nine days; he was acquitted of all charges in court.

There were several incidents in which authorities took action under the ETA in response to material posted on social media. The ETA prohibits publication in electronic form of material that may be “contrary to the public morality or decent behavior,” may “spread hate or jealousy,” or may “jeopardize harmonious relations.” In 2017 the government issued an amended online media operation directive, which requires all domestically based online news and opinion websites to be registered. The directive gives the government the authority to block websites based on content if it lacks an “authoritative source,” creates “a misconception,” or negatively affects international relationships. The government also has the authority to block content that threatens the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, or harmonious relations. Online sedition, defamation, contempt of court, or indecent and immoral content may also be blocked. The new version makes the registration, license renewal, and content production provisions for online platforms more complicated, including by requiring a copy of a site’s value added tax or permanent account number registration certificate. Renewals now require online platforms to provide updated human resource and payroll records annually. The FNJ expressed concern that the directive’s vague language gives the government power to censor online content. Human rights and press freedom NGO Freedom Forum reported more than 100 cases filed in court, mostly related to the ETA.

In April online reporter Arjun Giri was briefly jailed for writing about a businessman’s alleged financial fraud; he was officially absolved of wrongdoing in August.

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of assembly generally was respected for citizens and legal residents, but there were some restrictions. Government permits are required to hold large public events. The government continued its attempts to stop Tibetans from celebrating culturally important events, such as Tibetan New Year and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The law authorizes chief district officers to impose curfews when there is a possibility that demonstrations or riots could disturb the peace.

In June large protests erupted in Kathmandu against a bill, since withdrawn, to nationalize the administration of Guthis, community-run land ownership organizations. The gathering was the largest since the antimonarchy movement during 2006-2007. Police exhibited restraint and there were no reports of violence.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. NGOs, however, stated the existing legal framework does not adequately recognize the independence of civil society and opens the door to the exercise of excessive discretion by the government. They added that the registration process for civil society organizations (CSOs) is restrictive and cumbersome, the government has wide discretion to deny registration, and requirements vary among various registration authorities, with some entities requiring documents not mentioned in existing laws on an ad hoc basis. Additionally, the Association Registration Act empowers the government to give directions to associations and to terminate associations if they refuse to follow directions. To receive foreign or government resources, CSOs must seek separate and additional approval from the Social Welfare Council (SWC), the government entity responsible for overseeing CSOs. The SWC requires that CSOs allocate at least 80 percent of their budgets for hardware or tangible development outputs, which places undue restrictions on CSOs that focus on advocacy issues.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, except for most refugees, whose freedom of movement within the country is limited by law. Constraints on refugee movements were enforced unevenly. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers except as noted below.

In-country Movement: The government has not issued personal identification documents to Tibetan refugees in more than 20 years, leaving the majority of this refugee population without recourse to present required documents at police checkpoints or during police stops. Some refugees reported being harassed or turned back by police at checkpoints.

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

The 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks displaced millions of individuals. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, natural disasters in 2018 led to 12,000 displacements.

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

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

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

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the determination of individual refugee or asylum claims or a comprehensive legal framework for refugee protection. The government recognized large numbers of Tibetans as refugees and supported resettlement to foreign countries of certain Bhutanese refugees. The government does not recognize Tibetans who arrived in the country after 1990 as refugees. Most Tibetans who arrived since then transited to India, although an unknown number remained in the country. The government has not issued refugee cards to Tibetan refugees since 1995. UNHCR estimated three-quarters of the approximately 12,000 resident Tibetan refugees remained undocumented, including all of whom were younger than the age of 16 in 1995 or had been born since. UNHCR reported 639 refugees and 49 asylum seekers from other countries, including Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, lived in the country. The government continued to deny these groups recognition as refugees, even when recognized as such by UNHCR.

Freedom of Movement: The government officially restricted freedom of movement and work for the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship residing in the two remaining refugee camps in the eastern part of the country, but those restrictions were largely unenforced for this population. After China heightened security in 2008 along its border and increased restrictions on internal freedom of movement for ethnic Tibetans, the number of Tibetans who transited through the country dropped significantly. UNHCR reported that 53 Tibetans transited the country in 2017, 45 in 2018, and 10 as of September. The government previously issued UNHCR-facilitated exit permits for recent arrivals from Tibet who were transiting while traveling to India but ceased doing so. While Nepal-based Tibetans with refugee certificates were eligible to apply for travel documents to leave the country, the legal process was often arduous, expensive, and opaque and travel documents were typically valid for one year and a single trip. A 2016 government directive authorized chief district officers to skip the verification step, which required witnesses and a police letter, for Tibetans who had previously been issued a travel document. For individuals whom the government did not recognize as refugees, even when recognized by UNHCR, the government levied fines of $5 per day out of status and a discretionary penalty of up to $500 to obtain an exit permit. The government maintained its policy enabling Nepali government-registered refugees destined for resettlement or repatriation to obtain exit permits without paying these fines.

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

The government allowed UNHCR to provide some education, health, and livelihood services to these urban refugees, but refugees lacked legal access to public education and the right to work.

Durable Solutions: The government does not provide for local integration as a durable solution. The government officially does not allow the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship to work or have access to public education or public health clinics, but it previously allowed UNHCR to provide parallel free education and health services to refugees in the camps. During the year new local authorities were allowing Bhutanese children access to public schools on an ad hoc basis. Since 2007 the government permitted third-country resettlement for more than 113,000 Bhutanese refugees.

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

Constitutional provisions, laws, and regulations governing citizenship discriminated by the gender of the registering parent, which contributed to statelessness.

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

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

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws explicitly limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate in local, provincial, and national elections. The constitution mandates proportional inclusion of women in all state bodies and allocates one third of all federal and provincial legislative seats to women; LGBTI activists noted that this mandate excludes nonbinary candidates from running for office.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

Corruption: In February a commissioner, Raj Narayan Pathak, at the Commission for the Investigations of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), the country’s chief anticorruption agency, resigned after a video leaked of his accepting a bribe to resolve an ongoing case before CIAA concerning privatization of a public educational institution. After the resignation the OAG advised CIAA to investigate its former commissioner. In March CIAA lodged a corruption case against Pathak. The CIAA sought to fine and punish Pathak under Section 3 (1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act. The case is pending before the Special Court.

The CIAA expanded its investigative scope in 2018 to include a civil engineering lab to determine the quality of materials used in public infrastructure, a common target for systemic corrupt cost cutting. During the year the CIAA conducted 97 sting operations which facilitated the arrest of 154 civil servants, including a senior civil servant.

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

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws and the vast majority of civil servants complied with the requirement. Despite the required financial disclosures, the National Vigilance Center, the body mandated to monitor financial disclosures and make them publicly available, generally did not systematically review its findings or publish these details.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC investigated allegations of abuses, but insufficient staff (95 out of 309 positions were vacant as of September, a decrease from 232 vacant positions in August 2016), and limitations on its mandate led some activists to view the body as ineffective and insufficiently independent. The NHRC claimed the government helped promote impunity by failing to implement its recommendations fully. The NHRC stated that from its establishment in 2000 through the year’s end, it had made recommendations for prosecution and reparations in 995 cases (as of September). More than three-quarters of these involved conflict-era incidents.

The Nepal Police and APF each have an HRS and the NA has a human rights directorate (HRD). The NA HRD and Nepal Police HRS have independent investigative powers. The NA’s investigations were not fully transparent according to human rights NGOs.

The government and judiciary have not significantly addressed conflict-era human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by the NA, Nepal Police, APF, and Maoist parties.

There were significant delays in implementing and granting full independence to the country’s two transitional justice mechanisms, CIEDP and the TRC. Human rights experts continue to report that neither of the mechanisms have made significant progress on investigations or reporting. The CIEDP and TRC commissioners’ tenure expired in April without having fulfilled their mandate and new commissioners had to be appointed as of December.

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

Additionally, the law does not specifically recognize war crimes or crimes against humanity, although the constitution recognizes as law treaties to which the country is a party. Critics also cite instances in which parliament failed to implement Supreme Court decisions. For example, in a 2015 ruling, the court nullified provisions of the TRC and CIEDP Act that would have granted the commissions discretionary power to recommend amnesty for serious crimes because amnesty would violate the then interim constitution and international obligations. As of September, parliament had not amended the act to bring it in line with the Supreme Court decision, although the CIEDP commissions have stated they intend to abide by the court’s rulings.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including marital rape, is illegal, with minimum prison sentences that vary between five and 15 years, depending on the victim’s age. The law also mandates five years’ additional imprisonment in the case of gang rape, rape of pregnant women, or rape of a woman with disabilities. The victim’s compensation depends on the degree of mental and physical abuse.

Police and the courts were responsive in most cases when rape was reported, although several high-profile cases highlighted the government’s failure to secure justice for rape victims. In July 2018, 13-year-old Nirmala Panta was raped and killed in Kanchanpur district. A government panel that reviewed the police response found that investigators acted with grave negligence and destroyed key evidence in the case. In March the district court charged eight police personnel for tampering with evidence. As of September the case was unresolved. Human rights activists outside of Kathmandu expressed concern that police frequently refuse to register cases of gender-based violence, including occasionally rape cases. These groups reported that police often preferred to use mediation rather than criminal investigation to resolve conflicts. On October 1, allegations of rape against Speaker of Federal Parliament Krishna Bahadur Mahara led to his resignation at the request of Prime Minister Oli and the ruling Nepal Communist Party. As of November Mahara remained in police custody pending trial.

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

The Nepal Police had women’s cells staffed by female officers in each of the country’s 77 districts to make it easier for women and girls to report crimes to police. According to the women and children service directorate, some women’s cells were not fully operational, but the Nepal Police, with assistance from foreign governments and NGOs, endeavored to build and improve their infrastructure and capacity. NGOs stated that despite improvements, resources and training to deal with victims of domestic violence and trafficking were insufficient. Although police guidelines call on officers to treat domestic violence as a criminal offense, this guidance was difficult to implement outside of the women’s cells due to entrenched discriminatory attitudes.

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

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The constitution criminalizes violence against or oppression of women based on religious, social, or cultural traditions and gives victims the right to compensation. The criminal code makes the practice of paying dowries illegal and imposes penalties of up to NRs 30,000 ($300), prison sentences of up to three years, or both. The legislation also criminalizes violence committed against one’s spouse in connection to a dowry, imposing fines of up to NRs 50,000 ($500), prison sentences of up to five years, or both. Additionally, the law stipulates that any psychological abuse of women, including asking for dowry, humiliation, physical torture, and shunning women for not providing a dowry, is punishable. Nevertheless, according to NGOs, dowries remained common, especially in the Terai region. Additionally, the practice of early and forced marriage, which remained prevalent, limited girls’ access to education and increased their susceptibility to domestic violence and sexual abuse, including sex trafficking. Early and forced marriages were especially common in the Dalit and Madhesi communities (see “Children” section). Government agencies documented incidents of dowry-related violence and forced marriage, recommended interventions, and occasionally rescued victims and offered them rehabilitation services.

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

The law criminalizes acid attacks. The NGO Burns Violence Survivors Nepal documented two acid attacks from January to September.

The practice of “chhaupadi” (expelling women and girls from their homes during menstruation and sometimes following childbirth, including forcing women and girls to reside in cattle sheds) continued to be a serious problem despite a 2005 Supreme Court decision and 2008 guidelines from the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare outlawing the practice. In 2018 a law that formally criminalized the practice went into effect; it stipulates a punishment of up to three months’ imprisonment, a maximum fine of NRs 3,000 ($30), or both. Some local officials implemented various efforts to eliminate chhaupadi, including education campaigns and physical destruction of sheds, but stigma and tradition maintained the practice, particularly in rural western districts, where women periodically died from exposure to the elements. For example, local media reported that in January a woman died from exposure in her menstruation hut in Achham district, and two days later, a mother and her two children died of smoke inhalation while sleeping in her hut. On December 5, Nepal Police arrested an individual reportedly involved in the death of a woman in a menstruation hut, the first arrest of its kind since adoption of the 2018 law.

Sexual Harassment: The law allows the top administrative official in a district to impose up to six months imprisonment, a maximum fine of NRs 50,000 ($500), or both, against a perpetrator, once a series of internal workplace processes to address a complaint have been exhausted. According to women’s rights activists, the law provides adequate protective measures and compensation for victims, but the penalties are insufficiently severe and the law does not cover the informal sector, where sexual harassment is most common.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

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

The Gender Equality Act adopted in 2006–along with more than 60 other laws–contains discriminatory provisions. For example, the law on property rights favors men in land tenancy and the division of family property. The constitution, however, confers rights for women that had not previously received legal protection, including rights equal to those of their spouses in property and family affairs, and special opportunities in education, health, and social security.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education: The constitution makes basic primary education free and compulsory nationwide. The law divides the education system into Basic Education (Early Childhood Development and grades one to eight), which is free and compulsory, and Secondary Education (grades nine to 12), which is free but not compulsory. The government reported that during the 2017-18 school year, 97.2 percent of school-age children attended primary schools with gender parity. A gender gap in secondary education persisted, with two-thirds of adolescent girls in rural areas reportedly not attending school.

Some children, particularly girls, face barriers to accessing education due to lack of sanitation facilities, geographic distance, costs associated with schooling, household chores, and lack of parental support. Countrywide, 32.4 percent of schools lack separate toilet facilities for girls, which can deter them from attending school, especially when they are menstruating. Barriers for attending school for school-age boys include pressure to find employment, migration to work outside the country, and issues with drugs and alcohol. Children with disabilities face additional barriers to accessing education, including denial of school admission. In addition, children are required to attend school only up to age 13. This standard makes children age 13 and older vulnerable to child labor despite not being legally permitted to work.

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

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

Early and Forced Marriage: The law prohibits marriage for both boys and girls before the age of 20, but the country has a high rate of child marriage. According to UNICEF, more than a third of young women aged 20-24 reported they were married by the age of 18, and approximately 10 percent by age 15.

Social, economic, and cultural values promoted the practice of early and forced marriages, which was especially common in the Dalit and Madhesi communities. The law sets penalties for violations according to the age of the girls involved in child marriage. The penalty includes both a prison sentence and fine, with the fees collected going to the girl involved. The civil code provides that the government must act whenever a case of child marriage is filed with authorities.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a small Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

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

The government provides services for persons with physical and mental disabilities, including a monthly stipend, building shelters, and appointing one social welfare worker in each of 753 local governments. In 2017 parliament passed the Disability Rights Act, which provides that persons with disabilities have equal access to education, health, employment, public physical infrastructure, transportation, and information and communication services. The act also prohibits discrimination based on disability. Although government efforts to enforce laws and regulations to improve rights and benefits for persons with disabilities gradually improved, they still were not fully effective. For example, books printed in Braille were not available for students at all grade levels, and free higher education was not uniformly available to all interested persons with disability. According to the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens, the government did “no additional work” in this area during the year.

The government provided monthly social security allowances for persons with disabilities of NRs 2,000 ($20) for those categorized as “profoundly” disabled, and NRs 600 ($6) for the “severely” disabled. The law states that other persons with disabilities should receive allowances based on the availability of funds and the degree of disability. Three provincial governments funded sign language interpreters in 20 districts to assist persons with hearing disabilities in obtaining government services. The government allocated approximately NRs 90 million ($900,000) from the national budget to fund programs for persons with disabilities, including grants to several disability-related organizations and a minimum budget to pay for community-based rehabilitation in all 77 districts.

The Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens was responsible for the protection of persons with disabilities. Compared with primary school attendance, relatively few children with disabilities attended higher levels of education, largely due to accessibility problems, school locations, and financial burdens on parents. Although abuse of children with disabilities reportedly occurred in schools, no reports of such incidents were filed in the courts or with the relevant agencies during the year. The Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens reported that most of the 753 municipalities have allocated funding to minority and vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, under the new federal system. Most persons with disabilities had to rely almost exclusively on family members for assistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LGBTI rights groups reported that gender and sexual minorities faced harassment from police during the year. The Nepal Police HRS confirmed that some low-level harassment occurred because many citizens held negative views of LGBTI persons. The HRS added that the Nepal Police were not immune to such social prejudices.

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

Societal discrimination and stigma against persons with HIV remained common, according to NGOs.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice, except those organizations deemed by the government to be subversive or seditious. Freedom of association extends to workers in both the formal and informal sectors. Noncitizens cannot be elected as trade union officials. Local workers have the right to strike and bargain collectively, except for employees in essential services, including public transportation, banking, security, and health care. The Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act approved in August 2016 prohibits workers from striking in any SEZ. The government is developing the country’s first two special economic zones in Bhairahawa and Simara, both in the portion of the country near the Indian border. Members of the armed forces, police, and government officials at the undersecretary level or higher also are prohibited from taking part in union activities. In the private sector, employees in managerial positions are not permitted to join unions.

The law stipulates that unions must represent at least 25 percent of workers in a given workplace to be considered representative. The minimum requirement does not prohibit the formation of unofficial union groups, which under certain conditions may call strikes and enter into direct negotiation with the government. Workers in the informal sector may also form unions, but many workers were not aware of these rights.

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and provides penalties which if enforced would be sufficient to deter violations. The law does not criminalize the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of persons by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the country continued to be a source, transit, and destination for men, women, and children who were subjected to forced labor.

Government enforcement of the laws against bonded labor was uneven, and social reintegration of victims remained difficult. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties for violations were insufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively screen for labor trafficking among abused migrant workers and handled such cases administratively in lieu of criminal investigation. In addition, despite reports of worker exploitation, including trafficking, and illegal recruitment fees charged by recruitment agencies, the government did not sufficiently investigate agencies for violations.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

The Department of Labor, which is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and practices, did not effectively do so. The Department of Labor conducted most of its labor inspections in the formal sector while nearly all child labor occurred in the informal sector. The Department had 10 factory inspector positions in district labor offices and two senior factory inspector positions in Kathmandu. Chronic vacancies in these positions, however, limited the department’s effectiveness. Some of these positions were vacant due to regular rotation of civil servants, and resources devoted to enforcement were limited. Although labor inspectors periodically received training on child labor laws and inspection, this training did not necessarily adhere to any formal schedule. A broad range of laws and policies were designed to combat and eventually eliminate child labor. Penalties are sufficient to deter violations.

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

There are no provisions in the constitution, law, or regulations prohibiting discrimination, including labor discrimination, or discrimination based on color, age, national origin or citizenship, HIV-positive status, or other communicable disease.

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

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

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pakistan

Executive Summary

Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. In 2018 the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and PTI’s leader, Imran Khan, became prime minister. While independent observers noted technical improvements in the Election Commission of Pakistan’s management of the polling process itself, observers, civil society organizations, and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field. Some political parties also alleged significant polling day irregularities occurred.

Police have primary domestic security responsibility for most of the country. Local police are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. Paramilitary organizations–including the Frontier Corps, which operates in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the Rangers, which operate in Sindh and Punjab–provide security services under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The Frontier Corps’ primary mission is security of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the Corps reports to the Ministry of Interior in peacetime and the army in times of conflict. The military is responsible for external security but continues to play a role in domestic security, including as the lead security agency in many areas of the former FATA. While military and intelligence services officially report to civilian authorities, the military and intelligence services operate independently and without effective civilian oversight.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; arbitrary or unlawful government interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial government interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; acts of corruption within the bureaucracy; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by nonstate militant groups; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of racial and ethnic minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons by nonstate actors; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the use of forced or compulsory child labor.

There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for human rights abuses.

Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, although to a lesser extent than in previous years, consistent with an overall decline in terrorist activity. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. Nevertheless, violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. As of September terrorism fatalities stood at 315, in comparison with 697 total fatalities in 2018, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a database compiled by the public interest advocacy organization Institute for Conflict Management, which collects statistics on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions have interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities have not executed any person for committing blasphemy to date, allegations of blasphemy have often prompted vigilantism and mob lynchings. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred during the year. Both the military, through the Director General–Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)–enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. In February the Ministry of Information introduced restrictions to control “hate speech” including in social media. Rights activists reported the government had contacted Twitter asking them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.

Media outlets claimed the government pressured stations into halting broadcasting of interviews with opposition political party leaders. On July 1, former president Asif Zardari of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party was seconds into an exclusive interview with a leading television news anchorperson, Hamid Mir of GEO-TV, when two stations simultaneously cut short their broadcasts. On July 11, an interview with opposition leader Maryam Nawaz of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) on Hum News was cut short. On July 26, television outlets halted live coverage of opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech at a party rally in Karachi attended by approximately 20,000 supporters.

PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations during the year and authorized its chairperson to shut down any channel found in violation of the PEMRA code of conduct, primarily with regard to prohibiting telecasts of protests that might instigate violence. Starting in 2018 the Interior Ministry shut down the Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe. The Ministry based its decision on an intelligence report claiming Radio Mashaal radio programs were “against the interests of Pakistan and in line with a hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.” The ban remained in effect at year’s end.

Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they have a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities view as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.

According to sources, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. The Committee to Protect Journalists did not confirm any targeted killings of journalists during the year. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings. On May 4, an assailant killed Awaz Ali Sher Rajpar, a journalist affiliated with Sindhi daily Awami, in an attack on the Pad Eidan Press Club in Naushehro Feroze, Sindh. Rajpar had unsuccessfully requested police protection after a suspect in a corruption case threatened him because of his reporting of local corruption. Police arrested Rajpar’s first cousin, and authorities attributed his death to a family dispute.

On February 9, authorities arrested Rizwan-ur-Rehman Razi, a television journalist for Din News, for “defamatory and obnoxious posts” on his Twitter account against the “judiciary, government institutions and intelligence agencies.” Observers of the arrest allege authorities beat Razi.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military; journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year. Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or being required to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts rather than deeper analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting, but there were no reports of the government banning books during the year. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure.

The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the “code of ethics” and for showing banned content on-screen. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, or by without notice reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security issues. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.

The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions.

The Jang/Geo media group also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News, and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. Cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems, or repeatedly changed its assigned channel.

Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system as well as government advertising, which makes up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. Media houses, acting as a government-influenced media syndicate, fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets journalists deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content.

National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies, or military or public officials. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.

Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but there is a history of militant and criminal elements killing, abducting, assaulting, and intimidating journalists and their families.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.

Since 2012 the government has implemented a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unacceptable” content, including material that it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society. In March the FIA registered a case against senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani in Karachi under the PECA, accusing him of “defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan” and cyberterrorism. Jillani alleged law enforcement agencies were directly involved in kidnapping citizens. In May a Karachi court dismissed charges against him, declaring the FIA failed to produce substantial proof against him.

The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The Ministry for Religious Affairs is responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the PTA for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence. There were reports the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.

According to Coda Story, an online news platform, the country acquired the services of a Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system” that employs Deep Packet Inspection to monitor communications and record traffic and call data on behalf of the PTA.

The government generally did not interfere with academic freedom but restricted, screened, and censored certain cultural events with perceived antistate content. The government interfered with art exhibitions as well as musical and cultural activities. Holding such an event requires a government-issued permit, which the government frequently withheld.

On October 27, Karachi authorities shut down the art installation “Killing Fields of Karachi,” which featured 444 small concrete tombstones that each represented an alleged victim of former police officer Rao Anwar, who has been accused of being directly or indirectly involved in the killings of 444 persons in police encounters. The installation also included a documentary featuring the father of Naqeebullah Mehsud, who died in an allegedly fake police encounter that Anwar orchestrated.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these freedoms were subject to restrictions.

Although the former FATA is under the same legal framework as the rest of the country, civil and military authorities continued to impose collective punishment through the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace order, and Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the longstanding practice of suspending the right to assemble or speak in the newly merged areas. By law district authorities may prevent gatherings of more than four persons without police authorization. The law permits the government to ban all rallies and processions, except funeral processions, for security reasons.

Authorities generally prohibited Ahmadi Muslims from holding conferences or gatherings. Ahmadis cited the refusal of local authorities to reopen Ahmadi mosques damaged by anti-Ahmadi rioters in past years as evidence of the ongoing severe conditions for the community.

During the year PTM mobilized its predominantly ethnic Pashtun supporters to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice and to protest abuses by government security forces. Following the government’s pledge to take a harder line against PTM, the number of protests and rallies fell across the country. PTM activists continued to operate, although under much greater scrutiny after the arrest of most of the movement’s key leaders.

The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintained a series of policies that steadily eroded the freedom of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and domestic NGOs to carry out their work and access the communities they serve. INGOs, UN organizations, and international missions must request government permission in the form of no-objection certificates (NOCs) before they may conduct most in-country travel, carry out certain project activities, or initiate projects. Slow government approvals to NOC requests, financial sustainability, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity.

The government adopted a new online registration regime and a more restrictive operating agreement for INGOs in 2015. The registration process entails extensive document requirements, multiple levels of review, and constant investigations and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices. In April, 20 INGOs whose applications for registration were denied by the Ministry of Interior in 2018, appeared before an interagency committee to appeal those initial rejections. The hearings did not provide the reasons for the original rejections to the INGOs, nor an opportunity to discuss how to adjust their programs to secure a successful appeal. The ministry has not announced the final decisions on the appeals.

The years of uncertainty regarding registration status negatively impacted even those INGOs that had not received final rejection notices. Those INGOs without a clear registration status found it difficult to develop long-term plans and attract long-term funding and must rely on local partners or centrally managed funding from their overseas headquarters. They faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, and obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue. No-objection certificates were hard to obtain in certain provinces without an approved registration, thus hindering implementation and monitoring of activities, even for INGOs that had initiated the new registration process. In cases where INGOs secured registration, they still faced staffing limitations and government interference in their programmatic activities and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with local partners. INGOs also faced an uptick in visa denials for international staff and consultants. The lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process caused some INGOs to withdraw their registration applications and terminate operations in the country.

The government at both the federal and provincial levels similarly restricted the access of foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, no-objection certificates, and other requirements. Authorities required NGOs to obtain no-objection certificates before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities or using university spaces for events, or working on sensitive human rights issues. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for no-objection certificates. Domestic NGOs continued to face regular government monitoring and harassment, even if in possession of all required certifications.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement and for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights.

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

In-country Movement: Government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan, often due to security concerns, hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved no-objection certificate for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”

Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel”. Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims, must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.

According to policy, government employees and students must obtain no-objection certificates from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.

The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list prevented departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts.” Those on the list had the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.

Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some Pakistanis deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as unidentifiable Pakistani citizens, despite having passports issued by Pakistani embassies abroad.

Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in KP and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 29,000 of the total 5.3 million affected residents remained displaced as of May. The government and UN agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF, and the UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of major cities, such as Lahore and Karachi.

The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request no-objection certificates to access all districts in the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers providing assistance in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.

There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose some family members to remain in the settled areas of KP where regular access to health care, education, and other social services were available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations. The UN World Food Program distributed a monthly food ration to IDPs in KP displaced by conflict and continued to provide a six-month food ration to IDPs who returned to their areas of origin in the former FATA.

Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government provided temporary legal status to approximately 1.4 million Afghans formally registered and holding proof of registration cards. In June the PTI-led government continued its trend of granting longer-term extensions, approving a one-year extension through June 30, 2020. The country also hosts 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but does not grant them refugee status. The government typically extends the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments. In October the government granted a two-month extension through the end of the year.

Although fewer in number than in previous years, there were reports provincial authorities, police, and host communities continued to harass Afghan refugees. UNHCR reported that from January to October there were 1,234 arrests and detentions of refugees. UNHCR reported arrests and detentions were down 63 percent through September.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. The country lacks a legal and regulatory framework for the management of refugees and migration. The law does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status and allowed asylum seekers who were still undergoing the procedure, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.

Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in informal markets, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.

Access to Basic Services: One-third of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 54 refugee villages, while the remaining two-thirds lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In February the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their proof of registration cards.

The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between ages five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any refugee registered with both UNHCR and the government-run Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees was, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. Access to schools, however, was on a space-available basis as determined by the principal, and most registered Afghan refugees attended private Afghan schools or schools sponsored by the international community. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. Afghan refugees were able to use proof of registration cards to enroll in universities. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.

Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries and did not facilitate local integration. The government does not accord Pakistani citizenship to the children of Afghan refugees, but it did establish a parliamentary committee to evaluate the possibility of extending citizenship to Pakistani-born children of refugees and stateless persons.

Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national agencies estimated there were possibly thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of Rohingya, Bihari, and Bengali living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides the majority of citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Gilgit-Baltistan and AK have political systems that differ from the rest of the country, and neither have representation in the national parliament.

Recent Elections: In July 2018 the country held direct elections that resulted in a PTI-majority national government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. EU observers assessed voting was “well-conducted and transparent” but noted “counting was sometimes problematic.” Civil society organizations and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference, including restrictions on freedom of expression, allegedly creating an uneven electoral playing field.

In September 2018 the Electoral College (made up of the members of both houses of Parliament, and of the provincial assemblies) held presidential elections and selected PTI member Arif Alvi to succeed Mamnoon Hussain of the PML-N. Following the passage of the 25th amendment merging the former FATA with the rest of KP Province, on July 20, the government held special elections. These elections gave residents of the former FATA representation in the KP provincial assembly for the first time in their history. Politically, the only remaining hurdle for full integration of the former FATA with KP is elections for local leaders.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were no reports of restrictions on political parties participating in elections, except for those prohibited due to terrorist affiliations. Judges ordered media regulatory agencies to enforce constitutional bans on content critical of the military or judiciary, compelling media to censor politicians’ speeches and elections-related coverage deemed “antijudiciary” or “antimilitary.” Organizations that monitor press freedom reported direct pressure on media outlets to avoid content regarding possible military influence over judicial proceedings against politicians, and to refrain from reporting on PML-N leaders in a positive way. In most areas there was no interference with the right of political parties and candidates to organize campaigns, run for election, or seek votes. In Balochistan, however, there were reports security agencies and separatist groups harassed local political organizations, such as the Balochistan National Party and the Baloch Students Organization.

Participation of Women and Minorities: The Elections Act of 2017 stipulates special measures to enhance electoral participation of women, religious minorities, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities. By law women must constitute 5 percent of party tickets, and if less than 10 percent of women vote in any constituency, authorities may presume that the women’s vote was suppressed, and the results for that constituency or polling station may be nullified. The government enforced the law for the first time in Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when the Election Commission canceled the district’s 2018 general election results after women made up less than 10 percent of the vote.

Cultural and traditional barriers in tribal and rural areas impeded some women from voting. Authorities used quotas to assure a minimum level of participation of women in elected bodies. There are 60 seats in the National Assembly and 17 seats in the Senate reserved for women. Authorities apportioned these seats based on total votes secured by the candidates of each political party that contested the elections. Women and minorities also may contest directly elected seats, but both women and minorities have struggled to be directly elected outside of the reserved seats. Authorities reserved 132 of the 779 seats for women in provincial assemblies and one-third of the seats on local councils. Women participated actively as political party members, but they were not always successful in securing leadership positions within parties, apart from women’s wings. Women served in the federal cabinet.

The law provides for mail-in voting for persons with disabilities. It requires expedited issuance of identification cards (which also serve as voter identification cards) for non-Muslims, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities.

The government requires voters to indicate their religion when registering to vote. Ahmadis are required to either swear Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and denounce the Ahmadi movement’s founder, or declare themselves as non-Muslims, in order to vote. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and many were unable to vote because they did not comply.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices. Corruption was pervasive in politics and government, and various politicians and public office holders faced allegations of corruption, including bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement.

Corruption: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) serves as the highest-level anticorruption authority, with a mandate to eliminate corruption through awareness, prevention, and enforcement. The NAB and other investigative agencies, including the Federal Board of Revenue, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Antinarcotics Force, and the Federal Investigation Agency, conduct investigations into corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering.

Corruption within the lower levels of the police force was common. Some police charged fees to register genuine complaints and accepted bribes for registering false complaints. Bribes to avoid charges were commonplace.

Reports of corruption in the judicial system persisted, including reports that court staff requested payments to facilitate administrative procedures. Lower courts reportedly remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from higher-ranking judges as well as prominent, wealthy, religious, and political figures.

The government continued its corruption investigations and prosecutions of opposition political party leaders during the year, with high-profile actions brought against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari. Opposition parties alleged these prosecutions selectively targeted their leadership.

Financial Disclosure: By law members of Parliament, civil servants, and ministers must declare their assets. Elected officials must also disclose their spouses’ and dependent children’s assets. Failure to disclose this information may lead to their disqualification from public office for five years. Heads of state, in contrast, are not required to declare their income and assets. Judges, generals, and high-level officials often concealed their assets from the public.

Political parties and politicians must file annual financial accounting reports declaring their assets and liabilities. The government has not fully implemented the law, and lawmakers often disregarded it. It is the duty of the Election Commission of Pakistan to verify that political parties and politicians make their financial information publicly available; the commission posts a list of parliamentarians’ assets annually.

Under the efficiency and disciplinary rules, an official must face an inquiry if accused of corruption or financial irregularities. A person convicted of corruption faces a prison term of up to 14 years, a fine, or both, and the government may appropriate any assets obtained by corrupt means.

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

Some domestic and international human rights groups operated without significant government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government increasingly restricted the operating ability of NGOs, however, particularly those whose work revealed shortcomings or misdeeds of the government, military, or intelligence services, or that worked on issues related to conflict areas or advocacy. These groups faced numerous regulations regarding travel, visas, and registration that hampered their efforts to program and raise funds. International staff members of organizations, including those from the few successfully registered INGOs, continued to face delays or denials in the issuance of visas and no-objection certificates for in-country travel. The domestic NGO registration agreement with the government requires NGOs not to use terms the government finds controversial–such as Countering Violent Extremism; Peace and Conflict Resolution; IDPs; reproductive health; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons–in their annual reports or documents. The agreement also prohibits NGOs from employing individuals of Indian or Israeli nationality or origin. Few NGOs had access to certain parts of KP, the former FATA, and certain areas in Balochistan.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The 2012 National Commission for Human Rights Bill authorized the establishment of an independent committee, the National Commission on Human Rights. The first commission’s term expired in June, and authorities had not established a second commission as of September. A standalone Ministry of Human Rights was reconstituted in 2015. The Senate and National Assembly standing committees on law, justice, minorities, and human rights held hearings on a range of human rights problems.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, with punishment for conviction that ranges from a minimum of 10 to 25 years in prison and a fine, to the death penalty. The penalty for conviction of gang rape is death or life imprisonment. The law does not explicitly criminalize spousal rape and defines rape as a crime committed by a man against a woman. Although rape was frequent, prosecutions are rare. The Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offense of Rape) Act of 2016 provides for collection of DNA evidence and includes nondisclosure of a rape victim’s name, the right to legal representation of rape victims, relaxed reporting requirements for female victims, and enhanced penalties for rape of victims with mental or physical disabilities.

The government did not effectively enforce the 2006 Women’s Protection Act, which brought the crime of rape under the jurisdiction of criminal rather than Islamic courts. The law prohibits police from arresting or holding a female victim overnight at a police station without a civil court judge’s consent. The law requires a victim to complain directly to a sessions court, which tries for heinous offenses. After recording the victim’s statement, the sessions court judge files a complaint, after which police may make arrests. NGOs reported the procedure created barriers for rape victims who could not travel to or access the courts. NGOs continued to report that rape was a severely underreported crime.

The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act provides legal protections for domestic abuse victims, including judicial protective orders and access to a new network of district-level women’s shelters. Centers provide women a range of services including assistance with the completion of first information reports regarding the crimes committed against them, first aid, medical examinations, post-trauma rehabilitation, free legal services, and a shelter home. The Punjab government funds four women’s career centers in Punjab universities, 12 crisis centers that provide legal and psychological services to women, and emergency shelters for women and children. In March the Punjab government established a women’s hostel authority to assist women in finding safe, affordable, temporary lodging while looking for work.

Lahore uses a specialty court designed to focus exclusively on gender-based violence (GBV) crimes. The Lahore Gender-Based Violence Court receives the most serious cases in the district, such as aggravated rape, and offers enhanced protections to women and girl.

There were no reliable national, provincial, or local statistics on rape due to underreporting and no centralized law enforcement data collection system.

Prosecutions of reported rapes were rare, although there were reports that prosecution rates increased in response to police capacity building programs and public campaigns to combat the lack of awareness regarding rape and GBV. Police and NGOs reported individuals involved in other types of disputes sometimes filed false rape charges, reducing the ability of police to identify legitimate cases and proceed with prosecution. NGOs reported police sometimes accepted bribes from perpetrators, abused or threatened victims, and demanded victims drop charges, especially when suspected perpetrators were influential community leaders. Some police demanded bribes from victims before registering rape charges, and investigations were often superficial. Furthermore, accusations of rape were often resolved using extrajudicial measures, with the victim frequently forced to marry her attacker.

The use of rape medical testing increased, but medical personnel in many areas did not have sufficient training or equipment, which further complicated prosecutions. Most victims of rape, particularly in rural areas, did not have access to the full range of treatment services. There were a limited number of women’s treatment centers, funded by the federal government and international donors. These centers had partnerships with local service providers to create networks that delivered a full spectrum of essential services to rape victims.

No specific federal law prohibits domestic violence, which was widespread. Police may charge acts of domestic violence as crimes pursuant to the penal code’s general provisions against assault and bodily injury. Provincial laws also prohibit acts of domestic violence. Forms of domestic violence reportedly included beating, physical disfigurement, shaving of women’s eyebrows and hair, and–in extreme cases–homicide. Dowry and other family-related disputes sometimes resulted in death or disfigurement by burning or acid.

Women who tried to report abuse often faced serious challenges. Police and judges were sometimes reluctant to act in domestic violence cases, viewing them as family problems. Instead of filing charges, police often responded by encouraging the parties to reconcile. Authorities routinely returned abused women to their abusive family members.

To address societal norms that disapprove of victims who report GBV, the government established women’s police stations, staffed by female officers, to offer women a safe place to report complaints and file charges. There was an inadequate number of women’s police stations, and they faced financial shortfalls and appropriate staffing shortages.

The government continued to operate the Crisis Center for Women in Distress, which referred abused women to NGOs for assistance. Numerous government-funded Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Centers for Women across the country provided legal aid, medical treatment, and psychosocial counseling. These centers served women who were victims of exploitation and violence. Officials later referred victims to darulamans, shelter houses for abused women and children, of which there were several hundred around the country. The dar-ul-amans also provided access to medical treatment. According to NGOs, the shelters did not offer other assistance to women, such as legal aid or counseling, and often served as halfway homes for women awaiting trial for adultery but who in fact were victims of rape or other abuse.

Government centers lacked sufficient space, staff, and resources. Many overcrowded dar-ul-amans did not meet international standards. Some shelters did not offer access to basic needs such as showers, laundry supplies, or feminine hygiene products. In some cases individuals reportedly abused women at the government-run shelters, and staff severely restricted women’s movements, or pressured them to return to their abusers. There were some reports of women exploited in prostitution and sex trafficking in shelters. Some shelter staff reportedly discriminated against the shelter residents, assuming that if a woman fled her home, it was because she was a woman of ill repute.

Media reported that Pakistani women and girls were trafficked to China, some as child brides. On December 5, the Associated Press reported that Pakistani investigators had compiled a list of up to 629 girls and women being trafficked to China but that officials with connections to China hindered efforts to investigate the trafficking. The embassy of China in Islamabad denied the reports.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, many Dawoodi Bohra Muslims practiced various forms of FGM/C. Some Dawoodi Bohras spoke publicly and signed online petitions against the practice. Some other isolated tribes and communities in rural Sindh and Balochistan also reportedly practiced FGM/C.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Women were victims of various types of societal violence and abuse, including so-called honor killings, forced marriages and conversions, imposed isolation, and used as chattel to settle tribal disputes.

A 2004 law on honor killings, the 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Act, and the 2016 Criminal Law Amendment (Offenses in the Name or Pretext of Honor) Act criminalize acts committed against women in the name of traditional practices. Despite these laws, hundreds of women reportedly were victims of so-called honor killings, and many cases went unreported and unpunished. In many cases officials allowed the male involved in the alleged “crime of honor” to flee. Because these crimes generally occurred within families, many went unreported. Police and NGOs reported that increased media coverage enabled law enforcement officers to take some action against these crimes. Media reported that assailants killed 78 persons, including 50 women, in “honor” killings in the first six months of the year.

In February Zulfiqar Wassan killed a 14-year-old girl, Rimsha Wassan, in Khairpur, Sindh. After police apprehended Wassan, they discovered that he was involved in three other “honor” killing cases. On July 1, police arrested a man and several of his family members in Multan, Punjab, after the man reportedly shot and killed his wife, their two children, and six of her family members as revenge for his wife’s suspected affair. The District Police Officer reported that the man was unrepentant for what was “clearly an honor killing.” As of September the cases were pending with the trial court.

There were reports that the practice of disfigurement, including cutting off a woman’s nose or ears or throwing acid in the face, in connection with domestic disputes or so-called honor crimes, continued and legal repercussions were rare.

The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codify the legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. The 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. Some activists claimed the latter provision weaken the government’s ability to protect against forced marriage and conversion. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2018 allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

The 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Amendment Act criminalizes and punishes the giving of a woman in marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; depriving a woman of her rights to inherit movable or immovable property by deceitful or illegal means; coercing or in any manner compelling a woman to enter into marriage; and compelling, arranging, or facilitating the marriage of a woman with the Quran, including forcing her to take an oath on the Quran to remain unmarried or not to claim her share of an inheritance. Although prohibited by law, these practices continued in some areas. In March a local jirga gave a seven-year-old girl as compensation for an honor killing case in Pano Aqil, Sindh. Police recovered the girl after a video showing her crying for justice went viral.

The law makes maiming or killing using a corrosive substance (such as acid) a crime and imposes stiff penalties against perpetrators. There were numerous acid attacks on women across the country, with few perpetrators brought to justice.

The 2012 National Commission on the Status of Women Bill provides for the commission’s financial and administrative autonomy to investigate violations of women’s rights.

Sexual Harassment: Although several laws criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace and public sphere, the problem was reportedly widespread. The law requires all provinces to have provincial-level ombudsmen. The Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan Province had established ombudsmen. On April 1, Balochistan appointed advocate Sabira Islam as the first provincial ombudsperson.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on sex, but authorities did not enforce it. Women also faced discrimination in employment, family law, property law, and the judicial system. Family law provides protection for women in cases of divorce, including requirements for maintenance, and sets clear guidelines for custody of minor children and their maintenance.

The law entitles female children to one half the inheritance of male children. Wives inherit one eighth of their husbands’ estates. Women often received far less than their legal entitlement.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth in the country, although children born abroad after 2000 may derive their citizenship by descent if either the mother or the father is a citizen and the child is registered with the proper authorities.

Education: The constitution mandates compulsory education, provided free of charge by the government, to all children between ages five and 16. Despite this provision, government schools often charged parents for books, uniforms, and other materials.

Medical Care: Boys and girls had equal access to government facilities, although families were more likely to seek medical assistance for boys than for girls.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was widespread. Employers, who in some cases were relatives, abused young girls and boys working as domestic servants by beating them and forcing them to work long hours. Many such children were human trafficking victims.

Local authorities subjected children to harmful traditional practices, treating girls as chattel to settle disputes and debts.

In 2016 the government updated its definition of statutory rape and expanded the previous definition, which was sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16, to include boys.

Early and Forced Marriage: Despite legal prohibitions, child marriages occurred. Federal law sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for men and 16 for women. The 2014 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act sets 18 as the legal age of marriage for both girls and boys in Sindh Province. A 2017 amendment to the penal code substantially increased punishment for conviction of violating the law. A convicted individual may be imprisoned for up to 10 years and no less than five years (up from imprisonment of up to one month) and may also be fined up to one million Pakistani rupees ($6,430), up from 1,000 Pakistani rupees (six dollars).

In 2014 the Council of Islamic Ideology declared child marriage laws to be un-Islamic and noted they were “unfair and there cannot be any legal age of marriage.” The council stated that Islam does not prohibit underage marriage since it allows the consummation of marriage after both partners reach puberty. Decisions of the Council are nonbinding.

In rural areas, poor parents sometimes sold their daughters into marriage, in some cases to settle debts or disputes. Although forced marriage is a criminal offense and in many filed cases, prosecution remained limited.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Various local laws exist to protect children from child pornography, sexual abuse, seduction, and cruelty, but federal laws do not prohibit using children for prostitution or pornographic performances, although child pornography is illegal under obscenity laws. Legal observers reported that authorities did not regularly enforce child protection laws.

Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: Parents occasionally abandoned unwanted children, most of which were girls. By law anyone found to have abandoned an infant may be imprisoned for seven years, while anyone guilty of secretly burying a deceased child may be imprisoned for two years. Conviction of murder is punishable by life imprisonment, but authorities rarely prosecuted the crime of infanticide.

Displaced Children: According to civil society sources, it was difficult for children formerly displaced by military operations to access education or psychological support upon their return to former conflict areas. Nonetheless, the KP government has reconstructed some of the 1,800 schools in the former FATA districts, where large numbers of internally displaced persons have returned. The government prioritized rehabilitating schools and enrolling children in these former conflict areas, and the overall number of out-of-school children decreased, according to international organizations.

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

Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated. Anti-Semitic sentiments were widespread in the vernacular press. Hate speech used by some politicians and broadcast in some print media and through social media used derogatory terms such as “Jewish agent” to attack individuals and groups or referred to “Zionist conspiracies.”

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

The law provides for equal rights for persons with disabilities, and provincial special education and social welfare offices are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities; nonetheless, authorities did not always implement its provisions. Each province has a department or office legally tasked with addressing the educational needs of persons with disabilities. Despite these provisions, most children with disabilities did not attend school, according to civil society sources.

Employment quotas at the federal and provincial levels require public and private organizations to reserve at least 2 percent of jobs for qualified persons with disabilities. Authorities only partially implemented this requirement due to lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms. Organizations that did not wish to hire persons with disabilities could instead pay a fine to a disability assistance fund. Authorities rarely enforced this obligation. The National Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled provided job placement and loan facilities as well as subsistence funding. Access to polling stations was challenging for persons with disabilities because of severe difficulties in obtaining transportation. The Elections Act 2017 allows for absentee voting for persons with disabilities. In order to register for an absentee ballot, however, persons with disabilities were required to obtain an identification card with a special physical disability symbol. According to disability rights activists, the multistep process for obtaining the special identification symbol was cumbersome and challenging.

The Sindh Provincial Assembly implemented new procedures regarding the Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2018, including the issuance of special identity cards to persons with disabilities to provide for legal protections. On November 9, the Sindh Provincial Assembly approved an amendment to the Motor Vehicles Ordinance of 1965 that allows individuals with hearing disabilities to obtain drivers licenses and waived license fees.

On August 8, the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly approved the Disability Act 2019 Gilgit Baltistan.

Some Sindhi and Baloch nationalist groups claim that authorities detain their members based on political affiliation or belief. Nationalist parties in Sindh further allege that law enforcement and security agencies kidnap and kill Sindhi political activists.

On February 6, a local government chairperson, Abdul Rahim Shah, shot Sindhi political activist Irshad Ranjhani on a road in Karachi. Shah claimed he shot at Ranjhani in self-defense during an armed robbery attempt. A former police officer, Riaz Hussain, denied Ranjhani timely access to medical care, which led to his death. The video of the incident showed police officers interrogating and mistreating an injured Ranjhani while in custody. On February 11, police arrested Shah and suspended Riaz Hussain for delaying medical treatment by taking the victim to a police station rather than a hospital for urgent medical care. In April police and other witnesses told a court that police allowed Shah to shoot Ranjhani in the head for a fifth time during transit from the police station to the hospital.

Sectarian militants continue to target members of the Shia Hazara minority in Quetta, Baluchistan. As a result they are largely confined to two Hazara-populated enclaves, which significantly restricts their ability to move freely, find employment, and pursue higher education.

Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a criminal offense. The penalty for conviction of same-sex relations is a fine, two years to life imprisonment, or both. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, male transgender, and intersex persons rarely revealed their sexual orientation or gender identity in the public sphere. There were communities of openly transgender women, but they were marginalized and were frequently the targets of violence and harassment.

Violence and discrimination continued against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. The crimes often go unreported, and police generally take little action when they do receive reports. On April 1, Inspector General of Police (IGP) announced that the government would provide 5 percent of the office jobs in the Sindh police force to members of the transgender community. On April 13, unidentified assailants stabbed and killed a 30-year-old transgender person in Karachi. Her death followed the death and apparent torture on March 26 of an elderly member of the transgender community. Outreach by NGOs in KP, however, improved interactions between police and the transgender community there. A local NGO reported that prison officials in KP house transgender prisoners separately, and that the provincial government formed a jail oversight committee to improve the prison situation. Local NGOs working in the Islamabad Capital Territory and Punjab have conducted transgender sensitization training for police officers.

According to a wide range of LGBT NGOs and activists, society generally shunned transgender women, eunuchs, and intersex persons, who often lived together in slum communities and survived by begging and dancing at carnivals and weddings. Some also were prostitutes. Local authorities often denied transgender individuals their share of inherited property, and admission to schools and hospitals. Property owners frequently refused to rent or sell property to transgender persons. In 2018 Parliament passed the landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which addresses many of these problems. The law accords the right of transgender individuals to be recognized according to their “self-perceived gender identity,” provides for basic rights, and prohibits harassment of transgender persons, and outlaws discrimination against them in employment, housing, education, healthcare, and other services. There is no such law, however, protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals.

A 2012 Supreme Court ruling allows transgender individuals to obtain national identification cards listing a “third gender.” Because national identity cards also serve as voter registration, the ruling enabled transgender individuals to participate in elections, both as candidates and voters.

The country continued to have a concentrated HIV epidemic among injecting drug users, while the estimated prevalence in the general population was less than 0.1 percent. The epidemic was concentrated among injecting drug users (21 percent). Stigma and discrimination by the general population and by health-care providers against persons living with HIV in particular remained a significant barrier to treatment access. An estimated 14 percent of persons living with HIV know their status, and approximately one tenth of them were on antiretroviral treatment, according to the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS. Transgender advocacy organizations and activists report that HIV is particularly prevalent in their community, with little medical help.

Societal violence due to religious intolerance remained a serious problem. There were occasionally reports of mob violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and Hindus. Shia Muslim activists reported ongoing instances of targeted killings and enforced disappearances in limited parts of the country.

Members of the Hazara ethnic minority, who are Shia Muslim, continued to face discrimination and threats of violence in Quetta, Balochistan. According to press reports and other sources, Hazara were unable to move freely outside of Quetta’s two Hazara-populated enclaves. Community members complained that increased security measures had turned their neighborhoods into ghettos, resulting in economic exploitation. Consumer goods in those enclaves were available only at inflated prices, and Hazaras reported an inability to find employment or pursue higher education. They also alleged government agencies discriminated against Hazaras in issuing identification cards and passports. Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia religious processions but confined the public observances to the Hazara enclaves.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The vast majority of the labor force was under the jurisdiction of provincial labor laws. The 2010 18th constitutional amendment, which devolved labor legislation and policies to the four provinces, stipulated that existing national laws would remain in force “until altered, repealed, or amended” by the provincial governments. Provinces implemented their own industrial relations acts in 2011. In 2012 Parliament passed a new industrial relations act that took International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions into account but applied them only to the Islamabad Capital Territory and to trade federations that operated in more than one province.

The role of the federal government remained unclear in the wake of devolution. The only federal government body with any authority over labor issues was the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, whose role in domestic labor oversight was limited to compiling statistics to demonstrate compliance with ILO conventions. At the provincial level, laws providing for collective bargaining rights excluded banking and financial sector workers, forestry workers, hospital workers, self-employed farmers, and persons employed in an administrative or managerial capacity.

In July the Balochistan High Court ordered the cancellation of the registration of all trade unions formed by government employees, ruling that such workers are not allowed to form a union under the Balochistan Industrial Relations Act of 2010. The registrar of Balochistan trade unions thereafter cancelled 62 trade unions’ registration. The affected unions’ appeal at the Supreme Court was pending at year’s end.

Without any federal government entity responsible for labor, the continued existence of the National Industrial Relations Commission remained in question. The 2012 Federal Industrial Relations Act stipulates that the commission may adjudicate and determine industrial disputes within the Islamabad Capital Territory to which a trade union or federation of trade unions is a party and any other industrial dispute determined by the government to be of national importance. This provision does not provide a forum specifically for interprovincial disputes but appears to allow for the possibility that the commission could resolve such a dispute. Worker organizations noted the limited capacity and funding for labor relations implementation at the provincial level.

The law prohibits state administrators, workers in state-owned enterprises, and export processing zones, and public-sector workers from collective bargaining and striking. Nevertheless, state-owned enterprises planned for privatization faced continuous labor strikes. Provincial industrial relations acts also address and limit strikes and lockouts. For example, the KP Act specifies that when a “strike or lockout lasts for more than 30 days, the government may, by order in writing, prohibit the strike or lockout” and must refer the dispute to a labor court.

Federal law defines illegal strikes, picketing, and other types of protests as “civil commotion,” which carries a penalty if convicted of up to life imprisonment. The law also states that gatherings of four or more persons may require police authorization, which is a provision authorities could use against trade union gatherings. Unions were able to organize large-scale strikes, but police often broke up the strikes, and employers used them to justify dismissals. In March and May, Sindh schoolteachers and nurses staged protests against recruitment and promotion rules. Police used force against the protest, causing injury to dozens of protesters, and arresting several of them. On July 17, police beat and used water cannons to halt a public protest by nurses from public sector hospitals across Sindh for increased salaries and better facilities. Police detained 20 protesters but released them later. Marches and protests also occurred regularly, although police sometimes arrested union leaders.

Enforcement of labor laws remained weak, in large part due to lack of resources and political will. Most unions functioned independently of government and political party influence. Labor leaders raised concerns regarding employers sponsoring management-friendly or only-on-paper worker unions–so-called yellow unions–to prevent effective unionization.

There were no reported cases of the government dissolving a union without due process. Unions could be administratively “deregistered,” however, without judicial review.

Labor NGOs assisted workers by providing technical training and capacity-building workshops to strengthen labor unions and trade organizations. They also worked with established labor unions to organize workers in the informal sector and advocated policies and legislation to improve the rights, working conditions, and wellbeing of workers, including laborers in the informal sector. NGOs also collaborated with provincial governments to provide agricultural workers, brick kiln workers, and other vulnerable workers with national identification so they could connect to the country’s social safety net and access the benefits of citizenship (such as voting, health care, and education).

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, cancels all existing bonded labor debts, forbids lawsuits for the recovery of such debts, and establishes a district “vigilance committee” system to implement the law. Federal and provincial acts, however, prohibit employees from leaving their employment without the consent of the employer, since doing so would subject them to penalties of imprisonment that could involve compulsory labor.

The law defines trafficking in persons as recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining another person (or attempting to do so) through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of compelled labor or commercial sex. The penalty for conviction of trafficking in persons is sufficient to deter violations. With regard to sex trafficking, however, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, these penalties were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. Lack of political will, the reported complicity of officials in labor trafficking, as well as federal and local government structural changes, contributed to the failure of authorities to enforce federal law relating to forced labor. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate.

The use of forced and bonded labor was widespread and common in several industries across the country. NGOs estimated that nearly two million persons were in bondage, primarily in Sindh and Punjab, but also in Balochistan and KP. A large proportion of bonded laborers were low-caste Hindus as well as Christians and Muslims with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Bonded labor was reportedly present in the agricultural sector, including the cotton, sugarcane, and wheat industries, and in the brick, coal, and carpet industries. Bonded laborers often were unable to determine when their debts were paid in full, in part, because contracts were rare, and employers could take advantage of bonded laborers’ illiteracy to alter debt amounts or the price laborers paid for goods they acquired from their employers. In some cases landowners restricted laborers’ movements with armed guards or sold laborers to other employers for the price of the laborers’ debts.

Ties among landowners, industry owners, and influential politicians hampered effective elimination of the problem. For example, some local police did not pursue landowners or brick kiln owners effectively because they believed higher-ranking police, pressured by politicians or the owners themselves, would not support their efforts to carry out legal investigations. Some bonded laborers returned to their former status after authorities freed them, due to a lack of alternative employment options. In Sindh the landmark Bonded Labor Act of 2015 has no accompanying civil procedure to implement the law. Of the 27 district vigilance committees charged with overseeing bonded labor practices, only seven had held meetings as of July.

Boys and girls were bought, sold, rented, or kidnapped to work in illegal begging rings, as domestic servants, or as bonded laborers in agriculture and brickmaking (see section 7.c.). Illegal labor agents charged high fees to parents with false promises of decent work for their children and later exploited them by subjecting the children to forced labor in domestic servitude, unskilled labor, small shops, and other sectors.

The government of Punjab funded the Elimination of Child Labor and Bonded Labor Project, under which the Punjab Department of Labor worked to combat child and bonded labor in brick kilns. They did this by helping workers obtain national identity cards and interest free loans and providing schools at brick kiln sites. On March 29, the Lahore High Court ordered the labor secretary to enact measures to pay the school fees of children working in brick kilns. On July 1, the Punjab government issued a notification that set brick kiln laborers’ wages, as well as conditions of overtime work and paid holidays. The KP, Punjab, and Sindh ministries of labor reportedly worked to register brick kilns and their workers in order to regulate the industry more effectively and provide workers access to labor courts and other services.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/ and the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The constitution expressly prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14 in any factory, mine, or other hazardous site. The national law for the employment of children sets the minimum age for hazardous work at 15, which does not comply with international standards. Provincial laws in KP, Punjab, and Sindh set the minimum age for hazardous work at 18 or 19, meeting international standards. In May the Punjab government announced the first phase of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019, which prohibits hiring a child younger than 15 as a domestic worker. Despite these restrictions, there were nationwide reports of children working in areas the law defined as hazardous, such as leather manufacturing, brick making, and deep-sea fishing.

By law the minimum age for nonhazardous work is 15, but the law does not extend the minimum age limit to informal employment. The law limits the workday to seven hours for children, including a one-hour break after three hours of labor, and sets permissible times of day for work and time off. The law does not allow children to work overtime or at night, and it specifies they should receive one day off per week. Additionally, the law requires employers to keep a register of child workers for labor inspection purposes. These national prohibitions and regulations do not apply to home-based businesses or brickmaking.

Federal law prohibits the exploitation of children younger than 18 and defines exploitative entertainment as all activities related to human sports or sexual practices and other abusive practices. Parents who exploit their children are legally liable.

Child labor remained pervasive, with many children working in agriculture and domestic work. There were also reports that small workshops employed a large number of child laborers, which complicated efforts to enforce child labor laws. Poor rural families sometimes sold their children into domestic servitude or other types of work, or they paid agents to arrange for such work, often believing their children would work under decent conditions. Some children sent to work for relatives or acquaintances in exchange for education or other opportunities ended in exploitative conditions or forced labor. Children also were kidnapped or sold into organized begging rings, domestic servitude, militant groups and gangs, and child sex trafficking.

Coordination of responses to child labor problems at the national level remained ineffective. Labor inspection was the purview of provincial rather than national government, which contributed to uneven application of labor law. Enforcement efforts were not adequate to meet the scale of the problem. Inspectors had little training and insufficient resources and were susceptible to corruption. Authorities registered hundreds of child labor law violations, but they often did not impose penalties on violators; when they did, the penalties were not a significant deterrent. Authorities generally allowed NGOs to perform inspections without interference.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

While regulations prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status, the government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on these factors persisted.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The 2010 passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution dissolved the federal Ministry of Labor and Manpower, resulting in the devolution of labor issues to the provinces. Some labor groups, international organizations, and NGOs remained critical of the devolution, contending that certain labor issues–including minimum wages, worker rights, national labor standards, and observance of international labor conventions–should remain within the purview of the federal government. Observers also raised concerns regarding the provinces’ varying capacity and commitment to adopt and enforce labor laws. Some international organizations, however, observed that giving authority to provincial authorities led to improvements in labor practices, including inspections, in some provinces.

The minimum wage as set by the government exceeds its definition of the poverty line income for an individual, which is 9,300 Pakistani Rupees ($60) per month. The minimum wage is 15,000 ($96) Rupees per month. The minimum wage was greater than the World Bank’s estimate for poverty level income. Authorities increased the minimum wage in the annual budget, and both federal and provincial governments issued notifications for such increases to go into effect. Minimum wage laws did not cover significant sectors of the labor force, including workers in the informal sector, domestic servants, and agricultural workers; and enforcement of minimum wage laws was uneven.

The law provides for a maximum workweek of 48 hours (54 hours for seasonal factories) with rest periods during the workday and paid annual holidays. The labor code also requires time off on official government holidays, overtime pay, annual and sick leave, health care, education for workers’ children, social security, old-age benefits, and a workers’ welfare fund. Many workers, however, were employed as contract laborers with no benefits beyond basic wages and no long-term job security, even if they remained with the same employer for many years. Furthermore, these national regulations do not apply to agricultural workers, workers in establishments with fewer than 10 employees, or domestic workers. Workers in these types of employment also lack the right to access labor courts to seek redress of grievances and were extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The industry-specific nature of many labor laws and the lack of government enforcement gave employers in many sectors relative impunity with regard to working conditions, treatment of employees, work hours, and pay.

Provincial governments have primary responsibility for enforcing national labor regulations. Enforcement was ineffective due to limited resources, corruption, and inadequate regulatory structures. The number of labor inspectors employed by the provincial governments is insufficient for the approximately 64-million-person workforce. Many workers, especially in the informal sector, remained unaware of their rights. Due to limited resources for labor inspections and corruption, inspections and penalties were insufficient to deter violations of labor laws.

In September the government of Punjab Province exempted factories in the province from labor law inspections. Punjab has approximately two thirds of the country’s textile factories.

In December the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Bill, which recognized rights of women who work in farming, livestock, and fisheries. The law provides for minimum wages, sick and maternity leave, set working hours, written work contracts, the right to unionize, and access to social security and credit, among other protections.

The provincial government of Sindh Province enacted a comprehensive occupational health and safety law in 2017, but it had not been implemented by year’s end. Similar legislation is absent in other provinces. In September the Punjab government enacted the Medical Teaching Institute (Reform) Ordinance, which amended several existing pieces of healthcare legislation and instituted boards of governors composed of private sector professionals for state run teaching hospitals.

Nationwide, health and safety standards were poor in multiple sectors. The country’s failure to meet international health and safety standards raised doubts abroad as to its reliability as a source for imports. There was a serious lack of adherence to mine safety and health protocols. Many mines had only one opening for entry, egress, and ventilation. Workers could not remove themselves from dangerous working conditions without risking loss of employment. Informal sector employees, such as domestic and home-based workers, were particularly vulnerable to health and safety issues. There were no statistics on workplace fatalities and accidents during the year. Factory managers were often unable to ascertain the identity of fire or other work-related accident victims because these individuals were contract workers and generally did not appear in records.

On March 9, six workers died when a construction lift buckled, causing the work crew to fall from the 13th floor of a 23-story building under construction in Karachi. According to reports, the lift and trolley did not comply with workplace standards. Labor rights activists observed that workers often have to work in dangerous conditions and the private sector construction companies failed to provide workers with health and safety facilities. On July 14, nine coal miners died in the collapse of a coalmine triggered by an electrical fire, with only one worker rescued two days after the incident. According to news reports, 164 miners died in Balochistan’s mines in 2018.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president on November 16. Accredited domestic and international observers described the election as peaceful and technically well managed but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Following the results of the presidential election, the prime minister and cabinet peacefully resigned, and a new cabinet was sworn in on November 22. The timeline for parliamentary elections in 2020 was pending at year’s end.

The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Defense. The military, also under the Ministry of Defense, may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The nearly 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the Inspector General of Police, coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces.

On April 21, suicide bombs killed 258 individuals. The attacks were the responsibility of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), members of which had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The following day the government declared an emergency under the Public Security Ordinance, deployed the armed forces domestically, and gave them arrest authority. During the emergency the government banned three Islamist organizations: the NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The three Islamist groups remained banned after the emergency expired on August 22. President Maithripala Sirisena subsequently ordered the military to remain deployed across the country after the expiration of the emergency, although no longer with arrest authority. President Rajapaksa in turn extended the order on November 22.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by the government; torture by government agents; sexual abuse; arbitrary detention by government entities; restrictions on freedom of expression, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors, and limited social media blocking; widespread corruption; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.

Often police reportedly harassed civilians, often with impunity, although the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses. The government did not implement a mechanism to hold accountable military and security personnel accused of atrocities during the 1983 to 2009 civil war as called for in 2015 by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. According to UN and civil society reports, intelligence operatives conducted domestic surveillance operations and harassed or intimidated members of civil society. During the emergency, following the April 21 attacks, the government banned face coverings such as the burqa, niqab, and full-face helmets, citing national security and public safety concerns. The ban on face coverings was briefly lifted when the emergency regulation lapsed; however, in late August, the cabinet passed legislation permanently banning the burqa, the niqab, and similar face coverings, after consultation with the Muslim community.

Freedom of Expression: Authorities restricted hate speech, including insult to religion or religious beliefs through the police ordinance and penal code. The government requested media stations and outlets to refrain from featuring hate speech in their news items and segments.

In April Kurunegala police arrested Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, under the ICCPR law. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly dealt with homosexuality and child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of the country’s Buddhist clergy. He was released on bail in August after being remanded for four months. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. At his criminal hearing on December 10, the court granted the government’s request for a continuance in the case until May 2020. His fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest was continued until June 2020.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Journalists in the Tamil-majority North and East, however, reported harassment, intimidation, and interference from the security sector when reporting on sensitive issues related to the civil war or its aftermath. They reported the military contacted them to request copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources from articles. They also reported the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war memorials or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.

In May, after communal violence following the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, the HRCSL issued guidelines that called for all electronic media institutions to exercise sensitivity when broadcasting news due to concerns over the Muslim community being unreasonably subject to unsubstantiated suspicion and disrespect.

On September 9, then president Sirisena brought the state television Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. The Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement strongly condemned the decision. Two fundamental rights petitions, one filed by a civil society activist and one filed by a member of parliament, were pending before the Supreme Court.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues.

On April 20, police arrested and released on bail Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a correspondent of the English-language online newspaper the Tamil Guardian, following a complaint filed by the navy stating the journalist, who was covering a disappearances protest, assaulted and caused injury to a navy officer attached to the ‘Gotabaya’ Camp in Mullaitivu. Charges reportedly were that he had threatened and photographed protesters at an earlier disappearances rally.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a June statement, expressed alarm over a resurgence in police attacks on Tamil journalists and urged authorities to ensure that police cease the harassment of reporters. On May 27, Tamil daily Virakesari journalist Kanapathipillai Kumanan, who was covering a dispute between Hindu and Buddhist temples, was physically assaulted and verbally abused by the officer in charge of the Kokkilai police station. According to RSF, the May 27 violence against the reporter was the third reported attack on a journalist of Tamil origin during the year.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. These journalists said they had received direct calls from supporters of the government asking them to refrain from reporting anything that reflected negatively on the ruling party or opposition politicians.

There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government placed limited restrictions on websites it deemed pornographic. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, the government imposed a temporary ban on several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The nine-day ban on social media was briefly reimposed May 13 after anti-Muslim riots.

State university officials allegedly attempted to prevent professors and university students from criticizing government officials. The government interfered with university appointments and credentialing of individuals based on legal activities and political expression.

On November 9, the Jaffna University leadership endorsed the September 27 decision of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka (UGC) to debar K. Guruparan, the head of the Department of Law, from legal practice. Leaked letters from the Ministry of Defense to the UGC showed that Guruparan was debarred for pursuing habeas corpus cases filed in 2017 by three families regarding the disappearance of 26 youths in Jaffna allegedly involving the military. Plainclothes military intelligence personnel travelling with Attorney General Department representatives threatened the lawyers and families outside of the court.

In May the UGC removed the university’s vice chancellor, Jaffna Ratnam Wigneswaran, without cause or an inquiry. An affidavit in response to a fundamental rights petition filed by the chairman of the UGC at the Supreme Court showed that the removal was due to a complaint from the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the Army regarding Wigneswaran’s participation in an event called Thamil Amutham, where a reconstructed memorial monument carrying Tamil nationalist proclamations was unveiled within the university premises.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in a limited number of cases.

At the conclusion of his visit to the country in July, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule observed that authorities applied laws in discriminatory ways, with Tamil protests and gatherings in the North and East disproportionately facing crackdowns. Although he noted that the country had a comprehensive legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, it was “scattered in different sets of laws and regulations which seem to be interchangeably enforced.”

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution stipulates that the freedom of assembly may be restricted in the interest of religious harmony, national security, public order, or the protection of public health or morality. It also may be restricted in the interest of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or in the interest of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. Under Police Ordinance Article 77(1), protesters must seek permission from the local police before holding a protest. The emergency regulations in force from April 22 to August 23, following the Easter Sunday attacks, granted the security services extensive powers to detain and question suspects without court orders for up to 90 days. Under the emergency, the government instituted nighttime curfews and curtailed freedom of movement, and it permitted the president to ban public assembly.

The law provides for freedom of association but criminalizes association with or membership in banned organizations. Christian groups and churches reported that some authorities classified worship activities as “unauthorized gatherings” and pressured them to end these activities. According to the groups, authorities sometimes justified their actions, stating the groups were not registered with the government, although no law or regulation specifically requires such registration.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

The country’s civil war, which ended in 2009, caused widespread, prolonged displacement, including forced displacement by the government and the LTTE, particularly of Tamil civilians. According to the Ministry of National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development and Youth Affairs, 25,889 citizens remained IDPs as of August 31. The large majority resided in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, and Batticaloa Districts in the North and East. While all IDPs had full freedom of movement, most were unable to return home due to: land mines; restrictions designating their home areas as part of HSZs; lack of work opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; and lack of government resolution of competing land ownership claims; and other war-related reasons. The government did not provide protection and assistance to these IDPs in welfare camps.

The government promoted the return and resettlement of IDPs by returning approximately 8,000 acres of military-seized land since 2015 and making additional state land available for landless IDPs. The military and other government agencies supported the resettlement of IDPs by constructing houses, schools, toilets, and providing other social services on newly released lands.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, and asylum seekers.

After the April 21 attacks, more than 1,600 Muslim and Christian refugees were forced to leave their homes in the wake of retaliatory attacks and seek protection in three welfare centers in Negombo and Pasyala. Local community members threatened to destroy the houses of Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian refugees. The government, police, and security forces assisted UNHCR to ensure the protection of refugees. In the months following the April 21 attacks, most refugees who were not resettled outside of the country had returned to their rented residences.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. A 2005 Memorandum of Understanding allows UNHCR to operate in the country to conduct refugee registration and status determinations. UNHCR also facilitates durable solutions for refugees, in the form of resettlement to third countries. The government relied on UNHCR to provide food, housing, and education for refugees in the country and to pursue third-country resettlement for them. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, had to rely on the support of NGOs for basic needs.

Access to Basic Services: The law does not permit refugees and asylum seekers to work or enroll in the government school system, but many worked informally. Refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR have access to free health care in state hospitals.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: Domestic and international observers concurred that the 2019 presidential election was technically well managed, with few reports of violence. Observers pointed out, however, that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Commonwealth observers commended the country on a largely peaceful, credible, and orderly election, but they expressed concern that some groups experienced fear and intimidation. Both local and international observers reported several dozen incidents of postelection violence, particularly targeting minority groups.

Political Parties and Political Participation: According to foreign election observers, although the election was free and fair, media institutions were biased towards the two leading candidates, and political parties used social media platforms to spread disinformation and hate speech. The EU election observation mission’s preliminary findings stated: “The presidential election was largely free of violence and technically well-managed, but unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources and media bias affected the level playing field.” According to the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), more than 1.2 million migrant workers were not able to exercise their franchise due to the requirement that they return to their home voting districts to vote. ANFREL reported accessibility challenges to 1.3 million persons with disability, especially wheelchair-bound and elderly voters at polling centers.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The HRCSL wrote to the election commission on November 8 raising concerns over the disenfranchisement of 8,000 bhikkhunis (female Buddhist priests) due to procedural issues preventing the issuance of national identity cards to them. The HRCSL noted that the Department of Registration of Persons does not recognize bhikkhuni as a profession for the purpose of national identity cards.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: Corruption remained a significant and continuing problem. International companies frequently reported requests for bribes on issues ranging from customs clearances to government procurement. As of November the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption arrested 42 individuals on suspicion of providing and accepting bribes during the course of the year.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all candidates for parliamentary, local government, provincial, and presidential elections to declare their assets and liabilities to the speaker of parliament. Some but not all candidates in parliamentary elections submitted their financial reports to the speaker, but authorities did not enforce compliance. By law members of the public may access records relating to the assets and liabilities of elected officials by paying a fee.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials somewhat were cooperative and responsive to their views.

The United Nations and Other International Bodies: UNHRC continued to have a country-specific resolution related to addressing justice, accountability, and reconciliation in the country. In March UNHRC adopted a resolution granting two additional years to the country to fulfil its commitments to reconciliation and transitional justice.

At the 42nd session of UNHRC in September, the core group expressed concern that the country had made “slow” progress on accountability, calling on UNHRC and the international community “to give the necessary attention and support to Sri Lanka.” Despite the country’s cosponsorship of the 2015, 2017, and 2019 resolutions, senior government officials continued to make public statements attacking the UN process and asserting they would not take any steps to hold “war heroes” accountable, despite their commitment to initiate a criminal justice process, with international participation, to address war-time abuses.

On September 25, the UN Department of Peace Operations banned deployment of nonessential Sri Lankan army troops in UN peacekeeping missions in response to the appointment of Shavendra Silva as army commander. The United Nations also decided to repatriate Sri Lankan Army units and individual officers serving with peacekeeping missions beginning in October. It suspended future Sri Lankan army deployments except where suspension would expose UN operations to serious operational risk. Nonetheless, on November 13, a new contingent of 243 army personnel of the Combat Convoy Company were deployed to Mali to serve in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCSL has jurisdiction to investigate human rights violations. The HRCSL consists of five commissioners and has divisions for investigations, education, monitoring and review, and administration and finance. There are 10 regional offices across the country. The HRCSL accepts complaints from the public and may also self-initiate investigations. After an allegation is proven to the satisfaction of the commission, the HRCSL may recommend financial compensation for victims, refer the case for administrative disciplinary action or to the attorney general for prosecution, or both. If the government does not follow an HRCSL request for evidence, the HRCSL may summon witnesses from the government to explain its action. If the HRCSL finds the government has not complied with its request, the HRCSL may refer the case to the High Court for prosecution for contempt by the Attorney General’s Department, an offense punishable by imprisonment or fine. By statute the HRCSL has wide powers and resources and may not be called as a witness in any court of law or be sued for matters relating to its official duties. The HRCSL generally operated independent of and with lack of interference from the government.

The HRCSL was also responsible for vetting of the country’s peacekeepers. The memorandum of understanding between the United Nations, HRCSL, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Law and Order for the vetting of military and police participants in peacekeeping operations was finalized in December 2018. As of August 2019, the vetting process was carried out by the HRCSL.

In April the government appointed five commissioners to the Office for Reparations, an independent authority created by the Office for Reparations Act passed in October 2018. The office is mandated to identify aggrieved victims qualified for reparations and provide appropriate compensation individually or collectively.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape and domestic violence, but enforcement of the law was inconsistent. Section 363 of the penal code does not explicitly criminalize rape of men. Section 365 B (1), which is gender neutral, criminalizes “grave sexual abuse.” The prescribed penalties for rape are seven to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of at least 200,000 Rs ($1,160). For domestic violence, a victim can obtain a protection order for one year and request a maintenance allowance. The law prohibits spousal rape only if the spouses are legally separated.

Women’s organizations reported police and judiciary responses to rape and domestic violence incidents and cases were inadequate. The police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children conducted awareness programs in schools and at the grassroots level to encourage women to file complaints. Police continued to establish women’s units in police stations. Services to assist survivors of rape and domestic violence, such as crisis centers, legal aid, and counseling, were generally scarce nationwide due to a lack of funding.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): Some of the country’s Muslims historically practiced FGM/C, but it was not a part of public discourse until recent years when media articles drew attention to the practice. There were no statistics on the current prevalence of FGM/C in the country, which does not have laws against FGM/C. In May 2018 the director general of health services from the Ministry of Health issued a circular prohibiting medical practitioners from carrying out FGM, but FGM/C itself is not criminalized. Several civil society groups led mostly by Muslim women continued to campaign against FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sexual harassment was common and was a particularly widespread problem in public transport.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no credible reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women have equal rights to men under civil and criminal law. Adjudication of questions related to family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, varied according to the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, resulting in discrimination.

Birth Registration: Children obtain citizenship from their parents.

Child Abuse: According to reports and evidence from fundamental rights applications and complaints filed with police during the year, school authorities frequently violate government regulations on banning corporal punishment in schools. There was also growing public concern about the high incidence of violence, including sexual violence, against children in the family and community. Despite successful efforts to reform the penal code, the basic criminal law, and other laws on child abuse, cruelty to children and their exploitation in trafficking, and child labor persisted. Penalties vary based on the type and degree of child abuse, but trials tended to drag on for years.

Most child abuse complaints received by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), usually via a toll free 24-hour hotline, related to violence inflicted on children, and the rest of the complaints addressed related issues such as cruelty to children, deprivation of a child’s right to education, sexual abuse, and child labor. Teachers, school principals, and religious instructors reportedly sexually abused children. In a number of child rape cases, government officials were the suspected perpetrators. Civil society organizations working on children’s issues asserted children had insufficient mechanisms to report domestic violence or abuse safely. Although police stations are supposed to have an officer dedicated to handling abuse complaints from women and children, the government did not consistently implement this practice nationwide. Although the police Children and Women Bureau plays a major role in investigating abuse cases, depending on the severity of the case, some fall under the jurisdiction of the magistrates’ courts as outlined in the criminal procedure code. In these instances police file a formal complaint sheet and begin a judicial medical process. The attorney general files indictments for child abuse cases exclusively in high courts.

The NCPA’s founding chairman, Harendra de Silva, said the organization failed at its core mandate due to increasing politicization in recent years. He stated the thousands of child abuse cases that were pending in courts and other state institutions, including the NCPA, signaled a “trend of corruption.” According to the NCPA, at least 9,000 complaints are filed annually on various forms of abuse, including cruelty to children, sexual harassment, rape, grave sexual abuse, child labor and trafficking. The NCPA began awareness programs during the year, such as Jana Paura or “people’s shield”, to educate the public on child protection and children’s rights. The Attorney General’s Department reported that, from January to July 31, some 3,113 child abuse cases were concluded where 1,881 indictments were served in high courts; advice was sought on 399 cases; and 833 cases were discharged.

On June 12, the Supreme Court ruled that Chief Inspector Waruni Bogahawatta of the Matara police station, an award-winning female police officer, was responsible for a minor girl’s unlawful arrest and deprivation of her liberty. The officer allegedly detained her without justification and subjected her to degrading treatment while she questioned the child in a bid to frame a local politician for rape. The Supreme Court also ordered Bogahawatta to pay approximately 98,600 Rs ($570), and the state to pay approximately 49,300 Rs ($285), as compensation to the victim.

Early and Forced Marriage: Civil law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, although girls may marry at age 16 with parental consent. According to the penal code, sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16 years, with or without her consent, amounts to statutory rape. The provision, however, does not apply to married Muslim girls older than 12. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which applies only to Muslims, permits the marriage of girls as young as 12 at the consent of the bride’s father, other male relative, or a quazi (a judge who interprets and administers Islamic law).

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child prostitution, and practices related to child pornography, but authorities did not always enforce the law. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16.

In June UN-appointed independent rights experts said the scale of the country’s child sex tourism industry has reached such worrying proportions that the authorities should act immediately. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that the scourge was “very widespread,” particularly in the North of the country.

Displaced Children: IDP welfare centers and relocation sites exposed children to the same difficult conditions as adult IDPs and returnees in these areas.

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

The Jewish population is very small. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

Various laws forbid discrimination against any person with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel, other public transportation, and access to health care. In practice, however, discrimination occurred in employment, education, and provision of state services, including public transportation. Children with disabilities attended school at a lower rate than other persons. There were regulations on accessibility, but accommodation for access to buildings and public transportation for persons with disabilities was rare. Observers of the November presidential election noted process improvements were needed to ensure participation of persons with disabilities in future elections.

Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered longstanding, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the North and East, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and former or suspected former LTTE members.

The government had a variety of ministries and presidentially appointed bodies designed to address the social and development needs of the Tamil minority. The government implemented a number of confidence-building measures to address grievances of the Tamil community. The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, established in 2016, continued to coordinate the government’s reconciliation efforts. The office focuses on promoting social integration to build an inclusive society, securing language rights for all citizens, supporting a healing process within war-affected communities via the government’s proposed Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and nonrecurrence of the violence. The Tamil National Alliance and Defense Ministry continued to meet in accordance with a formal dialogue on returning military-held lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces inaugurated in 2017.

On August 29, then president Sirisena, in his capacity as minister of defense, directed officials to estimate the extent of lands under occupation and release them appropriately with the consultation of the security forces and to submit a report before October 1 to the governor of the Northern Province. The submission was pending at year’s end.

On November 16, three buses carrying Muslim voters from Puttalam to Mannar were reportedly stopped in Thanthirimale by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) supporters. The SLPP supporters burned tires and threw rocks, eventually hitting one of the buses and breaking a window. At least one shot was reportedly fired, but no one was injured.

In May extremist groups led by Buddhist monks and politicians attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and the Puttalam Districts, resulting in one death and extensive property damage. In Negombo and Chilaw, police initially were slow to respond or stop perpetrators from damaging Muslim buildings and assaulting Muslim individuals resulting in the death of a Muslim citizen and damage to Muslim-owned businesses. Buddhist monks also used hate speech on social media in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks; a chief prelate of the Asgiriya chapter stated, “Don’t eat or drink from Muslim shops. Traitors who have destroyed this country shouldn’t be allowed to live in peace”.

The country’s indigenous people, known as Veddas, reportedly numbered fewer than 1,000. Some preferred to maintain their traditional way of life, and the law generally protected them. They freely participated in political and economic life without legal restrictions, but some did not have legal documents.

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Those convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity in private or in public face 10 years’ imprisonment. Although prosecutions were rare, human rights organizations reported police used the threat of arrest to assault, harass, and sexually and monetarily extort LGBTI individuals. Antidiscrimination laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Transgender persons continued to face societal discrimination, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination accessing employment, housing, and health care.

Persons who provided HIV prevention services and groups at high risk of infection reportedly suffered discrimination. In addition, hospital officials reportedly publicized the HIV-positive status of their patients and occasionally refused to provide health care to HIV-positive persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice. Exceptions include members of the armed forces, police officers, judicial officers, and prison officers. Workers in nonessential services industries, except for workers in public-service unions, have the legal right to bargain collectively. The law does not explicitly recognize the right to strike, but courts have recognized an implied right to strike based on the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Disputes Act. Nonunion worker councils tended to represent labor in export processing zone (EPZ) enterprises, although several unions operated in the zones. According to the Board of Investment, which operates the EPZs, if both a recognized trade union with bargaining power and a nonunion worker council exist in an enterprise, the trade union would have the power to represent the employees in collective bargaining.

Under Emergency Regulations of the Public Security Ordinance, the president has broad discretion to declare sectors “essential” to national security, the life of the community, or the preservation of public order and to revoke those workers’ rights to conduct legal strikes. In addition to the Public Security Ordinance, the Essential Public Services Act of 1979 allows the president to declare services provided by government agencies as “essential” public services. In 2018 and also during the year, the government used the essential public-services act to declare the Sri Lankan Railway and petroleum sector as essential sectors in attempts to force striking union members back to work.

The law prohibits retribution against striking workers in nonessential sectors. Seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views, but a union must represent 40 percent of workers at a given enterprise before the law obligates the employer to bargain with the union. The law does not permit public-sector unions to form federations or represent workers from more than one branch or department of government. The Labor Ministry may cancel a union’s registration if it fails to submit an annual report for three years.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Labor laws do not cover domestic workers employed in the homes of others or informal-sector workers.

The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, but the government enforced the law unevenly. Violations for antiunion discrimination may result in a fine of 100,000 Rs ($578). The law requires an employer found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities, but it may transfer them to different locations. In general these penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Only the Labor Ministry has legal standing to pursue an unfair labor practice case, including for antiunion discrimination.

Since 1999 the Labor Ministry has filed 14 cases against companies for unfair labor practices under the Industrial Disputes Act. The ministry did not file any new unfair labor practices cases during the year. The courts issued rulings on four cases and continued to try the other five; three cases have not been filed due to inadequate evidence. Citing routine government inaction on alleged violations of labor rights, some unions pressed for standing to sue, while some smaller unions did not want that ability because of the cost of filing cases. Workers brought some labor violations to court under the Termination of Employment and Workmen Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act. Lengthy delays hindered judicial procedures. The Industrial Dispute Act does not apply to the public sector, and public-sector unions had no formal dispute resolution mechanism.

The government generally respected the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Public-sector unions staged numerous work stoppages on a number of issues, ranging from government moves to privatize state-owned enterprises to wage issues.

While some unions in the public sector were politically independent, most large unions affiliated with political parties and played a prominent role in the political process.

Unions alleged that employers often indefinitely delayed recognition of unions to avoid collective bargaining, decrease support for unionization, or identify, terminate, and sometimes assault or threaten union activists. The Ministry of Labor requires labor commissioners to hold union certification elections within 30 working days of an application for registration if there was no objection or within 45 working days if there was an objection. The commissioner general of labor held five union certification elections in 2017. No union certification elections were held in 2018 and from January to September 2019.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced and compulsory labor, but penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the laws due to inadequate resources, inspections, and remediation efforts, as well as a lack of identification of forced labor cases. Labor Ministry inspections did not extend to domestic workers. The government sporadically prosecuted labor agents who fraudulently recruited migrant workers yet appeared to sustain its monthly meetings to improve interministerial coordination.

Children between the ages of 14 and 18 and women working as live-in domestic workers in some homes were vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 14, although the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited family agricultural work or technical training. The government increased the compulsory age of education from 14 years to 16 years in 2016. The law prohibits hazardous work for persons younger than 18. The law limits the working hours of children ages 14 and 15 to nine hours per day and of ages 16 and 17 to 10 hours per day. The government estimated less than 1 percent of children–approximately 40,000–were working, although employment was often in hazardous occupations. The government currently classifies 51 activities as hazardous.

The government did not effectively enforce all laws, and existing penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

The Labor Ministry made some progress in implementing its plan to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The government appointed district coordinators with responsibility of reducing child labor in all 25 districts and provided new guidelines for district officials. The Department of Labor continued its efforts to monitor workplaces on the list of hazardous work for children.

According to the Child Activity Survey of 2016 published in February, children worked in the construction, manufacturing, mining, and fishing industries and as cleaners and helpers, domestic workers, and street vendors. Children also worked in agriculture during harvest periods. Children displaced by the war were especially vulnerable to employment in hazardous labor.

The list of hazardous work prohibited for children younger than 18 does not include domestic labor. This left children employed as child domestic workers vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Family enterprises, such as family farms, crafts, small trade establishments, restaurants, and repair shops, commonly employed children. Criminals reportedly exploited children, especially boys, for prostitution in coastal areas catering to sex tourists (see section 6, Children).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination, including with respect to employment and occupation, on the basis of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth. The law does not prohibit employment or occupational discrimination on the basis of color, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, HIV-positive status, or status with regard to other communicable diseases. The government has proposed reforms to existing labor legislation that would more explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender and other categories. Women have a wide range of workforce restrictions, including caps on overtime work and limits on nighttime shifts.

The government did not always effectively enforce these laws, and discrimination based on the above categories occurred with respect to employment and occupation. For example, some employers specified particular positions as requiring male or female applicants, and women often earned less than men for equal work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The parliament passed its first-ever national minimum wage law in 2015 and the government issued a Gazette notice on October 18, increasing the minimum monthly wage for private-sector workers by 25 percent. The changes increase the minimum wage increase from Rs 10,000 ($54.90 per month or $1.83 per day) to Rs 12,500 ($68.30 per month or $2.27 per day). The Department of Labor’s 44 wage boards continued to set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry in consultation with unions and employers. On September 24, the Cabinet of Ministers approved salary increases for all government employees effective January 1, 2020. The minimum private-sector and public-sector wages are well above the government’s official poverty line, which was Rs 4,166 ($22.98) in 2016.

The law prohibits most full-time workers from regularly working more than 45 hours per week (a five-and-a-half-day workweek). In addition, the law stipulates a rest period of one hour per day. Regulations limit the maximum overtime hours to 15 per week. Overtime pay is 1.5 times the basic wage and is paid for work beyond 45 hours per week and work on Sundays or holidays. The provision limiting basic work hours is not applicable to managers and executives in public institutions. The law provides for paid annual holidays.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations, but many workers had no knowledge of such rights or feared that they would lose their jobs if they did so.

Authorities did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. The Labor Ministry’s resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were insufficient. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the country’s workforce. Occupational health and safety standards in the rapidly growing construction sector, including on infrastructure development projects, such as port, airport, and road construction, as well as high-rise buildings, were insufficient. Employers, particularly those in the construction industry, increasingly used contract employment for work of a regular nature, and contract workers had fewer safeguards.

Labor Ministry inspectors verified whether employers fully paid employees and contributed to pension funds as required by law. Unions questioned, however, whether the ministry’s inspections were effective. The Labor Department used a computerized Labor Information System Application designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of inspections, but officials and trade unions noted concerns that the system was not well maintained.

Enforcement of labor laws and basic work conditions was also insufficient. Under the Shop and Office Act, the penalties for violating hours of work laws are a fine of 500 Rs ($2.89), six months’ imprisonment, or both. The law charges a fine of 50 Rs ($0.29) per day if the offense continues after conviction. These penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspectors did not monitor wages or working conditions or provide programs or social protections for informal sector workers. In September amendments to the factories ordinance and the wages board ordinance increased fines for nonpayment of salaries to workers under the purview of the wages board between Rs.5,000 ($27) to Rs.10,000 ($55), along with an imprisonment not exceeding one year.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

Tajikistan is an authoritarian state dominated politically by President Emomali Rahmon and his supporters. The constitution provides for a multiparty political system, but the government has historically obstructed political pluralism and continued to do so during the year. Constitutional amendments approved in a 2016 national referendum outlawed nonsecular political parties and removed any limitation on President Rahmon’s terms in office, allowing him to further solidify his rule. The most recent national elections were the 2015 parliamentary elections, which lacked pluralism and genuine choice, according to international observers, many of whom called the process deeply flawed. The most recent presidential election, which took place in 2013, also lacked pluralism and genuine choice, and did not meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Drug Control Agency, Agency on State Financial Control and the Fight against Corruption (Anticorruption Agency), State Committee for National Security (GKNB), State Tax Committee, and Customs Service share civilian law enforcement responsibilities. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is primarily responsible for public order and manages the police. The Drug Control Agency, Anticorruption Agency, and State Tax Committee have mandates to investigate specific crimes and report to the president. The GKNB is responsible for intelligence gathering, controls the Border Service, and investigates cases linked to alleged extremist political or religious activity, trafficking in persons, and politically sensitive cases. The Customs Service reports directly to the president. Agency responsibilities overlap significantly, and law enforcement organizations defer to the GKNB. Civilian authorities only partially maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by prison authorities; forced disappearance by the government in collusion with foreign governments; torture and abuse of detainees by security forces; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; censorship, blocking of internet sites, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including through the prevention of genuine, free, or fair elections; significant acts of corruption and nepotism; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and forced labor.

There were very few prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses. Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.

Freedom of Expression: The authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets. By law a person may be imprisoned for as long as five years for insulting the president.

In 2016 the Parliament amended Article 137 of the Criminal Code, originally passed in 2007 which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment, Article 137(1), also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.

In December 2018 authorities established a recommended list of 70 topics that state-run television stations were encouraged to analyze and criticize. The recommendations followed President Rahmon’s call in October 2018 for journalists to write more articles about problems facing society. According to media reports, the recommended topics for discussion included construction, education, water problems, garbage collection, factory malfunctioning, bad roads, obesity, extremism and radicalism in society, and land disputes, among others.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats on media outlets. Although some print media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding the banned IRPT.

Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”

On June 26, the Foreign Ministry denied video journalist Barotali Nazarov’s press accreditation during a meeting in Dushanbe between the Foreign Ministry and Nazarov’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service (Radio Ozodi). According to a statement from the news outlet, security services ordered the journalist’s credential temporarily revoked after Nazarov published stories mentioning the banned opposition party IRPT. In addition six employees of Radio Ozodi have been unable to renew their accreditation through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the year, a factor that effectively barred these individuals from working as journalists in the country. Three other accreditations for newly hired Ozodi journalists were pending, and the credentials of two other journalists expired on November 1, leaving Radio Ozodi with insufficient staff to continue functioning at its current level. In a July 3 press statement, the Foreign Ministry stated its analysis of Radio Ozodi content showed that instead of reporting important news, the broadcaster was instead engaging in the publication of “sensational and inaccurate information.” The statement also accused Radio Ozodi of acting as a “propaganda wing” for banned opposition groups such as the IRPT and the banned opposition movement Group 24. As of November 21, the Foreign Ministry had partially renewed accreditation for seven Radio Ozodi journalists, leaving 11 unaccredited.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Although the government decriminalized libel in 2012, state officials regularly filed defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing stories critical of the government.

On January 11, the Khujand city court sentenced in absentia independent journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov, who resides outside of the country, to eight months in prison for “nonexecution of a previous court ruling” and unauthorized travel, after Mirsaidov left his place of residence without notifying the court. Mirsaidov told media he was forced to leave the country because he could not find a job to pay the fines and court-ordered restitution fees. Mirsaidov was sentenced in June 2018 to 12 years in a high-security penal colony, after the Khujand city court found him guilty of “embezzlement of public funds,” “forgery of documents,” and “dissemination of false information.” Following an appeal, the court in August 2018 released Mirsaidov and reduced the charges after he spent more than eight months incarcerated.

In June, Humayro Bakhtiyor, a prominent local journalist in self-imposed exile in Europe, wrote on social media that authorities were pressuring her to return to the country. She claimed that if she did not return, her 57-year-old father, Bakhtiyor Muminov, would be arrested. According to Bakhtiyor, police summoned Muminov on June 12 and told him that he had to convince his daughter to return to the country or he would lose his job as a schoolteacher. According to Bakhtiyor, police told her father that “he had no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called upon the authorities to investigate reports of Muminov’s harassment.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.

Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an excessively complex application process. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.

Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail. Nevertheless, libel judgments were common, particularly against newspapers critical of the government.

Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals, and used temporary full blackouts of internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.

There were sporadic government restrictions on access to internet websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Google services, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Asia-Plus although some of the restrictions were lifted during the year. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.

In 2017 the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, passed a law giving law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet. According to the new law, the security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In June 2018 the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of the parliament adopted amendments to the Criminal Code, making those who use the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics subject to up to 15 years in jail. Members of Parliament amended Article 179 that provides, “Public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes and (or) publicly justifying terrorist activities,” adding “via the internet” to the second part of this article.

The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.

Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months imprisonment. In addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing. In February librarian Malika Sanginova sued the Medical University of Tajikistan for dismissing her for wearing a headscarf. The university alleged she was fired for being rude to students and other issues.

A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than age 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.

The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.

The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. The ministry issued an amendment to the regulation this year which requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil Society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement as it allegedly violates the provisions of Articles 8, 10, 16 and 21 of the Law of Tajikistan “On Personal Data,” but the ministry has not yet responded.

There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.

The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.

On April 22, according to media reports, police forcibly confiscated signed petitions from more than 200 opponents of a proposed price hike for mobile internet usage.

The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities. In January President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs), which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and potentially imposes burdensome reporting requirements, according to civil society sources.

The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, nonsecular political parties became illegal.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to Article 14 of the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.

The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.

In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.

Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country without arbitrary restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The government in some cases forced asylum seekers or refugees to return to countries where they may face persecution or torture. There were eight refugee families (32 persons total) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation for alleged violation of Resolution 325, a law that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. The cases of revoked status exhausted all available local judicial remedies and were under appeal in regional court with the support of UNHCR. In July media reported that authorities transferred to Kabul 80 Afghanistan citizens who were serving their sentences in local prisons. These were mainly drug smugglers and violators of the state border of the country. Among those transferred to Kabul was a UNHCR “mandate refugee” who was serving his sentence after being convicted of theft.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum and granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nevertheless, the process for making refugee status determinations lacked transparency, and administrative and judicial procedures did not comply with international standards. Although not required by law, government officials required refugees and asylum seekers to obtain a visa and a valid travel document before entering the country. Government officials without due process detained and deported individuals not in possession of a visa.

The government processed asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and granted applicants documents to regularize their stay and prevent deportation. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications. In some instances, when denying claimants asylum status, officials cited, in broad terms, a lack of evidence of persecution in the refugee’s home country or “malpractice” on the part of refugees applying to renew their status, such as violation of the prohibition of living in big cities, including Dushanbe.

The government continued to place significant restrictions on claimants, and officials continued to enforce a law decreed in 2000 prohibiting asylum seekers and refugees from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.

During the year the government brought an increased number of administrative cases against refugees and asylum seekers due to a regulation that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In many cases prosecutions to enforce this regulation–codified in Government Resolution 325–were carried out retroactively and due to the city of Dushanbe’s annexation of land that had previously fallen outside the definition for a major urban area.

Local law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check-in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country has 2,130 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghan.

Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to education and health services alongside local citizens. The Ministry of Education allowed Afghan parents to send their children to local schools without paying fees. UNHCR partners provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to these children. The law provides registered refugees with equal access to law enforcement, health care, and the judicial system, although in practice refugees did not always have equal access. Vulnerable refugee families received assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers face legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.

Durable Solutions: Following the amended Constitutional Law on Nationality adopted in 2015, the government removed provisions for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship.

The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners is 39,031 persons (11,622 men and 27,409 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Soghd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 33,062 persons, both adults and children. Some registered individuals, however, struggled to achieve a durable solution because they lived in remote areas and lacked the financial means to pay for transportation and fees associated with confirming their citizenship. As a result, UNHCR assisted a total of 6,841 individuals residing in remote districts in the three separate pilot areas in covering their legal fees and the administrative costs associated with nationality confirmation.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government restricted this right. The president and his supporters continued to dominate the government while taking steps to eliminate genuine pluralism in the interest of consolidating power. The president’s political party, the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), dominated both houses of parliament. PDPT members held most government positions. The president had broad authority, which he exercised throughout the year, to appoint and dismiss officials.

Recent Elections: The most recent national elections were the 2015 parliamentary elections, which lacked pluralism and genuine choice, according to international observers, many of whom called the process deeply flawed and noted significant shortcomings such as multiple voting and ballot box stuffing. The most recent presidential election, which took place in 2013, also lacked pluralism and genuine choice, and did not meet international standards.

Of 41 amendments approved by referendum in 2016, three were significant changes to the constitution: one institutionalized the title of “Leader of the Nation” upon President Rahmon, removed his term limits, and gave him lifelong immunity from judicial and criminal prosecution. A second amendment lowered the eligible age to run for president from 35 to 30 years, and the third amendment banned all nonsecular political parties.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were seven legal major political parties, including the PDPT. Opposition political parties had moderate popular support and faced high levels of scrutiny from the government. All senior members of President Rahmon’s government were PDPT members. Most members of the country’s 97-seat parliament were members of the PDPT, progovernment parties, or PDPT affiliates.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women were underrepresented in decision-making processes at all levels of political institutions. Female representation in all branches of government was less than 30 percent. There was one female minister but no ministers from minority groups. Cultural practices discouraged participation by women in politics, although the government and political parties made efforts to promote their involvement, such as the 1999 presidential decree that mandated every ministry or government institution have at least one female deputy. Civil society criticized this decree as a barrier to women holding top government positions.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of corruption, nepotism, and regional hiring bias at all levels of government throughout the year.

Corruption: Amendments adopted in 2017 give the state Anticorruption Agency the authority to inspect the financial activities of political parties, international organizations, and local public associations. Previously, the agency had the authority only to check and audit governmental bodies. According to the new requirements, political parties must submit corruption risk assessment reports to the Anticorruption Agency annually. Political parties and in-country political experts raised concerns that empowering the Anticorruption Agency to investigate the activities and budget of political parties would tighten control over their activities.

Corruption in the Education Ministry was systemic. Prospective students reportedly were required to pay thousands of somoni (hundreds of dollars) in bribes to enter the country’s most prestigious universities, and provincial colleges reportedly required several hundred somoni for entrance. Students reportedly often paid additional bribes to receive good examination grades. According to the Anticorruption Agency, there were 85 registered corruption cases in the education sector during the first six months of the year.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Anticorruption Agency, and the Prosecutor General’s Office are responsible for investigating, arresting, and prosecuting suspected corrupt officials. The government acknowledged a problem with corruption and took some steps to combat it, including putting lower-level officials on trial for taking bribes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Anticorruption Agency submit cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office at the conclusion of their investigations. In some instances the agency collaborated with the Prosecutor General’s Office throughout the entire process.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.

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

Domestic human rights groups encountered increased difficulty monitoring and reporting on the general human rights situation. Domestic NGOs and journalists were careful to avoid public criticism of the president or other high-ranking officials and refrained from discussing issues connected to the banned IRPT. Human rights and civil society NGOs faced increasing pressure from the government. Authorities investigated a number of NGOs for alleged registration problems and administrative irregularities.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government facilitated visits to prison facilities by high-ranking officials from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations but continued to deny access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman made little effort to respond to complaints from the public. The ombudsman’s office met with NGOs to discuss specific human rights cases and general human rights problems in the country, but no government action resulted.

The government’s Office for Constitutional Guarantees of Citizens’ Rights continued to investigate and answer citizens’ complaints, but staffing inadequacies and inconsistent cooperation from other governmental institutions hampered the office’s effectiveness.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, which is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. There was no separate statute for spousal rape. Law enforcement officials usually advised women not to file charges but registered cases at the victim’s insistence. Most observers believed the majority of cases were unreported because victims wished to avoid humiliation.

Domestic violence does not have its own statute in the criminal code. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a widespread problem. Women underreported violence against them due to fear of reprisal or inadequate response by police and the judiciary, resulting in virtual impunity for the perpetrators. Authorities wishing to promote traditional gender roles widely dismissed domestic violence as a “family matter.”

The government Committee for Women’s Affairs had limited resources to assist domestic violence victims, but local committee representatives referred women to crisis shelters for assistance.

In 2016 the government adopted official guidelines for the Ministry of Internal Affairs on how to refer and register cases of domestic violence, while not having a particular criminal statute to draw from to do so. Domestic violence incidents were registered under general violence and hooliganism, with a special notation in paperwork indicating a distinction for domestic violence.

Authorities seldom investigated reported cases of domestic violence, and they prosecuted few alleged perpetrators. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is authorized to issue administrative restraining orders, but police often gave only warnings, short-term detentions, or fines for committing “administrative offenses” in cases of domestic violence.

A Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence noted violence against women is “pervasive” and emphasized a failure to investigate reports of domestic violence in rural areas.

Sexual Harassment: No specific statute bans sexual harassment in the workplace. Victims often did not report incidents because of fear of social stigma. Women reporting sexual harassment faced retaliation from their employers as well as scrutiny from their families and communities.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Although the law provides for men and women to receive equal pay for equal work, cultural barriers restricted women’s professional opportunities. The law protects women’s rights in marriage and family matters, but families often pressured female minors to marry against their will. Religious marriages were common substitutes for civil marriages, due to the high marriage registration fees associated with civil marriages and the power afforded men under religious law.

A fatwa promulgated by the Council of Ulema in 2005 continued to prohibit Hanafi Sunni women–constituting the vast majority of the female population–from praying in mosques. Religious ceremonies also made polygyny possible, despite the illegality of the practice. NGOs estimated that up to 10 percent of men practiced polygyny. Many of these polygynous marriages involved underage brides. Unofficial second and third marriages were increasingly common, with neither the wives nor their children having legal standing or rights.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country’s territory or from their parents. There were no reports of birth registration being denied or not provided on a discriminatory basis. The government is required to register all births.

Education: Free and universal public education is compulsory until age 16 or completion of the ninth grade. UNICEF reported school attendance generally was good through the primary grades, but girls faced disadvantages, as parents often give priority in education to their sons whom they regard as future breadwinners.

Child Abuse: The Committee on Women and Family Affairs and regional child rights protection departments are responsible for addressing problems of violence against children.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage of men and women is 18 years. Under exceptional circumstances, which a judge must determine, such as in the case of pregnancy, a couple may also apply to a court to lower the marriageable age to 17. Underage religious marriage was more widespread in rural areas.

The law expressly prohibits forced marriages of girls younger than age 18 or entering into a marriage contract with a girl younger than 18. Early marriage carries a fine or prison sentence of up to six months, while forced marriage is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Because couples may not register a marriage where one of the would-be spouses is younger than age 18, many simply have a local religious leader perform the wedding ceremony. Without a civil registration certificate, the bride has few legal rights. According to the Office of Ombudsman for Human Rights, in 2018 there were 30 recorded cases of illegal marriage of underage persons in the country, with poverty reported as the main cause for early marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. In January the government amended its criminal code to conform with international law; Article 167 now prohibits the buying and selling of children and outlines a provision that requires an exploitation act to qualify as human trafficking. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16 years. According to an NGO working with victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking, there were several cases in which family members or third parties forced children into prostitution in nightclubs and in private homes.

Displaced Children: On April 30, 84 children whose mothers are imprisoned in Iraq for belonging to ISIS were returned to the country, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Media and civil society contacts reported the children were not reintegrated with family members willing to foster them. Instead, government authorities assigned these children, depending on their age and other factors, to government-run boarding schools, orphanages, or sanitariums. Civil society organizations reported that the children had limited or no access to psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, nutritionists, or medical professionals since their return. According to the Ombudsman for Children, not all children will be handed over to relatives at the end of rehabilitation, and the government will study on a case-by-case basis whether the families are capable of taking in the children.

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

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. The small Jewish community had a place of worship and faced no overt pressure from the government or other societal pressures. Emigration to other countries continued.

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

The law on social protection of persons with disabilities applies to individuals having physical or mental disabilities, including sensory and developmental disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and provision of other state services, but public and private institutions generally did not commit resources to implement the law. The law requires government buildings, schools, hospitals, and transportation, including air travel, to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions.

Many children with disabilities were not able to attend school because doctors did not deem them “medically fit.” Children deemed “medically unfit” were segregated into special state-run schools specifically for persons with physical and mental disabilities. Doctors decided which subjects students were capable of studying, and directors of state-run schools could change the requirements for students to pass to the next grade at their discretion.

The government charges the Commission on Fulfillment of International Human Rights, the Society of Invalids, and local and regional governmental structures with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Although the government- maintained group living and medical facilities for persons with disabilities, funding was limited, and facilities were in poor condition.

There were occasional reports that some law enforcement officials harassed those of Afghan nationality and Uzbeks.

While same-sex sexual conduct is legal in the country, and the age of consent is the same as for heterosexual relationships, the law does not provide legal protection against discrimination. Throughout the country there were reports LGBTI individuals faced physical and psychological abuse, harassment, extortion, and exploitation for revealing their LGBTI status to their families. On January 31, the then Ombudsman for Human Rights Zarif Alizoda, announced the country would not implement the recommendations of international organizations on LGBTI rights, because they conflict with local moral values. Earlier, the chief psychiatrist Khurshed Qunghurotov said in a media interview that bisexuality, lesbianism, and homosexuality are all “pathologies of character” and that the LGBTI community is “mentally ill.”

There is no law against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and LGBTI persons were victims of police harassment and faced threats of public beatings by community members. LGBTI representatives claimed law enforcement officials extorted money from LGBTI persons by threatening to tell their employers or families of their activities.

In some cases LGBTI persons were subjected to sex trafficking. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTI community reportedly went unaddressed. LGBTI representatives claimed health-care providers discriminated against and harassed LGBTI persons. LGBTI advocacy and health groups reported harassment from government officials and clergy, to include violent threats, as well as obstruction of their activities by the Ministry of Health.

Government authorities reportedly compiled a registry of hundreds of persons in the LGBTI community as part of a purported drive to promote moral behavior and protect vulnerable groups in society. In 2017 the Interior Ministry and General Prosecutor’s Office drew up the list, which included 319 men and 48 women.

It was difficult for transgender persons to obtain new official documents from the government. The law allows for changing gender in identity papers if a medical organization provides an authorized document. Because a document of this form does not exist, it was difficult for transgender persons to change their legal identity to match their gender. This created internal problems involving any activity requiring government identification, including the acquisition of a passport for international travel.

There was societal discrimination against individuals with HIV/AIDS, and stigma and discrimination were major barriers for persons with HIV to accessing prevention, treatment, and support.

The government offered HIV testing free of charge at 140 facilities, and partner notification was mandatory and anonymous. The World Health Organization noted officials systematically offered HIV testing to prisoners, military recruits, street children, refugees, and persons seeking visas, residence, or citizenship.

Women remained a minority of those infected with HIV, although their incidence of infection was increasing.

As of June 30, the Ministry of Health officially registered 8,308 HIV-infected individuals, including 3,365 women and 4,943 men. During the first six months of the year, the ministry registered 694 new HIV-positive individuals, including 283 women and 411 men.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent unions but requires registration for all NGOs, including trade unions. The law also provides that union activities, such as collective bargaining, be free from interference except “in cases specified by law,” but the law does not define such cases. Workers have the right to strike, but the law requires that meetings and other mass actions have prior official authorization, limiting trade unions’ ability to organize meetings or demonstrations. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively, but it does not specifically prohibit antiunion discrimination. Penalties are insufficient to deter violations, and the government did not effectively enforce the law.

Workers joined unions, but the government used informal means to exercise considerable influence over organized labor, including influencing the selection of labor union leaders. The government-controlled umbrella Federation of Trade Unions of Tajikistan did not effectively represent worker interests. There were reports the government compelled some citizens to join state-endorsed trade unions and impeded formation of independent unions. According to International Labor Organization figures, 1.3 million persons belonged to unions. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination during the year.

Anecdotal reports from multiple in-country sources stated that citizens were reluctant to strike due to fear of government retaliation. Police reportedly arrested 15 agricultural workers, charging them with organizing an illegal event, after an April 29 protest outside the Dushanbe headquarters of Faroz, a company belonging to President Rahmon’s family. Dozens of workers had gathered around the gates of the company to object to proposed lower wages for harvesting the medicinal plant ferula. Police did not comment on the arrests.

On May 9, the Shahrituz District Court imprisoned Karomatullo Shekhov, a local trader, for six days of “administrative arrest” for protesting against tax inspectors. An acquaintance of Shekhov told media that the court found him guilty of “disturbing public order.” On May 7, a group of traders, including Shekhov, protested against an additional tax imposed on them by local tax authorities. The protesters filmed their conversation with tax officers and posted the video on social media. Following the protest, three other unnamed protesters were accused of disturbing public order and disobedience to tax inspectors.

Collective bargaining contracts covered 90 percent of workers in the formal sector.

The government fully controlled trade unions. There were no reports of threats or violence by government entities toward trade unions; however, unions made only limited demands regarding workers’ rights repeatedly because they feared the government reaction. Most workers’ grievances were resolved with union mediation between employee and employer.

Labor NGOs not designated as labor organizations played a minimal role in worker rights, as they were restricted from operating fully and freely.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The January criminal code provisions are consistent with international law regarding the prohibition of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including that of children, except in cases defined in law. The government did not effectively enforce the law to prohibit compulsory labor, and resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to address concerns over forced labor. While penalties to discourage the practice of forced labor were stringent and commensurate with other serious crimes, such as rape, the government investigated, prosecuted, and convicted fewer individuals suspected of trafficking persons for forced labor than in prior years. Two cases involving nine individuals were dismissed by presidential amnesty. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued to investigate three Dushanbe-based employment agencies that sent several citizens to Saudi Arabia where they were forced to work in homes of Saudi citizens.

The government continued to implement its national referral mechanism that has formal written procedures for identification, referral, and assistance to victims of trafficking. Law enforcement reported screening for victims when making arrests for prostitution. NGOs reported that in many cases when victims were identified by authorities, they were detained but not put in jail.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law outlaws all of the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for children to work is 16 years, although children may work at age 15 with permission from the local trade union. By law children younger than age 18 may work no more than six hours a day and 36 hours per week. Children as young as age seven may participate in household labor and agricultural work, which is separately classified as family assistance. Many children younger than age 10 worked in bazaars or sold goods on the street. The highest incidences of child labor were in the domestic and agricultural sectors.

Enforcement of child labor laws is the responsibility of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Welfare, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and appropriate local and regional governmental offices. Unions also are responsible for reporting any violations in the employment of minors. Citizens can bring unresolved cases involving child labor before the prosecutor general for investigation. There were few reports of violations because most children worked under the family assistance exception. There were reports that military recruitment authorities kidnapped children younger than age 18 from public places and subjected them to compulsory military service to fulfill local recruitment quotas.

The government enforced child labor laws and worked with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to prevent the use of forced child labor. IOM and local NGOs noted that penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Nevertheless, there were isolated reports some children were exploited in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Labor’s 2019 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor reported cotton harvest as a good produced by child labor. The overall instances of forced child labor in the cotton harvest decreased dramatically after 2013; the 2015 IOM annual assessment showed local or national government authorities responded to most cases. During the 2015 harvest, the government levied two fines against employers using child labor and collected a total of 1,800 somoni ($190) from violators.

The Interministerial Commission to Combat Trafficking in Persons disseminated a directive to local officials reiterating prohibitions and ordered the Labor Inspector’s Office to conduct a monitoring mission of the cotton-picking season. According to the IOM, however, no independent monitoring of the cotton harvest was conducted during the year.

Also see the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation on the basis of race, sex, gender, disability, language, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, or social status. The law does not expressly prohibit worker discrimination on the basis of color, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, or age.

In June 2017 parliament approved amendments to the Law on Police, which bans persons with dual citizenship, foreign nationals, and stateless persons from serving in the police force. In March 2017 the Council of Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of parliament, approved amendments to the Law on Public Service prohibiting dual citizenship for any persons in public service. In 2016 lawmakers approved amendments to the law banning individuals with dual citizenship from serving in the country’s security services and requiring knowledge of the Tajik (state) language.

Employers discriminated against individuals based on sexual orientation and HIV-positive status, and police generally did not enforce the laws. LGBTI persons and HIV-positive individuals opted not to file complaints due to fear of harassment from law enforcement personnel and the belief that police would not take action.

The law provides that women receive equal pay for equal work, but cultural barriers continued to restrict the professional opportunities available to women.

The government did not effectively enforce discrimination laws, and penalties were not adequate to deter violations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

World Bank data reveals that almost one-third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line of 18 somoni ($1.90) per person per day. The monthly minimum wage of 400 somoni ($42) is below the poverty line. The State Inspectorate for Supervision of Labor, Migration, and Employment under the Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Employment is responsible for the overall supervision of enforcing labor law in the country. The Ministry of Finance enforces financial aspects of the labor law, and the Agency of Financial Control of the presidential administration oversees other aspects of the law. There is no legal prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. The law mandates overtime payment, with the first two hours paid at a time-and-a-half rate and the remainder at double the rate. Resources, inspections, and remediation to enforce the law were inadequate. The State Inspectorate conducts inspections once every two years. Penalties for violations are adequate to deter violations, but the regulation was not enforced, and the government did not pay its employees for overtime work. Overtime payment was inconsistent in all sectors of the labor force.

The State Inspectorate for Supervision of Labor, Migration, and Employment is also responsible for enforcing occupational health and safety standards. The government did not fully comply with these standards, partly because of corruption and the low salaries paid to inspectors. The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions without fear of loss of employment, but workers seldom exercised this right.

Farmers and agricultural workers, accounting for more than 60 percent of employment in the country, continued to work under difficult circumstances. There was no system to monitor or regulate working conditions in the agricultural and informal sectors. Wages in the agricultural sector were the lowest among all sectors, and many workers received payment in kind. The government’s failure to ensure and protect land tenure rights continued to limit its ability to protect agricultural workers’ rights.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

Turkmenistan is a secular democracy constitutionally, although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is an authoritarian figure who effectively controls the country along with a small inner circle. Berdimuhamedov became president in 2006 and remained president following the 2017 presidential election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) determined that the election involved limited choice between competing political alternatives and found “serious irregularities.” On March 31, interim parliamentary elections took place in the capital Ashgabat and Mary Province to elect two members of the Mejlis (parliament).

The national police and the Ministry of National Security maintain internal security. The military and border security forces are responsible for external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture by police and prison officials; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence and threats of unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; censorship and site blocking; interference with the freedoms of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; substantial restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity between men.

Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government were known to act with impunity, although numerous officials were arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Citizens publicly criticizing the government or the regime face intimidation and possible arrest. The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers and journals. The quasi-independent weekly newspaper Rysgal continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government maintained restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers except for the private, but government-sanctioned, Turkish newspaper Zaman Turkmenistan, which reflected the views of the official state newspapers, and Atavatan-Turkmenistan, a Turkish journal.

The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. Channels including BBC World News and the Turkmen language version of RFE/RL were widely available through satellite dishes. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access.

The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use.

There was no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported July 29, and credible sources confirmed, that former RFE/RL journalist Soltan Achilova was still banned from traveling abroad. In July she received a letter from the State Migration Service dated July 16 and signed by the deputy chairman of the state migration service that confirmed her travel ban was official and not lifted. Her daughter was also banned from foreign travel. The government reported, as of September 1, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accredited 23 foreign journalists.

Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists critical of its official policy to surveillance and harassment. There were reports law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, including by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits censorship and provides for freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents often engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.

To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishers, printers, and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. The government must approve the importation, publishing, and dissemination of religious literature. Importation of the Quran and the Bible is prohibited.

The government continued to monitor citizens’ email and internet activity. Reports indicated the Ministry of National Security controlled the main internet access gateway and that several servers belonging to internet protocol addresses registered to the Ministry of Communications operated software that allowed the government to record Voice over Internet Protocol conversations, turn on computer cameras and microphones, and log keystrokes. The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as to some virtual private network (VPN) connections, including those of diplomatic missions and international businesses; it severely restricted internet access to other websites. VPNs, however, were widely used by the general population, with users often having to switch to new VPNs after a VPN was blocked. Qurium Media Foundation reported that authorities blocked 133 of the most popular worldwide websites.

The government did not tolerate criticism of government policy or the president in academic circles and curtailed research in areas it considered politically sensitive, such as comparative law, history, ethnic relations, and theology.

The Ministry of Culture censored and monitored all public exhibitions, including music, art, and cultural events. The government strictly controlled the production of plays and performances in state theaters, and these were severely limited. Authorities also strictly controlled film screenings and limited viewings to approved films dubbed or subtitled in Turkmen and Russian, unless sponsored by a foreign embassy.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. During the year authorities neither granted the required permits for public meetings and demonstrations nor allowed unregistered organizations to hold demonstrations. Unregistered religious groups were not allowed to meet, according to the country’s religion law. Groups that defied the law and attempted to meet in private homes faced intimidation and scrutiny from security forces.

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government restricted this right. The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice and all foreign assistance to be coordinated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by a fine, short-term detention, and confiscation of property. The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice and sets out a schedule of fines for religious activity conducted by unregistered groups.

The government reported that, as of August 23, 122 NGOs were registered in the country, including four international NGOs. Of the registered NGOs, international organizations recognized only a few as independent. NGOs reported the government presented a number of administrative obstacles to NGOs that attempted to register. Authorities rejected some applications repeatedly on technical grounds. Some organizations awaiting registration found alternate ways to carry out activities, such as registering as businesses or subsidiaries of other registered groups, but others temporarily suspended or limited their activities. Although the law states there is a process for registering foreign assistance, NGOs had difficulty registering bilateral foreign assistance in practice due to the 2013 decree requiring such registration.

Sources noted a number of barriers to the formation and functioning of civil society. These included regulations that permitted the Ministry of Justice to send representatives to association events and meetings and requirements that associations notify the government about their planned activities.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law do not provide for full freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: The law requires internal passports and residency permits. Persons residing or working without residency permits face forcible removal to their place of registration. A requirement for a border permit remained in effect for all foreigners wishing to travel to border areas.

Beginning in February police began a campaign of harassment of female drivers. On numerous occasions police confiscated women’s licenses and cars for ostensibly minor reasons, such as lacking an item in the legally required first-aid kit.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to bar certain citizens from departing under its Law on Migration. The law states that Turkmen citizens may be denied exit from the country “if their exit contravenes the interests of the national security of Turkmenistan.”

Prove They Are Alive! reported that any of the country’s law enforcement bodies can initiate a travel ban on a citizen and that travelers in various categories may be denied departure, including young men obliged to military service; persons facing criminal and civil charges or under probationary sentence; relatives of persons reportedly convicted and imprisoned for the 2002 alleged assassination/coup attempt; as well as journalists, civil society activists, and their family members. The group estimated that 20,000 individuals were subject to a travel ban based on political grounds.

Unless the program was specifically approved in advance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government routinely prevented citizens from travelling abroad for programs sponsored by foreign governments. Migration officials often stopped nonapproved travelers at the airport and prevented them from leaving.

The law provides for restrictions on travel by citizens who had access to state secrets, presented falsified personal information, committed a serious crime, were under surveillance, might become victims of trafficking, previously violated the law of the destination country, or whose travel contradicts the interests of national security. In some cases, the law provides for time limits on the travel ban as well as fines for its infraction. Former public-sector employees who had access to state secrets were prevented from traveling abroad for five years after terminating their employment with the government. The law allows authorities to forbid recipients of presidential amnesties from traveling abroad for a period of up to two years.

Exile: The law provides for internal exile, requiring persons to reside in a certain area for a fixed term of two to five years.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: While formally there is a system for granting refugee status, it was inactive. In 2009 the government assumed responsibility from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for making refugee status determinations, but it has not granted refugee status since. UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings. No new asylum seekers have officially registered in the country since 2005. UNHCR reported that as of October 2017, 22 UNHCR mandate refugees resided in the country. Each of these had been individually recognized under UNHCR’s mandate between 1998 and 2002. Mandate refugees are required to renew UNHCR certificates with the government annually.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for prov