Bangladesh

Executive Summary

Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government, but in fact, most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free and fair, and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. During the campaign leading up to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. International election monitors were not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved to conduct domestic election observation.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organizations (NGO) laws and restrictions on the activities of NGOs; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, where elections have not been found to be genuine, free, or fair; corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons and criminalization of same-sex sexual activity; restrictions on independent trade unions, workers’ rights, and use of the worst forms of child labor.

There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.

The United Nations reported three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeepers from Bangladesh in 2017; the allegations remained pending.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.

The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The Foreign Donation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.

As of November, Khaleda Zia had secured bail in 34 of 36 cases against her on issues such as corruption, violence, and sedition. She remained in prison because she had not received bail in two other pending cases.

Press and Media Freedom: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure.

The government maintained editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially during the August student road safety protests.

On July 22, editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was physically assaulted following court proceedings in a defamation case regarding his comments about the prime minister and her niece. A recording of the incident shows police standing by while Mahmudur was attacked. An investigation had not taken place by the end of the year.

According to BDnews24.com, on August 4, a group of approximately 12 journalists, including Associated Press photojournalist AM Ahad, was attacked by unidentified individuals near Dhaka City College while covering student traffic safety protests. AM Ahad suffered severe injuries to his legs, and attackers also broke his camera. The information minister requested an investigation into the attack.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported 23 journalists, including Shahidul Alam, were attacked while reporting on student traffic safety protests on August 5. In a Skype interview with al-Jazeera on August 4, Alam discussed the student protests and subsequently described attacks on the student protestors on his personal Facebook page. The next day Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments.” When Alam was brought to the court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible signs of injury (see section 1.c.) Alam was charged under the ICTA, which criminalize the publication of material that “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience, causes a “deterioration in law and order,” or “prejudices the image of the state or a person.” After multiple bail hearing postponements, the High Court granted Alam bail, and he was released on November 20. The government filed an appeal of the bail order. Alam’s trail proceedings recommenced on December 11, but they were subsequently postponed to 2019. Domestic and international NGOs consider the case against Alam to be politically motivated.

A top Dhaka Metropolitan Police official reported the government gathered details on approximately 100 social media accounts, which they claimed incited violence during student traffic safety protests by spreading provocative content. It was difficult to obtain reliable counts on the total number of those arrested, detained, released, or disappeared in conjunction with either the April through May quota protests or the August student traffic safety protests. Reports varied in the media. Families of the detained held press conferences to encourage the government to acknowledge their family members were being held in custody.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. RSF alleged media self-censorship is growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets, and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”

Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem.

In September parliament passed the Digital Security Act (DSA), claiming it was intended to reduce cybercrimes. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA as intended to suppress freedom and criminalize free speech. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights organizations criticized the DSA as restricting freedom of expression.

The government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. During the August student traffic protests, the government blocked internet connections to limit the ability of the protesters to organize. Television stations reported that they were “asked” by government officials not to broadcast reports of the students on the streets.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. A government-managed film censorship board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but it was less strict than in the past.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations. In May a LGBTI rights activist expressed fear about organizing the LGBTI community in the country, as formal organization would require the disclosure to the government of LGBTI activists’ identities, making them potential targets for government monitoring and harassment.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.

In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. In 2016 the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and political leaders who were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked.

The ICTA criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals. Opponents of the law said it unconstitutionally restricted freedom of speech. The government used the ICTA and threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Digital Security Act (DSA) was passed on September 19. Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar said on September 15 that section 57 of the ICTA would be removed by the passage of the bill; however, much of section 57 was incorporated into the final DSA law.

According to nongovernmental organization Article 19, the government arrested at least 87 individuals under section 57 of the ICTA from January to August. According to Odhikar, in August, 22 individuals were charged under the ICTA for allegedly providing “false” information or “spreading rumors” deemed to be against the state through Facebook and social media during the road safety protest movement.

On June 18, the bdnews24 website was blocked for several hours by the BTRC without an official explanation. According to independent journalists, a report written by the media outlet contained a paragraph about the offer of presidential clemency and release from prison of the brother of the recently appointed army chief. The paragraph was removed and the newspaper portal later unblocked.

The BTRC blocked the Daily Star’s website on June 2, following a June 1 article reporting on extrajudicial killing in Cox’s Bazar. On December 9, the BTRC also blocked 58 various news portals’ websites affiliated with political opposition parties (see section 1.a.).

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported in 2017 that approximately 18 percent of the population uses the internet. The BTRC reported approximately 90 million internet subscriptions in September, including an estimated 85 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription).

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.

The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provided for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. A Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) order requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations in Dhaka.

According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

Throughout the year the BNP was hindered by the government from hosting assemblies and rallies. The BNP was denied applications “for security reasons” to hold rallies in Dhaka on March 11, 19, and 29 at the Suhrawardy Udyan, one of the few large places designated for political rallies, but it was ultimately permitted to host its rally at a different location.

In a separate instance, the BNP claimed it received verbal permission to conduct a rally on its founding anniversary on September 1 in Dhaka and to conduct a human chain in front of the National Press Club on September 10. Law enforcement officials, however, apprehended hundreds of participants in the two BNP events. The BNP reported law enforcement detained 304 leaders and activists in the first three days of September and approximately 200 leaders and activists during the party’s human chain later in the month. The assistant inspector general of police headquarters denied reports of raids to detain opposition activists.

The incumbent Awami League (AL) and its allies were allowed to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan and other venues of their choice throughout the year.

On September 15, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she would instruct the DMP commissioner to allow political parties to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan. According to Prothom Alo, on September 29, the DMP gave permission to the BNP to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan, under 22 conditions, including that they provide their own security and install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the venue. The DMP also “banned all activities that can hamper public safety; carrying sticks; speech hurting religious sentiments, and arriving at the venue in processions.”

During the year police used force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. According to the Daily Star, on March 14, police dispersed a group of approximately 1,000 protesters marching towards the secretariat building in Dhaka, using batons and tear gas and injuring 15 protesters. The protesters were scheduled to arrive at a prescheduled sit-in at the secretariat. After the violent dispersal occurred, a DMP spokesperson defended the government’s actions on the grounds the protesters were obstructing traffic.

Beyond formal government hindrance and police obstruction of peaceful demonstrations, there were reports the government deployed ruling party student activists to areas where peaceful assemblies took place. On August 4, alleged Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) activists attacked a group of students in Dhanmondi with batons, rocks, and pistols in an effort to quell road safety protests. The action resulted in a reported 150 injuries. Multiple news outlets reported police did not try to prevent or restrain the attackers. Police detained dozens of students and supporters publicly supporting the road safety protestors.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5., and 7.a.).

The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5). The government announced in October 2017 a number of NGOs were no longer allowed to operate in Cox’s Bazar, including Muslim Aid Bangladesh, Islamic Relief, and Allama Fazlullah Foundation. The three organizations remain barred from operating in Cox’s Bazar during the year, according to media reports.

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas–the CHT and Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced some restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.

More than 700,000 individuals, mostly Rohingya women and children, have fled violence in Burma since August 2017, which the Secretary of State determined in November constituted a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military. The total number of Rohingya refugees hosted in Bangladesh was approximately one million living in refugee camps and host communities in Cox’s Bazar near the Burmese border. The government restricts Rohingya refugees to the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts in Cox’s Bazar, although the government has allowed exceptions for medical treatment in Cox’s Bazar city.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Prior to the August 2017 influx of Rohingya, UNHCR reported 66 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps who received counseling through March. In October the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported it identified approximately 100 cases of human trafficking among Rohingya refugees since September 2017 with the majority subjected to labor trafficking.

In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.

The government does not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abides by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception is the Rohingya do not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout Bangladesh. While the refugees are able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Tekhaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.

Members of the political opposition were sometimes prevented from moving around the country or faced harassment and detention when attempting to do so. Senior BNP leader and former law minister Moudud Ahmed was confined to his house in Noakhali twice during the year. Ahmed claimed police officials barricaded him in his home, preventing him from contact with his supporters and constituents, and from attending party-related events. He alleged police curbed his freedom of movement at the behest of Obaidul Quader, General Secretary of the incumbent Awami League and Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, who is his electoral rival in the area. Police claimed the measures were intended to increase security at Ahmed’s home in his capacity as a senior political figure.

Foreign Travel: Some senior opposition officials reported extensive delays renewing their passports; others reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. On September 12, authorities at Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka delayed immigration clearance for BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.

The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.

The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.

The IDPs in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces.

In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act to curtail the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission. The amended act failed to resolve the disputes during the year as tribal leaders insisted on establishing a governing framework for the law before hearing disputes for resolution. In December 2017 the government reappointed Justice Mohammad Anwarul Haque chair of the commission for three years. The Land Ministry formulated rules for implementation of the act, but the rules have yet to be officially promulgated.

The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the task force on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and UNHCR provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and IOM provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. Since the additional influx of refugees in August 2017, approximately one million Rohingya refugees lived in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population is less than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leads the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinates the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and the deputy commissioner provide coordination.

The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief and rehabilitation activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military has again become more active in the refugee camps, conducting patrols 24 hours a day. The Ministry of Home Affairs instructed law enforcement agencies to provide protection to the Rohingya people and their camps. International organizations alleged some Bangladeshi border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way” for bribes allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps to direct involvement.

Refoulement: There was no refoulement or forced repatriation. On November 15, in an effort to demonstrate it was not blocking returns as alleged by Burma, Bangladesh sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up anyone ready to return. Bangladesh called off the operation when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed Bangladesh’s commitment to voluntary, safe, and dignified refugee returns, based on informed consent.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government is working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue ID cards that replace prior cards and provide for protection of Rohingya refugees as well as better systems for accessing services and assistance. The card also affirms the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded their access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers.

Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingyas’ freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside of the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict Rohingya travel beyond the Ukhia and Tefnaf subdistricts.

Many camp authorities have introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.

Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform construction and maintenance tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy. Undocumented Rohingya also worked illegally, mostly in day-labor jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population has occurred has strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the multitude of actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies have responded with significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remains a central issue that hinders the ability of Rohingya to have access to basic services.

Public education, while mandatory as of 2010 through fifth grade throughout the country, remained a significant challenge for those children residing in the refugee camps and makeshift settlements. According to the ISCG, the education response since 2017 has focused on the provision of preprimary and primary education for refugee girls and boys and by September had reached a total of 139,444 children. There remained a significant gap for preprimary and primary-age children in the camps as well as inadequate coverage of adolescents between 15 to 24 years of age.

Government authorities did not allow registered or unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. There were 278 functional facilities known to the health sector, with a further 37 planned or under construction. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

STATELESS PERSONS

The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.

Barbados

Executive Summary

Barbados is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. In the May national elections, voters elected Prime Minister Mia Mottley of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). Observers considered the vote generally free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included reports of torture by some police officers to obtain confessions, and consensual same-sex activity between men, although this was not enforced during the year.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The press reported extensively on corruption issues. Civil society representatives raised concerns that defamation lawsuits could lead to self-censorship in some cases.

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. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 82 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

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

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

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

The government indicated a willingness to cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern, but the law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Immigration Department was responsible for considering refugee or asylum claims.

Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state, and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since his election as president in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All subsequent presidential elections fell well short of international standards. The 2016 parliamentary elections also failed to meet international standards.

Civilian authorities, President Lukashenka in particular, maintained effective control over security forces.

Human rights issues included torture; arbitrary arrest and detention; life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; undue restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel and defamation of government officials; violence against and detention of journalists; severe restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association, including by imposing criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws criminalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by the authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular of former political prisoners whose civil rights remained largely restricted; failure to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances; restrictions on political participation; corruption in all branches of government; allegations of pressuring women to have abortions; and trafficking in persons.

Authorities at all levels operated with impunity and failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president and the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Authorities also prohibited wearing facemasks, displaying certain historical flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

On March 25, a Radio Liberty journalist reported that she and at least four individuals were detained for carrying white-red-white flags beyond the police perimeter near the Minsk Opera House, following a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic.

On September 10, police detained opposition activist Nina Bahinskaya for holding a banner that read “No to Communism” in central Minsk. Authorities fined her 1,225 rubles ($612) for purportedly holding an unauthorized protest.

The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.

Press and Media Freedom: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of independent media.

By law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.

Limited information was available in the state-run press concerning the February 18 local elections, including on independent candidates.

While no independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, applied for registration to the Ministry of Information, they continued to seek to provide coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of newspapers, and raising the cost of printing.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state distributor of printed publications, Belsayuzdruk, allowed the distribution of at least nine independent newspapers and magazines that covered politics, including Novy ChasBorisovskie Novosti, and Intexpress, which have been banned from distribution for 11 years.

The exclusion of independent print media from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell newspapers and magazines effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.

International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time lag that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable.

At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their international news programs with local programming.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.

Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of September 15, police fined, detained, and arrested at least 30 journalists who were performing their professional duties in more than 108 separate cases.

On August 7, the Investigative Committee reported it had opened a criminal case, based on materials submitted by the Interior Ministry’s cybersecurity department, to investigate “illegal access to computer information stemming from personal interests which caused significant damages.” The case was reportedly triggered by a complaint filed by state-run news agency Belta. The Interior Ministry’s preliminary investigation found that “information held on Belta’s computer systems was illegally accessed more than 15,000 times without the knowledge or agreement of Belta in 2017-2018.” Authorities detained and interrogated more than 20 journalists from the independent news agencies tut.byBelaPANrealt.by, and Deutsche Welle among others. Investigators also searched their residences and offices, confiscating computer equipment. In November investigators charged 15 journalists for illegal access, including BelaPAN staff writer Tatsyana Karavenkova, BelaPAN chief editor Iryna Leushyna, and eight tut.by journalists, including Chief Editor Maryna Zolatava. Observers said the investigation and charges were disproportionate to the alleged crime, because the subscription-only Belta news service the journalists were accused of illegally accessing posted the same information for free public consumption shortly after its release to paid subscribers. Charges against all except Zolatava were later dropped when the journalists agreed to pay a penalty of 735 rubles ($350) each and up to 17,000 rubles ($7,980) in compensation for damage their actions allegedly caused. Zolatava was charged with “executive inaction” and faced up to five years in prison.

The government refused to recognize some foreign media, such as Poland-based Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined free-lance journalists working for them. As of September 25, at least 31 journalists were fined in 80 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 66,000 rubles ($33,000). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat TV.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.

Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints.

Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report. On November 22, authorities convicted a resident of the village of Vetryna in the Vitsyebsk region on charges of “publicly insulting the president” and causing a false bomb alert and sentenced him to two years of restricted freedom. The charges reportedly stemmed from the resident’s post on his social media, using derogatory language and saying that he allegedly planted a bomb at a local shopping center.

National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government interfered with internet freedom by monitoring email and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the peaceful expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions, and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.

Under amendments to the Media Law that came into force December 1, news websites and any internet information sources are subject to the same regulations as print media. If websites choose not to apply for registration, they can continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Unregistered online media cannot receive accreditation from state agencies for its correspondents, who will also not be able to cover mass events or protect sources of information, among other things. Registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises with a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions.

Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. The law also restricts access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, or “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that may harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication will be able to appeal a decision to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court within a month.

In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. On January 24, authorities blocked opposition news website Charter’97 for allegedly publishing information that harmed national interests. The Information Ministry claimed that the site ran articles announcing the time and venue of unauthorized demonstrations and published information on behalf of unregistered groups.

Authorities monitored internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekam and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.

A presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites, and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.

In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers reported that the few remaining independent media sites with the country domain BY practiced self-censorship at times.

On several occasions, cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily took down independent news portals and social networking sites.

According to various media sources, the number of internet users reached nearly seven million persons, or more than 70 percent of population, of which approximately 90 percent used the internet daily or numerous times a month. Internet penetration was approximately 83 percent among users ages 15 to 50.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.

Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as their principals. The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.

Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce. While the administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes, on March 27 authorities registered as a legal entity a private university, named after prominent Belarusian poet Nil Hilevich, where all instruction will be in the Belarusian language. In September the university, run by the independent Belarusian Language Society and funded from private sources, opened pre-enrollment courses for students to major in the humanities, linguistics, and other disciplines.

Students, writers, and academics said authorities pressured them to join ostensibly voluntary progovernment organizations, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) and the Union of Writers of Belarus. Students who declined to join the BRYU risked economic hardships, including lack of access to dormitories, which effectively limited their ability to attend the country’s top universities.

Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.

According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. In January Belarus State University expelled Hanna Smilevich, a Belarusian Popular Front youth group member, after she had become chair of the group in December 2017.

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups in various communities around the country. A general atmosphere of repression and the threat of imprisonment or large fines exercised a chilling effect on potential protest organizers.

The law criminalizes the announcement of an intention to hold demonstrations via the internet or social media before official approval, participation in the activities of unregistered NGOs, training of persons to demonstrate, financing of public demonstrations, or solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Persons with unexpunged criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals did not have the right to act as mass event organizers. Such organizers must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission to conduct a public demonstration, rally, or meeting, and government officials are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held at designated venues far from city centers. The amended law allowed organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities should inform organizers of denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials can be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicted with one organized by a different individual or group or the notification did not comply with regulations.

Authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unauthorized demonstrations. In addition authorities required organizers to conclude contracts with police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities for their services after a mass event. Authorities waived some of these requirements for the March 25 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR). All media representatives had to be clearly identified and carry an official media ID or foreign media accreditation. They have to provide their personal ID and press documents to law enforcement upon request.

On March 27, President Lukashenka told Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich that the Ministry should be ready to “immediately suppress” any unauthorized events which “impede people’s lives” because “chaos stems from them [unauthorized protests].” Shunevich responded that “not a single event, which is not sanctioned by authorities, will take place, and even if it starts it will be immediately stopped in an effective manner and in compliance with the law.”

During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage various demonstrations.

While Minsk city authorities cooperated with opposition groups to stage a rally and concert on the 100 anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic in front of the Opera House on March 25, they denied two other applications to hold marches the same day. Organizers of the concert had sought to walk from a nearby park to the concert location before the concert. A second application was filed by opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich and his supporters to march from the central Yakub Kolas square via the main avenue to the concert location. When Statkevich decided to go ahead with his plan without permission, police arrested him as he was leaving his home. Police also arrested approximately 60 individuals gathered at Yakub Kolas square.

In addition, authorities in Mahilyou and Homyel denied local activists’ permission to hold rallies in city centers on March 25. They alleged that the venues were not designated for mass events or had been already booked for other events.

Across the country in at least 11 different localities, approximately 57 individuals were briefly detained, apparently in order to prevent their participation in March 25 events in Minsk.

On July 3, celebrated as the Belarusian Independence Day, police dispersed an unauthorized protest and detained approximately 30 individuals, including Mikalai Statkevich, in front of a WWII monument to Soviet soldiers in central Minsk. Statkevich called upon his associates to hold a rally to mark the “liberation [of Minsk from the Nazis on July 3, 1944] and solidarity.” Statkevich was arrested as he was leaving his house on his way to the site on July 3. Police detained approximately 30 activists at the site, including five observers from the human rights group Vyasna, transported them to a local precinct, and released the majority later in the day. Statkevich and at least three other activists remained in detention overnight and stood trial on July 4. A Minsk district court sentenced Statkevich to a fine of 980 rubles ($490) for making calls to participate in an unauthorized protest on July 3.

From June through October, authorities fined, detained, or arrested more than 20 protesters at the site of the Stalinist-era execution site Kurapaty. The protesters opposed the building and operation of a restaurant in close vicinity to the site. While police repeatedly fined the majority of activists for purportedly violating traffic regulations and participating in unauthorized demonstrations, a number of protesters, including Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) party cochair Paval Sevyarynets, European Belarus campaign activist Maksim Vinyarski, and filmmaker Alyaksei Tourovich were sentenced to up to 10 days of administrative detention.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to become registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.

Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders, along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office, an extraordinary burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs and individual property owners’ fears of renting space to independent groups. Individuals listed as members were vulnerable to reprisal. The government’s refusal to rent office space to unregistered organizations and the expense of renting private space reportedly forced most organizations to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or to deregister them. The law criminalizes activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from large fines to two years’ imprisonment (also see section 7.a.).

The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.

Only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of the Economy for technical aid before they may accept such funds or register the grants.

The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations in an effort to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

On March 21, Minsk city authorities registered an educational NGO called “Out Loud.” This was the group’s ninth registration application under its previous name, “Make Out,” which the government requested it change before granting registration. The NGO focused on advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and countering discrimination and violence against them.

On April 6, the BCD reported that the Ministry of Justice denied its seventh registration application. The ministry said the BCD had failed to include phone numbers of some of its members and had incorrectly listed the birth dates of two party founders in its application documents. The party submitted the application on January 22, and the ministry decided to suspend the registration process and seek additional documents on February 23. The Supreme Court upheld the ministry’s denial on May 25.

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. 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, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.

The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.

Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.

Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, and many were in self-imposed exile.

Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a procedure for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin.

All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians may legally settle and obtain residence permits in the country based on their Russian citizenship. Overall, as of October 1, immigration authorities accepted 463 applications for asylum compared with 596 in 2016, including from 359 Ukrainians, 10 Syrians, eight Afghans, and 12 Pakistanis.

In addition to refugee status, the country’s asylum law provides for complementary protection in the form of temporary residence. In the period January-September, 364 foreigners were granted complementary protection (333 Ukrainians, 14 Syrians, six Yemenis, seven Afghans, one Georgian, and three Egyptians).

Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status of asylum-seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.

Durable Solutions: Adult asylum seekers have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees.

Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.

STATELESS PERSONS

As of July 1, the Ministry of the Interior and UNHCR listed 6,618 stateless persons in the country; all had permanent residence, according to authorities.

Permanently resident stateless persons held residence permits and were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.

There is a path towards citizenship for this stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary democracy with a limited constitutional monarchy. The country is a federal state with several levels of government: national; regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels); language community (Flemish, French, and German); provincial; and local. The Federal Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, remains in office as long as it retains the confidence of the lower house (Chamber of Representatives) of the bicameral parliament. Observers considered federal parliamentary elections held in 2014 to be free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included some physical attacks motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Authorities generally investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted such cases.

Authorities actively investigated, prosecuted, and punished officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks and attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred are criminal offenses punishable by a minimum of eight days (for Holocaust denial) or one month (incitement to hatred and sexist remarks or attitudes) and up to one year in prison and fines, plus a possible revocation of the right to vote or run for public office. If the incitement to hatred was based on racism or xenophobia, the case would be tried in the regular courts. If, however, the incitement stemmed from other motives, including homophobia or religious bias, a longer and more costly trial by jury generally would be required. The government prosecuted and courts convicted persons under these laws.

In July 2017 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously rejected the appeal of Fouad Belkacem, the former leader and spokesperson of the disbanded Salafi organization Sharia4Belgium. Authorities prosecuted Belkacem in 2012 for creating YouTube videos in which he called on viewers to commit violence against non-Muslims. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term. In his appeal, Belkacem claimed he was wrongfully convicted of public incitement to discrimination, violence, and hatred. He claimed Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protected his free speech and that he never intended to incite others. In its decision, the ECHR stated that Belkacem’s remarks online were markedly hateful and incompatible with the ECHR’s underlying values of tolerance, nondiscrimination, and peaceful coexistence. The ECHR further stated that it upheld states’ rights to oppose political movements based on religious fundamentalism and noted that Belkacem had attempted to deflect Article 10 from its real purpose by using his right to freedom of expression for ends that were manifestly contrary to the spirit of the convention.

Press and Media Freedom: The prohibition of Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks, attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred applies to print and broadcast media, books, and online newspapers and journals.

In observation of World Refugee Day on June 20, some 100 activists took over a refugee detention facility construction site, preventing workers from entering. Police eventually regained control of the site and administratively arrested protesters, including a news crew of the Francophone public service broadcasting organization, the RTBF, which had been on location to cover the story. All protestors were released after one hour. The RTBF and Belgian and European journalist federations filed formal complaints, and the prime minister ordered an investigation of the incident, asserting that freedom of the press is essential and that police must maintain public order at all times.

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.

According to estimates compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 87 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

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

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

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

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.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, including specific subsidiary protection that goes beyond asylum criteria established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Treatment of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Refugee status and residence permits are limited to five years and become indefinite if extended.

Authorities continued to face a significant flow of “transit migrants,” defined as those who remained in the country without requesting asylum while attempting illegal travel to the United Kingdom. To address the flow, the federal government started to detain transit migrants physically to ensure their repatriation.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country denied asylum to asylum seekers who arrived from a safe country of origin or transit, pursuant to the EU’s Dublin III Regulation.

Durable Solutions: The country accepted refugees through UNHCR, including persons located in Italy and Greece, under the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The country also conducted a voluntary return program for migrants in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary “subsidiary” protection to individuals who did not satisfy the legal criteria for refugee status but who could not return to their country of origin due to a real risk of serious harm. Under EU guidelines, individuals granted “subsidiary protection” are entitled to temporary residence permits, travel documents, access to employment, and equal access to health care and housing. In 2017 authorities granted subsidiary protection to 2,900 individuals. In the first half of the year, authorities granted protection to 1,095 individuals.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to UNHCR, at the end of 2017, there were 7,695 persons in the country who fell under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. The country does not have a significant number of residents who are stateless, de jure or de facto, and does not contribute to statelessness, as the legal framework for stripping an individual of his or her citizenship does not exist except in cases of dual citizenship with another country.

To be recognized as stateless, a requestor must go through legal proceedings and acquire a court ruling on his or her stateless status. Since July 2017 family courts have been tasked with handling these requests in hopes of decreasing wait times. The requestor may appeal the court’s ruling. Recognition of statelessness does not automatically afford a stateless person resident status in the country. Stateless persons may apply for Belgian nationality after meeting the requirements for legal residency.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future