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Armenia

Executive Summary

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

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes applied to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence, although authorities did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in such cases and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to some NGOs representatives, in cases when a woman alleged rape, she was sometimes questioned about her previous sexual experience and subjected to a “virginity test.” In a few cases, if the rape victim was not a virgin, police would dismiss the allegation as unimportant. A majority of domestic violence cases were considered under the law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for field work to address these crimes.

Between 2010 and 2017, the NGO Coalition to Stop Violence against Women recorded the killing of 50 women by an existing or former partner or by a family member. Information on enforcement actions regarding these killings was unavailable by year’s end. In a high profile case, on November 12, 20-year-old Kristine Iskandaryan was beaten to death by her husband. After police learned her husband previously had battered her he confessed and was detained. In the first six months of the year, nine women were killed under such circumstances, but no information became available about whether their cases were investigated.

The Investigative Committee reported investigating 258 cases of domestic violence in the first half of the year, up from 215 in the same period in 2017. Most of the cases were of women abused by a husband or male domestic partner. During the same period, 259 persons were recognized as victims of domestic violence, of which 33 were minors.

NGOs that promoted women’s rights were criticized mostly online for breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.”

On July 1, the December 2017 Law on Prevention of Family Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Family Violence, and the Restoration of Family Cohesion went into effect. In a March 29 letter to the government, two UN special rapporteurs and a UN working group expressed concerns about the law, including that it is not strong enough to protect those facing domestic violence and that a number of its provisions could contravene the right of women victims of violence to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and could hinder their right to justice and to effective remedies for the harm they had suffered.

According to NGOs, the government lacked resources for the full implementation of the law. Police officers began a training program but did not have adequate training or will to apply the law to perpetrators. There was only one shelter for victims, which did not have the capacity to serve all victims. After the May change in government, NGOs reported the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs took concrete steps to increase cooperation, such as such as funding a second shelter in one of the regions and allowing NGOs to post information on its website.

Several members of parliament continued to voice disapproval of the law, with Tsarukyan bloc member Gevorg Petrosyan calling it an instrument that could be used by “freedom loving women” to get rid of their husbands and “fulfil their fantasies outside of the family.”

Some female politicians, as well as human rights and environmental activists, were subject to gender-biased posts and discriminatory comments in social media.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

On February 13, Marina Khachatryan, a Yerevan city council member from the opposition Yerkir Tsirani (Apricot Land) party, brought a glass filled with a sample of sewer water that was leaking from the Nubarashen prison into a residential area to a council session. Khachatryan attempted to present the sewer water to then mayor Taron Margaryan to raise awareness of city residents’ complaints that the sewage was harming their community. At Margaryan’s instigation, however, other male council members and staff assaulted Khachatryan, beating and manhandling her while threatening her and using sexual insults. Members of the then ruling Republican Party of Armenia said the response was justified and did not condemn the violence. Law enforcement bodies opened a criminal investigation.

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

Discrimination: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation and employment. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government.

The government took no tangible action on a 2015 World Bank study that examined teaching materials and textbooks of high school classes and found the books gave strong preference to men in all forms of representation, including texts and illustrations, while women were less visible or portrayed in stereotypical way.

According to the World Bank 2016 Armenia Country Gender Assessment, the labor market participation gap between men and women was approximately 17 percent. Despite a significant decline in the difference in earnings between men and women, women still earned on average 36 percent less than men. There were few women leaders in the private sector, including in managerial and entrepreneurial positions.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to the National Statistical Service, the boy to girl ratio at birth decreased from 114 to 100 in 2014 to 110 to 100 in 2017. The law requires doctors to question women on their motives for seeking an abortion and refuse those driven by gender selection concerns.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one or both parents. A centralized system generated a medical certificate of birth to make avoidance of birth registration almost impossible. A low percentage of registered births occurred mainly in Yezidi and Kurdish communities practicing homebirths.

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities lacked access to early learning programs, despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. According to National Statistics Service, in 2017 nationwide preschool enrolment for children younger than five was 29 percent, but only 17 percent for children in rural communities. Many remote rural communities, especially those with population less than 400, did not have preschools. Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. UNICEF expressed concern about the integration into the local community of an increasing number of refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine because of lack of proper support for addressing cultural and linguistic barriers.

According to the Prison Monitoring Group, in the beginning of the year seven juveniles did not have access to education in the Abovyan Penitentiary while they were detained or serving a prison sentence. By December, however, that number had decreased to two.

Child Abuse: According to UNICEF, the lack of official, unified data on violence against children limited the government’s ability to design adequate national responses and preventive measures. There were no official referral procedures for children who were victims of violence, including sexual violence, and referrals were not mandatory for professionals working with children, except for doctors who are required to report any injury of children to police.

The law outlines the roles and responsibilities of police and social services in the early identification and response to violence against children in the family. Although the law went into effect on July 1, the government continued to lack services for victims of domestic violence including women and children.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly more frequent within Yezidi communities, but the government took no measures to document the scale or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for violations. Child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

The UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography noted in a February 2016 report that although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in terms of legislation, training, awareness-raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: According to UNICEF and other observers, institutionalized children were at risk of physical and psychological violence by peers and by staff. According to a February 2017 Human Rights Watch report, government policies on deinstitutionalization and inclusive education did not provide rights and benefits to children with disabilities on an equal basis with other children and were discriminatory.

In December 2017 the family code was amended to allow for more family-based alternatives for institutionalized children, such as diversification of foster care and improved provisions on adoption; the amendments entered into force in the middle of the year, resulting in a quadrupling in state funding for foster care. Transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care also continued. With the exception of children with disabilities, the number of institutionalized children continued to decrease.

UNICEF expressed concern about inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children with intellectual and/or psychosocial disabilities in specialized institutions, as well as neglect and the use of physical restraints as means of treatment and punishment. There was also concern about the inefficiency and inadequacy of the complaints systems and the lack of monitoring of institutions. There were reports on social media that the government’s closure of boarding schools without the timely establishment of proper alternative social care services and provision of basic necessities jeopardized children’s well-being and access to education.

According to the NGO United Methodist Committee on Relief, deinstitutionalized children in the country were more at risk of being involved in forced begging, forced labor, and trafficking and of being subjected to violence at home. The NGO relayed at least one case where a deinstitutionalized child was forced to beg by his stepfather. The NGO Coalition to Stop Violence against Women reported that, after a child was placed with a host family, the government ceased any real oversight over the child and the family.

In one Yezidi-populated village, parents complained of discrimination by school teachers and a principal toward their children. They also alleged that the school principal and teachers (who were not ethnically part of the Yezidi community) failed to provide children with quality, public education and reportedly used ethnic slurs against the Yezidis.

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.html.

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts, although after the “velvet revolution” some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not respond to these slurs.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but discrimination remained a problem. The law and a special government decree require both new buildings and those under renovation, including schools, to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Very few buildings or other facilities were accessible, even if newly constructed or renovated. Many public buildings, including schools and kindergartens, were inaccessible. This inaccessibility also deterred persons with disabilities from voting, since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections. According to the OSCE/ODIHR election observation report on the December 9 snap parliamentary elections, 71 percent of polling stations observed were not accessible to persons with physical disabilities or reduced mobility.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, many children with disabilities remained in segregated educational settings and did not have access to inclusive education. Many NGOs reported schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools. In addition, teachers did not receive adequate training on inclusive education.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities but prior to May failed to carry out this mandate effectively. For example, in September 2017, the government approved a decision to issue vouchers to persons with disabilities to purchase hearing aids and wheelchairs, instead of providing the actual devices. There were reports, however, the vouchers failed to cover the market price of hearing aids and wheelchairs, resulting in financial strain on the persons who needed them.

Persons with all types of disabilities experienced discrimination in every sphere, including access to health care, social and psychological rehabilitation, education, transportation, communication, employment, social protection, cultural events, and use of the internet. Lack of access to information and communications was a particularly significant problem for persons with sensory disabilities. Women with disabilities faced further discrimination, including in social acceptance and access to health and reproductive care, employment, and education, due to their gender.

Hospitals, residential care, and other facilities for persons with more significant disabilities remained substandard.

Disability status determines eligibility for various social benefits. Media reports alleged corruption and arbitrary rulings on the part of the Medical-Social Expertise Commission, a governmental body under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that determines a person’s disability status. In 2016, the National Security Service arrested and charged the head of the commission, Armen Soghoyan, and 16 other officials with soliciting bribes. The trial of the case was ongoing as of year’s end.

By the year’s end, the Investigative Committee opened 92 criminal cases for corrupt practices in the social security (including disability pensions) provision offices. The committee brought charges against 50 persons.

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

Antidiscrimination laws do not extend protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no hate crime laws or other criminal judicial mechanisms to aid in the prosecution of crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity negatively affected all aspects of life, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Transgender persons were especially vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse and harassment.

During the year the NGO Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK Armenia) documented 15 cases of alleged human rights violations against LGBTI persons, but only four victims sought help from the ombudsperson’s office and none from law enforcement bodies. Three cases were sent to court; the fourth one was dropped because the perpetrator committed suicide.

On August 14, police arrested a suspect after several transgender individuals called to report being attacked at a public park. The same day, police released a video of the transgender persons trying to attack the suspect, who was under arrest at the police station, with the narrator indicating that the attackers were guilty of violence against the police. The video included the names and photos of the transgender individuals. Police arrested the two transgender persons in the video. According to the arrestees’ statements, six police officers beat them and held them in handcuffs over a 72-hour period they spent at the police station. Police later released one of the transgender persons. On August 16, the second transgender person was taken to Nubarashen Prison. The prison administration subsequently sent a letter to the prosecutor general’s office stating that, upon admission to prison, the detainee had signs of physical abuse on his body. The detainee was charged with hooliganism (punishable by up to seven years in prison) and violence against authorities (punishable by up to five years in prison). According to SIS, it had launched a criminal case on charges of torture against the police officers who had allegedly beaten the transgender person. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

On August 3, while an LGBTI activist was hosting eight friends in his parents’ house in Shurnukh village, a mob of approximately 30 persons attacked them and chased them out of the village, hitting, kicking, and throwing stones at them while yelling insults. Six of the activists were taken to the hospital. The victims reported the attack to police, who opened a criminal case on charges of beating. In December the police dropped the case based on the November Amnesty, although nobody had been charged within the case, although according to PINK Armenia, the names of the perpetrators, allegedly most of the village residents, were known.

On November 6, the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and New Generation NGO announced the cancellation of the Forum of LGBT Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to take place in Yerevan November 15-18. The Forum would have brought participants together for networking, discussions, and prayer. After news leaked about the forum, local and Russia-connected bloggers seized on the information to provoke anti-LGBTI sentiment and issue threats of violence and death against the LGBTI community and forum participants. Police officials met with New Generation to discuss security risks facing the organizers and participants. New Generation subsequently cancelled the forum issuing a statement that read in part, “We are deeply distressed and disappointed that political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people are constituting a genuine threat to the safety of our participants.”

Several international organizations, the Human Rights Defenders Office, and a number of civil society organizations issued statements condemning the violence at Shurnukh. Many more social media posts, however, defended the villagers with messages attacking LGBTI and other minorities. In one Facebook post, Prosperous Armenia parliamentarian Gevorg Petrosyan wrote, “all gays, sectarians, and their defenders should be eradicated from our holy land.”

Openly gay men are exempt from military service. An exemption, however, requires a medical finding based on a psychological examination indicating an individual has a mental disorder; this information appears in the individual’s personal identification documents and is an obstacle to employment and obtaining a driver’s license. Gay men who served in the army reportedly faced physical and psychological abuse as well as blackmail.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. According to a June UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

Venezuela is formally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an increasingly authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government. On May 20, the government organized snap presidential elections that were neither free nor fair for the 2019-25 presidential term. Nicolas Maduro was re-elected through this deeply flawed political process, which much of the opposition boycotted and the international community condemned. His illegitimate next term was scheduled to begin on January 10, 2019. The opposition gained supermajority (two-thirds) control of the National Assembly in the 2015 legislative elections. The executive branch, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to weaken the National Assembly’s constitutional role to legislate, ignore the separation of powers, and enable the president to govern through a series of emergency decrees.

Civilian authorities maintained effective, although politicized, control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by security forces, including colectivos (government-sponsored armed groups); torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; and political prisoners. The government restricted free expression and the press by routinely blocking signals, and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. Libel, incitement, and inaccurate reporting were subject to criminal sanctions. The government used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations. Other issues included restrictions on political participation in the form of presidential elections in May that were not free or fair; pervasive corruption and impunity among all security forces and in other national and state government offices, including at the highest levels; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

The government took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, and there was impunity for such abuses.

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

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, there were credible reports that security forces tortured and abused detainees. There were no reports of any government officials being charged under the law.

The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups reported the government continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No data was available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal.

Press and NGO reports of beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were reported during the year. Cruel treatment frequently involved authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs also published reports that authorities generally mistreated, sexually abused, and threatened to kill detainees.

NGOs detailed reports from detainees whom authorities allegedly sexually abused, threatened with death, and forced to spend hours on their knees in detention centers. Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in government custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, detainees were interrogated by security officials. The executive director of the Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America, Tamara Suju, and human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Gutierrez denounced 357 cases of physical abuse, alleged torture, and violence by security forces against political prisoners before the International Criminal Court. Among the 357 cases, there were 190 allegations of rape or sexual abuse.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure. Armed gangs effectively controlled some prisons in which they were incarcerated. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails.

Physical Conditions: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 51,693 inmates in the country’s 41 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated 33,000 inmates in police station jails in 2017. NGOs reported records for detainees were not properly maintained and often contained incomplete information. According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), the capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent.

There were two women’s prisons, one in Miranda State and the other in Zulia State. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that in practice male and female prisoners intermingled. Security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, even though separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.

The CICPC and police station jails and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A 2017 UVL study of 89 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 432 percent overcrowding. According to the study, more than 80 percent of facilities provided no medical services, recreational areas, designated visiting areas, or laundry facilities. More than 60 percent did not have potable water, and more than 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms.

The GNB and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The government failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with only one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. The OVP reported 173 prisoner deaths and 268 serious injuries in 2016, the most recent year for which information was available. The OVP assessed that 90 percent of prison deaths were violent, resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner altercations, riots, and fires. The OVP reported some inmates also succumbed to the generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons. During the March 2017 renovation of Guarico State’s central prison, the construction team discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave. The case remained under investigation at year’s end but highlighted uncertainty over the true number of annual prison deaths.

During the year prison and detention center riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. For example, on March 28, a fire erupted in an overcrowded police station in Valencia, Carabobo State, killing 66 male prisoners and two female visitors; more than 100 persons received burns in the fire. Media reported that after an argument with a guard, a group of prisoners lit their bed linens on fire. Many NGOs called the fire a massacre, noting some prisoners died from the fire itself, while others died of physical trauma or gunshot wounds.

A 2016 law limiting cell phone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity remained unimplemented. Minister of Penitentiary Affairs Iris Varela admitted communicating with inmates by cell phone immediately before and during the 2017 Puente Ayala prison riot. There were credible reports that Varela may have had a hand in directing the violence, including her own admission to that effect during a media interview.

The UVL reported authorities required family members to provide food for prisoners at police station jails throughout the country due to inadequate provisioning of food by the prison administration. According to a UVL report, in 2017 at least 28 inmates died from complications associated with malnutrition and preventable disease such as tuberculosis. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates.

On February 24, Vista Hermosa prison inmate Alejandro Manuel Mago Coraspe was admitted into a local Bolivar state hospital after he fell ill, apparently from eating poisoned rodents. Vista Hermosa prisoners customarily ate wild birds and rodents to survive, according to Mago Coraspe. After undergoing surgery, he explained to journalists that he customarily killed and cooked rats but had most recently eaten rats he found in the prison garbage that were potentially poisoned. According to reports from Mago Coraspe’s family, prison guards beat him severely upon his return to the prison, allegedly for having spoken to media members. According to media reports, a judge ordered Mago Coraspe to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. Prison authorities disregarded the order, and Mago Coraspe died in prison on April 24.

The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases or from lack of medical care. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules regarding the classification of inmates resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for their medical attention.

Administration: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes or violent uprisings.

Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, but in some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. Prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits to political prisoners. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.

Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers continued to experience lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. Authorities had not approved requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit penitentiary centers and interview inmates in confidentiality since 2013. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, making it punishable by a prison term of eight to 14 years. A man legally may avoid punishment by marrying (before he is sentenced) the person he raped. The law allows authorities to consider alternative forms of punishment, including work release, for those convicted of various crimes, including rape, if they have completed three-quarters of their sentence.

The law criminalizes physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the home or community and at work. The law punishes perpetrators of domestic violence with penalties ranging from six to 27 months in prison. The law requires police to report domestic violence to judicial authorities and obligates hospital personnel to notify authorities when admitting patients who are victims of domestic abuse. Police generally were reluctant to intervene to prevent domestic violence and were not properly trained to handle such cases. The law also establishes women’s bureaus at local police headquarters and tribunals specializing in gender-based violence, and two-thirds of states had specialized courts. The Public Ministry’s Women’s Defense Department employed a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, and other experts who dealt exclusively with cases of femicide, gender-related violence, and other crimes against women.

Many advocates observed there was a lack of public awareness among women regarding resources and support available to prevent and combat domestic violence. The government offered some shelter and services for victims of domestic and other violence, but NGOs provided the majority of domestic abuse support services.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by fines and a prison sentence of one to three years. Although allegedly common in the workplace, sexual harassment cases were rarely reported.

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

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men under the constitution. Women and men are legally equal in marriage, and the law provides for gender equality in exercising the right to work. The law specifies that employers must not discriminate against women with regard to pay or working conditions. According to the Ministry of Labor and the Confederation of Workers, regulations protecting women’s labor rights were enforced in the formal sector, although according to the World Economic Forum, women earned 36 percent less on average than men doing comparable jobs.

The law provides women with property rights equal to those of men.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory. According to UNICEF, 81 percent of children younger than age five were registered at birth, based on 2011 statistics provided by the government.

Child Abuse: According to UNICEF and NGOs working with children and women, child abuse, including incest, occurred but was rarely reported. The government made efforts to detain and prosecute some perpetrators of child abuse. Although the judicial system acted to remove children from abusive households, the press reported public facilities for such children were inadequate. According to NGOs, in many cases children were returned to their homes without proper reintegration measures or follow-up.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for women and men, but with parental consent, the minimum age is 16.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law sexual relations with a minor younger than age 13, with an “especially vulnerable” person, or with a minor younger than age 16 when the perpetrator is a relative or guardian, are punishable with a mandatory sentence of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits the forced prostitution and corruption of minors. Penalties range from 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment in the case of sex trafficking of girls, although the law requires force, fraud, or coercion in its definition of sex trafficking of children. The law prohibits the production and sale of child pornography and establishes penalties of 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Displaced Children: Children’s rights advocates noted an increase of up to 40 percent in the number of children living on the street, compared with 2017, when leading advocates and the press estimated 10,000 children lived on the streets. As parents fled the country’s economic crisis, many left their children behind with family members, many of whom also struggled with the country’s economic downturn. State-run facilities already filled to capacity were unable to support the influx of children in need. The government did not provide additional resources to support these centers, and at least four centers closed in the first quarter of the year due to a lack of resources. Private institutions denounced the government’s refusal to provide subsidized food benefits to support their population. NGOs noted young girls made up close to half of the children living on the streets, a significant increase. The significant shift posed particular challenges for shelters, which historically managed predominantly male populations. With institutions filled to capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions, such as curfew violations, were confined in inadequate juvenile detention centers.

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.html.

Anti-Semitism

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, including anti-Semitism.

The Confederation of Israelite Associations in Venezuela estimated there were 9,000 Jews in the country. Jewish community leaders expressed concern about anti-Semitic statements made by high-level government officials and anti-Semitic pieces in progovernment media outlets. They said government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of President Maduro’s comparing migrant Venezuelans to Jews persecuted by Hitler. The community leaders noted many other anti-Semitic incidents occurred during the year.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, but the government did not make a significant effort to implement the law, inform the public of it, or combat societal prejudice against persons with disabilities. The law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access, but persons with disabilities had minimal access to public transportation, and ramps were almost nonexistent. Many persons with disabilities expressed concerns that public transportation workers often were unwilling to transport them and forced them to find taxis, which were often out of their financial reach and also frequently not equipped to support patrons with disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities also complained they were forced to wait in long lines for services rather than provided preference in line as is afforded by law. Online resources and access to information were generally available to persons with disabilities, although access to closed-captioned or audio-described online videos for persons with sight and hearing disabilities was limited. Separately, leading advocates for persons with hearing disabilities lamented difficult access to public services due to a lack of government-funded interpreters in public courts, health-care facilities, and legal services, as well as a lack of other public accommodations.

The National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, an independent agency affiliated with the Ministry for Participation and Social Development, advocated for the rights of persons with disabilities and provided medical, legal, occupational, and cultural programs. According to the commission, less than 20 percent of persons with disabilities who registered with government health programs were fully employed.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race. The law prohibits all forms of racial discrimination and provides for a maximum of three years’ imprisonment for acts of racial discrimination. As mandated by law, signage existed outside commercial and recreational establishments announcing the prohibition against acts of racial discrimination. Beyond signage the government did little to enforce the laws against discrimination or prosecute cases of discrimination.

There were no reports the government arrested or prosecuted suspects regarding 2017 attacks by demonstrators that killed two Afro-Venezuelan men, despite videos of the attacks circulating widely on social media.

Indigenous People

The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin. The constitution provides for three seats in the National Assembly for deputies of indigenous origin to “protect indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation,” but some indigenous communities had been without representation in the national legislature since the TSJ annulled the 2015 election of Amazonas State’s indigenous representative.

NGOs and the press reported local political authorities seldom took account of indigenous interests when making decisions affecting indigenous lands, cultures, traditions, or allocation of natural resources. Indigenous groups continued to call for faster implementation of the demarcation process.

Indigenous groups and NGOs expressed concern regarding mining in the growing “Arco Minero,” an area that extends between the states of Bolivar and Amazonas. Indigenous communities reported the government developed and expanded mining zones without consulting those native to the region. Armed groups, including Colombian guerrillas, had a considerable presence in the area, increasing the level of violence and insecurity in the communities. There was also an unprecedented influx of diseases, as well as prostitution and other illegal activities, in the mining areas, putting indigenous communities at risk.

Indigenous groups regularly reported violent conflicts with miners and cattle ranchers over land rights. There were reports of harassment, attacks, and forced evictions against indigenous persons living in areas included as part of government mining concessions.

Border disputes with Colombia affected indigenous groups living in border regions. While the president proclaimed indigenous persons on the border could cross freely, there were many reported cases in which movements of indigenous groups were restricted.

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

The constitution provides for equality before the law of all persons and prohibits discrimination based on “sex or social condition,” but it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a TSJ ruling, no individual may be subjected to discrimination because of sexual orientation, but the ruling was rarely enforced.

Credible NGOs reported incidents of bias-motivated violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Reported incidents were most prevalent against transgender individuals. Leading advocates noted that law enforcement authorities often did not properly investigate to determine whether crimes were bias-motivated.

Local police and private security forces allegedly prevented LGBTI persons from entering malls, public parks, and recreational areas. NGOs reported the government systematically denied legal recognition to transgender and intersex persons by preventing them from obtaining identity documents required for accessing education, employment, housing, and health care. This vulnerability often led transgender and intersex persons to become victims of human trafficking or prostitution.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law provides for the equal rights of persons with HIV/AIDS and their families. Nevertheless, leading advocates alleged discrimination against such persons.

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