China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps. There were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives had died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release. For example, in October the government formally confirmed to the United Nations the death of Abdulghafur Hapiz, a Uyghur man detained in a Xinjiang internment camp since 2017. The government claimed Hapiz died in 2018 of “severe pneumonia and tuberculosis.” His daughter said she last heard from Hapiz in 2016; sources reported he disappeared no later than 2017 and was held without charges in an internment camp.
Authorities executed some defendants in criminal proceedings following convictions that lacked due process and adequate channels for appeal. Official figures on executions were classified as a state secret. According to the U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation, the number of executions stabilized after years of decline following the reform of the capital punishment system initiated in 2007. Dui Hua reported that an increase in the number of executions for bosses of criminal gangs and individuals convicted of “terrorism” in Xinjiang likely offset the drop in the number of other executions.
There were multiple reports authorities disappeared individuals and held them at undisclosed locations for extended periods.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. China Human Rights Defenders alleged these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, since families were often not provided information about the length or location of the detention.
The exact whereabouts of Ekpar Asat, also known as Aikebaier Aisaiti, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur, remained unknown. He was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 after participating in a program in the United States and subsequently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
Authorities in Wuhan disappeared four citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, Zhang Zhan, and Fang Bin, who had interviewed health-care professionals and citizens and later publicized their accounts on social media in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in Wuhan. While Li Zehua was released in April, Fang Bin’s and Chen Qiushi’s whereabouts were unknown at year’s end. Zhang Zhan was indicted on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and authorities tried and convicted her on December 28, sentencing her to four years’ imprisonment. She was the first known person to be tried and convicted for her coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been disappeared on multiple occasions, has been missing since 2017.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such harassment.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
In December 2019 human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day. As of December 2020, Ding remained in pretrial detention at Linshu Detention Center in Shandong Province.
Following her June 6 arrest, Zhang Wuzhou was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 22 account reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
In August an attorney for detained human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng reported that Yu had been held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction in June of “inciting subversion of state power” for which he received a four-year sentence. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced to sit in a metal chair for an extended period of time.
On October 22, human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, known for his successful representation of HIV/AIDS discrimination cases, was put into “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Baoji City, Shanxi Province, after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January detention. As of December, Chang was still under these restrictions and denied access to his family and lawyer.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
There was no direct evidence of an involuntary or prisoner-based organ transplant system; however, activists and some organizations continued to accuse the government of forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, including religious and spiritual adherents such as Falun Gong practitioners and Muslim detainees in Xinjiang. An NGO research report noted that public security and other authorities in Xinjiang have collected biometric data–including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types–of all Xinjiang residents between 12 and 65 years of age, which the report said could indicate evidence of illicit organ trafficking. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs. The government continues to claim that it had ended the long-standing practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants in 2015.
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and CCP to investigate corruption, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports (see section 4).
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often life threatening or degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives when allowed to receive them. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
The lack of adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities at times withheld medical treatment from political prisoners. Multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news agencies reported detainees at “re-education” centers or long-term extrajudicial detention centers became seriously ill or died.
Political prisoners were sometimes held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. In some cases authorities did not allow dissidents to receive supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Deaths from beatings occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
In Xinjiang authorities expanded existing internment camps for Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims. In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons to hold detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, these camps focused on “military-style discipline and pervasive political indoctrination of the detainees.” Detainees reported pervasive physical abuse and torture in the camps and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
In August, Qelbinur Sedik, a former teacher at a women’s internment camp, reported approximately 10,000 women had their heads shaved and were forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, injected with unknown substances without their permission, and required to take contraceptive pills issued by a birth-control unit. She reported women were raped and sexually abused on a daily basis by camp guards and said there was a torture room in the camp basement.
In October the government charged Yang Hengjun, an Australian author and blogger who encouraged democratic reform in China, with espionage. He was detained in January 2019 then formally arrested in August 2019. In a September message to his family, Yang said he had been interrogated more than 300 times, at all hours of day and night, for four to five hours at a time.
Administration: The law states letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was implemented. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions, their results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Authorities denied many prisoners and detainees reasonable access to visitors and correspondence with family members. Some family members did not know the whereabouts of their relatives in custody. Authorities also prevented many prisoners and detainees from engaging in religious practices or gaining access to religious materials.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities considered information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities to be a state secret, and the government did not permit independent monitoring.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
The National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI; see section 4) official detention system, known as liuzhi, faced allegations of detainee abuse and torture. Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse is unclear.
Although liuzhi operates outside the judicial system, confessions given while in liuzhi were used as evidence in judicial proceedings. According to 2019 press reports and an August 2019 NGO report, liuzhi detainees were subjected to extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days.
There were no statistics available for the number of individuals in the liuzhi detention system nationwide. Several provinces, however, publicized these numbers, including Hubei with 1,095 and Zhejiang with 931 detained, both in 2019. One provincial official head of the liuzhi detention system stated suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
On January 8, Guangzhou police detained Kwok Chun-fung, a Hong Kong student enrolled at the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, on charges of “soliciting prostitution.” The university issued a statement on January 15 stating that Kwok was under suspicion of soliciting prostitution after being caught in a hotel room with a woman and outlined charges on two additional related offenses that allegedly occurred between November and December 2019. Kwok was cofounder of FindCMed, which provided medical help to injured protesters during Hong Kong’s antigovernment protests. A Hong Kong Baptist University instructor and Kwok’s associates said that the CCP habitually used “soliciting prostitution” as a charge to target opponents since police could detain a suspect administratively without court review. Local media and Kwok’s associates implied his detention was the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government’s retaliation against him for his role in the protests.
In September following her diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, authorities allowed Pu Wenqing, mother of Sichuan-based human rights activist Huang Qi, detained since 2016, to speak to her son in a 30-minute video call, the first contact with her son allowed to her after four years of trying. Pu remained under house arrest with no charges filed as of December. She had been disappeared in 2018 after plainclothes security personnel detained her at a Beijing train station. She had petitioned central authorities earlier in 2018 to release her detained son for health reasons and poor treatment within his detention center.
In a related case, Beijing authorities arbitrarily detained Zhang Baocheng, who had assisted and escorted the elderly Pu Wenqing around Beijing in 2018 as she sought to petition central authorities over her son’s detention. In December 2019 Beijing police charged Zhang, a former member of the defunct New Citizens Movement that campaigned for democracy and government transparency, with “picking quarrels, promoting terrorism, extremism, and inciting terrorism.” A Beijing court convicted him of “picking quarrels” and sentenced him in November to three and one-half years in prison, using his posts on Twitter as evidence against him.
In September, Hursan Hassan, an acclaimed Uyghur filmmaker, was sentenced to 15 years on the charge of “separatism.” Hassan had been held since 2018 arbitrarily without any contact with his family.
Following local resistance to a policy announced on August 26 mandating Mandarin be used for some school courses in Inner Mongolia in place of the Mongolian language, several prominent dissidents were either detained or held incommunicado. Ethnic Mongolian writer Hada, who had already served a 15-year jail term for “espionage” and “separatism” and was under house arrest, was incommunicado as of December. His wife and child’s whereabouts were also unknown. Ethnic Mongolian musician Ashidaa, who participated in protests against the new language policy, was also detained, and family members and lawyers were not permitted to visit him.
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security officials sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed. The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one; is blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill; is a minor; or faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so. Lawyers reported significant difficulties meeting their clients in detention centers, especially in cases considered politically sensitive.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret these provisions.
Under certain circumstances the law allows for residential surveillance in the detainee’s home, rather than detention in a formal facility. With the approval of the next-higher-level authorities, officials also may place a suspect under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases. Human rights organizations and detainees reported the practice of residential surveillance at a designated location left detainees at a high risk for torture, since being neither at home nor in a monitored detention facility reduced opportunities for oversight of detainee treatment and mechanisms for appeal.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious advocates and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political activists and religious adherents, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including commonly a six-month stay in a detoxification center. The government maintained similar rehabilitation centers for those charged with prostitution and with soliciting prostitution.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges, as well as what constitutes a state secret, remained ill defined, and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights advocates. It is unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, commercial activity, and government activity. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports authorities arrested or detained lawyers, religious leaders or adherents, petitioners, and other rights advocates for lengthy periods, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Authorities subjected many of these citizens to extralegal house arrest, denial of travel rights, or administrative detention in different types of extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials, annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang. Security agents took some of those not placed under house arrest to remote areas on so-called forced vacations.
In February a Ningbo court sentenced Swedish citizen bookseller and Hong Kong resident Gui Minhai to 10 years’ imprisonment for “providing intelligence overseas;” the court said Gui pled guilty. Gui went missing from Thailand in 2015, was released by Chinese authorities in 2017, and was detained again in 2018 while traveling on a train to Beijing, initially for charges related to “illegal business operations.” The Ningbo court said that Gui’s PRC citizenship had been reinstated in 2018 after he allegedly applied to regain PRC nationality.
In May, Nanning authorities tried Qin Yongpei behind closed doors, not allowing his lawyer to attend; as of December there was no update on the trial’s outcome. Qin was detained in October 2019 then formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” He remained in Nanning No. 1 Detention Center. His lawyer, who was not allowed to see Qin until shortly before the trial, said Qin had suffered poor conditions in detention–no bed, insufficient food, sleep deprivation, and extreme indoor heat and humidity in the summers. Authorities continued to block Qin’s wife from communicating or visiting him in prison while local police intimidated their daughters. Qin had worked on several human rights cases, including those of “709” lawyers (the nationwide government crackdown on human rights lawyers and other rights advocates that began on July 9, 2015) and Falun Gong practitioners, assisted many indigent and vulnerable persons, and publicized misconduct by high-level government and CCP officials. He was disbarred in 2018 after having practiced law since the mid-1990s. After being disbarred, Qin founded the China Lawyers’ Club to employ disbarred lawyers.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. From 2015 to 2018, authorities held many of the “709” detainees and their defense attorneys in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers. Statistics were not published or made publicly available, but lengthy pretrial detentions were especially common in cases of political prisoners.
At year’s end Beijing-based lawyer Li Yuhan, who defended human rights lawyers during the “709” crackdown, remained in detention at the Shenyang Detention Center; she has been held since 2017 and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Due to her poor health, Li’s attorney submitted multiple requests to Shenyang authorities to release her on medical parole, but each time her request was denied without reason or hearing. Following a January 8 meeting, Li’s lawyer said she was suffering from various medical conditions and applied for bail, but the court rejected her application. Since their January 8 meeting, authorities blocked the lawyer’s access to Li citing COVID-19 concerns. Li’s trial was postponed repeatedly.
On August 14, the Shenyang Tiexi District Court sentenced human rights advocate Lin Mingjie to a total of five years and six months in prison and a 20,000 renminbi (almost $3,000); an appeal was pending at year’s end. Lin had been detained in 2016 for assembling a group of demonstrators in front of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing to protest Shenyang Public Security Bureau Director Xu Wenyou’s abuse of power. In 2018 Lin was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, including time served, and was reportedly released in April 2019, although his attorney had neither heard from him nor knew his whereabouts. In September 2019 police reportedly detained Lin again for “picking quarrels and provoking disturbance.” Police also detained Lin Mingjie’s brother, Lin Minghua, for “provoking disturbance” in 2016. The Tiexi District Court sentenced Lin Minghua to three years in prison. The authorities did not disclose the details of the case, including the types of “disturbance” of which the two brothers were accused.
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions, since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives in an attempt to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In July the United Kingdom broadcasting regulator found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. China Global Television Network faced potential statutory sanctions in the United Kingdom. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
“Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review; remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or on the application of a party to the proceedings, commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations state foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, with the exception of those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of some lawyers who took on sensitive cases, such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In August the Hunan provincial justice department revoked the license for human rights lawyer Xie Yang for his 2017 conviction for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xie said the revocation did not follow proper administrative processes and the complaint against was without proper merits. Xie was a “709” detainee and restarted his law practice soon after his release from prison in 2017.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also state detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients and limited time to review evidence, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
In May labor activists Wu Guijun, Zhang Zhiru, He Yuancheng, Jian Hui, and Song Jiahui were released after being sentenced to suspended jail terms of two to four years in a closed-door trial. They were detained in January 2019 on the charge of “disrupting social order;” according to media Zhang and Wu were prevented from hiring lawyers.
In September, three public interest lawyers–Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three”–were tried without notice to family or their lawyers on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The lawyers worked for Changsha Funeng, an organization that litigated cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws. The details of the trial and its outcome remained unknown as year’s end.
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti and Rahile Dawut; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; and Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent about the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
There were credible reports the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. There also were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse action against specific individuals.
Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In July, the PRC state publication China Daily, which targets foreign audiences, challenged the account of a foreign citizen, Ferkat Jawdat, who was called by his mother in May 2019 after having lost contact with her because she was in an internment camp and urged to stop his activism and media interviews; the article said Ferkat’s mother was “living a normal life in Xinjiang and has regular contact with him.” In July, China Daily also contradicted the 2019 account of another Uyghur individual, Zumrat Dawut, regarding her elderly father’s death, saying he was not detained and interrogated but died in a hospital beside her older brothers and other family members. Relatives of Dawut joined in a video in November 2019 urging her to stop “spreading rumors.” Overseas-based relatives said the PRC government coerced their family members to produce such videos.
In July a Chinese activist living in Australia on a temporary work visa told SBS World News that the government tracked and harassed her and her family in an attempt to silence her. The activist, who goes by Zoo or Dong Wuyuan, ran a Twitter account that made fun of Xi Jinping and previously had organized rallies in memory of Li Wenliang, the doctor who died after being one of the first to warn the world about COVID-19. She reported her parents were taken to a police station in China on a weekly basis to discuss her online activities. A video showed a police officer in the presence of Zoo’s father telling her, “Although you are [in Australia], you are still governed by the law of China, do you understand?”
In September an Inner Mongolian living in Australia on a temporary visa reported receiving a threatening call from Chinese officials stating that he would be removed from Australia if he spoke openly about changes to language policy in China.
Even those not vocal about Xinjiang faced PRC pressure to provide personal information to PRC officials or return to Xinjiang. Yunus Tohti was a student in Egypt when PRC police contacted him through social media, asked when he would return to Xinjiang, and ordered him to provide personal details such as a copy of his passport. Yunus then fled from Egypt to Turkey and later arrived in the Netherlands. Police in Xinjiang called Yunus’ older brother in Turkey, told him they were standing next to his parents, and said he should return to Xinjiang, which he understood to be threat against his parents’ safety. Yunus Tohti subsequently lost contact with his family in Xinjiang and worried that they may have been detained.
Courts deciding civil matters faced the same limitations on judicial independence as criminal courts. The law provides administrative and judicial remedies for plaintiffs whose rights or interests government agencies or officials have infringed. The law also allows compensation for wrongful detention, mental trauma, or physical injuries inflicted by detention center or prison officials.
Although historically citizens seldom applied for state compensation because of the high cost of bringing lawsuits, low credibility of courts, and citizens’ general lack of awareness of the law, there were instances of courts overturning wrongful convictions. Official media reported that in October, Jin Zhehong was awarded 4.96 million renminbi ($739,000) in compensation for 23 years spent behind bars following an overturned conviction for intentional homicide. The Jilin High People’s Court in an appeal hearing ruled the evidence was insufficient to prove the initial conviction. Jin had originally applied for more than 22 million renminbi (three million dollars) in total compensation after he was freed.
The law provides for the right of an individual to petition the government for resolution of grievances. Most petitions address grievances regarding land, housing, entitlements, the environment, or corruption, and most petitioners sought to present their complaints at local “letters and visits” offices. The government reported approximately six million petitions were submitted every year; however, persons petitioning the government continued to face restrictions on their rights to assemble and raise grievances.
While the central government prohibits blocking or restricting “normal petitioning” and unlawfully detaining petitioners, official retaliation against petitioners continued. Regulations encourage handling all litigation-related petitions at the local level through local or provincial courts, reinforcing a system of incentives for local officials to prevent petitioners from raising complaints to higher levels. Local officials sent security personnel to Beijing to force petitioners to return to their home provinces to prevent them from filing complaints against local officials with the central government. Such detentions often went unrecorded and often resulted in brief periods of incarceration in extralegal “black jails.”
In September relatives of Guo Hongwei, a resident of Jilin City, visited him in prison and reported that Hongwei was physically abused, poorly fed, and suffering unfair mistreatment by prison authorities. He was first arrested and jailed in 2004 for engaging in an “economic dispute” with the Jilin Electronic Hospital. After his release, Hongwei complained to authorities regarding the “unjust treatment” he suffered from the courts and others involved in his case, and he petitioned officials to expunge his prison records and allow him to return to his previous employment. His father said Hongwei appealed his case for years after being released, but authorities ignored his request and at times violently beat Hongwei in their attempt to stop him from appealing, leaving him physically disabled and unable to walk. Despite severe harassment by Jilin security authorities, Hongwei continued to press his case with help from his mother. In 2015 Siping city police reportedly arrested Hongwei and his mother Yunling for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “blackmailing the government.” Hongwei was sentenced to 13 years and Yunling to six years and four months in prison. After Yunling and Hongwei were imprisoned, Hongwei’s sister and Yunling’s daughter–Guo Hongying–began to appeal their cases to the authorities. After being detained in 2018, in April 2019 Hongying was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and 18 months for “hindering public affairs.” Yunling was released at the end of 2019; Hongwei and Hongying remained in prison.
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. On May 28, the government passed a new civil code scheduled to enter into force on January 1, 2021, that introduces articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, and other digital communications intended to remain private. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the case for the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province. In June, Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology–including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps–coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, smart city/safe city platforms, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. December media reports said Chinese technology companies developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to create a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help with solving criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system was programmed to understand Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, combined with a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, as well as a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities. In August, Lu Lina, wife of dissident and rights activist Liu Sifang, used Liu’s Twitter account to document how her landlord in Chancheng District, Foshan city, Guangdong Province, under an order from local police, asked her to move out of the apartment. Approximately 10 days prior, her child had been expelled from school. Liu Sifang joined the “Xiamen meeting” at the end of 2019 with other citizen activists and organizers. In January police arrested many of the individuals who attended that meeting. Liu was abroad at year’s end.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location. Although often generically referred to as the country’s “social credit system,” these two systems collect vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. As such, the social credit system often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics.
Although the government’s goal is to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. For example, there were reports in which individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside of the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them about their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Military courts had primary responsibility for investigating whether security force killings were justified and pursuing prosecutions.
The state security forces (SSF) committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in operations against illegal armed groups (IAGs) in the east and in the Kasai region (see section 1.g.). According to the UN Joint Office of Human Rights (UNJHRO), security forces were responsible for at least 225 extrajudicial killings across the country as of June 30. Many of these extrajudicial killings occurred in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri Provinces, where the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) fought the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and other militias, including ethnic militias in the Djugu Territory of Ituri.
The United Nations reported that between March 30 and April 22, Congolese National Police (PNC) officers and members of the military police were responsible for the extrajudicial killing of 66 persons, as well as the injuries of another 74, through excessive use of force related to the crackdown on the political and religious separatist movement Bundu Dia Kongo, also known as Bundu Dia Mayala. In particular UN and other investigators found that on April 22, PNC officers attacked a church in Songololo, Kongo Central Province, filled with Bundu Dia Kongo supporters, killing 15. On April 24, during an operation to arrest Ne Muanda Nsemi, the leader of Bundu Dia Kongo, at his compound in Kinshasa, PNC and Republican Guard clashes with Bundu Dia Kongo supporters resulted in the deaths of at least 33 persons. Following the Kinshasa operations, military prosecutors took steps to investigate whether security forces had committed unjustifiable killings and indicated they would pursue prosecutions. As of October the investigations continued.
Local media reported that on May 21, a PNC officer shot and killed a protester in Beni, North Kivu Province. The victim, Freddy Kambale, a member of the youth activist group “Fight for Change” (LUCHA), was protesting continued insecurity in the region. Police responding to the protest initially stated the march was in violation of national COVID-19-related state of emergency provisions, which prohibited any gatherings larger than 20. Local observers testified that only 20 persons were present at the protest. On July 13, a military court found the police officer in question guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the bodies of three men who washed up in the Lubumbashi River after protests on July 9 bore scarring and mutilations that indicated possible torture. At least one man was alleged to have been in military police custody prior to his death. As of September military justice officials were investigating the case.
Although the military justice system convicted some SSF agents of human rights abuses, impunity remained a serious problem. The government maintained joint human rights committees with the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and used available international resources, such as the UN-implemented technical and logistical support program for military prosecutors as well as mobile hearings supported by international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Military courts convicted some SSF agents of human rights violations. The United Nations reported that as of July 31, at least 85 FARDC soldiers and 32 PNC officers had been convicted of human rights abuses.
IAGs committed arbitrary and unlawful killings throughout the year (see section 1.g.). IAGs recruited and used children as soldiers and human shields and targeted the SSF, government officials, and others. IAGs, including the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renewal (NDC-R) and other groups, were responsible for at least 1,315 summary executions as of June 30, which the UNJHRO described as a “staggering increase” when compared with the 416 killings recorded during the same period in 2019.
There were reports of disappearances attributable to the SSF during the year. Authorities often refused to acknowledge the detention of suspects and sometimes detained suspects in unofficial facilities, including on military bases and in detention facilities operated by the National Intelligence Agency (ANR). The whereabouts of some civil society activists and civilians arrested by the SSF remained unknown for long periods. Despite President Tshisekedi’s promise to grant the United Nations access to all detention facilities, some ANR prisons remained hidden and thus were impossible to access.
UNJHRO reported that on February 22, PNC agents allegedly arbitrarily arrested and illegally detained two men in Kalemie, the capital of Tanganyika Province. The two were arrested on the grounds that they were fighting in public. On February 24, a family member went to the police station to visit the men and was informed that they had escaped. Since the arrest, however, the family had not heard from the two men.
MONUSCO reported that on June 9, a man in Kinshasa was the victim of an enforced disappearance. Prior to his disappearance, the victim reportedly informed a relative of a dispute between himself and a FARDC officer living in Camp Kokolo, a military facility in Kinshasa. As of September a military justice investigation was underway.
IAGs kidnapped numerous persons, generally for forced labor, military service, or sexual slavery. Many of these victims disappeared (see section 1.g.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law criminalizes torture, but there were credible reports the SSF continued to abuse and torture civilians, particularly detainees and prisoners. Throughout the year activists circulated videos of police beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.
Local media reported that on June 13, an ANR agent in Kalemie, Tanganyika Province, arrested and flogged a businessman accused of counterfeiting U.S. currency. The man was summoned to the ANR office five days after making a purchase in a store in Kalemie. The ANR agent allegedly whipped the man’s lower body to force a confession. A photograph of the man circulated on social media showing him bloody with his pants down. The man was hospitalized due to his injuries. In response Human Rights Minister Andre Lite called for an investigation, noting the government had a policy of zero tolerance for torture. As of November the investigation continued.
On July 28, PNC agents in Kisangani, Tshopo Province, arrested three members of the Filimbi citizen movement after they protested the refusal of Tshopo provincial Governor Walle Lufungula to resign after being censured by the provincial legislature. Filimbi and other civil society groups reported they had followed all appropriate legal requirements for organizing a public march. Local human rights defenders reported police tortured and mistreated the Filimbi activists while they were under arrest, with one sent to the hospital following their release on July 30.
Human Rights Minister Andre Lite publicly condemned the governors of Equateur, Mongala, Sankuru, Haut Uele, and Kasai Central Provinces for ordering the torture of political dissidents.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were 30 open allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by Congolese peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, including three from 2019, one from 2018, one from 2017, 18 from 2016, and seven from 2015. As of September the government had not yet provided the accountability measures taken for all 30 open allegations: 17 cases of rape of a child, three cases of sexual assault of or sexual activity with a child, one case of rape of an adult, five cases of transactional sex with an adult, three cases of sexual assault of an adult, and one case of an exploitative relationship with an adult. Impunity among the FARDC for such actions was a problem, though the government continued to make progress in holding security forces accountable for human rights violations and abuses. The ongoing conflict in eastern DRC impeded some efforts at accountability for such actions. The United Nations reported that the military justice system investigated human rights abuses and convicted officers for crimes of sexual violence, murder, arbitrary arrest, and torture.
Impunity among the FARDC for such actions was a problem, though the government continued to make progress in holding security forces accountable for human rights violations and abuses. The ongoing conflict in eastern DRC impeded some efforts at accountability for such actions. The United Nations reported that the military justice system investigated human rights abuses and convicted officers for crimes of sexual violence, murder, arbitrary arrest, and torture.
Conditions in most prisons throughout the country were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. Even harsher conditions prevailed in small detention centers run by the ANR, Republican Guard (RG), or other security forces, which often detained prisoners for lengthy pretrial periods without providing them access to family or legal counsel.
Physical Conditions: Central prison facilities were severely overcrowded, with an estimated occupancy rate of 200 percent of capacity. For example, Makala Central Prison in Kinshasa, which was constructed in 1958 to house 1,500 prisoners, held as many as 8,200 inmates simultaneously during the year. In August 2019 the National Human Rights Council published findings from visits to prisons in each of the country’s 26 provinces in 2018. The council found that all except four prisons were grossly overcrowded and most buildings used for detention were originally built for other purposes. For example, in Kamina, Upper Lomami Province, 244 prisoners were being held in a former train station. In Isiro, Upper Uele Province, 96 men were detained in a beer warehouse. In Bunia, Ituri Province, 1,144 prisoners were held in a former pigsty.
Following the visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in January, the government began an initiative to decongest prisons. That process accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as of June 30, at least 2,843 prisoners had been released.
Authorities generally confined men and women in separate areas but often held juveniles with adults. Women were sometimes imprisoned with their children. Authorities rarely separated pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners.
Serious threats to life and health were widespread and included violence (particularly rape); food shortages; and inadequate potable water, sanitation, ventilation, temperature control, lighting, and medical care. Poor ventilation subjected detainees to extreme heat. Most prisons were understaffed, undersupplied, and poorly maintained, leading to corruption and poor control of the prison population, as well as prison escapes. Local media reported that the Ministry of Justice, which oversees prisons, did not have enough money to pay for food or medical care for inmates. The United Nations reported that through June 30, 89 individuals had died in detention, a 16 percent decrease, compared with 106 deaths recorded in the same period in 2019. These deaths resulted from malnutrition, poor sanitation conditions, and lack of access to proper medical care. Because inmates received inadequate supplies of food and little access to water, many relied exclusively on relatives, NGOs, and church groups to provide them sustenance.
Local human rights organizations reported that during a 30-day period in January, at least 49 inmates in Kinshasa’s Makala Central Prison died of malnutrition and related diseases, with another 69 prisoners in Bukavu, South Kivu Province, and 44 in Goma, North Kivu Province, starving to death between October 2019 and February. On May 3, 20 inmates escaped from the central prison in Watsa, Haut Uele Province, by removing the facility’s roof; in the wake of the incident, the prison director admitted many of the prisoners were suffering from malnutrition.
Directors and staff generally ran prisons for profit, selling sleeping arrangements to the highest bidders and requiring payment for family visits. According to a Deutsche Welle report in May, prisoners in Kasai-Oriental capital Mbuji Mayi’s central prison and at the Ndolo military prison in Kinshasa were subject to gross overcrowding and had to pay prison officials for sleeping space.
IAGs detained civilians, often for ransom. Survivors reported to MONUSCO they were often subjected to forced labor (see section 1.g.).
Administration: Authorities denied access to visitors for some inmates and often did not permit inmates to contact or submit complaints to judicial authorities.
Independent Monitoring: The government regularly allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross, MONUSCO, and NGOs access to official detention facilities maintained by the Ministry of Justice, but it sometimes denied access to facilities run by the RG, ANR, and military intelligence services. COVID-19 prevented internal travel, thus negatively affecting monitoring efforts.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, but the SSF routinely arrested or detained persons arbitrarily (see section 1.e.). IAGs also abducted and detained persons arbitrarily, often for ransom. Survivors reported to MONUSCO they were often subjected to forced labor (see section 1.g.).
By law arrests for offenses punishable if convicted by more than six months’ imprisonment require warrants. Detainees must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours. Authorities must inform those arrested of their rights and the reason(s) for their arrest, and they may not arrest a family member in lieu of the suspected individual. Authorities must allow arrested individuals to contact their families and consult with attorneys. Security officials, however, routinely violated all of these requirements.
While the law provides for a bail system, it generally did not function. Detainees who were unable to pay for a lawyer were rarely able to access legal counsel. Authorities often held suspects incommunicado, including in unofficial detention centers run by the ANR, military intelligence, and the RG, and refused to acknowledge these detentions.
Prison officials often held individuals longer than their sentences due to disorganization, inadequate records, judicial inefficiency, or corruption. Prisoners unable to pay their fines often remained indefinitely in prison (see section 1.e.).
Arbitrary Arrest: Security personnel arrested and detained civil society activists, journalists, and opposition party members and sometimes denied them due process (see sections 1.a., 2.a., and 5). Security forces regularly held protesters and civil society activists incommunicado and without charge for extended periods. The United Nations reported the SSF arbitrarily arrested at least 1,327 persons across the country as of June 30, compared with 2,947 persons during the same period in 2019. Human rights defenders continued to be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention without a fair public trial.
On January 20, Joseph Lokondo, a human rights activist, was arrested for criticizing the governor of Equateur Province, Dieudonne Boloko. He remained in pretrial detention until July 7, when, according to HRW, an appeal court sentenced him to six months in prison for “contempt for a member of the government.” On July 8, Lokondo was released due to time served. During his time in prison, he allegedly suffered from severe illnesses due to the prison conditions and from being assaulted by SSF during his arrest.
Police sometimes arbitrarily arrested and detained persons without filing charges to extort money from family members or because administrative systems were not well established.
The UNJHRO reported that on April 11, FARDC soldiers arbitrarily arrested and illegally detained at least 35 persons in Uvira, South Kivu Province, for not participating in scheduled weekly community work on the renovation of a road. The detainees were released after paying a fine.
Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention, ranging from months to years, remained a problem. A local NGO, the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, estimated that between 75 and 80 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. Judicial inefficiency, administrative obstacles, corruption, financial constraints, and staff shortages also caused trial delays. According to a Deutsche Welle report in May, prisoners in Kasai-Oriental capital Mbuji Mayi’s central prison and at the Ndolo military prison in Kinshasa were often denied their right to a trial.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention; however, few were able to obtain prompt release and compensation.
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was corrupt and subject to influence and intimidation. Officials and other influential individuals often subjected judges to coercion.
A shortage of prosecutors and judges hindered the government’s ability to provide expeditious trials, and judges occasionally refused transfers to remote areas where shortages were most acute because the government could not support them there. Authorities routinely did not respect court orders. Disciplinary boards created under the High Council of Magistrates continued to rule on cases of corruption and malpractice. Rulings included the firing, suspension, or fining of judges and magistrates.
Military magistrates are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of all crimes allegedly committed by SSF members, whether or not committed in the line of duty. Civilians may be tried in military tribunals if charged with offenses involving firearms. The military justice system often succumbed to political and command interference, and security arrangements for magistrates in areas affected by conflict were inadequate. Justice mechanisms were particularly ineffective for addressing misconduct by mid- and high-ranking officials due to a requirement the judge of a military court must outrank the defendant.
The constitution provides for a presumption of innocence, but this was not always observed. Authorities are required to inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary, but this did not always occur. The public may attend trials at the discretion of the presiding judge. Defendants have the right to a trial within 15 days of being charged, but judges may extend this period to a maximum of 45 days. Authorities only occasionally abided by this requirement. The government is not required to provide counsel in most cases, with the exception of murder trials. While the government regularly provided free legal counsel to indigent defendants in capital cases, lawyers often did not have adequate access to their clients. Defendants have the right to be present and to have a defense attorney represent them. Authorities occasionally disregarded these rights. Authorities generally allowed adequate time to prepare a defense, although there were few resources available. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present evidence and witnesses in their own defense, but witnesses often were reluctant to testify due to fear of retaliation. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal, except in cases involving national security, armed robbery, and smuggling, which the Court of State Security usually adjudicates.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees during the year. In July, however, HRW reported that 11 persons during the year had been arrested for “contempt of authority,” a crime under the law. Of these 11 cases, one was arrested for allegedly insulting the president, while the other 10 were arrested for alleged contempt against provincial authorities or parliamentarians.
Local civil society groups claimed that 23 individuals still imprisoned for the 2001 assassination of former president Laurent-Desire Kabila were political prisoners, because they had yet to be given a fair trial.
While the government permitted international human rights and humanitarian organizations and MONUSCO access to some prisoners, authorities always denied access to detention facilities run by the RG, military intelligence, and ANR (see section 1.c.).
Individuals may seek civil remedies for human rights violations within the civil court system. Most individuals, however, preferred to seek redress in the criminal courts.
Although the law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, the SSF routinely ignored these provisions. The SSF harassed and robbed civilians, entered and searched homes and vehicles without warrants, and looted homes, businesses, and schools. Family members were often punished for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. The United Nations reported that as of June 30, military and police officers had committed 320 violations of the right to property.
SSF continued fighting hundreds of disparate IAGs in the east of the country.
There were credible reports that the IAGs and SSF perpetrated serious human rights violations and abuses during internal conflicts. On June 30, the UNJHRO reported that IAGs in the country were responsible for a “staggering increase” in human rights abuses, noting that the number of abuses attributed to IAGs had increased by 91 percent during the same period in 2019. The United Nations reported that as of July 31, 41 members of armed groups were convicted of human rights abuses.
Conflicts continued in some of the eastern and northern provinces, particularly North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika, Ituri, Maniema, Upper Uele, and Lower Uele, as well as in the Central Kasai region. IAGs continued to perpetrate violence against civilians; these include: the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renewal (NDC-R), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Lord’s Resistance Army, former fighters from the March 23 Movement, various Mai Mai (local militia) groups, and ethnically aligned militia groups in the Djugu area of Ituri Province, including those tied to the Congolese Development Cooperation (CODECO). Many IAGs originated in foreign countries or were predominantly composed of noncitizens.
Conflict among armed groups caused significant population displacement and led to many human rights abuses, especially in Ituri and North Kivu Provinces. In North Kivu Province, the NDC-R, Mai Mai Mazembe, ADF, FDLR, as well as a host of smaller armed groups fought among themselves and caused significant population displacements as they fought over territory. There were reports some elements within the FARDC collaborated with some factions of the NDC-R.
In July the International Crisis Group released a report on the past three years of intercommunal violence between Lendu and Hema groups in the Djugu area of Ituri Province. The report noted that most of the wave of violence had primarily been perpetrated by groups of Lendu youths, including the militia group CODECO, who were not necessarily well organized or supported by the majority of the Lendu community. These groups continued to attack Hema communities, other communal groups in the Djugu area, and the FARDC in increasingly brazen assaults, causing significant loss of life.
In a May report, the Congo Research Group assessed that the NDC-R, under commander Guidon Shimiray Mwissa (Guidon) between 2014 and 2020, emerged as the most dominant and effective rebel group in the country. The report described the NDC-R’s successful development of parallel governance and tax schemes in the large, resource-rich areas under its control. According to the Congo Research Group, the NDC-R’s success battling other major groups, such as the FDLR, allowed it to establish and maintain a collaborative relationship with the FARDC, in which NDC-R was permitted to hold territory, established businesses, and collected taxes, “mimicking the FARDC and the state.” In return, the FARDC supplied NDC-R with ammunition and uniforms and allowed the group unhindered passage through large swaths of the east. In July local media reported the group split after the ousting of the group’s commander, Guidon, and FARDC increased attacks on Guidon’s faction in an attempt to execute the existing warrant for his arrest. Other armed groups took advantage of this instability to move into NDC-R-controlled territory. As of November, Guidon remained at large.
Operational cooperation between MONUSCO and the government continued in the east. The MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade supported FARDC troops in North Kivu and southern Ituri Provinces. MONUSCO forces deployed and conducted patrols to protect internally displaced persons from armed group attacks in North Kivu Province, southern Ituri Province, and South Kivu Province near Minembwe.
Killings: Data from UN reporting shows that on average, eight civilians were killed every day in conflict-affected areas.
As of June 30, the UNJHRO reported the SSF summarily killed 155 civilians in conflict-affected zones, a decrease compared with the 173 killings during the same period in 2019. In July the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report covering violence in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces between January 1, 2019, and January 31, 2020, related to the ADF and FARDC’s campaign against that group. The report identified abuses committed by SSF during the campaign against ADF, especially following a large-scale deployment in October 2019. The report described eight summary executions by the FARDC and the arbitrary arrests of 91 persons, including at least four children.
The United Nations reported that on May 7, during operations against IAGs in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu, a FARDC soldier in the 3416 regiment killed a three-year-old girl and injured one man and two women during an eviction. The soldier was arrested and detained by the military prosecutor, who subsequently opened an investigation into the killing.
UNJHRO also reported that IAGs killed at least 1,315 civilians, including 129 women, in the first six months of the year, a significant increase from the same period in 2019, during which 416 civilians were killed. As of June 30, violence attributed to various Lendu militias in Ituri Province resulted in at least 636 summary executions and an estimated 1.2 million internally displaced persons. Djugu-based assailants in Ituri Province were responsible for killing at least 525 individuals, largely during ambushes and attacks against villages targeting civilians. Sixty-one civilian deaths were attributed to the NDC-R. MONUSCO reported that on January 6, NDC-R combatants killed two women, wounded one man and another woman with machetes, and abducted two other men, in Masisi territory of North Kivu. The attack was reportedly an act of revenge against the civilian population whom the NDC-R combatants accused of facilitating the arrest of one of their group.
The Mai Mai Nyatura group summarily executed 98 civilians in conflict-affected provinces in the first half of the year, while the FDLR summarily executed at least 66 civilians.
The OHCHR report in July attributed “widespread, systematic, and extremely brutal” human rights violations to the ADF, including at least 496 civilian deaths. In follow-up reporting covering events between February 1 and June 30, OHCHR identified an additional 383 killings attributed to the ADF. For example, on May 18, in Beni territory of North Kivu, ADF combatants killed seven civilians with gunfire and machetes and injured three others. The ADF fighters burned down four houses during the attack.
Abductions: Of the 1,327 persons SSF arbitrarily arrested, many were in conflict-affected areas in the east of the country.
UN agencies and NGOs reported IAGs abducted individuals, generally to serve as porters or guides or to demand ransom for them. As of June 30, the United Nations reported that Djugu-based militias abducted at least 201 civilians, and that in total, IAGs abducted at least 118 children. Mai Mai Mazembe and NDC-R were the greatest perpetrators of child abductions.
On May 18, in Lubero, North Kivu Province, NDC-R fighters detained at least 70 persons, whom they tied up and beat with sticks and a rifle. The assailants took the victims to a camp, where they were held for ransom and forced to build shelters and carry water. The ADF reportedly also abducted individuals to serve as forced labor in camps. The OHCHR’s July report stated that the ADF abducted 508 persons, including 116 children.
As of August 5, Invisible Children’s Crisis Tracker documented 212 abductions, including the abduction of 16 children in Upper Uele and Lower Uele Provinces. The Lord’s Resistance Army was determined to be responsible for 153 of the abductions.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: The FARDC, PNC, ANR, IAGs, and civilians perpetrated widespread sexual violence. As of July 31, the United Nations documented 501 adult victims and 64 child victims of sexual violence in conflict. Crimes of sexual violence were sometimes committed as a tactic of war to punish civilians for having perceived allegiances to rival parties or groups. The crimes occurred throughout the country but principally in the conflict zones in North and South Kivu Provinces.
UN agencies and NGOs reported that through June 30, the FARDC arrested, illegally detained, raped, and tortured at least 378 persons in conflict-affected areas. During this period the FARDC forced 46 civilians, including one woman and one child, into labor. The government disputed these numbers.
IAGs also perpetrated numerous incidents of physical abuse and sexual violence. UN data showed that the FDLR, along with Twa militias and Djugu-based assailants, were the most prolific perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence. The UNJHRO reported that most cases of rape committed by the FDLR took place in Nyiragongo territory, when women were on their way to Virunga National Park to collect firewood. MONUSCO reported that on May 2, in North Kivu’s Nyiragongo territory, FDLR combatants raped two women, killing one of them. Twa militia members tended to target women working on farms or on their way to or from farming. For example, in April, Twa militiamen raped 16 women on their farms in Tanganyika Province before forcing them into the forest for the night and releasing them the next morning.
The UNJHRO reported at least 95 adult women were victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the armed group FLDR. At least 30 children were victims of sexual violence perpetrated by NDC-R.
MONUSCO’s Child Protection Section reported that more than 80 percent of women and girls separated from armed group the Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri Province reported being victims of sexual violence. On February 14, a military court in Bunia, Ituri Province, convicted three members of the Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri of war crimes for rape, looting, and participation in an insurrectional movement. The three were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
On July 28, a military court in Bunia also convicted 15 members of CODECO and FPIC of participation in an insurrection movement, sentencing them each to 20 years in prison and a fine. In an effort to combat impunity for the violence in Ituri Province, the military court held the hearings in public.
On November 23, a military court convicted Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) founder Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka for war crimes, mass rape, recruitment of child soldiers, murder, and multiple other crimes. Sheka surrendered to MONUSCO in 2017, and his trial started in 2018. While NGO representatives commended the high quality of evidence presented at the trial, they also raised concerns regarding its slow pace, witness intimidation, and the lack of appeals process under the law for war crimes trials.
A January report by OHCHR described mutilations, dismemberment, and other atrocities committed by Lendu militias and noted that the violence “could present at least some elements of the crime of genocide.”
Child Soldiers: There were no incidents of the FARDC using child soldiers. On August 3, the Ministry of Defense issued a decree reinforcing the prohibition on recruitment or use of child soldiers by the FARDC.
According to the United Nations, at least 952 children were separated from IAGs during the first six months of the year. The majority came from the Mai Mai Mazembe militia in North Kivu. The ADF continued to kidnap children and use them as combatants; OHCHR reported that the ADF forcibly recruited at least 56 children from January 2019 through January. NDC-R also recruited and used children. MONUSCO’s Child Protection Section reported 59 cases of child recruitment as of June 30, an all-time low number, and a significant decrease from the 601 children recruited in 2019.
The government continued to work with MONUSCO to engage directly IAGs to end the use of child soldiers. As of June 30, two years into the outreach, a total of 34 armed group commanders had pledged not to use or recruit children. The Ministry of Defense’s August 3 decree noted that any entity, including armed groups, convicted of recruiting or using children would be subject to 10 to 20 years of forced labor under the 2009 child protection law. On August 27, Radio Okapi reported the decree was already being implemented.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Fighting between the FARDC and IAGs as well as among IAGs continued to displace populations and limit humanitarian access, particularly in Ituri Province; Rutshuru, Masisi, Walikale, Lubero, Beni, and Nyiragongo territories in North Kivu Province; South Kivu Province; Maniema Province; and Tanganyika Province.
In North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, Kasai Oriental, and Upper Katanga Provinces, both IAGs and elements of the FARDC continued to illegally tax, exploit, and trade natural resources for revenue and power. Clandestine trade in minerals and other natural resources facilitated the purchase of weapons and reduced government revenues. The natural resources most exploited were gold, cassiterite (tin ore), coltan (tantalum ore), and wolframite (tungsten ore) but also included wildlife products, timber, charcoal, and fish.
The illegal trade in minerals financed IAGs and individual elements of the SSF. Both elements of the SSF and certain IAGs continued to control, extort, and threaten remote mining areas in North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, Maniema, and Haut Katanga Provinces and the Kasai region (see section 4.).
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no credible reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were several reports police physically abused or degraded detainees. In March, Amnesty International reported interviews with multiple alleged victims of police brutality. Police denied these allegations. Protests associated with the lead-up to the implementation of the National Security Law featured multiple clashes between police and protesters, some of which involved physical violence.
In the week of May 25, police arrested approximately 400 protesters, including some 100 minors. During their arrest and detention, officials made no effort to address health concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a September case demonstrating the more aggressive tactics adopted by police, police were recorded tackling a 12-year-old girl, who fled after police stopped her for questioning.
There were reports of prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: According to activists, detained protesters were held at the Castle Peak Immigration Center under unacceptable hygienic conditions and subjected to verbal and mental abuse. In response to a 2019 police brutality allegation and after the September 2019 closure of the San Uk Ling Holding Center, in May the Hong Kong Police Force border commissioner convened a task force to investigate the accusations made by protesters.
Administration: The government investigated allegations of problematic conditions and documented the results in a publicly accessible manner. There was an external Office of the Ombudsman. Activists and legislators, however, urged the government to establish an independent prisoner complaint and monitoring mechanism for prisons and detention centers.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted legislators and justices of the peace to conduct prison visits. Justices of the peace may make suggestions and comments on matters, such as physical conditions, overcrowding, staff improvement, training and recreational programs and activities, and other matters affecting the welfare of inmates.
The Independent Police Complaints Council is the police watchdog, responsible for investigating alleged corruption or abuses. In a November 19 ruling, a court of first instance (trial court) declared the complaints council incapable of effective investigation, as it lacked necessary investigative powers and was insufficient to fulfill the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s obligations under the Basic Law to provide an independent mechanism to investigate complaints against police. The SAR government was appealing the ruling.
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. Several claims of arbitrary arrest were made in connection with the protests and alleged National Security Law (NSL) violations.
At the time of its passage, the Hong Kong SAR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed the NSL was not retroactive.
On July 1, within hours of the NSL’s passage, police detained individuals based on their attire, searched their belongings, and arrested them for violating the NSL if the items in their possession were deemed to be against the PRC or the local government.
On August 10, police arrested 16 more individuals, including Agnes Chow, one of the cofounders of the former opposition party Demosisto, although Chow and the other two cofounders, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, disbanded Demosisto the day before the NSL became effective. Chow refrained from political activity after the law was passed. She and human rights activist concluded that her arrest meant that the national security forces were retroactively applying the NSL.
During a protest on October 1, Chinese National Day, police reportedly indiscriminately rounded up persons in a popular shopping district, despite having no evidence that those individuals participated in the protest.
The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s security bureau. The People’s Liberation Army is responsible for foreign defense. The immigration department of the security bureau controls passage of persons into and out of the SAR as well as the documentation of local residents. All Hong Kong security services, in theory, ultimately report to the chief executive, but following the implementation of the NSL imposed by Beijing, the SAR established an Office of Safeguarding National Security, a National Security Committee, and a National Security branch of the Hong Kong police. Because these organs ultimately report to the Chinese central government and mainland security personnel are present in some or all of these bodies, the ability of SAR civilian authorities to maintain effective control over the security force was no longer clear.
Multiple sources reported suspected members of the Chinese central government security services in the SAR monitoring political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized the Chinese central government’s policies.
Although the Independent Police Complaints Council is supposed to be an independent investigatory body responsible for addressing accusations of police corruption or abuses, activists expressed concern that the chief executive appointed all council members and noted that its lack of power to conduct independent investigations limited its oversight capacity. There was wide public support for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into alleged police abuses in handling the protests. In May the council released its report on the police response to the 2019 protests and claimed that while there was room for improvement, and acknowledging some specific flaws in police operations, such as excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas, there were no systematic abuses and the police force acted in accordance with the law. The report did not address any specific cases of alleged abuse; the council chose to address police actions “thematically” by looking at major incidents during the period of protest.
Police generally apprehended suspects openly when they observed suspects committing a crime or with warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police must promptly charge arrested suspects. The government respected this right and generally brought arrested persons before a judicial officer within 48 hours. Detainees were generally informed promptly of charges against them. There was a functioning bail system that allowed persons not charged to put up bail to be released from detention pending the filing of charges. Activists argued that the bail system left the arrested in purgatory–not officially charged but with a monthly check-in requirement and no defined period under the law within which the government is required to file charges. During routine check-ins, activists and protesters have been rearrested, often having new charges brought against them.
For example, in August 2019, Joshua Wong was arrested, charged with organizing an illegal assembly, and released on bail. Following his release, during a routine bail check-in held in September, Wong was rearrested and charged for a nearly one-year-old violation of the 2019 antimask emergency regulation. Wong was convicted of the initial charge of organizing an illegal assembly and sentenced to 13.5 months’ imprisonment on December 2.
Democracy activists were increasingly denied bail. In December during a routine bail check-in, media owner and democracy activist Jimmy Lai was arrested on fraud charges related to the use of office space and denied bail. Legal scholars noted bail denial is unusual in civil suits; Lai was subsequently charged on December 11 under the NSL. The NSL sets a higher standard for bail than do other laws, and in one case, activists alleged that this higher standard violated the presumption of innocence. The court, however, found that the defendant in that case would have been denied bail even under the pre-existing standards of Hong Kong law.
Authorities allowed detainees access to a lawyer of their choice, although the Hong Kong Bar Association reported that lawyers experienced obstruction at police stations and delays in seeing clients arrested during protests. Suspects were not detained incommunicado or held under house arrest. Interviews of suspects are required to be videotaped.
Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, there were indications that this independence was being challenged. As it did for the police force, the Department of Justice set up a separate office that deals with NSL prosecutions. There were media reports that this office also managed certain prosecutions against opposition activists not charged under the NSL. Activists voiced concern that those charged under the NSL may be denied a fair and public trial, as the NSL allows extradition to the mainland for trial. Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces in Hong Kong put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient. Arrests made by police and the prosecutions pursued by the Justice Department appeared to be increasingly politically motivated in nature.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay.
Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: Under the law a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court level. An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal.
The SAR’s courts are charged with interpreting those provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected. The standing committee has issued five interpretations of the Basic Law since 1997. The most recent, issued in 2016, requires lawmakers “to accurately, completely, and solemnly” swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law and recognize the Hong Kong SAR as a part of China before taking office. This ruling was the basis, in 2017, for disqualifying six opposition figures from taking their Legislative Council seats.
Under the NSL the chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. The NPC Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in certain cases to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors. As of November, no cases have come to trial to validate or negate apprehensions about the NSL trial mechanisms.
Activists claimed the SAR increasingly used legal tools, such as denial of bail and pursuing minor charges, to detain prodemocracy figures. In one such case, the courts denied Jimmy Lai bail for fraud charges, which is a civil offense. While in custody, security forces charged Lai with “foreign collusion” under the NSL, a provision that is not well defined.
The NSL is not restricted to the SAR or its residents, but instead claims jurisdiction over any individual, regardless of location, deemed to be engaged in one of the four criminal activities under the NSL: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, or collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. In August the national security forces purportedly issued arrest warrants for six individuals, all residing abroad, and one of whom had foreign citizenship and had resided outside the SAR and mainland China for more than 20 years. Although reported in state-controlled media, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of the warrants.
There is an independent and impartial judiciary for civil matters and access to a court to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations by SAR agencies or persons, with the possible exception of employees of the National Security division, as well as Central Government Liaison Office, depending on interpretations of the law.
The law prohibits such actions, but there were reports the SAR government failed to respect these prohibitions, including credible reports that Chinese central government security services and the Beijing-mandated Office for Safeguarding National Security monitored prodemocracy and human rights activists and journalists in the SAR. In October the national security police force arrested Tony Chung near a foreign diplomatic office and charged him with violating the NSL. Media reports claimed Chung intended to request asylum but was arrested before making his request. In a June statement to the South China Morning Post, SAR security chief John Lee stated that PRC security services would operate in Hong Kong “as needed.” There were also reports central government security services detained, questioned, and intimidated Hong Kong-based activists visiting the mainland. Hong Kong authorities also reportedly froze bank accounts for former lawmakers, civil society groups, and other political targets. Media reports indicated that thousands of persons, primarily police officers, protesters, and protest movement leaders, had their personal information publicly revealed online.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. The government had no functioning investigative mechanism.
Defector reports noted instances in which the government executed political prisoners, opponents of the government, forcibly returned asylum seekers, government officials, and others accused of crimes. The law prescribes the death penalty upon conviction for the most “serious” cases of “antistate” or “antination” crimes. These terms are broadly interpreted to include: participation in a coup or plotting to overthrow the state; acts of terrorism for an antistate purpose; treason, which includes defection or handing over state secrets; providing information regarding economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere; and “treacherous destruction.” Additionally, the law allows for capital punishment in less serious crimes such as theft, destruction of military facilities and national assets, distribution of narcotics, counterfeiting, fraud, kidnapping, distribution of pornography, and trafficking in persons. Defectors and media also reported that the government carried out infanticide or required mothers to commit infanticide if they were political prisoners, persons with disabilities, raped by government officials or prison guards, or forcibly repatriated from the People’s Republic of China.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and press reports indicated that those attempting to leave the country without permission could be killed on the spot or publicly executed, and guards at political prison camps were under orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape.
The state also subjected private citizens to public executions. A 2016 survey found that 64 percent of defectors had witnessed public executions. Defectors reported going to public executions on school field trips. The 2019 edition of the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, a report based on interviews with recent escapees and published annually by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, reported that testimonies recounted continued public and secret executions. Escapees declared the purpose of the executions was to punish offenses including drug dealing, watching and disseminating South Korean videos, and violent crimes such as murder and rape. One defector said he witnessed the public execution of a man who shared South Korean movies in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, in 2014. Two others said they saw the execution of another Hyesan man on the same charges and the killing of an estimated 20 South Hwanghae Province residents for drug dealing and distributing South Korean videos in 2017. Testimonies also stated executions were carried out for possession of Bibles, circulating antiregime propaganda material, and superstitious activities. KINU noted, however, that public executions might have become less frequent in recent years.
In March 2019 the Malaysian prosecutor dropped charges against one woman accused of assassinating Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Later that month a second woman charged in the case accepted a plea deal and received early release in Malaysia. Four government agents, including Ri Ji U and Hong Song Hac, returned to the country from Malaysia immediately following the attack without standing trial.
As of year’s end, the government still had not accounted for the circumstances that led to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in unjust and unwarranted detention by authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017.
Killings by security forces did not appear to vary depending on race or ethnicity.
NGO, think tank, and press reports indicated the government was responsible for disappearances.
South Korean media reported the government dispatched Ministry of State Security agents to cities in China near the country’s border to kidnap and forcibly return refugees. According to international press reports, the government may have also kidnapped defectors traveling in China after relocating to South Korea. In some cases the government reportedly forced these defectors’ family members to encourage the defectors to travel to China in order to capture them. According to the Committee for Human Rights Committee in North Korea (HRNK), as political prison camps in border areas near China closed, thousands of inmates reportedly disappeared in the process of their transfer to inland facilities, amounting to enforced disappearance.
During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the government in the 1970s and 1980s.
South Korean government and media reports noted the government also kidnapped other foreign nationals from locations abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. The government continued to deny its involvement in the kidnappings. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported South Korea officially recognized 516 South Korean civilians abducted by regime authorities since the end of the Korean War with thousands more unaccounted for. South Korean NGOs estimated that 20,000 civilians abducted by the government during the Korean War remained in the country or had died.
Authorities took no steps to ensure accountability for disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The penal code prohibits torture or inhuman treatment, but many sources reported these practices continued. Numerous defector accounts and NGO reports described the use of torture by authorities in several detention facilities. Methods of torture and other abuse reportedly included severe beatings; electric shock; prolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small “punishment cells” in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; water torture; and being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, including “pumps,” or being forced to repeatedly squat and stand up with their hands behind their back.
Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes. Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see section 7.b.).
A report released on July 28 from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) catalogued numerous allegations of beatings, torture, and sexual violations against women who were forcibly repatriated after seeking to flee the country to find work, usually in neighboring China. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that children repatriated from China underwent torture, verbal abuse, and violence including beatings, hard labor, and hunger.
Impunity for acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by members of the security forces was endemic.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. NGO, defector, and press reports noted the government operated several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and camps for political prisoners. NGO reports documented six types of detention facilities: kwanliso (political penal-labor camps), kyohwaso (correctional or re-education centers), kyoyangso (labor-reform centers), jipkyulso (collection centers for low-level criminals), rodong danryeondae (labor-training centers), and kuryujang or kamok (interrogation facilities or jails). According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers.
According to a March report by the HRNK, the government operated six kwanliso–Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, and 25, as well as Choma-bong Restricted Area. According to KINU’s most recent estimate in 2013, there were between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in the kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. KINU identified the five kwanliso facilities as Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Gaechon (Camp 18), and Cheongjin (Camp 25). In addition the HRNK reported that the Choma-bong Restricted Area, constructed between 2013 and 2014, had not been confirmed by eyewitness reports, but it appeared to be operational and bore all the characteristics of a kwanliso.
Kwanliso camps consist of total-control zones, where incarceration is for life, and may include “revolutionary” or re-education zones from which prisoners may be released. Those whom the state considered hostile to the government or who committed political crimes reportedly received indefinite sentencing terms in political prison camps. In many cases the state also detained all family members if one member was accused or arrested. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, children were allowed to leave the camp after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire defector families to political prison camps. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.
Reports indicated the state typically sent those sentenced to prison for nonpolitical crimes to re-education prisons, where authorities subjected prisoners to intense forced labor.
Defectors noted they did not expect many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors, prisoners received little to no food or medical care in some places of detention. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing. The South Korean and international press reported that the kyohwaso re-education through labor camps held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. A March HRNK report entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 1, Kaechon postulated that the government may have operated more than 20 kyohwaso. That report, which relied on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, estimated the population of Kyohwaso Number 1, located near Kaechon in South Pyongan Province, at 2,000 to 6,000 prisoners.
A September report by the HRNK entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 12, Jongori stated the kyohwaso held both political and nonpolitical prisoners. According to the HRNK, based on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, Kyohwaso Number 12, located near Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, held approximately 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom were accused of illegal border crossings into China. The HRNK described frequent deaths within Kyohwaso Number 12 from injury, illness, and physical and mental abuse by prison officials, and included first-hand accounts of crematorium operations designed to dispose of prisoners’ bodies surreptitiously.
In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-Jeon-Bu” Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment and forced labor and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.”
Physical Conditions: Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) 2019 White Paper on Human Rights stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. Reports from previous years attributed rape to the impunity and unchecked power of prison guards and other officials. OHCHR reporting noted that, contrary to international human rights standards that require women prisoners to be guarded exclusively by female prison staff to prevent sexual violence, female escapees reported they were overseen almost exclusively by male officers. In the same report, victims alleged widespread sexual abuse at holding centers (jipkyulso) and pretrial detention and interrogation centers (kuryujang) by secret police (bowiseong) or police interrogators, as well as during transfer between facilities.
An October report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled Worth Less Than An Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea stated the pretrial detention system was opaque, arbitrary, violent, and lacked any semblance of due process. Individuals in pretrial detention reportedly endured brutal conditions and to be routinely subjected to systematic torture, sexual violence, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor.
Nutrition, hygiene, and the medical situation inside prison camps were dire, according to KINU’s 2019 white paper. There were no statistics for deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) report cited an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.
Political prisoners faced significantly harsher conditions than the general prison population. KINU’s 2019 white paper noted political prisoners were often forced into hard labor, which one defector of Camp 18 said led to 10 deaths a year at the camp from overwork. Defectors reported that in Camp 14, prisoners worked 12 hours a day during the summer and 10 hours a day during the winter, with one day off a month. The camps observed New Year’s Day and the birthdays of Kim II Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children ages 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than age 65. According to the 2016 HRNK report Gulag, Inc., three political prison camps and four re-education camps contained mines where prisoners worked long hours with frequent deadly accidents. One prisoner reported suffering an open foot fracture and being forced to return to the mine the same day. Prisoners were forced to work even when they were sick. Prisoners who failed to meet work quotas reportedly faced reduced meals and violence. Those caught stealing faced arbitrary and serious violence.
By law the state dismisses criminal cases against a person younger than age 14. The state applies public education in case of a crime committed by a person older than 14 and younger than 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was applied. Authorities often detained juveniles along with their families and reportedly subjected them to torture and abuse in detention facilities.
Administration: There was little evidence to suggest prisoners and detainees had reasonable access to visitors. Refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment than others. According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons whom prison authorities found were practicing religion within detention facilities. No information was available regarding whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse. There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2019 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Pokchong-ni Lab noted officials, especially those within the military and the internal security organizations, continued to camouflage and conceal activity at prison camps.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but according to defectors, media, and NGO reports, the government did not observe these prohibitions.
The law limits detention during prosecution and trial, requires arrest by warrant, and prohibits forced confessions. The application of these provisions was not verified.
Members of the security forces arrested and reportedly transported citizens suspected of committing political crimes to prison camps without trial. According to one South Korean NGO, the Ministry of Social Security handles criminal cases directly without the approval of prosecutors, reportedly to bypass prosecutorial corruption. An NGO reported that, by law, investigators could detain an individual for investigation for up to two months. The HRNK reported Ministry of State Security or Ministry of Social Security units nonetheless interrogated suspects for months on end. No functioning bail system or other alternatives for release pending trial exists.
There were no restrictions on the government’s ability to detain and imprison persons at will or to hold them incommunicado. Family members and other concerned persons reportedly found it virtually impossible to obtain information on charges against detained persons or the lengths of their sentences. According to defector reports, families were not notified of arrest, detention, or sentencing. Judicial review or appeals of detentions did not exist in law or practice. According to an opinion adopted in 2015 by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, family members have no recourse to petition for the release of detainees accused of political crimes, as the state may deem any such advocacy for political prisoners an act of treason against the state and could result in the detention of family members. No information on detainees’ access to a lawyer was available.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests reportedly occurred. According to the 2019 report of the UN secretary-general on the situation of human rights in the country, arbitrary arrests appeared to be carried out in a widespread and systematic manner. According to KINU’s 2019 white paper, arbitrary arrest commonly occurred for political crimes, attempting to enter South Korea, and engaging in religious activities, as well as for watching or distributing foreign media.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to defectors there was no mechanism for persons to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court.
The constitution states courts are independent and must carry out judicial proceedings in strict accordance with the law; however, an independent judiciary did not exist. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, there were many reports of bribery and corruption in the investigations or preliminary examination process and in detention facilities, as well as by judges and prosecutors in the trial stage. In October, HRW reported treatment of individuals in pretrial detention often depended on access to connections and money.
Little information was available on formal criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside access to the legal system was limited to trials for traffic violations and other minor offenses.
The constitution contains elaborate procedural protections, providing that cases should be public, except under circumstances stipulated by law. The constitution also states the accused has the right to a defense, and when the government held trials, they reportedly assigned lawyers. Some reports noted a distinction between those accused of political, as opposed to nonpolitical, crimes and claimed the government offered trials and lawyers only to the latter. The Ministry of State Security conducted “pretrials” or preliminary examinations in all political cases, but the court system conducted the trial. Some defectors testified that the ministry also conducted trials. KINU’s white paper for 2019 cited defector testimony that imprisonment in political prison camps is decided exclusively by the ministry, regardless of trial. There was no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers existed. There were no indications authorities respected the presumption of innocence. According to the 2014 UNCOI report, “the vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.”
While the total number of political prisoners and detainees remained unknown, KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the kwanliso political penal-labor camps. Incarceration in a kwanliso is in most cases for life and in many cases includes three generations of the prisoner’s family. NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees. The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including attempting to defect to South Korea or contacting family members who had defected to South Korea, sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s or Kim Jong Il’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims. The 2014 UNCOI report noted that many “ordinary” prisoners were, in fact, political prisoners, “detained without a substantive reason compatible with international law.”
There were credible reports that for political purposes the regime attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country to repatriate refugees. According to the UN secretary-general, several UN member states, as well as OHCHR and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, expressed concern that forcibly returned defectors, including children, faced a significant risk of human rights violations, including torture. Additionally, the government attempted to target, harass, and threaten defectors and other perceived enemies resident outside of the country.
According to the constitution, “citizens are entitled to submit complaints and petitions. The state shall fairly investigate and deal with complaints and petitions as fixed by law.” By law citizens are entitled to submit complaints to stop encroachment upon their rights and interests or seek compensation for the encroached rights and interests. Reports noted government officials did not respect these rights. For example, when individuals submitted anonymous petitions or complaints regarding state administration, the Ministry of Social Security and the Ministry of State Security sought to identify the authors and subject them to investigation and punishment.
Individuals and organizations do not have the ability to appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.
The constitution provides for the inviolability of person and residence and the privacy of correspondence; however, the government did not respect these provisions. The regime subjected its citizens to rigid controls. According to a December 2019 HRNK report entitled Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, the regime relied upon a massive, multilevel system of informants called inminban, which may be loosely translated as “neighborhood watch unit,” to identify critics or political criminals. Authorities sometimes subjected entire communities to security checks, entering homes without judicial authorization.
The government appeared to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and other digital communications. Private telephone lines operated on a system that precluded making or receiving international calls; international telephone lines were available only under restricted circumstances.
The Ministry of State Security strictly monitored mobile telephone use and access to electronic media in real time. Government authorities frequently jammed cellular telephone signals along the Chinese border to block use of the Chinese network to make international telephone calls. Authorities arrested those caught using cell phones with Chinese SIM cards and required violators to pay a fine, bribe, or face charges of espionage or other crimes with harsh punishments, including lengthy prison terms. An HRNK October report entitled Eroding the Regime’s Information Monopoly: Cell Phones in North Korea stated the number of both illegal Chinese-made cell phones and legally registered cell phones had risen sharply in recent years. Mobile networks were said to reach approximately 94 percent of the population, although only 18 percent of the population owned a cell phone. The Ministry of State Security and other organs of the state actively and pervasively surveilled citizens, maintained arresting power, and conducted special purpose nonmilitary investigations.
The government divided citizens into strict loyalty-based classes known as songbun, which determined access to employment, higher education, place of residence, medical facilities, certain stores, marriage prospects, and food rations.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).
Opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny was poisoned on August 20 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. After campaigning in Siberia for independent candidates for local elections, Navalny became severely ill and fell into a coma. The Federal Security Service (FSB) was tracking and surveilling Navalny during his stay in Tomsk. On August 21, officials at the Omsk hospital where Navalny was initially treated claimed they found no traces of poison in his system. Navalny was transferred to a hospital in Germany on August 22; on September 2, the German government announced that traces of a nerve agent from the “Novichok” group had been found in samples taken from Navalny. At Germany’s request the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducted a technical assistance visit, which confirmed that Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent belonging to the “Novichok” group.
Credible reports indicated that officers from Russia’s FSB used a nerve agent to poison Navalny. The G7 industrialized democracies bloc and NATO countries condemned Navalny’s confirmed poisoning and called on Russia to bring the perpetrators to justice. At the November 30 OPCW Conference of States Parties, 58 countries issued a statement urging Russia to disclose “in a swift and transparent manner the circumstances of this chemical weapons attack.” Russian authorities stated there are no grounds to open a criminal investigation into the poisoning, despite Navalny’s requests that they do so.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets published reports indicating that from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. According to the NGO Russian LGBT Network, local Chechen authorities illegally detained and tortured at least 40 individuals, including two who reportedly died in custody from torture. According to human rights organizations, as of September authorities failed to investigate the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTI persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTI persons in Chechnya.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on April 10, prisoners in Penal Colony Number 15 (IK-15) in Angarsk rioted after a prison employee beat one of the inmates, leading him to make a video about his ordeal and slash his veins in a failed suicide attempt. Afterwards, 17 other inmates slashed their veins as well, then set fire to parts of the penal colony. The Federal Penitentiary Service sent in approximately 300 special force officers, who beat the inmates, doused them with water, and set dogs on them. Human rights activists reported that two inmates were killed during the clashes and called for an investigation. On April 14, Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko told media that the riot in IK-15 had been organized from the outside by individuals who had paid “so-called human rights activists” to “stir things up in the media.” Officials confirmed that they found the body of an inmate who had been strangled and hanged. According to media reports, the inmate who made the video that set off the riots later retracted his statement that he had been beaten by a prison employee.
Although Deputy Defense Minister Andrey Kartapolov announced on August 26 that hazing and “barracks hooliganism” in the armed forces had been completely eradicated, physical abuse and hazing, which in some cases resulted in death or suicide, continued to be a problem. For example, on June 21, Russian media reported that Aleksandr Tatarenko, a soldier in a Primorsky region military unit, deserted his post, leaving a suicide note indicating hazing as the reason. After two months, Tatarenko was found living under a bridge while hiding from his unit. Tatarenko’s parents filed a complaint on hazing with the Military Prosecutor’s Office.
In February government spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed calls for an international investigation into the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, telling journalists that such an investigation would not be permitted on the territory of the Russian Federation. Human rights activists and the Nemtsov family continued to believe that authorities were intentionally ignoring the question of who ordered and organized the killing and noted that these persons were still at large.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. For example, on January 30, blogger Imran Aliyev was found dead in a hotel room in Lille, France, having been stabbed 135 times. Aliyev, who had settled in Belgium after leaving Chechnya, often published YouTube videos critical of Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen government. French prosecutors stated that the Russian-born man suspected of killing Aliyev returned to Russia immediately after the stabbing.
On July 4, a man identified by Austrian authorities only as a Russian citizen shot and killed Mamikhan Umarov, an asylum seeker from Russia, in a parking lot outside of Vienna. Umarov was also an outspoken critic of Kadyrov and had posted a YouTube video taunting Kadyrov to “come and stop [him]” shortly before his death. In his interviews and social media posts, Umarov claimed to be a mercenary who had fought on the side of Chechen separatists in the 1990s and sought asylum in 2005 because he feared reprisal in Chechnya. Austrian authorities had designated him a “person at risk” because of his background. Kadyrov responded to allegations of his involvement in this and other extrajudicial killings of Russian citizens in Europe by accusing Western intelligence of killing Chechen dissidents to make him look bad.
The country played a significant military role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths and other abuses to Russian-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s forces have conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 14 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Dagestan was the most affected region, with seven deaths in the first half of the year, followed by Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, where three persons were killed in each region.
There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 867 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.
There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year. For example, on September 10, the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a North Korean citizen who was seeking asylum in Vladivostok was taken to the Artyom City Police Department by individuals in civilian clothes, where he subsequently disappeared. The North Korean citizen first approached a Migration and Law network lawyer for assistance with an asylum request on August 27, stating that he fled the Far Eastern Federal University campus on Russky Island. An officer at the Frunzenskiy District Police Department told the lawyer that the North Korean consulate took the asylum seeker from the police department. The asylum seeker’s lawyer suspected that he was forcibly returned to his country of origin.
Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f.).
There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. On October 28, 1ADAT, a social media channel that is highly critical of Kadyrov, reported that Chechen security forces abducted more than 1,500 persons between April and October. For example, on September 6, Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and a 1ADAT moderator, was kidnapped, reportedly by persons with connections to Chechen authorities. On September 7, a video recording of Tepsurkayev circulated on social media in which he appeared naked with signs of torture as he said, “I am punishing myself” and sat on a glass bottle. The office of the Chechen human rights ombudsman commented it was aware of the video of Tepsurkayev but had not looked into the matter because there had been no request from the victim or the relatives. As of December 1, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown.
On October 20, the human rights group Memorial reported that five men were abducted from the village of Chechen-Aul on August 28, and two more were abducted on August 30. Memorial stated that all seven men were taken to the city of Argun, where they were visited by the Chechen interior minister Ruslan Alkhanov and Chechen deputy prime minister Abuzaid Vismuradov before being transferred to a secret prison, where they were interrogated and tortured. Four of the men were later released (two on September 18 and two on October 7), while three reportedly remained in government detention facilities as of December. Memorial reported that 13 men were abducted on November 5 from the Chechen city of Gudermes and taken to a secret prison, where Memorial believed they remained as of December.
There were reports Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
In December 2019, for the first time, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation published data on the use of torture in prisons and pretrial detention centers. The data showed that between 2015 and 2018, for every 44 reports of violence perpetrated by Federal Penitentiary Service employees, only one criminal case was initiated.
There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.
There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. For example, media reported that members of Russia’s National Guard forcibly dispersed a peaceful political rally in Khabarovsk City on October 12. Several participants reported being beaten by police during the rally’s dispersal, at least one with a police baton; one victim suffered a broken nose. Two detained minors said they were “put on their knees in a corner, mocked, had their arms twisted, and were hit in the eye.”
There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on May 11, Russian media reported Vladimir Vorontsov, the creator of the Police Ombudsman project, was hospitalized after being kept in an isolation ward in a prison. According to his lawyer, authorities detained Vorontsov on May 7, denied his request for medical assistance, and interrogated him into the evening, after which he was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to sleep. On May 8, Vorontsov was charged with extorting money from a police officer. Vorontsov alleged the charges against him were revenge for his social activism, which involved reporting on officials’ labor rights violations of law enforcement officers.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture following their arrest. For example, on February 10, officers from the Russian National Guard handcuffed Chita resident Vadim Kutsenko and took him to a local forest, where they beat his face and neck, suffocated him, and used a Taser to force him to admit to being a practicing member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Kutsenko reported the incident to authorities, he was ignored and sent to a temporary detention center along with three other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to media reports, Kutsenko sought medical treatment upon his release, which confirmed the physical trauma.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. For example, on February 10, a court in Penza found seven alleged anarchists and antifascist activists supposedly tied to a group known as “Set” (“Network”) guilty of terrorism and sentenced them to between six and 18 years in prison. Authorities claimed they were plotting to overthrow the government, but human rights activists asserted that the FSB falsified evidence and fabricated the existence of the organization known as “Set/Network.” Several of the sentenced men claimed that the FSB forced them to sign admissions of guilt under torture; one of them claimed he had marks on his body from electric shocks and asked for medical experts to document them but was denied the request. Memorial considered all seven men sentenced to be political prisoners.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. On January 20, Aminat Lorsanova became the second individual to file a complaint with federal authorities asking for an investigation into abuses against the LGBTI community in Chechnya. In 2018 she was forcibly detained at one psychiatric clinic for 25 days and at another for four months. She was beaten with sticks and injected with tranquilizer to “cure” her of her bisexual identity. Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister of national policy, foreign relations, press, and information, publicly denied Lorsanova’s claims and accused the LGBTI community of deceiving “a sick Chechen girl.”
There were reports of rape and sexual abuse by government agents. For example, media reported on Mukhtar Aliyev’s account of his five years in IK-7 prison in Omsk region from 2015 until his release during the year, where he was subjected to torture, including sexual assault. Aliyev told media that prison officials would beat him, tie him to the bars for a prolonged length of time causing his legs and arms to swell up, and force other inmates to assault him sexually while recording their actions. Aliyev said that the officials threatened to leak the recording to other inmates and officials if he did not behave.
There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on May 12, approximately two dozen riot police stormed the home of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Siberian shaman who announced in 2019 that he and his supporters planned to walk from Yakutsk to Moscow to “expel” Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Police detained Gabyshev and forcibly hospitalized him for psychiatric treatment. On May 29, Gabyshev filed a claim refusing further hospitalization, after which the clinic’s medical commission deemed him a danger to himself and others and filed a lawsuit to extend his detention there. The clinic released Gabyshev on July 22.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On January 22, the online media outlet 29.ru published an interview with the mother of conscript Ilya Botygin, who claimed that he was a victim of repeated hazing in his Nizhny Novgorod-based unit. The mother said that her son’s superiors locked him up for several days at a time, fed him irregularly, and beat him. When she visited him in January, she took him to the emergency room for a medical examination, but his unit did not accept the paperwork documenting his injuries on the grounds it could be forged. She and Botygin filed a case with the Nizhny Novgorod military prosecutor’s office but told media they had not received any updates about an investigation.
There were reports that Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. According to a July 25 investigation published by independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta, tens of thousands of cases of beatings and torture by the military, police, and other security forces could have gone unpunished in the previous 10 years. The report assessed the Investigative Committee’s lack of independence from police as a key factor hampering accountability, because the organization failed to initiate investigations into a high number of incidents.
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. On March 31, Amnesty International urged authorities to take urgent measures to address the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 if it spreads among prisoners and detainees. The organization stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of infection among prisoners and detainees.
Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, Russian media reported that on February 13, the prison warden of IK-5 in Mordovia, Valeriy Trofimov, took prisoner Ibragim Bakaniyev into his office and beat and humiliated him for six hours. Bakaniyev was accused of taking part in a riot that broke out earlier that night. Bakaniyev reported that the torture only ended when he used a hidden blade to cut his hand and threatened to commit suicide. Bakaniyev was sent to a punishment cell for the next three months.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the Committee against Torture in Krasnodar reported that authorities opened a criminal investigation into the July 7 death of Dmitriy Kraskovskiy, a detainee in Pretrial Detention Facility Number 1 in Krasnodar. Authorities suspected he was beaten to death by inmates. The preliminary report indicated multiple bruises and head wounds on Kraskovskiy. The perpetrators allegedly tried to hang the corpse to hide the cause of death.
There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on July 22, Russian media and the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a group of inmates tortured and sexually assaulted Makharbi Tosuyev, a prisoner at IK-7, who was confined to the psychiatric department of IK-3. According to Tosuyev, a group of inmates tied him to his bed while he was confined in the psychiatric department of IK-3 as a result of a self-inflicted injury, and tortured and sexually assaulted him with a plastic stick. Tosuyev accused the head of the operational department of IK-3, Edgar Hayrapetyan, of organizing the attack.
Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, according to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, Viktor Malkov, died three months after being released from an eight-month-long detention, partly because his chronic health problems were exacerbated by the denial of medical care in the detention center. Malkov, who was detained on the grounds of extremism due to his religious beliefs, had stated that prison officials did not allow him to seek proper treatment or medications for his heart disease and kidney problems.
NGOs reported approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment. Only prisoners with a CD4 white-blood cell level below a certain amount were provided treatment. NGOs reported that interruptions in the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were sometimes a problem.
There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on May 21, a court ordered the forced psychiatric treatment of Kamchatka opposition activist Vladimir Shumanin during a criminal prosecution for libel stemming from a 2018 article in which he accused a law enforcement officer of engaging in criminal behavior. In the Far East region, Shumanin was known for running a personal YouTube channel in which he sharply criticized regional and federal authorities.
Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.
While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.
By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a certain detention center.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.
There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists for reporting torture. For example, in September, three penal colonies in Kemerovo Oblast (IK-5, IK-22, and IK-37) filed a lawsuit for reputational protection against a number of former prisoners and civic activists, including journalist Andrey Novashov, who in June published an article on the news website Sibir.Realii exposing inmates’ allegations of torture in the three colonies.
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants. After an arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both the detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing, either in person or through a video link.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
Problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. The law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but investigators sometimes did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. In many cases especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
There were reports that security services sometimes held detainees in incommunicado detention before officially registering the detention. This practice usually coincided with allegations of the use of torture to coerce confessions before detainees were permitted access to a lawyer. The problem was especially acute in the Republic of Chechnya, where such incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations and single-person pickets, such as those that preceded and succeeded the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments (see section 2.b.). The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that during the first six months of the year, police detained 388 single-person picketers in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, although single-person pickets are legal and do not require a permit. After Novaya Gazeta journalist and municipal deputy Ilya Azar was arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest on May 26 for holding a single-person picket in Moscow, law enforcement authorities detained an estimated 130 individuals who took part in protests supporting him in three cities. Many of them were fined for violating the laws on staging public demonstrations.
There were reports that Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent were not available. By law pretrial detention may not normally exceed two months, but the court has the power to extend it to six months, as well as to 12 or 18 months if the crime of which the defendant is accused is especially serious. For example, Yuliy Boyarshinov, described by Memorial as an antifascist and left-wing activist, was in pretrial detention from 2018 until the resumption of his trial in February; he was convicted and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison in June. He was accused of illegally storing explosives and participating in a terrorist organization because of his purported association with the “Network,” an alleged antifascist and anarchist group that relatives of the accused claim does not really exist. Memorial considered Boyarshinov to be a political prisoner.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. In view of problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2019 courts acquitted 0.36 percent of all defendants.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a June 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it has become common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities’ using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.
On August 7, the bar association of the Leningrad region opened disciplinary proceedings against Yevgeniy Smirnov, a lawyer from Team 29, an informal association of lawyers and journalists dedicated to protecting civil liberties. Smirnov was one of the lawyers representing journalist Ivan Safronov in a high-profile treason case. His colleagues believed that the disciplinary proceedings were retaliation for his work.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. A Yekaterinburg-based legal and human rights NGO indicated many defense attorneys do not vigorously defend their clients and that there were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial, defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also may review their file following the completion of the criminal investigation.
Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation is typically poor. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal.
The law provides for trial by jury in criminal cases if the defendant is charged with murder, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and certain other serious crimes. Nonetheless, trials by jury remained rare, and the vast majority of verdicts and sentences are rendered by judges. The acquittal rate in trials by jury is much higher (23 percent in 2019) than in trials before a judge (0.36 percent in 2019), although acquittals by jury are sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences. In April 2018, a court in Petrozavodsk acquitted renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuriy Dmitriyev of child pornography charges, a case many observers believed to be politically motivated and in retaliation for his efforts to expose Stalin-era crimes. In June 2018 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia granted the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal and sent the case for retrial. In the same month, Dmitriyev was again arrested. On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court found him guilty of sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison. On September 29, the Supreme Court of Karelia overturned the decision and extended his sentence to 13 years in maximum-security prison. Memorial considered Dmitriyev to be a political prisoner.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Chechnya head Kadyrov.
In some cases judicial authorities imposed sentences disproportionate to the crimes charged. For example, on August 18, political commentator Fyodor Krasheninnikov was sentenced to seven days in jail for publishing comments criticizing the Constitutional Court. The Sverdlovsk Oblast human rights ombudswoman responded that Krasheninnikov should only have been fined. Krasheninnikov filed a complaint with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), asserting that his arrest violated his rights of speech, fair trial, and personal freedom.
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of December Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 358 names, including 295 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. Nevertheless, Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be two to three times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first individual charged under the “undesirable foreign organizations” law; students and activists jailed for participating in the Moscow protests in July and August 2019; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and murder attempts; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.
There were credible reports that the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. Authorities used their access to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to target political enemies abroad. For example, the religious freedom rights organization Forum 18 reported that the country issued Interpol red notices in January to secure the extradition of at least two individuals facing “extremism” charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Ashurali Magomedeminov, who studied the work of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, left Russia in 2016; the Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against him in 2017 after accusing him of sharing “extremist literature.”
There were credible reports that, for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country aimed at having it take adverse action against specific individuals. For example, on February 21, Belarusian police detained Nikolay Makhalichev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the request of the Russian authorities. Makhalichev said that Belarusian police told him that Russian authorities had put him on an interstate wanted list after they opened a criminal case against him for “extremism” for his religious affiliation. Russian prosecutors brought forth a request for extradition, but on April 7, the Belarusian courts determined that he would not be extradited.
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often did not work well. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, it was practically very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights were violated typically sought redress in the ECHR after domestic courts ruled against them. Amendments to the constitution approved in a nationwide vote on July 1, and signed into law on December 8, enshrined the primacy of Russian law over international law, stating that decisions by interstate bodies interpreted in a manner contrary to the constitution are not enforceable in the country. Many experts interpreted this to mean that courts have greater power to ignore rulings from international human rights bodies, including the ECHR; the courts had already set a precedent by declaring such bodies’ decisions “nonexecutable.”
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. There is no legislation or special mechanism in the country that addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the laws’ provisions, claims may only be made by states and not individuals.
For 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, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed since 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. The Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, although the FSB is not required to show it upon request.
In January a Novaya Gazeta investigation revealed that personnel of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s antiextremism division had installed a secret video camera in 2018 in the bedroom of Anastasiya Shevchenko, an Open Russia activist facing criminal charges for participating in an “undesirable” organization. The camera recorded her for five months without her knowledge.
The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.
As of September almost 200,000 government surveillance cameras have been installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its Safe City program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, in order to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. The first major test of this system occurred in the spring, as the Moscow city government began enforcing mandatory COVID-19 self-isolation requirements using facial recognition. The personal data of residents and international visitors placed under quarantine in Moscow were reportedly uploaded into the system in order to monitor the public for self-isolation violations. The Moscow city government announced that additional cameras would be installed throughout the city, including in one-quarter of the city’s 6,000 metro cars, by the end of the year.
In July, two activists, Alyona Popova and Vladimir Milov, filed a complaint against the country’s facial recognition program with the ECHR. Popova and Milov claimed closed-circuit television cameras were used during a large September 2019 protest in Moscow to conduct mass surveillance of the participants. They claimed that the government’s collection of protesters’ unique biometric data through the use of facial recognition technology violated the right to privacy and freedom of assembly provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights. Popova and Milov also argued the use of the technology at an opposition rally amounted to discrimination based on political views. The pair had previously filed a complaint in a local Moscow court, which was dismissed in March when the court ruled the government’s use of the technology legal.
On May 21, the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTI persons. For example, on October 2, Russian media reported that authorities were threatening to arrest and take away the children of gay men who have fathered their children through surrogacy, accusing them of child trafficking. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest. As of December no formal arrest related to this threat had been reported.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the regime and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.). No internal governmental bodies meaningfully investigated whether security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 227,180 civilians were killed in the conflict from 2011 to December. Other groups estimated this number exceeded 550,000. This discrepancy was due in part to the vast number of disappeared, many of whom remained missing.
During the year the SNHR reported 1,462 civilians were killed, including at least 200 women and 218 children. The majority of these deaths occurred at the beginning of the year, during a military operation led by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies against the areas in and around Idlib.
The regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and to cause the death of large numbers of civilians throughout regime-controlled territories. For example, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army entered al-Quraya on March 27, killed six armed residents in the fighting, and later summarily executed five men and detained others.
The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and numerous human rights groups reported the regime continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. According to the SNHR, more than 14,500 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and December, including 179 children and 91 women; the SNHR attributed approximately 99 percent of all cases to regime forces, including 115 deaths during the year (see section 1.c.).
Despite a ceasefire established in March, the regime maintained its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling, killing hundreds of civilians during the year. In 2019 the UN secretary-general established a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on civilian sites shared between humanitarian groups and military actors for the purpose of deconfliction from September 2018 through 2019 in northwest Syria. In April the BOI concluded that, in four of the seven incidents investigated, it “was highly probable” the Assad regime and its allies were responsible for attacks on UN deconflicted hospitals. In March the COI reporting on Idlib determined there were reasonable grounds to believe Russian forces were guilty of the war crime of “launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and that “progovernment forces repeatedly committed the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel. In attacking hospitals, medical units, and health-care personnel, progovernment forces violated binding international humanitarian law to care for the sick and wounded and committed the war crime of attacking protected objects.”
Other actors in the conflict were also implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of regime authorities, and the vast majority of those disappeared since the start of the conflict remained missing. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. The SNHR reported approximately 1,185 forced disappearances during the year and documented at least 149,360 Syrians were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions. The regime targeted medical personnel and critics, including journalists and protesters, as well as their families and associates. Most disappearances reported by Syrian and international human rights documentation groups appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July, Syrian journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa told the UN Security Council the number of detained and disappeared was still growing as the regime continued to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians.” As of December the regime issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March and included only a small number of cases heard by the Counter-Terrorism Court and military field courts. The decree excluded the vast majority of detainees who were never formally convicted of a crime in any court of law and were classified by the international community as unacknowledged detainees or forcibly disappeared.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) reported in August that it had requested information from the regime on 113 individuals whom the regime reportedly subjected to enforced disappearance between May 2019 and May 2020. The UNWGEID received no response from the regime on these or other outstanding cases. The UNWGEID also received reports of disappearances, including women and children, perpetrated by various armed groups, including those affiliated with the Turkish armed forces.
According to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, in February the regime released the bodies of Maher Suleiman al-Dali and Ahmad Ali al-Awad, who were arresting after defecting from the Syrian army. Both had signed reconciliation agreements.
Throughout the year the regime continued publishing notifications of detainees’ deaths in regime detention facilities. According to Families for Freedom, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. In many cases the regime had denied the presence of these individuals in its detention centers until it released death notifications. The SNHR recorded at least 970 of these notifications but estimated that the number of detainees certified as dead was in the thousands. The regime did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred.
For example, the SNHR received information in June that Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al-Haj Ali, a college student detained and forcibly disappeared by regime forces in 2013, had died in regime custody. As was frequently the case, the regime did not provide Wesam’s body to the family or officially inform the family of the timing or manner of his death, although the SNHR reported it was likely due to torture.
The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared approaching authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Some terrorist groups and armed opposition groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The regime made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reported thousands of credible cases of regime authorities engaging in systematic torture, abuse, and mistreatment to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations, a systematic regime practice documented throughout the conflict and even prior to 2011. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights assessed that, while individuals were often tortured in order to obtain information, the primary purpose of the regime’s use of torture during interrogations was to terrorize and humiliate detainees.
While most accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in regime custody during the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of regime reprisal. Many torture victims reportedly died in custody (see section 1.a.).
A military defector, nicknamed “Caesar,” testified outside the country in April that he had been ordered to take photographs of the bodies of victims–including thousands of photographs he later smuggled out of the country–who had been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially killed in regime detention centers between 2011 and 2013. Caesar said the bodies had signs of burning, strangulation, and whipping with cables. NGOs continued to report various forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison described the testimonies of 14 former detainees held by the regime in Sednaya Prison and reported prison officials subjected detainees to a wide range of torture as an interrogation tactic and, at times, for no reason at all. The SNHR documented the deaths of at least 33 individuals between March and June, including one woman, due to torture and medical negligence in regime detention centers. For example, the State Security Force arrested Mahmoud Abdul Majid al-Rahil from Daraa on May 4, returning his body to his family three days later. Al-Rahil, whose body bore signs of torture, had previously settled his legal and security status with the regime via a reconciliation agreement and was not engaged in military activity at the time of his arrest. In May the SNHR interviewed 96 individuals released under the March amnesty decree, all of whom had been arrested for their connection to protests. Many reported being subjected to torture by regime security forces as a method for extracting confessions to “terrorism” related crimes.
The COI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported regular use of torture against perceived regime opponents at checkpoints and regime facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. Human rights groups identified numerous detention facilities where torture occurred, including the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra Prison; Sednaya Prison; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and the Tishreen Military Hospital.
The SNHR estimated that parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 acts of sexual violence between 2011 and December. Regime forces were responsible for at least 8,020 cases of sexual violence between 2011 and December, including 879 cases inside detention centers and 443 violations against girls younger than age 18. American University’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence stated that regime authorities subjected men, women, and children in detention to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, sexual torture and abuse, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment.
In July, HRW reported the regime and, to a lesser extent, nonstate actors subjected men, boys, transgender women, and nonbinary persons to sexual violence during detention, and that this violence was perpetrated with the intent to torture and terrorize detainees. Those interviewed by HRW described being subjected to rape, threat of rape, genital violence, forced nudity, and sexual harassment. One interviewee, 28-year-old Yousef, stated he was detained by regime intelligence agencies and, once his sexual orientation was revealed, the interrogations increased drastically, accompanied by torture and sexual violence designed to humiliate detainees, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed in June that the regime perpetrated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the detention and torture of medical workers, intending to “make delivery of health care a crime and to criminalize doctors for treating people.”
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the regime. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relationships, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities. According to the SNHR’s database, at least 4,815 children were still detained or forcibly disappeared as of September, with at least 100 of those detentions having taken place during the year. In January the COI issued a special report on abuses against children throughout the conflict in Syria. The report noted that regime coerces detained boys as young as 12, subjecting them to severe beatings and torture and denying them access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care. The COI also noted the presence of male and female detainees as young as age 11 recorded in Security Branches 215, 227, 235, and 248 in Damascus. The COI reported that children were made to witness the torture and other abuses inflicted on family members and, on occasions, were forced to inflict torture on other detainees. One COI interviewee described how a 16-year-old boy was forced to electrocute the genitals of another detainee.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique of abuse and interrogation.
Numerous human rights organizations concluded that regime forces continued to inflict systematic, officially sanctioned torture on civilians in detention with impunity. There were no known prosecutions or convictions in the country of security force personnel for abuses and no reported regime actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
In April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, initiated the first trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria, charging former regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. Raslan was charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault, and 58 murders at Branch 251, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012. Al-Gharib was charged with aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity and complicity in some 30 cases of torture.
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assessed in April the conditions in regime prisons were alarming and presented unique risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. The SNHR estimated at least 149,360 Syrians were in detention centers or forcibly disappeared, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. Poor conditions in detention centers were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy. Human rights groups reported that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults.
Reports from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) suggested that there continued to be many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the regime housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and often denied pregnant women any medical care. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. One former detainee, Omar Alshogre, testified the regime detained him as a minor in 2012 and subjected him to extensive torture, including at Branch 215 where he was held in an underground prison cell with hundreds of other detainees. He said malnutrition and disease, including tuberculosis, was prevalent among the detainees.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable. The OHCHR reported in April that Syrian detainees with disabilities and underlying health conditions were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
According to the COI, conditions in detention centers run by nonstate actors, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked HTS, violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with most families waiting years to see relatives and, in many cases, never being able to visit them at all without bribing regime officials.
In areas where regime control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not respect due process and lacked training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The regime prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its visits to formal prisons in 2016 and reported making limited progress on restoring family links to relatives in detention. The ICRC was unable to visit intelligence and military detention centers during the year.
The ICRC and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties to gain access to detention centers across the country but were unable to gain access to any regime-controlled facilities during the year. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the ICRC and UN-supported NGOs access to SDF prisons during the year.
Reportedly, the regime often failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The regime also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The COI and various NGOs, activists, and former detainees reported police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations.
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, for example, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial. The ICTJ reported the accused were generally tried without a lawyer and denied the right to present a defense. Judges usually followed the intelligence director’s sentence recommendations, even though it was widely known many confessions were made under torture.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature. The regime reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Of the former detainees interviewed by ICTJ, mostly from Sednaya Prison, 99 percent said they were never provided paperwork describing the charges against them during their entire period of detention.
NGOs such as the STJ and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirmed that reported intelligence branches had arrested at least 500 Syrians who had signed reconciliation agreements with the regime during the last two years. The Office of Daraa Martyrs stated reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government; therefore, the regime often fabricated criminal charges against former opposition members. Organizations such as Amnesty International also charged the regime with breaking terms of surrender deals and arresting civilians in Homs, Daraa, and the Damascus countryside.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. In areas under regime control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that regime forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests.
Estimates varied widely on the number of Syrians remaining in arbitrary detention, as the regime continued to withhold information on the status of the vast majority of detainees. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported at least 149,360 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime.
In May the ICTJ issued a report stating that the Syrian Arab Army and the four main security services–Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Air Force Intelligence Directorate–were responsible for the majority of arbitrary arrests and detentions, often on fabricated charges. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias were responsible for nearly 500 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year, including eight minors and 11 women. The COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. It further reported that women with familial ties to opposition fighters or defectors were detained for intelligence-gathering purposes or retribution.
In June, Amnesty International reported regime security forces arrested 11 men for participating in peaceful protests in Sweida. The regime threatened to send eight of them to the “antiterrorism” court in Damascus if protests in Sweida continued. The regime reportedly carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Douma, arresting 12 civilians in June and taking them to an undisclosed location.
The PHR reported that regime forces continued to target specifically health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and healthcare activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime was arresting health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets about the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reported authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest or solely for being of military age. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were then transferred to a long-term detention facility or forcibly disappeared.
The HRW reported regime intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining and disappearing persons in areas retaken by the regime, in violation of reconciliation agreements. The COI reported fear of such arbitrary arrests and detention deterred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). The STJ reported that Turkish-supported armed opposition groups (TSOs) detained residents based on their affiliation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (SNES). For example, the STJ reported that civil police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, arbitrarily arrested Kurdish civilians Samia Alo, Abdulhamid Shaiko, Mustafa Ahmad Ibrahim, Abdulrahamn Mustafa Alo, and Rashid Mustafa Ibo in an April 8 raid, demanding their families pay a fine to secure their release.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release, compensation, or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. The SNHR reported regime authorities detained and denied access to fair public trial at least 1,730 individuals during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the regime did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them, with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held via video conference instead of in person. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying. The courts appoint lawyers for indigents.
The ICTJ reported that, in the majority of cases involving individuals arrested by regime intelligence branches, defendants were held incommunicado throughout their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The SNHR reported detainees on trial in military courts were often transferred to unknown locations without notification to their attorneys or families. Numerous NGOs reported families of individuals detained by the regime continued to be unable to access information on the status of their relatives.
Human rights groups reported that in some cases the regime provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. By law defendants may present witnesses and evidence or confront the prosecution witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported defendants were tortured and intimidated to acquire information and force confessions, as described in a May ICTJ report.
Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia (Islamic law) regardless of the religion of those involved.
Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the regime denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the regime, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. The regime did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the International Legal Assistance Consortium, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents from the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. NGOs reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities continued to implement a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies.
Human rights groups and media organizations continued to report that the HTS denied those it had detained the opportunity in its sharia courts to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. The HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
Tens of thousands of men, women, and children from former ISIS held areas remained in the overcrowded al-Hol camp, administered by an international NGO with security assistance provided by the SDF, where living conditions remained challenging. While basic humanitarian needs were met, services were at times reduced at times due to COVID-19, security incidents persisted, and camp residents did not have freedom of movement.
The SDF reportedly provided information to the COI on its procedure for the return of al-Hol inhabitants and facilitated the return of approximately 1,500 inhabitants between December 2019 and February.
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime continued to detain civilians systematically. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force, Military, Political Security, and General–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding the numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges. Human rights groups noted detainees included doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and widespread torture. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners’ access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the regime denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. There were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by regime forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
NGOs continued to report the regime used the counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Amnesty: The regime had issued 17 amnesty decrees since 2011, but decrees generally resulted in the release of limited numbers of ordinary criminals. These amnesties excluded detainees who had not been charged with any crimes, which comprised the majority in regime detention. In May the SNHR reported the regime only released 96 detainees in the two months following the March amnesty announcement, arbitrarily detaining 113 others within that same period. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the regime. During the year regime forces violated prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns against civilians and former members of armed opposition factions in areas with signed settlement agreements with the regime.
Regime civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. The HTS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the areas of northeastern Syria under the control of the SNES, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Regime security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law, and although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, regime forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC could try cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
The regime continued to use Decree 66 to “redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas” and replace them with “modern” real estate projects. In May the Carnegie Middle East Center called the “Marota City” project in Damascus “the blueprint for future regime-led reconstruction process in Syria used to consolidate its authoritarian rule and crush dissent.” The regime gave residents of the area, known as Bastin al-Razi, 30 days to prove their property rights, an impossible timeframe for those detained, internally displaced, or outside the country due to the conflict.
The regime also continued to implement Law No. 10 to create “redevelopment zones” for reconstruction. Property owners were notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or lose ownership to the state. In January 2019 the regime extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they own land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but the NGO PAX reported it was nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. Refugees and IDPs reportedly feared regime retribution should they attempt to claim their property, and others were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation requirements. Despite the existence of an appeals process, the SJAC expressed serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
In August the European Institute of Peace (EIP) reported the regime had prevented IDPs from returning to Wadi Barada, an area formerly held by the opposition where extensive demolitions subsequently took place. It was estimated more than 10,000 displaced residents were unable to return to their homes in Wadi Barada.
The EIP interviewed a former Ain al-Fijeh resident who had received a notice of the regime’s intent to seize his property on charges of supporting terrorism. The resident stated that even his settlement agreement would not be accepted until he surrendered, despite previous regime promises to IDPs that they could return to their homes during settlement negotiations.
Armed groups also reportedly seized residents’ properties. In September the COI reported it had “corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” The COI also reported TSO looting and seizures of schools, businesses, and agricultural machinery.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the regime routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the regime maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against regime targets, or resumption of regime control.
The regime continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in COI reports, the regime employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The regime reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. Numerous reports confirmed that the regime continued to punish entire families placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets. The EIP interviewed a resident of Ain al-Fijeh who reported being arbitrarily detained for six months by regime security forces after several of his family members fled to Idlib.
The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and violent extremist groups, such as the HTS and ISIS, as well as foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran participated in armed combat and supported armed groups operating in the country.
The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the regime’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, law enforcement authorities refusing to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports, such as the September COI report, indicated the regime continued to arbitrarily and unlawfully kill, torture, and detain persons, notably including refugees and IDPs who voluntarily returned to regime-controlled territories. Attacks impacting and destroying civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country.
As of September there were more than 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.6 million IDPs. UNHCR also estimated that as of September there were 11.1 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.1 million in hard-to-reach, besieged areas.
Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; the United Nations stopped publishing estimates of the death toll in 2016. The SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed within that time, and other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the large number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.
Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for IDPs and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year; these attacks included bombardment with barrel bombs. These forces used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Reports from NGOs and a July COI report indicated that in Idlib, hostilities escalated from the beginning of the year until a ceasefire was brokered between Turkey and Russia in March. Before the ceasefire began, airstrikes by regime and proregime forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Idlib.
The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out at least 490 cluster munition attacks from 2011 to December, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that period. The group also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 382 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,350 civilians. For example, the SNHR reported that six civilians, including a child and four women, were killed when a fixed-wing warplane believed to be Russian fired missiles on Jedraya on February 5.
Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed civilian infrastructure including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In April the BOI found it “highly probable” that the regime carried out attacks that impacted three health-care facilities, a school, and a refuge for children in northwest Syria, despite these locations coordinates being deconflicted between the United Nations and Russia.
In July the COI issued a report investigating incidents in northwest Syria, finding that the regime and proregime forces were responsible for 534 of the 582 confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of the year. The COI reported that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that proregime forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” as well as “the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians,” and “that members of progovernment forces, and in particular the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, committed the war crime of pillage.” The COI further stated that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.” The report noted that “progovernment forces carried out attacks consistent with clear patterns previously documented by COI, affecting markets and medical facilities,” and that “attacks on schools have emerged as one of the most vicious patterns in the Syrian conflict.”
On January 5, as proregime forces intensified efforts to recapture the town of Ariha, six aircraft launched munitions that damaged a water distribution point where civilians had gathered to collect water, in addition to damaging residential homes, a kindergarten, and a mosque, killing at least 13 civilians. On March 5, far from the front lines of the contested area, proregime forces conducted airstrikes on a poultry farm in Marat Misrin where displaced civilians had been relocated, killing at least 16 civilians, including eight women and three children. The COI indicated in its July report there was reason to believe that Russian Aerospace Forces conducted two consecutive airstrikes in this incident.
Although no use of prohibited chemical weapons was reported during the year, in April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the regime was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Ltamenah in 2017. These attacks preceded the more deadly sarin attack in nearby Khan Shaykhun less than two weeks later and were part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Additionally, the PHR, SNHR, and other NGOs concluded that Russia and the regime targeted humanitarian workers, such as the Syria Civil Defense (The White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In February the Washington Post reported that airstrikes and shelling killed aid and medical workers attempting to help civilians in Idlib. Most of the 10,000 aid workers in the area were displaced by the regime’s offensive in the first few months of the year, including 15 percent of the International Rescue Committee staff.
There were numerous reports of deaths in regime custody, notably at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison, by execution without due process, torture, and deaths from other forms of abuse, such as malnutrition and lack of medical care (see section 1.a.). In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families.
Violent extremist groups were also responsible for killings during the year. The SNHR attributed 17 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The HTS arbitrarily detained 19-year-old Mohammed Tano in late 2019 and in April condemned him to death for blasphemy, although activists suspected the HTS executed him after discovering texts criticizing HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. In May the online news outlet Middle East Eye reported the HTS killed a civilian in Idlib while using force to disperse a protest. In June the SNHR reported the HTS executed a university student by firing squad at a detention center after detaining him during a raid on his home. There was no trial, and his family was never given his body for burial. In July the COI reported the HTS launched antiregime attacks that affected civilians in regime-controlled areas. On January 21, a nine-year-old boy was killed by a mortar attack reportedly originating from the HTS-controlled part of Aleppo. The COI’s July report found “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the HTS committed the war crimes of murder and of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court as well as the war crime of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture.”
The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in Syria from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey were involved in fighting in Syria during the year. The COI blamed Russia for aerial attacks in northwest Syria throughout the year. Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or TSOs on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities used to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020 during fighting in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, including near civilian infrastructure.
During the year TSOs were allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings. For example, in May the STJ reported TSO Sultan Murad detained and executed Ibrahim al-Youssef, after a failed extortion attempt. In August the Kurdish National Council and the Afrin Post reported that TSO Faylaq al-Sham militants killed a 63-year-old Kurdish Yezidi civilian, Nouri Jammou Omar Sharaf, following an unsuccessful extortion attempt. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA Military Police detention. During the year the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), to whom the SNA nominally reports, announced the establishment of a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses. The SIG sentenced one SNA fighter to a life sentence for the 2019 killing of the Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, and a range of other SNA abuses committed during Operation Peace Spring; however, the SIG did not publicly announce this sentencing and subsequently reduced the sentence to 10 years. Human rights and documentation groups expressed a lack of confidence in the credibility of the SIG’s accountability effort.
COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported multiple car bombings, other attacks involving improvised explosive devices, and intra-TSO fighting in TSO-held areas in northern Syria, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and noted the rise in such attacks during the year. While there was generally a lack of attribution for these attacks, Turkish government officials alleged most attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with PKK.
Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.).
Armed groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists.
The COI noted in its March and September reports that the HTS routinely detained and tortured civilians in territory in northwest Syria under HTS control. According to the COI and HRW, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived regime supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of the HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. The SNHR reported that approximately 2,115 persons remained in HTS detention as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention. For example, the SNHR reported that in August the HTS abducted a pharmacist and director of the midwifery institute in Idlib, Mustafa al-Jazi. His fate remained unknown.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups during the conflict: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio.
The COI reported the SDF continued to arrest civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. In March the SNHR reported that since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 3,000 Syrians, including 169 women and 602 children, were still missing after being detained or forcibly disappeared by the SDF. The SNHR and STJ reported instances of SDF fighters detaining civilians, including journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons affiliated with the SNA. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. For example, the SNHR reported the SDF detained Muhammad Muhsen al-Ibrahim in March 2019 in a raid on his home in Deir Ez-Zour. The SDF did not provide information on al-Ibrahim’s status until September, when the family learned of his death in detention. The SDF continued to allow the ICRC into detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. In September the SDF stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
The COI, HRW, Amnesty International, and Syrian human rights monitors reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by TSOs, including the groups Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police. The SNHR attributed 185 arbitrary detentions and abductions in the first half of the year to TSO-aligned SNA fighters. The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.
According to the COI, areas where TSOs were active continued to face instability due to increased infighting between the groups during the year. Victims of abductions by TSOs were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin. The Afrin Human Rights Organization, the VDC, and Iraqi media outlet Rudaw reported the February 27 kidnapping of Areen Dali Hassan, a Yezidi woman, in Afrin City. Areen was believed to be in Firqat al-Hamza captivity in the “Castle Prison” in al-Basuta in Afrin District. In June, Families for Freedom and a coalition of 11 other human rights groups reported that fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Firqat al-Hamza resulted in the deaths of three civilians and led to the discovery of at least eight women in degrading conditions in Firqat al-Hamza captivity.
The COI reported in September on the transfer of Syrians detained by SNA fighters to the custody of the government of Turkey, indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” The Turkish government denied these reports and denied responsibility for Syrian opposition or TSO conduct but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported SNA had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government of Turkey stated its own conduct in the operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and reliable NGO reports, the regime and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Numerous organizations and former detainees reported that nearly all detainees in regime detention experienced physical abuse and torture at some point during their detention.
As of March the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were responsible for the vast majority of these offenses–more than 8,000 incidents in total–including more than 800 incidents inside detention centers and more than 400 against girls younger than age 18 years. The SNHR also reported 3,487 incidents of sexual violence by ISIS and 12 incidents by the SDF. Numerous NGOs reported that persons in areas retaken by regime forces remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals. The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence reported most sexual and gender-based abuses by regime forces during the year occurred at checkpoints or in detention (see section 1.d.). In August the SNHR and the All Survivors Project issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as a tool of torture used by the regime against men and boys.
There were also reports of armed opposition groups engaging in physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected regime agents and collaborators, proregime militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and June, the SNHR attributed more than 43 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 26 to the HTS (including one child), and more than 33 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 52 deaths to torture by Kurdish forces.
The SDF was also implicated in several instances of torture, with the SNHR reporting the group used torture as a means of extracting confessions during interrogations. On January 29, the SNHR reported it had received notification that Fajr Ibrahim died in custody allegedly as the result of medical negligence, after being detained by the SDF in February. The SNHR also reported detainee Mua’th al-Muhammad al-Kal from Raqqa, reportedly detained in February for transferring money to ISIS-affiliated family members, asserted that while imprisoned, he was left in solitary confinement without food and was subjected to beating and torture for several days. The SNHR also reported video surveillance obtained in March showed severe overcrowding in Ghwayran Prison. In September the COI reported several instances of repeated torture of detainees in SDF prisons. The SDF continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. In September the SDF also stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
According to the SNHR’s June report on the use of torture in Syria, the HTS continued to carryout detentions and kidnappings of local political opponents and journalists. In June the SNHR reported that members of HTS arrested human rights activist Omar al-Eis and kept him in solitary detention for 126 days. Al-Eis reported hearing sounds of torture every day at the Uqab Prison. In April, HTS fighters abducted Hassan Salh Abs from Sarmin. On April 20, his family received information he had been tortured to death at an HTS detention center. Human rights groups continued to report that the HTS officially denounces secularism and routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to be have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. Media organizations also documented the forced conversion of Druze and Alawite civilians by the HTS, detaining or disappearing those refusing to comply.
The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that, since January 2018, TSO groups had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since October 2019, in the areas taken during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in March, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture” in Afrin and the Operation Peace Spring area. The COI in September reported the torture and rape of minors in TSO detention and “corroborated widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.” The Violations Documentation Center and local media reported in July that SNA-affiliated Firqat al-Hamza had tortured Mahmoud Hassan Omri, a 27-year-old man with a disability, to death in Ras al-Ayn after forcibly disappearing him in November 2019 when he sought to return to his home, which had been seized by the group.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN special representative on children and armed conflict reported in its annual report that at least 820 children had been recruited as child soldiers during the reporting period. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, the SNA, as well as ISIS and the HTS, actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported the recruitment and use of 820 children (765 boys, and 55 girls) in the conflict between January and December of 2019. According to the report, 798 of the children served in combat roles and 147 were younger than age 15. The report attributed 283 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups; 245 to the HTS; 191 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups; 26 to Ahrar al-Sham; one to ISIS; 17 to Jaysh al-Islam; three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki; and 10 to regime forces.
In January the COI reported it continued receiving reports of young boys, some considered by persons who saw them to not be older than age 13, observed at checkpoints staffed by the regime and associated militia in Hama. One interviewee explained to the COI how one of the boys, age 16, joined the regime military forces after ISIS killed his brothers.
The COI continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS in Idlib governorate, as proregime forces intensified their offensive. In Aleppo boys between 13 to 17 years of age joined armed groups. One interviewee described the case of a 14-year-old boy who joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2018 along with his older brother to participate in operation “Olive Branch” and served at a checkpoint in Aleppo.
In 2019 the SDF signed an action plan with the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, as well as to identify and separate boys and girls within the group’s ranks and to put in place protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use. The SDF continued to implement an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. During the year the SDF screened out more than 250 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations.
The United Nations confirmed the SDF had demobilized 86 minors (56 girls and 30 boys) during the year and, working with the SNES, returned these minors to their families for community-based reintegration, pursuant to UN requests. In 2019 also the SDF demobilized 86 children.
The SDF and SNES in August announced the establishment of the Complaints Mechanism, a key component of the child soldier demobilization initiative, which provides parents a single SNES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. The United Nations reported 10 children were recently returned to their parents through this mechanism.
In August the SDF publicly announced it would cease its use of schools for military purposes; the United Nations subsequently confirmed the SDF withdrew from 16 of 28 schools it identified as under SDF use for military purposes, as well as from two other schools.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January the COI reported, “warring parties have looted and vandalized educational establishments and used schools for military purposes, including as depots, barracks, sniper posts, temporary bases or launching sites. Repeated attacks on educational facilities combined with the complete breakdown of the education system have minimized the opportunities for children to resume their studies and improve prospects for their future.” The COI further concluded it had documented “instances where Government forces deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed the war crimes of deliberately targeting a civilian object and deliberately attacking civilians.”
In cities where sieges ended and the regime regained control, the SNHR reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed new collective measures to punish communities by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread forcible conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of war crimes.
The United Nations estimated that violence in Idlib displaced more than 900,000 persons–80 percent women and children–since December 2019.
According to Amnesty International and numerous other human rights and humanitarian groups, those trapped in the area were crammed into close quarters with IDPs and vulnerable to the regime’s and Russia’s campaign of aerial bombardments impacting civilian infrastructure. The White Helmets documented more than 2,200 airstrikes in January and February, including 32 cluster-bomb attacks and 605 barrel bombs in Idlib, along with Aleppo and Hama. UN officials throughout the year voiced grave concerns about the situation for civilians caught in the Idlib siege. Cross-border assistance remained the only means of reaching persons in and around Idlib.
HRW and various media organizations found that the regime implemented a policy and legal framework to manipulate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to benefit itself, punish perceived opponents, and reward those loyal to it. The regime regularly restricted humanitarian organizations’ access to communities in need of aid, selectively approved humanitarian projects, and required organizations to partner with vetted local actors to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded. Organizations continued to report that entities such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) faced difficulties accessing areas retaken by the regime.
The regime frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups. Foreign Policy and HRW reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, only allowing the delivery of assistance to loyalist-held areas through regime organizations such as the Syria Trust for Development, which was led by Bashar Assad’s wife, or the SARC.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning, and hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. From March 2011 through March 2020, the PHR reported 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel, with regime and Russian forces responsible for 91 percent of attacks (301 by regime forces and 229 by either Russian or regime forces). In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested proregime forces systematically targeted medical facilities and that such acts constituted war crimes. The BOI further reported that Russian and regime forces launched attacks that devastated medical facilities and networks in Idlib. In June, Russia informed the United Nations it would no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism.
The COI reported that the above incidents followed a well documented pattern of attacks with humanitarian and civilian impact conducted by the regime, with Russian and Iranian support.
The 2018 COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed, the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and served as a regime strategy for punishing those individuals. Various sources continued to report cases during the year in which the regime targeted persons who agreed to reconciliation agreements (see sections 1.b., 1.d., and 1.e.).
Regime forces and armed groups also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
The COI and NGOs such as PAX indicated that, taken together with steps such as the enactment of Law No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip those displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the regime and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
While the government pushed forward to recapture areas around the M5 highway at the beginning of the year, armed groups such as the HTS launched counterattacks against government positions in Idlib, Aleppo. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, caused some civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The COI reported that on February 5, armed groups fired three rockets impacting a densely populated area in the government-controlled Hamdaniya neighborhood of western Aleppo. This attack damaged a hospital and residential home and killed a family of five. The COI described this attack as “indiscriminate, indirect artillery fire of area weapons into densely populated civilian areas.” The COI also reported the HTS sought to intimidate the local population from expressing dissent by beating and detaining participants during protests throughout the year. In April, HTS forces killed a man while breaking up a demonstration. The COI stated the HTS detained journalists and NGO workers for weeks on the basis of their criticism of HTS activities and that HTS had shot and killed detainees trying to escape during airstrikes on the Qasimiah detention facility on January 17. The COI reported other HTS abuses as well, including looting in Atarib, attempts to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and preventing large numbers of girls from attending school.
The COI and international and Syrian NGOs such as the STJ reported throughout the year that TSO groups had engaged in the systematic looting, seizure, appropriation, and destruction of civilian homes and religious sites, particularly those of Kurds and Yezidis, resulting in significant civilian displacement. TSOs also reportedly continued to bar returnees from their properties in northern Syria and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area. Confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families. According to numerous organizations, including STJ, VDC, and al-Monitor, TSOs, including Firqat al-Hamza and Sultan Murad, seized agricultural machinery, water tanks, and other private property in Ras al-Ayn and sold it back to owners. Firqat al-Hamza and Ahrar al-Sharqiya reportedly seized homes and clinics and then charged their owners rent. In August and September, the COI, media organization The Syria Report, and the STJ reported the Syrian Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council seized two private properties owned by Kurdish residents in Ras al-Ayn and that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, then converted the properties into religious centers without compensating the owners, despite petitions made to the Council. The governor of Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province delivered remarks in June for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of these converted sites.
TSOs continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of northeast Syria despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR reported in September that “Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which control the Alouk water pumping station in Ras al-Ain, have repeatedly disrupted water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals in the city of al-Hassakeh and surrounding areas, including extremely vulnerable displaced persons in various IDP camps.” According to NGO reporting, Alouk Station was offline for 55 percent of the time between October 2019 and August due to TSO denial of access to maintenance crews and deliberate shutdown of the station. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the plant from a power generation facility in SDF-controlled area, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in northeast Syria.
The COI reported in September that SNA members looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites in the Afrin region, including Yezidi shrines and graveyards, as well as sites protected by UNESCO. In April the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar cemetery. These organizations also reported cases where TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.
In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continued abuses against the Christian community, including the detention of Radwan Mohammad by Faylaq al-Sham in Afrin on charges of apostasy after he refused to hand his school building over to the group for conversion into an Islamic school. In July, Faylaq al-Sham also prevented Mohammad from preparing his wife’s body for burial due to her faith.