Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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, law, harassment, licensing regulations, and internet restrictions.
After her 2019 visit to the country, the 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.”
Media activists raised concerns about the wide use of the legal provision imposing liability for dissemination of false information. They highlighted its use to pressure or silence journalists and civil society activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 17, authorities arrested and charged activist Alnur Ilyashev for dissemination of false information during a state of emergency. Police stated that Ilyashev’s posts on Facebook critical of the Nur Otan Party and its leader, First President Nazarbayev, contained false information and presented a danger to public order. On June 22, after holding Ilyashev in a pretrial detention facility for more than two months, the Medeu district court in Almaty found him guilty and sentenced him to three years of probation. The court also imposed on Ilyashev a five-year ban on public activity, 100 hours per year of compulsory work during his probation, and a fine of approximately 54, 000 tenge ($130). On September 15, Iliyashev appealed the court ruling but lost the case.
Freedom of Speech: 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 first president, the sitting president, or their families, with penalties up to five years’ imprisonment, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.63 million tenge ($32,800) and imprisonment for up to five years.
On February 6, the Mangistau regional court of appeals upheld the Munailinski district court’s verdict and sentence of local activist, blogger, and vocal political critic Zhambyl Kobeisinov to six months of incarceration for libel. The case was initiated by the local police chief, who sued Kobeisinov and his wife for defaming him on Kobeisinov’s YouTube channel.
On April 13, the KNB in Karaganda arrested Arman Hasenov on charges of insulting First President Nazarbayev with the posting of a video in which he criticized Nazarbayev. On April 30, the Kazybek Bi district court in Karaganda convicted Hasenov and sentenced him to three years of probation, 100 hours a year of compulsory labor, and an administrative fine of 41,670 tenge ($100).
Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev were sentenced in 2018 to eight and seven years’ imprisonment, respectively, for advocating 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 convictions was fabricated by the government. Zhumagulov was a supporter of the banned DCK opposition organization. Abishev, who denied any connection to the DCK, was an advocate for land reform and other political matters. On April 29, a court in Kapshagay granted Kenzhebek Abishev’s request of early release by replacing the remaining time of his sentence with probation. Prosecutors challenged this decision, and on July 8, the Almaty regional court of appeals overturned the Kapshagay court’s decision to release Abishev. The Almaty regional court also upheld on November 24 a Kapshagay district court decision of October 5 to deny a subsequent request by Abishev for early release. Separately, on July 1, the Kapshagay city court declined Almat Zhumagulov’s request for early release.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were 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 First 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 broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 50 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 March 16, 101TV.kz YouTube channel journalist Botagoz Omarova went to the Eurasia Building Company in Karaganda to submit a formal information request for the investigative journalism report she was preparing on the company’s reportedly poor performance. While waiting for a representative to receive her letter, Omarova was attacked by a guard, who dragged her out of the building, assaulted her, and seized her smartphone. Police are reviewing her complaint.
On April 11, KTK TV reporter Beken Alirakhimov and cameraman Manas Sharipov were detained by police on the premises of the Atyrau regional hospital. They were recording interviews with a group of doctors and nurses who spoke about difficulties they faced during the COVID-19 emergency situation. The journalists were taken to a police station where they were forced to submit a written statement explaining the incident. They then were placed under quarantine because they had contacted doctors who could potentially have been infected.
Human rights activists criticized the country’s chief health officer Aizhan Yesmagambetova’s July decision to ban taking photos and videos in hospitals. Yesmagambetova explained the restrictions were necessary to protect the privacy of patients and to protect medical workers from unwarranted pressure. Media watchdog Adil Soz stated that by law the chief health officer does not have the power to restrict media freedom. On social media, activists said the ban was intended to restrict information about a general lack of personal protective equipment and other health-care supplies. In its analytical report entitled, Freedom of Speech in Conditions of the Emergency Situation and Quarantine, Adil Soz stated that “the freedom of expression, of obtaining and dissemination of information was unreasonably restricted” during the emergency situation, and the constitutional guarantees of those rights were violated. Authorities did not provide full and accurate information about the rationale and adequacy of the quarantine restrictions.
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.
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.
In May Irina Volkova, a reporter of the government-controlled Zvezda Priirtyshia newspaper in Pavlodar, requested information from the regional education department as part of her work on an article she was writing for a part-time job at another newspaper. The reporter requested information about the local boarding school for children with mental disabilities. The managers of Zvezda Priirtyshia pressured her to check all her requests with her supervisor and not to pose controversial questions. She was told that the restrictions also applied to her work for other media outlets.
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 May 15, the Petropavlovsk city court convicted blogger Azamat Baikenov for participation in the banned DCK. The prosecutors presented Baikenov’s posts in social media and messengers as evidence of Baikenov’s participation in the DCK based on the conclusions of experts who were contracted by investigators. These contracted experts found that Baikenov’s posts “formed Kazakhstani citizens’ negative attitude to the authorities and encouraged them to take actions aimed at changing the government.” The defendant argued that he was not an extremist and not a single fact of his affiliation with the DCK or propaganda of its ideas was proved. He also criticized the judge for not examining materials objectively and for merely supporting the prosecutor. The judge sentenced Baikenov to one year of probation and payment of an administrative fine of 27,000 tenge ($65).
On April 6, Bagdat Baktybayev, an activist in Zhambyl province, was sentenced to 10-days administrative arrest for violation of public order during the emergency situation. According to the court verdict, Baktybayev was found guilty for livestreaming long lines of individuals at the local post office where they were submitting documents for a social allowance that the government paid to those who lost incomes because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He made loud comments, audible on the livestream, expressing dissatisfaction with how the government worked.
Libel/Slander Laws: On June 27, the president signed amendments into legislation that removed liability for libel from the law. Human rights activists and observers welcomed the decriminalization of libel but remained concerned that the law continues to impose serious punishment for libel. Several articles in the law remained that could also be applied against individuals insulting officials. These included the following: “Public insult or other infringement on the honor and dignity of the First President,” “Infringement on the honor and dignity of the President,” “Infringement on the honor and dignity of a Member of Parliament,” “Insulting a representative of authority,” “Libel in regard to a judge, juror, investigator, expert, court bailiff,” and “Dissemination of knowingly false information.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple complaints that authorities used the legal provision on the spreading of false information to put pressure on journalists and civil society activists.
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.
National Security: The law criminalizes the release of information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the first 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” was 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. As part of the president’s reform agenda, the government in June enacted amendments to the criminal code’s Article 174, “Incitement of Social, Ethnic, Tribal, Racial and Religious Discord.” Many observers criticized those amendments as insignificant. The term “incitement” was replaced with “inflaming,” and new types of punishment for violation of article 174 were added. Some amendments were made in the law on money laundering and financing of terrorism to mitigate punishment for persons who were convicted under article 174. These included changes that made more convicts eligible to be removed from the list of those who were designated as terrorists or as supporting terrorism. Another provision in the amendment was the ability for former convicts to seek access to limited banking operations for themselves and their family members. Provisions were also included to allow former convicts to have access to more types of previously proscribed income, such as annual leave compensation and travel expenses.
The government subjected to intimidation media outlets that criticized the president, the first president, and their families; 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.
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 Kazakh Telecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government.
Media 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 mandate surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, require visitors to present identification to use the internet, demand internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorize 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 cabinet has the power to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. By law and a cabinet decree, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the KNB, and the ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, and Emergency Situations are authorized to suspend communication networks and communication means in emergency situations or when there is a risk of an emergency situation.
Observers continued to rate the country as a “not free” country that practices disruption of mobile internet connections and throttles access to social media. During protest actions access to internet was often blocked to eliminate the potential to livestream and share live updates from the events. Authorities also blocked access to some independent websites.
On May 16, authorities blocked kuresker.org, which reported on the repression of activists and abuse of prisoners’ rights. Kuresker.org is not included in the government’s official list of websites that are blocked based on court decisions. In response to requests for an explanation of the blocking of kuresker.org, authorities denied involvement.
The website panorama.pub was blocked on July 3 after it posted a news story (which appeared to be satire because the website is satirical) that the country was developing a COVID-19 antitoxin serum derived from antibodies extracted from First President Nazarbayev’s blood, claiming that he had recovered from the disease. The Ministry of Information and Social Development rebuffed the news as fake and warned about liability for the dissemination of false information. The ministry stated that relevant agencies were examining the post and taking measures to stop its further dissemination.
International observers remained concerned about authorities’ pressure on journalists and bloggers. In April Jeanne Cavelier, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said the government was harassing journalists and bloggers who strayed from the official line on the COVID-19 pandemic, on the pretext of forestalling panic, and that this exploitation of the state of emergency harmed press freedom in the country.
Government surveillance of the internet was 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, “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 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. He said, “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.” On June 5, the Kapshagay city court declined Abishev’s request for early release on probation.
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although general restrictions, such as the prohibition on infringing on the dignity and honor of the first president, president, and their families, also applied to academics. Many academics practiced self-censorship.
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right. On May 25, President Tokayev signed the law on peaceful assembly in the country. The government praised it as a step forward in the liberalization of the country’s legislation. Opponents criticized it as restrictive and falling short of international standards for the freedom of peaceful assembly. Serious restrictions remained. Organizers must submit advance notification to the local government and wait for its response. The law states all gatherings except single-person pickets may only be held in areas designated by authorities, spontaneous gatherings are banned, and foreigners and stateless persons are denied the right to peaceful assembly.
Two opposition groups–the Democratic Party and the DCK–made separate calls to their supporters to rally on June 6. Despite authorities’ warnings against mass gatherings during the pandemic and police blocking roads that led to the venues of rallies, protesters in several cities demanded release of political prisoners, debt forgiveness, a ban on the sale of land to foreigners, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Police stated that 53 protesters were detained, seven of whom were punished by administrative fines, one protester was given a reprimand, and the rest were released after receiving an explanation of the law. Activists claimed that hundreds of protesters were detained by police, with some placed in jail and fined the day of the protest and others arrested afterwards.
On September 13, large peaceful protests were held in six cities after Democratic Party leaders prenotified local authorities in 12 cities of the planned protests. Protesters were allowed to gather and were only observed by police in most cities. Party leaders said that small groups of supporters were reportedly held in administrative detention before and then released just after the protests in some cities.
On September 25, the DCK organized small protests that were met by an energetic law enforcement response. Video on social media showed peaceful DCK protesters being arrested and carried away physically by large units of security forces. Social media posts and news sources indicated at least 43 persons were detained temporarily in connection with the September 25 event.
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, Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights).
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 sections 3, Political Parties and Political Participation, and 7.a., Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining).
By 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 ($1,050) or imprisonment for up to 40 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 505,000 tenge ($1,310) or imprisonment for no more than 50 days. The law did 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 was 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.
In November a group of 13 NGOs that receive foreign funds reported heightened scrutiny by tax authorities, which some of the NGOs stated was likely motivated by the NGOs’ planned activities around parliamentary elections on January 10, 2021. The NGOs reportedly received notifications from tax authorities about discrepancies in their 2017-18 foreign grants reports, which the NGOs claimed were typographical errors and minor technical inaccuracies. The penalties the tax authorities proposed, administrative fines of 555,600 tenge ($1,300) and suspension of activities, were not commensurate with the alleged errors. None of the NGOs was accused of evading taxes, inappropriate spending of funds, or other unlawful tax-related actions.
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.
A state of emergency was declared by the president from March 16 to May 11 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The government set stringent restrictions on the freedom of movement. Movement within cities and towns was restricted, and checkpoints were established to control the flow of traffic into and out of cities, where most of the early virus cases occurred. Special permission was granted to essential workers to pass the checkpoints. Many measures were implemented with short notice. All flights were stopped initially, and then were gradually allowed to resume, as the state of emergency ended and restrictions were gradually eased. Citizens’ mobility within cities was also restricted and required advance permission, but information about who had been granted permission was often incomplete, which initially limited mobility even for those with permission.
During the most stringent lockdown period, individuals were allowed to leave home only to go to grocery stores or pharmacies within 1.2 miles of their homes. All playgrounds were shut down. Children could not be outdoors without parents, and parks were closed. In localized cases authorities locked down whole apartment buildings if one tenant tested positive for COVID-19. In several extreme cases, local authorities welded shut entrance doors to the buildings. Police cordons surrounded the buildings. Residents were required to remain in their homes, often without sufficient food and other essential supplies. Human Rights Commissioner Elvira Azimova spoke up against locks put on apartment buildings. She stated that she believed it was enough to put fences and police cordons around buildings. Subsequent government responses to COVID-19 outbreaks in specific regions were less severe, but the government continued to employ time-limited travel restrictions and roadblocks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had severe impacts on labor migrants. During the state of emergency period, many lost jobs or were forced to take unpaid leave. As a result, many could not afford housing, health services, or food. Migrants remained ineligible to seek government support, and they could not return to their home countries because air flights and railways stopped and borders were closed. Human rights activists reported that courts continued to issue rulings on deportation of migrants who did not have the relevant work permissions.
In May the government adopted a resolution to allow through January 5, 2021, the exit, without administrative penalties, of foreign citizens with expired or expiring identification documents or permits (visas, registration cards, work or residence permits). The government, with the assistance of local NGOs, negotiated with neighboring governments for the return of migrant laborers to their home countries. Migration Service Centers in all regions provided services for migrant laborers at one-stop express windows. As of November, according to government statistics, 149,217 foreign citizens had returned home from the country (including 30,801 Russian citizens), and the government had legalized the status of 146,970 foreign citizens (of whom 94,405 received temporary work permits, 1,966 received authorization for family reunion, 872 to study, 148 to receive medical care, and 6,501 for visa extensions).
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 or unpaid taxes, fines, alimony, or utility bills, or compulsory military duty. Travelers who presented 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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced 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, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were 510 recognized refugees in the country as of July. Both the number of refugee applications and the approval rate by the government declined considerably 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, 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 country’s territory. Authorities remained reluctant to accept asylum applications at the border from persons who lacked valid identity documents, citing security concerns. A person who crossed 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.
On August 17, authorities extradited Uzbek opposition activist Hurram Berdiyev to Uzbekistan, which had listed him as wanted for human trafficking in 2013. Activists alleged that the charges were fabricated and Berdiyev was persecuted for his opposition political activity as a member of the opposition Erk party. In February, following the request of Uzbek colleagues, police in Sairam arrested Berdiyev. When he was in custody, Berdiyev’s lawyers helped him apply for refugee status, but the government denied his application.
In October the government granted asylum to the following four ethnic Kazakhs who had fled China: Kaster Musakhan, Murager Alimuly, Malik Bashagar, and Kaisha Khan. On January 21, the Zaisan city court in East Kazakhstan province had sentenced both Musakhan and Alimuly to one year of imprisonment for illegally crossing into the country from China. Credited with time served in pretrial detention, Musakhan and Alimuly had been released from prison on June 22, pending the completion of their asylum application process.
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 may not 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 worked 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 received permanent residency in 2018 and 2019, and they are eligible to become Kazakhstani citizens after five years of residency. The law also lacked 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.
g. Stateless Persons
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 stipulation that Kazakhstani citizenship would be granted. As of July 1, a total of 7,757 persons were officially registered by the government as stateless, according to UNHCR. 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.
The law allows the government to deprive individuals of citizenship if 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 been deprived of citizenship under this law. Instead, during the year the government repatriated hundreds of citizens 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 they are 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 whose citizenship applications are rejected or whose status as 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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 Speech: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of provisions of law on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted these provisions to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm such violations of law as arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. This was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.
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 March 21, the government declared a state of emergency for one month due to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The Media Policy Institute (MPI) reported the restrictions introduced in the state of emergency hampered the ability of journalists to report on the effects of COVID-19. MPI noted that the Commandant of Bishkek, the office in charge of the COVID-19 response in the capital, initially refused to accredit journalists to permit them to travel to report on the epidemic. Additionally, MPI reported that only state media was able to report from medical centers, despite the Commandant’s claim that journalists would not receive accreditation due to health and safety reasons. Law enforcement also warned that anyone publishing “false” information about the epidemic could be charged with a crime.
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.
In a 2019 investigation, local Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)-affiliate Azattyk, online Kloop media, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an expose that implicated former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov in a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme. In the aftermath of the report, RFE/RL relocated some of their journalists to Prague amid serious threats to their lives and families, for fear of political reprisal. On April 10, former Osh customs officer Emilbek Kimsanov released a video showing purported text messages from Matraimov offering to pay Kimsanov for the return of Ali Toktokunov, one of the journalists who broke the corruption scandal, to the country “dead or alive.”
On January 9, two men assaulted Bolot Temirov, the founder of Factcheck.kg, a local investigative reporting website, after publishing an investigation into former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov detailing how the Matraimov family spent far more than their reported income would suggest. After the assault, Temirov stated that the attackers only stole his phone, which caused him to believe the attack was motivated by intimidation.
In June unknown assailants firebombed the Talas office of a small independent television channel, 3 Kanal. No one was injured in the attack; however, the head of the broadcaster estimated that the damage totaled approximately $15,000.
On October 5, during protests against parliamentary elections, there were multiple reported cases of violence against press. During a live broadcast, police fired a rubber bullet directly at a correspondent for Nastoyashchee Vremya, a Voice of America affiliate, and during a live recording, police seized a phone from a 24.kg reporter. On October 6, while a journalist from independent media outlet Kaktus broadcast live from a hotel hosting a meeting by some members of parliament, supporters of Sadyr Japarov reportedly attacked the reporter, surrounding her and demanding she stop filming. On October 10, 20-30 individuals tried to force their way into the Sputnik.kg office, demanding that the outlet send a reporter to cover a pro-Japarov protest occurring in the city. The mob allegedly threatened the editorial staff, saying Sputnik.kg had 30 minutes to begin broadcasting, otherwise they would break down the door and attack the office.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: 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 government offices 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.
In April local media reported that private citizens who criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 were coerced by government officials into recanting their reports and publicly apologizing to the government. The GKNB, the agency publishing videos of the apologies, denied they had pressured anyone to apologize and claimed the videos were submitted voluntarily. A doctor who posted a message on Twitter about the poor quality of personal protective equipment for medical workers claimed he was forced to apologize and later deleted his Twitter account.
Libel/Slander Laws: 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 some improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. In January former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov, along with his brother MP Iskander Matraimov, sued Kloop, Azattyk Radio, and 24.kg in response to the publication of an investigative series on a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme centered on Raimbek Matraimov. Initially, the judge in the case froze the assets of all of the media organizations but later reversed the decision. The Matraimovs dropped their suit against 24.kg after a retraction published on their website.
On August 19, Jalalabad police summoned AKIpress reporter Bekmamat Abdumalik uulu, purportedly in connection to a libel case. Abdumalik uulu asserted he was questioned in relation to a blog post critical of the government. A Ministry of Interior spokesperson claimed they had received a formal complaint that accused the journalist of disseminating “false rumors harmful to reputation and honor.” The Media Policy Institute, a press advocacy organization, issued a statement that noted libel laws are matters for civil litigation, and the police therefore illegally questioned Abdumalik uulu.
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. The Civic Initiative on Internet Policy reported on 371 internet resources that are blocked by the government, including archive.org, soundcloud.com, and numerous links to Facebook and YouTube. The Civic Initiative for Internet Policy noted there were some sites the government blocked without a court order, including Change.org, which was blocked after a petition appeared calling for the impeachment of the president.
NGOs reported that security services have shifted to online monitoring of social media accounts, and media reported that the government targeted bloggers and social media users for critical internet posts. On July 15, the GKNB interrogated comedian Nazgul Alymkulova over satirical posts about the president and the government. Two days later, police detained Argen Baktybek uulu, an administrator of the Facebook group Memestan, over posts critical of the government. Baktybek was detained due to “the dissemination of information that demeans the authorities.” On July 28, the GKNB interrogated Eldiyar Zholdoshev after he posted a video online that criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 and called President Jeenbekov the worst president in the history of the country. The GKNB claimed that Zholdoshev had violated the law against incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or interregional hatred.
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (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.
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.
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 limited peaceful assembly in Bishkek and Talas, with local governments refusing to issue permits for peaceful marches. 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.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the government reportedly used public health concerns as a pretext for preventing peaceful protests. On March 5, during preparation for the annual Women’s March, a district court ruled that the event would not be allowed to proceed due to concerns about COVID-19. On March 6, the court reversed its decision, and allowed the march to take place. During the march, ultranationalists attacked the demonstrators, in some cases physically assaulting women marchers. The police allowed the attack to continue with impunity, and arrested the peaceful marchers. After the arrests, multiple human rights NGOs reported lawyers were denied access to their clients. After several hours, the police released the detainees, and the Prosecutor General’s Office declined to press charges. On March 10, members of Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights), the ultranationalist group that attacked the march, were fined for their part in the violence.
The law provides for freedom of association, although the government increased harassment of NGOs. 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.
During the first half of the year, targeted harassment of NGOs and their workers by the government and ultranationalist groups increased significantly. These attacks appear to have centered on NGOs opposing proposed legislation to increase the requirements for the registration of NGOs. NGOs reported harassment from government security agencies, including unannounced visits to NGO offices, and threats. Additionally, ultranationalist groups repeatedly threatened NGOs. During one public meeting on the potential effects of the proposed legislation, a group of ultranationalists assaulted the security staff, gained entrance to the meeting, and publicly threatened to burn down the office of an NGO. Under pressure from civil society groups, parliament decided to delay consideration of the proposed law.
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.
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.
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 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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
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.
Refoulement: In August the GKNB arrested Bobomorud Abdullayev, an Uzbek journalist who alleged he was tortured in Uzbekistan for his work. According to the GKNB, the government of Uzbekistan requested his arrest. Despite his request for asylum, the GKNB allegedly refused to permit Abdullayev access to his lawyers, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, or the UNHCR. Despite calls from civil society not to extradite Abdullayev, the government handed over Abdullayev to Uzbek authorities on August 22, without an extradition hearing as required by law. On August 28, Abdullayev’s lawyers alleged that the GKNB tortured Abdullayev during his detention.
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. Despite local law the government has ignored asylum requests from asylum seekers likely to be tortured upon their return to their home country.
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech: 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.
In 2016 parliament amended 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 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 January and February, independent and private television and radio stations received two directives signed by Tojiddin Karimzoda, the head of the State Inspectorate for Television and Radio Broadcasting of the State Radio and Television of Tajikistan. The first, dated January 31, required private television and radio stations to submit their broadcasting schedule to the State Inspectorate on a weekly basis. The second, dated February 4, contained recommendations to promote issues “related to state policy.” Both directives stated that, if the recommendations are ignored, “punishment” would occur. When questioned, Karimzoda denied the recommendations represented inappropriate interference in the editorial freedom of private television and radio.
On July 4, President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the code of administrative offenses that impose fines and criminal penalties on individuals who disseminate “inaccurate” COVID-19 information, spread infectious diseases, or fail to wear protective masks in public. Prior to the amendments, the Ministry of Health had complained publicly about independent, factual reporting on COVID-19 in the country, claiming that such reporting mischaracterized the situation and would lead to panic. The president signed the law, approved by parliament on June 10, despite multiple appeals from media watchdogs and civil society organizations that argued the new law would undermine freedom of expression and critical media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following passage of the law, news sites began reporting less frequently on suspected deaths from COVID-19. An independent website that maintained an unofficial list of COVID-19 deaths based on reporting from surviving family members stopped posting regular updates, allegedly because families had become concerned about government reprisals for sharing information about deaths due to COVID-19. When COVID-19-like illnesses were officially reported as pneumonia by authorities, local news outlets typically refrained from questioning the diagnosis.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats. Although some 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 banned groups such as IRPT and Group 24.
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.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not renew the accreditation for RFE/RL’s Russian-language Current Time correspondent Anushervon Aripov after it expired on August 1. According to Radio Ozodi’s local bureau director, Muhammadvafo Rahmatov, the ministry expressed dissatisfaction over two articles published on RFE/RL’s website, claiming biased reporting by its correspondents and Aripov. In one of the articles, Aripov criticized President Rahmon’s campaigning methods during the 2013 presidential election. As of September 1, a total of 13 Radio Ozodi and Current Time employees were without accreditation. Of this group, the Foreign Affairs Ministry informed seven journalists that their accreditation was forthcoming, and they could therefore continue their work in the country. The other six, including Aripov, did not have permission to work as journalists for RFE/RL and another three journalists hired by RFE/RL had not been accredited as of October. In addition, three employees that Radio Ozodi planned to hire in summer 2019 never received accreditation and eventually pursued other employment opportunities.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to renew the accreditation of the last three acting heads of Radio Ozodi’s Dushanbe branch and issued limited three-to-six month accreditations to all other employees whose accreditations were renewed after October 2019 (the standard length was 12 months). According to Radio Ozodi leadership, the ministry declined (in most cases) to offer specific explanations to Radio Ozodi for withholding or delaying accreditations to their staff. Public statements by the foreign minister and the country’s mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated the reason for withholding accreditations was the outlet’s publication of interviews and quotes from members of banned opposition groups, primarily the IRPT and Group 24.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Radio Ozodi reported that several of its contacts and family members of its staff were questioned by authorities about the activities of its journalists and in some cases had their telephones confiscated for examination. Journalists from the Prague-based independent news website Akhbor were also warned by local authorities not to report on certain topics. On November 13, Akhbor editor in chief Mirzo Salimpur announced the media outlet had to shut down due to legal problems brought on by the Tajik government.
Two unknown assailants physically assaulted Asia-Plus journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati on May 11 near Dushanbe’s Korvon Market. According to an Asia-Plus article, Ghurbati received several threatening telephone calls from unknown individuals prior to the attack. The report also alleged that Ghurbati, known for covering sensitive topics, had come under online attack from a government “troll farm,” allegedly created by the country’s security services to silence government critics online. Other media outlets reported that immediately after the incident, Ghurbati sought medical treatment at three Dushanbe hospitals, but the hospitals turned him away, claiming they were under a COVID-19 quarantine. He finally received treatment at a local burn center, and he reported the attack to police. Media also noted that Ghurbati had been covering issues related to the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
On May 29, unknown assailants assaulted Ghurbati again in the Khuroson District of the Khatlon Region as he was reporting on the victims of damage caused by heavy rains and a mudslide that took place earlier in the district. Ghurbati reported that one of his assailants claimed to be the head of the Jamoat (municipality). On May 30, the Ministry of Interior Affairs released a statement regarding the attack alleging that Ghurbati attempted forcibly to enter a tent where victims of the recent rains were residing in order to film family members, especially minors. The residents reportedly resisted Ghurbati by driving him away. The ministry also claimed he wanted to awaken in residents a sense of discontent with the state and government. Ghurbati disputed this version of events, reporting he was not allowed to approach the areas of residences before he was accosted. On June 2, a court in the Khuroson District fined three local residents who perpetrated the attack on Ghurbati for petty hooliganism in the amount of 580 somoni ($58).
On July 3, the prosecutor general’s office in Dushanbe summoned and questioned two relatives of exiled journalist Mirzo Salimpur, the founder and chief editor of Akhbor. Salimpur told the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in a telephone interview that he believed his relatives were interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to pressure him to stop publishing criticism of the administration prior to the country’s presidential elections. During the incident, a man who identified himself as an official with the Prosecutor General’s Office interrogated two of Salimpur’s sisters-in-law who lived in the town of Hissor for several hours to learn about Salimpur’s other relatives. Salimpur said that his sisters-in-law felt intimidated and threatened by the interrogations.
On April 16, the Shohmansur District Court of Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharifov to one year in prison for allegedly inciting national and religious hatred. The GKNB detained Sharifov on January 28 and held him in custody for two months while his case was investigated. Sharifov pleaded not guilty but had no plans to appeal the verdict, as he would likely finish his sentence before the appeals process would finish. The guilty verdict came after a two-day closed trial. Sharifov’s lawyer and parents were permitted to attend the trial, but journalists and human rights activists were denied entry, allegedly as a COVID-19 preventative measure. According to Sharifov’s lawyer, the state prosecutor demanded that the judge sentence the journalist to two years and four months in prison, but the court sentenced him to a shorter term, because it was his first offense and he had young children. In December the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected the Penitentiary Department’s recommendation to transfer Sharifov to a less restrictive colony settlement for “good behavior,” ostensibly based on a determination that Sharifov was “a danger to society.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials, according to media reports and journalists. 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 application process described as excessively complex. 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.
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 blackouts of all 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 regular government restrictions on access to news websites, such as RFE/RL’s Radio Ozodi, Asia-Plus, and Akhbor. 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 May, kvtj.com, a website created by a group of civil society activists to track those who died from COVID-19 and pneumonia, became inaccessible without a virtual private network. The website showed that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was several times larger than that reported in official government statistics. Some of the website’s authors received warnings from the government about laws penalizing “false” or “misleading” information around COVID-19.
The law gives law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet, an ability they continue to exercise regularly. According to the law, 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 2018 parliament further amended the criminal code to criminalize the use of the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Parliament also amended the law criminalizing public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes or publicly justifying terrorist activities, to include statements or calls made via the internet.
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. 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.
A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than 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. During the year the ministry issued an amendment to the regulation that 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 the law 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.
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.
Many female activists were subjected to anonymous harassment and attempts to denigrate them in social networks, including by falsely portraying them as sex workers, in retaliation for their participation in protests. In January the Vahdat police department refused to open a criminal case regarding the distribution of a video, which first appeared in September 2019, containing sexual scenes of activist D.M. with a man whose face on the video was erased. D.M. was among those who in April 2019 collected signatures requesting the president cancel the order to increase fees for mobile internet. The letter from the Investigative Department of Vahdat stated that no criminal case was opened due to the absence of evidence of a crime on the part of the man in the video.
On March 17, the GKNB detained and interrogated the former Dushanbe-based director of RFE/RL’s Tajik service Radio Ozodi, Nisso Rasulova. Observers believed the GKNB targeted Rasulova for attending a women’s empowerment event on March 13. The GKNB reportedly attempted, and failed, to prevent the event from taking place. After finding a venue and holding the event, several participants reported they were contacted, threatened, and blackmailed by GKNB agents.
On July 16, a Khatlon District Court sentenced 10 Khuroson residents to up to 10 days in prison for blocking a major highway on May 17 in a protest demanding government action in response to a mudslide. After heavy rain on May 14-16 caused extensive damage to critical infrastructure across the Khuroson region, dozens of residents took to the streets in protest. Police responded by dispersing the protestors with force. On May 18, the governor of Khatlon met with disaster victims, promising that government aid would be forthcoming, but also warning that “a tough response would follow any provocation.” As of October, in addition to the 10 convictions on July 16, six additional criminal cases against other protestors were still pending.
The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. In 2019 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 impose burdensome reporting requirements. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities.
On January 2, the president signed amendments to the code on administrative offenses. The penalty for managing the activities of unregistered, suspended, or prohibited public or religious associations increased fourfold, up to $1,200. Participation in the activities of such associations is now punishable by a penalty of up to $600, a sharp increase from the previous maximum penalty of $42. Individuals and organizations charged with funding the activities of illegal organizations also face fines.
The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, religious-affiliated political parties are banned.
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 foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to 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 due to arbitrary and inconsistent 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.
At times border security guards placed arbitrary restrictions on citizens wishing to travel abroad. On February 21, border control officers refused to allow a citizen named Abdu Vohidov to cross into the Kyrgyz Republic because he lacked a certificate from the military department office stating he was not a conscript. Such a certificate is not required for travel abroad. The press center of the Border Guards office refused to respond to a media inquiry on the incident.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Refoulement: National security concerns continued to dominate decisions related to protection and human rights, which often heightened the risk of deportation of asylum seekers and refugees. During the year there were six refugee families (28 persons) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation a law that prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In June the government amended the law to exclude deportation. Despite the update to the law, the risk of refoulement remains.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum, and individuals may seek refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The refugee status determination process, as well as judicial procedures, does not comply with international standards. The criminal code criminalizes asylum seekers who entered the country illegally, in contrast to the country’s Refugee Law, which states that illegal entry is not a crime. These conflicting legal codes mean asylum seekers run the risk of arrest and subsequent deportation without access to asylum procedures. According to law, in order to seek asylum legally, asylum seekers must enter the country legally with valid travel documents and a visa obtained in advance.
The government provides asylum seekers with temporary certification while processing asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and, upon granting refugee status, refugee identification cards as a proof of legal stay. 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.
The government continued to place significant restrictions on asylum seekers and registered refugees, and officials continued to enforce a 2000 law prohibiting them 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.
National 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 had approximately 5,000 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghans.
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 shared unhindered access to social, education, and health services with Tajik citizens. Although UNHCR’s activities were mostly focused on advocacy and protection, it maintained a limited humanitarian component to render assistance to the most vulnerable families. Thus, UNHCR through its NGO partner Refugees, Children, and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to children from vulnerable families and assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers faced 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: The law does not provide for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship. As a prerequisite, refugees should denounce their refugee status and apply for a temporary residence permit to be able to apply further for naturalization. To date no such precedent has been recorded.
g. Stateless Persons
The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners was 47,746 persons (14,430 men and 33,316 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, Sughd, 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 42,695 persons, both adults and children, with the remaining 5,051 still needing assistance to resolve their situation.
In December 2019 the government adopted an Amnesty Law allowing stateless persons and foreign nationals illegally residing in the country in violation of the rule of stay (for former USSR citizens) to legalize and regularize their legal status. The Amnesty Law is valid until December 2022, at which time all persons falling under the scope of the law must submit their applications for legalization. UNHCR evaluated the law as a major step in combating statelessness in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right.
Freedom of Speech: 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.
On June 19, Fergana.agency reported that local authorities arrested Ashgabat resident Murad Dushemov for his active participation in online opposition platforms. According to the news agency, on June 17, one police representative and three men in civil uniforms came to Dushemov’s apartment, confiscated his computer, and took Dushemov to the internal affairs department of Kopetdag district of Ashgabat. He was also told that if local authorities found “evidence of an opposition activity” on his computer, he would be sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. Khydyrov stated that Dushemov was a member of the Telegram chat “activistdvt,” created by the new Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, and administrators of the group banned Dushemov for inappropriate behavior. After that he became active on other opposition platforms.
On June 27, RFE/RL reported that authorities placed Murad Dushemov under house arrest. CT reported on September 7 that local authorities in Balkanabat, Balkan Province, arrested Pygamberdi Allaberdiyev, a lawyer for Nebitdag Oil of the Ministry of Oil and Gas of Turkmenistan, for “hooliganism.” CT claimed he was arrested for allegedly communicating with leaders of international protest movements against the government. He denied these charges. On September 30, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of hooliganism and intent to inflict moderate harm to health.
Freedom of 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.
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.
Independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who previously worked for RFE/RL and began cooperating with Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, repeatedly faced harassment. In March 2019 migration authorities stopped her at Ashgabat airport as she was departing for Georgia to participate in an international seminar and told her that she had been blacklisted for travel abroad. The migration services later confirmed the ban in writing, without providing any explanation for it. Following international attention to Achilova’s case, officials eventually lifted the travel ban.
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.
On June 25, CT reported the Ministry of National Security monitored the house of human rights activist Natalya Shabunts for two weeks. Reportedly, some stayed in the car and some near the house.
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. The government prohibits unauthorized importation of the Quran and the Bible, although authorized imports of these and some other religious texts were approved occasionally, including during the year.
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. Authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as to some 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 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.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful 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, 2019, 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 under the 2013 decree requiring such registration.
Observers noted a number of barriers to the formation and functioning of civil society. These included regulations that permit the Ministry of Justice to send representatives to association events and meetings and requirements that associations notify the government about their planned activities.
New amendments to the law on public associations were adopted on August 22. According to the new amendments, an international public association may be created if there are at least 50 founders, whereas previously the law stated the “international and national public association can be created if there are at least 50 and 400 members, respectively.” To create a national public association, it must have at least 50 founders, and the territorial and local public associations must have at least five founders. In addition a new requirement for state registration is “a statement signed by the members of the governing body of this public association indicating their last names, names, patronymics, date of birth, and place of residence.”
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.
Government media reported that during the September 2 session of the State Security Council, the president signed a decree “on improving the passport system in Turkmenistan,” which is aimed at simplifying the registration and issuance of passports to citizens of the country, including their registration at the place of residence. The document charges the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the obligation to issue a passport to a citizen within seven working days, provide registration at the place of residence of citizens, and provide extract certificates, as well as preparation of passport books and other official related documents. The document prohibits ministries, agencies, municipalities, and other institutions, regardless of their organizational and legal form, from requiring various certificates from citizens, if the necessary information can be confirmed by presenting the passport of a Turkmen citizen.
Police continued a practice initiated in February 2019 of harassing 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 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 perform military service; persons facing criminal and civil charges or under probationary sentence; relatives of persons reportedly convicted and imprisoned for the 2002 alleged assassination or 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs specifically approved a program in advance, 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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
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 then. UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings.
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. 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.
g. Stateless Persons
The country had a significant population of former Soviet Union citizens who became stateless due to the breakup of the Soviet Union. UNHCR’s last calculation in 2015 estimated there were 7,111 stateless persons or persons of undetermined nationality in the country. The number of stateless persons who were also refugees was not available. In recent years the government usually granted more than one thousand otherwise stateless individuals citizenship annually.
Citizenship is derived primarily from one’s parents; however, on July 1, the new Law on Civil Status Acts took effect. This law states that the government will register the birth of any child born in the country–including those with undocumented parents. The requirement that applicants for citizenship prove they are not citizens of another country impeded efforts to establish the nationality of undocumented persons. According to UNHCR, however, during the previous 15 years, an estimated 23,000 refugees and stateless persons were granted Turkmen nationality.
The law allows stateless persons to reside in the country legally and travel internationally with government-issued identification and travel documents. Undocumented stateless persons did not have access to public benefits, education, or employment opportunities.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.
Freedom of Speech: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.
On August 9 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, local authorities arrested Uzbekistani journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev at the request of the Uzbekistan government. Abdullayev was charged under Articles 158 (Offense against the President) and 159 (Attempt to Overthrow the Constitutional Order) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code. The charges stemmed from authorities’ accusation Abdullayev was writing under the pen name “Qora Mergan,” (Black Sniper), an author that publishes allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan government officials, which Abdullayev denied. On August 22, Kyrgyz officials forcibly repatriated Abdullayev to Uzbekistan. He was released after signing a nondisclosure agreement, and after several weeks authorities dropped the charges.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation, and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny some foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s accreditation request. Others, such as BBC, Voice of America, and Eurasianet, were accredited.
In January the government’s Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media began operating. The main purpose of the Public Fund is to help media outlets develop and maintain equal rights in the media market and to promote the rights of journalists and bloggers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, print newspapers and magazines could not be published for several months. In their place was increased reporting from popular online media outlets, such as Kun.uz and Daryo.uz, as well as through channels on the social messaging app Telegram.
On November 20, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) sent warning letters to leading news websites Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, and Podrobno.uz, for questioning the legitimacy of official COVID-19 statistics reported by the Ministry of Health. The letter from AIMC noted: “the publication of information based on unverified data and the attitude expressed in this regard led to the formation of the wrong opinion among the public.” AIMC’s letter warned that “publication of such unverified information in the future may lead to serious legal consequences.” Subsequently, AIMC Director-General Asadjon Khodjayev accused several media outlets such as Kun.uz, Daryo.uz, and Gazeta.uz on November 26 of bias and again threatened “serious legal consequences.”
On December 29, President Mirziyoyev supported media freedom in his annual address to parliament, saying, “It should be especially noted that the mass media, along with objective coverage of the large-scale changes taking place in our country, draw the attention of government agencies and the public to the urgent problems on the ground and encourage leaders at all levels to solve these problems. Today they are increasingly becoming the ‘fourth power.’”
The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.”
The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.
Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.
A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. The government-run Ozbekistan is a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English.
Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to increased arrest, harassment, and intimidation.
Even before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, some journalists reported a “negative trend” in terms of media freedom, citing daily reports of harassment of journalists and bloggers. Some journalists said they believed the security services used the pandemic as a way to remind media that “they are still in charge,” despite the president’s public claims that journalists and bloggers are a vital part of the country’s reform process.
In April authorities detained Sharifa Madrahimova, a correspondent of Ma’rifat newspaper, after she filmed a documentary video in local bazaars to report on price gouging on basic food items during the COVID-19 quarantine.
In May, following the collapse of a dam in Sardoba that displaced hundreds of villagers, two journalists at a popular sports channel were fired after publicly criticizing how a state-run news channel covered the story. Bobur Akmalov (editor) and Jamoliddin Babajanov (producer), at “Sport,” made their remarks during a radio program broadcast on May 18.
On July 26, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned the chief editors from three Karakalpakstan news websites after printing unconfirmed reports about the death of Karakalpakstan parliament’s chairman, Senator Musa Yerniyazov, who tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, the Ministry of Interior summoned a blogger in Karakalpakstan who posted the same story. The three online outlets, as well as the blogger, all later retracted their reports about the senator’s death. A Tashkent-based website also published the news, only to claim later that “this unconfirmed information was published as a result of hacking.” Bloggers and journalists in Karakalpakstan reported that the dissemination of information in the region in general was “severely restricted” and the local authorities were covering up the real number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
On August 22, police arrested a popular vlogger who frequently called for changes in the local leadership in Fergana (where the governor is widely seen as corrupt). Authorities detained Dadakhon Haydarov, a 22-year-old from Sokh District of the Fergana Region and who had a large YouTube following, and detained him for 10 days. According to his father, officials took Haydarov from his parent’s home and transferred him by helicopter to Fergana City.
In May unknown assailants attacked the cameraman accompanying a journalist from the internet publication “Effect Uz” while investigating a story in the Fergana Region. The journalist told media that “unknown persons sprayed a gas canister into the (camera) operator’s eyes and broke the car windows. In addition, the attackers stole a video camera, which is the property of the publication.” The cameraman suffered injuries from the attack.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications such as Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published some critical stories on issues such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who were still on a “black list” that limited their ability to publish elsewhere.
In 2019 the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, which had been blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.
There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.
Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without legal reprisal.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens began to complain about the government’s response in online social forums, the government restricted access to social media, Facebook in particular, with frequent service interruptions. Users noted that while the government did not block the site, it became extremely difficult to load pages and view content. Users noted improvement of Facebook functionality only in August, once the nationwide quarantine was lifted. The media law defines websites as media outlets, requiring them to register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. The government blocked the website of Forum 18, a human rights news site.
Several active online forums allowed registered users to post comments and read discussions on a range of social problems. To become a registered user in these forums, individuals must provide personally identifiable information. It was not clear whether the government attempted to collect this information, although provisions of the law require internet cafe proprietors to log customers’ browser history.
In March the government amended the criminal code to include prohibitions against spreading “false” information regarding COVID-19. On March 31, Dr. Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in Karakalpakstan Region, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any coronavirus cases in Karakalpakstan. Five officials then came to the hospital to question Sultonov, known for publicly discussing freedom of religion and belief on his social media pages. The officials asked Sultonov if he had any religious texts on his person. He said he had Muslim texts on his computer, so officials confiscated it. Authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly spreading false information on lockdown measures under the new criminal code. On November 23, the court of the Ellikalansky District of Karakalpakstan sentenced him to 14 months’ of restrictions on his freedom of movement, including time served since March, for the “Illegal Manufacturing, Storage, Importation, or Distribution of Materials of Religious Content” as well as for “Distribution of Information about the Dissemination of Quarantine and Other Hazardous Infections.”
A decree requires all websites seeking the “.uz” domain to register with the government’s Agency for Press and Information. The decree generally affected only government-owned or government-controlled websites. Opposition websites and those operated by international NGOs or media outlets tended to have domain names registered outside the country.
The government implemented procedures for restricting access to websites that include “banned information.” Based on these regulations, a website or blog could be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography, or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order.
The government continued to limit academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities occasionally required department-head approval for university lectures, and university professors generally practiced self-censorship.
The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly. While the government restricted this right, it sometimes allowed individuals to exercise this freedom without reprisal.
On March 20, an Andijan regional court sentenced Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov to 15 days’ detention for conducting a nikah ritual (an unregistered religious marriage ceremony). Although performing nikah is not itself illegal, Bobojonov was sentenced under Article 201 of the administrative code, “violation of the procedure for organizing, holding meetings, rallies, street processions, or demonstrations.” After the intervention of Bobjonov’s lawyer, human rights activists, and local bloggers, the court reduced his sentence to five days.
Authorities have the right to suspend or prohibit rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. Although the law requires demonstrators to obtain permits, most demonstrators proceeded without filing permit applications. In some incidents, authorities subjected citizens to large fines, threats, arbitrary detention, or abuse for violating procedures for organizing meetings, rallies, and demonstrations or for facilitating unsanctioned events by providing space, other facilities, or materials. Organizers of “mass events” with the potential for more than 100 participants must sign agreements with the Ministry of Interior for the provision of security prior to advertising or holding such an event. Officials broadly applied this regulation, including to private corporate functions.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. Authorities sought to control NGO activity, internationally funded NGOs, and unregulated Islamic and minority religious groups. The operating environment for independent civil society, in particular human rights defenders, remained restrictive, although several activists reported improved cooperation with government officials. Several independent NGOs continued to face barriers to registering locally due to earlier court orders against them or other objections by officials.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the registration of NGOs, requires NGOs to obtain the ministry’s approval to hold large meetings with nonmembers, including foreigners; to seek the ministry’s clearance on any event where materials are to be distributed; and to notify the ministry in writing of the content and scope of the events in question.
The government has a legal framework for public oversight of the activities of government bodies and government officials. In accordance with the law, citizens, citizens’ self-government bodies, noncommercial organizations, and mass media have the right to exercise oversight regarding activities of government bodies and officials.
There are legal restrictions on the types of groups that may be formed. The law requires that organizations with an operating budget and funds register formally with the government. The law allows for a six-month grace period for new organizations to operate while awaiting registration from the Ministry of Justice, during which time the government officially classifies them as “initiative groups.” Several NGOs continued to function as initiative groups for periods longer than six months.
In 2018 the government issued a number of regulations that affected NGO activity. The Ministry of Justice no longer requires NGOs to obtain approval in order to conduct events, but they still need to notify the ministry of plans to conduct public programs. The minimum period for informing the ministry of planned activities is 10 days before the start of an event without the participation of foreign citizens, and 20 days before the start of event with the participation of foreign citizens. The ministry provides NGOs with written notice only in cases of refusal to conduct the event. The law also requires that NGOs file annual reports to the government. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice adopted the Regulation on Monitoring and Studying Activities of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, which establishes a separate procedure on monitoring and studying NGOs’ activities.
The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs.
Due to the burdensome challenges registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations have not received registration from the government. As a result, civil society remains stifled and the level of regulations prevents organizations from gaining a footprint in the country.
On January 18, shortly after Ezgulik assisted blogger and activist Nafosat Olloshkurova as she fled the country, authorities seized the registration certificate, charter, computers, and other documents of the Ezgulik branch office in the Jizzakh Region. According to Ezgulik, prosecutors stated they had a warrant to conduct the search but did not produce it when asked. The next day the prosecutor’s office filed a corruption case against the head of the branch office, Zifa Umrzakova. In June the Criminal Court of Jizzakh sentenced her to two years of “restricted movement.” The case was pending appeal, with a hearing scheduled for January 11, 2021.
The administrative liability code imposes large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity as well as for “involving others” in “illegal NGOs.” The law does not specify whether the term refers to NGOs suspended or closed by the government or merely NGOs not officially registered. The administrative code also imposes penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities the government did not approve in advance.
Registered NGOs are allowed to receive grants from domestic and foreign donors. Receiving organizations must notify the Ministry of Justice of their grants and present a plan of activities to the ministry that details how the NGO would allocate the funds. If the ministry approves, no other government approvals are required. The ministry requires yearly financial reports from NGOs.
Parliament’s Public Fund for the Support of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, and Other Civil Society Institutions continued to conduct grant competitions to implement primarily socioeconomic projects. Some civil society organizations criticized the fund for primarily supporting government-organized NGOs. The law criminalizes membership in organizations the government broadly deemed “extremist.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens throughout the country to have a domicile registration stamp (formerly known as propiska) in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Previously, individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country.
On May 13, the president signed an amended law governing residence registration in Tashkent and specifically the list of categories of citizens “subject to permanent registration in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region.” The new law enables citizens to register at the addresses of their relatives “in a direct line” along first and second degrees of kinship, and canceled the requirement that a couple must live together for one year after marriage in order to retain their residence permit. A new stipulation was introduced that specialists (with some exceptions) who have been working continuously for five years or more in government bodies and organizations located in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region, together with their family members, also have the right to permanent registration. Effective September 1, residents from other regions visiting Tashkent or Tashkent Region may stay for up to 15 days without filing for temporary registration with the police, extended from 10 days.
The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.
Foreign Travel: In 2019 the government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.
On December 9, the government announced it had repatriated 98 Uzbekistani women and children from Syria, where they had “suffered bitter consideration due to the mistakes of spouses or fathers.” The government pledged to assist them and provide necessary support for their return to society.
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, asylum seekers, stateless persons, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. According to a 2018 UNHCR publication, “Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia and the CIS that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, there is no national legislation to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. Rather, asylum seekers are dealt with according to migration legislation.” There were no known cases of refoulement during the year.
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.
During the year, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the UNHCR mandate. UNHCR–through its regional offices, as it does not have an office in-country–undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most refugees lost access to their livelihoods, and in May, UNHCR provided a one-time financial assistance to all refugees in the country.
In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff provides counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.
g. Stateless Persons
In the past some refugees from Tajikistan were officially stateless or faced the possibility of becoming officially stateless, as many carried only old Soviet passports rather than Tajikistan or Uzbekistan passports. Children born to two stateless parents could receive Uzbekistani citizenship only if both parents had a residence permit.
On March 13, the president signed a new law on citizenship. While the new law did not come fully into effect until September 13, the provision that confers citizenship to registered stateless persons who were granted permanent residence in the country before January 1, 1995, went into effect on April 1. According to the UNHCR representative for Central Asia, of the more than 97,000 stateless persons residing in the country, 49,228 individuals benefited from the new provision and would be recognized as citizens. In a statement on March 17, UNHCR welcomed the law and noted its role in providing recommendations to national authorities during its drafting. The UN Secretary-General’s Office issued a statement on March 19 congratulating the country on passing the new law, noting it was a significant contribution toward the United Nations’ global effort to end statelessness by 2024.
On December 29, in his end-of-the-year address to parliament, President Mirziyoyev announced plans to grant Uzbekistan citizenship to stateless persons resident in the country since 2005. Media reported this would give 20,000 more persons the opportunity to become citizens.