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Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In 2017 the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters. Local elections took place in June 2019, but the main opposition party and others boycotted, accusing the government of electoral fraud. The organization’s observation mission to the local elections reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options, although voting “was conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner.” The organization identified credible allegations of vote buying as well as pressure on voters from both the ruling party and opposition parties.

The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police are primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces. The State Intelligence Service is responsible to the prime minister, gathers information, and carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were some reports of abuses by members of the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press; pervasive corruption in all branches of government and municipal institutions; and failure to enforce child labor laws.

Impunity remained a serious problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.

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

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

On December 8, State Police shot and killed a man in Tirana who was violating a COVID-19 curfew. The officer who shot him was arrested and a prosecutor is investigating the killing. There were no other reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Civilian law enforcement agencies such as the State Police investigated whether civilian security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions for civilian agencies. Military law enforcement conducted investigations of killings by the armed forces.

b. Disappearance

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

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were allegations that police and prison guards sometimes beat and abused suspects and prisoners, usually in police stations.

In the September 2019 report on its most recent visit in 2018 to a number of the country’s prisons and detention centers, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported receiving a significant number of allegations of mistreatment of criminal suspects by police officers. Most allegations involved use of excessive force at the time of or immediately following apprehension. Several allegations also concerned mistreatment during transport or initial questioning, apparently to extract a confession, obtain information, or as punishment. The alleged mistreatment consisted of slaps, punches, kicks, blows with a hard object, and excessively tight handcuffing.

The Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to investigations of police actions. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse during the year occurred during arrest and interrogation.

Impunity for police misconduct remained a problem, although the government made greater efforts to address it by increasing the use of camera evidence to document and prosecute police misconduct. The SIAC recorded an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions, and sanctions against officers for criminal and administrative violations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Poor physical conditions and a lack of medical care, particularly for mental health conditions, were serious problems, as was corruption. Conditions remained substandard in some police detention facilities outside of Tirana and other major urban centers.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the General Directorate of Prisons suspended family visits to reduce the spread of the virus. Authorities increased time for inmates’ telephone calls with their families and installed computers to enable communication through Skype. Lawyers could visit their clients but were required to use protective equipment and maintain physical distance. On March 23, the government granted a three-month leave to approximately 600 prisoners, allowing them to serve their sentences at home.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem in some facilities. The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) and the Office of the Ombudsman reported overcrowding in Zaharia prison in Kruje.

Prison and detention center conditions varied significantly by age and type of facility. Prisoners complained prison authorities left the lights on in their cells all day; this measure is required by law. Prison facilities in Kruja, Lushnja, Rrogozhina, Saranda, Lezha, and Tepelena were reported by the Office of the Ombudsman to have urgent infrastructure issues.

The Office of the Ombudsman and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that authorities held inmates with mental disabilities in regular prisons, where access to mental health care was inadequate. Since 2018 the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health have tried to accommodate Zaharia inmates and detainees in the prison in Lezha. The AHC and ombudsman reported the government had not taken measures to turn the planned buildings in the Lezha prison into a special medical institution. The Ministry of Justice is constructing a prison for inmates over the age of 60 that is scheduled for completion in 2021.

With the exception of regional facilities in Tirana (excluding its commissariats, which are smaller units falling under regional police directorates), Durres, Gjirokaster, Kukes, Fier, and Korca, conditions in facilities operated by the Ministry of Interior, such as police stations and temporary detention facilities, were inadequate in some respects. Some detention facilities in remote areas were unheated during the winter, and some lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks. Facilities were cramped, provided limited access to toilets, and had little or no ventilation, natural light, or beds and benches. Camera monitoring systems were nonexistent or insufficient in most police stations. The ombudsman reported that detention facilities operated by the Interior Ministry were overcrowded mainly due to increased numbers of arrests for recently added criminal offenses and a lack of coordination with, and delays, including delays in setting trials, from the Ministry of Justice.

Administration: The ombudsman reported that prison and police officials generally cooperated with investigations. The General Directorate of Prisons received 173 complaints through November, mostly regarding employment decisions or corruption in the penitentiary system, while the ombudsman received 141 complaints from detainees and inmates through August, but did not refer any cases for prosecution.

Corruption continued to be a serious problem in detention centers, particularly in connection with access to work and special release programs. In 2018 the former general director of prisons, Arben Cuko, was arrested on corruption charges. In January the court closed the case against Cuko after reducing the charges several times. In July the director of Lushnja prison, Judmir Shurdhi, and another prison staff member were arrested for the unauthorized release of a convict. As of October, their case continued to be under investigation. Through July the General Directorate of Prisons reported that it had carried out disciplinary proceedings against 422 prison staff and had fired an additional 33. Through August the directorate dismissed six prison directors, and four more were under investigation.

In July the Assembly adopted legislation to minimize communications between organized crime and gang members in prison and their outside contacts to prevent them from running criminal organizations while incarcerated. Through August seven inmates were placed under this regime.

Through August the AHC reported one suspicious death in the Jordan Misja prison in Tirana, for which an inmate with a mental disability was charged and tried. The committee alleged prosecutors and judges in the case violated criminal procedures by denying the defendant the right to a lawyer and using excessive security measures on a person with a mental disability.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed local and international human rights groups, the media, and international bodies such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture to monitor prisons and detention facilities.

Due to the pandemic, the ombudsman and other organizations monitoring the penitentiary system were forced to telework. The ombudsman did not conduct physical inspections of prisons during the year.

Improvements: The ombudsman and the AHC confirmed an overall decrease in prison overcrowding due to new infrastructure and amnesties. Nevertheless some penitentiary facilities were still overcrowded.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law and constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that, except for arrests made during the commission of a crime, police arrest a suspect on criminal grounds with a warrant issued by a judge and based on sufficient evidence. There were no reports of secret arrests. By law, police must immediately inform a prosecutor of an arrest. The prosecutor may release the suspect or petition the court within 48 hours to hold the individual further. A court must also decide within 48 hours whether to place a suspect in detention, require bail, prohibit travel, or require the defendant to report regularly to police. Prosecutors requested, and courts ordered, detention in many criminal cases, although courts sometimes denied prosecutors’ requests for detention of well connected, high-profile defendants.

By law and based on a prosecutor’s request, the court has 72 hours to review pretrial detention status of a court-ordered arrest. Police may detain rather than formally arrest a suspect for a period not exceeding 10 hours. Due to overcrowding in the prison system, detainees, including juveniles, occasionally remained in police detention centers for longer than the 10-hour legal maximum.

The ombudsman reported that police used excessive force when arresting protesters who took part in rallies, mainly in Tirana. The ombudsman received several complaints of excessive use of force and injuries from tear gas during those protests and referred one case for prosecution. Protests against the municipality of Tirana’s demolition of the National Theater on May 17 resulted in 64 arrests, charged with disobeying law enforcement and participating in illegal gatherings (violating curfew imposed to counter the spread of COVID-19).

The constitution requires authorities to inform detainees immediately of their rights and the charges against them. Law enforcement authorities did not always respect this requirement. The law provides for bail and a system is operational; police frequently release detainees without bail, on the condition that they report regularly to the police station. Courts also often ordered suspects to report to police or prosecutors on a weekly basis. While the law gives detainees the right to prompt access to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, NGOs reported interrogations often took place without the presence of a lawyer. Authorities placed many suspects under house arrest, often at their own request, because they would receive credit for time served if convicted.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Although the government generally observed these prohibitions, there were instances when police detained persons for questioning for inordinate lengths of time without formally arresting them.

Pretrial Detention: While the law requires completion of most pretrial investigations within three months, a prosecutor may extend this period. The law provides that pretrial detention should not exceed three years. Extended pretrial detention often occurred due to delayed investigations, defense mistakes, or the intentional failure of defense counsel to appear. The law authorizes judges to hold offending attorneys in contempt of court. Limited material resources, lack of space, poor court-calendar management, insufficient staff, and failure of attorneys and witnesses to appear prevented the court system from adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As of August, 47 percent of the prison and detention center population was in pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently. Court hearings were often not open to the public. Court security officers frequently refused to admit observers to hearings and routinely telephoned the presiding judge to ask whether to admit an individual seeking to attend a hearing. Some agencies disregarded court orders.

The government continued to implement an internationally monitored process to vet judges and prosecutors and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of November, 45 percent of judges and prosecutors who had undergone vetting had failed and been dismissed, 37 percent passed, and 18 percent resigned. As a result, the Constitutional Court had only four of nine judges seated for most of the year, depriving it of a quorum to decide on cases pending review. In December, parliament and the president added three more judges to the court, reaching a quorum of seven of nine judges. The Supreme Court had only three of 19 judges seated. Those judges did not constitute a quorum to decide cases but have begun to reduce the backlog of cases, which requires just three judges.

The politicization of past appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court at times threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The implementation of justice reform provisions led to a pause in normal disciplinary processes while the country establishes independent disciplinary bodies. Since its establishment in February, the High Justice Inspectorate, which conducts disciplinary investigations, approved six decisions to start disciplinary investigations against magistrates. In July the High Justice Inspectorate initiated disciplinary proceedings on human rights violations against a prosecutor and submitted its findings to the High Prosecutorial Council.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult an attorney. If they cannot afford one, an attorney is to be provided at public expense. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to an attorney was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must petition a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, courts were susceptible to corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tampering. These factors undermined the judiciary’s authority, contributed to controversial court decisions, and led to an inconsistent application of civil law. Courts have taken steps to address the issue by using audio recording equipment. Despite the statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from this during the year. The Ministry of Justice established the Free Legal Aid Directorate, law clinics at state universities, an online platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a telephone line to request free legal aid to address these issues.

Claimants who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings, especially those concerning the right to a fair trial. The Office of the Ombudsman expressed its concern about the increasing number of cases before the ECHR, the country’s low rate of compliance with judicial decisions, and the failure to execute the final rulings of courts and the ECHR.

Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government made some progress on disbursing compensation during the year.

Property Restitution

The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that some claimants struggled to obtain due process from the government for property claims. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for the Treatment of Property. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR, and many cases were pending ECHR review. The ombudsman reported that as of June, 39 cases against the state were before the ECHR, involving millions of euros in claims. The ombudsman reported that the government generally paid judgements against the state according to the timeframe set by the ECHR. The Assembly enacted legislation in April that allows owners to claim restitution or compensation for agricultural property the communist government collectivized.

The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscation of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence, but there were reports that the government failed to respect those prohibitions. The Tirana Prosecution Office referred two cases to trial after conducting investigations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government usually respected these rights, although defamation is a criminal offense. There were reports that the government, businesses, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. There were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption.

Business owners freely used their media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. There were credible reports of senior media representatives using media outlets to blackmail businesses by threatening unfavorable, sometimes factual and sometimes speculative, media coverage. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union (AJU) continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at many media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. According to the journalist union, the pandemic worsened these delays. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity in reporting.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 900-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial, political, and criminal interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views as well as opportunities for corruption.

Violence and Harassment: The AJU reported five cases of violence and intimidation through November against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure. In March the police detained a reporter following the asylum petition of Turkish citizen Selami Simsek (see subsection on Access to Asylum below) for several hours. In June the police detained a reporter for several hours while he was filming a demolition operation in Lezha. The police gave no reason for the detention. In October an explosion occurred at the gate of the house of News 24 TV correspondent Elidon Ndreka; no injuries were reported. The AJU condemned the incidents and called on authorities to punish perpetrators.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment. The AJU cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists. A survey of 800 media professionals published in 2019 found that 62 percent of respondents thought there was interference from individuals or politics, 60 percent thought there was interference from media owners, 39 percent thought there was self-censorship, and 31 percent thought there was corruption in the media. About 78 percent of media professionals thought there were journalists who engaged in corrupt practices to misreport stories.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines were excessive and, combined with the entry of a criminal conviction into the defendant’s record, undermined freedom of expression. The AJU expressed concern that as of August, there were more than 20 lawsuits against journalists, mainly for defamation.

In 2019 the Assembly passed legislation, the so-called antidefamation package, which amended existing media laws to address defamation. NGOs and some international organizations criticized the amendments, sparking public debate, and the president returned the law to parliament on January 11.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: To receive government services, citizens changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many individuals could not provide documentation and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register. In September media reported on cases in which the Interior Ministry, while preparing voter lists for national elections scheduled for April 2021, had transferred the residency of some citizens without their knowledge. The ministry corrected a number of these transfers.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported some cases of border police returning migrants to Greece despite indicating an intention to seek asylum.

Authorities detained 7,404 irregular migrants who entered the country between January and August, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. Migrants who claimed asylum were housed at the Babrru open migrant facility. Many of the irregular migrants placed in Babrru were later apprehended again attempting to cross into Montenegro rather than remaining in the country to pursue asylum requests. Karrec and Babrru centers faced funding constraints, and the government closed the Babrru center temporarily to assess wear and tear to the facility and estimate needed repairs.

Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the access of arrivals to national procedures and return of persons to countries from which they arrived. The ombudsman and Caritas were also allowed to monitor the detention of migrants.

Refoulement: The January 1 expulsion of Harun Celik, a citizen of Turkey and alleged follower of Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government claimed was behind the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, raised questions about Celik’s access to asylum. Celik had been arrested in 2019 in Tirana International Airport for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. When Celik finished his prison sentence, border authorities expelled him from the country and placed him on a flight to Turkey, despite assertions that Celik had requested asylum. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, along with other UN bodies, opened an inquiry, including the question of whether or not this was a case of refoulement.

Celik’s compatriate and alleged follower of Gulen, Selami Simsek, was also arrested in 2019 for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. Simsek was released from prison on March 9 but remained in the Karrec closed-migrant facility. Media reported that Simsek was taken to the Interior Ministry at 9 p.m.–outside working hours–on March 9 after his release from prison for an interview regarding his asylum application. The ministry denied the application the same day, and the National Commission on Asylum and Refugees rejected his appeal on September 10. It was disputed whether Simsek was provided adequate notice of either decision. The Turkish government continues to press for summary return of Simsek and others alleged to be connected to Fethullah Gulen.

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

There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the social care and other services due to limited issuance of identification cards. Caritas and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.

The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law limits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or being granted refugee status. UNHCR reported that one asylum request had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.

Employment: While the law permits refugees to work, they must first obtain Albanian citizenship to receive identification cards and work permits.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, approximately 700 persons at risk of statelessness were identified under the agency’s statelessness mandate by November. The government does not have data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country. The law allows stateless persons to acquire citizenship under certain conditions, although there is no separate legislation that specifically addresses citizenship for stateless persons. UNHCR reported that new legislation on citizenship significantly reduced the risk of statelessness in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national parliamentary elections took place in 2017. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission for the elections reported that contestants “were able to campaign freely and fundamental freedoms were respected.” The OSCE further noted the “continued politicization of election-related bodies and institutions as well as widespread allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters detracted from public trust in the electoral process.” Regarding voting itself, the OSCE mission noted “an overall orderly election day” but found that “important procedures were not fully respected in a considerable number of voting centers observed.”

Local elections took place in June 2019. The main opposition party and others boycotted the elections, alleging government collusion with organized crime to commit electoral fraud. The OSCE election observation mission reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, “voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options” and “there were credible allegations of citizens being pressured by both sides.”

Political Parties and Political Participation: Media outlets reported allegations of the use of public resources for partisan campaign purposes in the 2017 parliamentary and 2019 local elections, and there were reports of undue political influence on the media. There were also reports of limited access to voting for persons with disabilities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Following the 2017 elections, the share of Assembly members who were women increased to a record 29 percent, and following a major cabinet reshuffle the female senior government officials rose to 53 percent. The law governing the election of Assembly members requires that 30 percent of candidates be women and that they occupy 30 percent of appointed and elected positions. According to the OSCE final report on the 2017 elections, however, the largest parties did not always respect the mandated 30 percent quota in their candidate lists. The Central Election Commission fined the parties but nonetheless accepted their lists.

Members of national minorities stood as candidates in both minority and mainstream parties in the 2017 parliamentary elections and 2019 local elections. Observers noted campaigning in the Greek and Macedonian languages without incident. Nevertheless, observers reported that some minorities remained vulnerable to vote buying. One Balkan-Egyptian candidate joined the Assembly as a member when the Central Election Commission replaced members of the opposition who resigned from the body in February 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, and also prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from serving as mayors, parliamentarians, or in government or state positions, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Examples include a 2019 mayoral candidate previously convicted of drug trafficking.

The constitution requires judges and prosecutors to undergo vetting for unexplained wealth, ties to organized crime, and professional competence. The Independent Qualification Commission conducted vetting, and the Appeals Chamber reviewed contested decisions. The International Monitoring Operation, composed of international judicial experts, oversaw the process. As of November, 125 judges and prosecutors were dismissed, 103 confirmed, while 48 others had resigned rather than undergo vetting.

Several government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations.

Corruption: Between January and September, the prosecutor general’s office registered 20 new corruption cases and dismissed seven. The Department of Administration, Transparency, and Anticorruption investigated 29 cases, resulting in 115 administrative and 153 disciplinary measures.

The December 2019 establishment of the Special Prosecution Office on Corruption and Organized Crime, one of two entities constituting the Special Structure on Anticorruption and Organized Crime, resulted in 327 new criminal investigations and 65 requests sent to court as of November. While prosecutors made significant progress in pursuing low-level public corruption cases, including corrupt prosecutors and judges, prosecution of higher-level suspects remained rare due to investigators’ fear of retribution, a lack of resources, and corruption within the judiciary itself. In September the appellate court remanded the conviction of a former interior minister for retrial. In November the Special Prosecution Office filed charges against a former prosecutor general for hiding assets and seized several of those assets in December.

The High Inspectorate reported that through August, it had referred 60 new cases for prosecution, involving two Assembly members, one deputy minister, three mayors, 32 general directors of public agencies, one head of public procurement at customs, and five heads of regional customs departments. Charges included refusing to declare assets, hiding assets, or falsifying asset declarations; money laundering; tax evasion; falsification of documents; and general corruption.

Police corruption remained a problem. Through June the SIAC received 5,051 complaints via an anticorruption hotline, of which 1,819 were within the jurisdiction of the service and 3,232 were referred to other agencies. Through November the SIAC investigated 1,016 complaints. Most of the complaints alleged a failure to act, violation of standard operating procedures, abuse of office, arbitrary action, police bias, unfair fines, and passive corruption. SIAC referred to the prosecution 202 cases involving 299 officials. The Office of the Ombudsman also processed complaints against police officers, mainly concerning problems with arrests and detentions.

Police did not always enforce the law equitably. Personal associations, political or criminal connections, deficient infrastructure, lack of equipment, and inadequate supervision often influenced law enforcement. Authorities continued to address these problems by renovating police facilities, upgrading vehicles, and publicly highlighting anticorruption measures. The government has established a system of vetting security officials and, as of November, had completed vetting 32 high-level police and SIAC leaders.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interest, which monitored and verified such disclosures and made them available to the public. The law authorizes the High Inspectorate to fine officials who fail to comply with disclosure requirements or to refer them to the prosecutor.

Through August the High Inspectorate fined 10 individuals for not disclosing their assets or conflicts of interest or for violating the law on whistleblower protection. Courts generally upheld fines imposed by the High Inspectorate.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is the main independent institution for promoting and enforcing human rights. It is authorized by law to monitor and report on prisons and detention centers. The office may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights violations.

The Office of the Ombudsman was underfunded and understaffed.

The Assembly has committees on legal issues, public administration, and human rights, which review the annual report of the Office of the Ombudsman. The committee was engaged and effective in legislative matters.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime; the law also includes provisions on sexual assault. Penalties for rape and sexual assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the penalty is three to 10 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Authorities did not disaggregate data on prosecutions for spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

The law on domestic violence extends protection to victims in a relationship or civil union and provides for issuance of a protective order that automatically covers children as well. In November the Assembly amended the law to provide for ordering the abuser to leave the premises of the victim. Police operated an automated application issuance process within the police case management system, which allows for rapid issuance of protective orders and produces a record of orders issued. Through November the system was used to document the generation of 2,324 protective orders.

In April the Ministry of Health and Social Protection approved a protocol for operating shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol provides services to victims of domestic violence and trafficking while following guidance on social distancing. The ministry posted a video message reminding citizens to report any case of suspected domestic violence and provided a hotline and police number on its web page.

As of November, investigators and prosecutors had registered 81 cases of alleged sexual assault. Also through November, investigators and prosecutors registered 4,313 cases of domestic violence, six of which were murders. UNICEF reported 370 cases of domestic violence through August, with fewer cases referred in 2020 than in 2019. NGOs reported high levels of domestic violence against women. According to a 2018 survey of women between the ages of 18 and 74 that the UN Development Program released in March 2019, 52.9 percent of women surveyed reported having been subjected to violence or sexual harassment during their lifetimes.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that also accommodated victims of domestic violence. In 2018 the government began operating a crisis management center for victims of sexual assault at the Tirana University Hospital Center. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection reported that as of December, the center had treated 20 victims, 14 of whom were minors.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection from discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. There are no legal barriers to access to contraceptives, which are provided free of charge to insured women. Nevertheless, women and girls often did not use this right for a variety of reasons, including fear of stigma from health-care service providers and members of their community. Some women and girls, particularly those living in remote, rural areas, faced significant challenges in accessing essential sexual and reproductive health services. Women from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as women with disabilities, LGBTI community members, Roma, and Balkan Egyptian women, were often unaware of their rights to reproductive health services.

In 2018 the Ministry of Health and Social Protection established the Lilium Center with the support of UNDP to provide integrated services to survivors of sexual violence. The center is in a hospital setting and provides health care services, social services, and forensic examinations at a single location by professionals trained in cases of sexual violence. The center functions are based on the model adopted by the Albanian National Council for Gender Equality.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were underrepresented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. Through August the commissioner for protection from discrimination received 83 complaints of employment discrimination, 54 of which were against public entities and 29 against private entities. The complaints alleged discrimination based mainly on political affiliation, health conditions, or disability. The commissioner ruled in favor of the employee in nine cases, five of which were against public entities and four against private entities. Through August the commissioner had received 11 complaints of discrimination on the basis of gender and ruled in favor of the employee in one case. In that case, the commissioner for protection from discrimination ruled against the Trans Adriatica Spiecapag company for dismissing a female employee due to her pregnancy, status as a parent, and gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to official figures, in 2019 the ratio of boys to girls at birth was 108 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children. The law on civil status provides financial incentives for birth registration.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad, frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and members of other minorities.

Children in first through fourth grade are legally entitled to free textbooks. Because of the need to use online class delivery during the pandemic, the government offered free schoolbooks to students from the first to the seventh grade; children with special needs were eligible for free schoolbooks from the first through the twelfth grade.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law; the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography, which is punishable by imprisonment for three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that as of November, 13 children had been sexually exploited none of them involving pornography. In early June, reports emerged of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and later sexually exploited; videos of the abuse were posted online. The case has gone to trial.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Some street children begged and some of them became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open-migrant facility in Babrru.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and municipalities have not used this option frequently.

Through August the General Directorate of Prisons reported that there were 17 juveniles in the justice system, none of whom had been convicted. The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children, although the Juvenile Institute in Kavaja, the only institution in the country for juvenile offenders, was adequate for the population it served. The directorate reported that the number of minors in pretrial detention and detention facilities had decreased because of alternative sentencing.

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

Anti-Semitism

Reports indicated that there were 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. In September Valentina Leskaj, a former government minister, joined the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement Advisory Board, becoming its first Muslim member.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law.

As of August the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received two complaints of alleged discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ruled in favor of the complainants in five cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against the local education office in Elbasan for refusing to hire a teacher because of her disability.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were in facilities that lacked accessibility or other accommodations. A 2018 study by World Vision and Save the Children reported that none of the 10 municipalities surveyed had a plan to eliminate barriers to information, communication, and mobility for persons with disabilities, or a dedicated budget to address the problem.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if the students appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received 12 complaints of discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity, ruling in favor of the complainant in two cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against Fier municipality and its water and sewage utility for discriminating against Romani households. The commissioner ordered the municipality and utility to supply running water to the families. When the municipality and utility did not respond, the commissioner imposed fines.

The government adopted legislation on official minorities in 2017 but has not passed all the regulations needed for its implementation. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The legislation provides for minority language education and dual official language use for the local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the commission started ex officio and ruled that discrimination had occurred.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with HIV or AIDS. The Association of People Living with HIV or AIDS reported that stigma and discrimination caused individuals to avoid getting tested for HIV, leading to delayed diagnosis and consequently delayed access to care and support. Persons living with HIV or AIDS faced employment discrimination, and children living with HIV faced discrimination in school.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law and related regulations and statutes provide the right for most workers to form independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law prohibits members of the military and senior government officials from joining unions and requires that a trade union have at least 20 members to be registered. The law provides the right to strike for all workers except indispensable medical and hospital personnel, persons providing air traffic control or prison services, and fire brigades. Strike action is prohibited in “special cases,” such as a natural catastrophe, a state of war, extraordinary situations, and cases where the freedom of elections is at risk. Workers not excluded by their positions exercised their right to strike.

The law provides limited protection to domestic and migrant workers. Labor unions were generally weak and politicized. Workers who engage in illegal strikes may be compelled to pay for any damages due to the strike action.

Government enforcement of the law remained largely ineffective, in part due to the extent of informal employment. Resources for conducting inspections and remedying violations were not adequate. Penalties were rarely enforced and were not commensurate to those under other laws related to the denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Arbitration procedures allowed for significant delays that limited worker protections against antiunion activity.

Civilian workers in all fields have the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law establishes procedures for the protection of workers’ rights through collective bargaining agreements. Unions representing public sector employees negotiated directly with the government. Effective collective bargaining remained difficult because employers often resisted union organizing and activities. In this environment collective bargaining agreements, once reached, were difficult to enforce.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. Lack of coordination among ministries and the sporadic implementation of standard operating procedures hampered enforcement. Penalties for violations were commensurate to those for other serious crimes but were seldom enforced. Some law enforcement organizations and the victim advocates at the prosecutors’ offices received training in a victim-centered approach to victims of human trafficking. The government continued to identify victims of forced labor and prosecuted and convicted a small number of traffickers.

The Labor Inspectorate reported no cases of forced labor in the formal sector during the year. See section 7.c. for cases involving children in forced labor in the informal sector.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age of employment at 16 but allows children at the age of 15 to be employed in “light” work that does not interfere with school. Children younger than 18 may generally only work in jobs categorized as “light.” Children may work up to two hours per day and up to 10 hours per week when school is in session, and up to six hours per day and 30 hours per week when school is not in session. Children who are 16 or 17 may work up to six hours per day and up to 30 hours per week if the labor is part of their vocational education. By law, the State Inspectorate for Labor and Social Services (SILSS), under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, is responsible for enforcing minimum age requirements through the courts, but it did not adequately enforce the law.

Labor inspectors investigated the formal labor sector, whereas most child labor occurred in the informal sector. Children engaged in gathering recyclable metals and plastic, small-scale agricultural harvesting, selling small goods in the informal sector, serving drinks and food in bars and restaurants, the clothing industry, and mining. There were reports that children worked as shop vendors, vehicle washers, textile factory workers, or shoeshine boys. There were isolated reports of children subjected to forced labor in cannabis fields in 2019. The number of children engaged in street-related activities (such as begging or selling items) increased during the summer, particularly around tourist areas.

Children were subjected to forced begging and criminal activity. Some of the children begging on the street were second- or third-generation beggars. Research suggested that begging started as early as the age of four or five. While the law prohibits the exploitation of children for begging, police generally did not enforce it, although they made greater efforts to do so during the year. In several cases, police detained parents of children found begging in the street and referred children for appropriate child services care. The State Agency on Children’s Rights continued to identify and manage cases of street children identified by mobile identification units.

In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the government’s statistical agency and the International Labor Organization estimated that 54,000 children were engaged in forced labor domestically. An estimated 43,000 children worked in farms and fishing, 4,400 in the services sector, and 2,200 in hotels and restaurants. Nearly 5 percent of children were child laborers.

SILSS did not carry out inspections for child labor unless there was a specific complaint. Most labor inspections occurred in shoe and textile factories, call centers, and retail enterprises; officials found some instances of child labor during their inspections. Penalties were rarely assessed and were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. As of July, SILSS reported 101 children under the age of 18 registered to work, 88 percent of whom were in manufacturing enterprises.

The NGO Terre des Hommes reported that the COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened child labor violations. Restriction of movement and other measures against COVID-19 produced new exploitation trends, such as door-to-door begging and afternoon and night street work.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws prohibit employment discrimination because of race, skin color, gender, age, physical or mental disability, political beliefs, language, nationality, religion, family, HIV/AIDS status, or social origin. The government did not enforce the law and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws related to denials of civil rights. The commissioner for protection from discrimination reported that most allegations of discrimination involved race, sexual orientation, economic status, or disability.

There are laws prohibiting women from engaging in work that requires lifting more than 20 kilograms.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the national poverty threshold. SILSS and tax authorities are responsible for enforcing the minimum wage but had an insufficient number of staff to enforce compliance.

While the law establishes a 40-hour work week, individual or collective agreements typically set the actual work week. The law provides for paid annual holidays, but only employees in the formal labor market had rights to paid holidays. Many persons in the private sector worked six days a week. The law requires rest periods and premium pay for overtime, but employers did not always observe these provisions. The government rarely enforced laws related to maximum work hours, limits on overtime, or premium pay for overtime, especially in the private sector. These laws did not apply to migrant workers or workers in the informal sector, which made up 56 percent of the economy, according to the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Overview of the Informal Economy in Albania.

SILSS is responsible for occupational health and safety standards and regulations, and while these were appropriate for the main industries, enforcement was lacking overall. Violations of wage and occupational safety standards occurred most frequently in the textile, footwear, construction, and mining industries. Resources and inspections were not adequate, and penalties were not commensurate to those of other similar crimes. Law enforcement agencies lacked the tools to enforce collection and consequently rarely charged violators. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors did have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

Workers often could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Employers did not effectively protect employees in this situation. Through October there were 137 major industrial accidents that caused death or serious injury to workers.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament. Many governmental functions are the responsibility of two entities within the state, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, as well as the Brcko District, an autonomous administrative unit under Bosnia and Herzegovina sovereignty. The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace (the Dayton Accords), which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, provides the constitutional framework for governmental structures. The country held general elections in 2018. The results of the general elections were not fully implemented, as the Federation entity-level government and two cantonal governments were not yet formed. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights reported that the 2018 elections were held in a competitive environment but were characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines. While candidates could campaign freely, the office noted that “instances of pressure and undue influence on voters were not effectively addressed,” citing long-standing deficiencies in the legal framework. The office further noted that elections were administered efficiently, but widespread credible allegations of electoral contestants’ manipulating the composition of polling station commissions reduced voter confidence in the integrity of the process. More than 60 complaints of alleged election irregularities were filed with the Central Election Commission.

State-level police agencies include the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Border Police, the Foreigners Affairs Service (partial police competencies), and the Directorate for Police Bodies Coordination. Police agencies in the two entities (the Republika Srpska Ministry of Interior and the Federation Police Directorate), the Brcko District, and 10 cantonal interior ministries also exercise police powers. The armed forces provide assistance to civilian bodies in case of natural or other disasters. The intelligence service is under the authority of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers. A European Union peacekeeping force continued to support the country’s government in maintaining a safe and secure environment for the population. While civilian authorities maintained effective control of law enforcement agencies and security forces, a lack of clear division of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the country’s 17 law enforcement agencies resulted in occasional confusion and overlapping responsibilities. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions of free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; government corruption; trafficking in persons; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against members of national/ethnic/racial minority groups and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

Units in both entities and the Brcko District investigated allegations of police abuse, meted out administrative penalties, and referred cases of criminal misconduct to prosecutors. Given the lack of follow-through on allegations against police abuses, observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. Ineffective prosecution of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict continued to be a problem.

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

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

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

Impunity for some crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict continued to be a problem, especially for those responsible for the approximately 8,000 persons killed in the Srebrenica genocide and for approximately 8,000 other individuals who remained missing and presumed killed during the conflict. Authorities also failed to prosecute more than a very small fraction of the more than 20,000 instances of sexual violence alleged to have occurred during the conflict.

During the year national authorities did not make sufficient progress in processing of war crimes due to the lack of strategic framework and long-lasting organizational and financial problems. In September, following a two-year delay, the Council of Ministers adopted a Revised National War Crimes Strategy. The Revised Strategy defines new criteria for selection and prioritization of cases between the state and entities, provides measures to enhance judicial and police capacities to process war crime cases, and updates the measures for protection of witnesses and victims. The Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Council of Ministers adopted the Revised Strategy following prolonged negotiations due to the opposition from the Bosniak victims associations. As a compromise, Annex B was added to the Ministry of Justice draft, which provides for prioritizing the “A” cases and provides additional measures to enhance regional cooperation.

Insufficient funding, poor regional cooperation, lack of personnel, political obstacles, lack of evidence, and the unavailability of witnesses and suspects led to the closure of cases and a significant backlog. Authorities also lacked adequate criteria to evaluate which cases should be transferred from state- to entity-level courts. The mechanism for transfer of legally and factually less complex cases with known suspects from the state-level to entity or Brcko District courts was utilized to a sufficient degree. The Prosecutor’s Office worked on 668 cases with known perpetrators and 1,933 cases with unknown perpetrators. In 2019-20 the Prosecutor’s Office raised 25 indictments against 48 persons. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Prosecutor’s Office continued to focus on less complex war crime cases during this period, misusing resources and failing to act in accordance with the current war crimes strategy. The overall conviction rate in 2019 and 2020 was 79 percent, an increase from 39 percent in 2018.

Some convictions were issued or confirmed during the year. Sretko Pavic was convicted of war crimes against civilians and sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment. The Appeals Chamber of the BiH Court acquitted Ibro Merkez of charges that he committed war crimes against civilians in Gorazde. The Court of BiH sentenced Ivan Kraljevic to one year and three months of imprisonment; Stojan Odak to imprisonment of two years and six months; and Vice Bebek to one year of imprisonment for war crimes against Bosniak civilians from the Stolac, Capljina, Mostar, Prozor, Livno, and Jablanica municipalities.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices. While there were no reports that government officials employed such measures, there were no concrete indications that security forces had ended the practice of severely mistreating detainees and prisoners reported in previous years.

The country has not designated an institution as its national mechanism for the prevention of torture and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2019 the Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman in BiH (Ombudsman Institution) received 129 complaints by prisoners with regard to prisoner treatment in detention and prison facilities. The number of complaints fell by 10 percent compared with 2018; most of the complaints concerned health care, denial of out-of-prison benefits, transfer to other institutions, use of parole, and conditions in prison and detention facilities. A smaller number of complaints referred to misconduct by staff or violence by other prisoners.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Physical and sanitary conditions in the country’s prisons and detention facilities varied depending on location, and they generally met the need for accommodation of prisoners and detainees.

Physical Conditions: In a special 2019 report on the situation in police holding facilities, the Ombudsman Institution reported that the biggest problems in all police administrations were the lack of holding facilities and the limited capacity of existing ones. Several police stations in the same police administrative district had to use the same facilities. Due to lack of space, police did not always separate male, female, and minor detainees in cases where a large number of detainees were accommodated. Some police stations’ detention facilities lacked natural light and had poor ventilation. The material conditions of most police detention facilities were generally below EU standards.

Health care was one of the main complaints by prisoners. Not all prisons had comprehensive health-care facilities with full-time health-care providers. In such instances these institutions contracted part-time practitioners who are obligated to regularly visit institutions and provide services. Prisons in Zenica, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Istocno Sarajevo, Foca, and Banja Luka employed full time doctors. There were no prison facilities suitable for prisoners with physical disabilities.

Administration: Units in both entities and the Brcko District did not always conduct investigations into credible allegations of prisoner or detainee mistreatment.

The country’s prison system was not fully harmonized, nor was it in full compliance with European standards. Jurisdiction for the execution of sanctions was divided between the state, entities, and Brcko District. As a consequence, in some instances different legal regulations governed the same area, often resulting in unequal treatment of convicted persons, depending on the prison establishment or the entity in which they served their sentence.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent human rights observers to visit and gave international community representatives widespread and unhindered access to detention facilities and prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Ombudsman Institution, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to have access to prison and detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the ministries of justice at both the state and entity levels. In 2019 the CPT visited prisons and detention facilities and provided its findings from the visit to the BiH government. The CPT’s report on the visit had not been published as of year’s end.

Improvements: On July 22, the government formally opened the long-awaited maximum-security State Prison with the capacity to hold 348 prisoners, of which 298 cells will be for prisoners and 50 for detainees. On September 4, the first group of prisoners was accommodated in the prison.

The ombudsman’s annual report for 2019 indicated that both Federation and Republika Srpska (RS) Ombudsman Institutions invested significant funds to improve conditions of their prison and detention facilities. In the Federation, this included construction of a new admission ward in the Bihac prison, building a new pavilion in the Zenica prison, and construction of the Orasje Educational Correctional facility for minors. Overcrowding at the Sarajevo detention unit was also resolved by moving some of the detainees to the Zenica prison detention facility and by expanding the capacity of the detention unit of the Sarajevo semiopen prison in Igman, which allows prisoners to leave over the weekend. In the RS, significant investments were made to prisons in Trebinje, Bijeljina, Istocno Sarajevo, and Banja Luka.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police generally arrested persons based on court orders and sufficient evidence or in conformity with rules prescribed by law. The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the charges against them immediately upon their arrest and obliges police to bring suspects before a prosecutor within 24 hours of detention (72 hours for terrorism charges). During this period, police may detain individuals for investigative purposes and processing. The prosecutor has an additional 24 hours to release the person or to request a court order extending pretrial detention by court police. The court has a subsequent 24 hours to make a decision.

Court police are separate from other police agencies and fall under the Ministry of Justice; their holding facilities are within the courts. After 24 or 48 hours of detention by court police, an individual must be presented to a magistrate who decides whether the suspect shall remain in custody or be released. Suspects who remain in custody are turned over to prison staff.

The law limits the duration of interrogations to a maximum of six hours. The law also limits pretrial detention to 12 months and trial detention to three years. There is a functioning bail system and restrictions, such as the confiscation of travel documents or house arrest, which were ordered regularly to ensure defendants appear in court.

The law allows detainees to request a lawyer of their own choosing, and if they are unable to afford a lawyer, the authorities should provide one. The law also requires the presence of a lawyer during the pretrial and trial hearings. Detainees are free to select their lawyer from a list of registered lawyers. In a 2016 report, the CPT noted that, in the vast majority of cases, authorities did not grant detainees access to a lawyer at the outset of their detention. Instead, such access occurred only when the detainee was brought before a prosecutor to give a statement or at the hearing before a judge. It was usually not possible for a detainee to consult with his or her lawyer in private prior to appearing before a prosecutor or judge. The report also noted that juveniles met by the CPT also alleged they were interviewed without a lawyer or person of trust present.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The state constitution provides the right to a fair hearing in civil and criminal matters while entity constitutions provide for an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, political parties and organized crime figures sometimes influenced the judiciary at both the state and entity levels in politically sensitive cases, especially those related to corruption. Authorities at times failed to enforce court decisions.

Trial Procedures

The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence; the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation if necessary; the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay; and the right to be present at their trial. The law provides for the right to counsel at public expense if the prosecutor charges the defendant with a serious crime. Courts are obliged to appoint a defense attorney if the defendant is deaf or mute or detained or accused of a crime for which long-term imprisonment may be pronounced. Authorities generally gave defense attorneys adequate time and facilities to prepare their clients’ defense. The law provides defendants the right to confront witnesses, to have a court-appointed interpreter and written translation of pertinent court documents into a language understood by the defendant, to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and to appeal verdicts. Authorities generally respected most of these rights, which extend to all defendants.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for individuals and organizations to seek civil remedies for alleged human rights violations through domestic courts and provides for the appeal of decisions to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The government failed to comply with many decisions pertaining to human rights by the country’s courts. The court system suffered from large backlogs of cases and the lack of an effective mechanism to enforce court orders. Inefficiency in the courts undermined the rule of law by making recourse to civil judgments less effective. In several cases the Constitutional Court found violations of the right to have proceedings finalized within a reasonable period of time. The government’s failure to comply with court decisions led plaintiffs to bring cases before the ECHR.

Property Restitution

The four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish) had extensive claims for restitution of property nationalized during and after World War II. In the absence of a state restitution law governing the return of nationalized properties, many government officials used such properties as tools for ethnic and political manipulation. In a few cases, government officials refused to return properties, or at least give religious communities a temporary right to use them, even in cases in which evidence existed that they belonged to religious institutions before confiscation.

The government has no laws or mechanisms in place, and NGOs and advocacy groups reported that the government had not made progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens. The absence of legislation resulted in the return of religious property on an ad hoc basis, subject to the discretion of local authorities. Due to both the small size of the Jewish population and its lack of political influence, the Jewish community has not received any confiscated communal property since 1995. For example, one Jewish community building in the center of Sarajevo, formerly owned by the Jewish charity La Benevolencija, housed the Cantonal Ministry of Interior offices. In addition, the Stari Grad municipality in Sarajevo used the process of land “harmonization” to list itself as the owner of centrally located land, owned by members of the Jewish community or their heirs, and subsequently authorized construction of commercial real estate on that land. During the year different levels of government made no attempts to begin the process of discussing necessary steps to adopt restitution legislation.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but governmental respect for this right remained poor during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats, including a number of death threats, against journalists and media outlets continued during the year without a systematic institutional response. Numerous restrictive measures introduced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic were in some instances misused to limit access to information. A considerable amount of media coverage was dominated by nationalist rhetoric and ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance and sometimes hatred. The absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem.

Freedom of Speech: The country’s laws provide for a high level of freedom of expression, but the irregular and, in some instances, incorrect implementation and application of the law seriously undermined press freedoms. The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, including “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions.

Data from the Free Media Help Line (FMHL) indicated that courts continued to fail to differentiate between different media genres (in particular, between news and commentary), while long court procedures and legal and financial battles were financially exhausting to journalists and outlets. The FMHL concluded that the number of defamation cases against journalists and editors remained high especially in instances were journalists were investigating crime and corruption. Incorrect implementation of the defamation laws had caused direct pressure against journalists and media that jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but sometimes this resulted in pressure or threats against journalists. Officials confronted with criticism continued the practice of calling journalists traitors or labeling them as members of opposition political parties in order to discredit them. The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced.

The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) did not register any cases of hate speech in the broadcast media. The Press Council that operates as a self-regulatory membership-based body for both online and printed media outlets across the country registered 231 complaints related to hate speech, of which 223 were related to online media, one to an article published by a news agency, and seven related to content published on social media. Of the complaints, 194 were related to comments from web portal visitors. As of September, 80 complaints had been resolved through self-regulation.

Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Negative economic effects of the pandemic eroded the financial stability of media across the country, making them more vulnerable to outside pressure. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to intimidate and control outlets. The number of physical attacks against journalists increased during the year.

Attacks on journalists’ professional integrity and freedom of the press continued throughout the year. On a number of occasions, public officials obstructed the work of journalists. This period was marked by attempts to restrict access to information related to the pandemic. Sarajevo-based journalists filed a complaint to the FMHL in March because local authorities had limited the possibility of asking questions at press conferences and additional updates about COVID-related issues. In April a group of journalists reported to the FMLH that the press office of University of Sarajevo Clinical Center did not treat media even handedly and that the general manager shared information with selected outlets only. The Federation’s (COVID-19) crisis headquarters as well as crisis headquarters in Herzegovina Neretva Canton and Sarajevo Canton adopted decisions that banned some journalists from attending press conferences, claiming it was a heath protection measure.

The practice of pressuring journalists to censor their reporting continued during the year as well. Reaction to investigative stories focusing on the corruption of high-level judicial officials continued generating pressure on journalists. In addition, journalists who worked on stories exposing procurement irregularities during the pandemic were exposed to undue pressure. In June several edited videos were published on social media in an attempt to discredit reporters who wrote about a controversial purchase of medical ventilators in the Federation that involved the Federation’s prime minister.

The 2019 press release by the Prosecutor’s Office threatening to sue journalists who criticized its work was not followed by any legal action. Journalists reported that the press release triggered additional political pressure and increased charges of slander against them. During the year the tense relationship between the Prosecutor’s Office and the investigative reporters continued. On August 28, the Association of BiH Journalists (BH Journalists) strongly protested against a statement issued by the Prosecutor’s Office announcing that the main prosecutor would press slander charges against the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje and outlets that picked up its story alleging that the main prosecutor misused housing compensation benefits. BH Journalists underscored that the Prosecutor’s Office and the main prosecutor continued to pressure media and journalists, noting that public servants, government, and other officials cannot sue journalists for slander in their official capacity (only privately) and that the main prosecutor used official communication channels of the BiH Prosecutor’s Office to threaten journalists with slander charges. BH Journalists characterized this as unacceptable pressure on media and misuse of the position of the main prosecutor.

An additional challenge to freedom of expression came shortly after the introduction of the state of emergency due to the pandemic. On March 16, the RS introduced a decree prohibiting the spread of panic and disorder, stipulating fines of 1,000 to 3,000 convertible marks ($630 to $1,900) convertible marks for individuals and 3,000 to 9,000 convertible marks ($1,900 to $5,700) for companies that spread panic and fake news via media and social networks. The Federation minister of interior proposed an urgent adoption of a similar decree on March 22, but that initiative was not supported. Nevertheless, BH Journalists warned that the Federation Ministry of Interior and cybercrime units had started monitoring information on social networks and that five criminal proceedings were initiated for the alleged spreading of false information and panic. Numerous local organizations expressed concern that these actions were an additional step in suppressing freedom of expression. On April 14, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, and the head of the OSCE Mission to BiH expressed their concern over the introduction of measures against spreading panic and “fake news” regarding COVID-19. BH Journalists reiterated that the entities had no right to suspend the right to freedom of expression. Following these reactions, on April 16, the RS government withdrew the decree.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over a number of information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained vulnerable to strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability. Public broadcasters remained exposed to political influence, especially through politically controlled steering boards. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.

The Public Broadcasting System consists of three broadcasters: nationwide radio and television (BHRT), the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS, and RTV FBiH. The law on the public broadcasting system is only partially implemented and entity laws are not in line with state level law, which left public broadcasters vulnerable to political influence, especially through politically influenced steering boards. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient, unified, and stable system of financing.

The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH continued, as the broadcaster again failed to elect a steering board or appoint organizational management and remained open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate a selective approach to news.

The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, which demonstrated strong support for the ruling coalition in the RS. The BHRT yielded to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. Authorities remained subject to competing political interests and failed to establish a public broadcasting service corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as provided by law.

The Communication Regulatory Agency (CRA), which regulates the audiovisual media market, lacked full financial and political independence. In April the CRA appointed a new general manager, Drasko Milinovic, a former director of the politically controlled RTRS station. Following the vote, CRA Council president Plamenko Custovic resigned, claiming the vote was politically motivated. The new general manager took over the position on July 28. Independent broadcasters expressed concern with the appointment in view of the allegations about Draskovic’s political connections.

Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. Cases of violence and death threats against journalists were recorded as well. Intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for their unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities also continued.

As of July the FMHL recorded seven cases involving alleged violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms, four death threats, and two physical assaults. According to data from BH Journalists covering the period from 2006 to 2020, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of criminal acts reported against journalists and investigated more than one-third of the alleged violations of journalists’ rights, illustrating that inefficient investigations into attacks against journalists by police and prosecutors’ offices continued.

Vanja Stokic, editor in chief of the E-trafika portal from Banja Luka, received a message on her Facebook profile from an individual who threatened he would “decapitate” migrants as well as “all you soul caregivers who welcome them.” The perpetrator was arrested only after he repeatedly threatened and intimidated Stokic and her friends and after a strong public reaction. On May 22, Stokic, who was reporting on the migrant situation in the country, found a disturbing message after posting a photograph with two migrants on her Facebook profile. She attempted to report the threats to police but was told to come back on Monday–three days after the threats were made. According to Stokic, police initially did not take her report seriously and refused to take a statement, allowing the threats and intimidation to continue. After a strong reaction from professional associations and media, police arrested the alleged perpetrator.

Nikola Vucic, a Sarajevo-based reporter with the television channel N1, received death threats via social media. On May 26, commenting on reports that the West Herzegovina Canton declared itself a “COVID-free zone,” Vucic sarcastically asked on his Twitter account if a “fascism-free zone” would be declared soon. The post was followed by threats and calls for violence against him, including statements that Vucic should be “thrown in the river.” Vucic closed his Twitter account. BH Journalists and the FMHL strongly condemned the threats and were threatened themselves as a result.

On June 5, Sinan Gluhic, a journalist from a local public outlet RTV Zenica, was physically attacked by Sulejman Spahic, a member of the A-SDA party. The attack followed days of verbal threats and insults to Gluhic over the telephone and through social media. Gluhic was on his way to work when he was physically attacked by Spahic. In front of witnesses, Spahic hit Gluhic in the face and neck and threatened his life. The incident was reported to police. The same day, the A-SDA party issued a statement denying the attack happened. Zenica police opened an investigation.

Legal proceedings continued against two persons accused of attempted murder in the brutal attack on BNTV journalist Vladimir Kovacevic in 2018. One attacker, Marko Colic, was originally sentenced to four years in prison. After the prosecutor’s appeal, the sentence was increased to five years. A second attacker, Nedeljko Djukic, surrendered to RS police in late 2019, and his trial was ongoing. The motives of the attack remained unknown.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Multiple political parties and entity-level institutions attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship. Government institutions restricted access to information in some instances related to the COVID-19 crisis.

In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising. The temporary lockdown in the spring and numerous restrictions related to the pandemic had a direct negative impact on the finances of media in the country, making them more vulnerable to economic and political pressure.

Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought to court against journalists, often resulting in extremely high monetary fines. Noteworthy court decisions against journalists included temporary bans on the posting or publication of certain information as well as very high compensatory payments for causing “mental anguish.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law prohibits expression of racial, ethnic, or other intolerance, including hate speech, but authorities did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The cantons of Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that could restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities within their jurisdiction by allowing elected municipal authorities to hire and fire university personnel, including academics, at their discretion.

The country’s eight public universities remained segregated along ethnic lines, including their curricula, diplomas, and relevant school activities. Professors reportedly on occasion used prejudicial language in their lectures, while the selection of textbooks and school materials reinforced discrimination and prejudice.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. On May 12, however, RS police disbanded an informal gathering and conversation of approximately 10 members of the informal group Justice for David in the Banja Luka city center, warning the participants that their public gathering was not announced to police. The leader of the group, Ozren Perduv, was summoned by police for interrogation the same day, where he was told that any similar gatherings in the future, even if spontaneous, would not be tolerated. Justice for David reported that there were an estimated 60 active court cases against Justice for David supporters in the RS court system. In 30 additional cases, the court rejected all charges.

The Justice for David movement emerged in response to the 2018 killing of 21-year-old David Dragicevic, which had not been solved as of September. Dragicevic’s family mobilized thousands of citizens in support of their search for the facts of the killing and demand for justice. The RS government justified its decision to ban all public gatherings of the group, including protests, claiming the movement failed to respect the law fully during previous rallies. Some journalists and protesters alleged that during the arrests police used excessive force on protesters and produced photographs that appeared to support their claims.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community had planned to organize a second pride march on August 23 in Sarajevo. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers decided not to hold an actual march and moved the event online. Even before moving the event online, however, organizers faced many bureaucratic obstacles, as the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Traffic rejected their request for a change in the march route, citing purported financial losses to public transportation companies, notwithstanding that the march would be on a Sunday, when public transportation use is significantly lower. The cantonal Ministry of Interior also required the organizers to pay for excessive security measures, including the presence of two ambulances, two fire trucks, and concrete barriers at nine locations along the march route. Similar security requirements were regularly waived for other large, non-LGBTI events.

There are 10 laws governing the right to free assembly in different parts of the country, all of which were generally assessed to be overly restrictive. Examples include the prohibition of public assembly in front of numerous public institutions in the RS, while some cantonal laws in the Federation (e.g., in Central Bosnia Canton) prescribe criminal liability for failing to fulfill administrative procedures for holding a peaceful assembly.

In July the Brcko District adopted a law on peaceful gatherings that expanded freedom of assembly. The law is aligned with EU Peer Review Recommendations and OSCE guidelines.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Under the law, NGOs can register at the state, entity, and cantonal levels in a generally streamlined and simple administrative process. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels remained weak, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds. Independent NGOs complained that government distributed funding to NGOs connected to ruling political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

Although the law on asylum provides for freedom of movement for asylum seekers, authorities of Una-Sana Canton imposed restrictions without a due legal basis. This resulted in asylum seekers–including some who were duly registered–being forcibly removed from public transport at the entrance of the canton territory and prevented from using buses and taxis within the canton. Groups of asylum seekers and migrants were regularly marched involuntarily from Bihac to a location several kilometers away, where their movement was restricted. The location itself offered very poor humanitarian and safety conditions. The legal aid partner of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legally challenged the restrictions.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Ministers issued a decision on April 16 limiting the movement of undocumented migrants who did not have valid identification documents. The decision prohibited migrants’ movement and accommodation outside of migrant centers, including for migrants who declared an intent to file asylum applications and who possessed valid proof of the expressed intention to apply for asylum as well as those who already applied for asylum. Some NGOs challenged the decision, explaining that it was legally groundless and violated migrants’ basic human rights. This practice was abolished with the end of lockdown in May, although no formal decision about it was issue.

On April 22, the BiH Constitutional Court ruled that a prohibition of all movement in the Federation for individuals younger than 18 and older than 65 during the COVID-19 lockdown in April violated the civil rights of those individuals, noting that the ban was disproportional to the public health crisis and that the measures were not limited in time and not periodically reviewed. The court did not remove the restriction, but it gave the Federation Government and Civil Protection Headquarters five days to adjust its measures in accordance with the BiH Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Federation authorities complied with the decision and adjusted the measures, allowing movement of individuals in the two age groups during specific days of the week before abolishing the measures on May 14.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 96,421 persons still held internally displaced person (IDP) status resulting from the 1992-95 conflict. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was directly providing protection, assistance, or both to 807 IDPs. According to UNHCR, an estimated 3,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations throughout the country. While the accommodations were meant to be temporary, some had been living in them for 20 or more years. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.

The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or local integration of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The government actively promoted the safe return and resettlement or local integration of refugees and IDPs, depending on their choice. The government allocated funding for returns and participated in internationally funded programs for return. Isolated attacks against minority returnees continued but were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Only asylum-seeking families are referred to the asylum center. Provision of adequate accommodation remained one of the biggest problems since the beginning of 2018 due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in the country. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and created backlogs affecting access to and efficiency of asylum procedures as well as access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs, such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities.

In official reception centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. In 2018 an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Seven temporary reception centers for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were opened and managed by the International Organization for Migration in cooperation with the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs. Nevertheless, adequate shelter capacity was lacking, in particular for families, unaccompanied and separated minors, and other vulnerable categories. The swift processing of asylum claims was another area of concern, as there were many obstacles to registering an asylum claim, including the obligation for asylum seekers not accommodated in an official government-run center to register their address. While the situation improved during the year, the Ministry of Security’s Sector for Asylum, which has responsibility for the asylum policy and its implementation, still lacked resources to ensure that applicants had full and timely access to asylum procedures. Asylum authorities also lacked sufficient personnel, making the asylum process very lengthy and discouraging refugees from seeking asylum in the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic further impeded the registration process. As part of sanitary prevention measures and in correlation with movement restrictions, some field offices of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs temporarily reduced their capacity and work hours while two of them completely stopped registering new arrivals and issuing attestations on intent to seek asylum. In Tuzla–one of the main entry points to BiH–the field office had not resumed those activities as of year’s end, significantly hindering access to asylum and basic services by asylum seekers in the canton and the rest of the country.

In April the BiH Council of Ministers issued a decision restricting the freedom of movement to reception centers for undocumented foreigners and asylum seekers without a registered address. The decision was not implemented as of May, although it remained in place formally.

Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision before the Court of BiH. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.

Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals since 2018. NGO legal aid providers had limited access to the immigration detention center and the asylum center, especially since the initial COVID-19 measures at the end of March.

UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the immigration center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities occasionally detained families with children there, pending their voluntary readmission to countries of origin.

In the first seven months of the year, 10 individuals known to UNHCR expressed their intention to seek asylum while staying at the Immigration Center. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention might not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities might prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they had been afforded an opportunity to file a claim for asylum. In addition, some provisions of the BiH laws on extradition give authorities the possibility of extraditing a person who has expressed the intention to seek asylum if the request was made after the country had received an extradition request. UNHCR also reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit. The application of this concept would require a list of safe third countries and countries of origin to be made by the BiH Council of Ministers.

Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.

Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 15 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to 24 others.

g. Stateless Persons

As of July, UNHCR reported 81 persons, mostly Roma, who were at risk of statelessness, including persons lacking birth certificates and citizenship registration. UNHCR continued to support free legal aid and capacity-building assistance to BiH authorities to facilitate birth and citizenship registrations. From 2009 to year’s end, UNHCR helped 1,765 individuals confirm their nationalities through its implementing partner, the NGO Vasa Prava. UNHCR also continued to work with authorities to simplify the process for birth and citizenship registrations, particularly for those at risk of statelessness. During the year the BiH Ministry of Civil Affairs confirmed the citizenship of 35 individuals.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and the law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Observers noted a number of shortcomings, however.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: While general elections held in 2018 were competitive, with candidates and political parties freely campaigning and presenting their programs, there were credible reports of voter intimidation and vote buying in the pre-election period. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Central Election Commission administered most of its electoral tasks efficiently, but stakeholders lacked trust in all levels of the election administration. The elections were overshadowed by mass resignations of polling station committee members over the course of 48 hours before polls opened on election day.

On election day, international observers reported numerous incidents of political parties manipulating the makeup of the polling station committees, which endangered the integrity of the election process. There were also reports of irregularities and other problems during the ballot counting process–some deliberate and some due to inadequate knowledge of appropriate procedures among polling station committee members. According to ODIHR, the campaign finance regulatory system was not adequate to assure the transparency and accountability of campaign finances. Several political parties requested recounts. ODIHR pointed to the large presence of citizen observers as contributing to the overall transparency of the process.

On July 8, the BiH parliament adopted changes and amendments to the election law that paved the way for the city of Mostar to hold its first local elections in 12 years, bringing the BiH into compliance with the ECHR decision in Baralija v. BiH. The achievement was the result of a political agreement between the SDA and HDZ-BIH political parties concluded on June 17. On December 20, Mostar city elections were held accordingly. Civil society and international community observers generally characterized the process as free and fair. The Central Election Commission ordered a recount of ballots from approximately half of the polling stations in Mostar, clarifying that the recount was generally caused by poor training of the poll workers rather than systemic fraud, although one of the political parties filed a complaint of fraud with the cantonal prosecutor’s office, which was under investigation at the close of the reporting period.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Some leaders of smaller political parties complained that the larger parties enjoyed a virtual monopoly over government ministries, public services, and media outlets, where membership in a dominant party was a prerequisite for advancement.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although no laws limit the participation of women in the political process, and despite the fact that women make up more than 50 percent of the electorate, the country’s patriarchal culture tended to restrict their participation in political affairs. While the law requires that at least 40 percent of a political party’s candidates to be women, women held only 24 percent of delegate seats (14 of 57 seats) in the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples in the state-level parliament, which was an increase from 19 percent in 2019. In the two houses of the Federation parliament, women held 24 percent of seats (38 of 156 seats), the same as in 2019. In the RS, women held 17 (20 percent) of 83 delegate seats in the RS National Assembly, which was a slight drop from 18 percent in 2019. Women held six of 16 ministerial seats in the RS government, the same as in 2019. The RS president was also a woman.

The law provides that Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, whom the constitution considers the “constituent peoples” of the country, as well as undefined “others” must be adequately represented at all levels. The government did not respect this requirement. Apart from the three constituent peoples, the country’s 16 recognized national minority groups remained significantly underrepresented in government. There were no members of a minority group in the state-level parliament. The government made no effort to implement changes required by ECHR rulings dating back to 2009 that the country’s constitution discriminates against “others,” such as Jews and Roma, by preventing them from running for the presidency and seats in the parliament’s upper house. In October 2019 the ECHR ruled in favor of Irma Baralija, a local politician from Mostar, who sued the state for preventing her from voting or standing for office in elections in the city of Mostar, where local elections had not been held since 2008. The court found that a legal void had been created by authorities’ failure to implement a 2010 Constitutional Court ruling on the arrangements for local elections in Mostar.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively nor prioritize public corruption as a serious problem. Courts have not processed high-level corruption cases, and in most of the finalized cases, suspended sentences were pronounced. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption remained prevalent in many political and economic institutions. Corruption was especially prevalent in the health and education sectors, public procurement processes, local governance, and public administration employment procedures.

The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, but political pressure often prevented the application of these mechanisms. Observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. There are internal affairs investigative units within all police agencies. Throughout the year, mostly with assistance from the international community, the government provided training to police and security forces designed to combat abuse and corruption and promote respect for human rights. The field training manuals for police officers also include ethics and anticorruption training components.

Corruption: While the public viewed corruption as endemic in the public sphere, there was little public demand for the prosecution of corrupt officials. The multitude of state, entity, cantonal, and municipal administrations, each with the power to establish laws and regulations affecting business, created a system that lacked transparency and provided opportunities for corruption. The multilevel government structure gave corrupt officials ample opportunities to demand “service fees,” especially in the local government institutions.

Analysts considered the legal framework for prevention of corruption to be satisfactory across almost all levels of government and attributed the absence of high-profile prosecutions to a lack of political will. Many state-level institutions tasked with fighting corruption, such as the Agency for Prevention and Fight against Corruption, had limited authority and remained under resourced. There were indications that the judiciary was under political influence, and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council was at the center of corruption scandals, including allegations that the president of the council accepted a bribe in exchange for interfering in a case. The accountability of judges and prosecutors was low, and appointments were often not merit based. Prosecutions also were considered generally ineffective and subject to political manipulation, often resulting in suspended sentences or prison sentences below mandatory minimum sentences. During the year prosecutors’ offices processed 44 cases of white-collar corruption. Of those, a guilty verdict took legal effect in one case, while investigations were suspended in two cases. Investigations continued in 14 cases, and main hearings were being held in the other 27 cases.

According to professors and students, corruption continued at all levels of the higher education system. Professors at a number of universities reported that bribery was common and that they experienced pressure from colleagues and superiors to give higher grades to students with family or political connections. There were credible allegations of corruption in public procurement, public employment, and health-care services.

Financial Disclosure: Laws on conflict of interest at all levels were not aligned with international standards. Candidates for high-level public office, including for parliament at the state and entity levels and for the Council of Ministers and entity government positions, are subject to financial (assets, liabilities, and income) disclosure laws, although observers noted the laws fell short of standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations. The Central Election Commission received financial reports of elected officials, while the Conflict of Interest Commission of the BiH parliament receives financial reports and retains records on public officials. Both institutions lacked authority to verify the accuracy of declarations, and it was believed that public officials and their relatives often declared only a fraction of their total assets and liabilities. Authorities generally failed to make financial disclosure declarations public, using as an excuse the conflicts between the laws on financial disclosure and protection of personal information. Sarajevo Canton has a law that enables effective verification of asset declarations. Sarajevo Canton’s Anticorruption Office continued with its activities related to asset verification and initiated checks for more than 200 public officials. During the year a foreign advisor was appointed to work with the Anticorruption Office and advise cantonal authorities on how to fight corruption effectively.

Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements is subject to administrative sanctions. The Conflict of Interest Commission did not hear any cases during the year, however, as it was only appointed in July.

During the year the COVID-19 pandemic was misused for different corrupt activities; one of the most significant cases concerned procurement of respirators from China worth approximately six million dollars. Federation prime minister Novalic was one of the main suspects in the case.

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

A variety of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were seldom cooperative and responsive to their views, and the Council of Ministers largely excluded NGOs from politically important or sensitive decisions. NGOs continued, however, to expand cooperation with the government at lower levels.

Government officials in both the Federation and the RS attempted at times to limit NGO activities. Observers noted that some civil society representatives working on highly sensitive issues such as conflict-related crimes and combatting corruption were subjected to threats and verbal assaults. Several NGOs in the RS reported being pressured by local authorities while subjected to protracted tax inspections, sometimes lasting up to six months. NGOs can only be involuntarily dissolved if found in violation of the law.

Civil society organizations frequently lacked adequate funding, and most were dependent on either governmental or international assistance. Local governments generally extended support to NGOs, provided the governing parties did not consider them threats.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In contrast to the Brcko District government, the RS and Federation governments were generally unresponsive in dealing with the Office of the High Representative created by the Dayton Accords charged with overseeing Dayton Peace Agreement implementation.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state-level Ombudsman Institution has authority to investigate alleged violations of the country’s human rights laws on behalf of individual citizens and to submit legally nonbinding recommendations to the government for remedy. Members of the international community noted that the Ombudsman Institution lacked the resources to function effectively. A Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared leadership of the Ombudsman Institution.

The state-level parliament has a Joint Commission for Human Rights that participated in human rights-related activities with governmental and nongovernmental organizations. As of June, the commission had held five working sessions.

The Council of Ministers has an advisory body for cooperation with NGOs.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The maximum penalty for rape, regardless of gender, including spousal rape, is 15 years in prison. The failure of police to treat spousal rape as a serious offense inhibited the effective enforcement of the law. Women victims of rape did not have regular access to free social support or assistance and continued to confront prejudice and discrimination in their communities and from representatives of public institutions.

While laws in both the Federation and the RS empower authorities to remove the perpetrator from the home, officials rarely, if ever, made use of these provisions.

NGOs reported that authorities often returned offenders to their family homes less than 24 hours after a violent event, often reportedly out of a concern over where the perpetrator would live. In the Federation, authorities prosecuted domestic violence as a felony, while in the RS it can be reported as a felony or a misdemeanor. Even when domestic violence resulted in prosecution and conviction, offenders were regularly fined or given suspended sentences, even for repeat offenders.

Domestic violence was recognized as one of the most important problems involving gender equality. NGOs reported that one of every two women experienced some type of domestic violence and that the problem was underreported because the majority of victims did not trust the support system (police, social welfare centers, or the judiciary).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the period of lockdown in April, NGOs reported an increased number of cases of domestic violence. For example, 140 cases were reported to the RS domestic violence hotline, which was 30 percent higher than in the same period of 2019. In the Federation, one of the safe houses in Sarajevo received three times more calls in April than in March. For the first three months of the year, 259 cases of domestic violence were reported to RS police, while 50 cases were reported in the Federation.

The country had a gender action plan for 2018-22. In 2019 the Council of Ministers established a steering board for coordination and monitoring of implementation of the plan. In accordance with the action plan, in September 2019 the RS passed the Law on Changes and Amendments to the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence. The new law better regulates assistance to victims and provides that domestic violence be considered a criminal act rather than a misdemeanor for which the penalty in most cases was a fine.

The country lacked a system for collecting data on domestic violence cases. The state-level Gender Equality Agency worked to establish a local-level mechanism to coordinate support for victims. In 2019 the agency performed an analysis of the data collection system on domestic violence cases that were processed by judiciary and sent its recommendations for improving the system to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. It also continued developing a computerized data collection system on domestic violence in the Federation. The agency had a memorandum of understanding with the country’s eight NGO-run safe houses (five in the Federation and three in the RS), which could collectively accommodate up to 200 victims, or less than half the capacity needed. In the RS, 70 percent of financing for safe houses came from the RS budget while 30 percent came from the budgets of local communities. While the RS government and local communities generally met their funding obligations, the Federation lacks laws to regulate the financing of the safe houses, and payments depended on each canton or local community, some of which often failed to honor their obligations.

Although police received specialized training in handling cases of domestic violence, NGOs reported widespread reluctance among officers in both entities to break up families by arresting offenders.

The network of institutional mechanisms for gender equality of the parliaments comprised the Gender Equality Commission of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly, the Gender Equality Commissions of the Federation House of Peoples and the House of Representatives, the Equal Opportunities Committee of the RS National Assembly, and the Commission for Gender Issues of the Brcko District Assembly. Gender equality commissions also were established at the cantonal level; at the local level, respective commissions operated within municipal councils.

Sexual Harassment: Combatting violence against women and domestic violence is mainly the responsibility of the entities. BiH law defines and prohibits gender-based harassment, including sexual harassment, as a form of discrimination.

NGOs reported that sexual harassment was a serious problem but that women rarely reported it due to the expectation they would not receive systematic support from law enforcement institutions and that the perpetrators would go unpunished or receive light punishment, as evident by years of such practices by judicial authorities.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, but access to the information and means to do so was not uniform. There was no comprehensive sexual education program, and education, including on reproductive health and related topics, was not standardized through the country. Members of minorities, in particular Romani women, experienced disparities in access to health-care information and services, including for reproductive health. Many Romani women were not enrolled in the public insurance system due to local legal requirements, poverty, and social marginalization, which prevented them from accessing health care. Both BiH entities (FBiH and Republika Srpska) as well as Brcko District have laws that provide for survivors of sexual violence to access sexual and reproductive health services.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and authorities generally treated women equally. The law does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work, but it forbids gender discrimination. Women and men generally received equal pay for equal work at government-owned enterprises but not at all private businesses. As evaluated by the Gender Equality Agency in the 2018-22 Gender Action Plan, women in the country faced multiple obstacles in the labor market, such as longer waiting periods for their first jobs, long employment disruptions due to maternity leave or elder care, and the inability of middle-aged women to successfully re-enter the labor market due to market shifts and discontinuation of some types of work.

Both Federation and RS labor laws stipulate that an employer must not terminate a woman’s employment contract while she exercises her right to: be pregnant; use maternity leave; work half time after the expiration of maternity leave; work half time until a dependent child is three years of age if the child requires enhanced care according to the findings of a competent health institution; and use leave for breastfeeding. While the law provides for these rights, its implementation was inconsistent. In practice, women were often unable to use maternity leave for the period of one year as provided by law, return to their work position after maternity leave, or take advantage of the right to work half time. Employers continued to terminate pregnant women and new mothers despite the existence of legal protections. The level of social compensation during maternity leave was regulated unequally in different parts of the country. The RS government paid 405 convertible marks ($250) maternity allowance monthly to unemployed new mothers for a period of one year or for a period of 18 months in cases of twins and following the birth of every third and subsequent child. Employed mothers were entitled to one year of paid maternity leave. Women remained underrepresented in law enforcement agencies.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl birth ratio for the country was 107.5 boys per 100 girls in 2019. There were no reports the government took steps to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: By law a child born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen regardless of the child’s place of birth. A child born in the territory of the country to parents who were unknown or stateless is entitled to citizenship. Parents generally registered their children immediately after they were born, but there were exceptions, particularly in the Romani community. The NGO Vasa Prava identified 75 unregistered children in the country, mainly Roma. UNHCR, with the legal assistance of a domestic NGO, registered the births of children whose parents failed to register them.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level but compulsory only for children between the ages of six and 15. Students with disabilities continued to struggle for access to a quality, inclusive education due to physical barriers in schools; the lack of accommodation for children with audio, visual, or mental disabilities; the absence of in-school assistants and trained teachers. While some children with disabilities attended regular school, others were enrolled in special schools for children with disabilities. Children with severe disabilities, however, were not included in the education process at all and depended entirely on their parents or NGOs for education. Both the Federation and the RS had strategies for improving the rights of persons with disabilities that included children. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were closed on March 11 and online education was instituted. There were no provisions for assistance to students with disabilities who needed additional support to continue their education, which further exacerbated the problem.

The legal battle continued for Slavko Mrsevic, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome from Rudo, whose exclusion from high school by the RS Ministry of Education because of complications related to his condition led to a lawsuit. In March 2019 the Visegrad Basic Court ruled that the RS Ministry of Education and Culture and the Rudo Secondary School violated Mrsevic’s right to equal treatment in education. In September 2019 the basic court in East Sarajevo rejected appeals filed by the ministry and the school as unfounded and confirmed the decision of the municipal court in Visegrad. A case was also underway against the school director and some teachers. The case highlighted the wider and deeper issue of exclusion of students with disabilities, who faced numerous human rights problems in education systems in all parts of the country. Parents of students with disabilities continued to request that their children be granted access to quality education and a chance to develop their full potential within the country’s education system.

More than 50 schools across the Federation remained segregated by ethnicity and religion. Although a “two schools under one roof” system was instituted following the 1992-95 conflict as a way to bring together returnee communities violently separated by conflict, the system calcified under the divisive and prejudicial administration of leading political parties. These parties controlled schools through the country’s 13 ministries of education and often enforced education policies based upon patronage and ethnic exclusion. Where students, parents, and teachers choose to resist segregation, they were frequently met with political indifference and sometimes intimidation, which hurt the quality of education children received further. Funds were spent on perpetuating the “two schools under one roof” system rather than on improving school infrastructure, training teachers, improving teaching materials, or conducting extracurricular activities. The situation compounded inefficiencies in the country’s education system, as evidenced by poor performance by 15-year-old students who participated in the 2018 international Program of International Student Assessment study implemented by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The results of the study showed that the country’s students were three years behind in schooling compared to the OECD average and that more than 50 percent of students did not possess functional knowledge in language, mathematics, and science. Results for disadvantaged students showed that they lagged five years behind the OECD average.

Returnee students (those belonging to a different ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their language rights. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the Islamic community. The boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of children in one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 when the RS Supreme Court ruled that their children are entitled to instruction on the national subjects in Bosnian. The ministry failed to implement the decision by September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, where teachers traveled from the Zenica-Doboj Canton. In June lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the decision at the Kotor Varos basic court. As of year’s end, there had been no reply. Lawyers also reported that they tried to meet with RS ministry officials twice, without success.

In the Federation, Serb students likewise were denied language rights as provided in the Federation constitution, particularly in Glamoc elementary school in Canton 10, where authorities prevented the use of the Serbian language and textbooks, despite the significant number of returnee Serb students. Human rights activists noted that changes in the history curriculum and in history and other textbooks reinforced stereotypes of the country’s ethnic groups other than their own and that other materials missed opportunities to dispel stereotypes by excluding any mention of some ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Roma. State and entity officials generally did not act to prevent such discrimination. Human Rights Watch asserted that ethnic quotas used by the Federation and the RS to allocate civil service jobs disproportionately excluded Roma and other minorities. The quotas were based on the 1991 census, which undercounted these minorities and were never revised.

Child Abuse: Family violence against children was a problem. According to UNICEF, there was no recent data available on the overall level of violence against children in the country. While relevant institutions collect scattered data, there is no unified data collection system. Police investigated and prosecuted individual cases of child abuse. Only a small number of cases of violence against children were reported and, as a consequence, only a few cases were brought before courts. The country’s Agency for Gender Equality estimated that one in five families experienced domestic violence. In many cases, children were indirect victims of family violence. The Sarajevo Canton Social Welfare Center estimated that up to 700 children annually were indirect victims of domestic violence.

Municipal centers for social work are responsible for protecting children’s rights but lacked resources and the ability to provide housing for children who fled abuse or who required removal from abusive homes.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 but may be as young as 16 with parental consent. In certain Romani communities, girls married between the ages of 12 and 14, and Romani human right activists reported that early marriages were on the rise. Children’s rights and antitrafficking activists noted that prosecutors were reluctant to investigate and prosecute forced marriages involving Romani minors, attributing it to Romani custom. As part of the activities on the implementation of the Strategy to Combat Trafficking in Persons in the country for 2020-23, the Roma NGO Kali Sara was included in different programs on combatting trafficking, with special focus on the inclusion of Roma representatives in the work of antitrafficking regional coordination teams.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District have laws criminalizing sex trafficking, forced labor, and organized human trafficking. The state-level penalty for sexual exploitation of children is imprisonment for up to 20 years under certain aggravating circumstances. At the entity level, penalties range from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under entity criminal codes, the abuse of a child or juvenile for pornography is a crime that carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. Authorities generally enforced these laws. The law prohibits sexual acts with a person younger than 18.

Girls were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, and there were reports that Romani girls as young as 12 were subject to early and forced marriage and domestic servitude. Children were used in the production of pornography.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community in the country reported that it had fewer than 1,000 members.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law in both entities and at the state level prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, discrimination in these areas continued. The government lacked a uniform legal definition of disabilities, which complicated access to benefits for those that would readily qualify, and normally prioritized support for war veterans. The most frequent forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities included obstacles in realization of individual rights, delayed payments of disability allowances, employment, and social and health protection. Support to persons with disabilities was dependent on the origin of the disability. Persons whose disability was the result of the 1992-95 conflict, whether they are war veterans or civilian victims of war, have priority and greater allowances than other persons with disabilities.

The Federation has a strategy for the advancement of rights and status of persons with disabilities in the Federation for the period 2016-21, while the RS has a strategy for improving the social conditions of persons with disabilities in the RS for 2017-26. The strategies were developed in accordance with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Both strategies have a monitoring system implemented through the establishment of coordination bodies. In addition, in the Federation, coordination bodies were established at the cantonal level as well. In the Brcko District, the law provides expanded rights of persons with disabilities. Entity governments also provide funds within their budgets for the operation of vocational rehabilitation and retraining funds. Activities on the implementation of inclusive education continued in the education system.

The laws of both entities require increased accessibility to buildings for persons with disabilities, but authorities rarely enforced the requirement. Human rights NGOs complained that the construction of public buildings without access for persons with disabilities continued. Both entities have a strategy for advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in the areas of health, education, accessibility, professional rehabilitation and employment, social welfare, and culture and sports. NGOs complained that the government did not effectively implement laws and programs to help persons with disabilities.

The law provides for children with disabilities to attend regular classes when feasible. Due to a lack of financial and physical resources, schools often reported they were unable to accommodate them. Depending on the severity of their disability, children with disabilities either attended classes using regular curricula in regular schools or attended special schools. Parents of children with significant disabilities reported receiving limited to no financial support from the government, notwithstanding that many of them were unemployed because of the round-the-clock care required for their dependents.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Harassment and discrimination against members of minorities continued throughout the country, although not as frequently as in previous years. The Interreligious Council of BiH reported, for example, that the number of attacks against religious buildings continued to decrease, as they recorded only 10 cases during 2019. Members of minority groups also continued to experience discrimination in employment and education in both the government and private sectors. While the law prohibits discrimination, human rights activists frequently complained that authorities did not adequately enforce the law. For example, in 2019, 130 hate crimes were recorded in the country, but only one resulted in convictions.

On January 18, unknown perpetrators broke into a facility within the Catholic cemetery Veresika in Tuzla’s Tetima settlement, broke the door of the facility, stole some items, and destroyed the rest. Just days later, on January 22, unknown perpetrators destroyed candleholders, vases, statues, and other items that were placed on graves and desecrated some graves. As of September authorities had not identified the perpetrators. The local chapter of the Interreligious Council strongly condemned the attacks.

Violence and acts of intimidation against ethnic minorities at times focused on symbols and buildings of that minority’s predominant religion. For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Roma, and especially Romani women, continued to be the most vulnerable and experience the most discrimination of any group in the country. They experienced discrimination in access to housing, health care, education, and employment opportunities; nearly 95 percent remained unemployed. A significant percentage of Roma were homeless or without water or electricity in their homes. Many dwellings were overcrowded, and residents lacked proof of property ownership. Approximately three-fourths lived in openly segregated neighborhoods.

In the 2013 census, 12,583 persons registered as Roma, a number that observers believed understated significantly the actual number of Roma in the country. Romani activists reported that a minimum of 40,000 Roma lived in the country, which was similar to Council of Europe estimates. Observers believed the discrepancy in the census figure was the result of numerous manipulations that occurred with the Roma census registration in 2013. Romani activists reported that in many instances, Roma were told by census takers that they had to register as Bosniaks, had their census forms filled out for them, or were simply bypassed altogether.

Authorities frequently discriminated against Roma, which contributed to their exclusion by society. Many human rights NGOs criticized law enforcement and government authorities for the failure and unwillingness to identify Roma as victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, even though the majority of registered trafficking victims in recent years were Roma. Consequently, many trafficking cases ended up as cases of family negligence, which are not criminally prosecuted.

The country has an established legal framework for the protection of minorities. State and entity-level parliaments had national minority councils that met on a regular basis but generally lacked resources and political influence on decision-making processes. The Roma Committee continued to operate as a consultative body to the Council of Ministers, but with very limited influence.

The country does not have a comprehensive strategy on national minorities. The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is in charge of implementing a law on national minorities, for which it annually allocates 150,000 convertible marks ($94,200). The country has a Council of National Minorities, an advisory body to the parliament that is composed of one representative from each recognized national minority group. The council played a marginal role, however, in influencing policies and decisions of the parliament. The country lacked human rights and antidiscrimination strategies, and the government does not have an effective system of collecting discrimination cases.

In July 2019 the BiH government joined other Balkan countries in jointly endorsing the Declaration of Western Balkans Partners on Roma Integration within the EU Enlargement Process. The government’s budget for implementation of projects for Roma was two million convertible marks ($1.3 million).

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

While the law at the state level prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, authorities did not fully enforce it. Both entities and the Brcko District have laws that criminalize any form of hate crime committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Hate speech, discrimination, and violence against LGBTI individuals were widespread. The NGO Sarajevo Open Center (SOC) reported that transgender persons were the most vulnerable LGBTI group, as it is much harder for them to conceal their gender identity. According to research done by the center in 2017, an estimated two-thirds of transgender persons experienced some form of discrimination. In its 2020 Pink Report, the SOC reported that every third LGBTI person in the country experienced some type of discrimination. The SOC believed the actual number of LGBTI persons who experienced some type of discrimination was much higher but that people were afraid to report it.

In 2019 the SOC documented four discrimination cases, two of which involved workplace discrimination and two cases of unprofessional treatment by police when the victims came to report violence. None of the cases resulted in a lawsuit or a complaint against the institution. In the cases of workplace discrimination, one of the victims managed to resolve the case with the employer, while the other was afraid to initiate any legal actions. In one case the victim decided to leave the country due to loss of confidence in institutions. BiH courts had yet to issue a single final ruling on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

During 2019 the SOC also documented 105 cases of hate speech and calling for violence and hatred and 16 cases of crimes and incidents motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. Of the 16 cases, 12 took place in a public place or online, ranging from threats to violence and infliction of bodily injuries. The announcement of the first pride march, which took place in September 2019, resulted in the number of threats and violence in public places and online to increase threefold. The prosecution of assault and other crimes committed against LGBTI individuals remained delayed and generally inadequate.

In December 2019 the Sarajevo Canton government adopted its first Gender Action Plan for 2019-22 as a public document that contains a set of measures intended to improve gender equality in government institutions. The SOC was engaged in the creation of the plan, and 14 of 18 initiatives proposed by the center were included.

Organizers of the second pride march, which was supposed to take place in August, moved the event online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also organized a symbolic drive through the city in a convoy of vehicles flying rainbow flags, which was secured by police and conducted without incident.

Even before the pride march organizers decided to give up on holding a physical event, they faced numerous logistical problems, including government requirements to pay for excessive security measures (physical barriers on nine streets, ambulances, and fire trucks), which presented a significant financial burden. In addition, the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Traffic rejected the organizers’ request to block traffic for five hours on a main Sarajevo street for the march. The ministry justified its denial by asserting that it would disturb citizen movement and result in loss of income to the public transportation company even though the ministry had approved similar permits for other organizations.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The country has registered approximately 400 persons with HIV or AIDS, with 20 to 25 new cases reported annually. It was believed, however, that the actual number of cases was higher and that due to stigma and discrimination, many persons avoided testing. Social stigma and employment discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS remained among members of the public as well as health workers. Due to a lack of understanding of the disease and its subsequent stigmatization among the general population, many persons with HIV or AIDS feared revealing their illness, even to closes family members. The country had no permanent or organized programs of psychosocial support for these persons.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Societal discrimination and occasional violence against ethnic minorities at times took the form of attacks on places symbolic of those minorities, including religious buildings. According to the Interreligious Council, an NGO that promotes dialogue among the four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish), attacks against religious symbols, clerics, and property continued in 2019. During the year the council registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest but stated the actual number of incidents was likely much higher.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

There were widespread instances of media coverage and public discourse designed to portray members of other ethnic groups in negative terms, usually in connection with the 1992-95 conflict. In 2018 the RS National Assembly voted to annul a 2004 report on the Srebrenica massacres that acknowledged Bosnian Serb forces executed thousands of Bosniaks. During the year the then chairman of the BiH Presidency, Milorad Dodik, senior officials in his political party (the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats), and other RS officials and leaders continued to repeatedly deny that Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, despite the findings of multiple local and international courts. In February the RS government, following a proposal from the RS Academy of Science and Arts and various associations, appointed two international commissions to purportedly re-examine the war of the 1990s: a Srebrenica Commission to investigate the suffering of all persons in and around Srebrenica between 1992 and 1995 and a Sarajevo Commission to investigate the suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo during the war.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Federation and RS labor laws provide for the right of workers in both entities to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Employers in the private sector did not always respect these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide adequately for enforcement of these protections. The labor inspectorates and courts did not deal effectively with employees’ complaints of antiunion discrimination. Unions themselves complained that their own union leaders had been co-opted by the company and politicians and that they mostly protect their own privileges. The law prescribes reinstatement of dismissed workers in cases where there is evidence of discrimination, whether for union activity or other reasons. Entity-level laws in the Federation and the RS prohibit the firing of union leaders without prior approval of their respective labor ministries.

The law in both entities and in the Brcko District provides for the right to strike. The law in the Federation contains burdensome requirements for workers who wish to conduct a strike. Trade unions may not officially announce a strike without first reaching an agreement with the employer on which “essential” personnel would remain at work. In March the Federation government prepared changes to the labor law to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in many employees in the private sector being fired overnight. The government claimed that all changes needed to allow employers flexibility to preserve businesses and save jobs were enacted. As the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers in the private sector lost jobs, while public-sector workers were protected by general collective agreement and no cuts in their benefits were allowed.

Authorities may declare the strike illegal if no agreement is reached. This provision effectively allowed employers to prevent strikes. Laws governing the registration of unions give the minister of justice powers to accept or reject trade union registration on ambiguous grounds. In addition, in the Federation there were two parallel leaderships of the unions, each of them complaining the other was illegal. Both groups represented themselves as the legal representatives of the unions, and it was unclear which should participate in the social dialogue with the government. One leadership group, led by Selvedin Satorovic (who organized protests), represented the policy of the previous union leadership, which lost the election and supported only the government employees. The other group, led by Mevludin Bektic, showed more interest in representing workers from all sectors and had support from a majority of branch unions (14 of 18) but was too weak to push out Satorovic. On July 16, the court in Sarajevo appointed a provisional administrator of the trade unions to resolve the issue, although the final result was outstanding as of September.

According to informal estimates, approximately 40 percent of the work force was unregistered and working in the informal economy.

The lack of workers’ rights was more pronounced in the private sector largely due to weaker unions in the private sector and to the broad and pronounced weakness of the rule of law.

The government did not effectively enforce all applicable laws. Authorities did not impose sanctions against employers who prevented workers from organizing. Inspections related to worker rights were limited. Ministry inspectors gave low priority to violations of worker rights; state officials focused instead on bolstering revenues by cracking down on unregistered employees and employers who did not pay taxes. Some unions reported that employers threatened employees with dismissal if they joined a union and in some cases fired union leaders for their activities. Entity-level penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar violations of civil rights. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The governments and organizations of employers and workers in both entities negotiated general collective agreements establishing conditions of work, including in particular private employers. It was not confirmed that all employers recognized these agreements. Trade union representatives alleged that antiunion discrimination was widespread in all districts.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Adequate legislation exists at the state level and in the RS and the Brcko District criminalizing forced or compulsory labor, while Federation laws do not criminalize all forced labor activities. The government did not enforce the law effectively, but there was little verified evidence that forced labor occurred in the country due to the limited number of inspections into forced labor allegations. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

The prosecution of 13 BiH nationals for collusion in forced labor involving 672 victims of forced labor in Azerbaijan in 2015 continued in BiH courts. The government failed to prosecute organized crime syndicates that forced Romani children to beg on the streets, alleging that it was Romani custom to beg. There were reports that individuals and organized crime syndicates trafficked men, women, and children for begging and forced labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment of children in both entities is 15; minors between the ages of 15 and 18 must provide a valid health certificate to work. RS and Brcko District laws penalize employers for hiring persons younger than age 15. The labor codes of the Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District also prohibit minors between the ages of 15 and 18 from working at night or performing hazardous labor, although forced begging is not considered a hazardous task for all entities. The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Entity governments are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and both entities and the Brcko District enforced them. Boys and girls were subjected to forced begging and involuntary domestic servitude in forced marriages. Sometimes forced begging was linked to other forms of human trafficking. In the case of Romani children, family members or organized criminal groups were usually responsible for subjecting girls and boys to forced begging and domestic servitude in forced marriages. Several of the worst forms of child labor occurring in the country included the use of children for illicit activities, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and the use of children for the production of pornography (see section 6, Children).

During the year the government did not receive reports of child labor at places of employment. Neither entity had inspectors dedicated to child labor inspections; authorities investigated violations of child labor laws as part of a general labor inspection. The labor inspectorates of both entities reported that they found no violations of child labor laws, although they did not conduct reviews of children working on family farms. The government did not collect data on child labor because there were no reported cases. The general perception among officials and civil society was that the exploitation of child labor was rare. RS law imposes fines for employing children younger than 16, but the law does not specify the exact monetary amount. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for similar serious crimes.

NGOs running day centers in Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar, Bijeljina, Bihac, and Sarajevo in cooperation with the country’s antitrafficking coordinator continued to provide services to at-risk children, many of whom were involved in forced begging on the streets.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, social status (including refugee status), religion, and national origin. The government generally enforced these laws and regulations effectively. Penalties were commensurate with those for other violations of civil rights.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV-positive status, and social status. Labor laws and regulations are adequate to protect women’s rights, but authorities did not effectively enforce them in all cases. For example, women were unable to take maternity leave for the period of one year and were often unable to return to their work position after maternity leave or take advantage of the entitlement to work part time. Unsanctioned cases of employment termination for pregnant women and new mothers continue to occur.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although the monthly minimum wage in both entities is above the official poverty income level, more than 30 percent of the population was exposed to the risk of income poverty. The Brcko District did not have a separate minimum wage or an independent pension fund, and employers typically used the minimum wage rate of the entity to which its workers decided to direct their pension funds. The RS government increased the minimum wage during the COVID-19 pandemic under the pressure of the workers.

The legal workweek in both entities and the Brcko District is 40 hours, although seasonal workers may work up to 60 hours. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week in both entities. An employee in the RS may legally volunteer for an additional 10 hours of overtime in exceptional circumstances. The Federation has no provision for premium pay, while the RS requires a 30 percent premium. Laws in both entities require a minimum rest period of 30 minutes during the workday.

Employees may choose which holidays to observe depending on ethnic or religious affiliation. Entity labor laws prohibit excessive compulsory overtime. The entities and the Brcko District did little to enforce regulations on working hours, daily and weekly rest, or annual leave.

The Federation Market Inspectorate, the RS Inspectorate, and the Brcko District Inspectorate are responsible for the enforcement of labor laws in the formal economy. Authorities in the two entities and the Brcko District did not effectively enforce labor regulations. The penalties for wage, hours, and health and safety violations were commensurate with those of similar crimes. Inspectors were permitted to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.

The Federation and the RS set mandatory occupational health and safety standards, especially for those industry sectors where working conditions were hazardous. Worker rights extended to all official (i.e., registered) workers, including migrant and temporary workers.

Governments in both entities made only limited efforts to improve occupational safety and health at government-owned coal mines; such efforts were inadequate for the safety and security of workers. Workers in certain industries, particularly metal and steel processing and coal mining, often worked in hazardous conditions. There were no official social protections for workers in the informal economy unless those workers are registered at unemployment bureaus and are receiving related benefits (such as health-care coverage).

Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Authorities provided no protection to employees in this situation. As of mid-October there were no reports of industrial accidents that led to death or serious injury of workers.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary Title

Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral National Assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National Assembly elections were held in 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International and local observers considered the National Assembly elections and the 2016 presidential election generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for law enforcement, migration, and border control. The State Agency for National Security, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for investigating corruption and organized crime, among other responsibilities. The army is responsible for external security but also can assist with border security. During the coronavirus-related state of emergency, the army had the authority to enforce COVID-19 measures and restrictions but did not exercise it. The National Protective Service is responsible for the security of dignitaries and answers to the president. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: violent treatment by police; arbitrary arrests; serious problems with judicial independence; serious restrictions on free expression, including media censorship, violence and threats of violence against journalists, and corporate and political pressure on media; refoulement of refugees or asylum seekers; serious acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against Roma; violence against children; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Military investigators and prosecutors in three territorial prosecution services investigate military personnel killings; police investigators, investigative magistrates, and prosecutors investigate other security force killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports of government officials employing violent and degrading treatment. For example, on July 10, police beat and detained Dimitar Pedev for hooliganism during an antigovernment protest in Sofia, claiming he had provoked them. Pedev, who claimed he was a passerby and not a protester, felt ill in jail and was transferred to a hospital where his mother reported she found him “with a hematoma and concussion, chained to a hospital bed…even his legs.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged that the prison administration kept Pedev handcuffed to a bed for more than two days while doctors treated his injuries. As of December authorities were conducting an internal inquiry.

In February, 30-year-old Nikolay Ilkov claimed police in Sofia stopped him in his car, checked his documents, tested him for alcohol and drugs, and searched his vehicle for weapons and drugs. Ilkov passed the inspections but refused to go into the patrol car for an inspection of his underwear and socks. The patrol officers interpreted his refusal as aggression and three police officers held him while another beat him, leaving him with a hemorrhaged eye and a broken tooth. As of December, Sofia police were conducting an internal investigation of the case.

According to the NGO Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), police brutality in prison and detention facilities occurred with impunity. The BHC cited prosecutorial statistics obtained through a court order indicating that in 2019 the prosecution tracked 78 open cases of police violence, closed 67 cases, and carried out 13 investigations that resulted in no prosecutions, no indictments, and no convictions. According to the BHC, physical abuse of detainees by police was widespread and disproportionately affected Romani suspects. Most cases were not included in statistics, since victims often did not report it because most considered reporting abuse to be pointless.

The prosecutor general reported to the National Assembly in September that 15 cases of police violence were under investigation.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers were generally poor. There were reports of overcrowding in some facilities, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prison staff corruption, and inadequate sanitary, living, and medical facilities.

Physical Conditions: In February the ombudsman recommended the closing of two low-security facilities, Keramichna Fabrika in Vratsa and Kremikovtsi near Sofia, as well as the Central Sofia Prison due to “extremely bad physical conditions, overcrowding, hygiene problems, and cockroach and bedbug infestations.” The BHC and the ombudsman identified several additional problems, including overcrowding, poor access to health care and its poor quality wherever available, declining access to education, and unjustified use of handcuffs in detention facilities and hospitals.

The BHC reported extremely poor conditions in the overcrowded detention center in Gabrovo, “the last underground jail,” located below ground level, with poor access to natural light, no ventilation, poor hygiene, no toilet or bathing facilities in the cells, and limited open-air space. In June the Ministry of Justice informed the BHC of the government’s decision to close down the Gabrovo facility and relocate it to a new facility that was being converted for that purpose.

In May the BHC urged the Supreme Judicial Council to include inmate complaints of isolation, torture, and degrading treatment in the list of “urgent” cases that courts were allowed to review during the COVID-19 state of emergency. In April the BHC reported that defendants in detention at Central Sofia Prison complained of the “lack of systematic and comprehensive health protection measures” vis-a-vis the threat of COVID-19. The complainants alleged that prison authorities mixed persons detained before and after the declaration of the pandemic and did not enforce protective and hygiene measures. The BHC claimed medical personnel did not report all cases of violence against prisoners by custodial staff to the prosecution service. As of December the prison administration reported 34 cases of prisoners and detainees infected with COVID-19, including 18 hospitalizations and one death.

In January the ombudsman reported there had been 24 deaths in 2019 at an institution for persons with dementia in the village of Gorsko Kosovo. The ombudsman identified overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions there as enduring problems. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy inspected the facility, acknowledged the poor conditions, and suspended the placement of new residents, but did not find any violations on the part of the staff.

The ombudsman identified “extremely bad conditions” in state psychiatric hospitals, including overcrowding, poor physical conditions, meager food, and lack of adequate care. In December the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reported “grossly insufficient” staffing at psychiatric hospitals and identified continuous physical mistreatment (slaps, pushes, punches, kicks, and hitting with sticks) of patients by staff. The CPT raised “serious concerns regarding the use of means of restraint in psychiatric hospitals,” including metal chains on wrists and ankles secured with padlocks for days on end.

The law provides for the establishment of closed-type centers or designation of closed-type areas within a refugee reception center for confinement in isolation of disorderly migrants.

Administration: Authorities investigated allegations of mistreatment. According to the CPT, the prison administration suffered from serious corruption as well as a shortage of health-care personnel. The BHC and the ombudsman also identified violations of privacy of correspondence and prison corruption as problems. Contrary to law, regulations allow night searches of sleeping quarters for unapproved possessions, and the ombudsman criticized the prison administration for conducting such searches. In December the law was amended to restrict prisoners’ right to appeal administrative acts such as punishment or relocation. These appeals are now limited to the local administrative courts, and cannot go to the Supreme Administrative Court. The ombudsman and lawyers expressed concerns that the new provision restricted prisoners’ right to justice, lead to contradictory court practices, and render citizens unequal before the law.

In March the BHC criticized the government’s decision to suspend prison visits for the duration of the coronavirus-related state of emergency (March 13 to May 13), asserting that authorities could have shown flexibility instead of instituting a general ban, since two-thirds of all prison visits took place behind a partition without physical contact. Authorities reinstated visits after May 13, when the state of emergency ended.

Human rights activists accused the prison administration of confiscating applications for membership to the Bulgarian Prisoner Association, an NGO founded by inmates to advocate for prisoner rights, and of punishing and physically abusing its members. NGOs complained that the prison administration refused to collaborate with them if the NGOs had anything to do with the Bulgarian Prisoner Association.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring of prisons by independent nongovernmental observers. From August 10 to 21, a delegation from the CPT carried out an ad hoc visit to examine progress on the implementation of its recommendations concerning the treatment, conditions, and legal safeguards offered to psychiatric patients and residents of social care institutions.

Improvements: As of October the government refurbished a building to serve as a new detention facility in Kardjali, renovated the toilets in the detention facility in Plovdiv, and repaired the roofs of the prison facilities in Varna, Plovdiv, Pazardjik, and the detention facility in Sofia.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, there were reports that police at times abused their arrest and detention authority. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that police normally must obtain a warrant prior to apprehending an individual. Police may hold a detainee for 24 hours without charge, and a prosecutor may authorize an additional 72 hours. A court must approve detention longer than the additional 72 hours. The law prohibits holding detainees in custody without indictment for more than two months if they are charged with misdemeanors. Detainees charged with felonies may be held without indictment for eight months, while persons suspected of crimes punishable by at least 15 years’ imprisonment may be held up to 18 months without indictment. Prosecutors may not arrest military personnel without the defense minister’s approval. Authorities generally observed these laws.

The law provides for release on personal recognizance, bail, and house arrest, and these measures were widely used.

The law provides for the right to counsel from the time of detention. Regulations are that detainees have access to legal counsel no later than two hours after detention and that a lawyer have access to the detainee within 30 minutes of his or her arrival at a police station. The law provides for government-funded legal aid for low-income defendants, who could choose from a list of public defenders provided by the bar associations. A national hotline provided free legal consultations eight hours per day.

The BHC reported that police denied lawyers access to persons detained in several police precincts in Sofia during antigovernment protests on September 2, telling the detainees they were not under arrest and did not need legal assistance. The ombudsman initiated an inspection in the Second Police Precinct that identified at least two cases in which detainees did not receive immediate access to a lawyer. Further, the ombudsman found no record of meetings between detainees and lawyers despite the precinct officers’ claims of lawyers’ visits several hours after the detentions.

On May 28, the Supreme Cassation Court denied the prosecutor general’s request to reopen Bulgarian Prisoner Association leader Jock Palfreeman’s parole case. The prosecutor general had challenged the Sofia Appellate Court’s decision in the case, accusing the panel of judges of bias due to prior collaboration with the BHC, which the appellate court had asked to provide a written evaluation on the progress of Palfreeman’s rehabilitation. Palfreeman sought a retrial and was appealing the expulsion order imposed concurrent with his parole.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary detention. For example, the BHC reported receiving numerous complaints from peaceful participants in antigovernment protests on September 2 that they were detained without being involved in any illegal activities and subsequently held for a long time in overcrowded cells without access to food or water. Police actions during that day’s protests escalated after a group started throwing stones, firecrackers, and other objects at police.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but corruption, inefficiency, and lack of accountability were pervasive problems. Public trust in the judicial system remained low because of the perception that magistrates were susceptible to political pressure and rendered unequal justice.

In February the National Assembly amended the Judicial System Act, excluding judges, prosecutors, and investigating magistrates from responsibility for their official actions in an administrative court. NGOs criticized the change, noting that it will make the judiciary unaccountable for acts of discrimination committed in their official capacities.

After the COVID-19 state of emergency expired in May, the Supreme Judicial Council decided to continue restricting public access to court sessions and to allow only the presence of both sides and their legal counsels in courtrooms, citing antipandemic precautions. The council ordered court press officers to use all available methods to provide information on case developments as a replacement for public access.

According to human rights organizations, the law has low standards for a fair trial, creating possibilities for the violation of lawyers’ and defendants’ procedural rights. In an interview with Der Spiegel on September 7, Supreme Cassation Court president Lozan Panov stated, “The Supreme Judicial Council, the judicial self-governance body…mainly consists of politically appointed and controlled members. Therefore, it will be fair to say that the most important parts of the Bulgarian judiciary are under political influence and can be corrupted.”

Trial Procedures

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

The law presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. They have the right to a timely trial, but long delays affected the delivery of justice in criminal procedures. All court hearings are public except for cases involving national security, endangering public morals, and affecting the privacy of juvenile defendants. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and can demand a retrial if convicted in absentia unless they were evading justice at the time of the first trial.

The constitution and the law give defendants the right to an attorney, provided at public expense for those who cannot afford one. A defense attorney is mandatory if the alleged crime carries a possible punishment of 10 or more years in prison; also if the defendant is a juvenile, foreigner, or person with mental or physical disabilities, or if the accused is absent. Defendants have the right to ample time and facilities to prepare a defense. They have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment they are charged through all appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses, examine evidence, and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law provides for the right of appeal, which was widely used.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law prohibits official discrimination in access to employment, education, health care, and other rights and freedoms provided in the constitution and the law. The government investigated complaints of discrimination, issued rulings, and imposed sanctions on violators. The law allows individuals to pursue a discrimination case through the court system or through the Commission for Protection against Discrimination. Individuals may file allegations of human rights abuses with courts and with the commission, which can impose fines on violators.

After all remedies in domestic courts are exhausted, individuals can appeal decisions involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the European Court of Human Rights.

Property Restitution

According to the BHC, authorities evicted Romani families from their homes for political reasons ahead of elections, citing legal obligations to demolish illegal and hazardous buildings, while failing to provide the required support to the evicted persons, leaving them homeless.

While the government has no legislation specific to Holocaust-era property restitution, there are laws and mechanisms to address communist-era real estate claims (not including moveable property), including by foreign citizens. These laws were applied to cover Holocaust-related claims. All cases have long been closed.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions. In March the National Assembly passed a law on Measures and Actions during the state of emergency that allowed law enforcement agencies to access electronic data traffic in order to control quarantined persons. NGOs expressed concern that the law does not provide for judicial control of such access nor guarantees that it will not be applied to nonquarantined persons. NGOs also expressed concern that the provision will remain a part of the legislation after the state of emergency is over.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources–including EU funds–and support for media, gravely damaged media pluralism. In July a media pluralism report conducted by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom for the European Commission, identified a “particularly high risk” for public media independence, corporate influence over editorial content, and concentration of media ownership.

In August the NGO Ethical Journalism Network reported that press freedom in the country was “under attack” by progovernment tabloid journalism, which silenced critical voices “through financial and security threats,” often forcing ethical journalists to practice self-censorship to avoid harassment and intimidation. In October the representative of Reporters without Borders covering the EU and the Balkans stated the government had no will to change and improve the media environment. The representative also accused the government of reneging on its commitment to protect media freedom.

According to the BHC, freedom of expression was in a “state of free fall,” marked by “severe political pressure on journalists and media” and “taming” of public media. According to Transparency International Bulgaria, media ownership “is often unclear” and many media outlets “are financially dependent on state advertising, which may color their reporting and affect any criticism they may otherwise provide of government authorities.” On September 30, the European Commission’s 2020 Rule of Law Report stated, “Distribution of state advertising expenditure is not based on clear and nondiscriminatory criteria.”

Freedom of Speech: The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for use of and incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, social status, or disability. NGOs alleged that politically motivated hate speech, facilitated by the presence of nationalist parties in the government, increased over past years.

According to human rights lawyer Mihail Ekimdjiev, prosecutors used the penal code provision punishing the dissemination of false information to suppress free speech and target government critics. He cited as an example the charges in April against the president of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union, Asena Serbezova, over her public warning of possible medicine shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to the prosecution, “evoked unnecessary alarm.” In July a prosecutor in Sofia indicted Serbezova and requested that the court impose a fine. In September the court rejected the case, stating that the indictment contained numerous procedural violations. At the end of October, the prosecution charged Serbezova again, and a trial was pending as of December.

Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal. In July, however, an employee of state-owned Sofia airport alleged that management fired him two days after he had demanded the prime minister’s resignation in a comment to the latter’s social media livestream video. The company’s human resources department justified the employee’s release with “choice of team members” by a newly appointed manager.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. According to the 2020 annual report by the partner organizations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, “Media ownership is opaque and characterized by the capture of the media market by oligarchs who use their media power to exert political influence and attack and denigrate rivals and critics.” The EU Rule of Law Report noted that many media outlets do not comply with the law that requires public disclosure of ownership, and the public did not have easy access to the disclosed information. Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency in their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives.

The consolidation of media ownership by oligarchs made news outlets increasingly vulnerable to political influence over editorial policy. Independent media outlets were subject to open attacks from politicians at all levels and from administrative and judicial pressure. Publicly funded Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio were subject to attempts to control their editorial policies through politicized influence on their leadership.

Businessman and National Assembly member Delyan Peevski, who officially owns five newspapers, repeatedly used his control over print media distribution channels and advertising revenues to ensure positive coverage of affiliated political actors and the prosecutor general. Media and telecommunications conglomerate United Group offered to purchase these five newspapers from Peevski, but at year’s end the antimonopoly commission had not yet approved the deal.

Violence and Harassment: A Council of Europe report stated that independent journalists and media outlets were regularly subjected to intimidation in person and online. It reported a worsening working environment for journalists due to “open hostility of elected politicians and sustained attacks on independent media through administrative and judicial harassment, as well as physical threats.”

In one example of an attack on journalists, on March 17, three masked men attacked the prominent investigative journalist and chief editor of the 168 Chassa weekly, Slavi Angelov, in front of his home, beating him and inflicting severe injuries. On April 23, the prosecutor general announced that police arrested the alleged attackers, brothers Georgi and Nikola Asenov and Biser Mitov. The prosecutor general further stated that “persons who seek to destabilize the government, are targets of a criminal investigation, and are hiding…outside the country” and had ordered the attack. As of December pretrial proceedings were ongoing; one defendant was released on bail.

On May 22, Reporters without Borders alleged the trial of Economedia publisher Ivo Prokopiev for privatization fraud was an instance of “increasing political pressure against the main independent media group” by “politically controlled bodies” in “response to journalistic investigations that revealed unpleasant truths of corruption cases.” They noted the judicial irregularities behind the case and that the prosecutor general was practicing selective prosecution, pressing charges against Prokopiev but not Delyan Peevski, for example, a controversial oligarch who controls a large segment of the media environment.

In September the Association of European Journalists condemned “the illegal arrest and police violence against journalist Dimitar Kenarov” while Kenarov covered an antigovernment protest. According to Kenarov’s post on social media and eyewitness statements, police grabbed him, threw him on the ground, and kicked his head before snatching his camera and leaving him handcuffed and on the ground for hours. Responding to a media query in December, the Ministry of Interior reported that despite Kenarov’s visible wounds and multiple witness statements, its internal investigation concluded there was no evidence police had used any force against Kenarov, and closed the investigation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists reported editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders, with the implied support of the government.

In early 2019 oligarch Kiril Domuschiev acquired the country’s largest private media operator, Nova Broadcasting Group. Several respected investigative journalists and employees were fired from its flagship Nova TV station in January and February, and others left due to pressure or disagreements with the new owners. They were replaced by executives and journalists from Kanal 3, a television station believed to be tied to oligarch and National Assembly member Delyan Peevski. Media analysts assessed that Nova Group-affiliated media outlets shifted editorial policy towards a more progovernment stance. Contacts at Nova TV stated the station continued to lose journalists and other professionals after the initial round of firings, discouraged by appointments of a co-CEO and news director from Kanal 3, who were close to Peevski. Nova TV journalists said their copy was being rewritten by the new executives, so they were not allowed any freedom in reporting the news. Other journalists were thought to have been sent on assignments with prepared copy for their reports. Journalists who left Nova TV stated they were looking for jobs in other sectors because they do not feel there is any hope for professional, good journalism in the country.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine and public censure. According to the Association of European Journalists’ October survey, 49 percent of journalists viewed slander as a major harassment tool against their work, including lawsuits against their publications.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports, however, that the government exceeded its legal authority in monitoring private online communications, and that security services routinely questioned individuals about their social media behavior.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government mostly respected these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

There were numerous reports and video clips shared on social media of police violence during antigovernment protests in July, August, and September. The BHC and the ombudsman stated they had received numerous reports of “disproportionate use of force” against nonviolent protesters, including punching, kicking, dragging, and beating handcuffed persons. The ombudsman noted that some police officers used brass knuckles, which is illegal. A video shared online showed how on July 10, police grabbed and handcuffed protesting law student Evgeni Marchev and dragged him behind a column where four officers beat him. Marchev was hospitalized with head and chest injuries and bruises covering his body. On July 27, the Ministry of Interior announced that the four police officers involved would receive disciplinary sanctions for “violating basic rights of citizens by use of excessive physical force” but declined to share details of the sanctions.

Two business owners, Marian Kolev of the toy store Hippoland and Yordan Kostadinov of the winery Zagrey, complained that several government bodies conducted thorough inspections of their companies just two days after their employees participated in the September 2 protest in Sofia against the government and the prosecutor general. The Hippoland employees wore company-logo shirts and the Zagrey employees used a company vehicle for transportation to Sofia. The inspections failed to identify any wrongdoing, but the two businessmen expressed skepticism in the ability of so many government agencies to coordinate inspections, suspecting harassment. On November 12, the Commission for Protection of Competition fined Hippoland for unfair competition.

Freedom of Association

Authorities continued to deny registration of ethnic-Macedonian activist groups such as the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden, the Society of Oppressed Macedonians, Victims of Communist Terror, and the Macedonian Ethnic Tolerance Club in Bulgaria, despite a May judgment and more than 10 prior decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that the denials violated the groups’ freedom of association. On October 1, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture expressed in an interim resolution “deep concern” with regard to authorities’ “formalistic application of legal requirements” applied persistently to refuse registration to the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden and similar associations since 2006. In November 2019 the prosecutor general acted on Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) leader and defense minister Krasimir Karakachanov’s complaint about attempts by two associations, the Civil Association for Protection of Fundamental Individual Human Rights and Ancient Macedonians, to create a Macedonian minority. The prosecutor general petitioned the court to dissolve the associations, accusing them of a political agenda threatening the unity and security of the nation.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. During the state of emergency from March to May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government limited internal travel and established police checkpoints to enforce public health orders. Subsequent health emergency orders did not include travel restrictions or checkpoints.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report widespread “pushbacks,” violence, robbery, and humiliating practices against migrants and asylum seekers along the border with Turkey. As of December the Ministry of Interior reported 11,751 attempts to enter the country irregularly across the border during which border authorities detained 426 persons. According to the NGO Bordermonitoring, border authorities on February 28 pushed back 60 migrants on the border with Turkey, referring to a press release by the defense minister which stated, “border police stopped two groups of approximately 30 migrants each and prevented them from crossing the border.” The BHC alleged that the government had a strategy of “neglecting to detect and apprehend” a major portion of the asylum seekers entering the country in order to “evade the ensuing responsibilities under the Dublin regulation or a bilateral readmission treaty.”

Refoulement: The BHC alleged that the Migration Directorate deported asylum seekers before completion of their refugee status determination. In July, Radio Free Europe reported that the prime minister and the prosecutor general personally approved the 2016 deportation of businessman Abdullah Buyuk to Turkey on grounds that his identification papers had expired. Radio Free Europe alleged the deportation was in response to the Turkish Embassy’s unofficial request for Buyuk’s extradition for his alleged ties with Fethullah Gulen. In 2016 NGOs accused authorities of violating a court order prohibiting the extradition of Buyuk, who had filed for political asylum, thus breaching due process. On October 9, the minister of interior reported to the National Assembly that authorities had deported Buyuk under the EU-Turkey readmission agreement, in addition to 90 other Turkish citizens in 2016, 105 in 2017, 70 in 2018, 108 in 2019, and 58 in 2020.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention. The BHC expressed concerns about the transparency and objectivity of the refugee status determination process, alleging that refugee center directors could alter the case officer’s determination to grant protection or not and even replace a case officer without proper justification.

Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center accommodating them is located. The restriction is valid until the asylum process is completed.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers had access to school education, health-care, and language instruction. The law authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, specifying the services they will receive–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. NGOs claimed the government made inconsistent efforts to integrate refugees. According to the Asylum Information Database report on the country published in February, “No integration activities are planned, funded, or made available to recognized refugees or subsidiary protection holders.”

A safety zone for unaccompanied children seeking asylum was available at two reception centers in Sofia to provide 24-hour care and specialized services in an environment adapted to their needs.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. In November authorities relocated 17 unaccompanied refugee children from Greece as part of the country’s commitment to accept 70 unaccompanied children, including 20 from Greece.

Temporary Protection: The Council of Ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to 443 persons during the year, as of December.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: There were no reports of major irregularities during the snap general election in 2017 or the 2016 presidential election. Most political commentators, including the election observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, considered the general election free and fair, while noting that “some parties used inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric, mainly against Roma and Turkish communities.”

The law prohibits campaigning in languages other than Bulgarian. According to ODIHR, this requirement, as well as the absence of official voter information in minority languages, limited the ability of ethnic minority groups to understand election rules and to participate effectively in the election process. NGOs reported that address registration laws limited the ability of Roma occupying illegal housing to obtain identity cards, which in turn restricted their ability to register for and vote in elections.

Transparency International Bulgaria reported numerous cases of controlled voting and organizational violations that “infringe significantly on voter rights and could be assessed as an indicator of deliberate interference with the electoral process” during the two local election rounds in October and November 2019.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires a political party to have at least 2,500 members to register officially. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines, but the prohibition did not appear to weaken the role of some ethnic minorities in the political process, as a number of parties represented various ethnic minority groups. NGOs may not engage in political activity.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women held mayoral offices in 37 out of 265 municipalities and 27 percent of elected seats in the National Assembly. There were no Romani members in the National Assembly, and Roma were underrepresented in appointed leadership positions compared to the size of their population. Ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) held elected positions at the local level.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials in all branches of government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were reports of government corruption, including bribery, conflict of interest, elaborate embezzlement schemes, procurement violations, and influence trading.

In May the EC’s annual European Semester Report identified corruption as a major obstacle to investment, noting that “challenges persist in the fight against corruption,” and that the country “still lacks a solid criminal track record of concrete results on high-level corruption cases.” In its September report, the EC noted that “the legal framework to fight corruption is largely in place” but identified “the complex and formalistic…system of criminal procedural law… as an obstacle to the investigation and prosecution of high-level corruption.”

Corruption: The prosecutor general reported to the National Assembly that as of September prosecutors had opened 525 new investigations, bringing the total number of ongoing corruption cases to 2,282, and they had indicted 283 persons, obtaining 156 convictions. According to the annual report of the prosecution service, less than 5 percent of corruption convictions resulted in prison time. In June the NGO Anticorruption Fund reported that out of 40 high-profile investigations in the previous five years against former ministers, deputy ministers, National Assembly members, and magistrates it has monitored, only three resulted in convictions, resulting in two suspended sentences and one fine, while seven cases ended in acquittal, five cases were pending appeal, and the rest were mostly in an uncertain status.

On July 6, the Specialized Appellate Criminal Court reduced the sentence of the bribery conviction of the former mayor of Sofia’s Mladost district, Desislava Ivancheva, from 20 to eight years in prison, a fine, and a ban on holding high-level public office for 20 years. The prison sentences of Ivancheva’s codefendants Bilyana Pеtrova and Petko Dyulgerov were also reduced from 15 to seven years and 12 to six years, respectively. According to the prosecution, Ivancheva solicited a 500,000 euro ($600,000) bribe from an investor in construction projects, with Dyulgerov serving as intermediary and Petrova as an accomplice.

In September a prosecutor indicted the former head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, Petar Haralampiev, and three other employees of the agency for receiving bribes and trading in influence to aid foreign citizens in obtaining the country’s passports. Haralampiev and the first secretary of the agency were also charged with various types of malfeasance. As of December the court had not scheduled a trial.

Financial Disclosure: The law mandates that government officials make annual public declarations of their assets and income as well as any circumstances in which they could face accusations of using their position for personal gain. The Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets verified and monitored disclosures for all officials except magistrates, whose declarations were monitored by the Supreme Judicial Council’s inspectorate. High-level public officials and magistrates who fail to submit a financial disclosure declaration can incur fines. The provision was enforced.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Human rights observers reported uneven levels of cooperation from national and local government officials.

Some political parties, civic movements, and media outlets publicly attacked and advocated closing certain NGOs that defended particular minority groups and obtained funding from foreign donors. In February the government established a Civil Society Development Council headed by a deputy prime minister. In June the Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets suspended the formation of the council. The commission challenged the election of council members over concerns that the election was insufficiently publicized and only a small number of NGOs participated, limiting the choice of members and making the body unrepresentative. The commission was also concerned the council would be in a position to disburse a large amount of government grant funds, creating potential conflicts of interest. NGOs dismissed the commission’s arguments and in turn accused the commission of furthering the anti-NGO political agenda of the VMRO party. As of October the government had not responded to the commission, and the council remained suspended.

As in past years, BHC staff reported receiving threats and spontaneous verbal assaults by persons who recognized them.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman is an independent constitutional body elected by the National Assembly, with a five-year mandate. The ombudsman reviews individuals’ complaints against the government for violations of rights and freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals to end existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent specialized agency for preventing and protecting against discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity.

A National Assembly permanent committee covers religious denominations and human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and authorities generally enforced its provisions when violations came to their attention. Sentences for rape convictions range up to 20 years in prison. There is no specific criminal law against spousal rape; authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, but rarely did so. According to the NGO Bulgarian Fund for Women, domestic violence helplines received up to 50 percent more reports between April and November during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law provides penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in the context of domestic violence. The law defines domestic violence as systematic physical, sexual, or psychological violence; subjection to economic dependence; or coercive restriction of the personal life, personal liberty, and personal rights of a parent or child, a spouse or former spouse, a person with whom one shares a child, a cohabiting partner or former cohabiting partner, or a member or former member of the same household. The law restricts the persons who can report domestic violence to the victim or the victim’s direct relatives, and excludes friends and other unrelated persons. The law empowers courts to impose fines, issue restraining or eviction orders, and to order special counseling. Noncompliance with a restraining order may result in imprisonment for up to three years, or a fine. According to a nationwide study on violence commissioned by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy and released in February, 56 percent of the population has experienced domestic violence.

In one example, on June 9, the Sofia regional court sentenced a man to one year in prison for inflicting bodily injuries on his wife of 15 years. The court heard testimony from witnesses including the victim, her daughter, a neighbor, and police who responded to an emergency call during a family altercation. The victim also had medical records showing injuries from two prior assaults. According to the victim, she only filed a complaint after long-term abuse because she noticed that her 10-year-old son had started copying his father’s behavior.

In January the NGO Center for Creative Justice reported concerns that the law does not provide sufficient protection to victims of domestic violence. In addition, a Supreme Cassation Court judgment granting a perpetrator of domestic violence the right to collect rent from the survivor could discourage victims from reporting domestic violence or petitioning for a restraining order. In June the ombudsman criticized the legal provisions exonerating the offending person from prosecution for inflicting a medium injury (e.g., a broken tooth) or a more serious injury, such as deliberately infecting a person with a sexually transmitted disease, and sent the Justice Ministry a proposal for abolishing these legal provisions.

NGOs continued to express concern over an increase in cases in which women or girls were killed as a result of domestic violence. NGOs criticized authorities for not tracking domestic violence cases and not keeping statistics, which NGOs claimed were needed for authorities to assess the risk of abuse turning deadly.

In June, Sofia police reported nine deaths from domestic violence since the beginning of the COVID-19-related state of emergency in mid-March, in addition to receiving 3,500 reports of domestic aggression and the Sofia City Court issuing 600 restraining orders. In September, for example, a man set his partner on fire in the village of Tri Kladentsi while she was sleeping. The woman died in the hospital. According to news reports, the man had previously attempted to drown her in a lake. As of October pretrial proceedings were underway and the perpetrator remained in custody.

The Animus Association Foundation and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to domestic violence survivors in 22 crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that survivors could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Police and social workers referred domestic violence survivors to NGO-run shelters.

Sexual Harassment: The law identifies sexual harassment as a specific form of discrimination rather than a criminal offense, although prosecutors may identify cases in which harassment involves coercion combined with sexual exploitation. If prosecuted as coercion, sexual harassment is punishable by up to six years in prison.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Women in poor rural areas and Romani communities had less access to contraception due to poverty and lack of information and education. The cost of contraception was not covered by health insurance. Individuals younger than 16 could not schedule an appointment with a gynecologist or have an HIV test performed without parental consent. Lack of health insurance sometimes limited skilled attendance at childbirth. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, approximately half of all uninsured women, or between 8 and 9 percent of all women in the country, did not receive prenatal care, and approximately 80 percent of those uninsured (about 12 to 14 percent of all women) did not have access to relevant medical tests. Home births were illegal, and medical personnel could be prosecuted if they assisted them.

There were reports that maternity services were denied during the year due to COVID-19-related restrictions. In November and December, media reported that some hospitals refused to admit women in labor unless they produced a negative polymerase chain reaction test for the disease.

Victims of sexual violence, who NGOs stated were mainly uninsured, often did not have access to sexual and reproductive health services. Trafficking victims had access to health care through NGOs approved by authorities.

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

Discrimination: While the law provides women the same legal status and rights as men, women faced some discrimination in economic participation and political empowerment. The law establishes equal opportunities in all spheres of public, economic, and political life, equal access to public resources, equal treatment, exclusion of gender-based discrimination and violence, balanced representation of men and women in decision-making authorities, and overcoming gender-based stereotypes.

In March the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women identified an increased number of cases in the country of “antigender discourse in the public domain, public backlash in the perception of gender equality, and misogynistic statements in the media, including by high-ranking politicians.” The committee also expressed concern that women facing discrimination had “limited access to justice owing to pervasive corruption, social stigma, the inaccessibility of the judicial system, and gender bias among law enforcement officers.” The committee further noted that women with disabilities and Romani women were “underrepresented in the parliament, ministerial positions, decision-making positions at the municipal level, and high-ranking posts in the foreign service.”

On December 22, the government adopted the new 10-year National Strategy for Encouraging the Equality between Women and Men, which focuses on five priority areas: equality in the labor market and an equal level of economic independence; decreasing the gender pay gap and income gaps; equal participation in decision-making; combating gender-based violence and providing victim protection and support; and overcoming gender stereotypes and sexism.

According to the National Statistical Institute, in 2019 women received on average pensions that were 32 percent lower than those for men. Women faced discrimination in employment, in the workplace, and in access to pension benefits and retirement (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents or by birth within the country’s territory, unless one receives foreign citizenship by heritage. The law requires birth registration within seven days.

Education: Due to a lack of access to appropriate devices or the internet, the Ministry of Education estimated that 35,000 children could not fully participate in education after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to switch to online learning in mid-March. The Romani NGO Amalipe conducted a survey in 200 schools with majority Romani enrollment and found that in a quarter of them, more than 50 percent of the students did not have devices able to access online content. In 20 percent of the schools, most students could not afford to pay for suitable internet service. The survey found that 13 percent of the schools served neighborhoods where there was no internet service available.

Child Abuse: The law protects children against any type of abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence and exploitation. The law punishes violators with fines, unless the abuses constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem.

In February the State Agency for Child Protection announced that it was taking over the national helpline for children from NGOs, explaining that the agency was ready to operate the system and that the public preferred the government to operate the helpline. In an open letter to the prime minister, 76 NGOs expressed concern that the transition would jeopardize the helpline’s operation and put at risk children and parents who seek help. The NGOs voiced suspicion that the decision stemmed from the “propaganda, misinformation, and fake news regarding the work of the helpline” spread throughout 2019 by other NGOs such as March for the Family and Parents United for Children, nationalist political parties such as VMRO and Vazrazhdane, and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in a campaign against the government’s draft Strategy for the Child 2019-2030.

In June the NGO National Network for Children released its ninth annual “report card,” which concluded that “the government departed from the development of policies supporting children and families.”

In July a video posted on social networks showed a 32-year-old woman from Pernik beating her three-year-old daughter severely “because your father does not love you, he does not love me either.” The mother recorded it herself to “punish” the father. Authorities placed the child in a family-type home and brought charges for domestic abuse against the mother.

According to UNICEF one-third of all schoolchildren had experienced violence or harassment in school at least once within the year.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases, a person may enter into marriage at 16 with permission from the regional court. In its concluding observations in March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern about the “persistence of child and/or forced marriages, in particular among Roma girls.” NGOs criticized authorities for treating early marriages as an ethnic Romani rather than a gender problem but acknowledged that child marriage was pervasive in Romani communities. As of September 23, the country’s courts had sentenced 85 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 16, 11 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 14, and 11 parents for aiding and abetting such cohabitation.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into prostitution, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine, and child sex trafficking, which is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The report on the April 2019 visit of the UN special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children found that “child sexual exploitation, including sexual abuse within the inner circle of trust and at a residential institution, is real and extensive.” The report acknowledged there was a lack of systematic and reliable data on the scope of the problem and cited evidence gathered from child protection stakeholders. The report also identified insufficient cooperation among the various authorities engaged in child protection as a problem.

Displaced Children: As of November a total of 512 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the country, almost the same number as during the same period in 2019. As of October the Supreme Administrative Court was reviewing a case based on the 2017 petition from the ombudsman to establish uniform legal treatment of unaccompanied children across the court system. According to the ombudsman, courts apply varying standards for determining whether migrant children are unaccompanied and routinely placed children designated as such in detention centers for irregular migrants.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children. As of January a total of 476 children remained to be relocated from the 19 legacy facilities and placed in community-based care. According to the government, the focus of the reform was on preventing child abandonment and encouraging reintegration in a family environment. NGOs, however, believed that the new family-type placement centers did not ensure improved quality of life for children and the quality of family support services remained unchanged.

In November 2019, the NGO Disabilities Rights International published a report which concluded that the country’s deinstitutionalization reform had “replaced a system of large, old orphanages with newer, smaller buildings that are still operating as institutions” and that, while physical conditions in group homes were clean, they remained “dehumanizing and dangerous.” Most of the institutions in question housed children with disabilities, and while they provided good physical conditions (having been recently renovated or built), NGOs alleged that the service providers–other NGOs–isolated residents and immobilized them to avoid any trouble. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy described the report’s findings as “biased, nonrepresentative, and seeking to demean the deinstitutionalization process.”

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

Anti-Semitism

The 2011 census indicated that 1,130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number was 5,000 to 6,000.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews, or “Shalom,” reported a trend of increasing online anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy theories in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country. According to Shalom, the national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism and the Ministry of Interior “responded unfailingly” to anti-Semitic incidents, but weak laws prevented the authorities from punishing offenders more severely.

In January vandals broke tombstones and fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. As of October authorities had not identified the perpetrators of the incident. In June vandals defaced a playground and the facades of the adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. Authorities responded quickly, cleaning up the playground.

In February the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s ban on an annual march which gathers right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, 1940s leader of an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order; the ban restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgaria alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. On February 10, a prosecutor petitioned the Sofia city court with a claim for deregistration of the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, claiming its activity violated individual rights, incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia, spread anti-Semitic propaganda, and undermined national integrity. As of December the case was ongoing in the Sofia city court.

In June, Shalom reported organizations such as the Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement, or “Shipka,” spread online propaganda alleging Jews were involved in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudoantidote” that would lead to the “mass extermination of people.” Authorities issued a warning protocol to Shipka leader Lyudmila Kostadinova, informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she persisted in making anti-Semitic statements.

On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor teaching a course on social work with ethnic groups, after the university’s ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes and denigrating cliches. The university’s decision came after a student society, Shalom, and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as: “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than 1 percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev explained to the ethics commission that his words had been taken out of context and he denied sharing such views.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law protects the rights of persons with physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory disabilities, including their access to health services, education, employment, housing, public infrastructure, transportation, sports and cultural events, public and political events, the judicial system, and other services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, focusing most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. According to NGOs, the ongoing deinstitutionalization, which was designed to be a carbon copy of a similar reform of childcare institutions, failed to reintegrate persons with disabilities in the community. Instead, the government allocated domestic and EU resources for institutional care.

In January 2019 the prosecution service opened investigations against members of medical expert evaluation boards for defrauding the country’s social assistance system by approving “fake disability pensions.” As of October the investigations were ongoing.

While the law requires improved access to public and transportation infrastructure for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects and existing buildings. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination continued its nationwide campaign of inspecting public buildings, utility providers, telecommunications operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those not in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities were fined. According to the commission, while there was a general consensus on the problems faced by persons with disabilities, solutions took time to implement, and persons with disabilities had difficulty accessing not only public infrastructure, but also employment, health-care services, and education. According to the informal group Accessibility Alliance, the public environment for persons with disabilities remained a problem, as the law does not require accessibility of public development projects.

The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of an employer’s related insurance costs in addition to the full cost of modifying and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. The government provided a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire unemployed persons with a permanent disability. The law requires that companies with 50 to 99 employees hire at least one person with a permanent disability; in larger companies, persons with permanent disabilities must make up at least 2 percent of the workforce. According to the National Statistical Institute, in 2019 the number of unemployed persons with disabilities dropped by 4.8 percent and the number of employed persons with disabilities increased twofold compared to 2018.

Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions in remote areas under harsh conditions. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. In February 2019 the NGOs European Network for Independent Living, the Center for Independent Living, and the Validity Foundation issued a petition that claimed replacing legacy institutions with smaller community-based centers would result in “transinstitutionalization” and fail to deal with the “deeply ingrained discrimination, social exclusion, and segregation of these groups.”

The Ministry of Education transformed most of the 55 “special schools” for students with specific education needs into education support centers, leaving only five segregated schools with approximately 500 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining 18,000 students with disabilities attended mainstream schools. Those studying in segregated schools received diplomas that higher-level learning establishments did not recognize as qualifying the student for further education.

In July the NGO Life with Down Syndrome Foundation petitioned authorities with a claim that medical certification regulations discriminated against children with Down syndrome, neglected their needs, damaged their entitlement to financial support, and restricted their right to a quality and dignified life. The regulations instruct the assessment committee to assign children with genetic anomalies up to the age of three a 50 percent disability and those older than age three a 30 percent disability, which determines the level of support they are entitled to, including financial benefits, and depriving them of additional opportunities for physical and psychological development.

NGOs believed police and prosecutors lacked training and skills in dealing with persons with mental disabilities and often traumatized them further with their actions.

The law provides specific measures for persons with disabilities to have access to the polls, including mobile ballot boxes, voting in a polling station of their choice, and assisted voting. According to the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, those measures were “not sufficient to ensure equal participation, especially for persons with visual impairments who cannot vote independently.”

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal intolerance against minority groups persisted, and manifested in occasional violence against the Roma in particular, as well as societal discrimination against ethnic Turks. Political and government actors sometimes condoned or prompted it. Human rights organizations reported that the level of racial discrimination against Roma persisted and increased during the coronavirus state of emergency. Media outlets often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language, highlighting instances in which Romani persons had committed a crime. Nationalist parties such as Ataka, VMRO, and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria routinely resorted to strong anti-Romani, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. In May the UN special rapporteurs on racism and minority issues stated that “racial discrimination and racism within state institutions is a reality,” and called on the government to condemn hate speech and racist and nationalist populism targeting Roma and other minorities.

On May 14, four persons between the ages of 16 and 20 assaulted a 15-year-old Rom, Stefan Stefanov, near a school in Lyaskovets while he was on his way to a local shop. Stefanov subsequently stated that he lost consciousness after the first punch and only remembered waking up later in a park. According to media reports, the attackers’ parents offered to pay Stefanov a settlement if his family withdrew the charges. As of October police were investigating.

According to NGOs, government authorities, pressured by governing coalition member VMRO, imposed ethnically biased measures on Romani neighborhoods during the coronavirus crisis by restricting movement to and from them with police checkpoints even before identifying cases of infection. Local governments quarantined at least nine Romani neighborhoods during the pandemic compared with only three non-Romani communities. NGOs pointed out that while Romani neighborhoods were locked down, which restricted their residents’ access to basic services such as pharmacies and supermarkets, and contributed to higher unemployment, other neighborhoods with the same, or sometimes worse, levels of COVID-19 remained open. After the government lifted the state of emergency in May, VMRO insisted that Romani “ghettos” should remain restricted.

According to the Standing Roma Conference, local authorities disproportionately targeted illegal Romani dwellings for demolition. NGOs frequently petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to order the government to freeze the razing of homes in Romani neighborhoods until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons. In August the local government in Stara Zagora demolished 97 illegally built dwellings in the Romani neighborhood of Loznitsa, planning to turn the open space into a pine forest. Residents affected by the demolition told journalists they had been paying taxes on their properties and had no housing alternative, but the municipality had refused to sell them the land and legalize the houses.

The law establishes Bulgarian as the official language of instruction in the country’s public education system but allows instruction in foreign languages, provided that instruction in Bulgarian language and literature is conducted in Bulgarian. The law also permits study of the mother tongue. Local government and school officials reported they were instructed to ensure that primary school classes were conducted only in Bulgarian, even in schools where more than 50 percent of the students had Turkish or Romani as their mother tongue. There were officially approved curricula for the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Romani, and Turkish.

According to the National Statistical Institute, the average number of students who learned their mother tongue in public schools declined by nearly 14 percent for a second consecutive year, although there was a 22 percent increase in the number of Romani students studying their mother tongue. However, Romani NGOs claimed there were no students learning Romani and there was no officially approved textbook. The government operates foreign language schools in English, Spanish, German, Hebrew, French, and Italian, but none in Turkish.

On October 14, Kemal Eshref, GERB party regional coordinator and spouse of the deputy regional governor of Shumen, wrote on Facebook that since more than 50 percent of the population in Shumen was Turkish, school instruction in the region should be in Turkish. GERB’s local leadership distanced itself from Eshref’s statement, opposition socialist member of the National Assembly Ivan Ivanov called for prosecutorial investigation, and VMRO National Assembly member Dean Stanchev characterized it as “scandalous provocation, bordering on national treason since it represents an open call to separatism.” After the backlash, Eshref posted an apology on October 17 “to all who felt offended by his previous post,” explaining that it referred to allowing Turkish-speaking students an opportunity to learn their language as part of the elective curriculum.

The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows ethnic segregation of entire schools. Of Romani children, 30 percent (up from 16 percent five years earlier) were enrolled in segregated schools outside mainstream education, according to the European Roma Rights Center. According to the NGO Amalipe, approximately 10 percent of general education schools in the country were ethnically segregated. Romani children often attended de facto segregated schools where they received inferior education. There were instances of ethnic Bulgarian students withdrawing from desegregated schools, thereby effectively resegregating them. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students. In March the Blagoevgrad regional court confirmed the Commission for Protection against Discrimination’s sanction on a local school principal for racial segregation and ethnic discrimination. In 2018 the principal refused to enroll new Romani students, arguing that the school had become segregated and she wanted to reverse that trend.

The Education Ministry provided financial support to municipalities that pursued policies for educational desegregation and prevention of resegregation.

According to the NGO Trust for Social Achievement, life expectancy was 10 years lower and infant mortality was twice as high in the Romani community compared with the general population. In addition, one-third of Romani men and two-fifths of Romani women between the ages of 45 and 60 had a disability. Health mediators helped Roma and other marginalized communities improve their access to health care; the National Health Mediators Network employed 245 mediators in 130 municipalities.

According to the BHC, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards. Romani NGOs stated that some municipalities set discriminatory requirements for access to services in order to restrict Romani women’s access to them. For example, the assisted reproduction program in Veliko Turnovo and the one-time allowance for giving birth in Svilengrad both require the mother to have completed secondary school.

NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. In September the Commission for Protection against Discrimination opened an inquiry into social media publications alleging the Heaven Hotel in Slanchev Bryag displayed signs advising that the swimming pool was for “white people only” and proclaiming “White Lives Matter.” Hotel owner Georgi Slavov denied to local media the existence of the signs but also expressed regret he had not put them up, since he claimed hotels were allowed that cater to guests based on whether they have children and for gays, so “why not [allow hotels] only for white people?”

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. No laws protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Societal intolerance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons persisted.

There were reports of violence against LGBTI persons. On September 27, a group of approximately 30 teenagers, who had a goal of “cleansing” gays and lesbians, reportedly assaulted boys and girls whom they perceived as gay or lesbian with eggs, flour, and punches in the city garden in Plovdiv, shouting homophobic insults. Videos from the incident appeared on social media networks. As of October police had identified the attackers and had referred their names to the local education inspectorate for counseling with school psychologists. Police investigated by collecting evidence, examining videos, and interrogating witnesses. Police prevented similar occurrences in Burgas and Sofia after NGOs alerted them that incidents were being organized on Facebook. LGBTI NGOs expressed concern that authorities underestimated the homophobic threat when police initially provided little security at a scheduled demonstration in support of LGBTI rights on October 10 in Plovdiv. This allowed a group of counterdemonstrators to surround LGBTI activists and block their march for nearly an hour. Graffiti with threats appeared on the facades of the building where the organizer of the Plovdiv event worked and on the home of another local LGBTI activist.

According to LGBTI organizations, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners for protection against domestic violence because the law treats “spousal” only as applying to married persons who cannot legally be the same sex. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported receiving very few cases–two as of October–regarding sexual orientation. In May the Supreme Administrative Court revoked a decision of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination which had dismissed a 2019 complaint regarding homophobic threats and insults on Facebook against the Balkan Pride exhibition in Plovdiv. The court ruled that the commission had not fully utilized its powers to require law enforcement authorities to identify the authors of the offensive posts and had instead accepted the Interior Ministry’s “excuse” that it was unable to obtain data traffic information on user profiles due to Facebook being owned by a foreign company.

In May the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reported that nearly 30 percent of LGBTI persons had experienced workplace discrimination. Further, nearly 40 percent of the LGBTI persons who had experienced workplace discrimination did not report it due to fear of police discrimination based on their sexual identity. A March study by the NGOs Single Step and Bilitis reported that 83 percent of LGBTI students had experienced homophobic insults, 70 percent had suffered harassment, 34 percent had been physically abused, and 19 percent had been assaulted, while 50 percent never reported incidents. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s annual report released in February, cases where officials publicly used homophobic speech increased.

NGOs stated persons suspected of being gay were often fired from their jobs, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as LGBTI. Many health professionals considered LGBTI status a disease. The general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in refusal of health services, particularly to transgender persons. NGOs complained that most political parties in the National Assembly, government ministers, and municipal authorities were reluctant to engage in a dialogue on the challenges facing LGBTI individuals and related policy issues.

NGOs urged the government to discontinue normalization therapies on intersex children, which were funded by the National Health Insurance Fund with consent from their parents.

In June the Sofia city court overturned a Sofia regional court decision to fine a couple and to issue a public reprimand for libelously stating in a complaint to police that the husband’s police officer brother was gay. The Sofia city court found that the trial court had violated the plaintiff’s right to privacy by accepting evidence and requesting a technical examination of his sexual orientation. The court further found that the defendants’ “views on homosexuality or transgenderness are only meaningful to themselves” and that their “discriminatory prejudice cannot stigmatize a certain sexual orientation and its public manifestation.”

On August 5, vandals destroyed posters from an exhibition titled Together Is Super which had been installed hours earlier on Lovers Bridge in Sofia as part of the Summer Festival of Equal Rights. The posters featured photographs of LGBTI, deaf, and Romani persons, and provided information about their communities and the discrimination against them. Authorities did nothing in response.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

NGOs accused the health minister of age discrimination, and a group of lawyers challenged in the court his May 13 order which provided for mandatory isolation and hospitalization of COVID-19 patients who were 60 and older. On May 19, the minister amended the order, removing that provision.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, provides for workers to receive up to six months’ salary as compensation for illegal dismissal, and provides for the right of the employee to demand reinstatement for such dismissal. Workers alleging discrimination based on union affiliation can file complaints with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination. According to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, despite the constitutional recognition of the right of association, the law did not provide for it, which prevented parties to a dispute from seeking redress in administrative court.

There are some limitations on these rights. The law prohibits Interior Ministry and judicial system officials from membership in national union federations. When employers and labor unions reach a collective agreement at the sector level, they must obtain the agreement of the minister of labor to extend it to cover all enterprises in the sector. The law prohibits most public servants from engaging in collective bargaining. The law also prohibits employees of the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the State Agency for Intelligence, the National Protection Service, the courts, and prosecutorial and investigative authorities from striking. Those employees are able to take the government to court to provide due process in protecting their rights.

The law gives the right to strike to other public service employees, except for senior public servants, as long as at least 50 percent of the workers support the strike. The law also limits the ability of transport workers to organize their administrative activities and formulate their programs. Labor unions stated that the legal limitations on the right to strike and the lack of criminal liability for employers who abuse their workers’ right of association are contrary to the constitution.

Authorities did not always respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Labor unions continued to report cases of employer obstruction, harassment, and intimidation of employees, including relocation, firing, and demotion of union leaders and members. Labor unions also alleged that some employers obstructed negotiations or refused to bargain in good faith or adhere to agreements. In September the regional court in Ruse confirmed the labor inspectorate’s decision to sanction local company Danini, which started mass layoffs in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic without prior consultations with union representatives and representatives of the employees, as required by law, and made no efforts to negotiate an agreement with them that could reduce or mitigate the consequences of the layoffs.

In June the St. Sophia Hospital in Sofia fired nurse Maya Ilieva, leader of the Trade Union of Bulgarian Medical Specialists, who led a series of protests complaining of low pay and difficult working conditions. She was similarly dismissed from Tokuda Hospital in August 2019. In August the Trade Union of Bulgarian Medical Specialists set up a tent camp protest in front of the Health Ministry, accusing authorities of excluding medical specialists other than physicians and dentists from the latest national framework agreement on medical activities.

The government did not effectively enforce the labor law, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws related to denials of civil rights. Penalties for discrimination carry lower fines than the fines for labor law violations. The law does not effectively protect against interference by employers in labor union activities.

Judicial and administrative procedures were adequate in settling claims. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that employers broke the law and eroded the value of collective bargaining by letting nonunion members take advantage of the provisions in the collective agreement.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There were some reports of families and criminal organizations subjecting children to forced work (see section 7.c.). The national antitrafficking commission reported receiving an increased number of labor exploitation complaints. The commission attributed these complaints to the increased number of persons who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis and who exercised less caution in accepting employment opportunities. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, “children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft.” As of October authorities registered 26 cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor exploitation, although that was a significant decrease from the same period in 2019.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 and the minimum age for hazardous work at 18. To employ children younger than 18, employers must obtain a work permit from the government’s General Labor Inspectorate. Employers can hire children younger than 16 with special permits for light work that is not hazardous or harmful to the child’s development and does not interfere with the child’s education or training.

Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense but it is not a serious crime and carries a penalty of up to one year imprisonment or a fine. Penalties for the worst forms of child labor, however, are commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The General Labor Inspectorate was generally effective in inspecting working conditions at companies seeking and holding child work permits and applying sanctions regarding child labor in the formal sector. The inspectorate reported a 50 percent decrease in legal employment of children. In 2019 the inspectorate uncovered 236 cases of child employment without prior permission, a twofold increase from 2018.

The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounted educational campaigns, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries, particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales, and by organized crime–notably for prostitution, pickpocketing, and the distribution of narcotics. Children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Romani children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, construction, and the service sector.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, race, skin color, age, social origin, language, political and religious beliefs, membership in labor unions and civil society organizations, family and marital status, and mental or physical disabilities. Although the government usually effectively enforced these laws, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across all sectors of the economy with respect to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and minority group status. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported receiving numerous discrimination complaints during the year related to employment of persons with disabilities, citing examples in which employers created hostile and threatening environments towards an employee with a disability or intentionally created mobility obstacles to push the employee to quit.

The government funded programs to encourage employers to overcome stereotypes and prejudice when hiring members of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities.

The law requires the Interior Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, and the State Agency for Technical Operations to allot one percent of their public administration positions to persons with disabilities. Enforcement was poor, however, and the agencies were not motivated to hire persons with disabilities, citing inaccessible infrastructure, lack of sufficient funding for modifying workplaces, and poor qualifications by the applicants. The Center for Independent Living and other NGOs criticized the system of evaluating persons with disabilities based on the degree of their disability, which effectively prevented many persons with disabilities who were able to work from being hired.

The law requires equal pay for equal work. In July the Council of Ministers reported that men received 12.5 percent more pay than women for work in the same position. According to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, there were twice as many men as women with well paid jobs, and women were more frequently subjected to workplace discrimination than men. As a result of the gender pay gap, according to the National Social Security Institute, women received 32 percent lower pensions. Women continued to face discrimination in regard to pension benefits and retirement. The age at which women and men can access both full and partial pension benefits was not equal, nor was the legal retirement age.

Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem. Locating work was more difficult for Roma due to general public mistrust, coupled with the Roma’s low average level of education. According to the National Statistical Institute, 64.8 percent of Roma lived in poverty, compared with 31.6 percent of Turks and 16.7 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage for all sectors of the economy that was higher than the government’s official poverty line. Labor unions criticized the government for changing the methodology for designation of the official poverty line with a view to preserving the fiscal health of the state budget while neglecting the livelihoods of vulnerable citizens. According to NGOs, giving the labor and social policy minister discretion to set the official poverty line instead of having it determined by macroeconomic factors created risks of limiting the scope of persons entitled to certain social support and could be exploited for political purposes. In July the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 67 percent of households lived below the livelihood protection threshold and 28.5 percent lived below the poverty line.

In 2019 the General Labor Inspectorate reported that the cases of unpaid wages increased by 1 percent, compared with the previous year. The inspectorate maintained that its authority to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against employers who owed more than two months’ wages to at least one-third of their employees for three years contributed to the effective enforcement of correct payment of wages. During the coronavirus emergency in the first half of the year, labor inspectors compelled employers to pay 2.5 million levs ($1.5 million) out of an identified 4.5 million levs ($2.7 million) of unpaid wages.

The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime and prohibits any overtime work for children younger than 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that employers increasingly “disrespected employees’ working hours and free time.” The confederation criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers. In December the National Assembly passed amendments increasing the amount of annual allowed overtime work within a collective agreement from 150 to 300 hours.

A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of similar violations. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.

Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, 51.8 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years increased compliance to 93 percent of inspected companies. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other similar laws. Inspectors had the authority to conduct unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the gray-market economy, which, according to the National Statistical Institute, accounted for 21 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019. In September the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria said it expected the share of the gray economy to increase as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. During the two-month state of emergency, the law allowed employers to assign teleworking and work at home and force workers to use half of their accrued annual leave. The law also lifted the overtime work ban for workers and civil servants who assisted the health-care system and police.

Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first nine months of the year decreased by almost 19 percent over the same period in the previous year. Land transportation violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Approximately 95 percent of the companies inspected in 2019 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of those had programs to eliminate the identified risks.

There were 55 work-related deaths as of October, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors, nearly comparable to the 50 deaths reported from January through September 2019.

Croatia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Croatia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament (Sabor). The president serves as head of state and nominates the prime minister, who leads the government, based on majority support of parliament. The latest presidential election was held in December 2019 with a second round for the top two candidates held on January 5. President Zoran Milanovic was elected by a majority of voters. Domestic and international observers stated that the presidential election and parliamentary elections held on July 5 were free and fair.

The national police, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, have primary responsibility for domestic security. In times of disorder, the prime minister and the president may call upon the armed forces to provide security. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. The armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense and to the president as commander in chief. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were allegations that some members of the border police committed abuses of irregular migrants.

Significant human rights issues included: instances of violence against, and intimidation and censorship of, journalists and the existence of criminal libel laws; reported acts of unjustified police violence against irregular migrants, some of whom may have been asylum seekers; corruption; and discrimination and violence against members of ethnic minority groups, particularly Serbs and Roma.

The government took significant steps to prosecute and punish individuals who committed abuses of human rights.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities; however, a significant number of cases of missing persons from the 1991-95 conflict remained unresolved. The Ministry of Veterans Affairs reported that as of October 20, 1,468 persons remained missing, and the government was searching for the remains of 401 individuals known to be deceased, for a total of 1,869 unsolved missing persons’ cases. The ministry reported that from October 10, 2019, to October 20, the remains of 18 individuals were exhumed, and final identifications were made for 30 individuals. Progress remained slow primarily due to lack of reliable documents and information about the location of mass and individual graves, as well as other jurisdictional and political challenges with neighboring countries. The ministry reported that since January 1 it received seven new requests for searches, five for missing persons, and two for remains of those known to be deceased. In April the ministry implemented a regulation that provides monetary rewards for those who provide information or documentation that leads to the resolution of missing persons cases. This tool was being utilized to enhance the search for missing persons. On August 30, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Veterans Affairs Tomo Medved marked International Day of Missing Persons by participating in a Conference on Missing Persons from the Homeland War.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but, according to the Office of the Ombudsperson, there were several reports of physical and verbal mistreatment of prisoners and detainees. Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Some reports regarding prison or detention center conditions raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: The ombudsperson’s 2019 annual report stated that in six of the 14 high-security units, the occupancy rate was more than 120 percent (considered critical according to the Council of Europe’s European Committee on Crime Problems). The prisons with the greatest overcrowding were those in Karlovac (175 percent of capacity), Osijek (174 percent), and Pozega (167 percent). The report noted that many prisoners resided in conditions that did not meet legal and international standards, and in some cases they were degrading and dangerous to inmates’ health.

In addition the ombudsperson reported the most frequent complaints were inadequate health care, followed by accommodation conditions, prison officers’ conduct, and inappropriate use of privileges. In its 2018 report, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) stated it received several allegations of physical mistreatment of prisoners by police officers, including slaps, punches, and kicks to various parts of the body.

The ombudsperson’s report described regular site visits to 12 police stations in the country that showed partial compliance with the standards of the CPT. According to the report, in some police stations video surveillance coverage was limited, increasing the risk of an untimely response to incidents during police detention. In some stations, however, video surveillance extended to sanitary facilities, compromising the privacy of detained persons. Lacking their own detention facility, Varazdin border police used the local police station at Ivanec for short-term detention of irregular migrants, although the facility’s size was insufficient for holding large groups and was difficult to keep sanitary. The report noted some police stations did not have dedicated vehicles for transportation of detained persons and sometimes used vehicles without ventilation and heating in violation of CPT standards.

Administration: The ombudsperson’s report stated detained persons frequently turned to the ombudsperson to address these issues due to the ineffectiveness of legal remedies. The ombudsperson investigated credible allegations of mistreatment and issued recommendations to improve conditions for detained persons. In 2019 her office took actions in response to 203 cases of violations of the rights of persons in the prison system, conducted 25 field administrative procedures, and the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) implementers visited four prisons, 23 police stations, and four investigative units.

The report of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) published in June noted that as of June 2018, the Ministry of the Interior continued to deny the ombudsperson immediate access to data on the treatment of irregular migrants in police stations. In 2019 the ombudsperson recommended that the Ministry of the Interior ensure unannounced and free access to data on irregular migrants to the ombudsperson and NPM implementers in line with existing legislation.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent, nongovernmental observers. The ombudsperson carried out tasks specified in the NPM and is authorized to make unannounced visits to detention facilities. The CPT and the ENNHRI also made visits in recent years.

Improvements: The ombudsperson’s report noted some improvements regarding accommodation conditions from the previous year, such as the addition of 50 newly constructed places in the Pozega penitentiary. The Ministry of Justice and Administration reported the overall security and accommodation situation in all correctional institutions, including penitentiaries, prisons, juvenile correctional institutions, and the Diagnostics Center in Zagreb (a health-care facility), improved despite temporary measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beginning in March, prisoners were offered more frequent and longer telephone calls, and, with the support of UNICEF, video visits from children to their incarcerated parents were increased. Compared with 2019, prisoners were allowed more time outside and provided additional structured activities. The ministry reported the capacity of the prison in Bjelovar was increased.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Other than those apprehended during the commission of a crime, persons were arrested with warrants issued by a judge or prosecutor based on evidence. Prosecutors may hold suspects for up to 48 hours in detention. Upon request of prosecutors, an investigative judge may extend investigative detention for an additional 36 hours. Authorities informed detainees promptly of charges against them. The law requires a detainee be brought promptly before a judicial officer, and this right was generally respected. In 2019 the ombudsperson received 6 percent more complaints relating to the work of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor, mostly due to lack of communication with citizens in reference to charges against them. The law limits release on bail only in cases of flight risk. In more serious cases, defendants were held in pretrial detention. Authorities allowed detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or, if indigent, to one provided by the state.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Cases of intimidation of state prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers were isolated.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence. They must be informed promptly of the charges against them. Defendants have a right to a fair, public, and timely trial and to be present at their trial. Despite the decreased number of cases, the backlog in domestic courts (462,200 as of September 30, down from 500,578 at the end of 2019) continued to raise concerns regarding judicial effectiveness, efficiency, legal uncertainty, and the rule of law. Lengthy trials remained one of the main problems in the judiciary. In June the ENNHRI reported that during 2019, the last year for which data was available, the number of complaints received by the ombudsperson regarding the judiciary decreased by 22 percent compared with 2018. Regarding the content of complaints, 38 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the courts, a decrease of 34 percent compared with 2018. Complaints pointed to inconsistent application of case law, as well as insufficiently reasoned court decisions that seemed arbitrary. Complaints about the manner in which judges conducted proceedings and made decisions showed a growing distrust in the legality of the proceedings and raised fears of corruption.

Defendants have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice or to have one provided at state expense. Defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Any defendant who cannot understand or speak Croatian has free access to an interpreter from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and prosecutors may file an appeal before a verdict becomes final, and defendants may file an appeal through the domestic courts to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals may seek damages for, or cessation of, an alleged human rights violation. They may appeal to the ECHR after all domestic legal remedies have been exhausted or after a case has been pending for an excessive period in domestic courts. Administrative remedies were also available.

Property Restitution

The government has endorsed the Terezin declaration but does not have adequate legal mechanisms in place to address Holocaust-era property restitution. The country has not effectively compensated claimants for property seized during the Holocaust period (1941-45) and has inconsistently permitted noncitizens to file claims.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups reported the government did not make significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens. The law limits restitution of property seized during the Communist era to individuals who were citizens of the country in 1996 and permitted claims to be filed only within a specified window, which closed in January 2003. Consequently, the law does not provide effective compensation to persons, including Holocaust survivors, whose property was expropriated but who left the country and obtained citizenship elsewhere. A 2002 amendment to the law allows foreign citizens to file claims if their country of citizenship has a bilateral restitution treaty with Croatia. In 2010, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot require such a treaty as a necessary condition for restitution. In 2011 the Ministry of Justice attempted unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to reflect this finding and reopen claims. At the time the government estimated the amendment might benefit between 4,211 and 5,474 claimants. As of year’s end, the government had taken no subsequent steps to amend the law.

Restitution of communal property remained a problem for the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Communities in Croatia. The government reported that since 1999 it had resolved 323 property claims related to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and there were no outstanding appeals. The Serbian Orthodox Church stated several outstanding claims remained.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press, but judicial ineffectiveness at times delayed resolution of cases.

Freedom of Speech: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” A conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides for six months’ to five years’ imprisonment for those who organize or lead a group of three or more persons to commit hate speech. Although the laws and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and (the World War II regime) Ustasha-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media.

Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that intimidation and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had a chilling effect on media freedom and that the government insufficiently addressed this problem.

On January 23, in Ivanbegovina, four men attacked Slobodna Dalmacija journalist Andrea Topic while she was investigating the property of then health minister Milan Kujundzic. Topic said she was photographing the property from the road when the men threatened her and intimidated her for half an hour by shouting, filming her, and sitting on and shaking her car. On July 28, media reported that the Imotski Municipal State Attorney’s Office filed an indictment against the four men, charging them with unlawful deprivation of liberty. Kujundzic later resigned, and media attributed his resignation to press coverage of the unexplained large number of houses he owned.

The Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) strongly condemned “this disgusting attack on [our] colleague Andrea Topic, who was only doing her job in the public interest. The attack is a consequence of a hostile atmosphere in Croatia that points the finger of blame on journalists for everything.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship due to fear of online harassment, lawsuits, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.

Libel/Slander Laws: According to results of an annual survey conducted by the CJA, 905 lawsuits were filed against journalists and the media, with claimed damages of almost 68 million kuna ($10.5 million). Of the 905 lawsuits, 859 were for civil alleged violations of honor and reputation against publishers, editors, and journalists, while 46 were criminal lawsuits. Of the 23 media outlets that responded to the CJA’s poll, 18 had a standing lawsuit alleging violations of honor and reputation. The CJA was defending itself against three active lawsuits. The country’s public broadcaster, Croatian Radio and Television (HRT), had an active criminal proceeding against CJA President Hrvoje Zovko, including a claim for damages of 250,000 kuna ($39,200), claims against the CJA in the amount of 200,000 kuna ($31,430), and within the same lawsuit, a claim for 50,000 kuna ($7,860) against Sanja Mikleusevic Pavic, president of the CJA’s branch at HRT.

Nongovernmental Impact: On April 12, several unidentified men attacked Zivana Susak Zivkovic, a reporter working for the news website Dalmatinskiportal, and Ivana Sivro, a camera operator for N1 TV. According to local news reports, the journalists were attacked while documenting an Easter mass held despite a ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19. The regional news website Balkan Insight reported that the rally by the masked, black-clad protesters was held to support a priest who called on worshippers to attend mass, breaching measures imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country, with two of the protesters displaying World War II Ustasha movement’s insignia and a banner with the slogan “Journalists are worms.” They were objecting to earlier media reports that the day of criticism of priest Josip Delas was held because he led a mass with 20 worshippers despite appeals from the archdiocese and the coronavirus crisis authorities in Split to avoid gatherings. Zivkovic suffered minor bruising from the attack, her employer reported. Another man hit Sivro in the arm and shoved her camera, as seen in a video published by N1 TV. Three men were under prosecution for the assault. In a statement, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Split-Makarska apologized for the attack.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights issues documented 688 cases of pushbacks or abuse of irregular migrants. In May the British newspaper The Guardian accused border police of humiliating irregular migrants on religious grounds during the month of Ramadan. According to the report, police officers allegedly spray-painted crosses on the heads of migrants who attempted to enter the country illegally to mark, humiliate, and traumatize them. In the same article, The Guardian reported that on May 6-7, police pushed several mainly Afghan and Pakistani migrants and asylum-seekers back across the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The NGO Danish Refugee Council stated the migrants and asylum seekers were forced to enter a van and driven to the BiH border, although some requested asylum in Croatia. At the border they were reportedly beaten and their personal belongings burned. The Ministry of the Interior disputed the allegations and claims in The Guardians article and stated the police respected migrants’ fundamental rights and dignity and allowed them access to the international protection system if they were in need of such protection, in accordance with general human rights documents, European Union regulations, and national legislation. The ministry also stated police took no action against migrants at the reported time in the area in question and had excellent relations with the Muslim community. On June 5, a human rights NGO, Centre for Peace Studies (CMS), filed a criminal complaint to the State Attorney’s Office against “unknown perpetrators” from the police for “degrading treatment and torture of 33 persons and their violent, illegal expulsion from the Croatian territory to Bosnia and Herzegovina,” based in part on the incident described in The Guardian. As their press release explained, “those were four separate cases [recorded in May] combined into one criminal complaint due to similarities in treatment.” On July 23, the CMS filed a second criminal complaint against unknown perpetrators for torturing, humiliating, and pushing back 16 migrants from Croatia to BiH in late May. The Ombudsperson’s Office said they had repeatedly made requests for investigations into allegations of violence against migrants.

On June 18, police arrested two Karlovac-based police officers for the beating of an Afghan asylum seeker who crossed the border from BiH. The officers were removed from service pending disciplinary proceedings and were detained for 30 days. One reportedly faced a charge of causing bodily harm, while the other faced charges for failing to report a crime. Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic condemned the beating incident and emphasized it was an isolated case. Karlovac police officials said there was zero tolerance for such violence.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to asylum seekers. Despite restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of the Interior reported that it continued work with asylum seekers and persons granted international protection, and it provided access to the asylum procedure in accordance with epidemiological measures and recommendations adopted by the European Commission on April 16.

Durable Solutions: In 2019 the government resettled 250 pledged Syrian refugees from Turkey according to the EU Resettlement Program from 2015. In August the Ministry of the Interior reported the government was unable to resettle 150 pledged refugees from 2019 due to operational and technical difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and an earthquake that struck the city of Zagreb on March 22. The government continued to participate in a joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of BiH, Montenegro, and Serbia. The RHP aimed to contribute to the resolution of the protracted displacement situation of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced persons following the 1991-95 conflict. As of August the RHP had provided housing to 314 families (748 individuals) in the country. In March the country offered to participate in the European Union’s scheme to relocate unaccompanied minors from overcrowded reception centers in Greece. Media reported that on September 11, following a fire that destroyed a migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, the government would receive 12 unaccompanied minor female migrants under a European Commission plan to provide them permanent accommodation.

Temporary Protection: The Ministry of the Interior reported that from January to August 18, the government granted asylum to 27 refugees who had a well founded fear of persecution if they returned to their home country. The country also has a mechanism for subsidiary protection for those who do not qualify for asylum and granted protection to one person during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

According to the last census in 2011, there were 2,886 stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country. Many of these persons were Roma who lacked citizenship documents. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for granting stateless individuals residency and eventual citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On July 5, the country held national parliamentary elections. The first round of the presidential election was held in December 2019, with a second round for the top two candidates on January 5, 2020. European Parliament elections were held in May 2019. According to observers, elections took place in a pluralistic environment and were administered in a professional and transparent manner.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political processes, and they did participate. By law minority groups are guaranteed eight seats in the 151-seat parliament. Representation of women in major political parties remained low. The law requires that the “less represented gender” make up at least 40 percent of candidates on a party’s candidate list, with violations punishable by a fine. After the 2020 elections, the electoral commission noted that the largest political party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), failed to comply with the gender law on any of its election lists, while the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) complied in all electoral constituency lists except for two. Many smaller parties also met the threshold. The percentage of women elected to the parliament was 35 of a total of 151 parliamentarians (23 percent), the highest percentage since parliament’s constitution in 1990.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. State prosecutors continued to prosecute several major corruption cases involving mayors, politicians, and public figures, and the judiciary generally imposed statutory penalties in cases in which there was a conviction. High-profile convictions for corruption, however, were frequently overturned on appeal. Corruption remained a problem, and significant numbers of high-profile corruption cases were underway. On September 30, the European Commission issued the annual rule of law report for EU member states and noted the country’s anticorruption institutions were impeded by a shortage of specialized investigators and that lengthy court proceedings and appeals often hindered closure of cases, including those involving former senior officials.

Corruption: Several corruption cases against former high-level government officials reported in previous years were still pending.

On May 29, police arrested 13 prominent members of the governing HDZ party, including civil servants, elected officials, and businessmen, on suspicion of abuse of office and economic crimes related to the construction of the 1.8-billion-kuna ($264 million) Krs-Padena windmill farm project near the town of Knin. Notable figures arrested include former state secretary of the Ministry of Administration Josipa Rimac, Director of Croatian Forests Krunoslav Jakupcic, Assistant Minister of the Economy, Entrepreneurship, and Crafts Ana Mandac, and other prominent local and regional officials. The government fired Rimac and Mandac after the arrests. On August 27, the Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime expanded its investigation to add 18 additional suspects. The investigation continued as of October.

In another case on September 17, media reported that the CEO of the state-owned oil pipeline operator JANAF, Dragan Kovacevic, and 10 other individuals were arrested on suspicion of influence peddling, bribery, and illicit preferential treatment. Kovacevic was accused of receiving 1.9 million kuna ($292,000) in bribes from the CEO of a company that landed a 40-million-kuna ($6.2 million) deal with JANAF. Parliament stripped the immunity of parliamentarians Drazen Barisic (HDZ) and Vinko Grgic (SDP) for involvement in the case, and police arrested both on September 19 pending investigation of charges of influence peddling, misuse of position and authority, and bribe taking.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires that public officials declare their assets and income, and government officials generally complied with this requirement. This information was available to the public. Fines are the penalty for noncompliance. Judges are not covered by this requirement but must make disclosures of assets under a separate law. During the year the Commission for the Resolution of Conflict of Interest fined three members of parliament, Franko Vidovic, Franjo Lucic, and Anka Mrak Taritas, for irregularities in their disclosure forms. Minister of Labor, the Pension System, the Family, and Social Policy Josip Aladrovic was also fined for irregularities in his form. Two former members of parliament, Ivan Kovacic and Marijan Kustic, were cited by the commission, but no sanctions were imposed since more than 12 months had passed since the officials left their public duties. On January 28, Prime Minister Plenkovic replaced Minister of Health Kujundzic following a series of media reports that alleged he misrepresented the value of his property on his asset declaration forms.

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

In most cases domestic and international human rights groups operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country has an ombudsperson for human rights who investigated complaints of human rights abuses, as well as three additional ombudspersons for gender equality, persons with disabilities, and children. The law stipulates that parliament cannot dismiss the ombudsperson for human rights because of dissatisfaction with his or her annual report. Parliament may dismiss the other three if it does not accept their annual reports. Ombudspersons admitted that this limited their ability to do their jobs thoroughly and independently and imposed political influence over their work.

The law authorizes ombudspersons to initiate shortened procedures in cases where there is sufficient evidence of the violation of constitutional and legal rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes the rape of men or women, including spousal rape and domestic violence. The law was in most cases enforced. Sentences range from fines to jail, depending on the crime’s severity. Rape, including spousal rape, is punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment. Conviction for domestic violence is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Amendments to the penal code, which entered into force in January, introduced stricter penalties for violence among closely related family members and violence against women. In the amendments, sexual intercourse without consent is classified as rape, punishable with three to 10 years’ imprisonment. A separate law (Law on Protection from Domestic Violence), last amended in January, provides sanctions (fines and up to 90 days’ imprisonment) for misdemeanor domestic violence. According to the ombudsperson for gender equality, despite recent legislative changes, violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem largely due to limited education on gender-based violence laws for investigators, prosecutors, and judges that often led to cases being decided in favor of alleged perpetrators.

On January 22, the municipal court in Slavonski Brod convicted Pozesko-Slavonska County Prefect Alojz Tomasevic to a 10-month sentence, suspended for two years, for domestic violence. State prosecutors reportedly did not request a prison sentence in the case, and Tomasevic remained in his position. Civil society organizations and the ombudsperson for gender equality criticized the verdict as too lenient and asserted that victims of domestic violence could have “no trust” in the country’s judiciary with such a punishment.

On April 19, Interior Minister Bozinovic publicly acknowledged increased public reports of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2019 report by the ombudsperson for gender equality, the latest available, the number of misdemeanor cases of domestic violence decreased by 6.3 percent compared with 2018, while the number of criminal acts committed against “closely related people” (i.e., domestic violence cases) increased by 28 percent. The report stated that 78 percent of the victims of domestic violence were women (29 percent more than in 2018).

On March 12, the Croatian Association of Employers (HUP) signed a consensual termination agreement with former deputy director Bernard Jakelic after more than 10 female employees presented sexual harassment claims over the course of his 24-year career. Upon his dismissal, Jakelic received a significant severance pay package. The ombudsperson for gender equality filed a criminal complaint against Jakelic with the state prosecutor and warned HUP against revictimizing victims with its decision to sign a consensual termination employment agreement with the perpetrator instead of firing him.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No legal, social, or cultural barriers adversely affect access to contraception. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status and rights as men with regard to family, employment, labor, religion, inheritance, personal status and nationality laws, property, access to credit, owning or managing businesses or property, and voting. The law requires equal pay for equal work. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Women experienced discrimination in employment and occupation.

Children

Birth Registration: Authorities registered all births at the time of birth within the country or abroad. Citizenship is derived by descent from at least one citizen parent or through birth in the country’s territory in exceptional cases.

Child Abuse: Amendments to the penal code, which entered into force in January, provide stricter penalties for grave criminal acts of sexual abuse and abuse of children. Penalties depend on the crime’s gravity and include long-term imprisonment if the child dies as a consequence of the abuse. Child abuse, including violence and sexual abuse, remained a problem. The ombudsperson for children reported in 2019 her office received almost 10 percent more overall complaints regarding children than in 2018. The office received 97 complaints of domestic violence against children, 35 more than in 2018 (a 56 percent increase). Violence was most frequently reported by parents, followed by institutions such as schools and kindergartens.

On March 18, media widely reported an incident from February 2019 in which a 54-year-old man allegedly threw his four children, ages three, five, seven, and eight, off the balcony of their home on the island of Pag, significantly injuring one. On March 18, the Zadar County Court convicted the perpetrator to 30-years’ imprisonment and mandatory psychiatric treatment for attempted murder.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18; children older than 16 may marry with a judge’s written consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children; the sale, offering, or procuring of a child for prostitution; and child pornography. Authorities enforced the law. Amendments to the penal code, which entered into force in January, provide stricter penalties for the sexual exploitation of children. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Children stated that crimes and violence committed against children increased during the year and claimed many crimes remained unreported. The Ministry of the Interior conducted investigative programs and worked with international partners to combat child pornography. The ministry operated a website known as Red Button for the public to report child pornography to police. The minimum age for consensual sex is 15.

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

Anti-Semitism

The World Jewish Congress estimated the country’s Jewish population at 1,700. Some Jewish community leaders continued to report anti-Semitic rhetoric, including the use of symbols affiliated with the Ustasha and historical revisionism. Historian Ivo Goldstein and Director of the U.S. Simon Wiesenthal Center Efraim Zuroff criticized the government for tolerating the rise of pro-Ustasha sentiment in the country.

During the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the Office of the Prime Minister characterized the Jasenovac concentration camp as a “painful and tragic part of the Croatian history” and stated that “remembering victims and strongly condemning atrocities are a pledge for Croatia’s European future.” On February 5, Prime Minister Plenkovic opened a Holocaust exhibition in Zagreb entitled If I forget you…The Holocaust in Croatia 1941-1945Final destination Auschwitz. The exhibition was open until mid-April and was located near the site where Jews were transported to Croatian and other European concentration camps.

On April 22, the government held its official annual commemoration for victims killed by the Ustasha regime at Jasenovac, which was also attended by President Zoran Milanovic. For the first time since 2016, after having boycotted previous government commemorations, representatives from the Jewish community, Serb National Council (SNV), Romani community, and Alliance of Antifascist Fighters joined the official commemoration. Head of the Jewish Community of Zagreb Ognjen Kraus was quoted by the media saying he attended to “extend the hand of friendship and goodwill” but still sought tangible results from the government in the fight against historical revisionism. Serbian Independent Democratic Party (SDSS) president and member of parliament Milorad Pupovac stated the participation represented a show of solidarity in light of the March 22 earthquake in Zagreb and COVID-19 crisis.

On June 3, the Zagreb High Misdemeanor Court ruled that the use of salute Za Dom Spremni (For the Homeland, Ready) when used by singer Marko “Thompson” Perkovic in his song did not violate the law. The Zagreb-based chapter of NGO Human Rights House claimed the constitution prohibits incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, including in access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, and the judicial system and other state services, but the government did not always enforce these provisions effectively. While the law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, building owners and managers did not always comply, and there were no reported sanctions.

The 2019 report of the ombudsperson for persons with disabilities stated there were insignificant advances in policies aimed at persons with disabilities. The ombudsperson further stated that systemic solutions were lacking for special categories of persons with disabilities and children with early on-set developmental challenges. The ombudsperson also noted the law still lacks provisions to provide for the basic rights for persons with disabilities.

Children with disabilities attended all levels of school with nondisabled peers, although NGOs stated the lack of laws mandating equal access for persons with disabilities limited educational access for those students.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Constitutional provisions against discrimination applied to all minorities. According to the ombudsperson for human rights, ethnic discrimination was the most prevalent form of discrimination, particularly against Serbs and Roma.

According to the SNV, the Serb national minority faced increased hate speech and anti-Serb graffiti. Serbs were subject to physical assaults especially in Vukovar, where Serb youths reportedly were attacked several times by Croatian youths. The SNV also said members of the Serb national minority faced significant discrimination in employment, and there were unresolved, long-standing issues of registration of Serb schools in Eastern Slavonia and in the justice system, particularly with respect to missing persons and unprosecuted war crimes cases.

On June 13, police arrested six Zagreb Dinamo soccer club fans after a photograph was circulated online of them posing with a banner depicting a vulgar and hateful anti-Serb message. Charges against the suspects were pending at year’s end. Separately, on June 14, Zagreb police reported they were investigating anti-Serb graffiti near a children’s park that depicted a “Serbian Family Tree,” with several individuals hanging from its branches, accompanied by a Nazi SS logo.

The eight parliamentary seats held by representatives of the national minorities became the main partner to the ruling HDZ’s coalition government following the July 5 parliamentary elections. Boris Milosevic, a member of parliament from the Serb national minority was appointed deputy prime minister in charge of social affairs issues and human rights.

On August 12, police confirmed they questioned a man from Perusic, later identified as the mayor of Perusic, Ivan Turic, on suspicion that he threatened a Romani woman with a handgun and shot at her children, allegedly because the woman’s goats entered the man’s field. Turic denied the accusations but confirmed police questioned him and told him to stay a minimum 328 feet away from the family who accused him.

The government and representatives of the Serb national minority publicly delivered positive messages of reconciliation on the 25th anniversary commemoration of Operation Storm in the town of Knin on August 5. In a speech at the event, Prime Minister Plenkovic acknowledged all victims, including Serbs, and expressed regret for war crimes committed by Croats. President Milanovic highlighted the victory, giving credit to the role of those who fought, but stated that unity required “different perspectives.” He acknowledged that crimes had been committed during the war and emphasized the need for better relations with Serbia, pledging to do everything he could do to accomplish that goal and calling on the Serbian leadership to do the same. Deputy Prime Minister Milosevic from the SDSS considered his participation at the commemoration to be a pledge for the future and the first step to reconciliation. Milanovic, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Veterans’ Affairs Medved, and Milosevic attended a commemoration for Serb civilian war victims in the village of Grubori on August 25. At the event Milanovic stated the commemoration was a “debt of honor,” adding that the “murder in Grubori was a moral disaster which harmed Croatia.” Medved declared establishing trust between the majority Croatian people and ethnic minorities was a prerequisite for development and a safe future together, while Milosevic stated the acknowledgement of all civilian victims was a prerequisite for reconciliation [between Serbs and Croats] in the country. On September 28, Prime Minister Plenkovic headlined a commemoration for nine Serb civilians killed in Varivode in the aftermath of Operation Storm in 1995, the first time a prime minister attended the event.

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

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation, nationality laws, housing, access to education, and health care based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Representatives from minority groups said these provisions were not consistently enforced. A June report published by NGO Zagreb Pride stated that 60 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons experienced some form of discrimination, either at school, at work, or through contact with institutions such as the police, judiciary, and health systems. In June an NGO reported that two LGBTI persons experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, one of whom claimed being verbally insulted and humiliated on a bus commuting from Rijeka to Zagreb. In the other, during the police questioning of the perpetrator, a witness was verbally attacked and spat upon because of her sexual orientation. The perpetrator was sentenced to a misdemeanor fine of 5,000 kuna ($770).

LGBTI NGOs noted the continuation of the judiciary’s uneven performance in discrimination cases. They reported members of their community had limited access to the justice system, with many reluctant to report violations of their rights due to concerns regarding the inefficient judicial system and fear of further victimization during trial proceedings. NGOs reported that investigations into hate speech against LGBTI persons remained unsatisfactory. According to Zagreb Pride’s report, since 2013 fewer than 10 percent of LGBTI persons had been subjected to physical or verbal violence at least once, of which 64 percent involved verbal abuse.

Anti-LGBTI organizations continued to promote anti-LGBTI sentiment in their rhetoric, declaring same-sex couples, same-sex parents, and transgender persons a threat to the country and to traditional society. In February during the traditional Mardi Gras festivities in the southern town of Imotski, three dolls depicting a same-sex couple and their child were publicly burned. Following the event, LGBTI organizations reported the organizers to police for public incitement of violence and hatred, while in Split the municipal state prosecutor pressed charges against them in June.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem. The NGO Croatian Association for HIV (HUHIV) reported some physicians and dentists refused to treat HIV-positive patients. HUHIV reported violations of the confidentiality of persons diagnosed with HIV, causing some to face discrimination, including in employment, after disclosure of their status. There were reports that transplant centers refused to place HIV-positive patients on their lists of potential organ recipients.

HUHIV reported that the government’s National Plan for Fighting HIV helped combat the stigmatization and discrimination of persons with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, HUHIV reported that an HIV diagnosis was no longer listed on government-supplied sick leave forms, protecting the privacy of HIV-positive individuals.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and allows unions to challenge firings in court. The law requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity.

Some limitations of these rights exist. There are restrictions on strikes and union activity for members of the military, who are not allowed to organize or participate in a strike, while civilian employees of the military are permitted to organize but are not permitted to strike. Workers may strike only at the end of a contract or in specific circumstances cited in the contract, and only after completing mediation. Labor and management must jointly agree on a mediator if a dispute goes to mediation. If a strike is found to be illegal, any participant may be dismissed and the union held liable for damages.

The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The government generally enforced relevant laws effectively. Penalties were commensurate with similar violations. Judicial procedures were lengthy in the country overall and could hamper redress for antiunion discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Through July 31, the state prosecutor brought one case of criminal charges for forced labor, which remained pending at the end of the year.

The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties for conviction of forced labor were commensurate with other serious violations. Inspection was sufficient to enforce compliance. The government collaborated with several NGOs on public awareness programs. Following the introduction of a national action plan in 2018, prosecutions and monitoring increased, and reports and prosecutions of forced labor fell precipitously.

There were isolated reports that Romani children were at risk of forced begging (see 7.c.). Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for the employment of children is 15, the age at which compulsory education ends for most children. Minors between ages 15 and 18 who have not completed compulsory education may work only with prior approval from the government labor inspectorate and only if they would not suffer physically or mentally from the work. Children younger than age 15 may work only in special circumstances and with the approval of the ombudsperson for children. In 2019 (the last year for which data were available), there were 202 such requests, of which 195 were approved, usually for children to act in film or theatrical performances. The law prohibits workers younger than age 18 from working overtime, at night, or in dangerous conditions, including but not limited to construction, mining, and work with electricity. The Ministry of Labor, the Pension System, the Family, and Social Policy; the State Inspectorate; and the ombudsperson for children are responsible for enforcing this regulation.

The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties were generally commensurate with similar violations (see also section 7.b.). There were isolated instances of violations of the child labor law. Labor inspectors identified 35 violations involving nine minors in 2019. Violations involved minors working overtime or past curfew and occurred mainly in the hospitality and construction sectors. Some children were reportedly subject to early marriage that could result in domestic servitude. Romani children were reportedly at risk of forced begging.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family obligations, age, language, religion, political or other beliefs, national or social origin, wealth status, birth, social position or standing, political party membership or nonmembership, union or nonunion membership, or physical or mental disabilities.

The government enforced the law in all sectors, but sporadic discrimination in employment or occupation occurred on the basis of gender, disability, sexual orientation, HIV-positive status, and ethnicity, particularly for Roma. Penalties were commensurate with similar crimes, and inspection and remediation were sufficient. Some companies, state institutions, and civil society organizations, however, sometimes chose to pay a fine rather than comply with quotas for hiring persons with disabilities. According to the ombudsperson for gender equality, women experienced discrimination in employment, including in pay and promotion to managerial and executive positions. Women generally held lower-paying positions in the workforce.

The 2019 annual report of the ombudsperson for disabilities assessed limited growth of employment of persons with disabilities, putting persons with disabilities at greater risk for poverty, especially because of low salaries and pensions. The Agency for Professional Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities reported that in 2019 companies, state institutions, and civil society organizations had to pay 200 million kuna ($31.6 million) in fines for not satisfying hiring quotas of 3 percent of employees being persons with disabilities in workplaces with more than 20 employees. According to LGBTI advocacy organizations, although legislation protects LGBTI employees against discrimination at the workplace, employers did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs reported LGBTI persons sometimes refrained from publicly revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity because they were vulnerable to termination of employment or demotion.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a national minimum wage slightly above the official poverty income level. The law provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours and limits overtime to 10 hours per week and 180 hours per year.

The law establishes occupational safety and health standards that are appropriate. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts, not the worker. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endangered health without jeopardy to their employment.

There were instances of nonpayment of wages in the hospitality and construction sectors, as well as nonpayment for overtime and holidays. The law allows employees to sue employers for wage nonpayment and provides a penalty commensurate with other similar violations, although the law exempts employers who fail to pay wages due to economic duress. Workers may sue employers who do not issue pay slips to their employees in order to bypass mandatory employer contributions to social insurance programs.

Accidents were most frequently reported in the construction sector, where foremen could be held criminally responsible for injuries or deaths resulting from safety violations.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister must be approved by the Assembly. Parliamentary elections were last held in October 2019 in a process generally considered free and fair, although European Union election observers noted that misuse of public resources and a lack of transparency of campaign finances resulted in an uneven playing field throughout the country. The Assembly was constituted in December 2019 with Albin Kurti confirmed as prime minister in February. After a no-confidence vote unseated Kurti’s government in March, Avdullah Hoti became prime minister on June 3 in a reconstituted government.

Security forces include the Kosovo Police and the Kosovo Security Force, which respectively report to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. The government continued the process of gradually transitioning the Kosovo Security Force into a territorial defense force in accordance with a 10-year plan which began in 2019. The Border Police, a subgroup of the Kosovo Police, are responsible for security at the border. Police maintain internal security, with the European Union rule-of-law mission in the country as a second responder for incidents of unrest. The NATO-led Kosovo Force, an international peacekeeping force, is a third responder. NATO’s Kosovo Force is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement for all citizens. As of August, NATO’s Kosovo Force mission had approximately 3,400 troops from 27 countries. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including alleged use of excessive force and mistreatment of prisoners by police.

Significant human rights issues included: undue restrictions on the press, including violence or threats of violence against journalists; government corruption and impunity; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but at times lacked consistency. Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media reported instances of senior officials engaging in corruption or acting with impunity. The government sometimes suspended or removed offenders from office, and the justice sector sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish those officials who committed abuses, offenses, and crimes. Many corrupt officials, however, continued to occupy public sector positions.

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

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

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Police Inspectorate is responsible for investigating allegations of arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, and State Prosecution is responsible for prosecuting such cases. Its current mandate renewal extends through June 2021.

The EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) monitors selected criminal and civil cases and trials in the judicial system, advises the Correctional Service, and provides logistics support to the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague. It had some executive responsibility for witness protection and served as a secondary security responder supporting police.

As of September the Special Prosecutor of the Republic of Kosovo (SPRK) had 101 war crime cases under formal investigation. During the year, the SPRK issued one ruling for initiation of an investigation.

Two of the cases under SPRK investigation, referred to as the “Drenica” war crimes cases, involved 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members suspected of war crimes against civilians. The charges include torture, mistreatment of prisoners, and murder, all allegedly committed in a KLA detention center in the village of Likoc/Likovac in the Drenica region in 1998. The cases initially resulted in 11 convictions in 2015. Six of those convicted avoided serving jail time until July 2019, when the court remanded them to prison. Another war crimes case known as the “Drenica I” case was sent for retrial in 2017, but the initial hearing in December 2019 did not take place because the government did not produce its protected witness. The hearing was rescheduled for December 2020, a full year after the initial hearing was cancelled, and as of the end of the year had not been held.

In June the Prizren basic court sentenced Darko Tasic, a displaced Serbian, to 22 years in prison for war crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in 1999 in the village of Krushe e Vogel/Mala Krusa in Prizren municipality. He was also accused of participating in confiscation, robbery, desecration of human remains, and illegal and deliberate destruction of property. According to media reports, a group of Kosovo-Albanian youth attempted to enter the police station behind the court during his sentencing, subsequently clashing with police after a crowd attacked the vehicle transporting Tasic. The NGO Humanitarian Law Center reported that the verdict exceeded legal maximums. In December the appeals court lowered his sentence to 11 years, within the legal maximum.

In June media outlets reported the Supreme Court ruled that verdicts acquitting Milorad Zajic of involvement in killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanians during the war in 1998 were incorrect, but the Supreme Court was unable to order a retrial, as it cannot overturn a final decision to the detriment of the defendant. Zajic was acquitted by the basic court in Peje/Pec in March 2019 of killing two persons and expelling ethnic Albanians from a village during the Kosovo war in 1998 as a member of an armed group. In October 2019 the appeals court upheld the acquittal. An appeals court judge cited trial witnesses’ “contradictory” testimonies as the reason for Zajic’s acquittal.

The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) and Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) are Kosovo institutions, created by Kosovo law and staffed with international judges, prosecutors, and officers. The SPO and the KSC continued to investigate crimes committed during and after the 1999 conflict. The SPO and its predecessor, the EU Special Investigative Task Force, were established following the 2011 release of the Council of Europe report, Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo, which alleged crimes by individual KLA leaders. The SPO interviewed several key figures from the period in question, including then president Hashim Thaci. In June the SPO announced it had filed indictments with the KSC against Thaci and Assembly Speaker Kadri Veseli. In November the KSC confirmed an indictment filed by the SPO charging Thaci, Veseli, and others with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Leading politicians and civil society leaders, particularly veterans’ organizations, publicly denounced the SPO and the KSC and worked to undermine public support for the work of the SPO and the KSC. These efforts included public protests, a petition drive to abrogate the court, and a legislative initiative proposed by former president Thaci that could have undermined the KSC’s mandate.

b. Disappearance

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

As of September the government’s Missing Persons Commission listed as missing 1,640 persons who disappeared during the 1998-99 conflict and the political violence that followed. By law the government’s missing-persons database does not include the ethnicity of missing persons unless voluntarily reported by their family. The commission suggested approximately 70 percent were ethnic Albanians and 30 percent were Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, Bosniaks, Goranis, Montenegrins, and others.

During the year the commission resolved three missing-persons cases pertaining to the Albanian community and handed over the remains of the three persons to their families. In November satellite images available to the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed human remains at the Kizevak mine in Serbia. Forensic teams from Kosovo, Serbia, and the international community began exhumations.

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

The constitution and laws prohibit such practices, but the laws are inconsistently implemented and there were continuing allegations by some detainees of mistreatment by police and, to a lesser degree, by correctional service personnel.

As of October the Ombudsperson Institution reported receiving 21 registered complaints, seven of which met their admissibility criteria, of mistreatment of prisoners: six complaints against police and one against the correctional service. The police inspectorate investigated three of the cases, while the Ombudsperson Institution reviewed the remaining cases. The Ombudsperson Institution reported the COVID-19 pandemic constrained its ability to follow up on cases.

The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPMT), which operates under the Ombudsperson’s Institution, temporarily suspended its visits to prisons, detention centers, psychiatric facilities, and police stations in March due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. The pandemic also hindered detainees’ contact with the NPMT via lawyers, family members, and international organizations. To ensure detainee protection, the NPMT established four hotline numbers providing round-the-clock access to NPMT officials and used secure drop-boxes for written complaints in detention centers. Only Ombudsperson Institution staff have access to these telephone calls and written complaints. Before suspending its site visits, the NPMT carried out 40 visits to police stations, prison facilities, psychiatric facilities, social care homes and institutions used for quarantine. It received no allegations of torture or mistreatment from persons in police custody during NPMT visits. The NPMT filed reports on its findings, generated investigations, and published follow-up reports on government compliance.

The Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (KRCT), the country’s leading NGO on torture-related issues, conducted eight visits to detention centers, and reported it received no credible reports of torture during the year, although it reported that mistreatment of prisoners continued to be a problem.

In June the police inspectorate investigated a complaint lodged by an arrestee stating he was punched in the head by police, causing him to bleed. According to the complaint the incident occurred after his arrest and transfer to the police station in Pristina. Following the investigation the officer was suspended by police, placed in detention, and the PIK filed a criminal report for misconduct.

In July the police inspectorate suspended two police officers from the Peja police station following complaints of mistreatment of a 16-year-old boy. The juvenile fled from police and once caught, per the complaint, police abused him by using pepper spray, kicking him in his ribs, punching him in his head and face, handcuffing him and insulting him in the police vehicle.

The government sometimes investigated abuse and corruption, although mechanisms for doing so were not always effective or were subject to political interference. Security forces did not ensure compliance with court orders when local officials failed to carry them out. Although some police officers were arrested on corruption charges during the year, impunity remained a problem.

The police inspectorate is responsible for reviewing complaints about police behavior. As of August it had investigated 360 police officers in connection with 935 citizen complaints regarding police conduct. The inspectorate found disciplinary violations in 545 of these complaints and forwarded them to the police’s Professional Standards Unit. During the year the inspectorate investigated 23 criminal cases from 2019 and filed 29 criminal charges for disciplinary violations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions met some international standards but problems persisted in penitentiaries, specifically, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, corruption, exposure to radical religious or political views, and substandard medical care.

Physical Conditions: Physical conditions remained substandard in some parts of the Dubrava prison. The KRCT observed a significant decrease in prison population since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and stated overcrowding was no longer a problem in correctional facilities. The population decrease was apparently due to a reduction in convictions due to a COVID-19-related slowdown in judicial proceedings and increased reluctance by judges to send prisoners into detention during the pandemic. Physical conditions in the Peje/Pec detention center do not meet international standards, according to the NPMT, due to a lack of natural light and inadequate ventilation in the cells. Some similar shortcomings continued at the Prizren detention center as well.

The KRCT reported that authorities provided adequate protection for both prisoners and corrections officials. The KRCT received complaints from prisoners alleging verbal harassment, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and some cases of physical mistreatment by correctional officers, mainly at the juveniles’ unit of the Dubrava prison and the Lipjan/Lipljan correctional center. The KRCT reported that Lipjan correctional center officials removed mattresses from several juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement during daytime hours as a disciplinary measure and noted this violates standards for the treatment of minors. The KRCT noted instances of inmates blackmailing and harassing other inmates at the Dubrava prison. It reported prisoners and detainees had difficulty accessing medical care. There were allegations of corruption and the use of transfers between detention facilities as disciplinary measures. The KRCT reported that convicts at times harmed themselves to draw attention to their needs including medical care, transfers, or privileges. The KRCT reported alleged instances of corruption and nepotism, including by correctional and health staff, especially at the correctional center in Dubrava.

As of September the NPMT had received 14 medical reports from prison health authorities of prisoner injuries due to interprisoner violence and four cases of prisoners claiming injuries sustained from correctional officers. The NPMT checked medical files sent by authorities but due to COVID-19 restrictions was unable to visit and interview prisoners involved in the alleged incidents.

Following the delivery of a Swiss forensic report to authorities in late 2019, the chief state prosecutor reopened an investigation into the 2016 prison death of Vetevendosje party activist, Astrit Dehari, and assigned the case to Kosovo’s Special Prosecution. Dehari was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an attack on parliament. Authorities investigated whether Dehari committed suicide but members of his family and Vetevendosje party representatives claimed he was killed due to his political activism. The government requested Swiss assistance in 2018; the 2019 Swiss report noted forensic analysis could not exclude other possible causes of death and recommended further investigation. At the end of the year investigation of this case was ongoing.

Due to poor training and inadequate staffing, authorities did not always exercise control over facilities or inmates. There was a lack of trained staff to facilitate drug treatment programs. There was no drug addiction testing within the correctional service and the classification system of inmates with addiction-related issues was not fully functional. The KRCT reported that drugs, mostly marijuana, were regularly smuggled into these facilities, despite a ban on in-person visitations for prisoners due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One staff member was caught smuggling drugs to prisoners.

The KRCT documented delays and errors in medical care of prisoners as well as a lack of specialized treatment outside the correctional institutions, especially in the Dubrava prison. In many instances these conditions forced prisoners to procure needed medications from private sources. The KRCT observed gaps in the prison health-care system at the Dubrava facility and reported an insufficient number of mental-health professionals. The Ministry of Health is responsible for providing medical care and health personnel in correctional facilities.

Facilities and treatment for inmates with disabilities remained substandard. The Kosovo Forensic Psychiatric Institute provided limited treatment and shelter for detained persons with mental disabilities. While pretrial detainees were held separately from the convicted prisoner population, advocates for persons with disabilities faulted the government for regularly housing pretrial detainees with diagnosed mental disabilities together with other pretrial detainees. The law requires convicted criminals with documented mental health issues to be detained in facilities dedicated to mental health care, but these prisoners were often housed in standard prisons due to overcrowding at mental health institutions. The KRCT reported approximately 30 inmates above the age of 60 who were not properly placed, based on their specific mental disability. Apart from drug therapy and regular consultations with a psychiatrist, inmates with mental health issues were not provided with any occupational or therapeutic activities.

Prison conditions for foreign terrorist fighters and those convicted of terrorist offenses were not significantly different from those of the general prison population.

Administration: Authorities did not always conduct proper investigations of mistreatment. The KRCT noted the internal complaint mechanism (as opposed to the NPMT mechanism) mandated by law did not function effectively, with officials responding too slowly to complaints. In addition, inmates often did not report abuses due to lack of confidentiality and fear of retribution. The KRCT noted, however, that authorities regularly provided inmates with written decisions justifying solitary confinement and information on deadlines for appeals. The KRCT noted a lack of response by the general director of the correctional service regarding inmate transfer requests.

Independent Monitoring: Although all visits were hampered by COVID-19 conditions, the government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, but only the national Ombudsperson Institution and EULEX had unfettered access to correctional facilities throughout the year. The KRCT and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms were required to provide 24-hour advance notice of planned visits.

Improvements: The KRCT reported improvements in housing conditions due to some renovations in the Dubrava prison and the Pristina high-security prison, as well as the opening of new facilities at the Pristina correctional center. The KRCT noted the Prison Health Department hired additional staff during the year.

Inmates received access to Skype and other video communication applications and permission to communicate with their families. The KRCT reported some convicts received permission for employment outside of correctional facilities, improving the physical, mental, and economic well-being of convicts and their families. The Women’s Correctional Center manufactured anti-COVID facial masks for all correctional facilities.

Administrative improvements included a pilot program to improve the assessment and classification of criminal cases. The KRCT also noted that the correctional service issued disciplinary standards to describe specific disciplinary measures, their length and justification, and give legal advice for inmate appeals.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government, EULEX, and NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) generally observed these prohibitions. EULEX and KFOR personnel were not subject to the country’s legal system but rather to their missions’ and their countries’ disciplinary measures.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law, except when a crime is in progress, police may apprehend suspects only with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge or prosecutor. Within six hours of an arrest, prosecutors must issue the arrested person a written statement describing the alleged offenses and the legal basis for the charges. Authorities must bring arrested persons before a judge within 48 hours and must provide detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state. There is a bail system, but courts seldom used it. They often released detainees without bail, pending trial.

Suspects have the right to refuse to answer questions, except those concerning their identity, at all stages of an investigation. Suspects have the right to the free assistance of an attorney and interpretation, as well as medical and psychological treatment. At all stages of the process, suspects may communicate with their legal representation and have a family member notified of their arrest.

Following an initial ruling, a court may hold individuals in pretrial detention for 30 days from the date of their arrest and may extend pretrial detention for up to one year. After an indictment and until the conclusion of trial proceedings, only a trial judge or a trial panel can order or terminate detention. The law allows a judge to order house arrest, confiscate travel documents, and expand use bail or other alternatives to pretrial detention.

Although in some instances police operated undercover, they generally carried out arrests using warrants. There were no confirmed reports that police abused the 48-hour rule, and prosecutors generally either provided arrested persons with documents describing the reasons for their detention or released them. While officials generally respected the requirement for prompt disposition of cases, the KRCT reported detainees occasionally faced delays when attorneys were temporarily unavailable.

The KRCT reported that authorities did not always allow detained persons to contact attorneys when initially arrested and in some cases authorities permitted consultation with an attorney only once police investigators began formal questioning. In several cases detainees were allowed access to an attorney only after their formal questioning. Some detained persons complained that, despite requests for lawyers, their first contact with an attorney took place at their initial court appearance.

The law limits police use of force only in order “to protect a person’s life, to prevent an attack, to prevent a criminal act, to prevent the flight of a perpetrator, or, when other measures are not successful, to achieve another legitimate police objective.” The law also provides that when using force, police “shall attempt to minimize the intrusion into a person’s rights and freedoms and to minimize any detrimental consequences.”

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy detentions, averaging six months, both before and during judicial proceedings, remained a problem. The law allows judges to detain a defendant pending trial if there is a well-grounded suspicion the defendant is likely to destroy, hide, or forge evidence; influence witnesses; flee; repeat the offense; engage in another criminal offense; or fail to appear at subsequent court proceedings. Judges routinely granted pretrial detention without requiring evidentiary justification. Lengthy detention was also partly due to judicial inefficiency and corruption.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary did not always provide due process. According to the European Commission, NGOs, and the Ombudsperson Institution, the administration of justice was slow and lacked the means to ensure judicial officials’ accountability. Judicial structures were subject to political interference, disputed appointments, and unclear mandates.

Although backlogs once presented a substantial problem, judicial efficiency in resolving pending cases improved markedly. The backlog in basic courts has been reduced by 85 percent since 2016.

The Judiciary Council improved its website by adding a judicial accountability module that includes guidelines on filing a complaint against a judge or a court official. The council issued nonpublic written reprimands or wage reductions for three judges, although these sanctions were considered insufficient to significantly deter future misconduct. The Prosecutorial Council initiated five investigations and rendered five decisions, three of which were findings of guilt. Both councils published these decisions on their respective webpages.

Authorities sometimes failed to carry out court orders, including from the Constitutional Court, particularly when rulings favored minorities, as in numerous Kosovo-Serb property dispute cases. Central and local authorities in Decan/Decani continued to refuse to implement the 2016 decision of the Constitutional Court confirming the Serbian Orthodox Church’s ownership of more than 24 hectares of land adjacent to the Visoki Decani Monastery. None of the officials failing to carry out the court order have been sanctioned.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for a fair and impartial trial, and while there were severe shortfalls in the judicial system, including instances of political interference, it generally upheld the law. Trials are public and the law entitles defendants to: the presumption of innocence; the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges against them; a fair, timely, and public trial where they can address the court in their native language; to be present at their trials; to remain silent and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt; to confront adverse witnesses; to see evidence; and to have legal representation. Defendants have the right to appeal. These rights extend to all citizens without exception. The country does not use jury trials.

The constitution defines free legal aid as a basic human right, and the law guarantees free legal aid in civil cases, administrative cases, minor offenses, and criminal procedure to individuals who meet certain legal and financial criteria. The government’s Free Legal Aid Agency provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals. During the year it undertook outreach campaigns targeting disadvantaged and marginalized communities and expanded the availability of legal aid information through online platforms.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There are civil remedies for human rights violations but victims were unable to avail themselves of this recourse due to complicated bureaucratic procedures and a large backlog of cases. Individuals may appeal to courts to seek damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations.

Individuals may turn to the Constitutional Court for review of alleged violations by public authorities of their individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, but only after exhaustion of all other legal remedies.

The Ombudsperson Institution received 12 complaints of nonexecution of court decisions regarding civil, property, or employment disputes. The Ombudsperson Institution recommended that the Judicial Council give priority to readjudication over new cases.

Property Restitution

A complex mix of laws, regulations, administrative instructions, and court practices, as well as the illegal reoccupation of properties and multiple claims for the same property, continued to hamper resolution of property restitution cases arising from the war and its aftermath. More than 96 percent of these claims were filed by ethnic Serbs. Private citizens and religious communities were largely unsuccessful in petitioning for the return of properties seized or confiscated during the Yugoslav era.

By law the Kosovo Property Comparison and Verification Agency (KPCVA) has authority to adjudicate claims regarding the extent, value, and ownership of land parcels and to resolve discrepancies between cadastral documents. The absence of cadastral records, which Serbia removed from Kosovo in 1999, however, prevented the KPCVA from fully fulfilling its mandate. Claimants have the right to appeal decisions in the courts.

The KPCVA had difficulty enforcing the eviction of illegal occupants and, in general, failed to remove illegal structures built on land after claimants had their rights confirmed. The majority of the claimants were ethnic Serbs. In April the agency adopted an administrative instruction to expedite removal of illegal structures. As a result one demolition took place in October in Pristina. The agency reported it initiated compensation in 143 cases to those who lost property in the 1990s, mostly ethnic Albanians. As of October the KPCVA had 61 evictions pending, 23 of which were in the Mitrovica/e region, primarily involving property owned by Kosovo Albanians. Reusurpation of property continued to be an issue, although the numbers have reportedly declined. Civil society organizations complained the country lacked an effective system to allow displaced Kosovo Serbs living outside the country to file property claims and receive notification of property claim decisions.

In 2019 the Assembly appointed Naser Shala as head of the KPCVA. Shala was unable to secure appointment from the parliament to this position in 2018 due to widespread views that he was corrupt, unqualified, and under criminal investigation. Shala remained in office despite numerous international calls for his resignation, diminishing the institution’s credibility.

On September 4, Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements which included pledges to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports the government, EULEX, or KFOR failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. Funding problems also threatened media independence. Journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions, notwithstanding laws providing access to public documents, due to delays in adopting implementing regulations. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.

Freedom of Speech: In December 2019 former minister of local government administration Ivan Teodosijevic was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for denying a wartime massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999. The court ruled Todosijevic’s remarks incited hatred and intolerance, while his defense argued there was no legal basis for such decision. As of October his appeal was pending.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals pressured media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security.

While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because the government was reluctant to purchase advertising in media outlets that published material critical of government policies.

Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 18 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists.

In March a Kosovo-Albanian journalist was injured after unknown perpetrators attacked him and his crew while they were reporting on the COVID-19 situation in northern Kosovo. Media outlets reported police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

On April 11, Serbian-language online portal KoSSev editor in chief Tatjana Lazarevic was arrested by police while traveling to a health center to investigate complaints she received about its readiness for COVID-19. Despite presenting her press credentials, Lazarevic was detained for at least an hour and a half and held without charge. Law enforcement authorities maintained she was picked up for breaking curfew, although the government had exempted journalists from movement restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lazarevic said the true reason for her arrest was to intimidate her from continuing her reporting.

On October 18, the car of investigative journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi was hit with bullets shortly after he parked and left the car. This was the second attack on Kajtazi, whose car was the target of an apparent arson attack in June that was prevented when the journalist’s neighbors notified police. Police have not publicly identified suspects or filed charges in either case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.

According to the Association of Journalists, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.

Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases, media owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that media owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.

As of September the Ombudsperson Institution investigated 20 complaints of violations of the right of access to public documents, seven of which were filed by civil society organizations and 13 by individual citizens. The Ombudsperson Institution concluded that public institutions lacked capacity to answer requests for access to public documents and often failed to provide legal justification for denying or restricting access.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

The government did not consider Serbia-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 and 2019 greatly expanded Kosovo Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased significantly during the year. Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed some challenges remained, such as access to civil documents for Serbian nationals married to Kosovo-Serb citizens.

In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic, allegedly to prevent civil disturbances, but was fully open to pedestrians. KFOR and police maintained permanent security at the location. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.

Exile: The return to the country by ethnic-minority refugees from the war remained a challenge. Parliamentary representatives of the Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma. These persons were formerly resident in the country and informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

UNHCR estimated more than 90,000 individuals had displacement-related needs due to the 1999 Kosovo conflict, including 65,000 in Serbia, 16,406 in Kosovo, 7,500 in “third countries,” 729 in Montenegro, and 394 in North Macedonia. The Ministry for Communities and Return does not collect, process, or manage data on the displaced population and voluntary returnees. UNHCR continued to maintain its internal database of returnees and assistance applications. According to the Communities and Return Ministry, obstacles to return included security incidents, insufficient protection of property rights, failure of courts to resolve property disputes, disobedience to court decisions, lack of access to public services, issues with language rights implementation, limited economic prospects, and societal discrimination. According to UNHCR the lack of a detailed census and adequate profiling data left displaced persons excluded from human rights protections and development plans.

The government promoted the safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through the Communities and Returns Ministry, it promoted policies and protections for IDPs in line with EU policies and cooperated with domestic and international organizations to ensure IDPs had access to their property and tools for their sustainable return. These include assistance repossessing property, land allocations for housing, and improved socioeconomic prospects.

As of December the Ministry of Communities and Return reported that 273 individuals–including 133 Serbs, 42 Gorani, 36 Roma, 33 Balkan Egyptians, 23 Ashkali, and five Albanians–had returned to their place of origin in the country. As of June, 408 IDPs, mostly Kosovo Serbs, were living in collective shelters across the country. The construction of social housing apartments for 255 IDPs and refugees residing in five collective shelters was ongoing, and the project was expected to finish by the end of the year. The municipalities of Leposavic and Zvecan allocated land for construction of social housing for the remaining residents of 10 collective shelters, with funding expected from the EU and the Ministry for Communities and Return.

By September, under an EU-funded return and reintegration program and in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, the Communities and Return Ministry successfully constructed and conducted technical acceptance of 53 houses for displaced persons and returnees, with 38 additional houses under construction. In addition, 65 selected beneficiaries of newly constructed houses received furniture and household appliances. The Communities and Return Ministry expected to finalize construction of 101 houses for displaced and returnees by the end of the year. As part of the same EU program, 100 beneficiaries received financial assistance to start their own businesses to generate income. The ministry also provided care packages to 872 vulnerable families.

The return process in some areas of the country continued to be marked by security incidents and local communities’ reluctance to accept the return of, or visits by, Kosovo Serbs. In January Kosovo Albanians in Gjakove/Djakovica, including persons whose family members remain missing, protested the planned pilgrimage of displaced Serbs to the town’s Serbian Orthodox church. The pilgrims’ association said it cancelled the visit due to security reasons. As of July UNHCR noted 45 incidents primarily affecting returnees and their property, mainly in the Peje/Pec region. For example, in April a vehicle and livestock were stolen from a returnee in the Istog/Istok area. UNHCR said the targets of the incidents were believed to be Kosovo Serbs, except for one case involving a Kosovo-Ashkali returnee.

Police maintained a presence in areas with ethnic minorities and returnees to prevent crime, build the confidence of returnees, and to protect returnees’ property.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated. The country has no central-level migration management system.

Reception facilities at the asylum center could host children but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for unaccompanied children seeking asylum or for determining their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases continued to increase, the country was largely a point of transit. Those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increased number of asylum seekers did not challenge the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum were housed at the asylum center.

Despite a straightforward registration process, new arrivals were not granted immediate access to services and asylum procedures, which resulted in a considerable applications backlog. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to June UNHCR advocated for reasonable access for asylum seekers and IDPs during temporary entry bans or border closures applied by the government. UNHCR suspended the refugee status determination process from March until June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Refoulement: In August 2019 the police inspectorate filed a criminal report including criminal violations against 22 police officers who participated in an operation involving the rescission of residence permits and subsequent refoulement to Turkey of six Turkish citizens in March 2018. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of ties to the Gulen network. In September 2019 the appellate court affirmed a prior ruling that the rationale for rescinding the residence permits was baseless. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had not received a final judgment from the court.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both the central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR stated health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.

The government partnered with UNHCR to designate a detention center for foreigners as a quarantine site for new arrivals and to secure personal protective equipment and hygienic items for asylum seekers. UNHCR provided access to internet services at asylum centers to provide asylum seekers with online legal and psychosocial assistance as well as education for children.

The government introduced regulations mandating support and integration for asylum seekers, refugees, persons granted temporary protection or subsidiary protection, and stateless persons, but is still finalizing its standard operating procedures.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.

g. Stateless Persons

Official figures on stateless persons were not available. The law contains no discriminatory provisions that might cause groups or individuals to be deprived of or denied citizenship. Citizens convey citizenship to their children. Children born to noncitizen parents acquire citizenship by virtue of birth within the country; this situation most often occurs within minority communities with large numbers of undocumented residents. Government procedures provide for access to naturalization for those granted stateless or refugee status five years after the determination.

Laws relating to civil status permit stateless persons to register life events such as birth, marriage, and death; however, implementation varied among municipalities. The government’s capacity to identify stateless persons and those with undetermined nationality remained inadequate.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published an ex officio legal opinion for the court of appeals, the basic court in Pristina, the basic court in Peje/Pec, and the basic court in Mitrovica, encouraging them to promptly process lawsuits on the legal identity of unregistered persons, particularly children.

During the year UNHCR provided assistance, including medical and educational aid, to 900 “legally invisible” persons (due to their inability to prove their birth location) from different ethnic groups, most of whom belonged to the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities.

Unregistered residents did not receive social assistance benefits and pension rights and could not register property titles or retain rights to inherited or transferred property. Children born of parents displaced outside the country and who entered with their readmitted parents often lacked documentation, including birth certificates, from their place of birth. Authorities had not developed a systematic solution to this problem. UNHCR provided legal aid for civil registration of 133 unregistered Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

The Serbian government continued to operate illegal parallel government structures in Kosovo Serb majority municipalities and in areas primarily inhabited by the Kosovo-Gorani community. These structures were often used by the Serbian government to influence and manipulate Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Gorani communities and their political representatives.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held early parliamentary elections in October 2019. International and independent observers evaluated the process as generally free and fair, although EU observers noted that misuse of public resources and a lack of transparency of campaign finances resulted in an uneven playing field throughout the country. The campaign was marked by a pattern of intimidation within Kosovo-Serb communities. Some Kosovo Serbs reported being pressured not to support parties other than Srpska List, a party closely aligned with the Serbian government.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties operated freely in most of the country, and there were no significant barriers to registration. In Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities, opposition and independent candidates reported pressure on their candidates to withdraw from the elections and on voters to support Srpska List. Kosovo-Serb opposition representatives reported threats of violence during the May 2019 mayoral elections from supporters of Srpska List and the Serbian government. Party affiliation often played a role in access to government services and social and employment opportunities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. NGOs reported, however, that voter turnout among women tended to be much lower than among male voters. Parties representing the Romani, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, Bosniak, Gorani, and Turkish communities campaigned freely in their native languages.

A woman, Vjosa Osmani, served simultaneously as parliamentary speaker and acting president, and one-third of all cabinet ministers were women. In the Assembly, 38 out of 120 members were women, two more than the constitutional quota. A 2020 Freedom House report noted many women in rural areas have been disenfranchised through the practice of family voting, in which the male head of a household casts ballots for the entire family. Political parties are legally required to abide by a 50-percent gender quota for their candidate lists, but no party met the requirement in 2019.

Ethnic minorities’ representation in the Assembly was more than proportionate to their share of the population, but political parties representing ethnic minorities criticized majority parties for not consulting them on important policy issues, such as a draft Law on Kosovo Liberation Army War Values and the 2018 decision to impose a 100 percent import tariff on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The tariff decision caused Srpska List parliamentarians to essentially boycott participation in Assembly proceedings in 2018 and 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Agency and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. The SPRK filed five corruption related indictments. A small proportion of corruption cases that were investigated and charged led to convictions.

NGOs and international organizations alleged numerous failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. The Kosovo Law Institute reported that two high-profile officials were convicted of corruption during the year by the basic courts but then acquitted by the appeals court. In four other cases, the appeals court overturned the conviction verdicts of lower courts against senior public officials accused of corruption and remitted the cases for retrial. NGOs reported indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.

In at least four high-profile corruption cases, the Supreme Court found lower courts had violated the criminal code to the benefit of defendants. The Prosecution Office used extraordinary legal remedies to request the Supreme Court evaluate decisions rendered by lower courts in these cases. Under the law, the Supreme Court is able only to confirm the violations; it can take no punitive actions against the defendants.

On October 9, police arrested Haki Rugova, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) mayor of Istog/k and one of the party’s deputy leaders, along with his deputy and a municipal civil servant as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. After Rugova was initially placed in detention, the court eventually ordered Rugova’s house arrest for 30 days. The three persons were accused of abuse of office, conflict of interest, and falsifying documents related to a contract the municipality awarded to the mayor’s brother. Rugova was already undergoing a trial in a separate case on charges of conflict of interest. In public comments, LDK leader Isa Mustafa alleged political motivations behind the arrest, stating it was intended to discredit Rugova and the party and tarnish the anticorruption record of Prime Minister Hoti’s LDK-led government. Several legal commentators considered Mustafa’s comments as interference in the judicial process.

On October 19, the government abruptly invalidated the 2010 decision creating an anticorruption task force within the police that supported the work of the SPRK. According to the Prime Minister, the original decision was unconstitutional, but neither the SPRK nor the Constitutional Court was apparently consulted on the issue. The decision was not coordinated within the governing coalition nor with the international community. The Minister of Justice and various international missions publicly criticized the decision. Media outlets commented that the decision came on the heels of the arrest of a prominent LDK mayor (Rugova). Media also noted that several of the task force’s ongoing high-profile investigations involved prominent and politically exposed persons, including former governing coalition officials. The Kosovo Law Institute characterized the decision as political retaliation, given the task force’s investigation of LDK officials. The institute further criticized Prime Minister Hoti’s dismissal of the police general director, the tax administration director, and the customs director, claiming these dismissals were done without sufficient analysis or transparency, and created the perception they were done to undermine law enforcement institutions.

In September a trial continued of former minister of agriculture Nenad Rikalo and seven other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture charged in December 2019 with abuse of power. The group allegedly sidestepped legal safeguards and manipulated the ministry’s grant process to award millions of dollars to companies owned by political associates. The court’s decision was pending as of November.

Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming office or leaving public service. The Anticorruption Agency administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The Anticorruption Agency sends complaints about noncompliant officials to prosecutors, who in turn consider criminal charges.

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

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government was cooperative and sometimes responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes the Ombudsperson Institution as the national human rights institution, mandated to monitor, protect, and promote rights and freedoms of individuals from unlawful or improper acts, or failures to act, by public authorities.

The Ombudsperson Institution has authority to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuse of government authority, and acts as the NPMT. The Institution is the primary agency responsible for monitoring detention facilities. Based on powers granted by the Assembly, the Ombudsperson Institution can file amicus curiae briefs with basic courts on human rights-related cases. It can also make recommendations on the compatibility of laws and other sublegal or administrative acts, guidelines, and practices.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and domestic violence against all persons, including rape of a relative or spouse. By law, rape is punishable by two to 15 years in prison. EULEX noted courts often applied penalties lighter than the legal minimum in rape cases and that law enforcement rarely took steps to protect victims and witnesses. Furthermore, sentences were often further decreased by the appellate court. The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office reported an increased number of domestic violence cases during the year, from 946 cases in 2019 to 1,145 as of October. Sexual violence and rape occurring either within or outside the family or domestic unit, were rarely reported by victims, frequently due to social stigma or lack of trust in authorities.

The law recognizes gender-based violence as a form of discrimination but lacks a definition of gender-based violence for use in criminal and civil proceedings. Women’s rights organizations held a protest in June to draw attention to disparities between domestic violence suspects, who are generally incarcerated, and sexual assault suspects, who are often released. The groups demanded both types of crimes be treated equally by judicial officials.

The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office helped to provide access to justice for victims of all crimes, with a special focus on victims of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, child abuse, and rape. In addition, each prosecutor’s office had a prosecutor who specialized in handling domestic violence cases. These prosecutors could apply risk-assessment tools to mitigate risk of future abuse and were empowered to recommend harsher sentences for repeat offenders and violators of protective orders.

Police investigated cases of domestic violence before transferring them to prosecutors who make the determination on filing charges. In the first half of the year, the prosecution expeditiously processed domestic violence cases and indictments. The rate of prosecution was low, however, and sentences were often lowered on appeal. Advocates and court observers asserted prosecutors and judges favored family unification over victim protection, with protective orders sometimes allowing the perpetrator to remain in the family home while a case was pending. Sentences ranged from judicial reprimands to up to five years’ imprisonment. The criminalization of domestic violence in April 2019 was accompanied by an increase in arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime. The Pristina basic court held online hearings on domestic violence cases consistent with government anti-COVID-19 pandemic measures.

In September a basic court reduced the life sentence of Pjeter Ndrecaj for murder to 24 years’ imprisonment after the Supreme Court returned the case for retrial. Ndrecaj was found guilty of killing his former wife and nine-year-old daughter in 2018. The court’s original sentence of 24 years had been extended in 2019 by the court of appeal, which found aggravating circumstances not considered by the basic court. Ndrecaj’s former wife had sought help from the police station in Gjakove/Djakovica several hours prior to the killing, but police failed to locate Ndrecaj before the murders took place. As a result, three police officers received five-month suspensions for “abuse of official duty.”

The government licensed and supported 10 NGOs to assist child and female survivors of domestic violence. The government established a budget line for financial support of shelters, resolving a long-standing funding problem. Both NGOs and shelters reported timely receipt of funding.

The Office of the Prime Minister maintained a commission to recognize and compensate survivors of wartime sexual violence. The commission has granted pensions to more than 800 women since 2018. The SPRK designated one prosecutor for cases of wartime sexual violence. Police maintained a unit for war crimes cases, including cases of wartime sexual violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment in civil and criminal proceedings. The criminal code stipulates prison sentences as an enhanced penalty for sexual harassment against vulnerable victims and in cases where the criminal procedure is initiated upon the victim’s request. In cases where a crime is committed with the use of a weapon, the sentence may vary from one to five years in prison. The NGO Kosovo Women’s Network reported that implementation of sexual harassment laws was hampered by poorly defined procedures for filing complaints of harassment, and lack of clarity regarding which government bodies should receive these complaints.

According to women’s rights organizations, harassment was common at workplaces in both the public and private sectors and in public institutions of higher education.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals, regardless of gender, ideology, or religious or cultural background; have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government generally respected reproductive rights, but poor, marginalized, and illiterate individuals often had insufficient access to information. To address the problem, the government and the UN Population Fund created family-planning curricula for all educational levels and were training educators to implement it. According to 2018 World Bank data, the country had 16 births per 1,000 inhabitants. A 2019 report from the international coalition Countdown to 2030 found that 88 percent of women had access to modern contraception, 98 percent had at least four prenatal medical visits, and 99 percent had a skilled health-care provider attend the delivery. Accurate maternal mortality data were unavailable, because the government neither gathered nor maintained records of such deaths. The law obligates the government to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Survivors are assigned a “victim’s protection official” who assists with both criminal justice and medical treatment processes. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare registered survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and provided them with medical and psychosocial support as well as a monthly pension. More than 800 individuals received such benefits during the year.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. The law requires equal pay for equivalent work. The law stipulates that partners in marriage and civil unions have equal rights to own and inherit property, but men usually inherited family property and other assets. In rare instances Kosovo-Albanian widows, particularly in rural areas, risked losing custody of their children due to a family custom requiring children and property to pass to the deceased father’s family while the widow returned to her birth family.

Relatively few women occupied upper-level management positions in business, police, or government. The Kosovo Women’s Network reported women were often subject to discriminatory hiring practices.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl ratio at birth was 108 boys to 100 girls. The government did not introduce policies to encourage a more equal gender balance.

Children

Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship from citizen parents or by birth in the country, including those with parents whose citizenship was not documented. Those not registered at birth were primarily from the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities. UNICEF indicated lack of registration could adversely affect a child’s access to social assistance, particularly for repatriated children. Children who were not registered were considered stateless.

Child Abuse: The criminal code does not specifically criminalize child abuse but addresses various elements of child abuse, including in sections on sexual assault, rape, trafficking in persons, and child pornography, among others. Penalties range from five to 20 years’ imprisonment. The incidence of child abuse was unknown due to social stigma and lack of reliable data.

The Law on Child Protection entered into force in July. The international NGO Terre des Homme Kosovo assisted the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare in drafting additional legislation as part of comprehensive implementation measures. The law stipulates establishment of houses offering temporary shelter, protection, and emergency assistance to child victims of physical or sexual abuse, and sets standards for licensing and operation.

In July 2019 a nine-year-old boy from Fushe Kosove was raped and killed. The boy’s mother had reported his rape by the suspect to police prior to the killing, but the suspect was released after questioning and never rearrested. Six months later, the child was found dead in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje. The suspect was then arrested for rape and aggravated murder. Following the trial, police and prosecutors began jointly reviewing all procedures and actions in child abuse cases. Disciplinary investigations were initiated against two prosecutors involved in the case over suspicion they failed to address claims of abuse in a timely and efficient manner. One of the prosecutors was disciplined by the Prosecutorial Council. A human rights lawyer took up the case and sought to hold officials accountable for inaction.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law allows persons to marry at age 16 with parental consent. Although there are no official data on early and forced child marriages, it was a common practice, including in Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, Bosniak, and Gorani communities. According to a government report that focused on these communities, approximately 12 percent of children, mostly girls, married before age 15. High poverty levels in these communities contributed to these rates.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits possession, production, and distribution of child pornography. Persons who produce, use, or involve a child in making or producing pornography may receive a prison sentence of one to five years. The distribution, promotion, transmission, offer, or display of child pornography is punishable by six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. Possession or procurement of child pornography is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

The minimum legal age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape is a criminal offense punishable by five to 20 years in prison. Terre des Homme Kosovo reported that national mechanisms for identification and referral of children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation are ineffective. The organization noted children transported from Albania for street work are inadequately identified as potential victims of trafficking or children at risk of trafficking. The municipality of Pristina established a special task force intended to address these issues and provide protection and necessary services for children engaged in street work.

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

Anti-Semitism

Approximately 50 Jewish persons resided in the country, according to the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, and provide for equal access to education, employment, and other state services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination in access to education and hiring.

In December the NGO Association of Paraplegic and Paralyzed Children of Kosovo (Handi-Kos) presented an assessment of the country’s disability legislation, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The report noted that elementary schools in Kosovo generally did not ensure adequate disability access, and internal facility design did not ensure the equal status of children with disabilities with their peers. The report stated this lack of access resulted in a higher dropout rate for children with disabilities.

The law on the employment of persons with disabilities states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Health will introduce special legislation that determines the level of working capacity for persons with disabilities. The absence of this legislation directly affects the employment of persons with disabilities and reinforces existing social stigma around disability.

According to Handi-Kos, health and rehabilitative services, social assistance, and assistive devices for persons with disabilities was insufficient. Physical access to public institutions remained difficult, even after the implementation of bylaws on building access and administrative support. Handi-Kos reported municipal compliance with a 2007 mandate on access to government buildings is in the single digits.

The parliament building itself was not accessible, and one member of parliament in a wheelchair had to be carried into the assembly hall by colleagues. Likewise, in the municipality of Sukhareka, persons in wheelchairs had access only to the ground floor of the municipal building, but not floors containing the mayoral and directorate offices. Educational options for children with disabilities were limited. According to Handi-Kos, approximately 38,000 children with disabilities did not attend school.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published a report criticizing unequal access to interurban transportation for blind persons, despite legal requirements for such access. It recommended decreasing transport fees for disabled persons, reserving two seats on public transport for travelers with disabilities, and mandating a minimum number of law-enforcement inspections per month for urban and interurban public transport vehicles. To date, no entity or organization responded to this report.

The law regulates the commitment of persons to psychiatric or social care facilities and protects their rights within such institutions but it has not been implemented. The country lacks an adequate system for classification of procedures, placement, and treatment of detainees with mental disabilities. The KRCT described mental health facilities as substandard and generally at full capacity. The KCRT also noted the need for additional capacity specifically for women and juveniles with mental disabilities. The Institute of Forensic Psychiatry had a capacity of 36 beds, of which 12 were for psychiatric examinations and 24 were for mandatory psychiatric treatment. The institute did not have a specific area for treatment of women and juveniles. There were instances when domestic violence offenders with mental disabilities did not complete mandatory psychiatric care but left institute facilities due to inadequate infrastructure and capacity.

The KRCT noted that the lack of capacity at the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry led to detainees with mental disabilities being sent to standard correctional centers rather than to mental health facilities, in contradiction of both domestic law and international standards.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal violence persisted against Kosovo-Serb and other ethnic minority communities, all of which were also affected by social and employment discrimination.

The Kosovo-Serb community, its representatives, civil society, and the international community expressed concern over incidents involving thefts, break-ins, verbal harassment, and damage to the property of Kosovo-Serbs, particularly returnees in rural areas. The NGO AKTIV reported more than 20 incidents between March and June targeting Kosovo-Serbs, including arson, physical attacks, and robberies. Between January and October, the Communities and Return Ministry received complaints of 49 security incidents affecting Kosovo Serbs and returnees. For example the ministry issued a press release on April 28 condemning the burning of a house in Cernice/a and on May 27 issued a press release condemning the stoning of a returnee house in Lubozhde/Ljubozda and a physical attack in Drenovc/Drenovac. The ministry publicly appealed to police to enhance patrols in critical locations and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed ethnic hatred was the key motive for some incidents, such as the stoning of returnee houses, cases of arson, and graffiti. The representatives claimed the government did not adequately respond to these incidents. In some cases police investigations resulted in the perpetrators’ arrest.

In October unknown perpetrators reportedly shot at a group of Kosovo-Serb youth in the Bernice e Poshtme/Donja Brnjica village school in Pristina municipality. No one was injured in the incident. According to media reports and the youths, the perpetrators spoke Albanian. Police agreed to increase police presence in the area following an October 4 meeting between local Kosovo-Serbs, their representatives, police, and KFOR. Police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

Harassment of Kosovo-Serb members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) by other ethnic Serbs was commonplace, although usually the incidents were difficult to trace. Victims in most cases did not report the incidents to police for fear of escalation and retaliation. In June a local court ordered the 30-day detention of a Kosovo Serb for harassing a Kosovo-Serb KSF member on social media. According to the prosecution, the victim received threatening messages after the suspect posted a photo of the victim in uniform alongside Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and KLA commander. The suspect removed the post, but the victim continued to receive threatening messages. Kosovo-Serb KSF members were also routinely detained by Serbian authorities at Kosovo-Serbia border crossings.

The Ministry of Defense and KSF leadership took some steps to protect Kosovo-Serb members. These steps included better documentation of incidents, routine welfare checks by commanders, and attempts at improving the response of police and the Kosovo Intelligence Agency. The government launched a KSF recruitment campaign where leaders amplified minority recruitment efforts.

Access to justice for Kosovo Serbs improved due to the 2017 integration of the judiciary system in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities and integration of Kosovo-Serb judges and staff in other basic courts in the country. The judiciary suffered from a lack of funding and support for minorities. Poor or delayed translation in court proceedings, a backlog of cases in the north, nonexecution of court decisions, limited numbers of minority staff, and inconsistency between Albanian and Serbian translations of legislation continued to hinder the delivery of justice for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.

The Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities often lacked access to basic hygiene, medical care, and education and were heavily dependent on humanitarian aid for subsistence. The government provided food and hygiene assistance to these communities beginning in March due to the COVID-19-related limitations on movement. Community representatives and civil society stated the assistance was insufficient to protect members of these communities from exposure to the virus and spreading the virus through traditionally practiced street work.

The prime minister’s Office of Community Affairs and the Ombudsperson Institution noted discrimination in public sector employment in almost all local and national institutions. Although the law mandates 10 percent of employees at the national level of government be ethnic minorities, their representation remained limited and generally confined to lower-level positions. Smaller communities, such as Gorani, Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians, were particularly underrepresented.

The law requires equal conditions for all schoolchildren and recognizes minority students’ right to public education in their native language through secondary school. This law was not enforced. Bosniak, Croat, Gorani, Montenegrin, Romani, and Turkish community leaders cited the unavailability of textbooks and other materials in the Serbian, Bosnian, and Turkish languages, occasionally turning to Albanian-language curriculum or curriculum sponsored by Serbia or Turkey to educate students.

The Office of the Language Commissioner monitored and reported on the implementation of legislation that conferred equal status to the country’s two official languages, Albanian and Serbian, as well as other official languages at the local level, including Bosnian and Turkish. The commissioner reported municipal administrations and central government institutions were inconsistent in implementing provisions of national language laws, for example, in providing Serbian translations of government statements, including emergency notices, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a complaint echoed by Kosovo-Serb civil society groups. The Office of the Language Commissioner also reported that failure to consistently implement language laws meant that many citizens were denied equal access to public services, information, employment, justice, and other rights.

Lack of translation or poor translation was also reported as a problem with regards to numerous laws, signs within public institutions, and communication during court proceedings. To address the problem of inconsistently translated legislation, the government passed a concept note sponsored by the country’s language commissioner in May 2019 requiring establishment of a governmental translation unit. As of November, the unit had not been established.

Courts regularly failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to minority defendants and witnesses and did not provide adequate translation of statute and court documents as required by law. The Kosovo-Serb NGO AKTIV reported that courts sent their decisions, including decisions on detention and verdicts, in the Albanian language to members of the Kosovo-Serb and other minority communities. AKTIV noted such practices inhibited access to legal remedies for members of minority communities.

Amendments to administrative rulings permit Bosniaks and ethnic Turks to have identity documents issued in their own languages, but minority representatives often complained of poor treatment by public servants and delayed implementation.

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

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, health care, and education. When the motivation for a crime is based on gender, sexual orientation, or perceived affinity of the victim with persons who are targets of such hostility, the law considers motivation to be an aggravating circumstance.

According to human rights NGOs, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community faced overt discrimination in employment, housing, determination of statelessness, and access to education and health care.

The NGO Center for Equality and Liberty reported that societal pressure persuaded most LGBTI persons to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity. A representative noted police were insensitive to the needs of the LGBTI community. The center also noted increased homophobic public reactions in social media since the introduction of country-wide government measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police were inclusive and accepting of LGBTI and other minority communities in their public messaging, and senior police officials participated in the annual pride parade. Pristina municipality established a drop-in center for at-risk LGBTI persons.

In August 2019 the appeals court upheld a basic court ruling permitting the change of the sex marker on identity documents from female to male for a citizen living abroad. In total, two citizens changed their identity documents following lengthy court procedures, while four citizens’ requests for change of identity documents have not been resolved.

On September 4, Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements in which the two countries agreed to work with foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality in the 69 countries where it is considered a crime.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of official discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS during the year.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and the violation of any individual’s labor rights due to his or her union activities. The law requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, including in essential services. The law applies equally to all individuals working in the public and private sectors, including documented migrants and domestic servants.

The government did not effectively enforce labor laws, which include regulations and administrative instructions that govern employment relations, including rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. According to the Association of Independent Labor Unions in Kosovo (BSPK), resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were circuitous and subject to lengthy delays or appeals.

Employers did not always respect the right of worker organizations to bargain collectively, particularly in the private sector. The BSPK reported many private-sector employers essentially ignored labor laws.

The BSPK reported continued difficulty in establishing unions due to employer interference in workers’ associations and unions, particularly in the banking, construction, and hotel sectors. Representatives from these sectors anonymously told the BSPK some employers used intimidation to prevent the establishment of unions. The labor inspectorate reported receiving no formal complaints of discrimination against employees who tried to join unions during the year; however, the inspectorate was not fully functional due to budgetary and staffing shortfalls. In addition, employers did not always respect the rights of worker organizations and unions to bargain collectively or to network with unions outside their organization, particularly in the private sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law and forced labor, including forced child labor occurred (see section 7.c.), during the year. Government resources, including remediation, were insufficient to bring about compliance, identify and protect victims, and investigate claims of forced or compulsory labor. The labor inspectorate reported conducting only limited investigations for forced labor offenses. Penalties, although commensurate with those for other serious crimes, were seldom applied.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for contractual employment is 15, provided the employment is not harmful or prejudicial to school attendance. If the work is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of a young person, the legal minimum age for work is 18.

The 2020 Law on Child Protection institutes key child labor protection standards unifying all the other legal and sublegal documents on the topic. It provides additional penalties for formal and informal employers of children that are commensurate with those for similar crimes. The law does not fully address the problem of child labor, as the law has little impact on the informal economy.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were seldom applied. Inspectors immediately notified employers when minors were exploited or found engaged in hazardous labor conditions. Child labor occurred primarily in the informal sector. As of May, NGO Terres Des Hommes reported 116 cases of minors (105 Kosovo citizens and 11 minors from Albania) working in hazardous conditions. Of these, 73 were children engaged in begging, 13 in street work, and 14 in coal extraction.

The Coalition of NGOs for the Protection of Children reported that children working in agriculture encountered hazards from operating farm equipment. The coalition reported that child labor in farming persisted as a traditional activity. Government-run social-work centers reported children engaged in farming were primarily in the informal sector and were not prevented from attending school. While children were rarely their families’ main wage earners, child labor contributed substantially to some families’ income.

Urban children often worked in a variety of unofficial construction and retail jobs, such as selling newspapers, cigarettes, food, or telephone cards on the street. Some children, especially those from ethnic minorities or from families receiving social assistance, engaged in physical labor such as transportation of goods or in picking through trash piles for items to sell.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV or AIDS status, or political affiliation. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across sectors with respect to sex, gender identity, disability, religion, political affiliation, and minority status (see section 6). During the year the BSPK received reports from labor unions and individuals claiming discrimination based on union membership, age, and family status. The BSPK and union officials noted employment, particularly in the public sector, often depended on the employee’s political status and affiliation. Union officials reported other mistreatment, including sexual harassment, based on political party affiliation. The BSPK reported instances of employers discriminating against female candidates in employment interviews and illegally firing women for being pregnant or requesting maternity leave.

University of Pristina officials noted a lack of space for conducting prayers on university premises. The Kosovo Center for Peace reported several cases of female students in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and Gjakove/Djakovica being denied elementary school access due to wearing religious garb.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government-set minimum wage was higher than the official poverty income line.

The law provides for a standard 40-hour work week, requires rest periods, limits the number of regular hours worked to 12 per day, limits overtime to 20 hours per week and 40 hours per month, requires payment of a premium for overtime work, and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides for 20 days of paid leave per year for employees and 12 months of partially paid maternity leave. The law sets appropriate health and safety standards for workplaces and governs all industries in the country. The responsibility for identifying unsafe workplaces lies with occupational safety and health experts rather than workers.

Ministry of Labor inspectors were responsible for enforcing all labor standards, including those pertaining to wages, hours, and occupational safety and health. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and fines were not commensurate with those for similar violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations in both the formal and informal sectors and enforcement was further curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

The BSPK reported lack of enforcement by the judiciary, especially in the informal sector, citing resource and capacity limitations within the labor inspectorate.

According to the BSPK, employers failed to abide by official labor standards that provided equal standards of protection to public and private sector workers. The BSPK reported a lack of government oversight and enforcement, particularly of the standard workweek and compulsory and unpaid overtime. Many individuals worked long hours in the private sector as “at-will” employees, without employment contracts, regular pay, or contributions to their pensions. The BSPK reported employers fired workers without cause in violation of the law and refused to respect worker holidays. Women’s rights organizations reported sexual abuse and harassment occurred on the job but went unreported due to fear of dismissal or retaliation.

The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a dangerous work situation without jeopardy to their employment. According to the Labor Ministry, informal employer-employee arrangements may address when and whether employees may remove themselves from work due to dangerous work situations but the government did not track these arrangements. There were eight worker fatalities as a result of inadequate or unsafe work conditions during the year. According to experts, violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards were common for both men and women, as well as foreign migrant workers, particularly those who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions, such as in construction and agriculture.

Montenegro

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

Podgorica Prison was not fully accessible to persons with disabilities.

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

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

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

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

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

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

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

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

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

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

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

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

Property Restitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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

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

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the right of most couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. In the case of transgender individuals, the country continues to require sterilization before their gender identity is legally recognized.

Free health care was available to all citizens; however, health-care costs acted as a barrier for noncitizens and those lacking identification documents to access regular prenatal care. Due to poor education and living conditions, Romani and Egyptian women seldom visited gynecologists, obstetricians, or any other doctors and had the least access to family planning counseling and gynecological services. Romani and Egyptian women able to access these services often reported discriminatory treatment, including verbal harassment Women outside these communities also reported verbal harassment when accessing reproductive health services. NGOs noted that such harassment was often unreported due to inadequate victim support mechanisms. Depending on the location, there was one gynecologist per 5,000 to 8,000 women, which affected women’s access to routine health services during pregnancy and childbirth.

There were no legal barriers to contraception; however, a 2020 UNFPA report indicated the country had enacted only 37 percent of legislation and regulations necessary to ensure full and equal access to contraceptive services. According to NGOs, there was a lack of publicly available information and appropriate educational programs, and economic status and restrictions by partners were barriers preventing women from using contraception.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. NGOs stated that these services were often not tailored to those experiencing sexual violence and that persons performing examinations sometimes lacked the necessary expertise to prepare a valid forensic report.

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

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

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

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

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

Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Presidential elections were last held in May 2019 and won by current president Stevo Pendarovski. Parliamentary elections took place in July after a three-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 3, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned, and a caretaker government, led by interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski and composed of ministers from across the political spectrum, took office for the 100 days preceding scheduled elections. On February 16, the speaker of parliament dissolved the legislature and called elections for April 12. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting state of emergency, the caretaker government postponed elections from April 12 to July 15 and remained in office until August 30, when the new government, again led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, was sworn in. In its July 16 Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the parliamentary elections and October 2 Final Report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observed the elections were “generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency.” The report characterized the elections as “genuinely competitive” despite politicians’ limited ability to conduct outreach during the pandemic. Election day went smoothly.

The national police maintain internal security, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the Ministry of the Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including excessive use of force by police and prison guards.

Significant human rights issues included: violence and threats of violence against journalists, high-level corruption, and instances of violence and threats of violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. The ombudsman believed police impunity continued to be a problem.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and laws prohibit such practices, but there were some reports police abused detainees and prisoners and used excessive force. The government acted to investigate and prosecute legitimate claims. The Ministry of Interior Professional Standards Unit (PSU) reported, during the first seven months of the year, it acted upon 32 complaints referring to use of excessive force by police officers. The unit deemed 13 of the complaints unfounded, dismissed 17 for insufficient evidence, and upheld two. In the latter two cases, the PSU filed criminal reports against the police officers for “harassment while performing duty.”

In response to a September 24 video on social media showing police officers physically abusing Romani citizens in Bitola, the PSU reported November 3 it filed a criminal complaint with the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office’s Police Misconduct Unit. The PSU also took disciplinary action against a traffic police officer implicated by the video, as well as against another police officer present during the incident. The cases were pending as of November 3. Prime Minister Zaev publicly condemned the incident on September 25.

The ombudsman received a total of 30 complaints from detained and convicted persons alleging physical abuse, brutality, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment by police officers and prison police or guards, including at Idrizovo, Skopje, Kumanovo, Stip, and Ohrid Prisons. As of August 11, the ombudsman had filed 10 criminal complaints against members of the prison police with the prosecutors’ office, dismissed one complaint for lack of sufficient evidence, and continued to review the remaining complaints.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were sometimes inadequate, but notable steps were taken to improve prison and detention center conditions since the 2017 Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) report described detention conditions as amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. A CPT delegation conducted a follow-up visit to North Macedonia in December 2019 and visited eight police establishments, six prisons, two psychiatric facilities, and one social care facility where persons were deprived of their liberty. Following the visit, CPT presented its preliminary findings to the government, but the official report was not public as of August 31.

Physical Conditions: The country had 11 prisons as well as two separate correctional facilities, one each for female and juvenile prisoners. Four prisons also held pretrial detainees.

According to the Ministry of Justice and the ombudsman, overcrowding was no longer a significant problem, except in some wards of the state prison Idrizovo. Official information from the Ministry of Justice showed that, as of August 31, there were 1,674 prisoners, while the prisons have the capacity to hold 2,384 inmates. Information from the ombudsman reported a higher number of persons in state custody as of August 11, including 1,897 convicted prisoners and 228 detainees. Despite having excess physical capacity, the prison system continued to suffer from lack of funding and understaffing. Poor conditions persisted in police stations, social care facilities, shelters, and psychiatric institutions.

The ombudsman reported August 14 that the authorities had made notable improvements in prison conditions by reconstructing some facilities. The ombudsman reported, nonetheless, that prison conditions continued to be generally inadequate. Transfer of juveniles kept at Ohrid Prison to the newly constructed Volkovija Juvenile Correction Home was pending as of August 17.

The ombudsman opened inquiries into the death of six incarcerated persons. As of August 17, two inquiries were closed based on a Public Prosecutor’s Office’s (PPO) report ruling out violence as a contributing factor in the deaths, two inquiries were pending reports from the PPO, and the remaining two were awaiting overdue autopsy reports.

The Ministry of Justice Department for Enforcement of Sanctions (DES) received 19 internal notifications of the use of force against inmates by prison police. In all cases the department found the officers acted in accordance with standard operating procedures. There was one report of police using force in self-defense while responding to a prisoner’s attack. The DES found the use of force was in line with applicable regulations.

The Ombudsman’s National Preventive Mechanism received a large number of complaints regarding inadequate health care. According to the ombudsman, prison and detention centers’ medical facilities were understaffed and underequipped. No information was available on whether these complaints were investigated.

Ministry of Justice authorities continued to distribute brochures published with assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) explaining to prisoners how to file anonymous complaints to the ombudsman regarding mistreatment.

Administration: As of August 11, the ombudsman had received four complaints for excessive use of force by the prison police. Based on the information collected, the ombudsman filed two criminal complaints against members of the prison police with the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecution Office (OCCPO)’s Police Misconduct Unit. As of August 11, the complaints were pending review.

Independent Monitoring: The law allows physicians, diplomatic representatives, and representatives from the CPT and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to pretrial detainees with the approval of the investigative judge. In accordance with a 2018 memorandum of understanding, the government granted the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights unrestricted access to convicted prisoners. The ombudsman visited the country’s prisons monthly and investigated credible allegations of problematic conditions and treatment.

Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported making improvements at all prisons, including completing a full reconstruction of Bitola prison and constructing the Volkovija Juvenile Correctional Facility in Tetovo and a courtroom in the Idrizovo Prison.

Authorities opened a new healthcare facility in Idrizovo Prison with two medical doctors, three nurses, one dentist, and one dental technician on staff. Despite this, access to satisfactory health care remained an issue. Staff members in penitentiary and educational-correctional institutions were trained on the new Code of Conduct for Prison Personnel, based on the European Code of Ethics for Prison Staff. The COVID-19 outbreak impeded some regular staff training.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, as well as to receive compensation for unlawful detention. The government generally observed these requirements, but in some cases, prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that a judge issue warrants for arrest and detention of suspects based on evidence, and police generally followed this requirement. The law prohibits police from interrogating suspects without informing them of their status and their rights and enabling them to obtain a lawyer. The law states prosecutors must arraign a detainee within 24 hours of arrest. A pretrial procedure judge, at the request of a prosecutor, may order detention of suspects for up to 72 hours before arraignment. Police generally adhered to these procedures. Authorities generally informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. Detention prior to indictment may last a maximum of 180 days. Following indictment, pretrial detention may last a maximum of two years.

The Ministry of Interior PSU received one complaint alleging excessive use of force in interrogations of suspects and detainees. The PSU dismissed the complaint for lack of evidence.

There is a functioning bail system. In addition to bail, the law allows the substitution of pretrial detention with house arrest or other measures for securing defendants’ presence at trial. Common measures include passport seizure, a prohibition on leaving one’s place of residence, and an obligation to report to the court on a weekly basis.

The law provides advisory deadlines to avoid protracted criminal proceedings. Prosecutors should generally complete investigations within six months, although the deadlines can be extended to 12 months in more complex cases and 18 months in organized crime cases with a supervisor’s consent. In practice, prosecutors often exceeded those deadlines and suffered no adverse consequences for failing to meet them.

The law allows defendants to communicate with an attorney of their choice, but authorities did not always inform detainees properly of this right and did not always allow them to consult with an attorney prior to arraignment. Indigent detainees have the right to a state-provided attorney, and authorities generally respected this right. Judges usually granted permission for attorneys to visit their clients in detention. Authorities did not practice incommunicado detention.

In addition to investigating allegations of police mistreatment, the PSU conducted all internal investigations into allegations of other forms of police misconduct. The unit has authority to impose administrative sanctions, such as temporary suspension from work, during its investigations. The unit may not take disciplinary measures, which require a ruling from a disciplinary commission, nor may it impose more serious criminal sanctions, which require prosecutorial action, but it may refer cases as appropriate.

As of August 20, the OCCPO’s Unit for Investigating and Prosecuting Criminal Misconduct of Police Officers and Prison Guards had investigated 21 cases against police officers and prison guards based on criminal complaints accusing them of mistreatment, unlawful arrest, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. All 21 cases were still pending as of August 31. Separately, the unit obtained a guilty plea and five-month prison sentence against a police officer for accepting bribes.

Pretrial Detention: In most cases the courts adhered to the law for pretrial detention procedures. During the year the number of court detention orders remained stable when compared with 2019; most orders related to cases brought by the OCCPO and the Skopje Basic PPO. As of August 20, the courts issued 227 detention orders, which is in line with the 289 issued by mid-November 2019. The number of detention orders issued during 2020 and 2019 decreased significantly from 2018 when the courts issued 457 detention orders. Prosecutors across the country requested detention in 5 to 10 percent of all cases. Usually, prosecutors requested, and the court issued, preventive measures instead of detention orders for suspects and defendants to mitigate flight risk, evidence tampering, and repeating or committing new crimes.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for “autonomous and independent” courts, supported by an independent and autonomous Judicial Council. Instances of judicial misconduct, undue pressure of judges, protracted justice, and inadequate funding of the judiciary continued to hamper court operations and effectiveness and affected public confidence in the judiciary. Courts continued to operate after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, but with significantly reduced dockets. Both the judiciary and the PPO remained underfunded.

The government demonstrated greater respect for judicial independence and impartiality compared with previous years. According to a European Commission (EC) October 6 update report, the country established mechanisms to ensure judicial independence and accountability, including creating rules on merit-based appointments, checking assets and conflicts of interest, and establishing disciplinary procedures. The EC’s March 2 report also noted positive developments, including the adoption of a new law on the PPO and improvements in the country’s record in fighting corruption and organized crime, while also noting the judiciary remained underfunded, susceptible to political influence, and poorly trusted by the public.

On February 16, parliament adopted a new law on the PPO. The law entered into force on June 30, officially terminating the mandate of the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO). The new law provides greater financial independence for the PPO, greater autonomy for the OCCPO, merit-based promotion for prosecutors, and exclusion of illegal wiretaps from evidence, except in the cases indicted by the former SPO on or before June 30, 2017.

As of August 20, the Judicial Council received 283 citizen complaints alleging judicial misconduct. The allegations included biased or unethical conduct, procedural errors, recusals, and exceeding deadlines. Separately, the Judicial Council received 60 formal requests for removal or disciplinary action against judges.

On January 8, the Judicial Council publicly condemned defense counsel pressure on a lay judge in the high-profile “TNT” case and recommended that the Private Attorneys’ Chamber and the PPO take appropriate action to avert and sanction such misconduct.

Citizens filed 90 complaints concerning the judicial system from January to August, according to the Office of the Ombudsman. This represented a decline in comparison with 2019. The ombudsman attributed the smaller number of complaints to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related reduction in court trial calendars. Most of the complaints alleged denial of the right to a fair trial by repeated trial delays, judicial misconduct, violations of in-absentia trial procedures, and failures to respond to discovery. In one instance the ombudsman found that an appellate court dismissed an indictment but refused to award compensation to the defendant for his defense counsel expenses, as required by law. Upon the ombudsman’s intervention, the court granted the former defendant’s compensation request. In another instance the ombudsman endorsed a citizen’s complaint alleging the courts ruled in favor of an electrical supply company in violation of the law and forwarded the case to the Judicial Council for further review.

Between January 1 and August 17, the ombudsman acted as “friend of the court” (human rights amicus curiae) in two criminal cases. This was the second year the ombudsman served as amicus curiae, an increased authority provided under 2016 amendments to the law.

While there were strict rules regulating the assignment of cases to judges through an electronic case management system, a 2017 audit revealed manipulation in the system for assigning judges to specific cases. In July 2019 the Skopje Basic Prosecutor’s Office indicted former chief judge of the Skopje Criminal Court Vladimir Pancevski for misuse of official position. The Judicial Council later suspended him and then removed him from the bench. On August 4, the Veles Basic Court convicted and sentenced Pancevski to three-and-a-half years in prison for misuse of office for interfering with the electronic case management system between 2013 and 2016 and directly assigning cases to handpicked judges. Although briefly detained to appear before the court for the trial, as of August 31, Pancevski remained free, pending appeal before the Skopje Appeals Court.

On January 27, the Judicial Council dismissed Supreme Court Justice Risto Katavenovski for misconduct related to his involvement in a 2017 decision annulling an outstanding detention order against a defendant. Katavenovski’s appeal was pending before a Supreme Court-led appeal panel as of August 20. He is the third Supreme Court justice dismissed in connection to the same case.

In February, Skopje Basic PPO opened an investigation into former chief justice Jovo Vangelovski for hiding cases pending review before the Supreme Court in his chamber. The investigation was pending as of August 20. On July 7, Skopje Basic PPO filed a summary indictment against Vangelovski in a separate matter. The indictment alleges misuse of office in connection to a November 2018 incident in which he withheld a monetary bonus from a colleague that was granted to all other Supreme Court justices. The trial’s start was pending as of November 3.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

The law presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them (with free interpretation as necessary). Trials were generally open to the public. During the year the courts operated under reduced calendars due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizens continued to complain about insufficient civil enforcement practices, resulting in violations of citizens’ rights.

On March 17, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the Judicial Council adopted a decision recommending all courts operate in line with COVID-19 mitigation measures and appropriately reduce their calendars. The decision also advised the courts to close trials to the public and to give priority to cases involving deprivation of liberty, issues of urgency, injunction orders, cases involving foreign nationals without permanent residence status, COVID-19 related offenses, and cases in the final stages of adjudication. The guidance also permitted courts to hold virtual hearings, which allowed some courts to balance health risks with their commitment to ensuring timely trials.

On March 30, the caretaker government adopted a decree with force of law suspending preclusive court deadlines, such as the statute of limitations, during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The decree also extended the terms of lay judges for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency and delayed enforcement of pending prison sentences of up to three years, except in cases where there was a risk of the statute of limitations lapsing.

For certain criminal and civil cases, judicial panels of three to five individuals, led by a professional judge, are used. Lay judges assist in all cases where defendants face potential prison sentences of more than five years. According to observers, lay judges were underpaid and susceptible to corruption or outside pressure. Defendants, particularly those in cases initiated by the SPO, complained the court did not always grant adequate time to prepare a sufficient defense. Defendants may communicate with an attorney of their choice or, for those who are indigent, have one provided at public expense. Defendants may question witnesses and present evidence on their own behalf. Authorities may not compel defendants to testify or confess guilt. Both the prosecution and defendants have the right to appeal verdicts.

On January 9, the Skopje Criminal Court confirmed the OCPPO 2019 indictment against former speaker of parliament Trajko Veljanoski, former minister of transportation Mile Janakieski, former minister of labor Spiro Ristovski, and former director of the Department for Security and Counterintelligence Vladimir Atanasovski. The defendants were charged with “terrorist endangerment of the constitutional order” for orchestrating the April 27, 2017 violence in parliament. Former VMRO-DPMNE party leader and prime minister Nikola Gruevski and former Department for Security and Counter-Intelligence official Nikola Boshkovski were not among the defendants because they fled to Hungary and Greece, respectively, in connection with other court cases against them. The trial began February 26 and continued before the Skopje Criminal Court as of November 3.

On June 4, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against North Macedonia for violating the right to a fair trial of Ljube Boshkoski, former member of parliament and minister of internal affairs. The ECHR found the proceedings in the 2011 illegal election campaign finance case against Boshkoski violated his right to a fair trial insofar as the court excluded the public from several hearings and one witness testified as a protected witness, meaning the court and the defense did not have the opportunity to view his demeanor while testifying, even though the witness was known to the defendant and thus should not have been afforded this status. On July 8, the Constitutional Court accepted a petition challenging the constitutionality of Article 353, paragraph 5 of the Criminal Code criminalizing serious forms of misuse of official position and authority. Article 353, paragraph 5 is the main charging statute in several SPO-initiated, adjudicated, and pending cases. The Constitutional Court’s ruling on the petition’s merit was pending as of November 3.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens had access to courts to submit lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Individuals may file human rights cases in the criminal, civil, or administrative courts, and in the Constitutional Court, depending upon the type of human rights violation in question and its alleged perpetrator. Individuals may appeal adverse decisions. The law provides the right to timely adjudication of cases and a legal basis to appeal excessive judicial delays to the Supreme Court. The government generally complied with domestic courts’ civil decisions. Individuals may appeal cases involving alleged state violations to the ECHR after exhausting all domestic legal options.

Backlogs in some civil trial courts and the Administrative Court increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From March through May, the Skopje Civil Court, the busiest civil court in the country, adjudicated one-third the number of cases it adjudicated during the same period in 2019.

On April 1, the country notified the secretary general of the Council of Europe that it would exercise the right to derogate from its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. In view of the measures the government took in relation to COVID-19 and the declared state of emergency, the country derogated from Article 8 (right to private and family life), Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association), and Article 2 of Protocol Number 4 (freedom of movement).

Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights allows states in time of war or public emergency threatening the life of the nation to derogate from its obligations under the convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, and provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.

On June 29, the country withdrew the derogation and informed the Council of Europe that the state of emergency was terminated on June 23.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place for citizens of the country. The government has no specific laws or mechanisms in place related to the resolution of Holocaust-era claims by foreign citizens, but they may still seek property restitution via civil proceedings. The government made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era restitution claims for citizens of the country, particularly after the 2000 Denationalization Law and the 2007 compensation agreement.

In 2000 the Denationalization Law accorded the right to denationalization of property seized after August 1944 to former owners and their successors, in accordance with the provisions related to the right to inherit. It required claimants to have citizenship of the country at the time of the law entering into force.

Advocacy groups reported some foreign citizens, not covered by the 2000 law, still sought restitution. A report of the Skopje-based Institute of Human Rights covering the first half of the year found that 1,057 denationalization cases were still pending with the Administrative Court, another 101 with the High Administrative Court, and more than 3,000 others in other courts throughout the country. Foreign citizens may apply for restitution in civil proceedings. The country is party to the 2009 Terezin Declaration. For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

The Islamic Community of North Macedonia (ICM) continued to claim the government used a “selective justice” approach and that it failed to provide appropriate and timely restitution for property seized during the period of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Among the disputed property is the Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip that was nationalized in 1955. The ICM claimed the government prevented the ICM from regaining rightful ownership of the mosque complex.

In May the Anticorruption Commission demanded the Constitutional Court look into Article 64 of the Denationalization Law after the Ministry of Transport and Communications sold property in Skopje that had been the subject of a denationalization process since 2003.

As of mid-August, the ombudsman received 14 complaints concerning denationalization of property seized by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, compared with 36 in 2019. As of August 17, the ombudsman dismissed two complaints as inadmissible and five as unfounded. One complaint was successfully resolved after the ombudsman’s intervention, while the remaining six were pending further review. The ombudsman noted there are major difficulties and procedural oversights in denationalization cases and said he received citizen complaints about unjustified delays and court inefficiencies in clearing a backlog of property-related cases. This situation persists even though the 2000 Denationalization Law stipulates the denationalization procedure is urgent in nature. The Ombudsman’s Office continued to improve its collaboration with the Ministry of Finance’s denationalization commissions.

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

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions during the year.

The Operational Technical Agency, responsible for lawful intercepts in the country, became operational in 2018. It serves as the technical facilitator of operations for legal interception of communications, operating with its own budget separately from the Ministry of Interior.

Parliament amended the Law on the Protection of Privacy in 2016 to prohibit the possession, processing, and publishing of any content, including wiretapped conversations, which violate the right to privacy with regard to personal or family life. The amendments also prohibit the use of such materials in election campaigns or for other political purposes.

Although there was a Council for Civilian Oversight of Wiretapping, the council was not functional as of November 3. On June 14, the president and the deputy of the council resigned citing lack of operational resources.

The ombudsman reported receiving two complaints alleging unlawful interference with privacy and home.

On February 16, parliament adopted a Law on Personal Data Protection, aligned with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679). On April 10, the Personal Data Protection Agency submitted a criminal complaint against unidentified persons for abuse of personal data before the Skopje Basic PPO. The Agency submitted the complaint in response to the publication of lists with personal data (name, surname, address, personal identification number) of persons from Kumanovo who allegedly contracted COVID-19. The complaint was pending prosecutors’ review as of August 20.

On August 4, the agency ordered the State Election Commission (SEC) to address breaches of data protection rules within set deadlines in relation to the events surrounding SEC’s website breaches on election day.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. The media environment continued to improve during the year. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the authorities’ response to instances of violence toward and intimidation of journalists was slow and inefficient.

In the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the July 15 parliamentary elections, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated, “media coverage of the elections lacked critical assessment of platforms and provisions regarding paid political advertisement favored the three largest parties.” The statement noted, “Significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sectors, such as ensuring the political neutrality of the public Macedonian Radio and Television and the media regulator” (Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services). Observers expressed concerns the COVID-19 pandemic caused deterioration in already challenging conditions for journalists. The OSCE report further noted, “Ongoing stagnation in the advertising market caused by the pandemic has further increased the dependence of media on owners and state subsidies.”

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report released March 4 noted an improvement in the score from two to three (out of maximum four points), “because pressure on journalists has eased in recent years. The April 21 Reporters without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index noted “slight improvement” of the country’s media freedom. The report added that, “regrettably, senior government officials have an engrained tendency to threaten and insult journalists. The culture of impunity is well entrenched and still an obstacle for journalists’ safety. The number of the physical attacks on journalists declined; however, there is a growing practice of cyberbullying and verbal abuse.”

As of October 1, the government had not taken measures to address calls from media stakeholders and the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest (SCPC) to abolish 2018 amendments to the Electoral Code permitting taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.

The government prosecuted journalists during the year for disclosing confidential or classified documents. On March 4, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted journalist Aleksandar Mitovski and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison sentence for leaking confidential documents related to the “Racketeering” criminal investigation. He published the first page of a witness deposition on his portal, Infomax, in August 2019. On July 30, the PPO filed a summary indictment against Ljupco Zlatev, the editor of Lider, a financial news portal, for disclosing classified documents from the National Security Agency in two texts the portal published in July.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately. The Helsinki Human Rights Committee and other human rights and media freedom activists reported an increase in hate speech, particularly along interethnic lines and in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. On June 8, the committee issued a press release urging public figures to refrain from speech blaming interethnic coexistence for the public health crisis and to focus instead on increased compliance with COVID-mitigation measures.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.

Central government advertising on commercial channels is banned, but local government advertising is permissible. The state continued to subsidize print media. Budget funds were allocated to media to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The state subsidized paid political ads in commercial media for the campaign leading to the July 15 early parliamentary elections.

Several organizations raised concerns over the media environment prior to the July 15 parliamentary elections. The ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission’s (SEAM) Preliminary Findings noted: “The legal framework for the allocation of funds for paid time, and the distribution of maximum limits for such advertisements, was modified by a government decree enacted on 22 June, the last day of the state of emergency. The provisions favor the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led coalition, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).” The ODIHR also noted: “The newscasts of all national broadcasters monitored by the ODIHR SEAM provided superficial coverage of the campaign activities…in-depth analytical reporting or policy-based discussions were largely absent from the coverage of the campaign, limiting the opportunity for voters to make an informed choice between distinct policy alternatives.”

According to an analysis of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, published August 14, parties spent nearly two million euros ($2.4 million) on commercials, 550,000 euros ($660,000) on online media, 150,000 euros ($180,000) on radio ads, and 40,000 euros ($48,000) on print media. For the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, it was problematic that the political parties could decide without any criteria in which media outlets to place ads. The State Anticorruption Commission, in its draft National Anticorruption Strategy endorsed by the executive in January, urged the government to terminate paid political advertising in media, seeing it as a “potential risk for corruption and creation of clientelist relationships.”

The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media filed misdemeanor charges against Macedonian Radio 1, Alsat-M TV, Shenja TV, and Telma TV for violating the media blackout preceding the election. On July 30, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld a conviction against both Macedonian Radio 1 and its director. On November 3, the Skopje Misdemeanor Court issued a judgment against TV Shenja and Alsat-M TV. Both outlets were appealing the decision before the Skopje Criminal Court. Telma TV was acquitted.

On February 4, following an open call, the government allocated 43.9 million Macedonian denars (MKD, approximately $852,000) to cover half of the 2019 printing and distribution expenses to 12 print media outlets. The State Anticorruption Commission’s draft National Anticorruption Strategy, finalized on January 17, urged the government to introduce more specific subsidizing criteria to avoid “not purposeful spending of awarded funds.”

On October 8, the ECHR issued a judgement against North Macedonia under Article 10 (Violation of Freedom of Expression) in a case involving journalist Nikola Gelevski. The ECHR found that a 2011 criminal conviction for defamation against Gelevski for criticizing another journalist in an opinion piece limited critical and investigative journalism as a matter of legitimate public interest. The court noted the criminal conviction could have a chilling effect on political debate between members of media on matters of importance and characterized the authorities’ interference as disproportionate.

The Media Ethics Council continued to work on promoting self-regulation. As of August 10, the council received 106 complaints for unethical reporting and fake news, which the council noted was triple the number received in the same period in 2019. Of the complaints, 33 percent were related to misinformation on COVID-19.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.

As of October 24, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia registered 16 cases of attacks on journalists, of which 14 cases were verbal attacks, most of them involving life threats on social media, and two were physical attacks. The association noted the fact that of all verbal attacks, eight were directed against female journalists. In all cases the association called on police and the prosecution to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, and reiterated concern that impunity remained a serious issue with respect to attacks on journalists. On July 28, the association reiterated its call to the authorities to amend the criminal code to ensure attacks on journalists were treated as criminal offenses prosecuted ex officio.

On March 16, the Skopje Basic Court issued a 20-month prison sentence, preceded by psychiatric treatment in Bardovci Mental Hospital, for Emil Jakimovski, then assistant head of department in the Central Registry, for death and sexist threats made separately against journalists Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Korovesovska during January and during November and December 2019, respectively. The case triggered numerous reactions domestically and internationally, including by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Over several days in July, Brussels-based correspondent for state news agency MIA Tanja Milevska received numerous death and rape threats from anonymous Twitter and Facebook users. The case triggered reactions by media organizations in North Macedonia, the region, and internationally, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, as well as North Macedonia’s Ministry of Information Society and Administration. Milevska reported the threats to police in Belgium and in North Macedonia but had not received any response as of August 12.

In April journalists and media staff Dushica Mrgja, Natasha Stojanovska, Goran Trpenoski, Vlatko Stojanovski, Biljana Nikolovska, Tome Angelovski, and Igor Jankovski filed civil compensation lawsuits against the state for violating their right to freedom of speech before the Skopje Civil Court. The plaintiffs, who testified in court in the parliament violence case, sought financial and moral compensation for the PPO’s lack of action to prosecute the “United for Macedonia” civil movement members who insulted and physically attacked press crews reporting on the April 27, 2017, storming of parliament. As of August 31, the case was pending before the court.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship.

On February 4, the Independent Media Trade Union signed the first collective agreement with a media outlet, state news agency MIA, which regulates terms and conditions of MIA’s employees, including but not limited to guarantees for a 36-hour working week, paid overtime work, protection from arbitrary dismissal, and guaranteed freedom of expression.

Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

A “state of crisis” has been in force for border areas adjacent to Greece and Serbia since 2015. It has been extended by the government every six months, most recently on October 5. The state of crisis allows the government additional authorities to regulate the entry and transit of migrants and deploy additional resources as needed. Since the closure of the “Western Balkans Route” in 2016, migrants apprehended in these areas were regularly placed in contained temporary transit centers, near the border, and pushed back to the prior transit country within days. No freedom of movement was ensured for migrants while in the transit centers or the reception center for smuggled foreigners, nor was a formal removal or readmission procedure established.

A total of 1,799 persons were housed in transit centers in the first eight months of the year, 1,448 in Tabanovce, near the border with Serbia; and 351 in the Vinojug transit center, near the border with Greece.

The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection prescribes freedom of movement shall be restricted in extraordinary circumstances to determine the identity and citizenship, and establish the facts and circumstances of the asylum requests, particularly if the subject has been determined to be a flight risk, as well as to protect order and national security, or when a foreigner is retained for the purposes of initiating a procedure for his or her return or expulsion.

The government authorities did not exert pressure on migrants to return to their country of origin.

The ombudsman determined that the Ministry of Interior often made arbitrary decisions to restrict freedom of movement, including in cases involving unaccompanied minors.

In-country Movement: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Skopje estimated more than 28,000 persons transited the country from January 1 to August 31, but neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered any hate crimes against them. UNHCR did not note any in-country movement restrictions for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or stateless persons.

According to the EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, in the first seven months of the year, 11,300 migrants were encountered along the so-called Balkans Route that includes North Macedonia.

On March 21, the government introduced a countrywide curfew as part of the measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The curfew limited the movement of citizens outside of their homes to specific periods during the day. It was in effect until May 26.

On May 14, the Constitutional Court suspended as discriminatory select provisions of the government’s COVID-19 state of emergency decrees that ordered more restrictive regimes governing the movement of seniors age 67 and older and minors younger than age 18. The Court ordered the government’s decrees restricting citizens’ movement outside of their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should apply equally to all citizens.

Citizenship: The Agency of National Security reported September 1 that as many as 1,800 individuals were awaiting its decision regarding the granting or revocation of their citizenship.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, 112 persons from 26 families remained displaced from the 2001 internal armed conflict. Of them seven individuals from three families lived in collective housing centers, and 105 from 25 families lived in private accommodations or with host families. The government provided protection and assistance, and supported safe, voluntary, and dignified returns, as well as resettlement or local integration of IDPs. There were no reports of IDPs suffering abuses.

Despite having no national policy document, the government generally observed the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, except on the adoption of a new strategy on integration of refugees, which has been pending since 2017. In addition UNHCR and its partners lacked access to individuals detained in the Reception Center for Foreigners (Skopje-Gazi Baba) and in the transit zones at international airports, which impeded UNHCR’s ability fully to exercise its mandate under its 1951 convention.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities took significant measures to combat and detect cases of migrant smuggling by utilizing the support of mobile teams and a task force consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and prosecutors from the PPO for Organized Crime and Corruption. The May 2019 EC report noted the problem of smuggling needed to be addressed continuously, as the country was under severe pressure due to its geographic location.

The IOM stressed the movement of migrants through the Western Balkans route was facilitated by smuggling networks, which exposed the migrants to significant risks of abuse and exploitative practices, including trafficking in human beings.

There were occasional reports of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against migrants, allegedly by smugglers and traffickers. These reports were infrequent. The majority of migrants in transit were working-age single men.

Authorities provided adequate mechanisms to protect migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons from abuse. A multisector system and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were in place to provide protection from gender-based violence. UNHCR noted the system needed strengthening to ensure universal and systemic application of the SOPs, especially regarding case identification.

Refoulement: During the year no instances of forceful returns of asylum seekers or refugees to unsafe countries were recorded.

Access to Asylum: UNHCR assessed access to asylum practices continued to improve consistently, and previous concerns regarding the practice of arbitrarily denying access to asylum had been addressed. The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to provide protection to refugees. UNHCR reported, however, that the mechanism for adjudicating refugee status failed to provide basic procedural guarantees and proper determinations as prescribed in the law. It reported 181 migrants applied for asylum in the first seven months of the year. Two persons were granted refugee status or a subsidiary form of protection.

The legal framework provides for procedural safeguards and review. There were a number of disputes concerning the application of some safeguards, including at the judicial level. For instance, although legally permissible, in practice the court refused all requests to hear from dissatisfied asylum applicants during the appeals procedure.

The government issued identity documents to recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection, but authorities frequently delayed or failed to issue identification documents to new asylum seekers.

There were some impediments to accessing asylum. Migrant populations detained in the Transit Center for Foreigners were impeded from accessing asylum. An application for asylum by anyone held in the Reception Center for Foreigners was possible only after the person gave a statement before the court, in criminal proceedings against their smugglers. During the year, 76 persons, or approximately 50 percent of all asylum requests registered in the country, were processed through the Reception Center for Foreigners.

Throughout the year the administrative and the higher administrative courts continued to avoid ruling on the merit of asylum applications, despite having the requisite authority, according to the Macedonian Young Lawyers’ Association. They routinely returned the cases to the Ministry of Interior for further review.

Freedom of Movement: According to UNHCR, authorities detained some individuals intercepted while being smuggled. The grounds for detention decisions were arbitrary. As a rule, individuals are supposed to be detained only until their identity could be established. They were routinely detained after identification, however, to prevent them from departing the country prior to providing legal testimony against their smugglers. In addition a majority of asylum seekers who were previously detained reported they were either not issued detention decisions or issued decisions in a language they could not understand. This impeded their ability to exercise their right to judicial review. According to UNHCR, this situation qualifies as arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

The average detention period of asylum seekers during the year was 15 days, with the longest period being 45 days and the shortest period one day.

Some improvement was noted compared with previous years, as women, children, or families were generally not detained; alternatives to detention were employed instead. A safe house, run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) utilizing donor funds, was rented for these individuals, so they were not placed in prison or in detention facilities. They were monitored, however, and needed to report to authorities on a weekly basis. Three unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were housed with foster families during the year.

Employment: There are no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work, and the law allows asylum seekers whose asylum procedure is not completed within nine months to apply for a work permit.

Recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection with work permits were able to access the active labor market. Nevertheless, asylum seekers faced restrictions because of conflicting laws. By law a foreigner needs to have a unique identification number assigned in order to be issued a work permit. Although an asylum seeker has the legal right to apply for a work permit nine months after applying for asylum, she or he has no right to be assigned a unique identification number until asylum is granted. Consequently, an asylum seeker has the right to work but is unable to exercise it. This represents a serious gap in protection since cases sometimes remain pending for two to three years.

Access to Basic Services: In accordance with health insurance regulations, asylum seekers had the right to basic health services while their claims were pending. The same applied to the right to education. Five children from outside the Balkan region (Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) were enrolled in state-run educational facilities in Skopje. Refugees have the right to full health care provided under the same conditions as it is to citizens.

Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR, none of the 275 individuals from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo who remained in the country returned to Kosovo during the year. No cases of resettlement were registered.

The law provides for naturalization of refugees residing in the country under preferred conditions. Individuals under subsidiary protection may naturalize after eight years of legally residing in the country. During the year one refugee and one person under subsidiary protection were naturalized.

Under the law the Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and UNHCR, should facilitate the voluntary return of asylum seekers to their homes. There were no cases of assisted voluntary repatriation during the year.

UNHCR continued to assist rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo, whom the government allowed to stay in the country. The government issued them provisional identification documents to secure access to services. The Ministry of Labor provided integrated, durable solutions with the support of UNHCR for approximately 158 refugees who applied for integration into the country. The ministry provided social assistance, housing assistance, and access to education, health care, and the labor market.

Temporary Protection: The government could provide subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Two persons were granted subsidiary protection during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

Some habitual residents were legally stateless, despite fulfilling one or more criteria for citizenship. According to consolidated statistics from the government, UNHCR, and NGOs, there were 563 stateless persons registered in the country at the end of August. They were primarily Roma who lacked civil registration and documentation. Children born in the country to stateless persons are considered nationals and have access to birth registration and certification. A government program to register persons without documents was initiated in late 2018.

Some 273 persons have been recorded as habitual residents with undetermined nationality and at risk of statelessness since the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Ministry of Labor estimated some 700 children lacked birth certificates or personal name registration in the country.

Despite basic protections against arbitrary detention and some safeguards to prevent and reduce statelessness, there is no mechanism to identify and determine statelessness in the country, no stateless protection status, nor any route to acquiring citizenship for the stateless in the country. Significant gaps remain, which hindered the country’s progress towards compliance with international standards for the protection of stateless persons and prevention of statelessness.

Barriers to universal birth and civil registration continued disproportionately to affect minority groups, including Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. Government-initiated registration campaigns identified 750 individuals lacking personal documents and at risk of statelessness.

Ethnic Albanian opposition parties claimed more than 7,000 ethnic Albanians resident in the country were unjustly denied the right to possess citizenship of North Macedonia.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Early parliamentary elections were held on July 15. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections concluded, “The early parliamentary elections were generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency.” The report continued that “the campaign, although negative in tone, was genuinely competitive and participants could deliver their messages despite limitations on traditional outreach” and “election day proceeded smoothly, despite technical challenges in publishing results and concerns related to voter registration.” The 2020 parliamentary elections had low turnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic and minor reported and confirmed irregularities.

The elections were conducted under a legal framework which was substantially amended on the eve of the announcement of the elections (originally scheduled for April), contrary to international good practice. Amendments introduced into the Electoral Code in February partially addressed some previous ODIHR recommendations on issues such as voter registration, transparency of election dispute resolution, deadlines for campaign finance reporting, and campaign oversight.

Still, most ODIHR recommendations remain unaddressed, including those pertaining to the universality and equality of the vote in the electoral district abroad, revision of electoral district boundaries by an independent body, the accessibility of polling places to persons with disabilities, and an effective campaign finance audit.

A popular election for president was held in two rounds on April 21 and May 5, 2019. Stevo Pendarovski won the election. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections concluded, “in the well administered [second round] to the presidential election, continued respect for fundamental freedoms allowed voters to make an informed choice between candidates.” The report also noted shortcomings in campaign rules reflected broader deficiencies in the electoral law, and the transparency of campaign finance was lacking due to incomplete reporting.

During the year the ombudsman received complaints from nine citizens alleging voter rights or election administration violations: seven from voters omitted from the Voters’ List and two from election boards’ members for not receiving financial compensation for their work. The ombudsman attributed the significant reduction in election-related complaints in part to parliament’s February amendments to the Electoral Code.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were few restrictions on forming or joining political parties, which were subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens. While membership in a political party was not mandatory, there was an active patronage system in the country through which parties conferred special benefits and advantages to their members. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE Party accused the government of continuing these practices, alleging party membership overrode educational and professional qualifications prescribed by law for public administration positions.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and women and minorities did participate. The law requires gender diversity in each political party’s candidate list for parliamentary and municipal elections. No more than two-thirds of a party’s candidates may be the same gender. As of November 3, a total of 47 of the 120 members of parliament were women, and four women served as ministers in the president’s 20-member cabinet. Six of the 81 mayors were women.

Ethnic Albanians and other ethnic minorities continued to complain of inequitable representation within government and discriminatory practices that excluded them from political participation. There were eight ethnic Albanian ministers in the 20-member government cabinet. There were 33 ethnic Albanian members of parliament, including the speaker of parliament, and three Turkish, one Roma, one Vlach, one Serb, and one Bosniak member of parliament.

The ombudsman reported some improvement in the equitable representation of the smaller nonmajority ethnic communities in the public administration ranks but not at the managerial level. The exceptions were ethnic Albanians who participated in the government at the ministerial level.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. The government generally implemented the law, but there were reports officials engaged in corruption. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer. According to the minister of information, society, and administration, as of December 31, 2019, there were 132,900 persons employed in the public sector. There are reports that some individuals on the government’s payroll do not fill real positions in the bureaucracy. On September 13, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Political System and Community Relations Artan Grubi announced the government would assign 1,300 civil servants, paid by the ministry but not currently filling bureaucratic positions, to specific jobs across government institutions as soon as possible.

Corruption: In its October 6 update report on North Macedonia, the EC stated the country “has made good progress as reflected in its consolidated track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying high level corruption cases.” The EC’s March 2 report noted the SCPC took a proactive role in tracing nepotism, conflict of interest, and corruption across political party lines. As of August 20, a total of 49 public-sector institutions and six private-sector entities submitted midyear reports to the commission in accordance with the Law on Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest.

As of August 20, the SCPC received 260 citizen and one whistleblower complaint, the majority dealing with misuse of public funds, failure to exercise due diligence, and other unethical conduct. In addition the commission received 69 conflict of interest complaints. The SCPC opened eight cases on its own initiative involving allegations of corruption, and another four involving conflicts of interest. The commission also published 68 decisions that resulted in public reprimands against public officials, the recommendation of disciplinary action against four public officials, and a proposal to dismiss another official. In July the commission took remedial action in a 2019 whistleblower’s complaint. Eighteen other complaints submitted in 2019 were still pending as of August 20. The commission received additional complaints from citizens, political parties, and other entities during the campaign season prior to the year’s early parliamentary elections.

As of August 20, the commission reviewed a total of 123 cases and adopted and published 128 related decisions. In one case the commission recommended the PPO open a criminal investigation, and in another four cases it filed inquiries with government institutions to determine the culpability of public officials in management or working-level positions. As of August 20, the commission filed 10 misdemeanor cases for conflict of interest and recommended removal of a management board member for conflict of interest. The number of cases the commission received and reviewed as of August 20 was notably smaller than the number reviewed in the same period in 2019. This was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to anticorruption civil society organizations (CSOs), there were indications of corrupt practices and lax due diligence in public procurement, both at the central and local levels. They noted this was especially true with respect to procurement of service vehicles, where there was a lack of effective control and oversight mechanisms. Anticorruption CSO Center for Civic Engagement’s September 30 report on COVID-19-related emergency public procurement covering the first six months of the pandemic indicated lax compliance with the public procurement laws and significant price differences for procurement of similar protective gear.

On June 18, the Skopje Criminal Court sentenced former special public prosecutor Katica Janeva to seven years in prison, and codefendant Bojan Jovanovski (aka Boki 13) to nine years in prison in the OCCPO “Racketeering” case. The court found Janeva guilty of misuse of official authority by accepting bribes and abusing her official position while handling the “Empire” case, a multimillion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering case involving a former government official and a number of businessmen. Jovanovski was found guilty of accepting bribes to exert illegal influence and money laundering. The court issued a three million MKD (approximately $58,000) forfeiture order against Janeva and a separate forfeiture order of 735,000 MKD (approximately $14,300) against Jovanovski’s luxury-brand clothes, art, and furniture. As of November 3, Jovanovski and Janeva remained under house arrest, pending appeal before the Skopje Appeals Court.

On July 1, the OCCPO’s “Racketeering 2” trial against Jovanovski, SDSM Member of Parliament Frosina Remenski, and three other defendants, as well as the NGO International Alliance began in the Skopje Criminal Court. According to the indictment, Remenski was charged with accessory to fraud for using her authority in a manner that augmented defendant Boki 13’s ability to defraud victims. The trial continued as of November 3.

Former SPO-initiated trials, including several high-profile cases, continued before the Skopje Criminal Court. In the “Titanic” trial, which deals with election irregularities during the 2013 local elections, witnesses testified that they neither donated nor authorized anyone to make bank transfers to VMRO-DPMNE in their names and only learned of the donations when shown evidence by the SPO. As part of the “Titanic” indictment, 21 former government and party officials from VMRO-DPMNE, including former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, were charged with criminal conspiracy, electoral fraud, and violating campaign finance rules.

As of June 30, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector for Internal Control, Criminal Investigations, and Professional Standards (ICCIPS) filed six criminal complaints against a total of 10 police officers for abuse of official position and authority, receiving a bribe, and unscrupulous conduct in the service.

On July 28, the OCCPO opened an investigation into the SEC’s procurement of software to tabulate the results of the July 15 parliamentary elections. According to official sources, the Ministry of Interior was conducting a separate investigation into an election-day cyberattack on the SEC’s website. On November 4, the OCCPO requested the court issue precautionary measures against four SEC members and one other individual to prevent their fleeing or tampering with evidence during a continuing investigation of public procurement misuse charges.

On August 24, the Skopje Basic Prosecutor’s Office indicted VMRO-DPMNE Member of Parliament Antonio Miloshoski and another 12 persons in former SPO case “Strongman.” The indictment charged Miloshoski with fraud and abuse of official position in relation to 2.97 million MKD (approximately $58,000) worth of real estate and construction fraud. The case was pending before the Skopje Criminal Court as of November 3.

Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family members to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public may view disclosure declarations on the SCPC’s website. The commission routinely received and checked conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials.

On April 10, the SCPC announced an inquiry into former SPO chief Janeva and her assistant prosecutors for allegedly failing to report their bonuses on their financial disclosure statements. The inquiry was pending as of November 3. On September 29, the State Audit Office released a preliminary report of the audit on SPO’s financials stating the payment of extra bonuses did not entirely conform to the law.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often willing to listen to these groups but were also sometimes unresponsive to their views. During the year several ministries hosted working group meetings that included members of civil society.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman worked to protect citizens from infringement of their rights by public institutions, reduce discrimination against minority communities and persons with disabilities, promote equitable representation in public life, and address abuses of children’s rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is illegal. Penalties for rape range from one to 15 years’ imprisonment, but those laws were poorly enforced. Domestic violence is illegal but was a persistent and common problem. Penalties range from six months to five years imprisonment for lower-level offenses and one to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes resulting in grave or permanent bodily injury. Offenders can receive up to life imprisonment if their actions resulted in the death of their victim. Additionally, courts can impose fines of 500 to 5,000 euros ($600 to $6,000). The law is enforced in cases where victims press charges, but many do not.

From January to June, the Ministry of Labor registered ‎824 victims of domestic violence: 611 women, 140 men, and 73 children. Three were victims of sexual abuse.

The government ran four regional centers for victims of domestic violence that accommodated 67 victims in the first six months of the year. In cooperation with the civil society sector, the government funds one venter for victims of domestic violence and one crisis center, which cares for victims for 24 to 48 hours after an assault. A national NGO operated a hotline in both the Macedonian and Albanian languages and ran two crisis centers to provide temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

The ombudsman conducted several inquiries concerning child abuse on his own initiative and received four complaints requesting protection from domestic abusers. In each case the ombudsman pursued all legal measures to protect the victim, to secure appropriate treatment for them, and to sanction the perpetrators.

According to the CSO National Network to End Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the government measures introduced in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic deepened existing gender differences and pushed the burden of the crisis primarily onto women. Violence against women increased during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and access to support services decreased as a result of government-issued quarantine measures. According to the National Network, women and children who were stuck at home with abusers during the state of emergency had little recourse. A set of guidelines supporting female victims of assault during the pandemic, produced in part by the National Network, called on the government to designate support services provided by women’s NGOs as essential services during any further periods of lockdown, to materially support the work of these organizations, to provide them with personal protective equipment, and to prioritize women seeking refuge in shelters for COVID-19 testing. CSOs opened hotlines in March to field calls from victims who were otherwise unable to access resources and reported receiving calls every day. As of August 20, authorities received 920 domestic violence complaints, involving 934 victims, of whom 592 were female. A plurality of the complaints, 307, were submitted by women alleging spousal abuse.

In contrast to the experience of other CSOs, the First Family Center in the City of Skopje, a specialized counseling and assistance center for victims directly or indirectly affected by violence, reported a rapid decrease in calls during the COVID-19 quarantine periods. Between March 22 when a police curfew was introduced and mid-April, the center only received two calls for assistance.

The Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the OSCE Mission to Skopje, opened the National Free Mobile SOS Line for Victims of Domestic Violence and launched a campaign for the prevention of and protection from domestic violence during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The SOS Line and the campaign provided round-the-clock, accurate, timely, and confidential assistance, including information on victim protection, available services, and telephone counseling to victims of gender-based and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace of both men and women and provides a sentencing guideline of three months to three years in prison for violations. When victims pursued legal remedies, the government effectively enforced the law. Nonetheless, sexual harassment of women in the workplace remained a problem, and victims generally did not bring cases forward due to fear of publicity and possible loss of employment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Most individuals had access to information and the means to do so, but accessibility to reproductive health services varied across geographic areas and populations.

Women from rural areas had limited access to family planning counseling and gynecological services. Romani women faced barriers to accessing family planning counseling and gynecological services due to discrimination, high poverty levels, and the lack of sufficient numbers of family doctors and gynecologists in their communities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. Three centers for survivors of sexual violence in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Tetovo were funded by the government and the NGO Open Gate/La Strada. In addition a shelter in Skopje for trafficking victims provided reproductive health care.

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

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status as men under family, religious, personal status and nationality laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, nationality, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing businesses or property. The laws were effectively enforced. In some communities the practice of men directing the voting or voting on behalf of female family members disenfranchised women.

President Pendarovski signed the comprehensive Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on May 22, 2019, codifying protections for vulnerable groups under one piece of legislation. On May 14, the Constitutional Court repealed the law, due to an inadvertent procedural error in parliament during the law’s 2019 adoption. Parliament readopted the Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on October 27. Appointments to the new Antidiscrimination Commission it creates were pending as of November 3. According to the law, members of the commission will be appointed by a parliamentary select committee made up of two members of the majority, two members of the opposition, and three representatives from civil society.

Nondiscrimination provisions were previously included in a number of separate laws and regulations applicable to various sectors. Those laws remained operable while the Antidiscrimination Law was pending.

No complaints were pending before the ombudsman or Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) for unequal treatment of women in political life as of August 31.

Children

Birth Registration: The law determines citizenship primarily by the citizenship of the parents. It also allows orphans found in the country to obtain citizenship, unless authorities discover before the orphan reaches the age of 18 that his or her parents were foreigners. The government automatically registers the births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions, and the law requires that parents register the births of all children born in other places, including those born at home, with magistrate offices within 15 days of birth. Some Romani families delayed the registration of newborns, making it difficult for them to access educational, medical, and other benefits later in life due to lack of proper identity documents.

Child Abuse: There are laws against child abuse, and penalties for conviction include fines, imprisonment, and closure of businesses. Child abuse was a problem in some areas. The government operated a hotline for domestic violence, including child abuse. At its own initiative, the Ombudsman’s Department for the Protection of Children’s Rights opened a case for the protection of the rights of two persons, of whom one was an 11-year-old child with disabilities, based on media stories of an alleged rape. The review of both complaints continued as of August 20. The ombudsman found evidence indicating domestic violence against children had occurred in five additional cases he reviewed.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. A court may issue a marriage license to persons between the ages of 16 and 18 if it finds them mentally and physically fit for marriage. Early and forced marriage occurred occasionally in the Romani community and, to a much lesser extent, in some Albanian communities. There are no official statistics on minor mothers.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including the offer, sale, or procurement of children for prostitution. The penalty for the commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison. The law prohibits child pornography and provides penalties of five to 15 years in prison for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The country follows the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which any person younger than age 18 is considered a child.

Authorities considered child commercial sexual exploitation a problem but did not know its extent. As of August 17, the Center for Social Work and the Ministry of Interior identified four victims of human trafficking, all of them minors and domestic citizens. Three of them were sexually exploited and one was forced to beg. The country had an online registry, searchable by name and address, of convicted child traffickers and sex offenders that listed photographs, conviction records, and residential addresses. Offenders could ask authorities to remove them from the register 10 years after they completed their sentence, provided they did not commit a new offense. According to the registry, during the year there were six pedophiles serving prison sentences of two to 20 years.

According to the Ministry of Labor, as of the end of August, there were 37 newly registered displaced children of different ethnicities. The ministry funded two day centers for street children, one operated by the Center for Social Work and the other by the NGO Association for Protection of the Rights of the Child in Suto Orizari.

Institutionalized Children: As of August 25, children were housed in small group homes with five to six children per home and 24-hour oversight by social workers and childcare providers. All orphans younger than age three were in foster homes. The Ministry of Labor also took steps to shorten the time required to adopt orphaned or abandoned children. There were no reports of child abuse in these household accommodations.

The ombudsman took the initiative to inspect small group homes and registered cases of rejection and discriminatory treatment of the children living in them by classmates, classmates’ parents, and teaching staff. Schools were receptive to the ombudsman’s recommendations and took corrective action. The ombudsman opened a case related to hospital conditions for treatment of children with severe disabilities, followed by an intervention with the Ministry of Labor, which was fully endorsed and implemented. In another case arising from the inspection, the ombudsman successfully intervened with the ministry to protect the rights of children who were victims or suspected victims of human trafficking.

The ombudsman noted the educational-correctional facility for juveniles in Volkovija-Tetovo, completed in 2016, was still not operational. Juveniles continued to be housed in the penitentiary in Ohrid, which did not fully meet the established criteria for accommodating juveniles and did not provide adequate rehabilitation and medical services.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to the Jewish community, approximately 200 Jewish persons resided in the country. The community reported no violent acts against them but submitted a complaint to the authorities over extreme anti-Semitic content and comments in a Facebook group. This case remained pending in September.

Anti-Semitic speech and incidents in the country occurred rarely and sporadically, usually on social media.

On January 6, political party leaders and academics condemned anti-Semitic comments on social media by supporters of the governing SDSM Party against interim Minister of Labor and Social Policy Rashela Mizrahi. Mizrahi was ultimately dismissed by a majority vote in parliament on February 15 for failure to observe the country’s new constitutional name in her public appearances. Mizrahi stated she had been the target of a “witch hunt that started with anti-Semitic attacks.”

In March the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion, following IHRA’s December 2019 unanimous decision to accept the country’s request to elevate its observer status to a liaison country.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination readopted on October 27 protects the rights of persons with disabilities (physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities), including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

A separate law regulates a special government fund to stimulate employment of persons with disabilities. The Employment Agency managed the fund with oversight by the Ministry of Labor. The fund provided grants for office reconstruction or procurement of equipment for workstations to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The law requires persons with physical or mental disabilities to obtain approval from a government medical commission to serve in supervisory positions in the private and public sectors. The law establishes accessibility standards for new buildings; existing public structures were to be made accessible for persons with disabilities by the end of 2015. NGOs reported many public buildings did not comply with the law. Although all buses purchased since 2013 by the government for Skopje were accessible to persons with physical disabilities, public transportation remained largely inaccessible in other regions.

The Ministry of Education and Science made efforts to provide suitable support to enable children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools. It employed specially trained educators, assigned either to individual selected schools or as “mobile” municipal special educators covering all schools in their municipality, to support teachers who had children with disabilities in their regular classes. Despite these efforts, a large number of students with disabilities continued to attend separate schools. Many of the polling stations in the parliamentary elections, particularly in the rural areas, were inaccessible for persons with disabilities.

As of August 17, the ombudsman received and successfully helped address complaints concerning discrimination against persons with disabilities. For example, he assisted complainants in obtaining due compensation to enroll an autistic child in kindergarten and receive educational support while changing schools.

On January 23, the ECHR delivered a judgment against the country for substantive and procedural violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment) involving inappropriate placement, lack of requisite care, and inadequate diagnosis of an institutionalized minor, as well as an inadequate response in investigating the case. The child had been moved to a small group home with 24-hour care prior to the court’s ruling.

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

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care, and the government enforced such laws. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are legal.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community remained marginalized, and activists supporting LGBTI rights reported incidents of societal prejudice, including hate speech. In January 2019 the ECHR found the country violated the privacy rights, as well as the right to appeal, of a transgender person related to their gender change procedure. The court required the government to pay 9,000 euros ($10,800) in damages to the unnamed applicant. Despite the court ruling, the Civil Status Registry rejected the request, underscoring NGOs’ complaints the government failed to recognize gender identity changes in identification documents. On February 10, the second-instance State Commission quashed the Civil Status Registry decision by expressly invoking the binding nature of ECHR judgments. In October the Civil Status Registry enforced the judgement and entered the gender identity change in the official books as requested by the plaintiff.

The Ministry of Labor and the CSO Sexual and Gender Minorities Association Subversive Front trained 325 civil servants from 82 public institutions on addressing discrimination and hate speech. The training survey results report showed better knowledge and skills among the civil servants in tackling discrimination and hate speech based on ethnic origin, religious affiliation, and political beliefs than on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and health status.

On June 27 and 28, the Ministry of Labor, in partnership with the Council of Europe and CSO Subversive Front, organized the first-ever state-organized national conference on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons in the country. The conference gathered national, regional, and European institutional actors and civil society organizations and aimed to increase the state’s commitment to improving LGBTI rights. This resulted in the development and adoption of a national action plan on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons.

The ombudsman received one complaint from an NGO referring to discrimination based on gender identity in the education process regarding a textbook used in high schools. The Ministry of Education acted upon the recommendation of the ombudsman.

Violence against members of the LGBTI community remained an issue. Prominent LGBTI activist Beqim Asani was attacked August 5 in downtown Tetovo, while in his car with four other members of his organization. When his and another car got into each other’s way, Asani took off his mask to speak and upon recognizing him, the passenger in the other car referred to him with an epithet, got out of the car, and punched Asani through the open car window. This was the second physical attack against Asani that he reported to the authorities. A criminal investigation into a June 2019 attack on Asani was still pending as of August.

In June the second Skopje Pride parade was held virtually. State representatives participated in online discussions, addressing the issues relevant to LGBTI rights and status, including the repealed antidiscrimination law and the ways in which the 2020 health crisis affected the lives of LGBTI persons. Skopje Pride 2020 garnered significant hate speech based on sexual orientation and gender identity. CSO Subversive Front filed five criminal complaints about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)-based hate speech with the PPO in July 2020.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

CSO Subversive Front reported two cases of intersectional discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status in access to health care, and one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status at the workplace. The victim in the latter case was fired when his employer stated his HIV diagnosis was a threat to the health of his colleagues and that he was endangering their working conditions. Subversive Front chose not to report these cases to the authorities due to prior negative experiences. Staff feared victims’ privacy would be violated and their HIV status disclosed and cited the poor implementation of the few laws and policies protecting LGBTI persons as contributing to their decisions.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Trade unions are based on voluntary membership, and activities are financed by membership dues. Approximately 22 percent of employees are union members.

Union representatives, with the exception of a few branch unions, claimed they were generally not free from the influence of government officials, political parties, and employers.

The law requires federated unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and with the State Central Registry.

A court of general jurisdiction may terminate trade union activities at the request of the registrar or competent court when those activities are deemed to be “against the constitution and law.” There are no nationality restrictions on membership in trade unions, although foreign nationals must have a valid work permit and be employed by the company or government body listed on the permit. Although legally permitted, no unions operate in the free economic zones.

The government and employers did not always respect freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to collective bargaining. Unions cited as evidence the law’s “exclusionary” provision, which allowed employers to terminate up to 2 percent of workers from collective bargaining negotiations during a strike. Collective bargaining is restricted to trade unions that represent at least 20 percent of the employees and employers’ associations that represent at least 10 percent of the employers at the level at which the agreement is concluded (company, sector, or country). Government enforcement resources and remediation were inadequate. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other laws involving the denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were generally subject to lengthy delays.

During the year the Ministry of Labor did not receive any complaints regarding violations of the right to union organization and freedom of association. Workers often feared reprisal and refrained from filing complaints directly with the Ministry of Labor. Where applicable, workers would sometimes have unions file complaints on their behalf.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government largely enforced applicable laws. The law prescribes imprisonment, which applies to violations of forced labor laws or for the destruction or removal of identification documents, passports, or other travel documents. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes. There were instances in which women and children were subjected to forced labor, such as peddling small items in restaurants and bars, and sexual exploitation. Some Romani children were subject to forced begging, often by relatives (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The government has established laws and regulations related to child labor, including prohibiting the worst forms of child labor. The government made efforts to enforce the law in the formal economy but did not do so effectively in the informal economy. Gaps exist in the country’s legal framework to protect children adequately from labor abuses, including the worst forms of child labor, and the minimum age for work. The minimum age for employment is 15. Children may begin work at 14 as apprentices or as participants in official vocational education programs, cultural, artistic, sports, and advertising events. The law prohibits employing minors younger than age 18 in work that is detrimental to their physical or psychological health, safety, or morality. It also prohibits minors from working at night or more than 40 hours per week.

The Ministry of Labor’s Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing laws regulating the employment of children. Police and the ministry, through centers for social work, shared responsibility for enforcing laws on child trafficking, including forced begging. The government did not effectively enforce the law, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

There were no reports of children younger than age 18 unlawfully engaged in the formal economy. During inspections at some family-run businesses, the State Labor Inspectorate noted minor children assisting in the work, most commonly in family run handicrafts and retail businesses, as well as on farms.

Child labor occurred in agriculture, domestic work, and in bars and nightclubs. Some children in the country engaged in forced begging, cleaning windshields, scavenging, or selling cigarettes or other small items in open markets, on the street, or in bars and restaurants at night. Although the necessary laws were in place, government efforts to eliminate forced begging by children were largely ineffective. Children involved in these activities were primarily Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian and most often worked for their parents or other family members. Despite enforcing legal remedies, such as temporary removal of parental rights, criminal charges, and revoking parental rights of repetitive offenders, officials were largely ineffective in preventing this continuous practice, and Romani children remained vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor.

The Ministry of Labor runs a call center where child abuse can be reported, and most reports referred to cases of street begging. The ministry also funded two day centers that provided education, medical, and psychological services for children who were forced to beg on the street.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations generally prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, health status, political opinion, religion, age, national origin, language, or social status. The law does not specifically address discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status but does refer to the health status of employees. The government did not always enforce the laws effectively, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other laws related to civil rights.

Despite government efforts and legal changes for mandatory inclusion in primary and high school education, Roma continued to live in segregated groups without proper health and social protection, mostly due to lack of registration documents. Data from the national employment agency showed that due to low participation in the education system, particularly higher education, Roma generally had difficulties finding jobs in the formal economy. Women’s wages lagged behind those of men, and few women occupied management positions. Per Articles 131 and 160 of the Labor Relations Law, women are prohibited from working in certain “high risk” and “physically demanding” positions in the mining and construction industries. The government made efforts to prevent discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace for persons with disabilities.

The Office of the Ombudsman reported some progress in improving the representation of smaller nonmajority communities in public administration working-level ranks, but not at the managerial level.

During the year the ombudsman received two complaints regarding employment discrimination on ethnic grounds and determined that one of the two cases represented a bona fide case of discrimination.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law does set a minimum wage in all sectors, which is below the poverty income level.

Although the government set occupational safety and health standards for employers, those standards were not enforced in the informal sector.

The total number of labor inspectors was considered adequate to investigate violations of labor law. Labor inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Inspections, however, were not adequate to ensure compliance, due, in part, to an inadequate regional distribution of inspectors.

The law establishes a 40-hour workweek with a minimum 24-hour rest period, paid vacation of 20 to 26 workdays, and sick-leave benefits. Employees may not legally work more than an average of eight hours of overtime per week over a three-month period or 190 hours per year. According to the collective agreement for the private sector between employers and unions, employees in the private sector have a right to overtime pay at 135 percent of their regular rate. In addition the law entitles employees who work more than 150 hours of overtime per year to a bonus of one month’s salary.

During the year the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Inspectorate filed complaints against several businesses for forcing employees to work long hours without the rest breaks required by law; nonpayment of salaries, benefits, and overtime; and cutting employees’ vacation. Violations in wage and overtime were most common in the textile, construction, railroad, and retail sectors.

Minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards were not effectively enforced. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other similar crimes. Many employers hired workers without complying with the law, and small retail businesses often required employees to work well beyond legal hourly limits. During the year the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health was not fully functional and played only an advisory role. While workers have the legal right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their future employment, employers did not always respect this right, reportedly due to the high unemployment rate.

In a whole-of-government response to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the government adopted a series of economic and social measures to help both businesses and employees. The measures were wide ranging and included instituting physical distancing measures in workplaces, providing subsidies to private-sector businesses to retain their employees, and allowing one parent of children up to age 10 to stay home without financial penalty.

As of June 30, the State Market Inspectorate received more than 7,000 complaints alleging violations of workers’ rights in relation to the government’s COVID-19 relief measures and other workplace violations and conditions, most of which came from the textile and food-processing sectors. The largest number of complaints, (28 percent) alleged employers violated the government’s order to excuse parents with children up to age 10 from work while schools and childcare facilities were closed.

Civil society organizations, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Reactor Research in Action, reported on business noncompliance with the government’s pandemic measures. Examples included businesses forcing employees to use sick leave while they were entitled to administrative leave, failing to pay salaries, and threatening employees with termination if they failed to return to work. In cases of termination during the pandemic, Reactor Research documented different treatment of male and female workers. Men were usually fired, while women were often forced to sign documents terminating their contracts. In these cases these women were then ineligible for state benefits because the record indicated they had left their employment of their own free will.

In July the Public Revenue Office (PRO) disclosed that hundreds of employers who received financial support from the state to pay salaries during the COVID-19 state of emergency failed to transfer the money to their employees. PRO Director Lukarevska said 281 employers were cited in April and 427 in May. The government published a list of the companies that abused the financial assistance and updated it as employers fulfilled their obligations to their employees.

According to data from the Macedonian Occupational Safety Association, there were 25 workplace fatalities and 153 workplace injuries in 2019. Most of the accidents resulting in casualties occurred in the category of household activities, which included farming and use of agricultural equipment, followed by the construction sector.

Serbia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Serbia is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy, led by a president. The country held extraordinary elections for seats in the unicameral National Assembly (parliament) on June 21 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated the country efficiently organized the June 21 elections in difficult circumstances, but the dominance of the ruling party, the opposition parties’ lack of access to the media, and the lack of media diversity overall limited voters’ choice. A coalition led by President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party won an overwhelming majority with more than 60 percent of the vote. The Republic Electoral Commission ruled that elections had to be rerun in 234 of 8,253 municipalities–an unusually high number–due to calculation errors in the voting and other confirmed irregularities. In 2017 Vucic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round. International observers stated that the 2017 presidential election was mostly free but that campaigning ahead of these elections was tilted to benefit the ruling party.

The national police maintain internal security and are under the control of the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists; numerous acts of government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities; and crimes, including violence, targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, both in the police force and elsewhere in the government, following public exposure of abuses. Nevertheless, many observers believed numerous cases of corruption, social and domestic violence, attacks on civil society, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There was no specialized governmental body to examine killings at the hands of the security forces. The Security Information Agency and the Directorate for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions examined such cases through internal audits.

Throughout the year media reported on the 1999 disappearance and presumed killing of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, three Kosovar-American brothers taken into custody by Serb paramilitary groups and buried on the grounds of a police training center commanded by Goran Radosavljevic. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, stated in a letter to the government in March that the country “has an obligation under international humanitarian law and domestic legal instruments to investigate the criminal responsibility of commanders and superiors, including [police commander] Goran Radosavljevic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, for the killing of the Bytyqi brothers.” The government made no significant progress toward providing justice for the victims, and it was unclear to what extent authorities were actively investigating the case. Criminal proceedings on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Srebrenica-Kravica case) continued, with three hearings held during the year.

Criminal investigations and proceedings related to wartime atrocities in the 1990s were largely stagnant. Hearings that occurred often resulted in further delays and limited tangible progress, according to independent observers.

b. Disappearance

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

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

Although the constitution prohibits such practices, police routinely beat detainees and harassed suspects, usually during arrest or initial detention with a view towards obtaining a confession, notwithstanding that such evidence is not permissible in court. In its most recent 2018 report on the country, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which had visited Serbia regularly since 2007, stated: “The Serbian authorities must recognize that the existence of ill-treatment by police officers is a fact; it is not the work of a few rogue officers but rather an accepted practice within the current police culture, notably among crime inspectors.”

In July, 11 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) sent an urgent appeal to the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment demanding the rapporteur’s intervention with Serbian authorities to investigate police brutality during antigovernment protests throughout the country. NGOs reported excessive, unjustified, and illegal force against protesters, including journalists, by police and other unidentified persons allegedly from informal criminal groups closely linked to the Ministry of Interior. The ombudsman initiated an investigation of police actions and concluded police did not use excessive force against participants except in several individual cases, which were to be further investigated. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR) filed two criminal charges against police for actions during the protests.

On International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the ombudsman claimed that there was no systemic torture in the country and that efforts continued to improve the protection of arrested and detained persons’ rights and prevent torture and other types of abuse. The ombudsman highlighted that articles of the criminal code need to be conformed to the definition of torture in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The BCHR stated the “practice of courts and public prosecutors was to, without exception, show more trust in depositions of police and other officials than those of citizens who claim to have suffered torture and those who testified” and warned that most criminal charges filed by victims of torture and abuse against officials were rejected and very few resulted in convictions.

Police corruption and impunity remained problems, despite some progress on holding corrupt police officials accountable. During the year experts from civil society noted the quality of police internal investigations continued to improve.

In the first nine months of the year, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector of Internal Control filed five criminal charges against six police officers due to reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime of abuse and torture. During the same period, the ministry’s Internal Control Office filed 115 criminal charges and three annexes against 127 officers and civilian employees of the ministry.

The government was less effective when high-level police officials were accused of criminal wrongdoing. In these cases, criminal charges rarely reflected the seriousness of the offense and were often filed after lengthy delays. For example, in 2008 rioters attacked and set fire to a foreign diplomatic mission that supported Kosovo’s independence. In 2018, following a 10-year lapse, charges were filed against five high-level police officials, three of whom had since retired, who were charged with failing to protect the mission, endangering public safety, and abusing their offices. Three hearings in this case were held throughout the year.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were sometimes harsh due to physical abuse and overcrowding.

Physical Conditions: Physical abuse by police and prison staff occurred, and there were reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year. According to the Ministry of Justice, prison capacity was 10,543 inmates; the average prison population decreased from 11,077 in December 2019 to 10,543 in September 2020.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. In two cases, employees were disciplined for excessive use of force against prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: Independent monitoring of prison conditions is allowed under the law, and the government provided access to independent monitors. The ombudsman and members of National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture visited and monitored prisons in Belgrade, Sombor, Kragujevac, Krusevac, Sremska Mitrovica, Pancevo, and Nis. They expressed concern related to prison staff shortages, lack of training for staff regarding special categories of prisoners, and implementation of Istanbul Protocols for health protection and material conditions of prisons.

Improvements: Although prisons remained overpopulated, construction of new prisons and wider use of alternative sanctions (for example, conditional release, community service, house arrest, and other measures) reduced overcrowding. New prison facilities were being constructed and renovated in Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica, Leskovac, and Pozarevac. In its June Serbia 2020 Report related to EU enlargement, European Commission (EC) staff observed that several prisons, including the prison hospital in Belgrade, continued to be renovated and modernized in line with the national strategy for reducing overcrowding in penal institutions.

During the year the government purchased 1,995 electronic surveillance devices to facilitate sentences of house arrest, a two-fold increase over similar purchases in 2019. Courts increasingly tended to issue alternative sentences of house arrest, in lieu of incarceration, to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The government generally observed these requirements. Despite improvements to pretrial procedures, prolonged pretrial confinement remained a problem.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Law enforcement authorities generally based arrests on warrants issued by a prosecutor or a judge. The constitution states that police must inform arrested persons of their rights immediately at the time of arrest, and authorities generally respected this requirement. Police may not question suspects without informing them of their right to remain silent and have counsel present. A prosecutor can elect to question a suspect or be present during police questioning. Statements given by suspects to police without a prosecutor present are admissible evidence only if given in presence of a defense attorney.

The law requires a judge to approve pretrial detention lasting longer than 48 hours, and authorities generally respected this requirement. The law provides alternatives to pretrial detention such as house arrest or bail, although in practice prosecutors and judges applied pretrial detention. The most frequently used alternative was house arrest, with or without electronic monitoring. Authorities generally allowed family members to visit detainees. The law allows for indefinite detention of prisoners deemed a danger to the public because of a mental disability.

Detainees can obtain access to counsel at the government’s expense only if they are charged with offenses that carry a possible prison sentence of at least three years and establish that they cannot afford counsel or if the law specifically requires it for that type of case and circumstances. For offenses with sentences of eight or more years, access to counsel is mandatory. Detainees who are eligible for social welfare qualify for free legal aid regardless of the seriousness of the charge they face.

The law prohibits excessive delays by authorities in filing formal charges against suspects and in conducting investigations. Authorities may hold suspects detained in connection with serious crimes for up to six months before indicting them. By law investigations should conclude either within six months or within 12 months in cases of special jurisdiction (organized crime, high corruption, and war crimes). If a prosecutor does not conclude an investigation within six months, or within 12 months in cases of special jurisdiction, the prosecutor is required to inform the higher-level prosecutor’s office, which is then required to undertake measures to conclude the investigation. In practice investigations often lasted longer because there were neither clear timelines for concluding investigations nor any consequences for failing to meet prescribed deadlines.

Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem. The average length of detention was not reported and could not be reliably estimated. Courts are generally obliged by law to act with urgency when deciding on pretrial detention. The constitution and laws limit the length of pretrial detention to six months, but there is no statutory limit to detention once the defendant is indicted. There is also no statutory limit for detention during appellate proceedings. Due to inefficient court procedures, some of which are legally required, cases often took extended periods to come to trial. The law provides a right to request compensation for the time spent in wrongful detention, i.e., pretrial detention during trials that ended in acquittal. Media reported that every year courts imposed approximately 50,000 days of wrongful detention and the amount of compensation paid to suspects who face wrongful detention exceeded one million euros ($1.2 million). In April the Ministry of Justice reported 150 individuals had been placed in pretrial detention due to violation of COVID-19 self-isolation measures. There were concerns regarding the lawfulness of such detention because it was based on a recommendation by the Ministry of Justice that prosecutors request pretrial detention in these cases.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but courts remained susceptible to corruption and political influence. Civil society contacts and international organizations such as the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) criticized the slow pace of constitutional reforms aimed at reducing political influence over the judiciary, the High Judicial Council, and the State Prosecutorial Council. The State Prosecutorial Council’s commissioner for autonomy examined more than 40 cases of alleged inappropriate political influence and issued several advisory opinions. The High Judicial Council expressed concern that 74 courts in the country operated under acting presidents.

The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that political pressure on the judiciary remained a concern. The report stated that government officials and members of parliament continued to comment publicly about ongoing investigations, court proceedings, or on the work of individual judges and prosecutors.

Regional cooperation on war crimes was limited. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report pointed out that bilateral cooperation protocols on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide between the Public Prosecutor’s Office and its counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro contributed to reducing impunity for war crimes. Cooperation with Croatia, however, faced numerous obstacles and had not led to concrete results. Mutual judicial cooperation between the country and Kosovo, meanwhile, was extremely limited in war crimes cases. The implementation of the 2016 National Strategy for Processing of War Crimes continued at a slow pace, and no preparations were undertaken to create a new strategy when the current one expired at the end of the year. Serbian authorities continued to provide support and public space to convicted or suspected war criminals and were slow to respond to hate speech or the denial of war crimes.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

The constitution and laws grant defendants the presumption of innocence. Authorities must inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free translation throughout criminal proceedings, if necessary. Defendants have a right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, although authorities may close a trial to the public if the trial judge determines it is warranted for the protection of morals, public order, national security, the interests of a minor, the privacy of a participant, or during the testimony of a state-protected witness.

Lay judges sit on the trial benches in all cases except those handled by the organized crime and war crimes authorities. Defendants also have the right to have an attorney represent them, at public expense, when a defendant lacks resources to acquire representation and one of two conditions is met: either the crime is punishable by three or more years of imprisonment and the defendant cannot afford a defense attorney, or a defense attorney is mandatory under the law. Defendants and attorneys are generally given ample time and sufficient facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to be present at their own trials, access government evidence, question witnesses, present their own witnesses and evidence, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both the defense and the prosecution have the right to appeal a verdict.

The government generally respected these rights. Some defendants complained about not being able to present evidence in court and not being able to depose witnesses. During the government’s COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency, there was concern regarding fair procedures for trials that utilized video links at the Ministry of Justice’s recommendation and expedited sentencing for individuals accused of violating self-isolation measures.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution grants individuals the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court regarding an alleged violation of human rights. In addition to ruling whether a violation occurred, the court can also issue a decision that can serve as grounds for seeking restitution. The government generally respected decisions rendered by the Constitutional Court. Once all avenues for remedy in the domestic courts are exhausted, citizens may appeal cases involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place, and NGOs and advocacy groups reported the government made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens.

In accordance with the country’s participation in the Terezin Declaration, in 2016 parliament adopted a law on the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust. This law allows the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, without restricting the rights of future claimants. The law defines “heirless property” as any property that was not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution under the General Restitution Law. The community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the Jewish community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community in the amount of 950,000 euros ($1.05 million) per year for a 25-year period; the government made four payments since 2017.

The claims period under the 2016 law ended in February 2019. The Serbian Agency for Restitution reported that in 2020 it returned more than 2,225 acres of agricultural land and 18,417 square feet of residential objects, such as buildings, business premises, apartments, and garages. Since implementation of the law, 106,530 square feet of residential objects, 4,646 acres of agricultural land, and 4,757 square feet of construction land had been restituted to Jewish communities in Serbia.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, which covers Holocaust-era property restitution, was released publicly on July 29, 2020 and is available on the Department’s website at: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

While the constitution prohibits such actions, there were reports that the government failed to respect prohibitions on interfering with correspondence and communications. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to obtain a court order before monitoring potential criminal activity and police to obtain a warrant before entering property except to save persons or possessions. Police frequently failed to respect these laws.

Human rights activists and NGOs reported a lack of effective parliamentary oversight of security agencies. The extent of government surveillance on personal communications was unknown. Civil society activists and independent journalists alleged extensive surveillance of citizens’ social media posts and of journalists and activists critical of the government.

In April the Share Foundation discovered a publicly available webpage with password information to access a COVID-19 information database with personally identifiable information on individuals who had been tested, treated, placed into isolation, or died of COVID-19. In response the commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection launched a monitoring process on the implementation of the Law on Personal Data Protection.

In September, Danas reported that the Ministry of Interior would use 8,100 cameras for video surveillance in public spaces across the country. Placing these cameras was part of the “Safe Society” project that the Ministry of Interior was implementing with Huawei based on a 2017 agreement between the Ministry of Interior and the Huawei Technologies Company.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms. The Nations in Transit 2020 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded the country from a “semiconsolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime,” citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.” Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of progovernment outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.

Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia, and television stations were heavily dependent on government advertising monies. The largest distributor of paid media content was United Group, which controlled more than 50 percent of the broadband (cable) market, followed by Telecom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm with more than 25 percent of the market. Both firms were vertically integrated and controlled production and distribution of the media content as well as physical infrastructure. This concentration and dependence on government advertising monies strongly benefited incumbents during election periods and made it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters.

Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142). The report noted that these four publications negatively reported on the political opposition and its leaders while reporting positively on President Vucic and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 72 cases during the year in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, physical assaults, and frivolous lawsuits for reputational damage, which had a chilling effect on reporting. In July 2019 authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for criticizing President Vucic on Twitter. In January the High Court of Belgrade sentenced her to six months of suspended imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet was a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict, since she had been imprisoned during the six-month procedure. In September, Internal Affairs Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced he was suing Danas for one million dinars ($10,000) for reporting eyewitness accounts of violence during antigovernment protests in July. In 2018, two assailants set fire to the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped through a rear window. Jovanovic worked as an investigative journalist for a local news outlet in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka that reported on local corruption. Dragoljub Simonovic, the mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, was indicted for ordering the arson attack. As of September the assailants were yet to be convicted or released as the trial continued. In the meantime Simonovic filed 16 lawsuits against Jovanovic and another journalist for reputational damage based on their reporting about his activities.

Spontaneous violence and threats against journalists also occurred and demonstrated the willingness of nationalistic groups to echo the rhetoric of political leaders while perpetrating violence. Local news and Safe Journalists, a regional press freedom group, reported on July 7 and 8 that demonstrators and police attacked at least 10 journalists who were documenting protests in Belgrade against the government’s decision to reapply restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 1, police arrested Ana Lalic, a reporter for news website Nova.rs, hours after she published a report on the chaotic conditions in a local COVID-19-designated hospital. Authorities held Lalic in custody overnight and charged her with publishing information that could incite panic.

In April 2019, four former members of the security apparatus were sentenced to 100 cumulative years of detention for their role in the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija. Curuvija, a vocal critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed outside his house in Belgrade in 1999. On September 7, the verdict sentencing the four officers for his murder was overturned on appeal. According to the Belgrade Appeals Court, the trial court verdict convicting the men was quashed “due to significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure.” A new trial started October 5.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 15, the government imposed a state of emergency enabling it to introduce a range of restrictive measures aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On March 29, the government adopted a decree, Conclusion on informing the population about the condition and consequences of the infectious disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The decree required all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions to send all COVID-19-related information to the Belgrade-based Pandemic Crisis Team, which would then provide information to the public. In support of government efforts to create a centralized flow of information, the decree warned of the “legal consequences for spreading misinformation during a state of emergency.” Civil society expressed concern regarding efforts to control the flow of information, noting the decision was not in line with the UN and EU recommendations that called for journalists to be allowed to work without obstacles to provide citizens with access to key information. The government ultimately rescinded the decree.

There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues. Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.

Media outlets relied heavily on public funding to stay afloat. Direct government funding to media outlets was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared aimed at supporting entities loyal to the ruling party rather than bolstering independent journalism. In June the Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body, issued a report, Cofinancing of Media that Violates Ethical Standards. The paper noted that during 2019 the state disbursed more than 2.1 billion dinars ($21.5 million) to media. The Press Council assessed that “local media [recipients], with rare exceptions…became the mouthpiece of officials and ruling parties.” The council stated that funds intended to support truthful reporting and impartiality in the media had become “a reward for obedience and praise of authorities.”

Government representatives continued to receive far more media coverage than opposition politicians. The law mandates equal coverage during campaign periods, but the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) often considered campaign-style rallies by government officials to be official activities and therefore outside the scope of the law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended the REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment before, during, and after electoral campaigns and thereby effectively denying the political opposition access to the media.

Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. NGOs and their employees received frequent threats; these threats often mirrored or amplified the rhetoric employed by public figures on social media and were often targeted by distributed denial of services attacks to take their websites offline.

Internet Freedom

There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.

Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year, including the source and destination of a communication; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies may access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.

On April 2, Twitter announced that “toward the end of 2019, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity that led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights in some cases. The platform Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia continued to register and report cases of alleged violations of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected the right. The law obliges protesters to apply to police for a permit, providing the exact date, time, and estimated number of demonstrators. Police generally issued a permit if a protest was not likely to disturb the public or public transportation; otherwise, police consulted with city authorities before issuing a permit. Higher-level government authorities decided whether to issue permits for gatherings assessed as posing high-security risks.

Large assemblies, including antigovernment protests, occurred throughout the year. On July 7, spontaneous protests broke out in downtown Belgrade in response to the announcement of possible COVID-19-related quarantines. Media and observers reported that some fringe individuals and groups among the larger group of protesters attempted to stoke violence and attack police, including by attempting to gain entry to parliament. At least one police action–caught on video and made viral on social media–showed police using disproportionate force on a protester who had fallen to the ground. Human Rights House stated the police response during the protest contained “elements of serious violations of freedom of assembly.” The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations (CSOs) opposed the law because it establishes penalties and fines for organizers of unauthorized assemblies to a point where organizations considered it overly restrictive of the right to free assembly established in the constitution. The law gives the government broad authority to identify organizers and impose misdemeanor sanctions or fines against individuals or organizations. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, the country lacked secondary legislation to implement fully the law on freedom of assembly.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.

All companies continued to pay mandatory annual membership to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. In 2017 the Association for Protection of Constitutionality and Legality filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, asserting that mandatory membership was against the constitution. In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory membership in the chamber was constitutional.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The law provides protection to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but implementation fell short in some areas. According to data from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM), 196,995 displaced persons from Kosovo resided in the country during the year. These displaced persons were predominately Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma, Egyptians, Ashkali, Gorani, and Bosniaks who left Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, because of the 1998-99 war. Of these displaced persons, SCRM considered more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance, because they met one or more of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) vulnerability criteria. This included households that had income below the poverty line; persons living in undignified conditions; persons with mental or physical disabilities; single parents; and elderly persons, women, and children or adolescents at risk.

According to UNHCR research, the 20,000 displaced Roma were the most vulnerable and marginalized displaced population in the country. The most vulnerable lived in informal settlements without access to basic infrastructure, electricity, water, and sanitation and were in constant fear of forced evictions. Internally displaced Roma had a 74 percent unemployment rate, and 98 percent of displaced Romani households were unable to satisfy basic nutritional needs or pay for utilities, health care, hygiene, education, and local transport. According to UNHCR, almost 90 percent of displaced Roma lived in substandard housing, and the vast majority