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Bulgaria

Executive Summary Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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

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

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

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

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

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

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

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

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

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

Property Restitution

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

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

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

Freedom of Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

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

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

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Croatia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

Property Restitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

g. Stateless Persons

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism

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

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

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

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

Romania

Executive Summary

Romania is a constitutional republic with a democratic, multiparty parliamentary system. The bicameral parliament consists of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, both elected by popular vote. Observers considered local elections held on September 27 and parliamentary elections held on December 6 to have been generally free and fair and without significant irregularities.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police, the gendarmerie, border police, the General Directorate for Internal Protection, and the Directorate General for Anticorruption. The General Directorate for Internal Protection has responsibility for intelligence gathering, counterintelligence, and preventing and combatting vulnerabilities and risks that could seriously disrupt public order or target Ministry of Internal Affairs operations. The minister of interior appoints the head of the directorate. The Romanian Intelligence Service, the domestic security agency, investigates terrorism and national security threats. The president nominates and the parliament confirms the service’s director. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the intelligence service and the security agencies that reported to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; widespread official corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women and girls; and crimes of violence targeting institutionalized persons with disabilities and members of ethnic minority groups.

The judiciary took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but authorities did not have effective mechanisms to do so and delayed proceedings involving alleged police abuse and corruption, with the result that many of the cases ended in acquittals. Impunity for perpetrators of some human rights abuses was a continuing problem.

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

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

There were no reports during the year that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There is no agency specifically designated to investigate whether police killings were justified. Prosecutor’s offices handle investigations and prosecutions against police who commit killings while military prosecutors’ offices handle investigations and prosecutions against members of the gendarmerie who commit killings.

In July 2019 in the city of Vatra Dornei, three gendarmes tried for 10 minutes to immobilize physically a 55-year-old man suspected of inappropriately touching a child and used tear gas spray against him. During the intervention, the man became unconscious and was taken to the hospital, where he died the following day. In 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Iasi Military Tribunal continued the investigation of the case, which included the prosecution of a member of the gendarmerie for abusive behavior and abuse of power.

In 2017 the trial began of former communist-era Securitate officials Marin Parvulescu, Vasile Hodis, and Tudor Postelnicu, accused of crimes against humanity before the Bucharest Court of Appeals. They were charged in the death of dissident Gheorghe Ursu, who was arrested and allegedly beaten to death by investigators and cellmates in 1985. In October 2019 the Bucharest Court of Appeals issued a nonfinal ruling acquitting Parvulescu and Hodis. Gheorghe Ursu’s son challenged the decision before the High Court of Cassation and Justice. As of November 2020, the High Court of Cassation and Justice had not issued a ruling.

In 2016 the Military Prosecutor’s Office indicted former president Ion Iliescu, former Prime Minister Petre Roman, former vice prime minister Gelu Voican Voiculescu, and former Intelligence Service director Virgil Magureanu for crimes against humanity. They were accused of involvement in the 1990 “miners’ riot,” when thousands of miners were brought to Bucharest to attack demonstrators opposed to Iliescu’s rule. According to official figures, the violence resulted in hundreds of injuries, illegal arrests, and four deaths. Media estimates of the number of injuries and deaths were much higher. Prosecutors opened the preliminary phase of the case before the High Court of Cassation and Justice in 2019, but on December 10, the court returned the indictment to prosecutors, citing irregularities.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media that police and gendarmes mistreated and abused Roma, primarily with excessive force, including beatings. Amnesty International, the European Roma Rights Center, the Romani Center for Social Intervention and Studies (CRISS), and the Civic Union of Young Roma from Romania reported several instances of police abuse against Roma, in the context of enforcing movement restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 crisis.

On April 23, media circulated a video showing the chief of police in the town of Bolintin Vale in Giurgiu County beating several Romani persons immobilized in handcuffs on the ground and verbally abusing them for speaking in the Romani language. Following expressions of public outrage, the Ministry of Interior announced it had started an investigation of the incident. Human rights NGOs also noted that on April 20, the Interior Minister’s Chief of Staff Traian Berbeceanu referred to the allegations of police abuse and stated on social media that “violence must be met with violence.”

In 2019 prosecutors in Bucharest Sector 5 opened a case against 15 employees and the director of the Rahova Penitentiary Hospital for allegedly beating several inmates between 2015 and 2018 and falsifying medical records to cover up the abuses. In September 2019 prosecutor indicted the employees, and the case remains pending before the Bucharest Tribunal.

The NGO CRISS stated that in 44 cases of police brutality against Roma over the previous 13 years, there were no convictions at the national level, often because prosecutors did not take the cases to court. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in several cases that the justice system had failed to deliver a just outcome in cases of police brutality, particularly against Roma and cases involving abuses in psychiatric hospitals. The average time for a ruling in cases of alleged police abuse of Roma was nearly four years. In March the ECHR issued a ruling on a case involving the 2005 shooting of a 15-year-old Romani girl at close range by a police officer at a train depot in Chitila. As a result of the shooting, the victim suffered severe wounds and required surgery to remove part of her liver. The ECHR noted that authorities failed to ensure that physical evidence linked to the incident was gathered and preserved. Technical and medical expert reports were not produced until several years later, preventing the investigating authorities from making conclusive findings. Both the Prosecutor attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice and a Bucharest district court dismissed the victim’s complaint in 2014 and 2015. According to the ECHR, authorities did not make genuine efforts to establish the events of the 2005 police operation.

In 2019 a total of 194 complaints against penitentiary staff had been lodged with the National Penitentiary Authority (NPA) for abuses of inmates’ rights, acts of discrimination, mistreatment, and inappropriate behavior. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the NPA referred 76 complaints submitted by inmates in 2019 to authorities.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, particularly among police and gendarmerie. Police officers were frequently exonerated in cases of alleged beatings and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. A widespread perception of police corruption and inefficiency contributed to citizens’ lack of respect for police. Low salaries also contributed to making individual law enforcement officials susceptible to bribery. Prosecutors are responsible for investigating abuses according to provisions in the country’s criminal legislation. The Directorate for Internal Review within the Romanian Police can conduct, under prosecutorial supervision, criminal investigations of abuses committed by members of the police as well as internal administrative investigations. The government took the following steps to increase respect for human rights by the security forces: members of the police and gendarmerie were provided briefings on a wide range of human rights issues, including a European Court of Human Rights decision on police violence against Roma; police schools and academies reserved several seats for admission opened only to persons of Romani ethnicity; the Ministry of Interior, the police, police schools and academies, as well as gendarmerie schools provided trainings to students, noncommissioned officers, and officers on a wide range of human rights issues, including gender-based violence, racism, discrimination, and diversity.

According to the United Nations, three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by Romanian peacekeepers reported in 2017 and 2018 were pending. All cases involved military observers deployed in UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One case involved the alleged sexual abuse (rape) of a minor. The peacekeeper in question was repatriated by the United Nations. The other two cases involved alleged sexual exploitation (transactional sex). Investigations by Romanian authorities were pending.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh and overcrowded and did not meet international standards. The abuse of prisoners by authorities and other prisoners reportedly continued to be a problem.

Physical Conditions: According to official figures, overcrowding was a problem, particularly in those prisons that did not meet the standard of 43 square feet per prisoner set by the Council of Europe. Conditions remained generally poor within the prison system, and observers noted insufficient spending on repair and retrofitting. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, men and women, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted persons were not held together.

Media outlets, NGOs, and the ombudsperson reported that prisoners regularly assaulted and abused fellow inmates.

Several prisons provided insufficient medical care, and inmates complained that food quality was poor and sometimes insufficient in quantity. According to the MFA, during the year the amount and quality of food improved. In some prisons heating and ventilation were inadequate. According to the Association for the Defense of Human Rights-Helsinki Committee (ADHR-HC), inmates did not have access to adequate counseling, and many psychologist and social worker positions were not filled. Persons with mental disorders did not receive sufficient care and were frequently isolated by other inmates. The ADHR-HC stated that the actual number of persons who had mental health problems was three times higher than the number of inmates who received treatment for mental illness.

In May several inmates set fire to the Satu-Mare Penitentiary, resulting in the death of three inmates and the hospitalization of two others. Following the incident, the NPA notified authorities and started an internal investigation.

The ADHR-HC stated that some pretrial detention facilities had inadequate conditions, particularly in terms of hygiene. Such facilities were often located in basements and had no natural light and inadequate sanitation. In some pretrial facilities and prisons, there was no possibility for confidential meetings between detainees and their families or attorneys. The ADHR-HC also criticized the lack of HIV and hepatitis prevention measures.

Administration: Inmates have the possibility of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and judges. Independent authorities did not always investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring visits by independent human rights observers, and such visits occurred during the year. The ombudsperson also visited prisons as part of her mandate to monitor places of confinement.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government hospitalized or placed in supervised quarantine tens of thousands of persons between March and June based on regulations later deemed unconstitutional. In June the Constitutional Court found unconstitutional a 2006 law and an emergency ordinance passed during the year that allowed the Health Minister to authorize mandatory hospitalization and quarantines in order to prevent the spread of epidemics. According to the Constitutional Court, mandatory hospitalization and placement in quarantine represented deprivations of freedom and the procedures related to these measures should have been clear and predictable, included provisions for the protection of fundamental rights, and based on law.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law only judges may issue detention and search warrants, and the government generally respected this provision. Authorities must inform detainees at the time of their arrest of the charges against them and their legal rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Police must notify detainees of their rights in a language they understand before obtaining a statement and bring them before a court within 24 hours of arrest. Although authorities generally respected these requirements, there were some reports of abuses during the year. Pending trial, if the alleged offender does not pose any danger to conducting the trial, there is no concern of flight or commission of another crime, and the case does not present a “reasonable suspicion” that the person would have committed the offense, the investigation proceeds with the alleged offender at liberty. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the law allows home detention and pretrial investigation under judicial supervision, which requires the person accused to report regularly to law enforcement officials. A bail system also exists but was seldom used. Detainees have the right to counsel and, in most cases, had prompt access to a lawyer of their choice. Authorities provided indigent detainees legal counsel at public expense. The arresting officer is also responsible for contacting the detainee’s lawyer or, alternatively, the local bar association to arrange for a lawyer. A detainee has the right to meet privately with counsel before the first police interview. A lawyer may be present during the interview or interrogation.

The law allows police to take an individual to a police station without a warrant for endangering others or disrupting public order. Following amendments that entered into force in January, the provision that allowed police to hold persons for up to 24 hours was replaced with a provision that imposes the obligation to release persons “at once.” The ADHR-HC criticized the amendment as leaving room for abuse because of the vagueness of the term “at once.”

Pretrial Detention: A judge may order pretrial detention for up to 30 days. A court may extend this period in 30-day increments up to a maximum of 180 days. Under the law detainees may hold courts and prosecutors liable for unjustifiable, illegal, or abusive measures.

The law allows for home detention using electronic monitoring devices, but the government did not procure such devices, and persons were placed under home detention without them. A judge may detain a person for up to five years during a trial, which is deducted from the prison sentence if the person is convicted.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Lack of sufficient personnel, physical space, and technology to enable the judiciary to act swiftly and efficiently continued, resulting in excessively long trials.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The Superior Council of Magistrates (CSM) is the country’s judicial governance body and is responsible for protecting judicial independence. It generally maintained transparency and suspended judges and prosecutors suspected of legal violations. In May, the CSM voted against disbanding the Section to Investigate Offenses in the Judiciary, an entity that judicial and law enforcement stakeholders criticized as having the potential to intimidate judges and prosecutors. In July the CSM judges’ section voted for the six-month suspension of a judge from Bihor for having given an interview that included her concerns that local “networks of interests”–judiciary and business representatives–joined forces to have “inconvenient” judges like herself removed. Additionally, in the case of the dismissal of former National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) Chief Prosecutor Laura Kovesi, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Kovesi was wrongly dismissed from her position in 2018, saying that her dismissal infringed on her rights to access to a court and freedom of expression. President Iohannis responded that the ECHR’s decision places on Romania’s Constitutional Court the obligation to not only review its decision regarding Kovesi’s dismissal, but also any other decisions touching on an individual’s public statements.

The government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Some prosecutors and judges complained to the council that media outlets and politicians’ statements damaged their professional reputations.

Trial Procedures

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

Under the law defendants enjoy the right to the presumption of innocence, have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, and have the right to free linguistic interpretation, as necessary, from the moment charged through all appeals. Trials should take place without undue delay, but delays were common due to heavy caseloads or procedural inconsistencies. Defendants have the right to be present at trial. The law provides for the right to counsel and the right to consult an attorney in a timely manner. The law requires that the government provide an attorney to juveniles in criminal cases; the Ministry of Justice paid local bar associations to provide attorneys to indigent clients. Defendants may confront or question witnesses against them (unless the witness is an undercover agent) and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law generally provides for the right of defendants and their attorneys to view and consult case files, but prosecutors may restrict access to evidence for such reasons as protecting the victim’s rights and national security. Both prosecutors and defendants have a right of appeal. Defendants may not be compelled to testify against themselves and have the right to abstain from making statements. Prosecutors may use any statements by defendants against them in court.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Civil courts are independent and function in every jurisdiction. Judicial and administrative remedies are available to individuals and organizations for abuses of human rights by government agencies. Plaintiffs may appeal adverse judgments involving alleged abuses of human rights by the state to the ECHR after exhausting the avenues of appeal in domestic courts.

Approximately 80 percent of court cases were civil cases. Caseloads were distributed unevenly, resulting in vastly different efficiency rates in different regions. A lack of both jurisprudence and a modern case management system contributed to a high number of appeals as well as lengthy trials. Litigants sometimes encountered difficulties enforcing civil verdicts because the procedures for enforcing court orders were unwieldy and prolonged.

Property Restitution

According to the National Authority for Property Restitution (ANRP), the Jewish community is entitled to receive compensation for buildings and land that belonged to the Judaic religious denomination or legal entities of the Jewish community that were confiscated between September 6, 1940, and December 22, 1989. Individuals are entitled to compensation only for real estate confiscated between 1945 and 1989. The government has laws and mechanisms in place to address Holocaust-era property claims.

The law for returning property seized by the former communist and fascist regimes includes a “points” system to compensate claimants where restitution of the original property is not possible. Claimants may use the points to bid in auctions of state-owned property or exchange them for monetary compensation. The parliament intended the law to speed up restitution, but local authorities hindered property restitution by failing to complete a land inventory stipulated by law. The government twice extended the deadline for the inventory’s completion.

There were numerous disputes over church buildings and property that the Romanian Orthodox Church failed to return to the Greek Catholic Church, despite court orders to do so. The government did not take effective action to return churches confiscated by the post-World War II communist government. There continued to be lengthy delays in processing claims related to properties owned by national minority communities. Under the law there is a presumption of abusive transfer that applies to restitution of private property but not to religious or communal property. In many cases, documents attesting to the abusive transfer of such properties to state ownership no longer existed. Religious and national minorities are not entitled to compensation for nationalized buildings that were demolished.

Associations of former owners asserted that the points compensation system was ineffective and criticized the restitution law for failing to resolve cases fairly, as well as for lengthy delays and corruption. While the pace of resolving restitution cases at the administrative level increased, the number of properties returned involving churches and national minorities was disproportionately low. The number of cases resolved annually has remained approximately constant over the past three years, (an average of 1,300), but the number of positive decisions remained extremely low. Religious communities disputing these rulings continued having to go to court and incur additional costs. As of September, there were 4,442 pending requests for restitution from religious denominations.

According to advocates of the Romanian Jewish community, the disappearance of entire document repositories, combined with limited access to other archives, prevented the Jewish community from filing certain claims before the legal deadlines. The ANRP rejected most restitution claims concerning former Jewish communal properties during its administrative procedures. The Caritatea Foundation, established by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) to claim communal properties, challenged these negative ANRP decisions in court. The WJRO also reported that the restitution of heirless private Jewish properties was not completed and that there was insufficient research concerning property that had belonged to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, which covers Holocaust-era restitution, was released on July 29 and is available on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were accusations by NGOs, politicians, and journalists that authorities failed to respect people’s rights.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government partially respected this right. Independent media organizations noted excessive politicization of media, corrupt financing mechanisms, as well as editorial policies subordinated to the former elected ruling party and owners’ interests. Reporters said their freedom of expression was also limited by restricted access to information of public interest issued by the previous government and public institutions, including expenses, contracts, or bids involving public funds, and officials’ academic records, and pandemic records. Reporters and NGOs often had to sue state-controlled ministries, agencies, or local entities to access public information.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits Holocaust denial and promoting or using symbols representing fascist, racist, xenophobic ideologies, or symbols associated with the interwar nationalist, extremist, fascist and anti-Semitic Legionnaire movement. Various government bodies, mainly the gendarmerie, continued to fine, place under temporary arrest, or block individuals who protested in the streets for differing causes.

The Gendarmerie fined several individuals who attended an August 10 protest in Victoria Square to commemorate the victims of the Gendarmerie’s violent intervention against pro-rule-of-law protesters on August 10, 2018. Those fined included reporter Mircea Savin of Podul.ro.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without overt restriction, politicians or persons with close ties to politicians and political groups either owned or indirectly controlled numerous media outlets at the national and local levels. The news and editorial stance of these outlets frequently reflected their owners’ views and targeted criticism at political opponents and other media organizations.

On March 4, the High Court of Justice ruled against an appeal by Vrancea County Council President Marian Oprisan (PSD) against reporter Sebastian Oancea of Vrancea24 who wrote about public contracts granted by Oprisan to his business associates and individuals with criminal records. It was the fourth case lost by Oprisan against Oancea in recent years.

In March the government ordered prefects and public health authorities to ban the publication of county-level information on the number of COVID-19 tests performed and number of infections. On March 20, 14 civic associations issued a joint statement protesting the move, and on April 6, almost 100 news outlets and 165 journalists from national and local organizations signed a freedom of information request initiated by the Center for Independent Journalism asking for fair and timely access to COVID-19 information. Due to media and NGO protests, in April the government created a Strategic Communications Task Force to manage messaging during the pandemic. It also expanded its daily reports to include county-level breakdowns.

Violence and Harassment: Some reporters throughout the country continued to be harassed, sued, or threatened by authorities they investigated or by their proxies.

In February reporters Alex Costache of TVR and Cosmin Savu of ProTV were followed, filmed, and intimidated by six individuals before, during, and after the two met with a military prosecutor and a judge at a private event in a restaurant. Footage of the four was disseminated on February 21 by outlets controlled by oligarchs and media owners facing criminal chargers, under investigation, or previously arrested for fraud. Military prosecutors opened an investigation into the illegal surveillance and filming. In April, Prosecutor General Gabriela Scutea dismissed the evidence gathered by military prosecutors, claiming the prosecutors lacked jurisdiction.

Internet Freedom

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

On March 16, President Klaus Iohannis signed an emergency decree that included provisions to counter the spread of disinformation related to COVID-19 online and allowed for the removal of reports and entire websites deemed to be spreading false information; the decree provided no appeal or redress mechanisms. The National Authority for Management and Regulation in Communications, an institution for communication infrastructure with no expertise in media content, was given responsibility for implementing the decree. In response, on March 30 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Representative on Freedom of the Media issued a press release urging authorities to restore the capacity of journalists to act in the public interest, without undue restriction and to respect the principles of necessity and proportionality in any decision related to the emergency situation. The European Federation of Journalists also urged President Iohannis and the Government of Romania to revise emergency policies restricting reporters’ access to information regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the regulations giving authorities the power to shut down websites. The government suspended 15 websites.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

On June 16, the Senate adopted an Education Law amendment banning schools and universities from discussing gender identity. The vote generated numerous protests from associations of university rectors, professors, doctors, psychologists, and cultural figures, who the amendment violated academic and cultural freedoms as well as the right to a science-based education. President Iohannis challenged the amendment at the Constitutional Court, arguing the amendment violated the constitution. On December 16, the Constitutional Court declared the amendment unconstitutional.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the government occasionally restricted freedom of peaceful assembly.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, which the government has generally respected. The law provides that unarmed citizens may assemble peacefully but also stipulates that meetings must not interfere with other economic or social activities and may not take place near such locations as hospitals, airports, or military installations. In most cases organizers of public assemblies must request permits in writing three days in advance from the mayor’s office of the locality where the gathering is to occur.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that public gatherings, including protests, must be declared in advance when they are to be held in markets, public spaces, or in the vicinity of institutions “of public or private interest.” The decision was mandatory. Activists opposed these restrictions, stating that by announcing the protests, those who take to the streets would be forced to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for larger groups or for instigators to violence who may be brought there to compromise peaceful anticorruption protests.

In 2018 a protest at Victoria Square in Bucharest attracted approximately 100,000 protesters. Gendarmes used tear gas and water cannon indiscriminately, harming peaceful protesters, some of whom were children or elderly. More than 770 criminal complaints concerning violent incidents that allegedly constituted excessive force against peaceful protesters were submitted to authorities. During the year, the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) announced it was suspending investigations of four senior officials in relation to the protest and that investigations of rank-and-file gendarmes accused of excessive violence would continue under the coordination of military prosecutors. Following public outcry, DIICOT reinstated charges of abuse of office and abusive conduct against the senior officials and submitted its decision to the preliminary chamber of the Bucharest Court of Appeal for confirmation. The Bucharest Court of Appeal declined its jurisdiction and sent the case to the Bucharest Tribunal which, as of November, had not made a decision.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, between March and September the government maintained a ban on public gatherings. On September 15, the government introduced regulations that allowed public gatherings of a maximum of 100 persons. Observers and several NGOs including the Civil Liberties Union for Europe and the Greenpeace European Unit noted that the government maintained the ban on public gatherings while allowing other types of events, such as concerts, to have up to 500 participants.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits fascist, racist, or xenophobic ideologies, organizations, and symbols.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: The internal movement of beneficiaries of international protection and stateless persons was generally not restricted. Asylum seekers may be subject to measures limiting their freedom of movement and to detention in specific circumstances. The law and implementing regulations provide that the General Inspectorate for Immigration may designate a specific place of residence for an applicant for asylum while authorities determine his or her eligibility, or may take restrictive measures, subject to approval by the prosecutor’s office, that amount to administrative detention in “specially arranged closed areas.” According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October no such cases of asylum detention were recorded during the year. Applicants who do not qualify for asylum are treated as aliens without a right to stay in the country and may be taken into custody pending deportation. According to the law, those applying for asylum while in public custody were released from detention if granted access to the ordinary procedure. Detention in public custody centers is subject to regular review and should not exceed six months unless there are specific circumstances, in which case detention may be extended for up to 18 months. Applicants for or beneficiaries of international protection in certain circumstances, particularly those declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, may be subject to administrative detention in public custody centers.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, which could include irregular migrants potentially in need of international protection.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to UNHCR, several incidents of harassment, discrimination, and crimes against refugees and migrants were reported throughout the year throughout the country, although most incidents were not reported because of fear, lack of information, inadequate support services, and inefficient redress mechanisms.

Refoulement: The law establishes exceptions to the principle of nonrefoulement and the withdrawal of the right to stay following a declaration of a person as “undesirable.” This may occur, for example, when classified information or “well founded indications” suggest that aliens (including applicants for asylum, or persons granted asylum) intend to commit terrorist acts or favor terrorism. Applicants for protection declared “undesirable” on national security grounds were taken into custody pending the finalization of their asylum procedure and then deported.

Access to Asylum: The law provides access to asylum procedures to foreign nationals and stateless persons who express their desire for protection, which may be in the form of refugee status or temporary “subsidiary protection” status. The law prohibits the expulsion, extradition, or forced return of any asylum seeker at the country’s border or from within the country’s territory, but this was not without exceptions, particularly in cases that fell under the country’s national security and terrorism laws.

The law also refers to the concept of a safe third country. The law extends to irregular migrants who transited and were offered protection in a third country considered safe or who had the opportunity at the border or on the soil of a safe third country to contact authorities for the purpose of obtaining protection. In such cases authorities could deny access to asylum procedures if the designated safe third country agreed to readmit the applicant to its territory and grant access to asylum procedures. According to the MFA, the government has not rejected any application for protection on a safe third country basis.

Freedom of Movement: The law incorporates four “restrictive” measures under which the internal movement of applicants for asylum may be limited. The first two establish an obligation to report regularly to the General Inspectorate for Immigration or to reside at a regional reception center. A third restrictive measure allows authorities to place applicants in “specially arranged closed areas” for a maximum of 60 days, either to access the asylum procedure or if the asylum seeker is deemed to pose a danger to national security. There was no case of an asylum applicant being placed in a specially arranged closed area through August. Authorities may also place asylum applicants in administrative detention in a public custody center if they are subject to a transfer to another EU member state under the Dublin Regulations or if they have been declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, pending their removal from the country.

According to UNHCR, irregular migrants, persons declared as “undesirable,” asylum seekers deemed to pose a “risk of absconding,” as well as other categories of foreigners may face detention in public custody centers or in closed areas inside reception centers. Under provisions of the law to limit “abuse to the asylum procedure,” irregular migrants who submitted their first application for international protection while in custody were released from detention only if granted access to the ordinary asylum application procedure. The provisions raised concerns among UN agencies and civil society due to the ambiguity in the phrases “abuse of the asylum procedure” and “risk of absconding.”

The period of detention in a public custody center could be prolonged up to a maximum of 18 months.

Employment: While persons granted international protection have the legal right to work, job scarcity, low wages, lack of language proficiency, and lack of recognized academic degrees and other certifications often resulted in unemployment or employment without a legal contract and its related benefits and protections. Obtaining a legal work contract remained difficult for various reasons, including tax concerns and the reluctance of employers to hire refugees.

Access to Basic Services: Effective access by persons with refugee status or subsidiary protection to education, housing, lifelong learning and employment, public health care, and social security varied across the country, depending on the level of awareness of various public and private actors responsible for ensuring access to these services.

Beneficiaries of international protection continued to face problems with local integration, including access to vocational training adapted to their specific needs, counseling programs, and naturalization. According to UNHCR, refugee integration programs relied almost exclusively on NGOs, with coordination from the General Inspectorate for Immigration. The support services or targeted integration and inclusion programs provided by local governments to refugees were limited. Access to education was problematic, and several school inspectorates refused to organize Romanian language classes. According to several reports, schools across the country, including in large cities such as Bucharest, delayed enrollment of refugee children in school for several months.

Temporary Protection: The government may grant “tolerated status” to persons who do not meet the requirements for refugee status or subsidiary protection, but who cannot be returned for various reasons. These reasons include cases where stateless persons are not accepted by their former country of habitual residence or where the lives or well-being of returnees could be at risk. Persons with “tolerated status” have the right to work but not to benefit from any other social protection or inclusion provisions, and the government restricted their freedom of movement to a specific region of the country.

Recipients of subsidiary protection complained of problems regarding their freedom of movement to other countries due to the additional visa requirements. UNHCR reported that refugees saw citizenship acquisition as a cumbersome, costly, and difficult process, with some requirements, particularly related to the applicant’s financial situation, that were difficult to meet.

g. Stateless Persons

According to the MFA, as of July there were 275 stateless persons with valid residence documents in the country. These included legal residents under the aliens’ regime, stateless persons of Romanian origin, as well as persons granted some form of international protection. Data on stateless persons, including on persons at risk of statelessness and persons of undetermined nationality, were not reliable due to the absence of a procedure to determine statelessness, the absence of a single designated authority responsible for this purpose, and the lack of adequate identification and registration of persons with unknown or undetermined nationality.

The law includes favorable provisions for stateless persons of Romanian origin to reacquire citizenship. Nevertheless, a significant gap persisted due to the lack of safeguards against statelessness for children born in the country, who would be stateless because their parents either were themselves stateless or were foreigners unable to transmit their nationality.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held local elections on September 27 and parliamentary elections on December 6 that were considered free and fair and without significant irregularities. In 2016 the country held parliamentary elections that election observers also considered free and fair.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires political parties to register with the Bucharest Tribunal and to submit their statutes, program, and a roster of at least three members. Critics asserted that certain requirements undermine the freedom of association. These include the requirement that parties field candidates–by themselves or in alliance–in at least 75 electoral constituencies in two successive local elections, or that they field a full slate of candidates in at least one county or partial slates of candidates in a minimum of three counties in two successive parliamentary elections. A party’s statutes and program must not include ideas that incite war; discrimination; hatred of a national, racist, or religious nature; or territorial separatism.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. A report by local NGO Expert Forum found that the number of female candidates in the September local elections increased to 22.9 percent from 21.4 percent in the 2016 local elections. Societal attitudes presented a significant barrier, and women remained underrepresented in positions of authority. As of January 1, there were 61 women in the 330-seat Chamber of Deputies and 25 women in the 136-seat Senate.

Under the constitution each recognized ethnic minority is entitled to a representative in the Chamber of Deputies. An organization is required, however, to receive votes equal to 5 percent of the national average number of votes cast by district for a deputy to be elected. The list of organizations that benefit from these provisions is limited to those that are already part of a National Council of Minorities, which consists of organizations already in parliament. The law sets more stringent requirements for minority organizations without a presence in parliament. To participate in elections, such organizations must provide the Central Electoral Bureau a membership list equal to at least 15 percent of the total number of persons belonging to that ethnic group, as determined by the most recent census. If this number amounts to more than 20,000 persons, the organization must submit a list with at least 20,000 names distributed among a minimum of 15 counties plus the city of Bucharest, with no fewer than 300 persons from each county. Some organizations and individuals, particularly Romani activists, claimed this rule was discriminatory.

Ethnic Hungarians, represented by the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania political party, were the sole ethnic minority to gain parliamentary representation by surpassing the 5 percent threshold of all valid votes cast nationally, the threshold set for political parties. One Romani organization, Roma Party-Pro Europe, had a single representative in parliament.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. Nevertheless, corrupt practices remained widespread despite several high-profile prosecutions. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

According to expert opinion, corruption remained a problem. Bribery was common in the public sector. Laws were not always implemented effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: The DNA continued to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving political and administrative officials throughout the year. In April the DNA indicted former PSD Health Minister and hospital manager Sorina Pintea for taking bribes.

Verdicts in corruption cases were often inconsistent, with sentences varying widely for similar offenses. Enforcement of court procedures lagged mostly due to procedural and administrative problems, especially with respect to asset forfeiture.

Corruption was widespread in public procurement. A 2016 law provides for a comprehensive software mechanism to flag potential conflicts of interest in public procurement. Bribery was common in the public sector, especially in health care. Individual executive agencies were slow in enforcing sanctions, and agencies’ own inspection bodies were generally inactive. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the DNA launched several investigations into procurement fraud related to purchasing personal protective equipment and ventilators. These investigations continued.

Financial Disclosure: The law empowers the National Integrity Agency (ANI) to administer and audit financial disclosure statements for all public officials and to monitor conflicts of interest. The law stipulates that the agency may identify “significant discrepancies” between an official’s income and assets, defined as more than 45,000 lei ($10,600), and allows for seizure and forfeiture of unjustified assets. The mechanism for confiscation of “unjustified assets” was cumbersome. Through September 18, ANI identified four cases of “significant discrepancies” totaling 3 million lei ($707,000). Through September 18, ANI identified 58 cases of incompatibilities, 19 cases of conflicts of interest, and eight cases with strong indications of criminal or corruption offenses. During the year ANI reviewed 13,268 public procurement procedures and issued seven integrity warnings.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally met with human rights NGOs and were cooperative and sometimes responsive to their views.

In March 2019 the National Center for Mental Health and Antidrug Fight, a governmental agency overseen by the Ministry of Health, revoked an authorization allowing the Center for Legal Resources (CLR) to visit psychiatric wards. As of November, the CLR was not allowed visits to psychiatric wards. The CLR is an NGO that reports on alleged abuse of institutionalized persons with disabilities.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsperson has limited power and no authority to protect citizens’ constitutional rights in cases requiring judicial action. The ombudsperson is the national preventive mechanism implementing the optional protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. This gives the ombudsperson the power to conduct monitoring visits to places where individuals are deprived of their liberty, including prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and asylum centers. As of September the ombudsperson issued 164 recommendations to penitentiaries, schools, local governments, and governmental agencies.

In 2017, the government established the Office of the Children’s Ombudsperson empowered to examine human rights complaints made by children or their legal representatives. In 2016, parliament established the Council for Monitoring the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The council was authorized to make unannounced visits in centers and hospitals for persons with disabilities to check if the rights of these persons were respected, issue recommendations, and submit criminal complaints. As of September the council had issued five reports during the year with recommendations based on visits to residential centers for persons with disabilities, including improved training for staff and facility renovations. Observers reported the council’s recommendations and reports were inaccurate and noted that conditions had not improved. Human rights activists and media regarded the institution as ineffective and believed that the inspectors who drafted the reports lacked the necessary human rights expertise.

Each chamber of parliament has a human rights committee tasked with drafting reports on bills pertaining to human rights.

The National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) is the government agency responsible for applying domestic and EU antidiscrimination laws. The CNCD reports to parliament. The CNCD operated with the government’s cooperation and, for the most part, without government or party interference. Observers generally regarded the CNCD as effective, but some criticized it for a lack of efficiency and political independence.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. The law provides for five to 10 years’ imprisonment for rape and two to seven years’ imprisonment for sexual assault. If there are no aggravating circumstances and the attack did not lead to death, police and prosecutors may not pursue a case on their own, but they require a victim’s complaint, even if there is independent physical evidence.

The law classifies family violence as a separate offense and stipulates that when murder, battery, or other serious violence is committed against a family member, the penalty is increased. The law also states that, if the parties reconcile, criminal liability is removed. Amendments to the law on equal opportunities for men and women passed during the year include cyberviolence among the forms of domestic violence and defines it as the occurrence of online harassment, online messages that incite to hate based on gender criteria, or the nonconsensual publication of private graphic content that aim to humiliate, scare, threaten or reduce victims to silence. The FILIA Center for Gender Studies and Curriculum Development–an NGO that aims to promote gender equality–stated that there were no regulations to implement these amendments.

Violence against women, including spousal abuse, continued to be a serious problem that the government did not effectively address. The law provides for the issuance of provisional restraining orders by police for a maximum of five days and restraining orders by a court for a maximum of six months upon the victim’s request or at the request of a prosecutor, the state representative in charge of protecting victims of family violence, or, if the victim agrees, a social service provider. Violation of a restraining order is punishable by imprisonment for six months to five years, but the FILIA center stated that some judges may issue lesser sentences because of overlapping legislation. The court may also order an abuser to undergo psychological counselling. The FILIA Center stated that police lacked procedures for the implementation and monitoring of restraining orders.

In February, a man under a restraining order killed his wife in the town of Chitila. According to the FILIA Center, the man had violated the restraining order multiple times, a fact which police were aware of, and the woman had asked social services to provide her a secure place to live in order to prevent her husband from contacting her. Regulations authorize local governments to establish emergency mobile intervention teams that assist victims of domestic violence. Observers stated that teams lacked training and funding and were often ineffective. The FILIA Center conducted a study that revealed that most local governments of cities and villages in Bacau County did not fund any social services for victims of domestic violence, a situation that was common throughout the country.

Several human rights activists reported that some police officers tried to dissuade victims of rape from pressing charges against their aggressors and, in some cases, refused to register criminal complaints submitted by victims. In some instances, police delayed action against sexual abusers. E-Romnja, an NGO that works to advance the rights of Romani women, stated police often discouraged Romani women and girls from filing complaints. E-Romnja described the case of a 14-year-old girl who reported a rape to police in April and continued to report the case for six months. Police opened an investigation but did not question the suspect and failed to protect the victim from repeated harassment by the suspect and his family. Following several interventions from the victim’s lawyer and E-Romnja, police forwarded the case to the Prosecutor’s Office and the suspect was placed in pretrial detention in September.

Courts prosecuted very few cases of domestic abuse. Many cases were resolved before or during trial when the alleged victims dropped their charges or reconciled with the alleged abuser.

Sexual Harassment: Criminal law prohibits sexual harassment, which it defines as repeatedly asking for sexual favors in a work or similar relationship. A victim’s complaint is necessary to initiate a criminal investigation. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment of three months to one year. The law on equal opportunities for men and women defines sexual harassment as the occurrence of unwanted behavior with a sexual connotation, which can be expressed physically, verbally, or nonverbally and has the effect or result of damaging a person’s dignity and, in particular, the creation of a hostile, intimidating, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but some individuals did not have access to the information and means to do so. According to several NGOs and observers, there were infrastructure and information barriers to an individual’s ability to maintain his or her reproductive health, including the lack of community health care and age-appropriate sex education for adolescents. Some women, especially those from poor, rural, or Romani communities, had difficulty accessing reproductive health services due to a lack of information, ethnic discrimination, and poverty.

Access to government-funded contraception and family planning services was limited because of insufficient funding and training for health professionals. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2020, 71.8 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied by modern methods of contraception.

Observers reported that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some maternity hospitals were open only for patients infected with COVID-19, making access to reproductive and prenatal care more difficult. Although home birth is not prohibited by law, regulations forbid health professionals from providing home birth services. According to UNICEF, skilled health personnel attended 94.8 percent of deliveries in 2018.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual violence, but some women had difficulties accessing these services.

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

Discrimination: Under the law women and men enjoy equal rights. Women experienced discrimination in marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but there was a 3.5-percent gender pay gap according to EU data. Segregation by profession existed, with women overrepresented in lower-paying jobs. There were reports of discrimination in employment. Women experienced discrimination in access to pension benefits and retirement (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth from at least one citizen parent. Although birth registration is mandatory by law, it was not universal, and authorities denied some children public services as a result. Most unregistered children had access to schools, and authorities assisted in obtaining birth documents for unregistered children, but the education of unregistered children depended on the decision of school authorities. The law provides simplified birth registration for children whose mothers do not have proper documentation to register their children.

Child Abuse: Child abuse, including emotional, physical, and psychological violence and neglect, continued to be serious problems. Media outlets reported several severe cases of abuse or neglect in family homes, foster care, and child welfare institutions. The government has not established a mechanism to identify and treat abused and neglected children and their families.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for both men and women, but the law permits minors as young as 16 to marry under certain circumstances. Illegal child marriage was reportedly common in certain social groups, particularly among some Romani communities. NGOs reported cases of Romani girls as young as 11 being sold into marriage by their families. Child protection authorities and police did not always intervene in such cases. There were no public policies to discourage child marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides one- to 12-year prison sentences for persons convicted of sexual acts with minors, depending on the circumstances and the child’s age. Sexual intercourse with a minor who is 14 to 16 years of age is punishable by a one- to five-year prison sentence. Sexual intercourse with a person younger than 14 is punishable by a two- to nine-year prison sentence and deprivation of some rights. The law also criminalizes sexual corruption of minors (which includes subjecting minors to sexual acts other than intercourse or forcing minors to perform such acts), luring minors for sexual purposes or child prostitution, and trafficking in minors. Pimping and pandering that involve minors increases sentences by one-half. The law allows authorities to maintain a registry of individuals who had committed sexual offenses against or exploited adults and children.

Child pornography is a separate offense and carries a sentence, depending on the circumstances, of up to seven years’ imprisonment, which may be increased by one-third if the perpetrator was a family member or someone in whose care the child was entrusted or if the life of the child victim was endangered.

Institutionalized Children: During the year there were several media reports of abuses in placement centers for institutionalized children, including sexual abuse, physical violence by colleagues or staff, and trafficking in persons. Numerous reports noted a lack of adequate food, clothing, medical treatment, and counselling services.

According to media reports and NGOs, in 2018 psychiatrists administered psychotropic drugs to thousands of children in residential institutions or in foster care in order to control their behavior. According to official estimates, one-third of the institutionalized children, including those with disruptive behavior, attention-deficit, or hyperactivity disorder, were under psychotropic medication, but observers believed the number to be much higher.

By law unaccompanied migrant children are held in placement centers, where they have access to education and benefits other children receive. The detention of families with children is allowed by law, with preservation of family unity used as justification. Several such cases were recorded during the year.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to the 2011 census, the Jewish population numbered 3,271. Representatives of the Jewish community stated that according to their estimates, the Jewish population numbered approximately 7,000. Acts of anti-Semitism occurred during the year.

The law prohibits public denial of the Holocaust and fascist, racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic language and symbols, including organizations and symbols associated with the indigenous Legionnaire interwar fascist movement. The oppression of Roma as well as Jews is included in the definition of the Holocaust.

Streets, organizations, schools, or libraries continued to be named after persons convicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity, according to the Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. For example, Radu Gyr was a commander and anti-Semitic ideologist of the fascist Legionnaire movement convicted of war crimes. The Wiesel Institute requested the renaming of Radu Gyr Street in Cluj-Napoca. As of September, the local government had not changed the name of the street.

Material promoting anti-Semitic views and glorifying legionnaires appeared on the internet. According to a study released by the Wiesel Institute in May, several articles published online claimed that Jews or the state of Israel were responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak and were profiting from the health crisis.

In September media reported a case of anti-Semitic messages painted on the fence belonging to the relative of a mayoral candidate from the village of Dornesti in Suceava County. The messages included the candidate’s name, a swastika, and the Romanian equivalent of the ethnic slur ‘kike’.

In April 2019 media outlets reported a case of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Husi, where unknown individuals destroyed dozens of headstones. Law enforcement officials identified three suspects, and as of September the investigation was pending.

Romania introduced mandatory Holocaust education in 1998 and additional courses are sometimes offered. The high school course History of the JewsThe Holocaust was optional. During the 2019-20 school year, 3,209 pupils took the course.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government did not fully implement the law, and discrimination against persons with disabilities remained a problem.

The law mandates that buildings and public transportation be accessible for persons with disabilities, however, streets, buildings, and public transportation remain largely inaccessible. Persons with disabilities reported a lack of access ramps, accessible public transportation, and accessible toilets in major buildings.

Discrimination against children with disabilities in education was a widespread problem due to lack of adequate teacher training on inclusion of children with disabilities and lack of investment to make schools accessible. Most children with disabilities were either placed in separate schools or not placed in school at all. According to a report released by Save the Children Romania and the Ombudsperson in 2019, only 30 percent of schools had access ramps for persons with motor disabilities and only 15 percent of schools had accessible toilets.

The CLR identified a series of problems in centers for persons with disabilities or psychiatric sections, including verbal and physical abuse of children and adults, sedation, excessive use of physical restraints, lack of hygiene, inadequate living conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. In February the CLR released the conclusions of a visit made at a residential center for persons with disabilities located in the city of Husi, Vaslui County. According to the CLR, there were reasonable suspicions that the residents of the center were subjected to physical punishment and verbal abuse. The NGO also discovered unsanitary living conditions, overcrowding, and lack of basic personal hygiene products. According to the MFA, following a report published by CLR, the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice requested the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Huși First Instance Court to examine the alleged abuses in order to establish whether there are elements that would warrant a criminal investigation concerning the conditions in the residential center.

The National Authority for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Children and Adoptions under the Labor Ministry coordinated services for persons with disabilities and drafted policies, strategies, and standards in the field of disabilities rights. The National Authority notified authorities about several alleged abuses against persons with disabilities interned in residential centers. In January the National Authority’s Director, Madalina Turza, announced it had notified prosecutors about the case of a resident of a center in Prahova County who, according to the center’s staff, accidentally fell and suffered head injuries. The staff did not call the ambulance right away and sent the person to the hospital only two days after the alleged accident. Doctors found evidence of repeated brain injuries and performed a surgery. One month after the surgery, the person was sent back to the center while in a coma where another resident allegedly unintentionally removed a medical tube attached to the patient. The center’s staff called an ambulance but several days later the patient died.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Discrimination against Roma continued to be a problem. Romani groups complained that there were instances of police harassment and brutality, including beatings. Both domestic and international media and observers reported societal discrimination against Roma. NGOs reported Roma were denied access to, or refused service in, some public places. Roma also experienced poor access to government services, a shortage of employment opportunities, high rates of school attrition, and inadequate health care. A lack of identity documents excluded many Roma from participating in elections, receiving social benefits, accessing health insurance, securing property documents, and participating in the labor market. According to the Ministry of Interior, 177,816 persons older than age 14 did not have valid identity documents. Romani rights activists reported that most of these persons were Roma who cannot acquire legal identity documents because they resided in informal settlements and housing. Roma had a higher unemployment rate and a lower life expectancy than non-Roma. Negative stereotypes and discriminatory language regarding Roma were widespread.

In July the “Impreuna” Agency for Community Development released the results of a poll that showed seven in 10 residents of the country do not trust Roma and that 41 percent of respondents did not accept the idea of living in the same city or village with Roma. In March and April, several local government officials publicly claimed cited Roma in particular spread COVID-19, stoking anti-Romani sentiment. Throughout March and April, media outlets regularly alleged that Roma disobeyed COVID-19 stay-at-home measures. News stories specifically highlighting Romani migrants returning to the country from Italy and Spain, countries with high rates of COVID-19 infection, also circulated in local media outlets and social media, often suggesting they might be carriers of COVID-19.

Despite an order by the Ministry of Education forbidding segregation of Romani students, several NGOs continued to report that segregation along ethnic lines persisted in schools.

Researchers and activists reported a significant number of the remaining Romani Holocaust survivors who applied for a pension were denied because of unreasonable administrative barriers raised by the pension offices, problematic standards, lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and Roma, and burdensome requirements. According to researchers, despite historical evidence, in hundreds of cases authorities considered that Roma were resettled and not deported, and consequently granted them smaller pensions.

In April 2019 the driver of a minibus operated by a transportation company in the city of Zalau denied a Romani woman and her two children access to the vehicle and hit her repeatedly with a wooden stick. After she called the 112 emergency line to report the incident, the operator insulted the victim and used racial slurs against her. According to Romani CRISS, the attack was racially motivated. The Civic Union of Young Roma from Romania reported that prosecutors indicted the driver for abusive behavior and the Romani woman for public disturbance. The NGO reported that the indictment against the woman was abusive because her screams were a result of the driver’s violent behavior. As of November the case was pending before the Zalau court.

Ethnic Hungarians continued to report discrimination related mainly to the use of the Hungarian language. Ethnic Hungarians reported that the government did not enforce the law that states that ethnic minorities are entitled to interact with local governments in their native language in localities where a minority constitutes at least 20 percent of the population. There were continued reports that local authorities did not enforce the law that states that in localities where a minority constitutes at least 20 percent of the population, road signs must be bilingual.

The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania reported that in a legal dispute between separated parents over their child’s language of schooling, the Cluj-Napoca Court decided in June that the child, who has a mixed Romanian-Hungarian ethnicity, should be schooled at the kindergarten in Romanian, contrary to the will of the child’s ethnic Hungarian mother. According to the court, an insufficient knowledge of Romanian would damage the child’s ability to perform well once they become a university student considering that most universities in the country offer study programs in Romanian. According to the Department for Interethnic Relations, throughout the March 16-May 14 state of emergency, the government provided Hungarian translations of the state of emergency regulations related to the COVID-19 outbreak with a delay. In several counties with a significant ethnic Hungarian population, government agencies such as public health directorates or police inspectorates did not provide information on COVID-19-related measures and precautions in Hungarian. The Miko Imre Legal Service reported that during a soccer match in March that took place in the city of Ploiesti, supporters of the home team shouted offensive words against the rival team Sepsi OSK, which is based in the ethnic-Hungarian majority city of Sfantu Gheorghe. Supporters chanted “Hungarians out of the country!” and threw objects at some of the Sepsi OSK players, which caused the referee to suspend the match for 10 minutes. In February unknown persons painted the Romanian flag over the Hungarian name of Baia Mare city that was displayed on several welcome signs.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. NGOs reported that societal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons was common, and there were some reports of violence against them. On some occasions police condoned violence against LGBTI persons. The NGO ACCEPT reported that in 2019 a person living near their headquarters continuously verbally harassed LGBTI persons who visited the NGO and its employees, and destroyed the property of a transgender woman. In June 2019 ACCEPT submitted a criminal complaint, but as of November, police had not taken any measures. ACCEPT reported that in the meantime the harassment stopped after the perpetrator moved out.

A survey carried out by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported revealed that 15 percent of respondents experienced a physical or sexual attack motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity during the past five years. Out of respondents who described the most recent physical or sexual attack, only 4 percent reported the incidents to authorities because they are LGBTI. As many as 28 percent of respondents indicated fear of a homophobic reaction, transphobic reaction, or both from police as the reason for not reporting a physical or sexual attack.

The law governing legal gender recognition for transgender persons was vague and incomplete. In some cases, authorities refused legal gender recognition unless an individual had first undergone sex reassignment surgery. Access to adequate psychological services was also limited because some psychologists refused to accept transgender patients.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law provides that HIV-infected persons have the right to confidentiality and adequate treatment, authorities rarely enforced it. Authorities did not adopt regulations that were necessary to provide confidentiality and fair treatment, and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS impeded their access to routine medical and dental care.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Unions can affiliate with regional, national, or EU union federations, but they may affiliate with only one national organization. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and allows workers fired for union activity to challenge their dismissal in court for reinstatement. The law provides for protection of freedom of association and collective bargaining, but unions complained there was little enforcement to protect against violations of these rights.

Civil servants generally have the right to establish and join unions. Employees of the Ministry of National Defense, certain categories of civilian employees of the Ministries of Interior and Justice, judges, prosecutors, intelligence personnel, and senior public servants, including the president, parliamentarians, mayors, prime minister, ministers, employees involved in security-related activities, and president of the Supreme Court, however, do not have the right to unionize. Unions complained about the requirement to submit lists of union members with their registration application. Since employers also had access to the list, union officials feared this could lead to reprisals against individual unionized employees, particularly dismissals, and hinder the formation of new unions.

The law requires employers with more than 21 employees to negotiate a collective labor agreement but provides no basis for national collective labor agreements. Employers refusing to initiate negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement can receive fines. The law permits, but does not impose, collective labor agreements for groups of employers or sectors of activity. The law requires employers to consult with unions on such topics as imposing leave without pay or reducing the workweek due to economic reasons.

Unions may strike only if they give employers 48 hours’ notice, and employers can challenge the right in court, effectively suspending a strike for months. Although not compulsory, unions and employers can seek arbitration and mediation from the Labor Ministry’s Office for Mediation and Arbitration. Unions criticized the Labor Ministry for failing to intervene effectively in cases involving arbitration and mediation efforts.

Companies may claim damages from strike organizers if a court deems a strike illegal. The law permits strikes only in defense of workers’ economic, social, and professional interests and not for the modification or change of a law. As a result, workers may not challenge any condition of work established by law, such as salaries for public servants, limiting the effectiveness of unions in the public sector.

Unions complained that the legal requirement for representativeness, which states that the right to collective bargaining and to strike can be asserted only by a union that represents 50 percent plus one of the workers in an enterprise, was overly burdensome and limited the rights of workers to participate in collective bargaining and to strike. In the absence of this clear majority, an employer can appoint a worker representative of its choosing to negotiate agreements. It is common for companies to create separate legal entities to which they then transfer employees, thereby preventing them from reaching the necessary threshold for representation.

Unions complained about the government’s general prohibition on union engagement in political activities, intended to prevent unofficial agreements to support political parties, due to past abuses by union officials.

Official reports of incidents of antiunion discrimination remained minimal. It is difficult to prove legally that employers laid off employees in retaliation for union activities. The government did not effectively enforce the law, however, penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations when enforcement was successful. The National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) fines employers for antiunion discrimination, although it lacks the power to order reinstatement or other penalties, and employees usually must seek a court order to obtain reinstatement. The law prohibits public authorities, employers, or organizations from interfering, limiting, or preventing unions from organizing, developing internal regulations, and selecting representatives.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Nevertheless, there were reports that such practices continued to occur, often involving Romani, persons with disabilities, and children. The government did not effectively enforce the law and took limited measures to prevent forced or compulsory labor. The law criminalizes forced labor, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes, such as kidnapping, but were not evenly applied in all sectors.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 16.5 percent of human trafficking victims officially identified in 2019 were exploited specifically for labor purposes. In June organized crime investigators detained five individuals on charges of modern slavery. The individuals were accused of having kidnapped and detained several persons with a vulnerable background or mental health problems; the victims were used for agricultural work without pay, starved, and forced to live in inadequate farm annexes. This case remained pending as of December.

Men, women, and children were subjected to labor trafficking in agriculture, construction, domestic service, hotels, and manufacturing. Organized rings, often involving family members, forced persons, including significant numbers of Romani women and children, to engage in begging and petty theft (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for most forms of employment is 16. Children may work with the consent of parents or guardians at age 15 if the activities do not endanger their health, morality, or safety. The law prohibits persons younger than 18 from working in hazardous conditions, includes a list of dangerous jobs, and specifies penalties for offenders. Some examples of hazardous jobs for children include those posing a high risk of accident or damage to health, exposure to psychological or sexual risk, night shifts, exposure to harmful temperatures, and those requiring use of hazardous equipment. Parents whose children carry out hazardous activities are required to attend parental education programs or counseling and may be fined if they fail to do so.

Minors who work have the right to continue their education, and the law obliges employers to assist in this regard. Minors between the ages of 15 and 18 may work a maximum of six hours per day and no more than 30 hours per week, provided their school attendance is not affected. Businesses that impose tasks incommensurate with minors’ physical abilities or fail to respect restrictions on minors’ working hours can face fines. Many minors reportedly did not attend school while working. Minors have the right to an additional three days of annual leave.

The law requires schools to notify social services immediately if children miss class to work, but schools often did not comply. Social welfare services have the responsibility to reintegrate such children into the educational system.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection may impose fines and close businesses where it finds exploitation of child labor. The National Authority for the Protection of the Rights of the Child and Adoption (ANPDCA) in the Labor Ministry has responsibility for investigating reports of child labor abuse, but enforcement of child labor laws tended to be lax, especially in rural areas with many agricultural households and where social welfare services lacked personnel and capacity to address child labor violations. The ANPDCA is responsible for monitoring and coordinating all programs for the prevention and elimination of child labor.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources were inadequate, but penalties were commensurate with those for other serious crimes like kidnapping. Government efforts focused on reacting to reported cases, and ANPDCA dedicates limited resources to prevention programs. According to ANPDCA, 389 children were subject to child labor in 2019 and incidents of child labor are widely believed to be much higher than official statistics. Child labor, including begging, selling trinkets on the street, and washing windshields, remain widespread in Romani communities, especially in urban areas. Children as young as five frequently engaged in such activities but were frequently underreported because official statistics are limited to cases documented by police. Children whose parents worked abroad remain vulnerable to neglect and abuse. Of the 389 documented cases of child labor in 2019, authorities prosecuted alleged perpetrators in 20 cases, while an additional 200 cases remained under investigation at the end of 2019. Between January and June, 115 child labor abuse cases were investigated; out of these, 78 were closed, 52 were still in progress, and criminal investigations were started in three cases.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation because of race, sex, gender, age, religion, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive or other communicable disease status, social status, or refugee or stateless status. The government did not enforce these laws effectively, reacting to claims of discrimination rather than adequately engaging in programs to prevent discrimination. Penalties for violations were in general commensurate with those for other types of discrimination, but were insufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination in employment or occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, and HIV status. Discrimination against Romani and migrant workers also occurred. The CNCD investigated employment discrimination cases in both the public and private sectors. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, media reported several cases of medical staff being discriminated against by neighbors and denied access to local shops. Following media reports, there was a wave of public support for the medical staff in question.

The law mandates equal remuneration for work of equal value. Eurostat reports the pay gap between men and women in the country was 3 percent in 2018. While the law provides female employees re-entering the workforce after maternity leave the right to return to their previous or a similar job, pregnant women and other women of childbearing age still suffer unacknowledged discrimination in the labor market.

Systemic integration of persons with disabilities does not exist. Public bias against persons with disabilities persisted. NGOs have been working actively to change attitudes and assist persons with disabilities to gain skills and gainful employment, but the government lacks adequate programs to prevent discrimination. The law requires companies or institutions with more than 50 employees to employ workers with disabilities for at least 4 percent of their workforce or pay a fine for lack of compliance, which many companies chose to do. Before this provision was introduced in 2017, the law allowed companies not in compliance with the quota to fulfill their legal obligation by buying products from NGOs or firms, known as “sheltered units,” where large numbers of persons with disabilities were employed. NGOs reported that sheltered units lost an important source of income as a result. On November 9, the government re-established “sheltered” or “protected units”, enterprises that employ at least three persons with disabilities who represent at least 30 percent of the overall staff and contribute at least 50 percent of the cumulated full time work hours. Local labor offices had limited success in facilitating employment for persons with disabilities.

NGOs reported that patients suffering from cancer and tuberculosis faced discrimination in the workplace. In 2019 almost one-third of employees with cancer reported they postponed informing their employer of their illness until after treatment, and 17 percent reported a substantial reduction in job duties and responsibilities upon returning to work. The law supports tuberculosis patients by providing monthly food allowances, medical leave, and psychological support but does not contain measures to protect patients from workplace discrimination.

As authorities allow greater numbers of non-EU citizens to live and work in the country, reports of discrimination against migrant workers have become more prevalent. Local residents in Ditrau commune (Harghita County) protested after a local bakery hired two Sri Lankan employees. The two employees were given other jobs and relocated due to opposition to their presence in the village. Another group of Sri Lankan clothing factory workers was stranded in Bucharest following a COVID-19 outbreak and labor dispute that ended with their employer unilaterally terminating their employment contracts and abandoning the group of workers outside of the main airport in Bucharest, even though there were no flights. To resolve this issue, the Labor Force Agency and the General Inspectorate for Migration signed a joint protocol to allow non-EU workers to find employment elsewhere in Romania if their contracts expire to prevent repeat cases. In another case, the Labor Inspectorate launched an investigation after media reported on poor working conditions and accommodations for Indian construction workers following a COVID-19 outbreak at a building site in Bucharest.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage that is greater than the official estimate for the poverty income level and has nearly tripled in nominal terms since 2012. Approximately 42 percent of employees earn the minimum wage according to the labor ministry. Despite minimum wage increases, nearly one in seven employed Romanians remains at risk of poverty.

The law provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours or five days. Workers are entitled to overtime pay for weekend or holiday work or work of more than 40 hours. An employee’s workweek may not exceed 48 hours per week on average over a four-month reference period, although exceptions are allowed for certain sectors or professions. The law requires a 48-hour rest period in the workweek, although most workers received two days off per week. During reductions in workplace activity for economic or technical reasons, the law allows employers to shorten an employee’s workweek and reduce the associated salary.

In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the government extended the category of eligible furlough (technical unemployment) benefits to independently registered businesspersons, lawyers, and individuals with income deriving from copyright and sports activities. Starting in August the government adopted a flexible work plan modeled after Germany’s Kurzarbeit (flexible work) program, applicable until December 31, with the aim of retaining employees on payrolls with joint government and employer contributions. The plan required employers to cover half of full-time wages and the Government of Romania to pay 75 percent of the difference between the gross wage and the basic wage paid to the employee based on the number of hours actually worked. As part of the same package, independent and seasonal workers affected by the epidemic could continue to receive 41.5 percent of the average gross wages for a limited period while day workers and SME employees also would be able to receive separate, limited payments to cover wages and teleworking equipment. Kurzarbeit and technical unemployment support was extended until June 2021.

Excessive overtime may lead to fines for employers if workers file a complaint, but complaints are rare. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. Starting during the year, the law allows for one of two caretakers of children to receive paid days off for periods when schools are closed; the income is capped at maximum 75 percent of the average economy wage.

The law gives employers wide discretion regarding performance-based evaluations of employees. The law permits 90-day probationary periods for new employees and simplifies termination procedures during this period.

The law provides for temporary and seasonal work and sets penalties for work performed without a labor contract in either the formal or the informal economy. In accordance with EU regulations, the maximum duration of a temporary contract is 36 months.

The labor ministry, through the Labor Inspectorate, is responsible for enforcing the law on working conditions, health and safety, hours, and minimum wage rates, but it did not effectively enforce all aspects consistently. Penalties for violations of these laws were commensurate with those of other similar crimes, but were not consistently applied. Labor inspectors have the authority to make unannounced visits and initiate sanctions, but the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance in all sectors. The construction, agriculture, and small manufacturers sectors were particularly problematic sectors for both labor underreporting and neglecting health and safety standards.

According to trade union reports, many employers paid supplemental salaries under the table to reduce tax burdens for employees and employers alike. To address underreported labor, in 2017 the government increased the minimum required payroll taxes that employers must pay for their part-time employees to equal those of a full-time employee earning minimum wage. Additionally, the Labor Inspectorate collaborated with the National Authority for Fiscal Administration to conduct joint operations to check employers in sectors prone to underreported labor, including the textile, construction, security, cleaning, food preparation, transportation, and storage industries. These investigations often focused on underpayment of taxes rather than workers’ rights.

The government did not effectively enforce overtime standards. Union leaders complained that overtime violations were the main problem facing their members, since employers often required employees to work longer than the legal maximum without receiving mandatory overtime compensation. This practice was especially prevalent in the textile, banking and finance, and construction sectors.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, additional risk bonuses were awarded to healthcare staff caring for COVID-19 patients or for those involved in pandemic response. Health sector unions and media highlighted cases in which medical staff had limited access to protective equipment. In Suceava county, lack of protective equipment and lapses in protocol led to a disproportionate outbreak among medical staff, prompting the government to implement a range of oversight and lockdown measures to contain and control the outbreak, including placing Suceava’s County Emergency Hospital under military management.

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