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Bahamas

Executive Summary

The Commonwealth of The Bahamas is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis’s Free National Movement won control of the government in 2017 elections international observers found to be free and fair.

The Royal Bahamas Police Force maintains internal security. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force is primarily responsible for external security but also provides security at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre (for migrants) and performs some domestic security functions, such as guarding embassies. Both report to the minister of national security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports of significant abuses by the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included degrading treatment of prisoners and harsh prison conditions. Libel is criminalized, although it was not enforced during the year.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who commit human rights abuses.

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

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

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

The government reported 12 cases of shooting incidents involving police, including from previous years, pending with the coroner’s court. In a case in which an off-duty police officer allegedly shot and killed a man in Exuma District, the Royal Bahamas Police Force dismissed the officer and took him into custody. He was charged with manslaughter and denied bail.

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 prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. At times citizens and visitors alleged instances of cruel or degrading treatment of criminal suspects or of migrants by police or immigration officials. Individuals detained in jails complained they were denied access to medical care and food and were degraded through name-calling and homophobic slurs.

Impunity was not a significant problem. The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who commit human rights abuses. In June the police commissioner and the coroner’s court disagreed regarding who should investigate police-involved shootings.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions at the government’s only prison, the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services (BDCS) facility commonly known as Fox Hill Prison, were harsh due to overcrowding, poor nutrition, inadequate sanitation, poor ventilation, and inadequate medical care, although the government initiated some improvements. Conditions at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre for migrants were adequate for short-term detention only.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate access to medical care were problems in the men’s maximum-security block, while inadequate access to clean drinking water was an issue in the men’s maximum-security block, remand, and the women’s block. The BDCS facility was designed to accommodate 1,000 prisoners but held 1,617 inmates as of December. Juvenile pretrial detainees were held with adults at the BDCS remand center, a minimum-security section of the prison.

The government stated it complied with its legal obligations to provide for showering, exercise, doctor visits, lawyer visits, and visitation. Among male inmates, only those in the medium- and minimum-security wards were allowed to exercise daily with the exception of weekends and holidays. Due to COVID-19, authorities limited nonprison food vendor sales and suspended meals brought by family members. Prisoners reported infrequent access to clean drinking water and an inability to store potable water due to a lack of storage containers. Maximum-security cells for men measured approximately six feet by 10 feet and held up to six persons with no mattresses, running water, or toilet facilities. Inmates removed human waste by bucket. Prisoners complained of the lack of beds and bedding. Some inmates developed bedsores from lying on the bare ground. Sanitation was a general problem, with cells infested with rats, maggots, and insects. Ventilation was also a problem, and some inmates complained of mold and mildew. The government claimed to provide prisoners in maximum-security areas access to toilets and showers one hour a day. The women’s facilities were generally more comfortable, with dormitory-style quarters and adequate bathrooms.

The availability of clearly labeled, prescribed pharmaceuticals and access to physician care was sporadic. Prisoners consistently complained that prison authorities did not take their health concerns seriously. Sick male inmates and male inmates with disabilities had inadequate access to the medical center. One inmate, who requested assistance for a series of medical complications, died at BDCS in October. The inmate’s family had been permitted to provide him with nutritional supplements and healthy meals until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the prison to restrict visitors. Absent outside support and adequate prison care, the inmate died in his cell.

In February a correctional officer beat a prisoner, causing a leg injury that required surgery. The government stated it charged the officer with use of unnecessary force and referred the matter to a disciplinary tribunal at the Department of Correctional Services.

Despite the suspension of visitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates were allowed to remain in contact with relatives via the inmate telephone system, the prerelease unit, and the chaplain’s office.

At the Carmichael Road Detention Centre in June, a group of detained Haitian migrants, frustrated at their prolonged detention, damaged fencing and conducted a short hunger strike. The government had suspended repatriation flights to Haiti due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten days after the protest, however, the government repatriated 75 migrants to Haiti, the first deportation since March. Eight asylum seekers remained detained for approximately one year while they awaited a government decision on their cases.

Administration: The Internal Affairs Unit and a disciplinary tribunal at the BDCS facility are responsible for investigating any credible allegations of abuse or substandard conditions. Despite media reports of abuse at BDCS, the government stated there were no instances of abuse or mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: Human rights organizations reported the government did not grant requests for access to the maximum-security block of the BDCS facility. Independent observers, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Bahamas Red Cross, were regularly able to visit the primary detention center and speak with detainees held at the government’s safe house for mothers and children, including asylum seekers and refugees. The UNHCR office was vacant for the first half of the year due to staff turnover.

Improvements: The government took steps to improve prison conditions, including by introducing biodegradable bags for proper waste disposal, constructing 100 bunk beds, and installing flooring, air conditioning, and masonry in parts of the maximum-security area. In addition inmates noted repairs to water flow during the year and a reopened prison library. At the Carmichael Road Detention Centre, the government replaced floor tiles in all dormitories.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these requirements. The constitution provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, although this process sometimes took several years.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police officers generally obtained judicially issued warrants when required for arrests. Serious cases, including suspected narcotics or firearms offenses, do not require warrants where probable cause exists. The law states authorities must charge a suspect within 48 hours of arrest. Arrested persons must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours (or by the next business day for cases arising on weekends and holidays) to hear the charges against them, although some persons on remand claimed they were not brought before a magistrate within the 48-hour period. Police may apply for a 48-hour extension upon simple request to the court and for longer extensions with sufficient showing of need. The government respected the right to a judicial determination of the legality of arrests. The constitution provides the right for those arrested or detained to retain an attorney at their own expense; volunteer legal aides were available only for serious felonies being tried in the Supreme Court. Access to legal representation was inconsistent, including for detainees at the detention center. Minors receive legal assistance only when charged under offenses before the Supreme Court; otherwise, there is no official representation of minors before the courts.

A functioning bail system exists. Individuals who were unable to post bail were held on remand until they faced trial. Judges sometimes authorized cash bail for foreigners arrested on minor charges; however, foreign suspects generally preferred to plead guilty and pay a fine.

As of July there were 73 complaints against police for abusing detainees, compared with 72 such complaints during same period in 2019. As a result of investigations, two officers were reduced in rank and one was required to resign. Other actions were pending the completion of investigations.

Pretrial Detention: Attorneys and other prisoner advocates continued to complain of excessive pretrial detention due to the failure of the criminal justice system to try even the most serious cases in a timely manner. The constitution provides that authorities may hold suspects in pretrial detention for a “reasonable period of time,” which was interpreted as two years. Authorities released selected suspects awaiting trial with an ankle bracelet on the understanding the person would adhere to strict and person-specific guidelines defining allowable movement within the country. Of the 1,617 inmates, 37 percent (598 inmates) were in pretrial detention.

The Department of Immigration detained irregular migrants, primarily Haitians, while arranging for them to leave the country or until the migrant obtained legal status. The average length of detention varied significantly by nationality, by the willingness of other governments to accept their nationals back in a timely manner, and by the availability of funds to pay for repatriation. Authorities aimed to repatriate Haitians within one to two weeks, but the COVID-19 pandemic impeded routine repatriation flights.

The government continued to enforce the law requiring noncitizens to carry their passport and proof of legal status in the country. Some international organizations alleged that enforcement focused primarily on individuals of Haitian origin, that the rights of children were not respected, and that expedited deportations did not allow time for due process. There were also widespread credible reports that immigration officials solicited and accepted bribes to prevent detention or to grant release. One individual, claiming he was born in The Bahamas, said authorities apprehended him and held him at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre for migrants before he bribed several officials to release him.

Activists for the Haitian community acknowledged alleged victims filed few formal complaints with government authorities and attributed this to a widespread perception of impunity for police and immigration authorities and fear of reprisal.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Procedural shortcomings and trial delays were problems. The courts were unable to keep pace with criminal cases, and there was a continued backlog.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, to a fair and free public trial without undue delay, to be present at their trial, to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, to receive free assistance of an interpreter, and to present their own witnesses and evidence. Although defendants generally have the right to confront adverse witnesses, in some cases the law allows witnesses to testify anonymously against accused perpetrators in order to protect themselves from intimidation or retribution. Defendants have the right to not be compelled to testify or confess guilt and the right to appeal.

Defendants may hire an attorney of their choice. The government provided legal representation only for serious felonies being tried in the Supreme Court, leaving large numbers of defendants without adequate legal representation. Lack of representation contributed to excessive pretrial detention, as some accused lacked the means to advance their cases toward trial.

Numerous juvenile offenders appear in court with an individual who is court-appointed to protect the juvenile’s interests (guardian ad litem). A conflict arises when the magistrate requests “information” regarding a child’s background and requests the child-welfare social worker to prepare a probation report to include a recommendation on the sentence for the child. In essence the government-assigned social worker tasked with safeguarding the welfare of the child is also tasked with recommending an appropriate punishment for the child.

A significant backlog of cases was awaiting trial, with delays reportedly lasting years. The government suspended jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hindering its efforts to address the backlog. Once cases went to trial, they were often further delayed due to poor case and court management, such as inaccurate handling or presentation of evidence and inaccurate scheduling of witnesses, jury members, and defendants for testimony. The judiciary took concrete steps toward procuring and implementing a digital case-management system to help alleviate the backlog.

Local legal professionals also attributed delays to a variety of long-standing systemic problems, such as inadequate coordination between investigators and prosecutors, insufficient forensic capacity, outdated file management, lengthy legal procedures, and staff shortages in the Prosecutor’s Office and the courts.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, and there is access to a court to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations.

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

The constitution prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. Immigration enforcement activities slowed greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there were sporadic reports of abuse. In one instance police were reportedly involved in a physical altercation with a 16-year-old boy inside his residence during an immigration operation in an informal settlement on New Providence.

While the law usually requires a court order for entry into or search of a private residence, a police inspector or more senior police official may authorize a search without a court order where probable cause exists to suspect a weapons violation or drug possession.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes both negligent and intentional libel, with a penalty of six months’ imprisonment for the former and two years for the latter. The government did not apply the criminal libel law during the year.

Internet Freedom

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Nongovernmental organization (NGOs) claimed the government did not adequately accommodate the approximately 8,000 residents of Grand Bahama, Abaco, and the surrounding cays displaced by Hurricane Dorian. The government housed more than 2,000 persons, including many undocumented migrants–mostly Haitian–in temporary shelters on New Providence. The government allowed international and local NGOs access to the displaced migrants. Although all shelters were closed by July, the government stated it continued to provide food and rental assistance to some hurricane evacuees.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government sometimes cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government provided COVID-19 medical assistance to all, regardless of immigration status. It requested the assistance of NGOs in translating written COVID-19 health guidance for migrants who speak Creole, Spanish, Chinese Mandarin, and Tagalog.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Migrants continued to accuse police and immigration officers of soliciting bribes. Human rights organizations alleged that bias against migrants, particularly those of Haitian descent, continued, including through eviction notices in informal settlements. The government generally enforced its immigration policies equally on all irregular migrants, regardless of nationality or origin.

Refoulement: The government had an agreement with the government of Cuba to expedite removal of Cuban detainees. The announced intent of the agreement was to reduce the amount of time Cuban migrants spent in detention; however, concerns persisted the agreement allowed for information-sharing that heightened the risk of oppression from the Cuban government of detainees and their families. The government did not force asylum seekers or refugees to return to countries where they were likely to face persecution or torture.

Access to Asylum: The effects in September 2019 of Hurricane Dorian continued to have an impact on access to asylum as the government tried to accommodate thousands of individuals displaced by the storm, including hundreds of irregular migrants, while simultaneously enforcing its immigration laws.

While the law does not provide protection for asylum seekers, the government may issue special refugee cards allowing them to work. It did not issue any such cards to the approximately 30 asylum seekers during the year. Access to asylum in the country is informal since there is no legal framework under which legal protections and practical safeguards could be implemented. The lack of refugee legislation or formal policy and an official government point of contact complicated UNHCR’s work to identify and assist asylum seekers and refugees.

According to the government, trained individuals were available to screen applicants for asylum and refer them to the Department of Immigration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for further review. Government procedure requires the ministry to forward approved applications to the cabinet for a final decision on granting or denying asylum. The government was slow to respond to repeated written requests from UNHCR for a meeting to discuss pending asylum cases, including for eight asylum seekers who were detained at Carmichael Road Detention Centre for more than one year.

Authorities did not systematically involve UNHCR in asylum proceedings but allowed UNHCR to interview detained asylum seekers.

g. Stateless Persons

Not all individuals born in the country are automatically afforded Bahamian citizenship. For example, children born in the country to non-Bahamian parents, to an unwed Bahamian father and a non-Bahamian mother, or outside the country to a Bahamian mother and a non-Bahamian father do not acquire citizenship at birth. The government did not effectively implement laws and policies to provide certain habitual residents the opportunity to gain nationality in a timely manner and on a nondiscriminatory basis. There was little progress in advancing legislation intended, in part, to address the issue of statelessness.

Under the constitution Bahamian-born persons of foreign heritage must apply for citizenship during a 12-month window following their 18th birthday, but an applicant sometimes waited many years for a government response. The narrow window for application, difficult documentary requirements, and long waiting times left multiple generations of persons, primarily Haitians due to their preponderance among the irregular migrant population, without a confirmed nationality. Government policy allows individuals who missed the 12-month window to gain legal permanent resident status with the right to work, but some Haitian residents had difficulty applying because they did not have the necessary documents.

There were no reliable estimates of the number of persons without a confirmed nationality. The government asserted a number of “stateless” individuals had a legitimate claim to Haitian citizenship but refused to pursue it due to fear of deportation or loss of future claim to Bahamian citizenship. Such persons often faced waiting periods of several years for the government to decide on their nationality applications and, as a result, in the interim lacked proper documentation to secure employment, housing, and other public services.

In one case a man born in the country to non-Bahamian parents was still awaiting the government’s determination on his nationality status 22 years after submitting his application. The man relied on his employer to sponsor and renew his work permit so he could maintain legal status. He was unable to obtain a driver’s license or health insurance.

Minors born in the country to non-Bahamian parents were eligible to apply for “belonger” status that entitled them to reside in the country legally and access public high-school-level education and fee-for-service health-care insurance. Belonger permits were readily available. The lack of a passport prohibited students from accessing higher education outside the country. The government does not bar children without legal status from government schools. To facilitate online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education provided computer tablets to students enrolled in the government-subsidized school lunch program, including children without legal status. Those who had not registered for the lunch program were unable to join their classmates in the virtual classroom. Community activists alleged some schools continued to discriminate by falsely claiming to be full in order to avoid having to admit children of Haitian descent.

The law denies mothers the right to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis with men. Specifically, women with foreign-born spouses do not automatically transmit citizenship to their spouses or children. Many of the provisions that preclude full gender equality in nationality matters are entrenched in the constitution and would require a constitutional referendum to change.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The long-standing lack of a fully implemented freedom of information act continued to limit citizens’ access to information necessary to inform their political decision making.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Prime Minister Hubert Minnis took office after the Free National Movement (FNM) defeated the incumbent Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in a general election in 2017. The FNM won 35 of the 39 parliamentary seats, with 57 percent of the popular vote. The PLP won the remaining four seats. Election observers from the Organization of American States and embassies found the elections to be generally free and fair.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

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. There was limited enforcement of conflicts of interest related to government contracts. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year where officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices, including accepting small-scale “bribes of convenience,” with impunity.

Corruption: The campaign finance system was largely unregulated, with few safeguards against quid pro quo donations, creating a vulnerability to corruption and foreign influence. The procurement process was susceptible to corruption, since it contains no requirement to engage in open public tenders. Nevertheless, the government routinely issued open public tenders. The government encouraged value added tax-registered businesses to sign up for the electronic bidding platform, which the Ministry of Finance introduced in 2019 to increase public procurement transparency.

The government reported no new cases of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The trial for a bribery case against a former high-level government official, scheduled to begin in March, was delayed due to COVID-19. A second trial for a money-laundering case against a former official was also delayed due to the pandemic. The trials had yet to be held by year’s end.

Corruption in the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services and the Carmichael Road Detention Centre was a long-standing problem, with allegations by both detainees and officials.

Financial Disclosure: The Public Disclosure Act requires senior public officials, including senators and members of Parliament, to declare their assets, income, and liabilities annually. The government gave extensions to all who were late to comply. The government did not publish a summary of the individual declarations, and there was no independent verification of the information submitted.

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men or women is illegal, but the law does not protect against spousal rape unless the couple is separated or in the process of divorce, or if there is a restraining order in place. The maximum penalty for an initial rape conviction is seven years in prison. The maximum sentence for subsequent rape convictions is life imprisonment; however, the usual maximum was 14 years in prison. The government generally enforced the law effectively.

Violence against women worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic due, in part, to lockdowns and curfews that prevented victims from seeking safe havens or other assistance. The government cited a 23 percent increase in recorded sexual offenses through September 30. The government conducted awareness campaigns and signaled it was pursuing stronger legislation. It did not implement long-standing civil society recommendations to address adequately gender-based violence but signaled it was pursuing legislation.

The law addresses domestic violence under the Sexual Offenses Act. The government generally enforced the law, although women’s rights groups cited reluctance on the part of law enforcement authorities to intervene in domestic disputes. The Ministry of Social Services sponsored temporary, privately owned safe-house shelters, but there was a shortage of transitional housing. The Bahamas Crisis Centre provided a counseling referral service, operated a toll-free hotline, and added a WhatsApp hotline during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in employment and authorizes moderate penalties and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. The government does not have any permanent programs on sexual harassment but conducted educational and awareness-raising campaigns and activities.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and had access to free contraception, free testing for sexually transmitted infections and diseases, family planning counseling, and subsidized pre- and postnatal care. Individuals generally had access to information and resources to manage their reproductive health free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Barriers affecting access to contraception included limited access to sexual and reproductive health services on all but the two most-populated islands (New Providence and Grand Bahama) and conservative Christian principles that promote abstinence. While the age for sexual consent is 16, the age for receiving contraceptive and other health services without requiring parental consent is 18. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: The law does not prohibit discrimination based on gender. Women with foreign-born spouses do not have the same right as men to transmit citizenship to their spouses or children (see section 2.g., Stateless Persons). In addition a child adopted by a married Bahamian couple may acquire Bahamian citizenship only through the adopted father, not the adopted mother.

Women were generally free from economic discrimination, and the law provides for equal pay for equal work. The law provides for the same economic legal status and rights for women as for men. The government generally enforced the law effectively.

Children

Birth Registration: Children born in the country to married parents, one of whom is Bahamian, acquire citizenship at birth. In the case of unwed parents, the child takes the citizenship of the mother. All children born in the country who are noncitizens may apply for citizenship upon reaching their 18th birthday. All births must be registered within 21 days of delivery.

Child Abuse: The law stipulates severe penalties for child abuse and requires all persons having contact with a child they believe has been physically or sexually abused to report their suspicions to police; nonetheless, child abuse and neglect remained serious problems, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ministry of Social Services provided services to abused and neglected children through a public-private center for children, the public hospital’s family violence program, and The Bahamas Crisis Centre. It also operated a 24-hour national abuse hotline.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, although minors may marry at 15 with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual heterosexual sex is 16. The law considers any association or exposure of a child to prostitution or a prostitution house as cruelty, neglect, or mistreatment. The offense of having sex with a minor carries a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Child pornography is against the law. A person who produces child pornography is subject to life imprisonment; dissemination or possession of child pornography calls for a penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

The penalties for rape of a minor are the same as those for rape of an adult. While a victim’s consent is an insufficient defense against allegations of statutory rape, it is a sufficient defense if the accused had “reasonable cause” to believe the victim was older than age 16, provided the accused was younger than age 18.

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 local Jewish community consisted of approximately 500 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, public buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law affords equal access for students, but only as resources permit, as decided by individual schools. There were several special-needs schools in Nassau; however, on less-populated islands, children with learning disabilities often lacked adequate access. Special-needs schools on Grand Bahama and Abaco were severely affected by Hurricane Dorian.

A mix of government and private residential and nonresidential institutions provided education, training, counseling, and job placement services for adults and children with disabilities. Children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children. They attended school with nondisabled peers or in specialized schools, depending on local resources. The government tried to facilitate distance learning for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic but faced problems in providing equal access.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

According to unofficial estimates, between 30,000 and 60,000 residents were Haitians or persons of Haitian descent, making them the largest ethnic minority. Many persons of Haitian origin lived in informal settlements with limited sewage and garbage services, law enforcement, and other public services. Authorities generally granted Haitian children access to education and social services, but interethnic tensions and inequities persisted after thousands of persons of Haitian descent were displaced by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.

Members of the Haitian community complained of discrimination in the job market, specifically that identity and work-permit documents were controlled by employers seeking advantage by threat of deportation. After Hurricane Dorian, the government offered to replace lost immigration documents, including work permits, free of charge.

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

The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or sex characteristics. Consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults is legal. The law defines the age of consent for same-sex individuals as 18, compared with 16 for heterosexual individuals. NGOs reported LGBTI individuals faced social stigma and discrimination and did not believe they were adequately protected by law enforcement authorities.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination in employment based on HIV and AIDS status. The public school HIV/AIDS protocol advised teachers on how to treat open wounds of children and negated the need for teachers and administrators to know the HIV status of a child. While the societal response to HIV and AIDS improved considerably, there were episodes of discrimination and breeches of confidentiality.

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, participate in collective bargaining, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. To be recognized, trade unions must be registered with the Department of Labour. By law employers may be compelled to reinstate workers illegally fired for union activity. Members of the police force, defense force, fire brigade, prison guards, and–according to a union leader–casino workers may not organize or join unions, although police used professional associations to advocate on their behalf in pay disputes. To be recognized by the government, a union must represent at least 50 percent plus one of the affected workers.

By law labor disputes must first be filed with the Department of Labour. If not resolved, disputes are transferred to an industrial tribunal, which determines penalties and remedies, up to a maximum of 26 weeks of an employee’s pay. The tribunal’s decision is final and may be appealed in court only on a question of law.

The government generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and most–but not all–employers in the private sector did as well. The government did not restrict union activity or use targeted layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic for union busting. Union leaders, however, complained the government did not consult them on policy decisions that affected redundancy, furlough, and nonpayment to staff. One union leader said some government and quasi-government entities also did not consult with unions or the Ministry of Labour, as legally required, before deciding which employees to make redundant during layoffs caused by the pandemic.

The government generally enforced the law, although the Department of Labour stated the government, in coordination with labor unions, relaxed labor laws and standards due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Penalties for violating labor laws varied by case but are generally commensurate with those for other similar violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. The Department of Labour provided its annual report to Parliament during the national budget debate but did not include updated statistics on enforcement.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced the law. Local NGOs noted exploited workers often did not report their circumstances to government officials due to fear of deportation and lack of education regarding available resources. Penalties for forced labor are commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Irregular migrants were vulnerable to forced labor, especially among domestic employees, in the agricultural sector, and particularly in the outlying Family Islands. There were reports that migrant laborers, often of Haitian origin, were vulnerable to compulsory labor and suffered abuse at the hands of their employers, who were responsible for endorsing their work permits on an annual basis. Specifically, local sources indicated employers required migrant labor employees to “work off” the work permit fees, which increased during the year. The risk of losing the permit and the ability to work legally within the country was reportedly used as leverage for exploitation and created the potential for abuse.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14 for industrial work and any work during school hours or between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children between ages 14 and 17 may work between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. but only in hotels, restaurants, food stores, general merchandise stores, and gas stations. Children between ages 14 and 17 may work outside school hours under the following conditions: on a school day, for not more than three hours; in a school week, for not more than 24 hours; on a nonschool day, for not more than eight hours; and in a nonschool week, for not more than 40 hours. The government did not have a list of jobs that are considered dangerous, although it intervened when children were performing permissible jobs in dangerous environments (e.g., selling peanuts at a dangerous intersection). Occupational safety and health restrictions apply to all minors. The government does not have a list of light work activities that are permitted for children age 12 and older.

The government generally enforced the law effectively. The Department of Labour received no reports of significant violations of child labor laws. The penalties for violating child labor laws on forced labor are generally commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, skin color, national origin, creed, sex, marital status, political opinion, age, HIV status, and disability, but not based on language, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or social status. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights. Women’s pay lagged behind men’s, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination in hiring and access to the workspace. While the law allows victims to sue for damages, many citizens were unable to sue due to a lack of available legal representation and the ability of wealthy defendants to prolong the process in courts.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage is above the established poverty income level.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, a 24-hour rest period, and time-and-a-half payment for hours worked beyond the standard workweek. The law stipulates paid annual holidays and prohibits compulsory overtime. The law does not place a cap on overtime. The government set health and safety standards appropriate to the main industries. According to the Department of Labour, the law protects all workers, including migrant workers, in areas including wages, working hours, working conditions, and occupational health and safety standards. Workers do not have the right to refuse to work under hazardous conditions.

The Department of Labour is responsible for enforcing labor laws, including the minimum wage, work hours, safety, health welfare, and child labor, and it enforced the law inconsistently, especially in the large informal sector. The Labour Inspection Section of the Department of Labour conducted random onsite visits to enforce occupational health and safety standards and investigate employee concerns and complaints. Inspections occurred infrequently, although the Department of Labour was increasing the number of inspectors. Penalties for violations of occupational health and safety laws are commensurate with those for crimes like negligence. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Labour stated it conducted additional workplace inspections to enforce compliance with the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines. Inspectors had the right to conduct unannounced visits and levy fines, but the department sometimes announced inspection visits in advance, and employers generally cooperated with inspectors to implement safety standards. Employees who worked in the construction, agricultural, hospitality, engineering, and informal sectors endured hazardous conditions. In addition officials at the BDCS prison complained of a lack of hazard pay for working close to inmates with communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

Bahrain is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet, consisting of 24 ministers; 12 of the ministers were members of the al-Khalifa ruling family. The king, who holds ultimate authority over most government decisions, also appoints the prime minister–the head of government–who does not have to be a member of parliament. Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, and according to the government, 67 percent of eligible voters participated in the most recent elections, held in 2018. Two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, did not participate in the elections due to their dissolution by the courts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded authorities administered the elections without significant procedural irregularities.

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for internal security and oversees the civilian security force and specialized security units responsible for maintaining internal order. The Coast Guard is also under its jurisdiction. The Bahrain Defense Force is primarily responsible for defending against external threats, while the Bahrain National Guard is responsible for both external and internal threats. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh prison conditions, including lack of sufficient access to medical care in prisons; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, criminal libel, and arrests stemming from social media activity; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; overly restrictive laws on independent nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship; restrictions on political participation; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

The government prosecuted low-level security force members responsible for human rights violations, following investigations by government institutions. Nongovernmental human rights organizations claimed investigations were slow and lacked transparency.

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 government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.

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 prohibits “harm[ing] an accused person physically or mentally.” Domestic and international human rights organizations, as well as detainees and former detainees, maintained that torture, abuse, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government security officials continued during the year.

Human rights groups reported accounts alleging security officials beat detainees, placed detainees in stress positions, humiliated detainees in front of other prisoners, deprived detainees of time for prayers, and insulted detainees based on their religious beliefs.

Detainees reported that security forces committed abuses during searches, arrests at private residences, and during transportation. Detainees reported intimidation, such as threats of violence, took place at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) headquarters facility. Some detainees at the CID reported security officials used physical and psychological mistreatment to extract confessions and statements under duress or to inflict retribution and punishment.

Human rights groups reported authorities subjected children, sometimes younger than age 15, to various forms of mistreatment, including beating, slapping, kicking, and verbal abuse. The law considers all persons older than 15 to be adults.

Human rights organizations and families of inmates also reported authorities denied medical treatment to injured or ill detainees and prisoners. In November the family of 70-year-old Hasan Mushaima, a prominent leader of a dissolved political society serving a life sentence in prison since 2011, reported that his health was deteriorating and was transferred to a Bahrain military hospital for treatment and then returned to prison after six hours. International human rights organizations reported Professor Khalil al-Halwachi, who has been serving a 10-year sentence since 2014 on weapons charges, was not receiving adequate medical treatment in Jaw Prison.

The Ministry of Interior denied torture and abuse were systemic. In response to a family’s claim that their father was not receiving medical attention, the Ministry of Interior stated that inmates receive full health-care services and medication under the law and in line with humanitarian standards. The government reported all prisons, detention facilities, and interrogation rooms at local police stations and the CID were equipped with closed-circuit television cameras that monitored the facilities at all times.

The Special Investigation Unit (SIU), part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, reported receiving 33 complaints in the first quarter of the year and 10 complaints during the second quarter of the year alleging torture, mistreatment, and excessive force used by members of the police. As of May the SIU referred one officer to the Military Court for unknown charges of abuse. The officer received a disciplinary action as a result.

The Ministry of Interior’s Ombudsman’s Office reported it investigated all complaints and made recommendations to the government to address concerns. In the first quarter of the year, the office had four investigations underway into complaints against police directorates and had referred eight cases to criminal or to disciplinary proceedings. Fifteen complaints were submitted against the CID; 12 were under investigation. Two complaints each were submitted against the Traffic Directorate and the Customs Affairs. One complaint was submitted against the Coast Guard and was referred for criminal or disciplinary proceedings.

The Office of the Ombudsman’s sixth annual report, released in October 2019, reported 289 complaints and 778 assistance requests between May 2018 and April 2019 from alleged victims of mistreatment by police and civilian staff, or from victims’ families or organizations representing their interests. Of these complaints, 70 were referred to the relevant disciplinary body, including police administrative hearing “courts” and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 28 were under investigation, and 50 were resolved or not upheld. The ombudsman reported receipt of 43 complaints against the CID, of which seven cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary proceedings, and 86 complaints against Jaw Prison, of which 40 cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary action. The ombudsman referred seven of the cases against the CID and 40 against Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary procedures; 12 and 15 additional cases were under investigation, respectively.

Zakeya al-Barboori, one of the only remaining female political prisoners who was arrested in 2018, and her family formally submitted complaints to NIHR and the Ombudsman’s Office about her treatment in prison, after the king’s 2019 royal decree restored Bahraini citizenship to al-Barboori and 550 other individuals.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The Ministry of Interior police code of conduct requires officers to abide by 10 principles, including limited use of force and zero tolerance for torture and mistreatment. The Royal Police Academy included the police code of conduct in its curriculum, required all recruits to take a course on human rights, and provided recruits with copies of the police code of conduct in English and Arabic. The ministry reported it took disciplinary action against officers who did not comply with the code, although it did not publish details of such steps.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Human rights activists reported conditions in prisons and detention centers were harsh and sometimes life threatening, due to overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.

Physical Conditions: Human rights organizations and prisoners reported gross overcrowding in detention facilities, which placed a strain on prison administration and led to a high prisoner-to-staff ratio. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) reported Building 13 of Jaw Prison housed inmates at 30 percent over capacity. Prisoners complained of limited time for outdoor activities, which did not exceed one hour and a half per day. In August inmates in Building 14 undertook a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination, lack of access to medical facilities, and limits on family visitation due to COVID-19-related restrictions.

For humanitarian reasons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 12, the king pardoned 901 prisoners, and on May 23, he pardoned and released 154 more to mark Ramadan; these releases followed a December 2019 pardon of 268 prisoners. Most of those were juveniles, patients who needed special care, and foreigners. The remaining 585 inmates, who had served half of their jail terms, reportedly received noncustodial sentences.

In December the minister of justice, Islamic affairs, and endowments announced that 4,208 prisoners had either been pardoned and released or granted noncustodial sentences under the country’s alternative sentencing law since 2017 and all juvenile inmates were released, in part due to concerns about overcrowding and COVID-19.

Although the government reported potable water was available for all detainees, there were reports of lack of access to water for washing, lack of shower facilities and soap, and unhygienic toilet facilities. On August 10, BIRD reported that Jaw Prison and Dry Dock detected a scabies outbreak due to poor hygiene practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human rights organizations reported food was adequate for most prisoners; however, prisoners needing dietary accommodations due to medical conditions had difficulty receiving special dietary provisions.

Authorities held detainees younger than age 15 at the Juvenile Care Center; criminal records are expunged after detainees younger than 15 are released.

The government housed convicted male inmates between ages 15 and 21 in separate buildings located on the grounds of the Dry Dock Facility. The Ministry of Interior separated prisoners younger than 18 from those between the ages of 18 and 21. Upon reaching 21, prisoners enter the general population at Jaw Prison.

The Ministry of Interior reserved one ward in the pretrial detention center for the elderly and special needs detainees. Officials reported they offered these detainees special food, health care, and personal services to meet their needs.

The ministry operated a center for rehabilitation and vocational training, including various educational, drug addiction, and behavioral programs. Activists said that the programs lacked trained teachers and adequate supplies and that the government did not allow some inmates to take national exams. According to the minister of justice, Islamic affairs, and endowments, inmates released provisionally under the country’s alternative sentencing law were allowed to work at government offices, both in service and administrative positions, to complete the remainder of their prison sentences. In December the minister confirmed to the National Assembly that 22 government offices provide jobs and vocational training to prisoners released under the program, in addition to nine private-sector companies and civil society institutions.

Although the ministry reported detention centers were staffed with experienced medical specialists and outfitted with modern equipment, prisoners needing medical attention reported difficulty in alerting guards to their needs, and medical clinics at the facilities were understaffed. Prisoners with chronic medical conditions had difficulty accessing regular medical care, including access to routine medication. Those needing transportation to outside medical facilities reported delays in scheduling offsite treatment or very short stays in the hospital, especially those needing follow-up care for complex or chronic conditions.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry’s General Directorate of Reformation and Rehabilitation stated it disinfected cells on a daily basis and provided prisoners with medical kits and hygiene products. New inmates were quarantined for 14 days before they joined the general prison population.

According to the government, eight prisoners died during the year; the cause of death of seven was deemed a result of medical conditions and one a reported suicide.

Administration: Authorities generally allowed prisoners to file complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, and officials from the Ombudsman’s Office were available to respond to complaints. Human rights groups reportedly sometimes had to file multiple complaints to receive assistance. Prisoners had access to visitors at least once a month, often more frequently, and authorities permitted them 30 minutes of calls each week, although authorities denied prisoners communication with lawyers, family members, or consular officials (in the case of foreign detainees) at times. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Reformation and Rehabilitation suspended family visits in March, replacing visits with video conferences between detainees and their relatives beginning in April.

There were reports authorities denied prisoners access to religious services during special commemorations, such as Ashura, and prayer time. Some detainees reported prison officials limited time provided for Ashura rituals citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts, but the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a government human rights body monitoring complaints of human rights violations, said inmates were given additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas, adding no religious rituals were allowed in prison cells as a matter of general policy.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted access for the NIHR and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), as well as the Ombudsman’s Office and the SIU (see section 5). International human rights organizations questioned the independence and effectiveness of these organizations. During the year the Ministry of Interior reported on the work of the Internal Audit and Investigations Department, which received and examined complaints against security forces. According to its seventh annual report, the Ombudsman’s Office received 207 complaints between May 2019 and April 2020, and it referred 23 of the cases to the SIU for further action, 25 for security prosecution, and two cases to the disciplinary committee. The office continued to investigate 21 cases. The largest number of referred cases came from Jaw Prison and the CID. The Ombudsman’s Office also received 683 assistance requests, which included securing prison visits, telephone calls, medical services, or access to education. Due to intermittent closures of government offices during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ombudsman’s Office established a WhatsApp account and continued to receive complaints via email.

During the fourth quarter of 2019, the SIU referred 12 suspects from Ministry of Interior to the courts, including two senior officials, who were accused of physically attacking inmates in Jaw Prison in April 2019. After a December 2019 hearing, the Lower Criminal Court convicted one prison guard to one year in prison and sentenced five others to three months in prison. Two other prison guards were referred to the ministry’s Military Court to receive disciplinary sentences.

Improvements: Government officials reported the completion of three new Jaw Prison buildings to phase out older facilities and better comply with international standards, including the Istanbul Protocol.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Local and international human rights groups reported that individuals were detained without being notified at the time of the arrest of the legal authority of the person conducting the arrest, the reasons for the arrest, and the charges against them. Human rights groups claimed Ministry of Interior agents conducted many arrests at private residences either without presenting an arrest warrant or presenting an inaccurate or incomplete one. Government officials disputed these claims.

In 2017 King Hamad reinstated the arrest authority of the National Security Agency (NSA), after it had been removed following criticism in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. On June 26, the king issued an order renaming the NSA as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). There were no reports of the NSA or NIA using its arrest authority during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law stipulates law enforcement officers may arrest individuals without a warrant only if they are caught committing certain crimes for which there is sufficient evidence to press charges. Additionally, the code of criminal procedure requires execution of an arrest warrant before a summons order to appear before the public prosecutor. Local activists reported that police sometimes made arrests without presenting a warrant and that the Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned political and human rights activists for questioning without a warrant or court order.

By law the arresting authority must interrogate an arrested individual immediately and may not detain the person for more than 48 hours, after which authorities must either release the detainee or transfer the person to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for further questioning. The office is required to question the detainee within 24 hours, and the detainee has the right to legal counsel during questioning. To hold the detainee longer, the office must issue a formal detention order based on the charges against the detainee. Authorities may extend detention up to seven days for further questioning. If authorities require any further extension, the detainee must appear before a judge, who may authorize a further extension not exceeding 45 days. The High Criminal Court must authorize any extensions beyond that period and any renewals at 45-day intervals. In the case of alleged acts of terror, law enforcement officers may detain individuals for questioning for an initial five days, which the Public Prosecutor’s Office may extend up to 60 days. A functioning system of bail provides maximum and minimum bail amounts based on the charges; however, judges often denied bail requests without explanation, even in nonviolent cases. The bail law allows the presiding judge to determine the amount within these parameters on a case-by-case basis.

Attorneys reported difficulty in gaining access to their clients in a timely manner through all stages of the legal process. They reported difficulty registering as a detainee’s legal representative because of arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles and lack of official government notaries; arbitrary questioning of credentials by police; lack of notification of clients’ location in custody; arbitrary requirements to seek court orders to meet clients; prohibitions on meeting clients in private; prohibitions on passing legal documents to clients; questioning of clients by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on very short notice; lack of access to clients during police questioning; and lack of access to consult with clients in court. While the state provides counsel to indigent detainees, there were reports detainees never met with their state-appointed attorney before or during their trial.

According to reports by local and international human rights groups, authorities held some detainees for weeks with limited access to outside resources. The government sometimes withheld information from detainees and their families regarding detainees’ whereabouts for days.

Arbitrary Arrest: Human rights groups reported the Ministry of Interior sometimes arrested individuals for activities such as calling for and attending protests and demonstrations, expressing their opinion either in public or on social media, and associating with persons of interest to law enforcement. Some of these detained individuals reported arresting forces did not show them warrants.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports that authorities sometimes delayed or limited an individual’s access to an attorney. There were no reports of courts finding individuals to have been unlawfully detained and recommending compensation. On May 18, the Minister of Justice issued an order allowing defendants’ legal representatives to attend court proceedings virtually if the defendant requested it.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political opposition figures reported the judiciary remained vulnerable to political pressure, especially in high-profile cases. The judiciary has two branches: the civil law courts deal with all commercial, civil, and criminal cases, including family issues of non-Muslims, and the family law courts handle personal status cases of Muslims. Based on the Unified Family Law, the government subdivided family court cases into Sunni and Shia sharia-based court proceedings. Some judges were foreign citizens, serving on limited-term contracts subject to government approval for renewal and residence. The Supreme Judicial Council reported working with the Judicial Legal Studies Institute to prepare, on average, 10 new Bahraini judges per year, in an effort to increase their number. The Supreme Judicial Council is responsible for supervising the work of the courts, including judges, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

On June 15, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences of Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid. Both were prosecuted on charges of targeting security forces and killing a police officer in 2014.

On July 13, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences of Husain Moosa and Mohammed Ramadan. Human rights groups claimed there was evidence of torture during their interrogations. Following their 2014 convictions and death sentences by the Court of Cassation, the SIU launched a review of allegations of torture, and the Court of Cassation overturned the sentences based on the SIU’s findings and called for a retrial. In January the Supreme Court of Appeals convicted Moosa and Ramadan and reinstated their death sentences, which the Court of Cassation upheld in July. There were 10 other detainees whose death sentences had been upheld by the Court of Cassation in Bahrain.

Trial Procedures

The constitution presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. By law authorities should inform detainees of the charges against them upon arrest. Civil and criminal trial procedures provide for a public trial. A panel of three judges makes the rulings. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney of their choice within 48 hours (unless the government charges them pursuant to counterterrorism legislation); however, there were reports that defendants and their lawyers had difficulty getting police, public prosecutors, and courts to recognize or register representation by an attorney. The government provides counsel at public expense to indigent defendants. Plaintiffs are required to provide their own interpreters, except in labor dispute cases, when the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments may provide assistance.

Defendants have the right to present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. While defendants have the right to question witnesses against them, the judges may declare the questions to be irrelevant and prohibit a line of questioning without providing reasoning. Prosecutors rarely present evidence orally in court but provide it in written and digital formats to judges in their chambers. Defendants are not compelled to testify or to confess guilt, and they have the right to appeal. The government may try defendants in their absence, and at least 27 defendants with terrorism-related charges were convicted and sentenced in absentia during the year.

Family status law varied according to Shia or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, especially for women (see section 6). In 2017 the government codified a Unified Family Law, which for the first time included a civil code for Shia family law. According to supporters of the law, the unified civil code protects women’s rights, in particular Shia women, from the imposition of arbitrary decisions by unregulated clerics. Women’s rights groups reported the family courts granted divorces more quickly and judicial decisions adhered to the new civil code.

In 2017 King Hamad also ratified a constitutional amendment that grants military courts the right to try civilians accused of threatening the security of the state. Media reported the government approved the amendment to better fight terrorist cells, while activists claimed the change would jeopardize fair trial standards. The government did not use this mechanism during the year.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

In November 2019 the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced the release of 75 prisoners, most of whom were considered political prisoners, under the country’s alternative sentencing law. Prominent political opposition figures serving life sentences did not benefit from application of the alternative sentencing law and were held separately from the general prison population.

The alternative sentencing law was applied to the sentences of dozens considered political prisoners, including female inmates, who were all released. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights and opposition groups welcomed application of the alternative sentencing law. In November 2019 human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh posted a photograph with released prisoner Mujtaba al-Abbar and said he was the first political prisoner to receive an alternative sentence.

In June the government released prominent human rights activist and president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab, who was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.”

Leader of the Amal opposition Society Khalil al-Halwachi was arrested in 2014, convicted of “possession of a weapon” and “insulting the judiciary” in 2017, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Authorities refused to grant al-Halwachi an alternative noncustodial sentence, and his family continued to call for his release on humanitarian grounds amid concerns over his health.

During the year two persons were charged with “colluding” with Qatar and were sentenced to three to five years in prison. This was the second time the government charged citizens with “collusion,” following prior prosecutions of three members of a dissolved political society.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens may submit civil suits before a court seeking cessation of or damages for some types of human rights violations. In many such situations, however, the law prevents citizens from filing civil suits against security agencies.

In cases where a person has no previous criminal history, is a minor, or is charged with minor legal infractions, the law provides alternative penalties and measures to reduce the number of inmates in detention centers and prisons. The government reported using the alternative sentencing law for more than 4,000 convicts since 2017, according to the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. They were ordered to perform community service; pay their fines, debts, or both; or participate in job training and rehabilitation classes. The law on minors prohibits the imposition of prison terms on children, defined as younger than 15.

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

Although the constitution prohibits such actions, the government violated prohibitions against interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Human rights organizations reported security forces sometimes entered homes without authorization and destroyed or confiscated personal property. The law requires the government to obtain a court order before monitoring telephone calls, email, and personal correspondence. Many citizens and human rights organizations believed police used informant networks, including ones that targeted or used children younger than 18.

Reports also indicated the government used computer programs to surveil political activists and members of the opposition inside and outside the country.

According to local and international human rights groups, security officials sometimes threatened a detainee’s family members with reprisals for the detainee’s unwillingness to cooperate during interrogations and refusal to sign confession statements.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” The government limited freedom of speech and the press through prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists.

Freedom of Speech: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech is curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.” Defense attorney Abdulla al-Shamlawi, who defended prominent opposition figures, including members of the now banned opposition group al-Wifaq, was prosecuted for “defamation.” On September 14, an appeals court gave al-Shamlawi a six-month suspended sentence for “inciting sectarianism.” The appeals court decision overturned the June 30 verdict of the High Criminal Court, which sentenced al-Shamlawi to eight months in prison for “humiliating an Islamic sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.”

On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

On August 30, the Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested a Bahraini doctor for defaming religious figures during a sermon, stating the sermon promoted violence and sectarian sedition. Activists and rights groups claimed the sermon was misinterpreted. The Public Prosecutor’s Office released the individual on September 1 on bail, placed a travel ban on him, and referred his case to the court.

International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including religious clerics, in the days leading up to and following the Ashura religious rites–the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; others remained in custody for several days or weeks.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.

The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and English from stations based outside the country, including by satellite. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments also reviewed those books that discussed religion.

Several journalists submitted suggested reforms for the draft National Action Plan for Human Rights (see section 5).

Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government brought criminal complaints against journalists who worked without accreditation. In August 2019 the family of former member of parliament Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical of the ruling family on social media, reported he was harassed by security forces and was reportedly under a travel ban.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine. Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 93 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” through April, compared with 172 cases in 2019. In addition, two persons were convicted of “insulting a government institution,” and 582 were convicted of “misusing a telecommunications device.”

National Security: National security-related law provides for substantial fines and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.

Internet Freedom

The government blocked access to some websites from inside the country, including some opposition-linked websites. The government continued blocking Qatar-funded web-based outlets, which it began after cutting relations with Qatar in 2017, and other pan-Arab media outlets that were critical of Bahrain. Access to overseas human rights groups reporting on human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and opposition-leaning news sites that were critical of the ruling family and the government were blocked within the country. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.

In May 2019 the Ministry of Interior Cybersecurity Department announced it would use applicable laws to charge social media users who followed accounts that promote hatred and shared their posts. On August 26, the Cybersecurity Department warned against sharing content from Lebanon-based and Iran-based social media accounts that were linked with dissolved political societies al-Wifaq and al-Wafa.

Several reports alleged the government monitored political and human rights activists’ social media accounts and electronic communications.

Defense attorney Abdulla Hashim was charged with misusing social media and publishing “fake news” for eight tweets between 2017 and 2019 highlighting government corruption. At year’s end his case was awaiting an appeal verdict, and he was facing two years in prison for tweets critical of corruption, impunity, and establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Political and human rights activists reported being interrogated by security forces regarding their postings on social media. They sometimes reported repeated interrogations that included threats against their physical safety and that of their families, threats against their livelihood, and threats of denial of social services such as housing and education. Several activists reported shutting down or deciding to cease posting to their social media accounts because of the threats.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics engaged in self-censorship, avoiding discussion of contentious political issues. In January the Ministry of Interior summoned historian Jassim Hussain al-Abbas for a speech he gave at a conference in which he discussed the history of mosques in the country and alluded to Shia rulers before the first al-Khalifa emir.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the rights of assembly and association, but laws and the government restricted these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the right of free assembly, but a number of laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations for the fifth year, stating the purpose was to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. According to the government, there were no applications submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.

The law outlines the locations where functions are prohibited, including in areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent a public meeting if it violates security or public order, or for any other serious reason. The law states that mourners may not turn funeral processions into political rallies and that security officials may be present at any public gathering.

According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify why it approves or denies requests to allow protests. The penal code penalizes any gathering “of five or more individuals” that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Legal experts asserted authorities should not be able to prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions that crimes would be committed. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.

The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two members. The committee is responsible for supervising and preventing any illegal acts during the function. Organizers of an unauthorized gathering face prison sentences of three to six months. The sentence for participating in an illegal gathering ranges from one month to two years in prison. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. During the year the Public Prosecutor’s Office stated there were 374 individuals arrested for violent gatherings, 346 of whom were convicted.

The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious halls), or other religious sites for political gatherings.

The government did not prevent small, nonviolent opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that often protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up some of these protests with tear gas, however. While groups participating in these protests often posted photographs on social media of these events, participants were careful to hide their faces due to fear of retribution.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all groups to register–civil society groups and labor unions with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and political societies with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. The government decides whether a group is social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. A number of unlicensed societies were active in the country (see section 3).

A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Labor and Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the society’s services unnecessary, already provided by another society, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved society. Associations whose applications authorities rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court, which may annul the ministry’s decision or refuse the appeal.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society activists asserted the ministry routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Local NGOs asserted officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources, and authorities sometimes did not authorize it.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.

Foreign Travel: The law provides that the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled, although some persons reported the website was not a reliable source of information. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year the government lifted 37 of 87 travel bans against citizens who were previously restricted from leaving the country.

Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.

Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if the head of household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number at more than 700 since 2012. On August 12, the Court of Cassation reversed the revocation of citizenship of three defendants who were sentenced to life in prison for setting the Sitra Police Station alight in 2017. The Public Prosecutor’s Office asserted the three defendants were connected to a dissolved political society.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

In October the government and the UN high commissioner for refugees signed a memorandum of understanding on data sharing and information exchange with the stated goal of supporting refugees in the Middle East.

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 government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; however, protection was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of December, there were 256 refugees and 56 asylum-seekers registered with the agency.

g. Stateless Persons

Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may confer or revoke it. Since the government considers only the father’s citizenship when determining citizenship, it does not generally grant children born to a non-Bahraini father citizenship, even if they were born in the country to a citizen mother (see section 6, Children). Likewise, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to Bahraini women, unlike the process by which foreign women married to Bahraini men may become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to pursue citizenship from his country of origin for his children, or when the father himself was stateless, deceased, or unknown. It was unknown how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment. There were reports authorities refused applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose Bahraini fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person (see section 6, Children).

The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens have limited ability to choose their government and their political system. The constitution provides for an elected Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. The constitution permits the king to dissolve the Council of Representatives, but it requires that he first consult the chairpersons of the upper and lower houses of the parliament as well as the head of the Constitutional Court. The king cannot dissolve the Council of Representatives for the same reasons more than once. The king also has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Approximately 67 percent of eligible voters participated in parliamentary elections held in 2018, according to government estimates.

The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded that authorities administered the elections without significant irregularities. Some observers expressed broader concerns regarding limitations on freedom of expression and association as well as continued concerns over voting district boundaries. The dissolution of the country’s principal opposition societies and laws restricting their former members from running for office, the absence of an independent press, and the criminalization of online criticism created a political environment that was not conducive to free elections, according to Human Rights Watch.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not allow the formation of political parties, but some “political societies” developed political platforms, held internal elections, and hosted political gatherings. In 2017 the government dissolved the two most prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, through legal actions.

To apply for registration, a political society must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, a list of all members and copies of their residency cards, and a financial statement identifying the society’s sources of funding and bank information. The society’s principles, goals, and programs must not run counter to sharia or national interest, as interpreted by the judiciary, nor may the society base itself on sectarian, geographic, or class identity. A number of societies operated outside these rules, and some functioned on a sectarian basis.

The government authorized registered political societies to nominate candidates for office and to participate in other political activities. The law bans practicing clerics from membership in political societies (including in leadership positions) and involvement in political activities, even on a voluntary basis.

Political societies are required to coordinate their contacts with foreign diplomatic or consular missions, foreign governmental organizations, or representatives of foreign governments with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which may elect to send a representative to the meeting. Although this requirement was enforced in the past, there were no reports of the government enforcing the order during the year.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and women did participate. In the 2018 elections, six women won seats in the 40-member Council of Representatives, doubling the number of women, and the body elected its first female speaker in that year. The royal court appointed nine women during the year to the Shura Council, the appointed 40-member upper house, and the prime minister appointed a woman to the 26-seat cabinet. Approximately 9 percent of judges were women, including the deputy chief of the Court of Cassation. Two women in the police force held the rank of brigadier general and general director.

Shia and Sunni citizens have equal rights before the law, but Sunnis dominated political life; the majority of citizens are Shia. In 2018, 11 Shia candidates were elected to the Council of Representatives. The appointed Shura Council included 19 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member. Five of the 24 appointed cabinet ministers were Shia citizens, including one of five deputy prime ministers.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, but the government did not implement the law adequately, and some officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices. The law subjects government employees at all levels to prosecution if they use their positions to engage in embezzlement or bribery, either directly or indirectly. Penalties may be up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The General Directorate of Anticorruption and Economic and Electronic Security held workshops for various ministries throughout the year.

Corruption: The National Audit Office is responsible for combating government corruption. The Government Executive Committee, chaired by the crown prince, reviews any violations cited in the office’s annual report. In October 2019 the government released the office’s annual report, and the government released some findings to the public; however, the full report was not published or made available online. The government reported that four officials were prosecuted for corruption and bribery-related charges. Their cases were pending as of April.

Significant areas of government activity, including the security services and the Bahrain Defense Force, lacked transparency, and the privatization of public land remained a concern among opposition groups.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require government officials to make financial disclosures.

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

Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government. Beginning in August the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a series of public workshops with government and civil society actors to inform the development of a National Action Plan for Human Rights and to improve transparency. Diplomats and international organization representatives also attended. Some civil society representatives expressed concern the government would not fully reflect the views of civil society in the development of the plan.

Domestic human rights groups operated with government restrictions, with some human rights activists imprisoned, exiled, or coerced into silence, according to reporting by international human rights organizations. Domestic human rights groups included the Bahrain Human Rights Society and Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, the primary independent and licensed human rights organizations in the country; the BCHR, although dissolved by the government in 2004, continued to operate and maintain an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization, Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, also issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs.

Domestic human rights groups faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. The government sometimes harassed and deprived local NGO leaders of due process. Local NGO leaders and activists also reported government harassment, including police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, and “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships. Activists reported forgoing travel, in particular to international human rights events, fearing a reimposition of international travel bans.

Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. It also operated a hotline for citizens and residents to file human rights-related complaints and offered an in-person walk-in option for filing complaints.

The SIU investigates and refers cases of security force misconduct, including complaints against the police, to the appropriate court, which includes civilian criminal courts, the Ministry of Interior’s Military Court, and administrative courts (see section 1.c.). The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct, although it reported the highest-ranking police officer prosecuted for any crime was a captain.

There is also an NIA Office of the Inspector General and a Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office, created as a result of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. While both offices were responsible for addressing allegations of mistreatment and violations by the security forces, there was little public information available regarding the activities of the NIA Office of the Inspector General.

The PDRC, chaired by the ombudsman, monitors prisons, detention centers, and other places where persons may be detained, such as hospital and psychiatric facilities. The PDRC is empowered to conduct inspections of facilities, interview inmates or detainees, and refer cases to the Ombudsman’s Office or SIU.

The ministry organized various human rights training programs for its employees, including a year-long human rights curriculum and diploma at the Royal Police Academy. The academy regularly negotiates memoranda of understanding with NIHR to exchange expertise. The academy continued to include a unit on human rights in international law as part of the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics. The NIHR had a memorandum with the NIA to organize workshops and training sessions for NIA officers relating to human rights and basic rights and to collaborate on future research.

The Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the PDRC worked with each other throughout the year. The Ombudsman’s Office maintained a hotline for citizens to report police abuse via telephone, email, or in person.

Many human rights groups asserted that investigations into police abuse were slow and ineffective and questioned the independence and credibility of investigations by government-sponsored organizations.

Local and international observers and human rights organizations continued to express concern the government had not fully implemented Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia citizens into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, although the penal code allows an alleged rapist to marry his victim to avoid punishment. The law does not address spousal rape. Penalties for rape include life imprisonment and execution in cases where the victim is a minor younger than 16, if the rapist is the custodian or guardian of the victim, or when the rape leads to the victim’s death.

The law states violence against women is a crime. Nevertheless, domestic violence against women was common, according to the BCHR. Although government leaders and some members of parliament participated in awareness-raising activities during the year, including debates on additional legislation, authorities devoted little attention to supporting public campaigns aimed at the problem. The government maintained a shelter for women and children who were victims of domestic violence. The law provides that local police officials should be contacted in cases of domestic violence and that the public prosecutor can investigate if information is passed from the police to them. Victims of domestic violence, however, reported difficulty knowing whom to contact or how to proceed when filing a complaint.

The government continued to document and prosecute physical or sexual abuse of women. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments documented 327 cases of physical or sexual abuse as of September, of which 36 involved children.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was rarely practiced, and instances mostly occurred within immigrant populations. There is no specific law prohibiting the practice, although legal experts previously indicated the act falls under criminal code provisions that prohibit “permanent disability to another person.” There were no cases of prosecuting FGM during the year.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: By law “honor” killings are punishable, but the penal code provides a lenient sentence for killing a spouse caught in the act of adultery, whether male or female. There were no cases of honor killings reported during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including insulting or committing an indecent act towards a woman in public, with penalties of imprisonment and fines. Although the government sometimes enforced the law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem for women, especially foreign female domestic workers.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, and they had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.

There are no known legal barriers or penalties for accessing contraception. Health centers did not require women to obtain spousal consent for provision of most family planning services except for sterilization procedures. Mothers giving birth out of wedlock in public or government-run hospitals often faced challenges in obtaining birth certificates for their children.

According to statistics compiled in 2013, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate was 61.8 percent. Contraceptives were available without prescription throughout the country regardless of nationality, gender, age, or marital status; however, emergency contraception was not available.

The government provides access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including expatriates.

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

Discrimination: Women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings in family courts, but Shia and Sunni religious courts may refuse the request. In divorce cases the courts routinely granted mothers custody of daughters younger than age nine and sons younger than seven for Shia women, with fathers typically gaining custody once girls and boys reached the ages of nine and seven, respectively. Sunni women can retain custody of daughters until age 17 and sons until age 15. Regardless of custody decisions, the father retains guardianship, or the right to make all legal decisions for the child, until age 21. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father “without just cause.” Any woman who remarries loses custody of her children.

The basis for family law is sharia as interpreted by Sunni and Shia religious experts. In 2017 King Hamad ratified the Shia portion of the Unified Family Law codifying the rights of Shia citizens, in particular women, according to the civil code on issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia and Sunni family law is enforced by separate judicial bodies composed of religious authorities charged with interpreting sharia. The revised civil law provides access to family courts for all women, ensuring the standardized application of the law and further legal recourse, since decisions made by family court judges are subject to review by the Supreme Judicial Council. In instances of mixed Sunni-Shia marriages, families may choose which court hears the issue.

Women may own and inherit property and represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shia women may inherit all of their husband’s property, while Sunni women inherit only a portion, with the brothers or other male relatives of the deceased also receiving a share. The government respected wills directing the division of assets according to the deceased.

Women experienced gains in business and government. In the business sector, female-led entrepreneurial ventures constituted more than half of filings for new businesses.

Children

Birth Registration: Individuals derive citizenship from their father or by decree from the king. Women do not transmit their nationality to their children, rendering stateless some children of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers (see section 2.d.).

Authorities do not register births immediately. From birth to the age of three months, the mother’s primary health-care provider holds registration for the children. When a child reaches three months, authorities register the birth with the Ministry of Health’s Birth Registration Unit, which then issues the official birth certificate. Children not registered before reaching their first birthday must obtain a registration by court order. The government does not provide public services to a child without a birth certificate.

Education: Schooling is compulsory for children until age 15 and is provided free of charge to citizens and legal residents through grade 12. Authorities segregated government-run schools by gender, although girls and boys used the same curricula and textbooks. Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim public-school students and are optional for non-Muslim students.

Child Abuse: The Family Courts have jurisdiction over issues including child abuse. NGOs expressed concern regarding the lack of consistently written guidelines for prosecuting and punishing offenders and the leniency of penalties in child-abuse cases in the sharia courts.

There were reports police approached children outside schools and threatened or coerced them into becoming police informants.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to the law, the minimum age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys, but special circumstances allow marriages below these ages with approval from a sharia court.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits exploitation of a child for various crimes, including prostitution. Penalties include imprisonment of no less than three months if the accused used exploitation and force to commit the crime and up to six years if the accused exploited more than one child, as well as fines for individuals and organizations. The law also prohibits child pornography. The Ministry of Justice reported prosecuting 36 cases of sexual exploitation of children as of September, a significant decrease over the prior year.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to community members, there were between 36 and 40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The constitution guarantees social security, social insurance, and health care for persons with disabilities. The government administered a committee to ensure the provision of care for persons with disabilities that included representatives from all relevant ministries, NGOs, and the private sector. The committee is responsible for monitoring violations against persons with disabilities. During the year the government did not prosecute any cases for violations against persons with disabilities.

Authorities mandated a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental, and religious institutions to support and protect persons with disabilities. In 2018 a law established a High Commission for Disabled Affairs to develop a social awareness campaign called “Leave No One Behind,” prepare a national strategy, and develop legislation to address the needs of persons with disabilities. On May 7, the king restructured the commission by appointing new members from the public and the private sector.

Building codes require accessible facilities in all new government and public buildings in the central municipality. The law does not mandate access to other nonresidential buildings for persons with disabilities.

No information was available on the responsibilities of government agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. According to anecdotal evidence, persons with disabilities routinely lacked access to education, accessible housing, and employment. The sole government school for children with hearing disabilities did not operate past the 10th grade. Some public schools had specialized education programs for children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech disabilities, and intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome. The law stipulates equal treatment for persons with disabilities with regard to employment, and violations of the law are punishable with fines.

Eligible voters may vote either in their regular precincts or in a general polling station. The local precincts, which are mostly in schools, sometimes posed problems to voters with mobility disabilities due to lack of physical accessibility. General polling stations in public spaces such as malls allowed for assistive devices. There was no absentee ballot system.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development continued to work with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in cooperation with the UN Development Program.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law grants citizenship to ethnic Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 15 years and non-Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 25 years. There were numerous reports that authorities did not apply the citizenship law uniformly. NGOs stated the government allowed foreign Sunni employees of the security services who had lived in the country fewer than 15 years to apply for citizenship. There were also reports authorities had not granted citizenship to Arab Shia residents who had resided in the country for more than 15 years and non-Arab foreign residents who had resided for more than 25 years. Rights groups reported discrimination, especially in employment practices, against Shia citizens in certain professions such as security forces.

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

The law does not criminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults at least 21 years old, but it does not extend antidiscrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to Human Rights Watch, the government prosecuted acts such as organizing a “gay party” or cross-dressing under penal code provisions against “indecency” and “immorality.”

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity occurred, including in employment and obtaining legal identity documents. In some cases, however, courts permitted transgender individuals to update identity documents if they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no known cases involving societal violence or discrimination against persons based on HIV/AIDS status, but medical experts acknowledged publicly that discrimination existed. The government mandated screening of newly arrived migrant workers for infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In prior years the government deported migrant workers found to be HIV/AIDS positive, but the status of deportations during the year was unclear.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution and labor code recognize the right to form and join independent trade unions and the right to strike, with significant restrictions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining.

The law prohibits trade unions in the public sector. Public-sector workers may join private-sector trade unions and professional associations, although these entities may not bargain on their behalf. The law also prohibits members of the military services and domestic workers from joining unions. Foreign workers, composing nearly 80 percent of the civilian workforce, may join unions if they work in a sector that allows unions, although the law reserves union leadership roles for citizens. The law prohibits unions from engaging in political activities.

The law specifies only an official trade union may organize or declare a strike, and it imposes excessive requirements for legal strikes. The law prohibits strikes in 10 “vital” sectors–the scope of which exceeds international standards–including the oil, gas, education, telecommunications, transportation, and health sectors, as well as pharmacies and bakeries. The law makes no distinction between “vital” and “nonvital” employees within these sectors. Workers must approve a strike with a simple majority by secret ballot and provide 15 days’ notification to the employer before conducting a strike.

The law allows multiple trade union federations but prohibits multisector labor federations and bars individuals convicted of violating criminal laws that lead to trade union or executive council dissolution from holding union leadership posts. The law gives the labor minister, rather than the unions, the right to select the federation to represent workers in national-level bargaining and international forums. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, in practice independent unions faced government repression and harassment. The law does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Some workers and union affiliates complained union pluralism resulted in company management interfering in union dues collection and workers’ chosen union affiliation. They stated that management chose to negotiate with the union it found most favorable, to the detriment of collective bargaining agreements and the legitimate voice of workers.

In 2014, after signing a second tripartite agreement, the International Labor Organization (ILO) dismissed the complaint filed in 2011 regarding the dismissal of workers. During the year the government reported it considered efforts at reinstatement, as reflected in the tripartite agreement, to be completed. The government reported that 154 of the 165 cases had been resolved through either reinstatement or by financial compensation. Human rights organizations and activists questioned the government’s claims and reported continuing, systemic labor discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor except in national emergencies; however, the government did not always enforce the law effectively. The antitrafficking law prescribes penalties ranging from three to 15 years’ imprisonment, a significant fine, and the cost of repatriating the victim(s), which were sufficiently stringent, and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

There were reports of forced labor in the construction and service sectors. The labor law covers foreign workers, except domestic workers, but enforcement was lax, and cases of debt bondage were common. There were also reports of forced labor practices among domestic workers and others working in the informal sector; labor laws did not protect most of these workers. Domestic workers from third countries have the right to see the terms included in their employment contract before leaving their home countries, or upon arrival. The law requires domestic contacts to be tripartite and to have the signature of the employer, recruitment office, and employee.

According to reports by third-country labor officials and human rights organizations, employers withheld passports, a practice prohibited by law, restricted movement, substituted contracts, or did not pay wages; some employers also threatened workers and subjected them to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (Ministry of Labor) reported 1,976 labor complaints from domestic workers and construction workers, mostly of unpaid wages or denied vacation time. In August the ministry reported that 16 workers were victims of forced labor during the annual summer work ban. Authorities referred 27 companies to the courts for alleged violations of the ban.

In February the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) opened a new office in Buhair Riffa for aggrieved workers to file cases against their employers, in partnership with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. In March the LMRA adopted the tripartite domestic contract, which regulates the relationship between the recruitment office, the employer, and the domestic worker. The LMRA required all recruitment agencies to implement the new tripartite contract format.

In 2016 the LMRA instituted procedures that allow workers to change the employer associated with their visa–without permission from their former employer or without their passport. The LMRA threatened employers who withheld passports with criminal and administrative violations and prohibited at-fault employers from hiring new workers. During the year the government shut down recruitment agencies and revoked licenses of others for infringing on workers’ rights. Recruitment agencies complicit in illegal practices may be subject to license revocation, legal action, shutdown of business operations, or a forfeit of license deposits.

The LMRA employed inspectors who were sworn officers of the court, with the authority to conduct official investigations. LMRA inspector reports may result in fines, court cases, loss of work permits, and termination of businesses. These inspectors focus on the legal and administrative provisions under which individuals fall, including work permits, employer records, and licenses. The Ministry of Labor employed general inspectors and occupational safety inspectors. Their roles are to inspect workplaces, occupational health and safety conditions, and the employer/employee work relationship.

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 laws and regulations related to child labor generally meet international standards. After thorough consultations with local government officials, diplomats of labor-sending countries, representatives from local civil society organizations, and the International Organization for Migration, the experts determined that child labor was not a prevalent problem in the country.

The minimum age for employment is 15, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than 18 may not work in industries the Ministry of Health deemed hazardous or unhealthy, including construction, mining, and oil refining. They may work no more than six hours a day–no more than four days consecutively–and may be present on the employment premises no more than seven hours a day. Child labor regulations do not apply to family-operated businesses in which the only other employees are family members.

The law requires that before the ministry makes a final decision on allowing a minor to work, the prospective employer must present documentation from the minor’s guardian giving the minor permission to work; proof the minor underwent a physical fitness examination to determine suitability; and assurance from the employer the minor would not work in an environment the ministry deemed hazardous. The government generally enforced the law with established mechanisms; however, gaps exist within the operations of the Ministry of Labor that may hinder adequate enforcement of their child labor laws.

In 2017 the government began making moderate efforts to eliminate child labor. The LMRA developed a handbook on the National Referral System for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, opened a shelter for victims, and conducted training on human trafficking for all police officers. There was evidence, however, that children continued to engage in domestic work and sell items on the street. The government did not conduct research to determine the nature and extent of child labor in the country.

The law does not allow expatriate workers younger than 18 to work in the country.

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national private-sector minimum wage. A standardized government pay scale covers public-sector workers, with a set minimum monthly wage. While the minimum wage for citizens is generally considered a living wage, there is no minimum wage for foreign workers in the public sector; however, the government issued “guidelines” advising employers in the public and private sectors to pay a minimum monthly wage. There was no official poverty level.

Subject to the provisions of the private-sector law, employers may not employ a worker for more than 48 hours per week without including contract provisions for overtime pay. Employers may not employ Muslim workers during the month of Ramadan for more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week.

The Ministry of Labor sets occupational safety and health standards. The labor law and relevant protections apply to citizens and noncitizens alike, with the exception of domestic workers. The revised labor law improved the legal situation for many workers as it pertains to access to contracts and additional holidays, although it excludes domestic workers from most protections.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the labor law and mandating acceptable conditions of work. The law stipulates that companies that violate occupational safety standards can be subject to fines.

The Ministry of Labor enforced occupational safety and health standards; it also used a team of engineers from multiple specialties primarily to investigate risks and standards at construction sites, which were the vast majority of worksites. Inspectors have the authority to levy fines and close worksites if employers do not improve conditions by specified deadlines. A judge determines fines per violation, per worker affected, or both. A judge may also sentence violators to prison. For repeat violators, the court may double the penalties.

Despite the improvements, NGOs feared resources for enforcement of the laws remained inadequate for the number of worksites and workers, many worksites would not be inspected, and the regulations would not necessarily deter violations.

A ministerial decree prohibits outdoor work between noon and 4 p.m. during July and August because of heat conditions. Authorities enforced the ban among large firms, but according to local observers, violations were common among smaller businesses. Employers who violated the ban are subject to up to three months’ imprisonment, fines, or both. The ministry documented 27 companies in noncompliance with the summer heat ban during the year.

The government and courts generally worked to rectify abuses brought to their attention. Workers could file complaints with the ministry. There were 1,979 labor complaints during the year; 1,298 of these complaints were from domestic workers. The vast majority of cases involving abused domestic workers did not reach the ministry or the public prosecutor. Police referred 78 cases to the National Referral Mechanism in the first half of the year. Individuals with referred cases received a range of services, including shelter provided by the National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons. The LMRA shelters provided services to 108 migrant workers in the first half of the year. The victims were either domestic workers or skilled workers who entered the country under a tourist visa.

The Migrant Workers Protection Society reported it visited unregistered camps and accommodations, including accommodations of irregular “free visa” workers, who often lived in overcrowded apartments with poor safety standards.

The government continued to conduct workers’ rights awareness campaigns. It published pamphlets on foreign resident workers’ rights in several languages, provided manuals on these rights to local diplomatic missions, and operated a telephone hotline for victims.

Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in sectors employing foreign workers, such as construction, automotive repair, and domestic service. Unskilled foreign workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, constituted approximately 60 percent of the total workforce. These workers were vulnerable to dangerous or exploitive working conditions. According to NGOs, workplace safety inspection and compliance were substandard.

In April the government announced two initiatives to combat COVID-19 and reduce key barriers to underreporting infection cases, including temporary suspension of work permit fees for certain categories of workers, and amnesty for thousands of illegal foreign workers to legalize their status. Although the migrant labor community welcomed the announcement, some citizens urged the government to deport migrant workers to prevent the spread of the virus. The economic impact of the pandemic on migrant workers included the hospitality and service sectors, and dismissed and furloughed workers required food and monetary assistance from local authorities and labor-sending embassies.

The labor law does not fully protect domestic workers, and this group was particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic employees must have a contract, but the law does not provide for same rights accorded to other workers, including rest days. In 2017 the LMRA announced that all newly arrived domestic workers would be required to use new tripartite work contracts. The recruitment agency, the employer, and the employee must agree upon the contents of the new contracts. According to local press reports, the new contracts include daily working hours, weekly day off, and mandatory wage receipts, among other conditions. Activists reported that usage of the forms among employers and recruitment agencies remained low throughout the year.

There were credible reports employers forced some of the country’s 86,000 domestic workers, most of them women, to work 12- to 16-hour days and surrender their identity documents to employers. Employers permitted very little time off, left female workers malnourished, and subjected them to verbal and physical abuse, including sexual molestation and rape. There were reports of employers and recruitment agents beating or sexually abusing foreign women working in domestic positions, but most cases involving domestic workers did not reach the Ministry of Labor. The press, embassies, and police received numerous reports of abuse. The Migrant Workers Protection Society provided female domestic workers with assistance with their cases. Additionally, the National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons provided workers with shelter. Most women in these cases sought assistance with unpaid wages and complaints of physical abuse.

According to NGOs, the construction sector employed more Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis than other nationalities. Worker deaths generally were due to a combination of inadequate enforcement of standards, violations of standards, inadequate safety procedures, worker ignorance of those procedures, and inadequate safety standards for equipment. While some workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment, the level of freedom workers enjoyed directly related to the types of work they performed.

A Ministry of Labor order requires employers to register any labor accommodations provided to employees. The order also mandates minimum housing standards for employer-provided accommodations. Many workers lived in unregistered accommodations that ranged in quality from makeshift accommodations in parking garages, to apartments rented by employers from private owners, to family houses modified to accommodate many persons. Conditions in the many unregistered or irregular worker camps were often squalid and overcrowded, which likely contributed to a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19. Inspectors do not have the right to enter houses or apartment buildings not registered as work camps to inspect conditions.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. In a December 2018 parliamentary election, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term that kept her in office as prime minister. This election was not considered free and fair by observers and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters.

The security forces encompassing the national police, border guards, and counterterrorism units such as the Rapid Action Battalion maintain internal and border security. The military, primarily the army, is responsible for national defense but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The security forces report to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the military reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful detentions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; violence, threats of violence and arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws and restrictions on the activities of such organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; corruption; criminal violence against women and girls and lack of investigation and accountability; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; significant restrictions on independent trade unions and workers’ rights; and 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.

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

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

The constitution provides for the rights to life and personal liberty. There were numerous reports, however, that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter terrorist activity, drugs, and illegal firearms. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming–when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators–accomplices fired on police and killed the suspect. The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings.” The media also used these terms to describe legitimate uses of police force. Human rights organizations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations claimed in some cases law enforcement units detained, interrogated, and tortured suspects, brought them back to the scene of the original arrest, executed them, and ascribed the death to lawful self-defense in response to violent attacks.

Police policy requires automatic internal investigations of all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police. The government, however, neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence and professional standards of the units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received administrative punishment.

Domestic human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported 196 incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings between January and July 28. According to ASK, many of these killings involved the Rapid Action Battalion–a paramilitary police force–the conventional police force, and Border Guards Bangladesh. In 2019 ASK reported a total of 388 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions, down from 466 incidents in 2018. Human rights organizations and civil society expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings and arrests, claiming many of the victims were innocent.

In September, Amnesty International said more than 100 Rohingya refugees were victims of extrajudicial killings in the country since 2017. In Cox’s Bazar, the site of Rohingya refugee camps, Rohingya comprised a disproportionate percentage of reported “crossfire” killings. The press reported in July that security forces killed 22 individuals, suspected mostly of conducting drug deals, in reported gunfights with police. At least 10 were Rohingya. In response to these reports, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan refuted characterizations of the Rohingya as “victims” of extrajudicial killings and said they were “armed narcotics smugglers” crossing Myanmar into Bangladesh. After speaking with family members of the deceased, Amnesty International reported several of the killed Rohingya were picked up from their homes by the police and then found dead.

On July 31, police in Cox’s Bazar shot and killed “Sinha” Md Rashed Khan, a retired army major at a police vehicle checkpoint. Police reported Sinha “brandished” a gun, while eyewitnesses said Sinha had left the firearm in the car when he was asked by police to exit the vehicle. Sinha’s killing generated intense public discussion on police, extrajudicial killings, and law enforcement excesses. In August the Ministry of Home Affairs convened a senior investigation committee in response to the killing, suspending 21 police officers and charging nine police officers in connection with Sinha’s death.

Also in August a news outlet released a Facebook video showing the senior police officer arrested, Pradeep Das, openly admitting to killing drug suspects in “crossfires.” In 2019 Das received the highest police award after boasting of his involvement in extrajudicial killings. In September the police administration transferred almost all 1,500 police officers in Cox’s Bazar to other posts. While the police called the transfer an “administrative move,” the media called this action “unprecedented” and observers cited in the report said the action was made as part of a “corrective campaign” in connection with public outcry following Sinha’s death. In October media reported September was the first month since 2009 without a report of an extrajudicial killing.

b. Disappearance

Human rights groups and media reported disappearances and kidnappings continued, allegedly committed by security services. The government made limited efforts to prevent or investigate such acts. Civil society organizations reported victims of enforced disappearance were mostly opposition leaders, activists, and dissidents. Following alleged disappearances, security forces released some individuals without charge, arrested others, found some dead, and never found others. In a 2019 report discussing enforced disappearances, the Paris-based organization International Federation of Human Rights concluded enforced disappearances followed a pattern that included disappeared individuals previously targeted by authorities; witnesses observed similar law enforcement tactics when detaining individuals who later disappeared, and following the disappearance, authorities treated relatives either dismissively or with threats.

The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.

On March 10, photojournalist and news editor Shafiqul Islam Kajol disappeared after leaving his house for work. The previous day a member of parliament filed a case against Kajol and 31 others, claiming a media story covering a crime syndicate involving drugs, money, and prostitution defamed the member of parliament. On May 3, police in the border town Benapole confirmed to the press that Kajol was “rescued” near the border with India border and detained him on trespassing charges. Kajol’s family told the press they believe Kajol was forcibly disappeared and held in government detention from March through May. Kajol spent 237 days in prison on defamation charges and was released on bail on December 25.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, local and international human rights organizations and media reported security forces, including intelligence services and police, employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. According to multiple organizations, including the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. Security forces reportedly used threats, beatings, kneecappings, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse. Numerous organizations also claimed security forces were involved in widespread and routine commission of torture–occasionally resulting in death–for the purpose of soliciting payment of bribes or obtaining confessions. According to these organizations, impunity for government actors committing torture was extensive. Politicization of crimes was a factor in impunity for custodial torture. During the government’s 2019 statement to the CAT, the Bangladesh government has a “zero tolerance” policy against custodial death; however, allegations of law enforcement committing torture and other forms of mistreatment were not investigated. In September a Dhaka court issued a verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act for the first time and sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. In 2019 the CAT expressed concerns with allegations of widespread use of torture and mistreatment by law enforcement officials to obtain confessions or to solicit the payment of bribes. The CAT report also cited the lack of publicly available information on abuse cases and the failure to ensure accountability for law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion.

In June media reported the police’s cruel treatment and extortion of university student Imran Hossain, who suffered kidney damage after an encounter with law enforcement. According to news reports, Hossain was returning home with a friend in June when police from Sajiali camp stopped them and demanded to search their bags. Hossain ran away, leading police to chase and beat him until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, police said he was arrested with cannabis in his possession. Police then released Hossain in exchange for a bribe of 6,000 taka ($71) and threatened to place him in interrogative custody if he told anyone about the incident. When Hossain returned home, his condition deteriorated and he was admitted to Queen’s Hospital in Jashore, where a kidney specialist reported Hossain’s kidneys had stopped working and that he would need regular dialysis. Following news reports of the incident, two Supreme Court lawyers submitted a writ petition to the High Court seeking the government take necessary action against the police responsible for torturing Hossain. In response to the High Court request, the Superintendent of Jashore police submitted an investigative report to the Court, saying three police officers had taken “unethical benefits” from Hossain’s father in exchange for releasing him from custody.

The law contains provisions allowing a magistrate to place a suspect in interrogative custody, known as remand, during which questioning of the suspect can take place without a lawyer present. Human rights organizations alleged many instances of torture occurred during remand.

In September the international organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the release of news editor and journalist Faridul Mostafa after an 11-month detention following news coverage of corruption in connection with local government authorities and drug trafficking. In stories published before his detention, Mostafa’s reporting alleged a connection between Teknaf police officer-in-charge Pradeep Das and local drug cartels. Mostafa was arrested on September 2019 and according to his wife, tortured in custody. When Mostafa appeared in court three days after his arrest, his wife said his hands and legs were broken, and the nails of his fingers and toes were pulled out. His eyesight had been badly affected by red chili powder rubbed in his eyes and he was forced to drink sewage water, causing severe diarrhea. The RSF said police planted drugs, firearms, and alcohol and pretended to discover them as grounds to keep Mostafa in jail. Mostafa was released in August, following the arrest of Das in connection with a retired army major’s killing (see section 1.a.).

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to severe overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper sanitation. There were no private detention facilities.

Physical Conditions: According to the Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, in March more than 89,000 prisoners occupied a system designed to hold 41,244 inmates. When the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the country in March, federal authorities instituted a policy requiring prison authorities to screen all incoming inmates for symptoms and keep them in a short quarantine. Superintendents at field prisons said they had no capacity to isolate inmates infected by COVID-19. Authorities often incarcerated pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners.

Officials reported only 11 prison doctors provide care to the 89,000 inmates, causing prisons to employ nurses or pharmacists to provide medical care to them.

Conditions in prisons, and often within the same prison complex, varied widely. Authorities lodged some prisoners in areas subject to high temperatures, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. The law allows individuals whom prison officials designated as “very important persons” (VIP) to access “Division A” prison facilities with improved living conditions and food, more frequent family visitation rights, and the provision of another prisoner without VIP status to serve as an aide in the cell.

While the law requires holding juveniles separately from adults, authorities incarcerated many juveniles with adults. Children were sometimes imprisoned (occasionally with their mothers) despite laws and court decisions prohibiting the imprisonment of minors. Authorities held female prisoners separately from men.

In August, three male youths died in a juvenile correction center in Jashore. Officials at the correction center said the boys were killed in a fight with other inmates; however, days after the incident, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association reported allegations of torture in the correction center and demanded a separate judicial inquiry into the death. A journalist reported juvenile centers made no effort to rehabilitate youths in custody, had appointed officials not trained to handle juvenile delinquency, and treated the youths as criminals as opposed to juveniles with special needs. The investigative report found “huge irregularities” in providing food, medicines, and other essentials and said the youths were tortured for protesting these irregularities. In at least one instance, inmates deemed “loyal” were used to torture defiant inmates.

Although Dhaka’s central jail had facilities for those with mental disabilities, not all detention facilities had such facilities, nor are they required by law. Judges may reduce punishments for persons with disabilities on humanitarian grounds. Jailors also may make special arrangements, for example, by transferring inmates with disabilities to a prison hospital.

Administration: Prisons had no ombudsperson to whom prisoners could submit complaints. Prisons lacked any formal process for offenders to submit grievances. The scope for retraining and rehabilitation programs was extremely limited.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits from governmental inspectors and nongovernmental observers who were aligned with the incumbent party. No reports on these inspections were released.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the law permits authorities to arrest and detain an individual without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual may constitute a threat to security and public order. The law also permits authorities to arrest and detain individuals without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual is involved with a “cognizable offense.” The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not generally observe these requirements. Media, civil society, and human rights organizations accused the government of conducting enforced disappearances not only against suspected militants but also against civil society and opposition party members. Authorities sometimes held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution requires arrests and detentions be authorized by a warrant or occur as a result of observation of a crime in progress, but the law grants broad exceptions to these protections.

Under the constitution, detainees must be brought before a judicial officer to face charges within 24 hours, but this was not regularly enforced. The government or a district magistrate may order a person detained for 30 days to prevent the commission of an act that could threaten national security; however, authorities sometimes held detainees for longer periods with impunity.

There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite a 2016 directive from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting rearrest of persons in new cases without producing them in court when they are released on bail.

Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest. Detainees are legally entitled to counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but the country lacked sufficient funds to provide this.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests occurred, often in conjunction with political demonstrations or as part of security force responses to terrorist activity, and the government held persons in detention without specific charges, sometimes in an attempt to collect information regarding other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification for arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement arrests be based on crimes that have occurred previously. Human rights activists claimed police falsely constructed cases to target opposition leaders, workers, and supporters, and that the government used the law enforcement agency to crack down on political rivals.

According to news reports, between July and September government authorities arrested at least 251 returning migrant workers from Southeast Asia and the Middle East with allegations of “tarnishing the image of [Bangladesh].” Amnesty International said the number of arrested workers was at least 370. In response to media queries, the police said the migrant workers’ destination countries had requested authorities to detain the workers once they returned to the country; however, human rights groups characterized these requests as specious and said while some of the returning workers were jailed abroad, they had all either completed their sentences or had their sentences commuted due to COVID-19. Prior to their detention in Bangladesh, several of the jailed returnee migrant workers said they were victims of human trafficking in their destination country. Approximately 80 detained migrant workers received bail in October, while the rest remained in prison. On October 8, the High Court directed a Dhaka police station to appear before the court to explain the legal reason for the migrants’ detention.

Pretrial Detention: Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, lax enforcement of pretrial rules, and corruption. In some cases the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and political interference compromised its independence.

Human rights observers maintained magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or courts ruled based on influence from or loyalty to political patronage networks. Observers claimed judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.

Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials.

In September the High Court ordered BRAC Bank to pay 1.5 million taka ($17,705) to Jahalam, a jute factory worker held for three years and repeatedly misidentified as another man accused of fraud and embezzlement, for his wrongful imprisonment since two of BRAC Bank’s officials supplied a photo of Jahalam instead of the real accused. In delivering the verdict, the High Court cautioned the Anti-Corruption Commission to be careful in investigating inquiries and in appointing investigating officers so that similar incidents did not occur in the future. The court also expressed appreciation to the two media outlets for publishing reports on Jahalam’s wrongful imprisonment.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always protect this right due to corruption, partisanship, and weak human resources.

Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to appeal, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. Defendants do not have the right to a timely trial. The accused are entitled to be present at their public trial. Indigent defendants have the right to a public defender. Trials are conducted in the Bengali language; the government does not provide free interpretation for defendants who cannot understand or speak Bengali. Defendants have the right to adequate time to prepare a defense.

Accused persons have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. They also have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt although defendants who do not confess are often kept in custody. The government frequently did not respect these rights.

Mobile courts headed by executive branch magistrates rendered immediate verdicts that often included prison terms to defendants who were not afforded the opportunity for legal representation. In June the High Court ruled mobile courts could not hold trials against children.

In March a mobile court accompanied by a group of law enforcement officers and magistrates in Kurigram district broke into the home of journalist Ariful Islam, beat him, took him to the deputy commissioner’s office, and sentenced him to one year in prison on charges of possessing narcotics. Within days, the minister for public administration said the deputy commissioner would be removed for “irregularities” in Islam’s case. Legal experts called the mobile court’s actions illegal because the court did not have the authority to break into Islam’s home and beat him. In September the same ministry established an official committee to investigate the incident related to the “illegal arrest, torture, and punishment” of Islam.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. Police jailed opposition party activists throughout the year for criticizing the government over its actions in managing COVID-19.

In February 2018 former prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on corruption and embezzlement charges, which were first filed in 2008 under a nonpartisan caretaker government. In October 2018 the High Court increased her sentence to 10 years. International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction, suggesting a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process. The courts were generally slow in considering petitions for bail on her behalf. In March the government suspended Zia’s sentence for six months on humanitarian grounds, and suspended it again in September for another six months. In both instances the government restricted Zia’s travel, saying she would receive medical treatment in Dhaka and could not travel abroad.

On July 3, the court sentenced nine men to death and 25 men to life imprisonment for a 1994 attack on a train carrying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; at the time she was the leader of the opposition party. The convicted persons were all BNP members. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir condemned the verdict and said the case was “fake and fabricated,” alleging the Awami League had staged the attack.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may seek judicial remedies for human rights violations; however, lack of public faith in the court system deterred many from filing complaints. While the law has a provision for an ombudsperson, one had not been established.

In September a Dhaka court sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. The convicted were also fined, funds payable to Jonny’s family. This was the first verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013.

Property Restitution

The government did not implement a 2001 act to accelerate the process of return of land to primarily Hindu individuals (see section 6). The act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. It was often used to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups when they fled the country, particularly after the 1971 independence war.

Minority communities continued to report land ownership disputes that disproportionately displaced minorities, especially in areas near new roads or industrial development zones where land prices had increased. They also claimed local police, civil authorities, and political leaders were sometimes involved in evictions or shielded politically influential land grabbers from prosecution (see section 6). In 2016 the government amended a law which may allow for land restitution for indigenous persons living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), but the disputes have not been resolved (see section 2.d.).

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

The law does not prohibit arbitrary interference with private correspondence. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies may monitor private communications with the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but police rarely obtained such permission from the courts to monitor private correspondence. Human rights organizations alleged the police, the National Security Intelligence, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.

Between March and September, the government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in order to scan public discussions on COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the virus. In March the Information Ministry announced the formation of a unit to monitor social media and television outlets for “rumors” related to COVID-19.

In September the High Court asserted citizens’ right to privacy and said the collection of call lists or conversations from public or private phone companies without formal approval and knowledge of the individual must stop. In its verdict the court stated, “It is our common experience that nowadays private communications among citizens, including their audios/videos, are often leaked and published in social media for different purposes.”

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Speech: 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 latitude to interpret it. 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 which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.

The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.

On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.

During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government.

The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. Civil society organizations 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 and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.

On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.

Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.

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.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.

During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned 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.

During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating 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.

Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.

In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.

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.

In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides 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. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.

According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

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 law 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).

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, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

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 internally displaced persons (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. See section 6, indigenous persons.

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 recently 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 taskforce 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.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.

Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (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 the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.

A National Task Force under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.

International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.

Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.

In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.

Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.

International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.

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 refugees resident in the country. Prior to 2017, 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 more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance 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 refugees’ access to the justice system.

Freedom of Movement: There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two official camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.

Many camp authorities 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 activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.

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

Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.

Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

g. 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.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term in a December 2018 parliamentary election that observers considered neither free nor fair and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Parliament conferred the official status of opposition on the Jatiya Party, a component of the AL-led governing coalition, which seated 22 members in parliament. During the campaign leading 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, or campaign freely.

During the 2018 national elections, the government did not grant credentials or issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the Election Commission to observe the domestic election.

Low voter turnout, intimidation, irregularities, and low-scale violence targeting opposition-nominated candidates during campaigns and voting marked several by-elections throughout the country during the year.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. Up to March, Zia was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal due to more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, the government suspended Zia’s jail sentence for six months in consideration of her age and illness and, on March 25, released her on the condition she would not leave the country. In September the government extended this provision for six more months on the same condition after her family filed a petition seeking her “permanent release” and permission to go abroad for medical care. The BNP claimed police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges prior to the 2018 national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.

Opposition activists faced criminal charges. Leaders and members of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), the largest Islamist political party in the country, could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Jamaat was deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, and the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members were denied. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse actions by the government.

AL-affiliated organizations such as its student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups. On June 22, activists of the youth and student wings of the Awami League attacked a BNP relief team near Chuna bridge in Shyamnagar upazila of southwestern Satkhira District, leaving at least 10 individuals injured. Newspapers quoted BNP leaders and local residents as saying the BNP relief team was on its way to areas hit by hurricane Amphan.

On September 16, a Speedy Trial Tribunal in Dhaka indicted 25 ruling party student activists for the October 2019 killing of Abrar Fahad Rabbi, a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Rabbi was beaten to death over suspected involvement with the group Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, and following several Facebook posts criticizing recent bilateral agreements with India.

The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in previous years remained unresolved; Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs.

In some instances, the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted broadcasting of opposition political events. Political parties, however, had limited outdoor activities this year as the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to go virtual or stay indoors.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In 2018 parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 additional years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women. These female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionately to their parliamentary representation. Political parties failed to meet a parliamentary rule to have women comprise 33 per cent of all committee members by the end of the year, leading the Electoral Commission to propose eliminating the rule altogether.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption remained a serious problem. In April the media reported numerous accounts of local authorities embezzling government food assistance during the pandemic and the related government-imposed lockdown. In one instance, law enforcement authorities arrested a union committee chairman after finding 299 sacks of rice in his private warehouse. In response to these reports, the prime minister announced on April 20 her plan to install 64 midlevel officials from the central government to monitor and report on relief operations.

In June, Kuwaiti authorities arrested Bangladeshi member of parliament Mohammad “Shahid” Islam, purportedly for trafficking Bangladeshi workers to Kuwait through an illicit visa trading scheme as well as money laundering. Shahid was chief executive officer of a contracting company in Kuwait with an estimated 26,000 workers of Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali nationalities. Media reported Shahid bribed Kuwaiti officials with cars to secure contracts for his company in Kuwait.

In September, Transparency International said only a few isolated cases of government corruption were publicly disclosed because the government placed greater effort on preventing stories of corruption from leaking than on taking action against corruption itself.

The government took steps to address widespread police corruption through continued expansion of its community-policing program and through training.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires candidates for parliament to file statements of personal wealth with the Election Commission. The law does not require income and asset disclosure by officials.

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 with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.

Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the government’s strategy to reduce the effectiveness and inhibit operations of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for public criticism of government policies.

The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar, which in turn continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events.

The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced formal and informal governmental restrictions. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals.

The law restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for NGOs making “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not respond to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country. The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in the country reported 15 other pending requests for UN special rapporteurs to visit the country, including the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association; and the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. The NHRC’s primary activities are to investigate human rights violations, address discrimination in law, educate the public on human rights, and advise the government on key human rights issues.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law only prohibits rape of girls and women by men and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the girl or woman is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Credible human rights organizations found rape remained a serious issue in the country, with reported rapes throughout the year roughly keeping pace with previous years. Domestic human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra reported at least 975 women were raped during the first nine months of the year. In comparison, Odhikar reported 1,080 women and children were raped between January and December 2019; among them 330 were women, and 737 were below the age of 18.

There were reports of sexual violence committed with impunity. In October a video of several men gang-raping a woman was released on social media. The video showed the men using sticks to torture the women and helping each other rape the woman. In the video the woman can be heard pleading, “I am calling you my father, my brother, please let me go! For the sake of Allah let me go!” Social outrage after the video was released online led to protests throughout the country. In response the government released an ordinance introducing the death penalty as the maximum punishment for rape, and on October 15 a court sentenced five men to death for the 2012 gang rape of a 15-year-old girl. Activists doubted the death penalty would deter future sexual assaults. Local lawyers cite the conviction rate for rape as less than 3 percent.

In September a newlywed couple visited a Sylhet college campus where they were accosted by a group of six men, all members of the ruling party’s student wing. The men forced both of them into a hostel on campus, tied up the husband, and gang-raped the wife. The husband immediately filed a complaint with the police. The incident triggered protests at the college with demonstrators alleging the accused “moved with impunity.” Demonstrators said college authorities kept the hostel–a dormitory controlled by the student political leaders–open during the pandemic, when other educational institutions had closed, “fully aware of various criminal activities” in the dormitories. Police later arrested all named suspects.

According to guidelines for handling rape cases, the officer in charge of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical and DNA tests must be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. Guidelines also stipulate every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim must be recorded in the presence of a lawyer, social worker, protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.

A collection of political, sociocultural, and human rights groups said incidents of rape continued to occur due to a culture of impunity. According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove a rape occurred, using medical evidence.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some media and NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries, despite recent legal changes prohibiting dowry demands. Under law an individual demanding or giving a dowry can be imprisoned for up to five years, fined, or both. ASK found 66 incidents of wives killed over dowry disputes during the first nine months of the year.

In June, Fatema Jinnan Jotsnya, age 25, was admitted to the hospital after her husband hit her on the head with an iron rod. She later died of her injuries. According to the police statement, Jotsnya’s husband beat her every Saturday over unfulfilled dowry expectations. Following Jotsnya’s death, her brother filed a case against the husband, his mother, and three other accused. Police arrested the husband, who confessed to his involvement in Jotsnya’s death.

A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of fatwas (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions, village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.

Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.

Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims, usually women, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were frequently related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land or other money disputes. In November 2019 the Acid Survivor Foundation said acid attacks dropped from 494 incidents in 2002 to eight during the first six months of 2019.

Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, harassment, also known as “Eve teasing,” was common according to multiple NGOs. During the pandemic, Manusher Jonno foundation, a local human rights group, found multiple instances of women reporting sexual harassment while receiving food assistance.

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 means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. LGBTI groups reported lesbian and bisexual women lacked access to basic sexual and reproductive health care.

Civil society organizations reported that survivors of child marriage had less negotiating power to make family planning choices. According to the 2017-18 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS), three out of five girls marry by age 18, with an adolescent birth rate of 28 percent. UNICEF also found nearly five in 10 child brides gave birth before age 18 and eight in 10 child brides gave birth before age 20.

A full range of contraceptive methods, including long-acting reversible contraception and permanent methods, were available through government, NGO, and for-profit clinics and hospitals. Low-income families were more likely to rely on public family planning services offered free of cost. Religious beliefs and traditional family roles served as barriers to access. Government district hospitals had crisis management centers providing contraceptive care to survivors of sexual assault.

According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, maternal mortality ratio declined from 2000 to 2017. During that timeframe, the ratio dropped from 434 to 173 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the 2017 BDHS, 12 percent of married women of reproductive age had unmet family planning needs. Weaknesses in the public health system, such as lack of trained providers and equipment in rural areas, resulted in inequitable access to information and services around the country.

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

Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection under the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death. In September the High Court issued a ruling stating Hindu widows in the country were entitled to all properties of their deceased husbands–including agricultural property. Previously Hindu women were entitled only to their husband’s homestead properties.

Children

Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. The government currently does not register births for Rohingya refugees born in Cox’s Bazar. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through eighth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, despite free classes, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school. Educational institutions closed in mid-March due to the pandemic and the government extended these closures until October, moving to a fully online curriculum. Numerous civil society organizations said many families of school-aged children struggled to find access to the internet in order to benefit from online schooling.

Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. The law prohibits child abuse and neglect with a penalty of up to five years, a fine, or both. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the law was not fully implemented, and juvenile cases–like many other criminal cases–often lagged in the judicial system. The Department of Social Services, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, operated “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. The hotline received approximately 80,000 calls a year on average and was accessible from anywhere in the country. The hotline center provided services such as rescue, referral, and counseling.

In 2019 the BSAF published a report on child rape, stating children as young as two were among the rape victims and cited a failure of the law and order situation in the country as reason for the increase in child rape. In September the domestic organization Human Rights Support Society found that in the first six months of the year, more than half the number of reported rapes were of children under the age of 16.

During the year former students detailed multiple allegations of sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic madrassahs. In September a father of a nine-year-old girl in Cox’s Bazar accused his daughter’s teacher of raping her inside a local madrassa. Many smaller schools had few teachers and no oversight from governing bodies.

Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. The law includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government did not implement the recommendations raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this provision.

In October, UNICEF reported 51 percent of women married before reaching 18, a decrease from its 2018 report where the organization estimated the figure at 59 percent.

In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying. Numerous civil society organizations drew correlations between the extended school closures due to the pandemic and an increased risk of school drop-outs and child marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and selling or distributing such material is prohibited. In 2019 the NGO Terre des Hommes-Netherlands released a report stating street children were the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation but had little legal redress due to a lack of social and financial support and a lengthy criminal justice system. The report said although the government took “necessary legal and institutional measures to combat commercial sexual exploitation, children face multiple challenges in accessing justice.” The report found 75 percent of female children living on Dhaka streets were at risk of sexual exploitation. Underage girls working in brothels were able to produce notarized certificates stating they were older than age 18, and some NGOs claimed corrupt government and law enforcement officials condoned or facilitated these practices. Traffickers lured girls from all over the country into commercial sexual exploitation in legal and illegal brothels and private hotels.

Displaced Children: See section 2.d.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no Jewish community in the country. Politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, and the government took measures to enforce these provisions more effectively. NGOs reported the government took cases of violence based on discrimination against disabled persons seriously, and official action was taken to investigate and punish those responsible for violence and abuses against those with disabilities. Nonetheless, a May academic study found 2.2 million criminal cases against persons with disabilities pending. The study determined that persons with disabilities were “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable.”

Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. For example, government buildings had no accommodations for disabled individuals. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees had not been activated. In many cases local authorities were not aware of their responsibilities under this law.

The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. A 27-member National Coordination Committee is charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.

According to the NGO Action against Disability, some children with disabilities did not attend public school due to lack of special accommodation, but data was not readily available. The government trained teachers on inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities. A peer-reviewed study released in July found many families with children with disabilities lacked knowledge and access to government programs and benefits. Many organizations reported visually disabled persons experienced difficulties accessing technology, depriving them of equal access to education, information, health, and other basic human rights.

The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.

The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Department of Social Services, and National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

The government took official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.

Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government operates 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.

Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility during elections.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons, and some of these faith groups said attacks on religious structures increased during the pandemic.

NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) suffered from restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.

The estimated 300,000 Urdu-speaking population (known as Biharis, originally Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then-East Pakistan before the Bangladesh Liberation War) were formerly stateless, but members from this community said their requests to obtain passports were rejected by immigration officers due to their address. The overwhelming majority of this population still resided in refugee-like camps established by the International Community of the Red Cross in the 1970s, when many believed they would return to Pakistan following the 1971 war.

Indigenous People

The CHT indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which has not been fully implemented–specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system composed of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.

In April during the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple NGOs reported severe food insecurity owing to the abrupt job loss by indigenous persons outside CHT. Since many indigenous persons most in need of assistance lived in remote areas difficult to access by vehicles, many indigenous communities reported receiving no government assistance. In October a group of indigenous tribal leaders presented a memorandum to the government stating a significant portion of the food security needs of marginalized communities in CHT remained unmet.

In addition to food insecurity, an August study found land confiscations, livelihood risks, and violence against indigenous women increased during the coronavirus pandemic. While the country had a 20 percent poverty rate, poverty in the plains where some indigenous persons lived was over 80 percent and over 65 percent in CHT. The study also found a lack of health care for indigenous persons. Other organizations corroborated health care available to indigenous persons was well below the standard available to nonindigenous persons in the country.

Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported deforestation to support Rohingya refugee camps and other commercial pursuits caused severe environmental degradation in their land, adversely affecting their livelihoods. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In September an indigenous persons organization reported Bengali settlers destroying indigenous land in Bandarban district in order to construct brick kilns. According to the organization, the environmental degradation put the locals’ health at risk.

The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year. According to one organization, Naika Mardi, an indigenous person and Liberation War fighter, was unable to register 0.04 acres of land to his name, even after trying for 10 years. Madi had been living on this land since before independence in 1971.

The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence. The factional clashes between and within the United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF) and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reported many leaders of these factions were engaged in extortion and smuggling of money, drugs, and arms. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remained unresolved. During the year NGOs and indigenous persons themselves warned intraparty violence in CHT had sharply risen.

In 2019 UPDF leader and indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma disappeared after he left his house for an organizational event. Human rights groups and activists pressed the government to investigate his disappearance and claimed Chakma’s criticisms of government activities played a direct factor in his disappearance. Despite a May 2019 High Court order to the Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary for a report on Chakma’s disappearance, no investigation had begun at year’s end. Police said only that they could not find anyone named “Michael Chakma” in the country. Many observers compared this case with the 1996 disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, another indigenous rights activist and dissident. Despite 39 officers investigating the 1996 case, police in 2018 said they found only “initial proof” of her abduction, while admitting an overall failure to identify the culprit, and concluded the chances of recovering Kalpana Chakma remained unlikely.

Reports of sexual assaults on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel remain unresolved. In September an organization reported two military personnel raped a ninth-grade indigenous girl from the Kulaura Cameli Duncan Foundation School.

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

Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.

The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.

Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.

The government took positive steps to increase LGBTI inclusion. On September 16, the Director General of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics announced the 2021 national census would include hijra as a “third gender” category.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Vigilante killings occurred, but fell from the high totals in 2019 when human rights groups reported 54 individuals lynched, 44 in July 2019 alone. In September police charged 15 suspects with the killing of housewife Taslima Begum, who was publicly lynched in July 2019 after a mob wrongly suspected her of child abduction. Begum and her four-year-old daughter were en route to a government primary school to inquire regarding admitting her girl to school when she was killed. The issuance of illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations said cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 20 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Ministry of Labor and Employment may grant approval for registration of a union. The ministry may request a court to dissolve the union if membership falls below 20 percent. Generally the law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units. NGOs reported the Registrar of Trade Unions regularly abused its discretion and denies applications for no reason, for reasons not recognized in law or regulation, or by fabricating shortcomings in the application. One union representative explained she had completed all paperwork to form a union and had support from 30 percent of workers, but the union registration was rejected by the Directorate of Labor because the factory claimed it had hundreds of additional employees. Organizers’ names were shared with the factory owner and all were fired.

The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Firefighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions.

The law continued to ban trade unions and severely restricted the right to organize and bargain collectively for the nearly 500,000 workers in export processing zones (EPZs). Worker welfare associations (WWAs), dominated by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), continue to replace the function of independent, democratically elected unions in EPZs. The law strictly limits the right to strike, giving BEPZA’s chairperson discretion to ban any strike viewed as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead, eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, the labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but reinstatement was rarely awarded.

The Ministry of Labor and Employment may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Unfair labor practices, including antiunion discrimination, were expressly prohibited, but 2018 amendments to labor law halved penalties for both employers and workers. Workers were often charged with unfair labor practices; employers rarely were. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.

The law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has the authority to mediate wage-related disputes, but its decisions are not binding. The government reported nine complaints were filed for unfair labor practices; three were resolved according to the law and standard operating procedures, six remained open, and no employers were penalized. Trade union federations reported they have stopped filing unfair labor cases due to the enormous backlog of existing cases in labor courts.

The law establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously. Work stoppages, strikes, and workplace actions were prevalent during the year in several sectors, and generally concerned past-due wages, improper or illegal shutdowns, layoffs, terminations and discrimination. In one example, the manager of Ettade Jeans Ltd. filed a criminal case against 65 to 75 workers who, protesting an announced six-month delay to their holiday bonus, vandalized the factory, severely injured and robbed a man in management, and threatened other workers.

According to Solidarity Center, union registration applications and approvals have declined significantly since 2013, and workers face significant challenges registering unions. Despite the adoption of standard operating procedures for union registration in 2017, Solidarity Center reported the process routinely takes longer than the 60-day maximum time, and nearly half of all union applications are arbitrarily denied. Through August, Solidarity Center’s partners assisted nine unions with their registration, and five were approved. The government reported receiving 231 total valid applications in 2020 and approving 145, with 68 still to be reviewed in September.

Workers in the ready-made garment sector reported particular resistance when seeking to establish unions and engage in collective bargaining. In a 2018 survey, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, collected data from 3,856 ready-made garment factories employing 3.6 million workers, and found 97.5 percent of them had no union. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the ready-made garment sector had 909 active trade unions and 1,609 participation committees. Labor leaders asserted while there are perhaps 80 to 90 active unions, only 30 to 40 actually negotiate because intimidation, corruption, and violence continue to constrain union organizing. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. The tea sector had one union–the largest in the country–representing 95,000 to 100,000 workers.

Labor rights groups reported workers routinely faced retaliation and violence for asserting their rights under the law, including organizing unions, raising concerns, or even attending union information sessions. For example in June, management at Romana Fashion of East West Industrial Park fired 122 workers including seven union leaders when they pointed out union members were being transferred to different floors and divisions. After thousands protested the prime minister’s decision to close 26 state-owned jute mills and force 50,000 into early retirement, two labor leaders were taken from their homes on July 5 by unidentified, armed men, then appeared in police custody 30 hours later under charges stemming from a 2019 protest. When workers protested the closure of Viyellatex Limited, police beat and filed false cases against them, and factory management blacklisted 95 workers for their alleged misconduct and posted a list of their names on the factory wall. Individuals harassed and blocked Solidarity Center staff from approaching the factory, threatening sexual violence against female staff who tried to meet with workers.

Additionally, workers in unions have been subjected to police violence, mass dismissals, and arrests of union leaders for asserting their rights to protest. Police intimidated unions in the ready-made garment industry by frequently visiting their meetings and offices, photographing or recording meetings, and monitoring NGOs supporting trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted major discrepancies in labor legislation that do not align with the standards of the International Labor Organization and emphasized concerns regarding police crackdowns on workers protesting wages. ITUC also called for more measures to restrain interference in union elections.

According to labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). The law states there shall not be any participation committee if any registered trade union exists in a factory. Employers often selected or appointed workers for the PC instead of permitting worker elections to determine those positions. Employers also failed to comply with laws and regulations to ensure the effectiveness and independence of PCs.

Workers from several factories also reported that since August 2018, BGMEA and factory owners have allegedly used a database of ready-made garment workers to blacklist those who brought demands to management or tried to form unions. Although created after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in order to have a record of workers (and potential victims of future disasters), the database now serves to track known union organizers or anyone who has brought a complaint to management to prevent these staff from finding employment at any other factory. Labor organizations also cited examples of factory owners willing to pay up to $12,000 to the Department of Labor to dismiss a union registration application, or to share the names of organizers.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. Inspection mechanisms that enforce laws against forced labor did not function effectively. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were inadequate. The law also provides that victims of forced labor have access to shelter and other protective services afforded to trafficking victims.

Over the past year, law enforcement conducted fewer investigations and denied credible reports of official complicity in hundreds of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation cases. The government does not provide sufficient victim protective services, nor does it consistently follow victim identification procedures. There are no government-owned shelters for adult male victims.

Some individuals recruited to work overseas with fraudulent employment offers subsequently were exploited abroad under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage. Many migrant workers assumed debt to pay high recruitment fees imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies, and illegally by unlicensed subagents.

Children and adults were also forced into domestic servitude and bonded labor that involved restricted movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse (see section 7.c.).

Traffickers exploited workers in forced labor through debt-based coercion and bonded labor in the shrimp and fish processing industries, aluminum and garment factories, brick kilns, dry fish production, and shipbreaking. NGOs reported officials permit traffickers to recruit and operate at India-Bangladesh border crossings and maritime embarkation points.

The over 860,000 undocumented Rohingya men, women, and children in refugee camps, who do not have access to formal schooling or work, are vulnerable to forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, particularly by local criminal networks. International organizations report that officials take bribes from traffickers to access refugee camps.

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 does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The law establishes the minimum age for work as 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work as 18, with no exceptions. Minors may work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories and mines or up to seven hours per day and 42 hours per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through eighth grade.

The government continued to fund and participate in programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including building schools and a $35 million government-funded three-year project that began in 2018 and removed approximately 90,000 children from hazardous jobs. In 2019 the program reintegrated 1,254 children into schools and provided rehabilitation for 3,501 children as well as livelihood support for their parents.

The Labor and Employment Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and authorities rarely enforced child labor laws outside the export-garment and shrimp-processing sectors. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. DIFE enforces child labor laws in 42 sectors, and in the 2019-20 fiscal year it targeted four hazardous sectors in which to eliminate child labor completely: engineering, bakery, plastic, and hotels. Labor inspectors were not authorized to assess penalties–they have the power only to send legal notices and file cases in court. Even when courts imposed fines, however, they were too low to deter child labor violations.

Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children. The government found children working eight to 10 hours per day in restaurants, engineering workshops, local transportation, and domestic work. The government also reported underage children are found in almost all sectors except the export-oriented ready-made garment (RMG) and shrimp sectors.

Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor in the production of bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes), footwear, furniture and steel, glass, matches, poultry, salt, shrimp, soap, textiles, and jute, including forced child labor in the production of dried fish and bricks. Children also performed dangerous tasks in the production of garments and leather goods bound for the local market, where the Bangladesh Labor Foundation reported 58 percent of workers are under 18, and 18 percent are under the age of 15.

According to a 2016 Overseas Development Institute report based on a survey of 2,700 households in Dhaka’s slums, 15 percent of six- to 14-year-old children were out of school and engaged in full-time work. These children were working well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation. In a survey conducted by an international organization, more than 400,000 children were found engaged in domestic work. Children engaged in forced labor in the leather industry and in criminal activities, such as begging and the production and transport of drugs. In begging rings, traffickers abused children to increase earnings.

Rohingya children residing in refugee camps were vulnerable to forced labor. Rohingya girls were trafficked from the camps to Dhaka or foreign countries for domestic servitude. Rohingya children recruited to work outside the refugee camps were reported to be underpaid or unpaid, subjected to excessive working hours, or in bonded labor as shop hands, domestic workers, fishermen, and rickshaw pullers.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, but it does not prohibit other discrimination based on sex, disability, social status, caste, sexual orientation, or similar factors. The constitution prohibits adverse discrimination by the state on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and expressly extends that prohibition to government employment; it allows affirmative action programs for the benefit of disadvantaged populations. The law does not describe a penalty for discrimination. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes.

The garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers this year, making up more than 50 percent of the total ready-made garment workforce, according to official statistics, although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions and generally earned less than their male counterparts, even when performing similar functions. A 2017 Oxford University and Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute study found women earned lower wages in export-oriented garment factories, even after controlling for worker productivity. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of the wage gap remained even after controlling for skills, which the study attributed to higher mobility for male workers. Women were also subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment. Solidarity Center partners reported there were no functioning antiharassment committees in garment factories, but the Garment Exporters’ Association announced it had visited more than 1,100 factories to confirm the committees had been established.

In the tea industry, female workers faced discrimination. Male workers received rice rations for their female spouses, but female tea workers’ male spouses were not given rice rations, as they were not considered dependents.

Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6).

The laws prohibiting adolescents from participating in dangerous work specify that women are equal to adolescents and are, therefore, prohibited from working with hazardous machinery, cleaning machinery in motion, working between moving parts, or working underground or underwater.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation, but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers, but many were above the poverty level. Failure to pay the specified minimum wage is punishable by a jail term up to one year, a fine, or both, and the employer should have to pay owed wages.

By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours, but it may be extended to 60 hours, subject to the payment of an overtime allowance that is double the basic wage. Overtime cannot be compulsory. Workers must have one hour of rest if they work for more than six hours a day or a half-hour of rest for more than five hours’ work a day. The law states that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year, fixed by the employer in consultation with the collective bargaining agent (CBA), if any. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week. The labor law did not specify a penalty for forced overtime or failing to pay overtime wages.

The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The labor law specified sanctions when failure to comply caused harm; for loss of life, violators are subject to a four-year jail term, a fine, or both; for serious injury, a two-year jail term, a fine, or both; and for injury or danger violators face a six-month jail term, a fine, or both. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.

Labor law implementing rules outline the process for forming occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported approximately 2,175 safety committees had been formed as of July 2018. The committees include both management and workers nominated by the CBA or, in absence of CBA, workers representatives of the factory’s worker participation committee. Where there is no union or worker participation committee, DIFE arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.

DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. Labor inspectors only have the authority to make unannounced inspections in non-EPZ factories. They do not have the authority to initiate sanctions; they may notify establishments of violations in writing and lodge complaints in labor courts. DIFE regularly filed cases in the labor courts against employers for administrative violations of the law, such as not maintaining documents. MOLE reported DIFE has filed cases against some factories for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime during the year, but labor organizations had not seen any cases. There were also criticisms regarding DIFE’s complaint mechanism. In the current system, a worker must enter his or her name, position, and identity number in DIFE’s complaint form. Once received, DIFE issues a letter to factory management with reference to the complaint form. This provides inadequate protections to workers and raises doubts on the efficacy of the mechanism for filing complaints.

Although increased focus on the garment industry improved safety compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors. Many ready-made garment employers failed to adequately train workers on safety and hazardous materials, provide required equipment, or ensure functioning safety committees, all required by law. Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely and a labor rights NGO found 95 percent of factories did not comply with overtime limits. Employers often required workers, including pregnant women, to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet quotas and export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to Solidarity Center, workers often willingly worked overtime in excess of the legal limit. Employers in many cases delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits.

After international garment brands cancelled orders due to a decrease in demand following COVID-19, the government and employers’ associations asked employers not to terminate workers and to ensure continuous payment of salaries, allowances, and other dues of all industries, factories, and tea estate workers. Local news media and labor organizations, however, reported dozens of factories terminated or laid off tens of thousands of workers without paying severance or following the proper procedures for notifying the government as requested. After a one-month lockdown, factories slowly reopened with widely varying procedures and hygiene facilities to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19.

In April hundreds of garment workers in 11 factories in Savar protested unpaid wages from the previous month. Some officials of the small factories went into hiding, while others dispersed protestors by assuring them that wages would be paid shortly.

In the first half of the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported 16 major industrial accidents in which 11 persons were seriously injured and 18 were killed. The incidents took place in rice and steel mills, the ship breaking sector, and stone quarries. The two Western brand-led initiatives that formed to address widespread structural, fire, and electrical safety issues in the garment sector after the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse both ceased their operations in the country during the year. The High Court had ordered Nirapon (the organization continuing the work of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and representing most North American clothing brands) to suspend its audit and training activities after a factory reopened an old case against the Alliance to sue Nirapon. Also under a court-ordered memorandum of understanding, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord,” consisting mostly of European brands), handed over its operations, staff, and relationships with garment sector factories producing for Accord brands to the newly-established Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council, whose board includes representation by industry, brands, and trade unions.

Revisions to the building code were published that failed to meet basic international fire safety standards and government oversight of building safety outside of the garment export sector remained limited. Although the brand-led Accord and Alliance improved structural, fire, and electrical safety conditions in 2,300 RMG factories manufacturing for Western brands, safety auditors reported fire detection and suppression systems in these factories often did not work following installation because they were not maintained properly. Several hundred additional RMG factories producing for domestic sale or for export to foreign markets fell under the government’s National Initiative, which had not made much progress on safety remediation since its establishment in 2017. DIFE is developing an Industrial Safety Unit to launch by December 2021 to oversee the National Initiative factories and, eventually, the safety of industries.

Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector that employed most workers, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The Bureau of Statistics reported 51.3 million workers in the informal labor sector in 2016, which was 86.2 percent of the total labor force.

Barbados

Executive Summary

Barbados is a parliamentary democracy led by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of the Barbados Labour Party. The Barbados Labour Party won all 30 parliamentary seats in the 2018 election. A former Barbados Labour Party member of Parliament became an independent in order to serve as the formal leader of the opposition. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and is represented by the governor general, who certifies all legislation on her behalf.

The Royal Barbados Police Force is responsible for domestic law enforcement, including migration and border enforcement. The police and all other law enforcement agencies report to the attorney general. The Barbados Defence Force protects national security and may be called upon to maintain public order in times of crisis, emergency, or other specific needs. The defense force reports to the minister of defense and security. The law provides that the police may request defense force assistance with special joint patrols. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the police and defense forces. There were no reports that the security forces committed any serious abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: trafficking in persons, and the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Authorities did not enforce the law on same-sex sexual conduct during the year.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports government officials employed them. Impunity was not a significant problem.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse.

Administration: Two agencies, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Prison Advisory Board, are responsible for investigating credible allegations of mistreatment. According to prison officials, no allegations of mistreatment were made during the year. The permanent secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prison Advisory Board conducted periodic visits.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed human rights organizations access to monitor prison conditions; however, no visits were conducted during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law authorizes police to arrest persons suspected of criminal activity; a warrant issued by a judge or justice of the peace based on evidence is typically required. Authorities may hold detainees without charge for up to five days, but once persons are charged, police must bring them before a court within 24 hours, or the next working day if the arrest occurred during the weekend. There was a functioning bail system. Criminal detainees received prompt access to counsel and were advised of that right immediately after arrest. The law prohibits bail for those charged with murder, treason, or any gun-related offense that is punishable by imprisonment of 10 years or more.

Official procedures require police to question suspects and other persons only at a police station, except when expressly permitted by a senior divisional officer to do so elsewhere. An officer must visit detainees at least once every three hours to check on their condition. After a suspect has spent 48 hours in detention, the detaining authority must submit a written report to notify the deputy police commissioner and the police commissioner that the suspect is still in custody.

Pretrial Detention: Legal authorities expressed concern about the increase in time spent in pretrial detention. Civil society representatives and media reports indicated that in extreme cases detainees could wait up to 10 years before trial.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence and to be informed promptly of the charges against them. The constitution provides that persons charged with criminal offenses receive a timely, fair, and public hearing by an independent, impartial court, and a trial by jury. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney of their choice in a timely manner. The government provides free legal aid to indigents in family matters (excluding divorce), child support cases, serious criminal cases such as rape or murder, and all cases involving minors. The constitution prescribes that defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Timelines may be set by the court on arraignment. Defendants have the right to the free assistance of an interpreter. Defendants may confront and question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt. They have the right of appeal. The government generally respected these rights.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Lower-level courts have both civil and criminal jurisdiction, but the civil judicial system experienced heavier backlogs. Citizens primarily sought redress for human rights or other abuses through the civil court system, although human rights cases were sometimes decided in criminal court. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The 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.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment. The local media association raised concerns about intimidation of media by government ministers, due to the media’s reliance on income from government advertising. During the year there were no reports of any defamation or libel cases initiated by any government officials against media personnel.

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Married women must provide a copy of their marriage certificate when applying for a passport; married men are not required to provide this.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Information on the government’s cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was unavailable.

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 and asylum claims.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent election occurred in 2018, when the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) won all 30 seats in Parliament’s House of Assembly, and the governor general appointed BLP leader Mia Mottley as prime minister with the support of the BLP members of the House of Assembly. Outside monitors considered the election to be free and fair.

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. In the 2018 elections there were 134 total candidates, of whom 34, or 25 percent, were women. Five of the 34 female candidates won their seats and were serving in government. In the 2013 elections there were 11 female candidates out of 68 total candidates, representing 16 percent of the total, and five of the 11 female candidates won their seats.

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.

Corruption: There were no formal investigations of government corruption during the year.

Financial Disclosure: Upon assuming power in 2018, the prime minister required all high-level public officials to disclose their income and assets to the government.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsman’s Office hears complaints against government ministries, departments, or other authorities for alleged injuries or injustices resulting from administrative conduct. The governor general appoints the ombudsman on the recommendation of the prime minister and in consultation with the opposition. Parliament must approve the appointment. The ombudsman submits annual reports to Parliament that contain recommendations on changes to laws and descriptions of actions taken by the Ombudsman’s Office.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women, and the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Separate legislation addresses rape of men. A nongovernmental organization (NGO) representative reported the slow pace of bringing cases to trial undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the prosecution process. As an example, the NGO representative cited a rape case that took 13 years before the trial commenced, resulting in the victim declining to cooperate in the case. There are legal protections against spousal rape for women holding a court-issued divorce decree, separation order, or nonmolestation order. The law was not consistently enforced.

The law prohibits domestic violence and provides protection to all members of the family, including men and children. The law applies equally to marriages and to common-law relationships. The law empowers police to make an arrest after receiving a complaint, visiting the premises, and having some assurance that a crime was committed. The government did not consistently enforce the law. An NGO reported it had to pressure police to take action in domestic violence cases and that police rarely made arrests in such cases.

An NGO representative reported that it was difficult to track and monitor the prosecution of gender-based violence because the government did not share the relevant data. The NGO representative reported that many cases of domestic violence did not result in convictions and that rapes were underreported and underprosecuted.

The NGO representative also stated there were no programs or resources to assist victims of domestic violence and their children. Housing for victims of domestic violence was a major problem, one that remained unaddressed by the government.

Penalties for domestic violence depend on the severity of the charges and range from a fine for first-time offenders (unless the injury is serious) to the death penalty for cases where the victim died. Victims may request restraining orders, which the courts often issued. The courts may sentence an offender to jail for breaching such an order.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace; however, human rights activists reported that workplace sexual harassment was a serious problem. There were no reports of workplace sexual harassment cases filed or prosecuted during the year.

Reproductive Rights: All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children.

There are no legal or social barriers to accessing contraception, but some religious beliefs and cultural barriers limit its usage.

No government policies or legal, social, or cultural barriers adversely affect access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth.

The government provides access to health care for all persons who require it, including victims of sexual violence. The government also provides financial support to NGOs that assist victims of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: In July, Parliament passed a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age, skin color, creed, disability, domestic partnership status, marital status, medical condition, physical features, political opinion, pregnancy, race, trade, sex, sexual orientation, social status, or union affiliation. The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. This law was effectively enforced.

Women actively participated in all aspects of national life and were well represented at all levels of the public and private sectors, although some discrimination persisted. The law does not mandate equal pay for equal work, and reports indicated women earned significantly less than men for comparable work.

Children

Birth Registration: A child born in the country is a citizen by birth. There was universal birth registration, and all children are registered immediately after birth without any discrimination.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, but it does not prohibit corporal punishment of children. No law requires a person to report suspected child abuse, but the government encouraged the public to report cases where they believe abuse may have occurred. Child abuse remained a problem.

The Child Care Board had a mandate for the care and protection of children, which involved investigating daycare centers, investigating allegations of child abuse or child labor, and providing counseling services, residential placement, and foster care. Civil society activists stated the board was not properly staffed or resourced.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Persons ages 16 and 17 may marry with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides for the protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse. Child pornography is illegal, and the authorities effectively enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

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

Anti-Semitism

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. The Jewish community was very small.

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 disabilities in employment, but it does not extend protection to education or other state services. A separate law requires employers to ensure the safety and health of persons with disabilities. There were no reports of legal actions against employers for noncompliance during the year.

The Barbados Council for the Disabled, the Barbados National Organization for the Disabled, and other NGOs indicated that transportation remained the primary challenge facing persons with disabilities. Many public areas lacked the necessary ramps, railings, parking, and bathroom adjustments to accommodate persons with disabilities. The Fully Accessible Barbados initiative had some success in improving accessibility to older buildings. The Town and Country Planning Department set standards for all public buildings to include accessibility for persons with disabilities. Most new buildings had ramps, reserved parking, and accessible bathrooms.

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults with penalties up to life imprisonment and with up to 10 years for “acts of serious indecency.” There were no reports of the law being enforced during the year. Nonetheless, an NGO representative reported the potential for arrest and prosecution under the law was among the most serious issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Civil society groups reported that LGBTI persons faced discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and health care. Activists stated that while many LGBTI individuals were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, police disapproval and societal discrimination made LGBTI persons more vulnerable to threats, crime, and destruction of property. An NGO representative reported there were incidents of housing discrimination and termination of employment of LGBTI persons without cause.

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 unions and conduct legal strikes but does not specifically recognize the right to bargain collectively. Moreover, the law does not obligate employers to recognize unions or to accept collective bargaining. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and protects workers engaged in union activity. A tribunal may order reinstatement, rehiring, or compensation for antiunion discrimination, although no cases of antiunion discrimination were reported during the year. The law permits all private-sector employees to strike but prohibits strikes by workers in essential services such as police, firefighting, electricity, and water. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

A labor union representative reported that the government did not have a sufficient number of labor and safety inspectors to enforce all labor regulations effectively. In general the government effectively enforced labor law in the formal sector. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

The law gives persons the right to have allegations of unfair dismissal tried before the Employment Rights Tribunal. The process often had lengthy delays. A tripartite group of labor, management, and government representatives met regularly to discuss labor topics. The group dealt with social and economic problems, formulated legislative policy, and worked towards harmonious workplace relations.

A labor union representative reported that workers’ rights were generally respected. Unions received complaints of violations of collective bargaining agreements; most complaints were resolved through established mechanisms.

Although employers were under no legal obligation to recognize unions, most major employers did so when more than 50 percent of the employees made a request. Companies were sometimes hesitant to engage in collective bargaining with a recognized union, but in most instances they eventually did so. Smaller companies often were not unionized.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced such laws, which was sufficient to deter violations.

Although there were no official reports of forced labor during the year, foreigners–especially those from neighboring Caribbean nations–remained at risk for forced labor, particularly in domestic service, agriculture, and construction. The punishment for labor or sex trafficking of adults is 25 years in prison, a large fine, or both. Forced labor and sex trafficking of children are punishable by a large fine, life imprisonment, or both. There were no prosecutions of these crimes during the year.

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 governing child labor states that education is compulsory for children up to age 16 or 17, depending on when the student took the secondary school entrance exam. Exemptions are allowed for children receiving special education, receiving instruction at home in a manner and to a standard satisfactory to the minister of education, children unable to attend school because of illness or health reasons, sudden or serious illness of a parent, or religious observance. The law also states that no child shall be allowed to work during school hours or between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. in any occupation.

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law provides for a minimum working age of 16 in certain sectors but does not cover sectors such as agriculture or family businesses. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from engaging in work likely to harm their health, safety, or morals, but it does not specify which occupations fall under this prohibition. The law was effectively enforced, and child labor laws were generally observed. Parents are culpable under the law if their children younger than 16 are not in school. By law children ages 14-16 may engage in light work with parental consent. The law does not provide a list of occupations constituting light work.

Ministry of Labour inspectors may initiate legal action against an employer found employing underage workers. Employers found guilty of violating the law may be fined or imprisoned for up to 12 months. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination on grounds of age, skin color, creed, disability, domestic partnership status, marital status, medical condition, physical features, political opinion, pregnancy, race, trade, gender, sexual orientation, social status, or union affiliation. A volunteer organization established an anonymous telephone hotline service this year allowing individuals to report information about crime, workplace harassment, corruption, or other wrongdoing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is a minimum wage for housekeepers and shop assistants. There is no official poverty income level. The standard legal workweek is 40 hours in five days. The law provides employees with three weeks of paid holiday for persons with less than five years of service and four weeks of paid holiday after five years of service. The law requires overtime payment of time and a half for hours worked in excess of the legal standard and prescribes that all overtime must be voluntary. The law does not set a maximum number of overtime hours. The government set occupational safety and health standards that were current and appropriate for its industries.

The Ministry of Labour enforces minimum wage, work hours, and health and safety standards. The government’s capacity to enforce compliance effectively was insufficient. The ministry used routine inspections, accident investigations, and union membership surveys to prevent labor violations and to verify that wages and working conditions met national standards. Penalties include small fines, imprisonment of up to three months, or both. These penalties were inadequate to ensure compliance. Penalties for occupational safety and health violations are higher than penalties for analogous violations, such as negligence.

The Ministry of Labour focused attention on office environments due to concerns about indoor air quality. Trade unions monitored safety problems to verify the enforcement of safety and health regulations as well as the correction of problems by management. Labor officers are required during an inspection to notify employers of their presence except where the officers consider that such a notification would impinge the performance of their duties. The law gives officers the power to initiate proceedings against employers for any contravention or offenses.

The law provides for the right of workers to refuse dangerous work without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities generally protected employees in this situation. A labor union representative reported there were no formal complaints concerning hazardous or exploitative working conditions during the year nor did the union receive any complaints about workplace fatalities or accidents.

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 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

The country experienced massive civil unrest following the August 9 presidential election as demonstrators protested widespread vote rigging by Lukashenka as well as the government’s widespread use of brute force against and detentions of peaceful protesters. Weekly protests drawing at their peak up to hundreds of thousands of protesters began election night and continued through the end of the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, internet blockages, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel, slander, and defamation of government officials; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including the imposition of criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws penalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and restrictions on independent trade unions; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always 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:

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

During the year there were reliable reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and deaths from torture were reported.

In the wake of the August 9 presidential election, riot police, internal troops, and plainclothes security officers violently suppressed mass protests. At least four individuals died as a result of police violence, shooting by members of the security forces, or the government’s failure to provide medical assistance.

For example, on August 10, police in Minsk shot protester Alyaksandr Taraykouski during a demonstration. Authorities’ claims that Taraykouski was killed when an explosive device he was holding detonated were contradicted by eyewitness accounts and video footage of the incident, in which security forces clearly appeared to shoot Taraykouski in the chest as he approached them with his empty hands raised. The Investigative Committee initiated an investigation into the case but suspended it on November 13. As of December a criminal case had not been initiated in this matter.

On November 2, a representative of the Investigative Committee, the law enforcement body charged with investigating police violence in the country, told the United Nations that the committee was not investigating any allegations of police abuse and declared “currently there have been no identified cases of unlawful acts by the police.” The representative blamed protest organizers for using protesters as “cannon fodder” and bringing children to demonstrations.

On November 12, Raman Bandarenka died from head injuries and a collapsed lung after being severely beaten and detained on November 11 by masked, plainclothes security officers in Minsk. The detention and some beatings were captured on video. After being detained for several hours, Bandarenka was transferred unconscious to a hospital in Minsk where he died. The injuries that resulted in Bandarenka’s death were reportedly more severe than those he received during his arrest, and human rights activists concluded that he was subjected to additional severe abuses while detained. Authorities reportedly launched an inquiry into the incident.

b. Disappearance

During the year there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

There were, however, reports of abductions by security forces of opposition leaders. For example, on September 7, masked members of the security forces approached opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava on the street in Minsk and forced her into a van. According to Kalesnikava’s lawyer, the men first took her to the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption, where she was held for several hours without registering her detention. She was then brought to the central office of the Committee for State Security (BKGB), where she was told to depart the country voluntarily. After Kalesnikava refused, she was taken to the Ukrainian border on September 8, where authorities attempted to force her to leave the country. Kalesnikava tore up her passport to prevent expulsion from the country. She was subsequently arrested, taken back to Minsk, and placed in a detention center, where she remained as of December. On September 16, she was formally charged with “calling for actions that threaten national security.”

On January 16, the Investigative Committee announced it reopened suspended investigations into the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. In December 2019 the committee also reopened the investigation into the disappearance of former minister of internal affairs Yury Zakharanka after Yury Harauski, who claimed to be a former special rapid response unit officer, stated he participated in the forced disappearances and killings of Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zakharanka. In March the committee again suspended investigations due to a “failure to identify any suspects.” There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them. In December 2019 Lukashenka stated that politically motivated killings would be impossible without his orders, which he “[had] never and would never issue.”

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

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the BKGB, riot police, and other security forces, without identification and wearing street clothes and masks, regularly used excessive force against detainees and protesters. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police regularly beat and tortured persons during detentions and arrests. According to human right nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and former prisoners, prison authorities abused prisoners.

According to documented witness reports, on August 9-11, security officers physically abused inside detention vehicles, police stations, and detention facilities on a systemic scale across the country the majority of the approximately 6,700 persons detained during postelection civil unrest. The human rights NGO Vyasna documented more than 500 cases of torture and other severe abuse committed in police custody against postelection protest participants and independent election observers, opposition leaders, civil society activists, and average citizens.

Among the abuses documented were severe beatings; psychological humiliation; the use of stress positions; at least one reported case of rape and sexual abuse; use of electric shock devices and tear gas; and up to three days intentional deprivation of food, drinking water, hygiene products, the use of toilets, sleep, and medical assistance.

For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 11, police detained 18-year-old college student Alyaksandr Brukhanchik and two friends as they were walking at night in a residential area and handed them over to a group of Internal Affairs Ministry riot police officers. The officers took the students inside a minibus, beat them, cut their shorts in the buttocks area, threatened to rape them with a grenade, and then transferred them to another police van, forced them to crawl on the blood-spattered floor, and beat them again. An officer kicked Brukhanchik in the face. Brukhanchik presented Human Rights Watch with medical documentation consistent with his account.

There were widespread reports of rape threats and sexual abuse by government agents against both men and women, and at least one reported instance of rape against a detainee. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism Report, on August 11, a senior officer raped Ales, a 30-year-old information technology (IT) worker, with a truncheon after his arrest. While in a police van, the officer demanded that Ales unlock his cell phone. When Ales repeatedly refused, the officer cut his shorts and underwear in the back, put a condom on a truncheon, and raped him with it. The officer then further beat Ales. Ales provided NGOs with medical documentation consistent with his account. On November 6, Internal Affairs Ministry first deputy Henadz Kazakevich claimed “a man cannot be raped in accordance with Belarusian law.” By law, however, rape of both men and women is criminalized in the country (see section 6).

Impunity remained a significant problem in almost all branches of the security services, including police and the BKGB. Impunity was widespread and continued largely due to politicization of the security services. On November 2, the Investigative Committee confirmed that the government had not opened any criminal investigations into complaints of torture or police violence filed with the Investigative Committee. While Internal Affairs Minister Yury Karaeu apologized in August to “random residents detained during protests,” he justified the brutal crackdown and subsequent torture by claiming police responded to “aggression coming from protesters against security officers” and “protesters building barricades and resisting police.” Karaeu’s deputy, Alyaksandr Barsukou, who visited holding facilities in Minsk on August 14, dismissed reports of torture, falsely claiming no detainees complained of mistreatment.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, published on October 29, the “first period of postelection violence by the security forces has to be qualified as a period of systemic torture and mistreatment with the main purpose to punish demonstrators and to intimidate them and potential other protesters. To a lesser extent, the infliction of pain and suffering served the purpose of gaining information or confessions. The torture or inhuman and degrading treatment was intentional as it was widespread and systematic as well as targeted at the opposing protesters although some accidental bystanders also became victims of the crackdown. It followed a systematic and widespread pattern including Minsk and other cities.”

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained poor, and in many cases posed threats to life and health.

Physical Conditions: According to former detainees and human rights lawyers, there continued to be shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Detainees reported that prison officials deliberately denied detainees access to food, water, hygiene products, and necessary medical care, sometimes for several days, as a form of retribution. Overall sanitation was poor. Authorities made little effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but at the same time used COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict access to visitors and distribution of food, hygiene, and clothing parcels.

Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities and prisons generally was a problem; however, a May 22 amnesty law reduced the terms of at least 2,500 prisoners, resulting in their release. In the three days after the August 9 election, there was insufficient space in detention facilities for the thousands of detainees that were arrested on protest-related charges, especially in Minsk. Detention facilities were reportedly overcrowded with cells fit for five individuals housing 50 detainees, forcing detainees to take turns standing and resting.

Although there were isolated allegations that police placed underage suspects in pretrial detention facility cells with adult suspects and convicts, authorities generally held juvenile prisoners separately from adults at juvenile penal colonies, arrest houses, and pretrial holding facilities. Conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were generally better than for adult male prisoners.

Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care.

Individuals detained for political reasons prior to the election or during protests following the August 9 presidential election appeared to face worse prison conditions than those of the general prison population, including more reports of torture and severe abuses.

Administration: Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and meetings with families were denied allegedly as a common punishment for disciplinary violations. Authorities restricted visitors to all detainees in a reported attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 in facilities, despite the government’s official nonrecognition of the COVID-19 pandemic and failure to implement national quarantine measures.

Authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations, despite legal provisions for such practice. Belarusian Orthodox churches were located at a number of prison facilities and Orthodox clergy were generally allowed access to conduct services.

Former prisoners and their defense lawyers reported that prison officials often censored or did not forward their complaints to higher authorities and that prison administrators either ignored or selectively considered requests for investigation of alleged abuses. Prisoners also reported that prison administrators frequently refused to provide them with copies of responses to their complaints, which further complicated their defense. Complaints could result in retaliation against prisoners, including humiliation, death threats, or other forms of punishment and harassment. Former prisoners claimed some prison administrators’ repeated harassment resulted in suicides, which authorities neither investigated nor made public.

Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole often depended on bribes to prison personnel. Parole could also depend on a prisoner’s political affiliation.

Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government officials refused to approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities and speak with the inmates.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities, including plainclothes security officers, arrested or detained thousands of individuals during peaceful protests and used administrative measures to detain political and civil society activists, as well as bystanders and journalists not involved in the protests, before, during, and after protests and other major public events, including those legally permitted in the framework of election campaigns.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours. Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges and for up to 18 months after filing charges, but in some cases authorities detained persons beyond 18 months. By law detainees are allowed prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state free of charge, although authorities often delayed extending this right to high-profile political prisoners, who faced authorities without the presence of defense lawyers at the initial stages of an investigation. Prosecutors, investigators, and security-service agencies have legal authority to extend detention without consulting a judge. Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.

There were reports that persons were detained without judicial authorization.

There were some reports of detainees who were held incommunicado. During the initial arrests following the August 9 presidential election, police precincts fingerprinted detainees and processed them for subsequent trial at holding facilities but left them incommunicado.

In the weeks following the election, up to 80 persons were reported missing but were eventually located after authorities acknowledged their detention or released them. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on August 11, Yury Savitski, a supporter of jailed presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, was abducted by six men in civilian clothing after attending a protest the previous day. His wife sought for days to establish his whereabouts, only to be told by authorities that there were too many prisoners and that many were not being officially registered. She was only able to determine his location and the charges he faced after waiting outside the holding facilities in Zhodzina with a photograph of her husband and asking released detainees whether they recognized him.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained political scientists, political leaders, presidential campaign participants, opposition leaders and members, civil society activists, and demonstrators for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated. In many cases authorities used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after planned demonstrations, protests, and other public events. Security officials arbitrarily detained persons in areas where protesters peacefully lined streets or protests were expected (see section 2.b.).

For example, on May 6, authorities in Mahilyou detained popular blogger and potential presidential candidate Syarhey Tsikhanouski during a countrywide tour to speak with citizens. He had been given a delayed 15-day administrative sentence for participating in an unauthorized mass event in 2019. In response to his arrest, followers of his blog and livestreams began three days of countrywide protests. Security officers without judicial authorization detained and subsequently fined or sentenced more than 100 activists and Tsikhanouski supporters for allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events (see section 2.b., Peaceful Assembly, and section 3).

After opposition leader Viktar Babaryka’s arrest (see section 3), on June 28, BKGB and riot police officers arbitrarily detained at least 52 prominent businessmen, political figures, Babaryka supporters and campaign staff, as well as independent journalists who gathered outside the BKGB building to file requests for Babaryka’s release. Authorities released at least 12 local independent and foreign journalists and 33 other individuals after identification checks were conducted at police precincts. At least seven persons were subsequently tried on administrative charges of allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events and resisting police.

Security forces regularly detained bystanders, including those not involved with protests. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, police detained construction worker Alyaksandr Gazimau near a Minsk shopping mall where a crowd of protesters had gathered. According to Gazimau, he was not participating in the protest and had just had dinner with a friend. When riot police arrived, the protesters started to run, and Gazimau ran as well. He fell while running and broke his leg. Police dragged him into a truck, beat him, intentionally stepped on his broken leg, and threatened to rape him with a truncheon. They passed him to another group of officers, who beat him again, took him to a local police precinct, where they forced him to stand on his broken leg, then forced him to the ground and intentionally kicked his broken leg again. He spent the night in the police precinct yard, and was transferred to holding facilities in Zhodzina prison, where he waited two days in the prison hospital before being transferred to a hospital for surgery. Independent media reported dozens of similar accounts of individuals, who were unaware of protest locations because of the government’s internet restrictions but were caught up along with protesters by security forces and arbitrarily detained.

Pretrial Detention: There were approximately 5,000 pretrial detainees in 2018, the latest year for which data were available. Information was not available regarding average length of time or how many continuing investigations were extended for lengthier periods. Observers believed there were a number of possible reasons for the delays, including political interference; charges being brought against individuals held in pretrial detention and investigations opened; new investigators taking over cases; cases that were complicated because they involved many suspects; and cases that required extensive forensic or other expert examinations and analysis. For example, during the year a former chief engineer of the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory Andrei Halavach was in the process of suing the government for compensation for the 4.5 years he spent in pretrial detention. Halavach was released in 2019 with all charges cleared and after being acquitted in two separate trials.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law courts or prosecutors have 24 hours to issue a ruling on a detention and 72 hours on an arrest. Courts hold closed hearings in these cases, which the suspect, a defense lawyer, and other legal representatives may attend. Appeals to challenge detentions were generally denied.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Observers believed corruption, inefficiency, and political interference with judicial decisions were widespread. Courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors, and observers believed that senior government leaders and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials.

As in previous years, according to human rights groups, prosecutors wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court. Lawyers found it difficult to challenge some evidence because the Prosecutor’s Office controlled all technical expertise. According to many defense attorneys, this power imbalance persisted, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances.

There were reports of retaliatory prosecution and debarment of defense lawyers representing political campaigns, opposition leaders, and the opposition’s Coordination Council. For example, on September 24, Lyudmila Kazak, defense attorney for the opposition’s Coordination Council Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, disappeared. It later became known that she was abducted off the streets of Minsk by unidentified men and brought to a holding facility. Kazak was charged and found guilty of allegedly resisting detention by police at an opposition rally on August 30 that she had not attended. Kazak was fined approximately 675 rubles ($277) in what human rights organizations and Kazak herself called a politically motivated case in retaliation for her defense work on Kalesnikava’s case.

On October 15, prominent lawyer and member of the Minsk City Bar Association for 30 years Alyaksandr Pylchenka lost his license to practice law, allegedly for statements he made in an August 14 interview with independent media in which he called for legal measures to be taken by the prosecutor general to hold security forces accountable for the severe abuses of detainees arrested during postelection peaceful protests. Pylchenka defended presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and Presidium Coordination Council member Maryya Kalesnikava. Babaryka claimed the nullification of Pylchenka’s license was an attempt by authorities to deny him his rights to legal protection.

On September 9, authorities detained Coordination Council Presidium member and one of Babaryka’s defense attorneys Maksim Znak, along with Ilya Saley, a lawyer for the Coordination Council’s Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, after searching their apartments. Lawyers asserted that Znak was arrested in retaliation for his August 21 filing of a compliant with the Supreme Court calling for the August 9 presidential election results to be invalidated due to the widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Saley was arrested two days after Kalesnikava’s abduction by masked members of the security forces on charges of appealing for actions to damage the country’s national security and violently topple the government. Saley remained in detention until October 16, when he was placed under house arrest.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but authorities frequently disregarded this right. By law criminal defendants may be held up to 10 days without being notified of charges, but they must have adequate time to prepare a defense. Facilities, however, were not adequate and in many cases, meetings with lawyers were limited or were not confidential. In some cases authorities reportedly compelled suspects to testify against themselves or other suspects in their case, including confessing their guilt. In these cases authorities reportedly claimed sentences would be more lenient or defendants would receive other benefits. There were also reports of authorities coercing suspects into signing confessions and other statements.

The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, state media’s practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain, and widespread limits on defense rights frequently placed the burden of proving innocence on the defendant.

The law also provides for public trials, but authorities occasionally held closed trials in judges’ chambers. Judges adjudicate all trials. For the most serious cases, two civilian advisers assist the judge.

The law provides defendants the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Some defendants were tried in absentia. In addition riot police or other security officers who testified against defendants in these cases did not identify themselves and testified wearing balaclavas due to “concern for their security.”

The law provides for access to legal counsel for the defendant and requires courts to appoint a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. Although by law defendants may ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, most judges and prosecutors were not fluent in this language, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in Russian, one of the official languages of the country. Interpreters are provided when the defendant speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian. The law provides for the right to choose legal representation freely; however, a presidential decree prohibits NGO members who are lawyers from representing individuals other than members of their organizations in court. The government’s past attempts to disbar attorneys who represented political opponents of the government further limited defendants’ choice of counsel. The government also required defense attorneys to sign nondisclosure statements that limited their ability to release any information regarding the case to the public, media, and even defendants’ family members.

In cases of administrative charges, including participating in unauthorized mass events and resisting law enforcement officers, judges often did not inform detained protesters of their right to defense counsel and dismissed counsels’ requests for additional witnesses testifying at trials. Authorities increasingly used video conferencing services to allow defendants to attend their hearings and trials remotely, purportedly to limit COVID-19 spread in detention facilities. After the August 9 election, however, abuses of this practice occurred when some detainees in the Zhodzina holding facility were reportedly tried “virtually” without defense lawyers or witnesses being granted access.

Some courts questioned the legality of contracts signed in advance between a defense lawyer and defendant or used the existence of these contracts against the defendant. For example, on September 11, a Minsk district court convicted and fined Paval Manko, an IT specialist, of purportedly participating in August 27 unauthorized mass events. Judge Zhana Khvainitskaya stated “the fact that Manko had a contract as of August 3 with his defense counsel demonstrated his direct intention to take part in unauthorized mass events.”

Courts often allowed statements obtained by force and threats of bodily harm during interrogations to be used against defendants.

Defendants have the right to appeal convictions, and most defendants did so. Nevertheless, appeals courts upheld the verdicts of the lower courts in the vast majority of cases.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The local human rights group Vyasna maintained what is widely considered a credible list of political prisoners in the country. As of December its list contained more than 160 names, including the cases of leading political opposition figures and their staff.

In one case, on September 2, authorities detained four employees of the IT company PandaDoc (Viktar Kuushynau, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, Yulia Shardyka, and Uladizlau Mikhalap). Two weeks earlier, the owner of the company, Mikita Mikada, publicly condemned political repression in the country and had colaunched a public initiative, Protect Belarus, aimed at financially supporting law enforcement officers who refused to take part in repression. Authorities charged the four employees with theft, for which conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The charges were widely viewed as both retaliation against Mikada and intended to deter political activism by other technology companies. On October 12, authorities released Rabtsevich, Shardyka, and Mikhalap to house arrest, but the charges were not dropped. As of late December, Kuushynau remained in detention, and Vyasna considered all four PandaDoc employees to be political prisoners.

Former political prisoners continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides that individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations, but the civil judiciary was not independent and was rarely impartial in such matters.

Property Restitution

No laws provide for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II, the Holocaust, or the Soviet period. In 2019 the government reported that, in the previous 11 years, it had not received any requests or claims from individuals, NGOs, or any other public organization, either Jewish or foreign, seeking compensation or restitution of any property.

For information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related topics, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released on July 29, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The law prohibits such actions, but the government did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities used wiretapping, video surveillance, and a network of informers that deprived persons of privacy.

The law requires a warrant before or immediately after conducting a search. The BKGB has authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry.

There were reports authorities entered properties without judicial or other appropriate authorization. In August and September, multiple instances were reported of plainclothes officers forcing entry into private homes or businesses. These officers often refused to show identification or a warrant, or claimed it was sufficient for them to state their affiliation with a government agency and proceed with the entry. On September 7, an individual identified as head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption Mikalay Karpenkau repeatedly struck and broke the locked glass door of a cafe to allow security officials in civilian clothing to apprehend individuals who had supposedly participated in protests.

There were reports that authorities accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority. For example, after the August 9 election, security officials occasionally threatened individuals detained during protests with violence or arrest if they did not unlock their cell phones for review. Officials also threatened individuals at detention facilities with harsher sentences if they did not unlock their cell phones. Security officials reportedly detained or issued harsher sentences for individuals with photos or social media accounts that officials regarded as pro-opposition or that showed security forces committing abuses.

According to the 2019 Freedom House Freedom on the Net Report, the country employs systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens. Surveillance is believed to be omnipresent in the country. Since 2010 the government has utilized the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures, which provides authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and internet service providers. The government also blocked and filtered websites and social media platforms (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). The country employs a centralized system of video monitoring cameras.

State television reportedly obtained state surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts from state security services that it used to produce progovernment documentaries and coverage.

According to activists, authorities employed informer systems at state enterprises after the August 9 presidential election to identify which workers would strike, as well as pressure workers not to join strike committees. “Ideology” officers were reportedly in charge of maintaining informer systems at state enterprises.

Family members were reportedly punished for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. For example, a doctor at a hospital in Minsk, who quit in protest of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in August, said his spouse, also a doctor at the same hospital, was forced to quit. In late August both left the country due to fear of prosecution.

Authorities temporarily removed or threatened to remove children from the custody of their parents to punish them for protesting or political activism. On September 13, the head of the Juvenile Justice Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Alyaksei Padvoisky, told state media that parents who take their children to protests risked losing custody of their children and that such actions would be considered “neglect of parental responsibilities.” For example, according to press reports, on September 27, Herman Snyazhkou was detained at a protest in Homyel. On September 29, authorities raided his home and arrested his wife, Natallya, and took custody of his two minor children, whom they sent to a state orphanage. Natallya Snyazhkou was released after being interrogated and left the country after regaining custody of her children. After serving 14 days of arrest, Herman Snyazhkou was also charged with resisting law enforcement officers and applying or threatening to apply violence and was told his wife was a suspect in the same case. He was released and as of November 15 was barred from leaving the country. Similarly presidential candidates Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Valery Tsapkala fled the country, as did their children and Tsapkala’s wife, after reported intimidation and threats to strip custody of their children from them.

While the law prohibits authorities from intercepting telephone and other communications without a prosecutor’s order, authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Nearly all opposition political figures and many prominent members of civil society groups claimed that authorities monitored their conversations and activities. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.

The law allows the BKGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, special security services, financial intelligence personnel, and certain border guard detachments to use wiretaps. Wiretaps require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless.

The Ministry of Communications has the authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate telephone contracts, which prohibits the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order.

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. The government did not respect these rights and selectively 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 Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.

Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in 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. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.

The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.

On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.

The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.

On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.

The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.

The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. 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 the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.

On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.

Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.

Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.

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. Regulations also 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. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.

In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).

There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.

There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.

Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.

The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).

The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.

The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.

Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.

The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.

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. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of 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 for defamation.

On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.

National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.

Internet Freedom

The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.

The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the 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 claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.

Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.

Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.

Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). 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 have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”

There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.

Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.

Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The 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.

By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.

Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.

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 Alyaksandr 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 principals.

The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions. For example, on August 31, the minister of culture dismissed the head of the Institute of Culture and Arts for purportedly failing to prevent students from protesting. The minister of health care replaced the heads of medical schools in Hrodna, Homyel, and Minsk after a number of doctors, medical professors, and students organized a series of protests in August.

The government restricted artistic presentations or other cultural activities. For example, in September authorities cancelled all shows at the local drama theater in Hrodna, citing the rise in COVID-19 cases, and dismissed at least two leading actors after the troupe stopped a show as a protest against the September 20 detentions of their colleagues at a local demonstration. Observers believed that the cancellation of the shows was in retaliation for the troupe’s actions, since the government did not require all theatres to cancel their shows during the COVID-19 pandemic.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and 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.

The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the fine.

The law requires 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 must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.

The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.

Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.

Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.

During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, during the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without government approval.

Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.

Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.

Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).

Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.

On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).

Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.

Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.

In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.

For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.

Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.

Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. 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, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.

Freedom of Association

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be 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–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.

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.

On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that 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 Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.

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 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.

Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.

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, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. Following the presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of Belarusians to return home from abroad.

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.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the country, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was barred from re-entering the country in late August as he returned from church business in Poland. The archbishop had spoken out against police violence and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit arrested peaceful protesters. Authorities claimed they placed the archbishop on a nonentry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. By law citizenship may not be revoked if a citizen only has Belarusian citizenship and has no claim to another citizenship. Entry may not legally be denied to Belarusian citizens. In late December the archbishop was allowed to reenter the country.

On October 29, authorities abruptly closed the border with Poland and Lithuania, restricting entry into the country. On November 1, authorities temporarily closed all land borders to regular travelers, ostensibly to curtail rising COVID-19 infections. Lukashenka previewed the move in a September 17 speech, in which he did not mention COVID-19 but threatened to close the country’s Western borders because of what he purportedly saw as hostile actions from neighboring democratic governments, in particular Poland and Lithuania. On November 5, authorities further tightened restrictions, primarily against foreigners, but in some cases authorities restricted Belarusian citizens from entering the country, which observers stated was counter to the constitution. In early December the government imposed exit restrictions on citizens seeking to leave by land, reportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the country; NGOs and activists claimed that these closures restricted options for those seeking to leave the country. On December 20, these measures went into effect and restricted the frequency of departures and the categories for persons who could depart. Authorities kept airports open to international travel during this period, although limited availability and high prices imposed costs and restricted options for those seeking to leave the country.

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, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.

In July presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala fled the country with his children, reportedly fearing arrest after other presidential candidates were detained in May and June. His wife, Veranika Tsapkala, participated in Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign and in August also fled due to government pressure and fear of arrest.

After the August 9 presidential election, authorities forced opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Authorities reportedly threatened “her children would grow up as orphans.” On May 29, her husband was detained by authorities and as of December remained in detention. Authorities also detained and threatened an associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Volha Kavalkova, who accepted exile in September after authorities threatened her with a long prison term if she did not leave the country. On September 8, two additional members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, Executive Secretary Ivan Krautsou and Spokesperson Anton Radnyankou, were forced into exile. Security forces abducted Krautsou and Radnyankou and drove them to the border with Ukraine, where they were forced to cross the border into Ukraine.

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.

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, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: There were reports that the government expelled or returned asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they were likely to face abuse. For example, on June 29, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Turkish citizen of Kurdish nationality, Hicri Mamas, who had been denied international protection in Belarus and expelled. Turkey sought Mamas’ extradition on charges of “infringement of the unity and territorial integrity of the state.” Multiple human rights organizations believed Mamas faced a significant risk of torture if he returned to Turkey.

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 process 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 are unable to return 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 citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.

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 as 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.

Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum 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. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.

Durable Solutions: Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.

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.

g. Stateless Persons

As of July 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and UNHCR listed 6,300 stateless persons. According to authorities, 98 percent of these individuals had permanent residence permits.

Permanently resident stateless persons 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 bodies 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 to citizenship for the 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.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government consistently denied citizens this ability by not conducting elections according to international standards.

Since his election in 1994 to a four-year term as the country’s first president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka steadily consolidated power in the executive branch to dominate all branches of government, effectively ending any separation of powers among the branches. Flawed referendums in 1996 and 2004 amended the constitution to broaden his powers, extend his term in office, and remove presidential term limits. Subsequent elections, including the National Assembly elections held in November 2019 and the presidential election held on August 9, continued to deny citizens the right to exercise their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: According to independent local observation groups, the August 9 presidential election was marred by numerous abuses, the use of administrative resources in favor of the incumbent, the absence of impartial election commissions, unequal access to media, coercion of voters to participate in early voting, nontransparent vote tabulation, and restrictions on independent observers. Irregularities identified by NGOs and independent observers raised significant doubts regarding authorities’ claims that Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 80 percent of votes during the presidential election.

Government pressure against potential opposition presidential candidates began three months prior to the presidential election and continued afterward. Authorities prior to the presidential election restricted the ability of challengers to register as candidates, restricted candidates from campaigning, pressured and detained presidential campaign teams, pressured citizens who showed support for opposition candidates, and detained press to limit opposition coverage.

The OSCE rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the August 9 presidential election, released by the OSCE on November 5, detailed a wide range of allegations of electoral irregularities concerning: “1) nontimely invitation of international observers, 2) shortcomings in the appointments of election management bodies on all levels, 3) restrictions of the right to stand (for office), 4) limitations in election dispute resolution, 5) overall disregard for freedom of assembly, 6) unequal playing field for candidates, including nontransparency in campaign financing, 7) nontransparent early voting process, 8) overcrowding of polling stations, 9) missing checks and balances, lack of possibility for verifying the electoral results, and 10) inaccessibility of all steps of the electoral process for observation inhibiting the effective assessment of the elections.” The report stated that “in view of the evident shortcomings of the presidential elections which did not meet the basic requirements established on the basis of previous election monitoring and the observations by citizen the presidential election have to be evaluated as falling short of fulfilling the country’s international commitments regarding elections. Allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”

Authorities detained and at times charged opposition campaign team members, including regional representatives, with allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events, which placed additional pressure on opposition campaign teams. Progovernment candidates or teams did not face similar police pressure.

During the campaign season, authorities arrested or forced into exile the candidates observers described as posing the greatest threats to his re-election.

On May 6, authorities detained presidential hopeful Syarhey Tsikhanouski and held him for 15 day for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event in December 2019, which kept him imprisoned past the May 15 deadline for registering signature collection groups for presidential candidates. Tsikhanouski was prevented from signing the documents necessary to register his signature collection group by the deadline. Although officials admitted Tsikhanouski’s candidacy met the election law criteria, they claimed his signature was required. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, instead submitted her own name, which authorities accepted.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Authorities claimed he was involved in a brawl in which police were attacked. State media highlighted the detention and allegations against Tsikhanouski. Independent media and video footage captured by multiple bystanders showed a pair of women who followed Tsikhanouski and attempted to provoke him into arguments. He first spoke with and then attempted to avoid the pair. Police grabbed Tsikhanouski’s arm after one woman complained he was avoiding her questions. Members of the crowd moved to assist Tsikhanouski and separate him from police, during which one officer fell to the ground. Moments later, riot police detained Tsikhanouski and nine of his associates, including his local campaign representative who had not been near the alleged brawl. In June, Tsikhanouski was charged with various criminal offenses (see section 2.b.). As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in detention.

On June 18, authorities detained former Belgazprombank chairman and presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard while on their way to submit the necessary signatures to register his presidential candidacy with the Central Election Commission. Babaryka was taken to the facility of the State Control Committee’s Department of Financial Investigations for questioning, and authorities barred Babaryka’s lawyers from speaking with him. Independent media and human rights NGOs reported that, on June 21, authorities charged Babaryka with large-scale money laundering, tax evasion, large-scale theft, fraud, and bribery. The charges carry criminal penalties, including fines and multiyear prison sentences. The court rejected Babaryka’s appeal to have his detention overturned. Authorities declined to register Babaryka as a candidate after his campaign team gathered more than 400,000 valid signatures, citing inconsistencies in his income and property declaration as well as the “participation of a foreign organization in his election campaign.” NGOs stated that Babaryka was arrested in response to his political activities and general popularity during his presidential campaign. As of December, Babaryka and his son remained in detention.

On June 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had started preliminary investigations into alleged “facts of illegal activities” committed by presidential candidate, High-Tech Park founder, and former diplomat Valery Tsapkala. On July 14, the Central Election Commission barred him from running in the presidential campaign claiming that many of his support signatures were invalid, and that information regarding his income declaration and wife’s assets was inaccurate. On July 21, a court in Minsk held an initial hearing without Tsapkala present on a lawsuit filed against him by a Turkish businessman who accused Tsapkala of bribery. On July 24, Tsapkala fled the country with his children after he heard authorities planned to arrest him (see section 2).

The government appeared to manipulate administrative procedures or the criteria for candidate registration in order to restrict political competition. In order to become a presidential candidate, authorities required each hopeful to collect 100,000 signatures. Citizens were allowed to sign for multiple candidates. In order for the signatures to count, authorities required campaign teams to have official representatives for each region who would submit the signatures with accompanying proof of citizenship to local level government offices. Citizen signatures were only valid in the districts where they were registered; this placed a higher burden on smaller campaign teams. For example, the Central Election Commission rejected Tsapkala’s application to run as a presidential candidate because he allegedly failed to submit enough valid signatures. Tsapkala’s campaign team claimed it submitted 200,000 signatures, but authorities only counted 75,000 as valid, causing him to fall short of the 100,000 threshold. Tsapkala appealed the decision, which the Supreme Court rejected on July 20.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, authorities introduced amendments that interfered with the transparency of the formation of election commissions, sought to decrease the proportion of independent and opposition participation in election commissions, and rejected or did not consider complaints and appeals concerning the nomination of election commissions. According to independent domestic monitors, authorities discriminated against the opposition members seeking seats on electoral commissions. Of 25 opposition members who applied for seats on territorial election commissions, only two were included. Of 545 opposition members applying for seats on precinct electoral commissions, only six were included. The other seats went to progovernment associations. As a result, observers maintained that these commissions remained biased against the opposition.

Authorities used an assortment of measures to support claims that vote tabulation on August 9 was legitimate. Key among these were restricting independent observation by domestic and international observers in favor of government-affiliated observers and claiming higher early voting participation to increase the number of ballots that could be fraudulently counted in Lukashenka’s favor.

Authorities restricted domestic and international observers during the election. After thousands of government-affiliated observers registered, on July 22, Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna stated that due to COVID-19, the government would limit observers at each polling station to three during early voting and five on election day. The majority of independent observers had not yet registered (as they had not expected registration to be limited, and assumed they had more time to register as deadlines for registration in previous elections had been much closer to the day of the election), and commission chairs at each polling station who controlled observation gave precedence to those who registered first.

There were extensive reports of state employees being coerced to vote early. Independent domestic observers who tallied voters estimated the early voting figure was inflated by a factor of two to three at some polling stations, undermining government claims early voting turnout was higher than election day turnout. On election day, independent observers at some precincts noted that combined early official voting numbers and tallies of observed voters on election day yielded a turnout of more than 100 percent of voters registered in the precinct. As in prior elections, voting tabulation remained nontransparent to observers.

Authorities allowed the diplomatic community to participate in observation, and noted COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers. At vote-tabulation time, however, commission chairs at a number of poll stations claimed five observers were already in the room and so barred some international observers from observing tabulation.

Human rights monitors, independent observers, and the OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism concluded that elections did not comply with international standards. Opposition candidates, their representatives, and independent observers reported authorities dismissed the vast majority of complaints they filed.

After authorities announced preliminary election results on August 10 claiming Lukashenka won the election, the government forced presidential contender Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Results at the small number of polling stations that counted votes transparently showed that Tsikhanouskaya received more votes at these locations and suggested she could have received a majority of the votes or enough to force a second round runoff. According to independent NGO monitoring, the state’s control over all broadcast media was employed to promote the candidacy of the incumbent, while state-controlled outlets provided only critical coverage of opposition candidates, largely focused on criminal charges authorities had brought against them.

According to NGOs, the electoral process at all stages failed to comply with a number of international standards for democratic and fair elections. Numerous violations of international standards and the country’s law were reported.

Authorities largely denied or dismissed petitions and complaints about violations of the electoral code during various stages of the election. Courts received 484 appeals regarding decisions on the formation of election commissions, of which 415 were denied and 69 went without consideration. Independent observers who were part of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, a volunteer election observation initiative, submitted approximately 3,000 complaints to various state bodies and higher election commissions during early voting and on election day. Authorities reportedly denied all complaints.

According to the OSCE, it required a timely invitation to observe the August 9 presidential election, meaning notification at least 12 weeks before election day. When the government announced the presidential election date on May 8 it also stated the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would be invited to observe after the candidate registration period closed on July 14. The OSCE informed the country’s authorities it needed a timely invitation on several occasions and on July 15, the ODIHR Director announced that ODIHR had not received a timely invitation and would be unable to send an observation mission. Belarus authorities sent an invitation on July 15. When authorities were later criticized for a lack of ODIHR observers, the government blamed ODIHR, claiming the country had invited ODIHR to attend and monitor the vote. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report noted that the government sent an invitation four months before the 2019 National Assembly election, “which raises the suspicion that (delaying the invitation) was done on purpose in order to avoid international monitoring of part of the pre-election process, in particular the registration of candidates, where numerous problems were observed.”

In March international observers previously assessed that the November 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards. According to the ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe election observation mission intermediate report, while the National Assembly elections proceeded calmly with a high number of candidates and observers, they did not meet important international standards for democratic elections and there was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

The observation mission report on the National Assembly elections found that a high number of candidates stood for election, but an overly restrictive registration process inhibited the participation of opposition candidates. A limited amount of campaigning took place within a restrictive environment that, overall, did not provide for a meaningful or competitive political contest. Media coverage of the campaign did not enable voters to receive sufficient information about contestants. The election administration was dominated by the executive authority, limiting its impartiality and independence, and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded. Significant procedural shortcomings during the counting of votes raised concerns about whether results were counted and reported honestly, and an overall lack of transparency reduced the opportunity for meaningful observation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely impeded the activities of opposition political parties and activists. Some opposition parties lacked legal status because authorities refused to register them, and the government routinely interfered with the right to organize, run for election, seek votes, and publicize views. The government allowed approximately six largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely. The government used its monopoly on broadcast media to disparage the opposition and promote pro-Lukashenka parties and to restrict the ability of opposition candidates to publicize their views. There were reports of government resources being used to benefit the incumbent, such as government officials campaigning for Lukashenka during working hours.

During the year authorities fined and arrested opposition political parties’ leaders for violating the Law on Mass Events and participating in numerous unauthorized demonstrations (see section 2). The law allows authorities to suspend parties for six months after one warning and close them after two. The law also prohibits political parties from receiving support from abroad and requires all political groups and coalitions to register with the Ministry of Justice. Members of parties that continued to operate when authorities refused to register them, such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, continued to be subjected to harassment and arbitrary checks.

Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna reported that the COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers, proxies of presidential candidates, members of the House of Representatives and members of the Council of the Republic, members of local councils who could observe the election in accordance with their status, or registered media. The vast majority of observers at polling stations and during voting and vote tabulation were government affiliated, while domestic independent observers waited outside poll stations and sought to count individuals who entered the premises. Domestic independent observers faced significant restrictions, including limitations on their ability to be present at polling stations, purportedly because of the threat of COVID-19. The government, however, did not take any other precautions related to the pandemic, such as enforcing social distancing, limiting the number of voters in buildings at any given time, or requiring the wearing of masks. In a number of cases, commissions removed independent domestic observers from polling stations for allegedly interfering with their work and banned them from videotaping or taking photographs. Some government officials responsible for polling sites called police to detain independent domestic observers for various alleged inappropriate behavior. Police for the most part took these observers to police stations, checked their documents, and released them. Human rights activists reported 86 domestic observers were detained during the early voting period.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, but the government’s patriarchal attitude disfavored women’s efforts to achieve positions of authority. Of the country’s 24 government ministers, only one was a woman. Women increasingly joined the opposition as leaders, served as vocal members of the opposition, led regular “women’s marches,” and participated in protests more broadly. Women told independent media that they were inspired to become more politically active after hearing Lukashenka’s remarks regarding his female opponent Tsikhanouskaya. He stated, “Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Because the Constitution gives strong authority to the president.” In later remarks to clarify his statement, Lukashenka said that the presidency was a heavy burden for anyone, but female candidates in particular would be “unable to handle the pressures of the presidency.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government appeared to prosecute regularly officials alleged to be corrupt. There were, however, also allegations that some high level officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country. In March 2019 the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO’s executive secretary, “casted a dark shadow over the country’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.” In October 2019 GRECO’s executive secretary repeated its concerns regarding the country’s “continuous noncompliance.”

Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.

The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a harried independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.

The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education.

There were numerous corruption prosecutions during the year. For example, in January the BKGB announced it arrested four general managers of sugar refineries, including the head of the Belarusian Sugar Company and the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and corruption department, Uladzimir Tsikhinya. They were reportedly charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes, and Lukashenka accused them of “pocketing kickbacks and corruption” for allegedly selling sugar through intermediaries at lower price, which exported it to Russia and illegally re-exported back at higher prices. On August 25, independent media reported that Tsikhinya, who purportedly notified general managers of possible inspections and abuses against them, was charged and released, while other suspects reportedly remained in pretrial detention.

In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.

Financial Disclosure: Anticorruption laws require income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials, their spouses, and members of households who have reached legal age and continue to live with them in the same household. According to the law, specialized anticorruption departments within the Prosecutor General’s Office, the BKGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitor and verify anticorruption practices, and the prosecutor general and all other prosecutors are mandated to oversee the enforcement of anticorruption law. These declarations were not available to the public; an exception applies to candidates running in presidential, National Assembly, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.

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

There were a number of active domestic human rights NGOs, although authorities were often hostile to their efforts, restricted their activities, selectively cooperated with them, and were not responsive to their views.

Prominent human rights NGOs–such as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register some other NGOs, placing them at risk of fines. Some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.

Authorities at times harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to inspections and threats of deregistration and reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations. Beginning in August, human rights activists were also arrested during the government’s violent crackdown. For example, on September 17, Vyasna human rights activist and volunteer coordinator Marfa Rabkova was detained and later charged with criminal activity for the “training or other preparation of persons to participate in riots, or funding such activities.” Vyasna asserted that Rabkova’s detention and charges were politically motivated in response to her efforts to train short-term election observers for the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections volunteer initiative and her work in documenting severe abuses of detainees. As of December, Rabkova remained in detention along with two other Vyasna volunteers, Andrei Chapiuk and Ksenia Syramalot. Vyasna considered all three individuals to be political prisoners.

The government largely ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with unregistered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.

During the year the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding the organization received in the early 2000s, on which the government places restrictions, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law, including the law on mass events. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Justice Ministry to monitor NGO activities and review their documents. NGOs must also submit detailed annual reports to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, and total number of members.

Authorities were generally reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country in their official capacity. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country, as well as requests to stop harassing the human rights community.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The government continued to speak against “the politicized and senseless” mandate of the rapporteur, refused to recognize the mandate, and denied Marin entry to the country. On September 17, a total of 17 OSCE participating states invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” against the country to look into reports of serious human rights abuses, including election fraud and substantial interference with freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly. The country did not cooperate with the mechanism’s expert mission or allow it access to the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country does not have an ombudsman or other national human rights institution. A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of the National Assembly was ineffective.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men and women in general but does not include separate provisions on marital rape. The penalty for conviction of rape with aggravating factors is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. While sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems, the government generally prosecuted cases against nonspouses committing rape. For example, on March 3, the Vileika District Court convicted a 26-year-old man of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. The case was considered under the law as rape of a known minor, which is punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to 13 years. According to NGOs, authorities often did not consider spousal rape and did not prosecute such cases unless they involved severe aggravating factors and direct threats to victims’ lives.

Domestic violence was a significant problem and the government did not take effective measures to prevent it during the year. The government continued to issue protective orders mandating the separation of victims and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to survivors.

The law on crime prevention establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the code on administrative offenses prescribes a substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

According to a number of women’s rights NGOs, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of victims’ rights. Efforts to prosecute offenders and ensure legal and other remedies to correct their behavior were also lacking. NGO experts continued to note the lack of state-supported designated shelters and specialists that work with victims, children, and aggressors.

According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, from January-March officers registered 655 offenses related to household and domestic violence crimes, which was reportedly down by 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Of those, 58 cases included causing severe bodily harm, 27 deaths caused by family members, and 225 cases of death threats and causing severe bodily harm. Police reported they prosecuted 186 individuals on charges of abusing family members. Police issued 1,903 protective orders from January-March.

According to press reports, on May 14, a 38-year-old man in the town of Cherikau severely beat his 39-year-old wife. The woman did not make a police report or seek medical attention until two days later, when she was hospitalized and died of her injuries the same day. The man was detained and charged with battery.

A Ministry of Internal Affairs representative was reachable once a month through July on a NGO-run nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. In August the NGO running the hotline stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of June the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, although this may have been associated with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Healthcare and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence.” The campaign was shifted online during the pandemic but was covered by government media.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem. Victims of sexual harassment did not have access to criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some religious groups may oppose it on religious grounds. Although there were no barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, and skilled postpartum care was widely available, there were fewer professionals with the skills to assist with difficult pregnancies outside of Minsk. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected. Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment as well as discrimination in the workplace (see section 7.d.).

During the year Lukashenka made multiple disparaging comments regarding female political opposition leaders that reflected a discriminatory attitude against women participating in the political arena (see section 3).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.

Child Abuse: Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of a person older than 18 engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 carry is a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children was common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted to beating their children. In a number of resonant cases of child abuse and assault, at least one parent, who committed a crime against the child, suffered from alcohol addiction, and the other was reluctant to report the crime. For example, a court in the town of Zelva convicted and sentenced a male resident to 25 years in prison for continuously abusing his minor daughters, one of whom suffered severe injuries and died. Authorities generally intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions and provided foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, lacking effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner. The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve childcare and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child-abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned child-abuse victims to testify at hearings. More experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.

As of January the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors in vulnerable and dangerous conditions, but independent observers questioned the quality of services. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriage in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Prostitution of children was a problem, and the government took some steps to address it. From January through September, the government identified 354 minors as victims of child sexual abuse and 24 minors exploited for pornography. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for conviction of production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The government generally enforced the law. The government claimed that the law did not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 27 minor trafficking and trafficking-related victims. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods like sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December.

Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not report any child-abuse incidents in institutions. There have been allegations of abuse in foster families; the government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.

According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared with children living in families: they had two to three times more exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews lived in the country.

There were reports of isolated anti-Semitic incidents after the August 9 election, including cases of anti-Semitic violence by state actors during detentions. For example, according to press reports, police in Minsk detained Aleksandr Fruman while detaining protesters. Fruman reported that, upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him while shouting anti-Semitic insults, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” Jewish community leaders did not express concerns that their community members who participated in protests had been targeted for their ethnicity or religious group when detained by police.

Many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, built in Soviet times as well as more recently, do not distinguish Jewish victims from other victims of Nazi atrocities. The Jewish community continued to work with foreign donors and local authorities to erect monuments to commemorate Jewish victims specifically.

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 does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and discrimination was common.

On September 14, a regional court in Smarhon dismissed a case filed by a local children’s music school teacher with physical disabilities, who was seeking to restore a number of his rights, which he argued were abused based on his disability and discriminatory attitudes toward him. For example, although he had worked at the school since 1996, the building was not fully accessible and the administration held teachers’ conferences on a floor the teacher could not reach, limiting his ability to share information related to his work. The teacher also cited discriminatory and derogatory language used by the school’s principals and fellow teachers as well as the principal’s refusal to provide extra days off for the teacher, who was in a risk group for COVID-19. The school reportedly addressed the teacher’s working schedule and improved accessibility to the building prior to the court ruling, which allowed the court to dismiss the case.

The law mandates that transport, residences, and businesses be accessible to persons with disabilities, but few public areas were wheelchair accessible or accessible for persons with hearing and vision disabilities. The National Association of Disabled Wheelchair Users estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with physical disabilities were unable to leave their places of residence without assistance and stated their residences were not suitable to accommodate persons with physical disabilities. While authorities claimed that 30 percent of the country’s total infrastructure was accessible, disability rights organizations considered this figure inflated, although the situation continued to improve during the year. NGOs reported that the government was growing increasingly aware of these problems, but progress was slow.

The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. According to the Ministry of Labor, approximately 89 such institutions across the country housed approximately 21,500 persons. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low. Instances of harassment and mistreatment were reported, such as cases of physical and psychological abuse, lack of medical care for other non-disability-related conditions, and underfunded facilities and infrastructure. Authorities continued the practice of placing persons with physical and mental disabilities in the same facilities and did not provide either group with specialized care. Approximately 15,000 persons with disabilities who lived in “psychoneurological” institutions were deprived of legal rights, and courts designated directors of these institutions as their legal guardians.

Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk as well as the bus system were not wheelchair accessible. In 2017 the most recent year for which information was available, experts of the NGO ACT released a monitoring report indicating that 3.3 percent of all educational institutions across the country were accessible to persons with disabilities, including with vision and hearing disabilities, and most of these facilities were recently constructed.

Persons with disabilities, especially those with vision and hearing disabilities, often encountered problems with access to courts and obtaining court interpreters. Women with disabilities often faced discrimination, including employment discrimination, claims they were unable to care for their children, and received worse medical services and care compared to the general population–especially in provincial medical institutions. Women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. Pregnant women with disabilities face accessibility barriers at maternity clinics and hospitals.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrarily detain, investigate, profile, and harass Roma, including by forcing fingerprinting, mistreating them in detention, and subjecting them to ethnic insults.

Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 6,848 (according to the 2019 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Roma. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various forms of discrimination, high unemployment, low levels of education, and lack of access to social services. Roma generally held citizenship, but many lacked official identity documents and refused to obtain them.

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

There were reports that authorities threatened and condoned violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. For example, according to the LGBTI rights group Makeout, on September 26, police detained a transgender man, Yauheni Velko, at a protest. While in transport, police insulted him on the basis of his gender identity. At the police station, security officials conducted a strip search and targeted him with gender-focused harassment and threats, including rape and death threats. Officials at the detention facility told relatives who knew he was at the facility that there were no men detained at the location, and therefore he was not present. Velko spent two days in detention and was tried and fined on September 28. Officers also confiscated his rainbow flag.

Consensual same-sexual conduct between adults is not illegal, but LGBTI discrimination was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.

Societal discrimination against LGBTI activists persisted with the tacit support of the government, which either failed to investigate crimes or did so without recognizing it as a hate crime. For example, in December 2019 a Minsk district court sentenced a local resident on charges of grave hooliganism to 18 months in jail and ordered him to pay 5,400 rubles ($2,210) in compensation to his victim Mikalai Kuprych. The perpetrator assaulted Kuprych, who suffered multiple facial injuries and bone fractures, after he reportedly saw Kuprych hugging friends. Although the perpetrator stated during the investigation that this was the prime motive for his attack, the court refused to recognize anti-LGBTI sentiments as a motive.

The government allows transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retain old identification numbers that include a digit indicating the individual’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender persons reportedly were refused jobs when potential employers noted the “discrepancy” between an applicant’s identification number and gender marker. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds. Transgender men were issued military identification that indicated they had “a severe mental illness.”

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. According to local NGOs working with HIV and AIDS positive individuals and other groups at risk, HIV-infected individuals, especially drug users undergoing or having completed treatment, continued to face discrimination, especially at workplaces and during job interviews. For example, based on doctors’ clinical reports, schools reportedly refused to employ HIV-positive individuals even when they were applying for jobs that did not involve contact with children. For example, in May an individual was barred from a building maintenance job under Ministry of Health instructions that restricted HIV-positive individuals from working with children.

The government continued to broadcast and post public-service advertisements raising awareness concerning HIV/AIDS and calling for greater tolerance toward persons infected with the virus.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Although the law provides for the rights of workers, except state security and military personnel, to form and join independent unions and to strike, it places a number of serious restrictions on the exercise of these rights. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively but does not protect against antiunion discrimination. Workers who say they are fired for union activity have no explicit right to reinstatement or to challenge their dismissal in court, according to trade union activists.

The law provides for civil penalties against employers in the form of fines for violations of the freedom of association or collective bargaining. Fines against employers were not commensurate with penalties for other crimes related to civil rights. The government did not enforce the law, in part because the government and state enterprises violated the legal right of freedom of association.

The government severely restricted independent unions. The government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) is the largest union federation, claiming more than four million members, to whom it provides benefits. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), with four constituent trade unions, made up of approximately 10,000 workers, was the largest union umbrella organization not affiliated with the government. The BKDP, however, did not represent the majority of workers at any of the country’s largest state employers. Tight government control over registration requirements and public demonstrations made it difficult for the BKDP to organize and operate, or conduct strikes.

The government did not respect freedom of association and collective bargaining. Prohibitive registration requirements, mandating that any new union unaffiliated with the government have a large membership and cooperation from state employers, continued to present significant obstacles to independent union formation. Trade unions may be deleted from the register by a decision of the registrar, without any court procedure. The registrar may remove a trade union from the register if, following the issuance of a written warning to the trade union that it is violating legislation or its own statutes, the violations are not corrected within a month. Authorities continued to resist attempts by workers to leave the official union and join the independent one, but workers reportedly increasingly left the FTUB without joining the BKDP for political reasons following the August 9 presidential election. The government restrictions on freedom of association made it difficult for independent trade unions to participate in collective bargaining. Authorities require a single labor union position ahead of bargaining, which at state enterprises where the BKDP is present requires both labor organizations to collaborate in collective bargaining. Labor activists reported, however, that this benefited the BKDP because agreements negotiated with the participation of independent unions were more favorable to workers than those agreements solely negotiated by the FTUB.

The requirements to conduct a legal strike are high. For example, strikes may only be held three or more months after dispute resolution between the union and employer has failed. The duration of the strike must be specified in advance. In addition a minimum number of workers must continue to work during the strike. Nevertheless, these requirements were largely irrelevant, since the unions that represented almost all workers remained under government control. Government authorities and managers of state-owned enterprises routinely interfered with union activities and hindered workers’ efforts to bargain collectively, in some instances arbitrarily suspending collective bargaining agreements. Management and local authorities blocked worker attempts to organize strikes on many occasions by declaring them illegal.

Some union members who participated in political protests, which authorities generally considered unauthorized mass events, were detained, and a smaller percentage of politically active workers lost their jobs. Despite government pressure, after the August 9 election, some workers protested and attempted to organize strikes, but a majority of workers did not because of the extreme pressures authorities put on them and potential strike leaders. Government pressure included making examples of strike leaders by putting them in jail, subjecting them to physical violence, firing them, detaining or fining workers who discussed conducting strikes, refusing to renew employment contracts of workers involved in strikes, and applying psychological pressure in the form of threatening workers with the removal of parental rights over their children and stressing the impact lost wages would have on their children and families. In August and September, the inability to convince a majority of workers to hold a general strike led significant minorities of workers at large state-owned factories to conduct work-to-rule action as a sign of protest.

Workers encountered politically related pressure. For example, on October 1, the state-owned enterprise Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ) informed an employee who had taken part in a spontaneous anti-Lukashenka rally at the factory in August that the company would not extend his employment contract upon its expiration on November 4. BMZ managers had reportedly previously promised that no one would be punished for participating in the political rally, but police afterward sentenced the worker and another colleague to 12 days in jail for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event. The worker had worked at BMZ for 20 years.

The Law on Mass Events also seriously limited demonstrations, rallies, and other public action, constraining the right of unions to organize. No foreign assistance may be offered to trade unions for holding seminars, meetings, strikes, pickets, etc., or for “propaganda activities” aimed at their own members, without authorities’ permission.

Government efforts to suppress independent unions included frequent refusals to extend employment contracts for members of unions unaffiliated with the government and refusals to register independent unions. According to BKDP leader Alyaksandr Yarashuk, the only registration of a nongovernment union since 1999 occurred in 2019 when authorities approved the third registration application of a branch of the independent trade union of miners, chemical, oil refinery, energy, transport, construction industries, and other workers in Salihorsk. The registration followed the restructuring of the state-owned potash fertilizer producer Belaruskali, which established a number of separate subsidiaries, and workers wanted to keep their membership in the BKDP’s labor unions. Authorities attempted to pressure or fire workers who were deemed protest or strike leaders, or became involved in opposition political activities.

During the year the BKDP-affiliated Radio and Electronics Trade Union chairman Genadz Fedynich and chief accountant Ihar Komlik remained under house arrest following their 2018 conviction for allegedly evading taxes and sentence to four years of house arrest. The court also banned the trade unionists from holding any administrative positions for five years. In 2018 the Minsk City Court dismissed their appeal. In May 2019 Fedynich’s house arrest was slightly eased, and a November 2019 presidential amnesty law reduced the sentences of both Fedynich and Komlik by a year to 2021.

Most contracts at state enterprises are one-year contracts. State employees, who constituted approximately 70 percent of the workforce, may have contracts with terms of up to five years, but most contracts expire after one year. The BKDP and NGOs alleged this practice gave the government, through state employers, the ability to fire state employees by declining to renew their contracts. Some state employees (including medical professionals) who protested against the government’s COVID-19 response or participated in protests against the government’s handling of the election reportedly were not rehired. Members of nongovernment-affiliated unions, political parties, and civil society groups lost their jobs due to one-year contracts lapsing. A government edict provides the possibility for employers to sign open-ended work contracts with an employee only after five years of good conduct and performance by the employee. Longer contracts, however, reportedly also restrict the ability of employees to leave for other jobs. Workers are generally protected during the terms of their contracts.

Opposition political party members and democratic activists sometimes had difficulty finding work at state-affiliated employers due to government pressure on these employers.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, with the exception of court rulings that may require work or services as part of a sentence, and which may include penal labor.

Parents who have had their parental rights stripped and are unemployed or are working but fail to compensate state child-care facilities for the maintenance of their children, may be subject to forced employment by court order. Individuals who refuse forced employment may be held criminally liable and face community service or corrective labor for a period of up to two years, imprisonment for up to three years, or other freedom restrictions, all involving compulsory labor and garnishment of 70 percent of their wages to compensate for expenses incurred by the government.

Minsk authorities required officially registered unemployed individuals to perform paid community service one day a month. Individuals who performed fewer than 12 working days of paid community service during a year were prohibited from receiving some unemployment benefits. Individuals with disabilities, single parents, and parents of three or more children, as well as parents of children with disabilities and younger than 18 were exempt.

Regulations against forced labor were seldom enforced, and resources and inspections dedicated to preventing forced and compulsory labor were minimal. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

Belarus largely served as a source country for labor trafficking. Aside from border restrictions enacted during COVID-19, Belarusians were able to freely travel to and work in Russia, reportedly the largest destination country. Compared to NGOs, the government rarely identified victims of labor trafficking, and prosecution of those responsible for forced labor remained minimal. NGOs in 2019 identified 59 labor trafficking victims, compared with the government’s three. Authorities reportedly did not recognize claims by Belarusians who returned from Russia and complained they had endured forced labor there. Government efforts to prevent and eliminate labor trafficking did not improve during the year.

There were no reported examples of government reprisals identified against individuals who abstained from community activities during the year (commonly called “subbotniks”). According to a media report, however, workers at a state-run hospital expressed fear of reprisals in the form of withholding wages if they failed to participate.

Former inmates stated their monthly wages were as low as three to four rubles ($1.50 to $2.00). Senior officials with the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Internal Affairs Ministry stated in 2015 that at least 97 percent of all work-capable inmates worked in prison as required by law, excluding retirees and persons with disabilities, and that labor in prison was important and useful for rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

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 employment is 16. Children as young as 14 may conclude a labor contract with the written consent of one parent or a legal guardian. The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for enforcement of the law. Persons younger than 18 are allowed to work in nonhazardous jobs but are not allowed to work overtime, on weekends, or on government holidays. Work may not be harmful to children’s health or hinder their education.

The government generally enforced these laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

There is no penalty for discrimination in general. The Labor Code prohibits employer discrimination only when employers refuse to hire a person who was referred by the government Labor, Employment, and Social Welfare agency as part of a quota system. In these cases the government may charge the employer with a civil penalty if the discrimination was on the basis of the person’s race, age, gender, language, political or religious beliefs, membership in a trade union, social status, or place of residence. The government did not effectively enforce this law.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to ethnicity, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and HIV-positive status (see section 6). In addition some members of the Romani community complained that employers often discriminated against them and either refused to employ them or did not provide fulltime jobs. The government did not take any action during the year to prevent or eliminate employment discrimination. Employment discrimination happened across most economic sectors and in both private and public workplaces.

The law requiring equal pay for equal work was not regularly enforced, and in July 2019 the country’s National Statistics Committee reported that average salaries for women were 27.3 percent less than salaries for men.

The government maintained a list of 181 “physically demanding” jobs “in hazardous or dangerous conditions” that women are not permitted to occupy. Women are also unable to work in all the same employment sectors as men. Very few women were in the upper ranks of management or government, and most women were concentrated in the lower-paid public sector. Although the law grants women the right to three years of maternity leave with assurance of a job upon return, employers often circumvented employment protections by using short-term contracts, then refusing to renew a woman’s contract when she became pregnant.

A government prohibition against workdays longer than seven hours for persons with disabilities reportedly made companies reluctant to hire them. Local NGOs reported that up to 85 percent of persons with disabilities were unemployed. Authorities provided minimal welfare benefits for persons with disabilities. Pension calculations should consider disability status under the law, however, authorities were not always willing to provide higher pensions warranted by disability status. Members of the country’s Paralympic teams received half the salaries and prize money of athletes without disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

As of October 1, the national minimum monthly wage exceeded the poverty line.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The law provides for mandatory overtime and nine days of holiday pay and restricts overtime to 10 hours a week, with a maximum of 180 hours of overtime each year.

The government did effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes. In June, Labor and Social Protection Minister Iryna Kastevich noted that the ministry was monitoring companies and organizations for compliance with employee dismissal regulations during COVID-19. Kastevich reported the volume of total working hours fell since the start of the pandemic, as employers attempted to keep workers employed by shortening working hours or placing persons on leave. Government COVID-19 support reportedly largely went to state enterprises, who received financial support such as loans, rather than workers or the private sector.

The State Labor Inspection Department at the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry was responsible for enforcement of wages, overtime, workplace safety, and worker health. The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health, but employers did not always follow these standards or require workers to wear minimal safety gear. The state labor inspectorate lacked authority to enforce employer compliance and often ignored violations. Although inspectors could make unannounced inspections, the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Penalties for occupational safety and health violations were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. According to the State Labor Inspection Department of the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry, employees have the right to refuse to perform work if they are not provided with personal protective equipment that directly ensures labor safety. The list of required personal protective equipment was approved by the ministry. In order to refuse to perform assigned work due to a lack of equipment, an employee must inform the employer or an authorized official of the reasons for refusal in writing.

According to the latest data, authorities reported 2,042 workplace injuries and 141 deaths in 2019, compared with 2,115 injuries and 144 deaths in 2018.

The State Labor Inspection Department maintained labor hotlines for each region and also provided separate contact details for matters associated with labor inspections, labor protection, and labor violations. The department also maintained a hotline for problems involving the illegal dismissal of workers.

Between June 7 and September 2, the State Labor Inspection Department released information highlighting typical violations of labor protection requirements in four areas: automotive and heavy machinery operation, electric and gas wielding equipment, earthworks and ground-level construction, and above-ground construction.

Independent experts reported the informal economy constitutes up to 30 percent of the total economy, which has a workforce of 4.5 million persons. The labor law does not cover informal workers.

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. Elections are held at six different levels: communal, provincial, regional, by language community, federal, and European. In May 2019, the country held federal parliamentary elections that observers considered free and fair.

The federal police are responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order, including migration and border enforcement. They report to the ministers of interior and justice. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Numerous complaints were filed against members of the security services who allegedly committed abuses, some of which awaited rulings in court.

Significant human rights issues included: some attacks motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex persons.

Authorities generally took steps to identify, investigate, and, where appropriate, prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

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

On April 10, Adil, a young man of Moroccan descent, was killed as he attempted to evade a COVID-related police control at Place du Conseil in Anderlecht. According to press reports, Adil died when his motor scooter collided head-on with a police vehicle as he attempted to flee. An independent examining magistrate was named to lead an involuntary manslaughter investigation into the police actions.

In August a video came to light of a two-year-old incident at Charleroi airport showing a group of police officers subduing and killing an apparently unstable Slovak citizen by putting a blanket over his head and sitting on him, while at one point an officer made a Hitler salute. The number two official in the Federal Police relinquished his duties until an investigation was completed. The senior officer on duty at the airport on the day of the fatal arrest was temporarily reassigned administrative duties. Police stated that an internal investigation and judicial inquiry were underway.

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. There were some reports, however, that prison staff physically mistreated prisoners.

On January 14, two prison guards were found guilty of mistreating jihadist preacher Khalid Zerkani, an ISIS recruiter. The event took place after Zerkani’s transfer to the Saint-Gilles Prison in 2016, with the guards referring to it as an accident. Although the guards were found guilty, the court delivered no punishment, citing the four-year period that had elapsed since the incident. The court also acquitted a third prison guard who was a witness to the mistreatment.

In 2019 the Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunities (UNIA) reported 81 complaints of excessive force or abuse of power by security forces. Of these complaints, eight out of 10 were linked to racial or religious motives. The majority occurred during unplanned interventions. The Permanent Committee for the Control of Police Services rules on an average of 30 cases per year, of which 80 percent are cleared.

On July 17, a police officer was sentenced to one year in prison plus a fine for excessive force against a migrant of Sudanese origin. The officer had violently handled the man, sprayed gas in his eyes, and destroyed his mobile telephone. The man and other migrants at the scene were then loaded into a truck, after which they were left at the Willebroeck Canal.

Impunity in the security forces was not a significant problem.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions did not always meet international standards. Prison conditions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, presented health risks due to overcrowding, hygiene problems, inadequate physical activity, and lack of access to materials and medical care.

Physical Conditions: A study by the University of Lausanne in collaboration with the Council of Europe showed that, in 2019, the country’s prisons held 120.6 inmates per 100 prison spaces. Prison overcrowding remained a problem, despite a temporary decrease in the number of inmates.

Media reported that the overcrowding situation became more serious in the context of COVID-19, as several inmates often shared a single cell. In May the country reduced its prisoner population by 11 percent to prevent overcrowding during the pandemic, but the problem persisted. Many prisoners were made to return in June. As of June 16, however, there were 24 confirmed COVID-19 cases among the country’s prison population. As of May 29, prisoners had made 122,000 masks that were provided to every inmate, staff member, and visitor. Prisoners were allowed one visitor per week, and mail correspondence was set up between inmates and volunteers.

On October 8, the Nivelles Prison, in Brabant Province, entered lockdown after eight inmates tested positive for coronavirus. On October 10, the Huy Prison in Liege Province also entered lockdown after six prisoners tested positive for coronavirus. Increases in COVID-19 cases late in the year and strikes by prison staff increased concerns about prison overcrowding. On October 12, the local section of the International Prison Observatory requested the justice ministry to take immediate action to reduce the prison population to manageable levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. The federal mediator acts as an ombudsman, allowing any citizen to address problems with prison administration. The federal mediator is an independent entity appointed by the Chamber of Representatives to investigate and resolve problems between citizens and public institutions.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, among them several domestic committees.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Under the constitution, an individual may be arrested only while committing a crime or by a judge’s order, which must be carried out within 48 hours. The law provides detainees the right to prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention, and authorities generally respected this right. Authorities promptly informed detainees of charges against them and provided access to an attorney (at public expense if necessary). Alternatives to incarceration included conditional release, community service, probation, and electronic monitoring. There was a functioning bail system, and a suspect could be released by meeting other obligations or conditions as determined by the judge.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at their trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to have free assistance of an interpreter (for any defendant who cannot understand or speak the language used in court); to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence; to not be compelled to testify or confess guilt; and to appeal. The law extends these rights to all defendants.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations could seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts and appeal national-level court decisions to the ECHR.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups, including the country’s Jewish community, reported that the government had resolved virtually all Holocaust-era claims where ownership can be traced, including for foreign citizens. Remaining issues include restituting art and researching the role of the Belgian railways in transporting Jews and other victims to concentration camps, where many were killed.

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 legal code prohibit such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The 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 Speech: 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 is 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 is required. The government prosecuted and courts convicted persons under these laws.

Restrictions to the right of freedom of expression were reported, as were several cases of arbitrary detentions or excessive use of force. In April, Amnesty International reported there were at least 10 cases in which police ordered the removal from homes of banners calling for “Justice for Adil” in connection with the death of a young man of Moroccan descent when his motor scooter collided with a police vehicle. The banners aimed to call attention to police brutality and the unfair targeting of persons of Moroccan heritage (see also section 1.a.).

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

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 the 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 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.

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.

On March 17, the registration of new asylum seekers was temporarily halted due to the COVID-19 crisis, and De Standaard reported that the detainee number fell from 603 to 304, with detainees being released and left homeless during that month. As of April 3, online registration was again available.

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 for resettlement 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 the 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, education, and housing. As of August, authorities had granted subsidiary protection to 556 individuals.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR, at the end of 2019, there were 10,933 persons in the country who fell under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. The country did 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 requester must go through legal proceedings and obtain a court ruling on his or her stateless status. Since 2017 family courts have been tasked with handling these requests in hopes of decreasing wait times. The requester 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 nationality after meeting the requirements for legal residency in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Voting in all elections is compulsory; failure to vote is punishable by a nominal fine.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Parliamentary elections held in May 2019 were considered free and fair.

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. In December 2019 Sophie Wilmes became the country’s first female prime minister and oversaw the operation of the caretaker government. In October the country established a new federal government in which there were 10 female cabinet members, more than any previous government.

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. There were isolated reports of government corruption.

Corruption: The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Following several corruption scandals in 2017 and 2018, no significant cases were reported during the year.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require elected officials to disclose their income or revenue, but they must report if they serve on any board of directors, regardless of whether in a paid or unpaid capacity. Officials in nonelective offices are held to the same standard. Sanctions for noncompliance are infrequent but have been used in the past when triggered by public outcry.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: Federal and regional government ombudsmen monitored and published reports on the workings of agencies under their respective jurisdictions. The Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunities (UNIA) is responsible for promoting equal opportunity and combating discrimination and exclusion at any level (federal, regional, provincial, or local). The center enjoyed a high level of public trust, was independent in its functioning, and was well financed by the government.

During the year the government established the Federal Institute of Human Rights and nominated a board president and vice president in May. The institute will intervene where other agencies, such as UNIA or the federal center for migration, Myria, do not act. The mission of the institute is to provide opinions, recommendations, and report to the federal government, the Chamber of Representatives, the Senate, and other official bodies, to guarantee that the fundamental rights arising from the international treaties to which the country is a party are carried out. The new body is competent only at the federal level, but an interfederal approach is also envisaged via a cooperation agreement between federal and regional authorities.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men, including spousal rape, is illegal, and the government prosecuted such cases. A convicted rapist may receive 10 to 30 years in prison. The law prohibits domestic violence and provides for fines and incarceration. Legal sanctions for domestic violence are based on the sanctions for physical violence against a third person; the latter range from eight days to 20 years in prison. In cases of domestic violence, these sanctions are doubled.

The activist blog StopFeminicide reported that 24 women died in connection with rape or domestic violence in 2019. The government does not keep a record of the number of femicides. According to 2018 federal police statistics, there were approximately 39,000 official complaints of physical, psychological, and economic violence, including 139 complaints of sexual violence, during that year.

A number of government-supported shelters and telephone helplines were available across the country for victims of domestic abuse.

According to analysis carried out in the country for the EU Commission in 2019, out of a sample of 100 rape cases, 50 of the rapists were never identified. Of the 50 who were identified, only four were judged in court: three were given a deferred sentence, while one was convicted and served prison time. In 2016 the Federal Public Service for Justice estimated that 500 to 600 of the 3,000 to 4,000 rape cases of rape reported annually ended in conviction. A survey of 2,300 male and female participants, ages 15 to 85, conducted by Amnesty International in during the year indicated that respondents believed only 4.3 percent of the reported cases lead to conviction.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C for women and girls, and it was not a widespread practice in the country. Reported cases were primarily filed by recent immigrants or asylum seekers. Criminal sanctions apply to persons convicted of FGM/C. According to 2017 estimates, there were more than 17,000 female minor and adult victims of FGM/C in the country, while more than 8,000 were at risk. The vast majority of potential victims were asylum seekers from Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea, and Somalia.

Sexual Harassment: The law aims to prevent violence and harassment at work, obliging companies to set up internal procedures to handle employee complaints. Sexist remarks and attitudes targeting a specific individual are illegal; parties ruled guilty are subject to fines. The government generally enforced antiharassment laws.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health. They had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No legal, social, or cultural barriers, or government policies adversely affect access to contraception. Similarly, no legal, social, or cultural barriers, or government policies adversely affect access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. The government provides access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of 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 rights as men. The law requires equal pay for equal work and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, pregnancy, or motherhood as well as in access to goods, services, social welfare, and health care. The government generally enforced the law effectively, although many NGOs and feminist organizations reported women often had to accept part-time work due to conflicting family obligations.

Children

Birth Registration: The government registered all live births immediately. Citizenship is conferred on a child through a parent’s (or the parents’) citizenship, but, except for a few circumstances, not through birth on the country’s territory.

Child Abuse: The government continued to prosecute cases of child abuse and punish those convicted.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law provides that both (consenting) partners must be at least 18 years of age to marry. Federal police statistics for 2019 recorded 20 cases of forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation, abduction, and trafficking of children and includes severe penalties for child pornography and possession of pedophilic materials. Authorities enforced the law. The penalties for producing and disseminating child pornography range up to 15 years’ imprisonment and up to one year in prison for possessing such material. Local girls and foreign children were subjected to sex trafficking within the country.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape carries penalties of imprisonment for up 30 years.

In April, five men were arrested for their participation in a child pornography case involving 110 victims, 90 suspects, and some nine million images. The investigation began in 2015 and has since been referred to as the country’s largest child pornography case. The case involved three Belgians, a citizen of the Netherlands, and a UK citizen, all of whom were tried at the Dendermonde correctional court, were found guilty, and were subject to sentences ranging from five to 16 years in prison.

In September the courts convicted five persons for trafficking eight young Nigerian girls into the country. The girls, who were recruited under the promise of becoming hairdressers, were first transferred through Liberia before being forced into prostitution upon their arrival in the country.

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 country’s Jewish community was estimated at 40,000 persons.

In 2019 UNIA received 79 complaints of anti-Semitism, a decrease from 101 complaints in 2018. Of these, 46 reports took place on the internet, five were linked to education, five were cases of verbal aggression and threats, six were cases of vandalism, and one case involved violence. Also in 2019 the Belgian Federal Police recorded 14 cases of Holocaust denial. The civil society organization antisemitisme.be recorded 75 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019; the majority of cases were ideological (34) or took place on the internet (26), while 11 involved property damage.

A poll by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 39 percent of local Jews had encountered verbal abuse. Authorities generally investigated and where appropriate prosecuted such cases.

While ritual slaughter for religious practice remains legal at the federal level, the Flanders and Walloon regional governments instituted bans on religious slaughter in January and September 2019, respectively. In both regional governments, the law requires that animals be stunned prior to killing. Many Muslim and Jewish communities challenged the restrictions on grounds of discrimination and violation of religious freedom. On July 8, the EU Court of Justice heard the case. On September 10, the EU’s advocate general ruled against the ban, stating that it violates EU norms. The ruling was nonbinding but serves as a precursor to the final court decision expected later. Normally court decisions align with the advocate general’s ruling. The Brussels regional government does not have a policy on ritual slaughter and has further stated that it will await the court decision before holding discussions on the subject.

On February 23, the carnival parade in the city of Aalst, as in 2019, had floats with negative caricatures of Jews as well as individuals parading in Nazi SS uniforms. In 2019 UNESCO stripped the 600-year-old event of its World Heritage status because of its anti-Semitic floats.

The law prohibits public statements that incite national, racial, or religious hatred, including denial of the Holocaust. The government prosecuted and convicted individuals under this law (also see section 2.a.). The government provided enhanced security at Jewish schools and places of worship.

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, and mental disabilities. The government generally enforced these prohibitions.

While the government mandated that public buildings erected after 1970 must be accessible to persons with disabilities, many older buildings were still inaccessible. Although the law requires that prison inmates with disabilities receive adequate treatment in separate, appropriate facilities, many inmates were still incarcerated in inadequate facilities.

The National High Council for Persons with Disabilities raised concerns about access to intensive care services for persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNIA stated as well that due to social distancing measures, persons with disabilities and older persons did not have equal access to health care. Cases included older persons and persons with disabilities being given oxygen without medical supervision, and a person with an intellectual disability being told to leave the hospital because he was too loud.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Ethnic profiling continued to be a problem, and there were sometimes concerns regarding ethnic profiling by police. Amnesty International, among others, alleged that police enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns sometimes targeted ethnic minority and marginalized groups with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines, and fines.

According to media reports, police subjected Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a black member of the European Parliament, to violence in Brussels in June after she attempted to video-record nine police officers “harassing” two black youths. Herzberger-Fofana filed a complaint, while police filed a countersuit for defamation.

In 2018 Sanda Dia, a black Belgian student at the Catholic University Leuven, died while allegedly participating in the Reuzengom fraternity initiation custom known as a “baptism.” According to local media outlets, Dia died of hypothermia and multiple organ failure after being subjected to the club’s ritualistic hazing. In August new information regarding Dia’s treatment alleged that the club subjected him to racist remarks during his initiation. Reuzengom members were also accused of other displays of racism, including allegedly wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, a speech at the fraternity that referred to “our good German friend, Hitler,” and a video of club members singing, “Congo is ours.” In September requests for additional investigation into the incident postponed the case’s referral to criminal court until a later date.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, application of nationality laws, and access to government services, such as health care. The government enforced the law, but the underreporting of crimes against the LGBTI community remained a problem.

UNIA reported that in 2019 it received 133 complaints of acts of discrimination against members of the LGBTI community, of which 35 were related to workplace discrimination or harassment. This was a record number of complaints related to LGBTI discrimination and the first time workplace discrimination was the most cited abuse. A study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 37 percent of individuals in the country identifying as LGBTI reported avoiding certain areas to avoid being harassed, assaulted, or insulted.

UNIA received several complaints of online hate speech and incitement to violence towards the LGBTI community. One case involved a student who had commented on a teacher’s Instagram page, that homosexuality was “cancerous,” telling him to “die of AIDS.” Within the political sphere, UNIA received reports of discrimination concerning comments made by several Vlaams Belang (an extreme right political party) politicians, stating that the LGBTI community “will always be abnormal,” referring to pictures of Pride marches as “repugnant,” and saying that allowing homosexuals to marry and adopt children “is going too far.”

LGBTI persons from immigrant communities reported social discrimination within those communities.

The law provides protections for transgender persons, including legal gender recognition without first undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were reports of physical and verbal attacks against Muslims. In 2019, the most recent year of available data, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium reported they had received 108 reports of discrimination. Of these, 96 investigations were opened, of which 80 were confirmed as cases of Islamophobia. In nine of 10 confirmed cases, the victims of discrimination were women. During the same year, UNIA registered 290 reports of discrimination against persons of Muslim faith.

UNIA received complaints of discrimination based on physical characteristics, political orientation, social origin, or status. Restrictions on Islamic clothing in public- and private-sector employment, schools, and public spaces affected Muslim women in particular.

In February the Brussels Court of First Instance ruled that prohibiting headscarves in sports for safety reasons was permitted and that a sports headscarf did not meet the safety requirements. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that educational institutions could prohibit religious symbols (namely headscarves), leading to protests against the ruling for disproportionately targeting girls of Muslim faith. In November a teacher in a Molenbeek school was suspended for showing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in his class. UNIA also reported numerous instances of religious discrimination via social media. In October, two individuals were sentenced to six months of prison and a fine for running a Facebook page, Identitaires Ardennes, which featured anti-Islamic hate speech. The Audiovisual Superior Council noted an increase and normalization of online hate speech.

In November, UNIA published a report on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on discrimination. The study found that reports of discrimination rose by 32 percent between February 1 and August 19 in comparison with 2019. A total of 1,850 complaints which UNIA linked to the health and safety measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic were registered. Discrimination reports came mainly from persons with East Asian and foreign origins, persons with disabilities, young persons, and elderly persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

For companies with more than 50 employees, the law provides workers the right to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements, and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Workers exercised these rights. Citizen and noncitizen workers enjoyed the same rights. Work council elections are mandatory in enterprises with more than 100 employees, and safety and health committee elections are mandatory in companies with more than 50 employees. Employers sometimes sought judicial recourse against associations attempting to prevent workers who did not want to strike from entering the employer’s premises.

The government effectively enforced the law, but freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were not consistently respected by employers. Penalties were commensurate with those for other violations. Worker organizations were generally free to function outside of government control. Unions complained that judicial intervention in collective disputes undermined collective bargaining rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but such practices occurred. The government generally enforced the law; resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were adequate. Legal penalties were commensurate with similar crimes.

In a report published in December, the Interfederal Center for Migration (Myria) reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to protect human traffickers and render cases of forced labor less visible. Myria reported a decreased capacity for detection because the social security labor inspection services were unable to safely complete field checks. The report also noted that it was often impossible to solicit support from police forces, which were overwhelmed with enforcing health and safety measures in light of the pandemic. There was a significant drop in reports of cases of forced labor–from 3.15 cases per day in 2019 to 0.55 during the year.

Instances of forced and compulsory labor included men who were forced to work in restaurants, bars, sweatshops, horticulture, fruit farms, construction, cleaning businesses, and retail shops. Men and women were subjected to forced domestic service, including in the diplomatic community. Forced begging continued, particularly in the Romani community.

In March the criminal court of Namur convicted the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Walcourt for the forced labor of five men. The men, who did not have a valid work permit or visa, were carrying out renovations in the restaurant. They were neither paid, declared under social security, nor under contract. The owner was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age of employment is 15. Persons between the ages of 15 and 18 may participate in part-time work/study programs and work full time up to a limited number of hours during the school year. The Ministry of Employment regulated industries that employ juvenile workers to ensure that labor laws were followed; it occasionally granted waivers for children temporarily employed by modeling agencies and in the entertainment business. Waivers were granted on a short-term basis and for a clearly defined performance or purpose that had to be listed in the law as an acceptable activity. The law clearly defines, according to the age of the child, the maximum amount of time that may be worked daily and the frequency of performances. A child’s earnings must be paid to a bank account under the name of the child, and the money is inaccessible until the child reaches 18 years of age.

There are laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace. The government generally enforced these laws with adequate resources and inspections; such practices reportedly occurred mainly in restaurants. Persons found in violation of child labor laws could face penalties that were commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

In October, Belgian and French police jointly dismantled a human trafficking network in which children were subjected to forced begging. According to media reports, the network had made an estimated five million euros ($6 million) in profits and controlled “begging zones” in Belgium and Paris. Police questioned 13 suspects believed to be involved in the network; the investigation remained underway in December.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status, but permit companies to prohibit outward displays of religious affiliation, including headscarves (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/). The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations.

Some employers discriminated in employment and occupation against women, persons with disabilities, and members of certain minority groups as well as against internal and foreign migrant workers. The government took legal action based on antidiscrimination laws. UNIA facilitated arbitration or other settlements in some cases of discrimination. Settlements could involve monetary payments, community service, or other penalties.

The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced regulations effectively. Trade unions or media sometimes escalated cases, and UNIA often took a position or acted as a go-between to find solutions or to support alleged victims in the courts.

The Federal Institute for the Equality of Men and Women is responsible for promoting gender equality and may initiate lawsuits if it discovers violations of equality laws. Most complaints received during the year were work related and concerned the termination of employment due to pregnancy. Economic discrimination against women continued. According to the EU statistical office Eurostat, women’s hourly wage rates were 6 percent less than those of their male colleagues in 2017. The law requires that one-third of the board members of publicly traded companies be women.

The law requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide a clear overview of their compensation plans, a detailed breakdown by gender of their wages and fringe benefits, a gender-neutral classification of functions, and the possibility of appointing a mediator to address and follow up on gender-related problems.

The employment rate for persons with disabilities in the public sector was much lower than the quotas and targets set by public authorities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is a monthly national minimum wage, and it is higher than the official estimate for poverty income level.

The standard workweek is 38 hours, and workers are entitled to four weeks of annual leave. Departure from these norms can occur under a collective bargaining agreement, but work may not exceed 11 hours per day or 50 hours per week. An 11-hour rest period is required between work periods. Overtime is paid at a time-and-a-half premium Monday through Saturday and double time on Sundays. The law forbids or limits excessive overtime. Without specific authorization, an employee may not work more than 65 hours of overtime during any one quarter.

The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced regulations effectively. Occupational safety and health standards were appropriate for the main industries. Inspectors from both the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Social Security enforced labor regulations. These ministries jointly worked to ensure that standards were effectively enforced in all sectors, including the informal sector, and that wages and working conditions were consistent with collective bargaining agreements. Wage, overtime, and occupational safety violations were most common in the restaurant, construction, and logistics industries. Some employers still operated below legal standards.

A specialized governmental department created to oversee the informal economy conducted investigations, mainly in the construction, restaurant and hotel, and cleaning sectors. Authorities may fine employers for poor working conditions but may also treat such cases as trafficking in persons.

Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service protected employees in this situation.

Belize

Executive Summary

Belize is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In the most recent national election, held on November 11, the People’s United Party won 26 of 31 seats in the National Assembly. Party leader John Briceno was sworn in as prime minister on November 12.

The Ministry of National Security is responsible for oversight of police, prisons, the coast guard, and the military. The Belize Police Department is primarily responsible for internal security. The small military force primarily focuses on external security but also provides limited domestic security support to civilian authorities and has limited powers of arrest that are executed by the Belize Defence Force for land and shoreline areas and by the Coast Guard for coastal and maritime areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed few abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of the use of excessive force and inhuman treatment by security officers, allegations of widespread corruption and impunity by government officials, trafficking in persons, and child labor.

In some cases the government took steps to prosecute public officials who committed abuses, both administratively and through the courts, but there were few successful prosecutions.

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 was a report that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

A team from the branch of the security force responsible for a killing or other abuse investigates the allegation and then presents the findings, recommendations, and penalties to authorities.

In April, Ulysease Roca died after he was beaten by a police officer while in police custody. Police detained Roca for breaking the COVID-19 curfew regulation. In a video recorded and published by Roca, he alleged that while he was in custody, police harassed and bullied him because of his sexuality and hit him in the face. Roca’s family believed the injury to his face developed an infection, and after being released, when he tried to obtain medical help, he was refused by the public health facility and subsequently died. The commissioner of police called for an investigation on the allegations of brutality, abuse of authority, and expression of homophobia by police. According to United Belize Advocacy Movement (UniBAM), the cause of Roca’s death was inconclusive, but the commissioner of police stated the cause of death was a result of HIV and AIDS complications. The Belize Police Department (BPD) internally disciplined the police officer who recorded and published video of the abuse by charging him for “an act of prejudice to good order and discipline.”

As of October the inquiry into the death of Allyson Major Junior had not progressed, and his family filed a civil suit against the attorney general and commissioner of police for his wrongful death. In 2019 a police officer shot and killed Major after suspecting he had purchased illegal drugs (marijuana). Corporal Kent Martinez was charged with manslaughter for the incident, and BPD officials announced they would investigate.

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 prohibits torture or other inhuman punishment, but there were reports that police used excessive force as well as allegations of abuse by security force personnel. During the first half of the year, 55 percent of the complaints received by the Office of the Ombudsman were filed against the BDP for abuse of power, harassment, brutality, arbitrary search and entry, and unlawful imprisonment. The human rights ombudsman also received complaints against the Belize Central Prison for allegations of inhuman treatment, refusal to provide information to family, denial of the right to communicate, and denial of proper medical care of inmates. The Office of the Ombudsman noted that while the central prison authorities were more forthcoming to responses of allegations than in the past, the responses were mostly vague and failed to address the concerns raised.

In January a man claimed that police officers scalded him with hot water and pulled out his hair when he was picked up to be questioned about a stolen cell phone. There was no response on the part of the BPD. In April, three police officers were criminally charged for “willful oppression” after forcing a man and a woman with mental disabilities into a sexual act, recording the incident, and releasing it to the public. The three officers additionally faced internal discipline for “an act of prejudice to good order and discipline.” As of November the cases remained before the court and BPD’s Disciplinary Tribunal.

Impunity did not appear to be a significant problem in the security forces. Aggrieved persons may make a formal report to the BPD Professional Standard Branch, Belize Defence Force Adjutant Office, Belize Coast Guard Adjutant Office, or the Office of the Ombudsman. A team from the respective security forces investigates the allegations and then presents the findings, recommendations, and penalties to the commissioner of police, brigadier general, or commandant of the coast guard for action to be taken. Investigations may last from 30 days to six months.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There continued to be reports of harsh conditions in the Belize Central Prison and police detention center due to inadequate sanitation procedures.

Physical Conditions: The Kolbe Foundation, a local Christian nonprofit organization, administered the country’s only prison, which held men, women, and juveniles. The government retained oversight and monitoring responsibility and provided funding. The human rights ombudsman stated resources were insufficient to meet what he called “minimal standards.” The prison continued to hold all prisoners convicted of crimes, despite overcrowded conditions.

In 2019 the Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB) inspected two detention cells in Belize City. The BPD’s intervention improved standards; however, the HRCB noted that conditions of detention centers in other parts of the country remained below standards. The HRCB reported the BPD had in some cases refused to allow access for HRCB inspectors to carry out inspections. There were no inspections after November 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even when the HRCB sought permission.

In January the Supreme Court found that negligence on the part of prison officials led to a male inmate being raped by another male inmate on two occasions in 2017. The court ordered the prison and the government to pay the victim’s court costs plus recovery of damages caused to him as a result of the incident.

Prisoners in pretrial detention and held for immigration offenses continued to be held with convicted prisoners. Officials used isolation in a small, poorly ventilated punishment cell to discipline inmates. The HRCB raised concerns that a number of immigration offenders who had completed their prison sentence remained imprisoned. Prison authorities responded that due to the closure of the borders as part of the COVID-19 mitigation measures, these individuals could not be repatriated.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The prison administrator generally permitted visits from independent human rights observers. The HRCB donated a computer to the Belize Central Prison to facilitate communication with its clients in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

While 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, there were several allegations made through media and to the Police Standards Branch that the government failed to observe these requirements.

On March 18, the government instituted a 30-day state of emergency (SoE) in Belize City in response to an increase in criminal gang activity. The measure allowed the BPD and Belize Defence Force to target criminal gang elements through house raids, arrests, and imprisonment. A second SoE was instituted on July 6 and later extended to October 6. By the time the SoE expired in October, 110 persons were detained in prison awaiting trial. During the SoE there were reports that law enforcement agents used excessive force on citizens, damaged property, and unjustly targeted law-abiding citizens. Attorney Michelle Trapp requested the court initiate a judicial review questioning the failure of the government in setting up a tribunal to review the cases as required by law.

During the November 11 national elections, the government imposed a 9 p.m. curfew to limit potential exposure to COVID through the typical celebration marches by party enthusiasts. There were no reports of police using excessive force to maintain order, and persons generally followed the curfew orders throughout the country.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police must obtain search or arrest warrants issued by a magistrate, except in cases of hot pursuit, when there is probable cause, or when the presence of a firearm is suspected. Police must inform detainees of their rights at the time of arrest and of the cause of their detention within 24 hours of arrest. Police must also bring a detainee before a magistrate to be charged officially within 48 hours. The BPD faced allegations that its members arbitrarily detained persons for more than 24 hours without charge, did not take detainees directly to a police station, and used detention as a means of intimidation.

The law requires police to follow the Judges’ Rules, a code of conduct governing police interaction with arrested persons. Although judges sometimes dismissed cases that involved violations of these rules, they more commonly deemed confessions obtained through violation of the rules to be invalid. Police usually granted detainees timely access to family members and lawyers, although there were reports of persons held in police detention without the right to contact family or seek legal advice.

By law a police officer in charge of a station or a magistrate’s court may grant bail to persons charged with minor offenses. The Supreme Court may grant bail to those charged with more serious crimes, including murder, gang activity, possession of an unlicensed firearm, and specific drug-trafficking or sexual offenses. The Supreme Court reviews the bail application within 10 working days.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution bars arbitrary arrest, and the law specifies protections enabling the constitutional ban. According to the Professional Standards Branch, no formal report was made of officers making unlawful arrests, detentions, or searches. Three persons, however, filed complaints of arbitrary arrest and one person of unlawful detention through the Office of the Ombudsman. The cases were under investigation.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy trial backlogs remained at the end of the year, particularly for serious crimes such as murder. Problems included police delays in completing investigations, lack of evidence collection, court delays in preparing depositions, and adjournments in the courts. The advent of COVID-19 led to a closure of the court system for all cases for more than two months, increasing the case backlog. Judges were typically slow to issue rulings, in some cases taking a year or longer. The time lag between arrest, trial, and conviction generally ranged from six months to four years. Pretrial detention for persons accused of murder averaged three to four years. As of September, 407 persons, representing 30 percent of the prison population, were being held in pretrial detention, a reduction from the previous year.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Due to substantial delays and a backlog of cases in the justice system, the courts did not bring some minors to trial until they reached age 18. In such cases the defendants were tried as minors.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although delays in holding trials occurred.

The law stipulates that nonjury trials are mandatory in cases involving charges of murder, attempted murder, abetment of murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. Government officials stated the law protects jurors from retribution. A single Supreme Court judge hears these cases. A magistrate generally issues decisions and judgments for lesser crimes after deliberating on the arguments presented by the prosecution and defense.

Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence, and standard procedure is for the defendant to be informed promptly of the charges against them and for them to be allowed to be present at the trial. If the defendants are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if there are language barriers, they are informed of the reason of arrest at the earliest possible opportunity. Defendants have the right to defense by counsel and appeal, but the prosecution may apply for the trial to proceed if a defendant skips bail or does not appear in court.

There is no requirement for defendants to have legal representation except in cases involving murder. The Supreme Court’s registrar is responsible for appointing an attorney to act on behalf of indigent defendants charged with murder. In lesser cases the court does not provide defendants an attorney, and defendants sometimes represent themselves. The Legal Advice and Services Center, staffed by three attorneys, can provide legal services and representation for a range of civil and criminal cases, including domestic violence and other criminal cases up to and including attempted murder. These legal aid services were overstretched and could not reach rural areas or districts. Defendants are entitled to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense or request an adjournment, a common delay tactic. The court provides Spanish interpreters for defendants upon request. Defendants may not be compelled to testify against themselves or confess guilt.

The law allows defendants to confront and question witnesses against them and present witnesses on their behalf. Witnesses may submit written statements into evidence in place of court appearances. Defendants have the right to produce evidence in their defense and examine evidence held by the opposing party or the court.

The rate of acquittals and cases withdrawn by the prosecution due to insufficient evidence continued to be high, particularly for sexual offenses, murder, and gang-related cases. These actions were often due to the failure of witnesses to testify because of fear for life and personal safety, as well as a lack of basic police investigative or forensic capability in the country.

Weaknesses of the country’s justice system arise largely from lack of resources, lack of trained personnel including judges, prosecutors, and legal staff, an overburdened court docket that prioritizes murder cases, and an overburdened prison system with no capacity to accept new prisoners.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts, including the Supreme Court. Litigants may appeal cases to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the region’s highest appellate court. Individuals may also present petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, 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.

The press was largely independent of government influence, although most newspapers had strong editorial bents supporting positions of either the United Democratic Party or the People’s United Party. The press was often critical of government officials, with no sign of repercussions.

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation, and Poverty Alleviation and the Ministry of Immigration share responsibility in handling the refugee process and in providing for their protection and needs.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government does not recognize a legal status of “asylum” and treats all applicants as potential refugees. The courts and executive offices use procedures for refugees to cover both refugees and asylum seekers.

The Ministry of Immigration’s Department of Refugees handles all refugee applications, investigations, and interviews. The immigration law stipulates that persons desiring legal status must apply for refugee protections within 14 days of entering the country. The department refused many applications for violating this 14-day rule. The HRCB challenged this statute in court, with the court finding that the 14-day time limit is “directory in nature” and does not preclude ruling on the merits of the application. The Department of Immigration–under the Ministry of Immigration–received applications, reviewed them for thoroughness, and recommended approval on more than 1,200 applications. The previous minister of immigration refused to grant approval on those applications. It was unclear if the minister of the new administration would act on the backlog of applications recommended for approval.

UNHCR, through its implementing partner the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, had a resource center near the western border that provided information to new arrivals on the refugee process. It also provided limited basic services: shelter, clothing, food, counseling, and assistance with processing legal documents. As of September Help for Progress had assisted 619 asylum seekers and refugees.

Applications for refugee status are reviewed by the Refugee Eligibility Committee. Once the committee recommends approval to the Ministry of Immigration, the file is sent for signature and formal approval. Despite the committee’s having recommended approval for 570 persons, the government has not granted refugee status to any of the pending 4,163 applicants since 2018.

Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their refugee applications were unable to work legally in the country.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers were able to use the education system and the socialized medical system, but the government offered no assistance with housing or food except in extreme cases that involved children and pregnant women.

Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to those who applied for refugee status within the 14-day deadline. During government shutdowns due to COVID-19, no refugees reported losing protections during periods when permits were unavailable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

In 2019 the Belize Peace Movement initiated a legal challenge against the Elections and Boundaries Commission for failing to carry out an electoral redistricting as stipulated by law. The law states that from time to time, the commission shall divide the country into electoral divisions “in such a way that each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons eligible to vote.” The Belize Peace Movement contended there was a “huge disparity” in the 31 electoral districts, since for the previous elections some divisions had as many as three times the number of voters as others. The most recent redistricting was done in 2007-08. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, ruling it lacked jurisdiction when the governor general dissolved parliament and called the date for new elections. In October representatives of the peace movement reiterated the need for electoral redistricting.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On November 11, an estimated 82 percent of registered voters participated in parliamentary elections. The People’s United Party won 26 of 31 seats in the National Assembly. Party leader John Briceno was sworn in as prime minister on November 12. Diplomatic observers reported no overt acts of election fraud.

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. In the November 11 parliamentary elections, 12 women candidates participated with three winning their seats. Observers suggested cultural and societal constraints limited the number of women participating in government. Women remained a clear minority in government. Three women sat in the 31-member House of Representatives.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: Allegations of corruption in government among public officials, including ministers, deputy ministers, and chief executive officers, were numerous, although no substantial proof was presented in most cases. In January the country’s consul general in New York, Herman Longsworth, was fired after an audit of the National Sports Council revealed a number of financial infractions, one of which directly involved Longsworth. The auditor general’s report stated Longsworth may have illegally used official influence in support of a scheme from which he benefited. The investigation continued as of October.

In February minister of national security and newly elected leader of the United Democratic Party John Saldivar was forced to resign when court documents revealed that he received large sums of money from a U.S. citizen accused of defrauding the U.S. government of tax in return for political favors in Belize. Saldivar remained area representative for Belmopan and an active legislator. The commissioner of police stated the BPD would initiate an investigation into the matter and press charges, but as of October no charges had been filed.

The Senate Select Committee presented its report and recommendations on an investigation, initiated in 2017, of the Immigration and Nationality Department conducted by the Office of the Auditor General. The report confirmed the department had a pattern of improper and illegal issuances of Belizean visas, passports, and citizenship. The committee conducted public hearings in 2017 that revealed several instances where high-ranking government officials, including ministers of government, approved the issuance of visas, citizenship, and passports to unqualified individuals. As of October no charges had been filed against anyone as a result of the report.

Andre Vega, son of former deputy prime minister Gaspar Vega, refused to pay 400,000 Belize dollars ($200,000) that the court found he unduly received from the government as compensation from a dubious land transaction in 2016. As of October the case was before the Court of Appeals for consideration.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual financial disclosure statements, which the Integrity Commission reviews. At the same time, the constitution allows authorities to prohibit citizens from questioning the validity of such statements. Anyone who does so outside the rigidly prescribed procedure is subject to a moderate fine, three years’ imprisonment, or both. Many public officials did not submit annual financial disclosure statements and suffered no repercussions. As of July only 28 percent of government members required to declare their assets to the Integrity Commission had done so for 2019-20. In accordance with the law, a report was also sent to the director of public prosecution for further action, but as of October no actions had been taken.

Under the previous administration, the Integrity Commission was compromised by scandal, as the commission’s chairperson, Nestor Vasquez, was dismissed following credible accusations of corruption, impunity, transfer of government assets to private ownership, and nepotism.

In July the opposition and majority of the independent senators objected to the reinstating of Deshawn Arzu-Torres as chair of the Integrity Commission for another two years. Senators raised the concern that Arzu-Torres had unsatisfactorily fulfilled her responsibilities and failed to produce reports to the National Assembly. Despite the objections, the National Assembly approved her reappointment.

In September Nestor Vasquez, CEO of state-owned Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL), was embroiled in a corruption and embezzlement scandal moving BTL properties to his personal holdings and charging more than 800,000 Belize dollars ($400,000) to his corporate credit card for personal uses. Vasquez also served as chairman of the Social Security Board, was a member of the anticorruption Integrity Commission, and a member of the Central Bank of Belize. The BTL board removed Vasquez, and he resigned from his government posts, although he remained under investigation by the BTL board and the Office of the Prime Minister.

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. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary. While the Office of the Ombudsman has wide investigative powers, it lacks effective enforcement authority; noncompliance by the offices being investigated severely limited its effectiveness.

The HRCB, an independent, volunteer-based NGO, continued to operate, although due to inadequate staffing and other factors, its work was limited. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF. The commission collaborated with UNHCR to offer legal advice and aid to refugees and persons with irregular immigration status.

The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Council continued to address issues of trafficking. The council’s chairman, Ministry of Human Development CEO Judith Alpuche, also served as the government’s focal point for counter-COVID efforts, limiting the council’s effectiveness in addressing issues of trafficking.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The criminal code criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape. The government enforced the code. The code states that a person convicted of rape shall be sentenced to imprisonment for eight years to life, although on occasion sentences were much lighter. Problems facing the wider justice system generally resulted in poor conviction rates for rape. According to UniBAM, the majority of sexual abuse crimes continued to be against girls between the ages of 10 and 19. Public perception was that complaints may be filed without repercussion but that investigations were hampered by insufficient police officers and funding for investigations.

Rape continued to be a problem in the BDF. In January the BDF received between 50 and 70 allegations from female members of sexual assault and abuse of authority committed by senior male superiors. A female recruit reported that a senior officer on the training team sexually assaulted her and that another senior officer ignored her report of the assault. Another female recruit reported she was raped by a senior officer during her recruit training, which led to her becoming pregnant. The government responded by setting up an investigation and concluded that no criminal offenses were discovered during the investigation, except for one incident that qualified as inappropriate behavior by one of the instructors, who was removed immediately. A government statement further noted that persons responsible for misconduct would be dealt with internally as stipulated in the Defense Act. There were no credible indications of any form of discipline imposed.

Domestic violence is prohibited under the Domestic Violence Act, and it was generally enforced. Victims noted that the remedial procedure was lengthy but that nevertheless perpetrators were convicted. Domestic violence was often prosecuted with charges such as harm, wounding, grievous harm, rape, and marital rape, but allegations of domestic violence were treated as civil matters. Police, prosecutors, and judges recognized both physical violence and mental injury as evidence of domestic violence. Penalties include fines or imprisonment for violations. The law empowers the Family Court to issue protection orders against accused offenders.

The government directed awareness campaigns against gender-based and domestic violence, a domestic violence hotline, and shelters for victims. Major police stations had designated domestic abuse officers. Due to understaffed police stations, however, these measures were not always effective.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, including provisions against unfair dismissal of a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the government enforced the law. The Women’s Department recognized sexual harassment as a subset of sexual violence, but no cases had ever been brought under the sexual harassment provisions.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. According to a representative of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, after the birth of every child, couples and individuals were provided with counseling including methods of family planning.

Information on reproductive health was generally available in multiple formats and media: print, electronic, and on billboards and displays.

Some NGOs stated that in socially conservative communities, women seeking tubal ligation sought the permission of the husband for cultural and religious reasons.

There were no legal barriers to access of skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, and the policy of the Ministry of Health and Wellness was to provide as much access as possible.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual violence, but the government lacked a stock of rape-kits including emergency contraception.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. The law also mandates equal pay for equal work, but the labor commissioner verified that men earned on average 90 Belize dollars ($45) more per month than women did because they held higher managerial positions. There are restrictions on women working in certain industries, including mining, construction, factories, energy, water, and transportation. The law provides generally for the continuity of employment and protection against unfair dismissal, including for sexual harassment in the workplace, pregnancy, or HIV status, but it was not enforced.

Despite legal provisions for gender equality and government programs aimed at empowering women, NGOs and other observers reported women faced social and economic discrimination. Although participating in all spheres of national life and outnumbering men in university classrooms and having higher high school graduation rates, women held relatively few top managerial or government positions.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory, regardless of the parents’ nationality. Citizenship may also be acquired by descent if at least one parent is a citizen of the country. The standard requirement is for births to be registered no later than one week after birth; registration after one month is considered late and includes a minimal fine. Failure to register does not result in any denial of public service, but it slows the process for receiving a social security card to access services such as health care. Children without birth certificates had trouble registering for school and often had to move from school to school. Government experts from the Ministry of Human Development indicated that 4 percent of children up to age five were not registered, making them legally stateless. The government’s Vital Statistics Unit, with support from the embassy of Mexico, UNHCR, and UNICEF, expanded registration by introducing a mobile registration program that traveled across the country. Registration offices existed at all major hospitals, but the offices were open only during the workweek from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Child Abuse: The law allows authorities to remove a child from an abusive home environment and requires parents to maintain and support children until the age of 18. Abuse of children occurred. There were publicized cases of underage girls being victims of sexual abuse and mistreatment, in most cases in their own home or in a relative’s home.

The Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Development is the government office with the lead responsibility for children’s problems. The division coordinated programs for children who were victims of domestic violence, advocated remedies in specific cases before the Family Court, conducted public education campaigns, investigated cases of human trafficking in children, and worked with local and international NGOs and UNICEF to promote children’s welfare.

In January a former police officer was found guilty of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age to marry is 18, but persons ages 16 to 18 may marry with the consent of parents, legal guardians, or judicial authority. According to UNICEF, 29 percent of women ages 20 to 49 were married or cohabitating before reaching age 18. Early marriage was more prevalent in certain areas–Toledo, Corozal, and Orange Walk–and among the Maya and Mestizo ethnic groups.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law establishes penalties for child trafficking, child pornography, child sexual exploitation, and indecent exhibition of a child. It defines a “child” as anyone younger than age 18. The law stipulates that the offense of child trafficking does not apply to persons exploiting 16- and 17-year-old children through exchanging sexual activity for remuneration, gifts, goods, food, or other benefits.

The legal age for consensual sex is 16, but prostitution is not legal under age 18. Sexual intercourse with a minor younger than age 14 is punishable from 12 years’ to life imprisonment. Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor age 14-16 is punishable with five to 10 years’ imprisonment.

There were anecdotal reports that boys and girls were exploited through child trafficking, including through the “sugar daddy” arrangement whereby older men provide money to minors, their families, or both for sexual relations. Similarly, there were reports of increasing exploitation of minors, often to meet the demand of foreign sex tourists in tourist-populated areas or where there were transient and seasonal workers. The law criminalizes the procurement or attempted procurement of “a person” younger than age 18 to engage in prostitution; an offender is liable to eight years’ imprisonment. The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child sex trafficking.

The law establishes a penalty of two years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of publishing or offering for sale any obscene book, writing, or representation.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish population was small, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not expressly prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination. The law does not provide for accessibility accommodations for persons with disabilities, and most public and private buildings and transportation were not accessible to them. Certain businesses and government departments had designated clerks to attend to the elderly and persons with disabilities. There were no policies to encourage hiring of persons with disabilities in the public or private sectors.

Mental health provisions and protections generally were poor. Informal government-organized committees for persons with disabilities were tasked with public education and advocating for protections against discrimination. The country does not have a reliable system for identifying persons with disabilities who need services. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sports maintained an educational unit offering limited and segregated education programs within the mainstream school system. Two schools and four education centers specialized in working with children with disabilities. Children with disabilities attended mainstream schools through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children and were placed with nondisabled peers.

The special envoy for women and children continued advocacy campaigns on behalf of persons with disabilities, especially children, and supported efforts to promote schools that took steps to create inclusive environments for them. A survey conducted by Rights Insight found that approximately 50 percent of respondents believed persons with disabilities were treated unfairly.

Indigenous People

No separate legal system or laws cover indigenous peoples, since the government maintains that it treats all citizens the same. Employers, public and private, generally treated indigenous peoples equally with other ethnic groups for employment and other purposes.

The Maya Leaders’ Alliance monitored development in the Toledo District with the goal of protecting Mayan land and culture. During the year the Maya in the southern part of the country and the government continued working on a way to implement the 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice consent order on Maya customary land tenure. In January the government approved the appointment of a mediator to hear matters and complaints from the Maya community regarding the court order.

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

The law does not prohibit discrimination specifically against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services such as health care, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination.

The Immigration Act prohibits “homosexual” persons from entering the country, but immigration authorities did not enforce the law.

In December 2019 the Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 ruling of the Supreme Court that overturned a section of the criminal code decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations between adults. The government made the appeal after pressure from the churches that disagreed with the court’s interpretation of sex. As of October the government had declined to appeal the case to the Caribbean Court of Justice–the highest appellate court in the region–nor had the Council of Churches publicly called for such an appeal.

The extent of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was difficult to ascertain due to a lack of official reporting. UniBAM stated that discrimination and assault based on these factors continued to be substantially underreported, and its director noted that in communities with strong religious affiliation, police officers often refused to take reports from victims of discrimination. According to UniBAM, LGBTI persons continued to be denied medical services and education and encountered family-based violence.

According to a study conducted by Our Circle, a local LGBTI rights advocacy group, 13 percent of respondents felt unsafe in their homes because of their sexuality, 70 percent of whom lived in the Stann Creek District. A survey conducted by Rights Insight found that 34 percent of respondents believed LGBTI persons were treated unfairly, compared to other groups.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There was some societal discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS, and the government worked to combat it through public education efforts of the National AIDS Commission under the Ministry of Human Development.

The law provides for the protection of workers against unfair dismissal, including for HIV status.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutes, generally provides for the right to establish and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The Ministry of Labour, Local Government, and Rural Development (Ministry of Labour) recognizes unions and employers associations after they are registered, and the law establishes procedures for the registration and status of trade unions and employer organizations and for collective bargaining. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, dissolution, or suspension of unions by administrative authority and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The unions, under their umbrella organizations the National Trade Union Congress and the Civil Society Steering Group, are represented in the Senate by a “Labour Senator.” This senator provides labor organizations direct input into the political and legislative process.

The law allows authorities to refer disputes involving public- and private-sector employees who provide “essential services” to compulsory arbitration, prohibit strikes, and terminate actions. The postal service, monetary and financial services, civil aviation, petroleum sector, port authority personnel (stevedores and pilots), and security services are deemed essential services by local laws, beyond the International Labor Organization definition of essential services. There were no formal reports of antiunion discrimination, but there were reports workers were intimidated into either not joining a union or dropping union membership if they had joined.

In March the Christian Workers Union (CWU) threatened industrial action by stevedores operating the country’s largest seaport after the port authority refused to negotiate a redundancy package for some stevedores. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the port dismissed 36 employees, including CWU members. The dismissal instigated a peaceful protest by union members, but this was met with force by the Gang Suppression Unit, which used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, injuring several men. The BPD initiated an investigation and removed the commanding officer of the operation after it was found that the commissioner of police had issued no order to use force. In August the Port of Belize Limited and the CWU signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement after 16 years of negotiations.

In September the University of Belize signed an agreement with the University of Belize Faculty and Staff Union. Under financial pressure from COVID-19-imposed restrictions on attendance and operations, the university administration sought to drastically reduce staffing and payment to cover shortfalls. The faculty and staff union formed as a result and was able to establish itself as negotiator on behalf of the workers.

Workers may file complaints with the Ministry of Labour or seek redress from the courts, although it remained difficult to prove that terminations were in retaliation to union activity. The ministry’s Labour Department generally handled labor cases without lengthy delays and dealt with appeals through arbitration outside the court system. The court did not apply the law requiring reinstatement of workers fired for union activity and provided monetary compensation instead.

The government generally enforced the law in the formal sector but did not effectively enforce it in the large informal sector due to lack of registration from employers. The Labour Department was hampered by factors such as a shortage of vehicles and fuel in its efforts to monitor compliance, particularly in rural areas. There were complaints of administrative or judicial delays relating to labor complaints and disputes. Penalties were not commensurate with other violations. There were several anecdotal reports of dismissals of employees in the private sector as a result of the financial constraints instigated by the COVID-19 crisis. The Labour Department did not provide data of registered complaints.

Antiunion discrimination and other forms of employer interference in union functions sometimes occurred, and on several occasions unions threatened or carried out strikes. NGOs working in migrant communities in the informal sector asserted that in certain industries, particularly the banana, citrus, and construction sectors, employers often did not respect due process, did not pay minimum wages, and classified workers as contract and nonpermanent employees to avoid providing certain benefits. An NGO noted that both national and migrant workers continued to be denied rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or compulsory labor are covered under the antitrafficking law and are not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources and inspections to enforce compliance were insufficient. Forced labor of both Belizean and foreign women occurred in bars, nightclubs, and domestic service. Migrant men, women, and children were at risk for forced labor in agriculture, fishing, and the service sector, including restaurants and shops, particularly among the South Asian and Chinese communities.

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 does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 14 generally, with the exception of work in wholesale or retail trade or business, for which the minimum age is 12. “Light work,” which is not defined in the law, is allowed for children ages 12 and 13. Children ages 14 to 18 may be employed only in an occupation that a labor officer determines is “not injurious to the moral or physical development of nonadults.” Children older than 14 are explicitly permitted to work in certain “industrial undertakings,” which can include mining, manufacturing, and construction. Children younger than 16 are excluded from work in factories, and those younger than 18 are excluded from working at night or in certain kinds of employment deemed dangerous. The Labour Department used a list of dangerous occupations for young workers as guidance, but the list was not adopted as law.

The law permits children to work on family farms and in family-run businesses from the age of 10, taking into consideration the well-being of the child and continued enrollment in school. National legislation does not address a common situation in which child labor is contracted between a parent and the employer. The National Child Labor Policy distinguishes between children engaged in work that is beneficial to their development and those engaged in the worst forms of child labor. The policy identifies children involved in the worst forms of child labor as those engaged in hazardous work, human trafficking and child slavery, commercial sexual activities, and illicit activities.

The Labour Department has primary responsibility for implementing labor policies, but it did not effectively enforce the law. Inspectors from the Labour and Education Departments are responsible for enforcing these regulations, with the bulk of the enforcement falling to truancy officers. Penalties were not criminal nor commensurate with those for similar crimes. There is also a National Child Labor Committee under the National Committee for Families and Children, a statutory interagency group that advocates for policies and legislation to protect children and eliminate child labor.

Schooling is mandatory until age 14, and many poorer parents withdraw their children from school on their 14th birthday to put them to work in the informal sector. Children working for their parents are exempt from many of the protections provided in the formal system. Officers of the Ministry of Education are unable to act legally against parents who withdraw their child from school against their child’s wishes.

Some children were vulnerable to forced labor, particularly in the informal agricultural and service sectors. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). According to the most recent data available from the Statistical Institute of Belize from 2013, the country’s child labor rate was 3.2 percent, with half of those children involved in hazardous work. The problem was most prevalent in rural areas. Boys accounted for 74 percent of children illegally employed, mostly engaged in hazardous activities.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment on the basis of race, sex, gender, language, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment with respect to disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. There were reports discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to hiring persons with disabilities and to their access to the workspace, as well as sexual orientation of applicants. One NGO reported that members of the LGBTI community often had problems gaining and retaining employment due to discrimination in the workplace. There were no officially reported cases of discrimination at work based on ethnicity, culture, or skin color, although anecdotal evidence suggested such cases occurred. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, but women lagged behind men in wages and promotions (see section 6). There are also restrictions on women working in certain industries, including mining, construction, factories, energy, water, and transportation.

In January, two female police officers took legal action against the BPD after they were among a group of officers who were disciplined for wearing dreadlock hairstyles, contrary to BPD regulations. Commissioner of Police Chester Williams indicated all members of the department irrespective of their status or gender should abide by BPD policies.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was above the poverty-limit income level. The law sets the workweek at no more than six days or 45 hours and requires premium payment for overtime work. Workers are entitled to two workweeks’ paid annual holiday. Additionally, there are 13 days designated as public and bank holidays. Employees who work on public and bank holidays are entitled to pay at time-and-a-half, except for Good Friday and Christmas, which are paid at twice the normal rate.

Several different health and safety regulations cover numerous industries. The regulations, which apply to all sectors, provide that the employer must take “reasonable care” for the safety of employees in the course of their employment. The regulations further provide that every employer who provides or arranges accommodation for workers to reside at or in the vicinity of a place of employment shall provide and maintain sufficient and hygienic housing accommodations, a sufficient supply of wholesome water, and sufficient and proper sanitary arrangements.

The Ministry of Labour did not consistently enforce minimum wage, hour, and health and safety regulations. Inspectors could make unannounced visits and initiate sanctions, but the number of inspectors was not sufficient to secure compliance, especially in the more remote areas. Fines varied according to the infraction but generally were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. In July the Ministry of Labour established the Labour Complaints Tribunal after a nine-year hiatus. It was unclear how many cases the tribunal heard during the year.

The minimum wage was generally respected. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from NGOs and employers suggested that undocumented Central American workers, particularly young service workers and agricultural laborers, were regularly paid below the minimum wage.

Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. As of October no major accidents caused death or serious injury.

Benin

Executive Summary

Benin is a constitutional presidential republic. In 2016 voters elected Patrice Talon to a five-year term as president in a multiparty election, replacing former president Thomas Boni Yayi, who served two consecutive five-year terms. In 2019 authorities held legislative elections in which no opposition party was deemed qualified to participate after failing to meet registration requirements implemented in 2018, effectively excluding them from the elections. Voter turnout declined from 65 percent in 2015 to 27 percent; the pro-Talon Progressive Union and Republican Block parties continued to hold all 83 seats in the National Assembly. Unlike in 2015, when the last legislative elections were held, international observers did not assess the elections as generally free, fair, and transparent.

The Beninese Armed Forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security and support the Republican Police in maintaining internal security. The Republican Police, formed in 2018 through a merger of police and gendarmes, are under the Ministry of Interior and have primary responsibility for enforcing law and maintaining order in urban and rural areas. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious restrictions on press freedom and unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and child labor.

Impunity was a problem. Although the government tried to control corruption and abuses, including by prosecuting and punishing public officials, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

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 credible reports from civil society groups that police and military members used disproportionate and lethal force against citizens.

For example, on March 24, police fatally shot University of Abomey Calavi student Theophile Dieudonne Adjaho during a demonstration staged by the National Federation of Beninese Students. The students were demanding cancelation of classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as protesting arrests at previous demonstrations.

Authorities have not investigated this killing or the killings of civilians in connection with the 2019 legislative elections during which civil society groups stated police and military members used disproportionate and lethal force against protesters. During May 2019 postelection clashes between security forces and antigovernment protesters in Cotonou, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported at least two deaths, including a female bystander who was shot when a Beninese Armed Forces member fired to disperse crowds. Although the president acknowledged that four civilian casualties occurred during the protests, he made no further comment. Although investigations of police and military personnel conduct were not generally made public, there was no indication during the year that any were conducted.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated 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 such incidents continued to occur.

The penal code prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. There were numerous reported abuses similar to the following example. On April 28, a video circulated on social media showing a police officer beating a motorbike taxi rider and his female passenger for failing to wear facemasks mandated by COVID-19 enforcement measures. The beating took place on a Cotonou street in the presence of three other officers. On April 19, the Republican Police director general issued a statement deploring the incident and stating that the responsible police officers had been identified and would be punished. On April 30, the officer responsible for the beating and those who witnessed it were arrested but not charged. By ministerial order the officers were administratively sanctioned for use of excessive force.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions web platform, there was one allegation submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Beninese peacekeepers deployed to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There were also three open allegations from prior years of sexual exploitation and abuse by Beninese peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, including one each from 2019, 2018, and 2016. As of September the government had yet to report on any accountability measures taken in the four cases. All four cases involved accusations of exploitative relationships with adults.

Authorities rarely held police accountable for misconduct, and impunity remained a problem. The Inspectorate General of the Republican Police Investigation Division is responsible for investigating serious cases involving police personnel. There were no reports, however, that any investigations were conducted. The government provided some human rights training to security forces, often with foreign or international donor funding and assistance.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate medical care, food, and sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: According to the Benin Bar Association, conditions in the country’s three prisons and eight jails were inhuman due to overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor sanitation. The 11 facilities held approximately 9,000 inmates, significantly exceeding a capacity of 5,620 inmates. Convicted criminals, pretrial detainees, and juveniles were often held together. There were deaths due to lack of medical care, neglect, and poor ventilation in cramped and overcrowded cells. Prisoners with mental disabilities lacked access to appropriate disability-related support.

During the year the government reduced overcrowding through the administrative release of 1,300 persons. In April and May, authorities released 439 prisoners on parole to reduce COVID-19 transmission. In addition the Beninese Human Rights Commission reported that authorities released a number of pretrial detainees in February after it urged judicial authorities to review cases of pretrial detainees and release those for whom there was insufficient evidence to justify prosecution.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of allegations of mistreatment upon instruction by the Beninese Human Rights Commission. Prison authorities allowed visitors, but according to NGO reports, prison officials sometimes charged visitors a fee that was substantial for the average person.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison visits by human rights monitors. Representatives of religious groups–the Prison Fellowship, Caritas, the Prisons Brotherhood, and Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture–and NGOs–Amnesty International, the Beninese Human Rights Commission (an independent government entity), the Friends of Prisoners and Indigents Clinic, and Prisoners without Borders–visited prisons, although some NGOs complained credentials were not systematically granted when they submitted requests to make visits. The commission also urged prison directors to provide adequate health care to inmates.

Improvements: The Directorate of Prison Administration implemented a centralized record-keeping system for Ministry of Justice officials to enable it to better track remand periods and court hearings and thus facilitate prompt release of prisoners at the end of their sentences. The installation of new generators and solar lighting, the construction of new dormitories and wells, septic tank maintenance, and the purchase of beds and medical supplies improved prison conditions during the year.

The government began implementing a program to provide more permanent health-care assistance to prisoners as opposed to ad hoc health care from NGOs. For example, on October 14, the Beninese Prison Agency deployed seven doctors and three psychologists to provide health-care services to prisoners in all 11 prisons.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention; however, Republican Police occasionally failed to observe these prohibitions. A person arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, is by law entitled to file a complaint with the liberty and detention chamber of the relevant court. The presiding judge may order the individual’s release if the arrest or detention is deemed unlawful.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution requires arrest warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized judicial official and requires a hearing before a magistrate within 48 hours of arrest, but these requirements were not always observed.

After examining a detainee, a judge has 24 hours to decide whether to continue to detain or release the individual. Under exceptional circumstances, or in arrests involving illegal drugs, a judge may authorize detention beyond 72 hours not to exceed an additional eight days. Warrants authorizing pretrial detention are effective for six months and may be renewed every six months until a suspect is brought to trial. Detainees have the right to prompt judicial determination of the legality of detention, which was generally observed. Detainees awaiting judicial decisions may request release on bail and have the right to prompt access to a lawyer. Suspects were not detained incommunicado or prevented access to an attorney.

The government sometimes provided counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases. Persons in rural areas accused of serious crimes often lacked adequate legal representation because defense attorneys were predominantly based in Cotonou and generally did not work on cases in rural areas.

There were credible reports of individuals held beyond the legal limit of 48 hours of detention before a hearing, sometimes by as much as a week. Authorities often held persons indefinitely “at the disposal of” the Public Prosecutor’s Office before presenting the case to a magistrate.

Arbitrary Arrest: Unlike in 2019 there were no reports of arbitrary arrest. Nevertheless, some NGOs believed the practice might have continued, especially in the rural areas where individuals are not aware of their right to file complaints.

On June 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2017 arrest and detention of Armand Pierre Lokossou–who was charged with criminal breach of trust and held until January–violated the arbitrary arrest and pretrial detention provisions of Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Pretrial Detention: The law defines the maximum length of pretrial detention for felony cases at five years and for misdemeanors three years. Approximately two-thirds of inmates were pretrial detainees. Inadequate facilities, poorly trained staff, and overcrowded dockets delayed the administration of justice. The length of pretrial detention frequently exceeded the maximum sentence for conviction of the alleged crime.

Detainees held beyond pretrial limits may obtain recourse from the Constitutional Court. On June 4, the court ruled that judicial officials violated the code of criminal procedure when a Liberty and Detention Court judge failed to order the release of a pretrial detainee after six months’ detention. In February the Beninese Human Rights Commission ordered the release of a Cotonou Prison pretrial detainee held for three years after a court ordered his release pending trial in 2016.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary; however, the president heads the High Council of the Judiciary that governs and sanctions judges. The judicial system was also subject to corruption, although the government continued to make substantial anticorruption efforts, including the dismissal and arrest of government officials allegedly involved in corruption scandals. Authorities respected court orders.

In 2018 the National Assembly passed a bill creating the Court to Counter Economic Crimes and Terrorism (CRIET). Observers within the judicial sector raised concerns that the bill establishing CRIET may have violated judicial impartiality, the right of appeal, and due-process principles. CRIET decisions could not be appealed to intermediate appeals courts–designed to correct errors such as a lack of jurisdiction, failure to provide a legal basis for a decision, or action by a court exceeding its authority–but had to be filed directly with the Supreme Court. Intended in part to quell domestic and international criticism, on April 21, the National Assembly revised the CRIET law to provide for appeals to be filed within the CRIET structure.

Trial Procedures

While the constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, judicial inefficiency and corruption impeded the exercise of this right.

The legal system is based on French civil law and local customary law. A defendant is presumed innocent. Defendants enjoy the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, with free interpretation as necessary, to a fair, timely, and public trial, to be present at trial, and to representation by an attorney.

By law courts must provide indigent defendants with counsel upon request in criminal cases. Government-provided counsel, however, was rarely available, especially in cases handled in courts located in remote areas. Defendants who cannot understand or speak French are entitled to free interpretation services as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to confront witnesses; to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf; and to not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

Defendants may appeal criminal convictions to both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, after which they may appeal to the president for a pardon.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. The nongovernmental Organization for the Defense of Human and Peoples’ Rights reported that there were political prisoners at the Cotonou, Parakou, Abomey, and Akpro-Misserete prisons. Additionally, Amnesty International and other NGOs stated that several individuals arrested for involvement in postelection protests in 2019 were detained for politically motivated reasons.

The government permitted access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations such as the Beninese Human Rights Commission.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes against specific individuals located outside the country.

In April 2019 a Spanish court rejected the government’s request for the extradition of former minister of finance Komi Koutche, who had been arrested during a stopover in Madrid in 2018 based on an Interpol (International Police Criminal Organization) Red Notice. The court cited lack of evidence to substantiate the request, potential political motivation for the request, and CRIET’s inability to provide for a fair trial due to its lack of independence from the government. On April 4, CRIET tried Komi Koutche in absentia, found him guilty of embezzlement of public funds and abuse of office while head of the National Fund for Microcredit, and sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment. Koutche remained in self-imposed exile at year’s end.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The judiciary exercised independence in civil matters. If administrative or informal remedies are unsuccessful, a citizen may file a complaint concerning an alleged human rights violation with the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court’s ruling is not binding on courts; however, citizens may cite rulings from the Constitutional Court to initiate legal action against offenders in regular courts. Adverse court rulings other than those of the Constitutional Court may be appealed to the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice. Unlike in prior years, appeals may no longer be filed with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. On April 23, the government withdrew its 2016 declaration filed with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights that provided for Beninese citizens and NGOs to file complaints and appeal adverse court rulings to the court. The country’s withdrawal followed an April 14 decision by the court ordering Benin to postpone communal elections after Sebastien Ajavon, a prominent government critic and leader of the opposition party Union Sociale Liberale (Liberal Social Union), filed a complaint alleging that his party had been wrongfully excluded from participation in the elections. In a separate case brought by Ajavon, the court ordered the government to repeal a 2019 amnesty law.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

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. There were reports the government inhibited freedom of the press through restrictions on and sanctioning of journalists and press outlets.

There were many public and private media outlets, including two public and seven private television stations, three public and 50 private radio stations, and approximately 175 newspapers and periodicals. Many of these refrained from openly criticizing government policy.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The press and media were closely regulated. The High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) is a quasigovernmental commission with members appointed by the president, private media, and the legislature. HAAC has a dual and perhaps inherently contradictory role of providing for press freedom and of protecting the country against “inflammatory, irresponsible, or destabilizing” media reporting.

On January 3, officers from the Central Office for Cybercrime Prevention arrested Aristide Fassinou Hounkpevi, editor of the online media outlet LAutre Figaro as well as correspondent of the newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune, for publishing false information about the minister of foreign affairs on a social media site. On January 9, the prosecutor at the Court of First Instance of Cotonou ordered Hounkpevi’s release without charge. The Union of Benin’s Media Professionals stated there was no material evidence to substantiate the accusations against Hounkpevi.

On July 7, HAAC issued an order for all online media outlets “without authorization” to halt publication or face sanctions. The law states that operation of “a website providing audiovisual communication and print media services intended for the public is subject to the authorization” of HAAC. Three outlets suspended operations temporarily, while remaining outlets ignored the order. On July 10, the National Council of Benin’s Press and Audiovisual Employers issued a statement deploring HAAC’s decision.

In April 2019, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police arrested Casimir Kpedjo of the newspaper Nouvelle Economie for “spreading false information about the Beninese economy.” Kpedjo was held for five days, charged by CRIET with publishing “false information,” and released. As of December 10, Kpedjo had yet to be tried.

In December 2019 police arrested Benin Web TV journalist Ignace Sossou. He was convicted of “harassment through electronic means” after posting quotes of the Cotonou prosecutor’s comments–recorded during anti “fake news” training organized by the French Media Development Agency–to his personal social media accounts. The Cotonou Court of First Instance sentenced Sossou to 18 months’ imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine. On May 19, the Court of Appeals reduced his sentence to six months’ imprisonment, and on June 24, he was released. As of November HAAC had yet to honor a May 2019 Court of Appeals ruling rescinding suspension of La Nouvelle Tribune, and the newspaper had not resumed publication.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Public and private media refrained from openly criticizing government policy. Some journalists practiced self-censorship because they were indebted to government officials who granted them service contracts. Other journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear the government would suspend their media outlets. HAAC held public hearings on alleged misconduct by media outlets during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law journalists may be prosecuted for libel and slander. Journalists may also be prosecuted for incitement of violence and property destruction, compromising national security through the press, or a combination of the two. Penalties for conviction include incarceration and fines. By law anyone convicted of “relaying false information against a person using electronic means” may be sentenced to between one and six months in prison and receive a substantial monetary fine.

Internet Freedom

The government censored online content, but it did not restrict public access to the internet or monitor private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law states that operation of “a website providing audiovisual communication and print media services intended for the public is subject to the authorization” of HAAC. On July 7, HAAC issued an order for all online media outlets “without authorization” to halt publication or face sanctions. The National Council of Benin’s Press and Audiovisual Employers issued a statement deploring HAAC’s decision (see section 2.a.).

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 assembly and association and the government respected the right of peaceful association but not that of peaceful assembly. Advance notification is required for demonstrations and other public gatherings. The government frequently restricted freedom of peaceful assembly on political grounds.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Permits are required prior to holding protests, but authorities regularly denied or ignored requests for permits.

Authorities sometimes cited “public order” to prevent demonstrations by opposition groups, civil society organizations, and labor unions.

In June the prefect of Cotonou cited public order concerns as the basis for denying a permit to demonstrate in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States regarding the killings by police of African Americans. Human rights activists and some in the opposition media also reported denials of permits to protest local cases of civilian deaths by security forces (see section 1.a.). On July 16, the Constitutional Court ruled that the mayor of Parakou violated constitutional provisions relating to freedom of assembly and public liberty because his prohibition in February of demonstrations critical of the government was discriminatory.

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.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

In 2018 as part of its effort to reduce corruption, the government banned roadblocks throughout the country. There have been no illegal roadblocks since that time.

Foreign Travel: The government maintained documentary requirements for minors traveling abroad as part of its campaign against trafficking in persons. This was not always enforced, and trafficking of minors across borders continued.

The government regulates the timing and length of seasonal movement of migratory Fulani (Peul) herdsmen and their livestock into and within the country. On February 18, the government reversed a decree issued in December 2019 that had banned Burkinabe, Nigerian, and Nigerien herders from crossing into the country with their cattle.

On March 17, the government closed the country’s land borders to all but specially authorized official travel in an effort to limit the cross-border transmission of COVID-19. Air and sea borders remained open to travelers, however. As of November land borders remained closed.

In July 2019 the government issued a decree barring anyone wanted on criminal charges from obtaining civil documents, including passports, national identity cards, and certificates of citizenship. On July 3, human rights activist Conaide Akouedenoudje filed a complaint with the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights requesting it rule on the decree’s compliance with the country’s human rights obligations. In October the court dismissed the complaint with the explanation that the claimant was not affected by the decree and thus was not an injured party.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. 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.

Durable Solutions: The government assisted refugees and asylum seekers with obtaining documents from their countries of origin while granting their status as privileged residents. The government also facilitated naturalization of refugees as part of a local integration effort. The government involved civil society, media, and academia in the process. In 2018 the government National Commission of Assistance to Refugees assumed responsibility for refugee issues in the country following closure of the local UNHCR office. The commission cooperates with UNHCR through its regional office in Dakar, Senegal.

g. Stateless Persons

There were large communities of stateless individuals residing in eight villages along the border with Niger and Nigeria. These villages were returned to Benin following the resolution of land disputes among Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. The residents lacked the necessary identification documents to claim 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: In April 2019 the government held legislative elections that excluded opposition parties. In 2018 the National Assembly legislated more stringent requirements for parties to qualify to run in elections. In February 2019, two months before the legislative elections, the Constitutional Court declared all parties must possess a “certificate of conformity” with requirements to participate in elections. In February 2019 the independent election commission announced that no opposition party met the requirements, leaving only two progovernment parties on the election ballot. Voter turnout for the elections was an historic low of 27 percent. Although there were incidents of voter interference by opposition demonstrators, election-day voting proceeded calmly in most of the country. Protesters in opposition strongholds in central Benin blocked some roads for much of the day, and media reported demonstrators in Parakou burned ballot materials at polling stations and prevented some citizens from voting. The government implemented an internet blackout on election day that blocked access to social media sites including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and iMessage apps.

In November 2019 the National Assembly, in which two pro-Talon parties hold all 83 seats, passed a constitutional amendment requiring that presidential candidates obtain sponsorship from elected officials. To implement this amendment, the National Assembly adopted changes to the electoral code requiring that presidential candidates obtain endorsements from at least 10 percent of the country’s National Assembly members (83) and mayors (77), thereby giving them a direct role in determining presidential candidates. On May 17, authorities held communal elections to elect 1,815 communal council members. The independent election commission declared several political parties ineligible to participate in the elections for failing to meet registration requirements. All but six of the country’s 77 mayors belonged to the two progovernment political parties in the National Assembly. There were isolated reports of electoral irregularities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process. Cultural factors, however, limited women’s political participation. By custom and tradition, women assumed household duties, had less access to formal education, and were discouraged from involvement in politics. There were five female ministers in the president’s 24-member cabinet and one woman among the prefects administering the country’s 12 geographic departments. In November 2019 the National Assembly adopted a constitutional amendment mandating that women fill a minimum of 24 seats in the National Assembly beginning in 2023.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government sometimes implemented the law effectively; however, there were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. It was commonly believed, and acknowledged by some judicial personnel, that the judicial system at all levels was susceptible to corruption.

Corruption: According to the newspaper Matin Libre, traffic police routinely solicited bribes from truckers in exchange for not enforcing the law against overloaded and unsafe vehicles.

The government took several actions during the year to combat corruption. For example, on July 22, the Council of Ministers ordered the dismissal of Port of Cotonou customs officers Zenoudine Ali Yerima and Sedekon Marc Maxime Kanho for fraud. Importers reportedly paid the two officers to undervalue goods listed in customs import declarations and to falsify other customs documents.

Financial Disclosure: On April 20, the National Assembly repealed a legal provision that required all elected and public officials to submit asset disclosure statements to the Supreme Court Audit Chamber upon assuming and departing office. Nevertheless, income and asset disclosure by elected and public officials as determined by the Council of Ministers continued to be required.

The legal provision removing the blanket asset disclosure requirement also removed the penalty for failure to submit an asset disclosure.

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

Several domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views. Nevertheless, the government denied permits to some domestic human rights groups to protest government action. Human rights groups reported they did not share all of their human rights findings publicly due to fear of government reprisal.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2018 the Constitutional Court swore in the first members of the Beninese Human Rights Commission. On January 3, the commission submitted its first report on the human rights situation in the country to the National Assembly. The National Assembly approved the report, and on October 22, the report was published. The country also had an ombudsman responsible for responding to citizen complaints of maladministration who was independent, adequately resourced, and effective.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, but enforcement was weak due to police ineffectiveness, official corruption, and victims not reporting cases due to fear of social stigma and retaliation. Sentences for rape convictions range from five to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law explicitly prohibits spousal rape and provides the maximum penalty for conviction of raping a domestic partner. Because of the lack of police training in collecting evidence associated with sexual assaults, ignorance of the law, and inherent difficulties victims faced in preserving and presenting evidence in court, judges reduced most sexual offense charges to misdemeanors. The primary form of evidence used to prove sexual assault required physician certification. Since physicians were only accessible in large cities, victims in rural areas were effectively precluded from pursuing charges.

Penalties for conviction of domestic violence range from six to 36 months’ imprisonment. Nevertheless, domestic violence against women was common. Women remained reluctant to report cases, and judges and police were reluctant to intervene in domestic disputes.

The Ministry of Social Affairs provided financial support to some victims of abuse. The ministry’s Center for Social Promotion provided mediation services that in some cases resulted in victim restitution. The ministry also organized public outreach campaigns to raise public awareness of violence against girls and women. During the year the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Affairs instituted a services training program for victims of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence to health clinic and social service first responders.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C and provides penalties for conviction of performing the procedure, including prison sentences of up to 10 years and substantial monetary fines. Nevertheless, FGM/C occurred, and enforcement was rare due to the code of silence associated with this crime. The practice was largely limited to remote rural areas in the north. According to UNICEF, 7 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 underwent FGM/C in 2018.

The government, in conjunction with NGOs and international partners, continued to raise public awareness of the dangers of the practice.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and offers protection for victims, but sexual harassment was common in the workplace and in schools. Persons convicted of sexual harassment face sentences of one to two years’ imprisonment and substantial monetary fines. The law also provides for penalties applicable to persons who are aware of sexual harassment but do not report it. Victims, however, seldom reported harassment due to fear of social stigma and retaliation; furthermore, police, examining magistrates who conduct pretrial investigations, and prosecutors lacked the legal knowledge and capacity to pursue such cases. Although laws prohibiting sexual harassment were not widely enforced, judges used other provisions in the penal code to address sexual abuses involving minors.

On May 1, Office of Radio and Television Broadcasting health correspondent Angela Kpeidja stated that “rape and moral and sexual harassment” were rampant at the state-owned broadcaster.

On May 4, civil society groups and the Benin Human Rights Defenders Association coalition of human rights NGOs issued a joint statement denouncing sexual harassment and calling on the Ministries of Labor, Communications, Justice, and Social Affairs to enforce laws prohibiting sexual harassment and protecting its victims. On May 5, the president pledged to do more to protect women in the workplace and to encourage them to report incidents of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. The law limits abortion to safeguarding the life of a girl or woman.

Societal pressures imposed barriers to contraception. Although minors had the legal right to access contraception without parental consent, health-care workers sometimes disrupted access by requiring parental consent. In some areas, notably the Plateau Department bordering Nigeria, traditional leaders used voodoo to threaten women to stay indoors during contraceptive campaigns, according to the Beninese Association for Social Marketing. Roman Catholic churches prohibited the use of modern contraceptives. Anecdotal reports suggested that cultural norms also influenced low rates of contraception.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

According to the government’s 2017-2018 Demographic Health Survey, the maternal mortality rate was 391 deaths per 100,000 live births. Factors contributing to the high mortality rate were deliveries without adequate medical assistance, lack of access to emergency obstetric care, and unhygienic conditions. According to the survey, 84 percent of live births took place in a health center (most of which were public), and 20 percent of girls and women ages 15-19 were either pregnant or had already had one live birth. These rates varied dramatically with higher adolescent birth rates (24 to 38 percent) in northern departments and lower rates (ranging from 8 to 16 percent) in southern departments.

Poor access to reproductive health information in rural areas, poverty, and low levels of formal education contributed to low usage of contraceptives and high pregnancy rates. Only 13 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 used a modern method of contraception, and 35 percent of women had an unmet need for contraception.

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

Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality for women in political, economic, and social spheres, women experienced extensive discrimination in obtaining employment, credit, equal pay, and in owning or managing businesses. There were legal restrictions on women in employment, including limitations on the occupations in which women are allowed to work.

The law bans all discrimination against women in marriage and provides for the right to equal inheritance. The government and NGOs educated the public on women’s inheritance and property rights and their increased rights in marriage, including prohibitions on forced marriage, child marriage, and polygyny. The government did not enforce the law effectively, however.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country to a citizen father. By law the child of a Beninese father is automatically considered a citizen, but the child of a Beninese woman is considered Beninese only if the child’s father is unknown, has no known nationality, or is also Beninese. Particularly in rural areas, parents often did not declare the birth of their children, either from lack of understanding of the procedures involved or because they could not afford the fees for birth certificates. This could result in denial of public services such as education and health care.

A 2018 law authorizes vital records offices to issue provisional birth certificates on an exceptional basis to persons lacking one who were enrolled in the Administrative Census for the Identification of the Population program. According to the UNICEF State of the Worlds Children survey, 86 percent of births were registered in 2018.

Education: Primary education is compulsory for all children between ages six and 11. Public school education is tuition free for primary school students and for female students through grade nine in secondary schools. Girls did not have the same educational opportunities as boys and the literacy rate for women was 18 percent, compared with 50 percent for men. In some parts of the country, girls received no formal education.

Child Abuse: Violence against children was common. According to the Center for Social Promotion of Aplahoue, there were reported cases of rape, abduction, forced marriage, and trafficking of girls during the year. The law bans a wide range of harmful practices and provides for substantial fines and up to life imprisonment for persons convicted of child abuse. Police of the Central Office for the Protection of Minors arrested suspects, referred them to judicial authorities, and provided temporary shelter to victims of abuse. Courts meted out stiff sentences to persons convicted of crimes against children, but many such cases never reached the courts due to lack of awareness of the law and children’s rights, lack of access to courts, fear of police involvement, or a combination of the three.

On March 18, the Ministry of Social Affairs launched a hotline staffed by social workers to report child abuse cases and to facilitate a systematic response to child abuse by police and social workers. On May 26, a hotline operator received a call concerning a badly abused six-year-old boy in Womey-Yenadjro neighborhood in Abomey-Calavi north of Cotonou. The abuser was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law prohibits marriage at younger than age 18 but grants exemptions for children ages 14 to 17 with parental consent and authorization of a judge. According to the Benin 2017-2018 Demographic Health Survey, 9 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before age 15. Child, early, and forced marriage included barter marriage and marriage by abduction, in which the groom traditionally abducts and rapes his prospective child bride. The practice was widespread in rural areas, despite government and NGO efforts to end it through information sessions on the rights of women and children. Local NGOs reported some communities concealed the practice. The joint government and UNICEF Zero Tolerance for Child Marriage campaign to change social norms and create a protective environment for children in their communities continued.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penal code provides penalties for conviction of rape, sexual exploitation, and corruption of minors, including procuring and facilitating prostitution; it increases penalties for cases involving children younger than age 15. The child trafficking law provides penalties for conviction of all forms of child trafficking, including child commercial sexual exploitation, prescribing penalties if convicted of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment. Individuals convicted of involvement in child commercial sexual exploitation, including those who facilitate and solicit it, face imprisonment of two to five years and substantial monetary fines. The child code prohibits child pornography. Persons convicted of child pornography face sentences of two to five years’ imprisonment and substantial monetary fines.

Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: Although concealed from authorities, traditional practices of killing breech babies, babies whose mothers died in childbirth, babies considered deformed, and one newborn from each set of twins (because they were considered sorcerers) occurred. Authorities enforced prohibitions and discouraged the practice through door-to-door counseling and awareness raising.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law provides for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, including physical, sensory, intellectual, psychological, mental, and communication disabilities, against all forms of exploitation and violence.

The Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities of Benin reported that persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment, health care, access to education, and access to justice.

The government operated few institutions to assist persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Social Affairs coordinated assistance to persons with disabilities through the Support Fund for National Solidarity.

The Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act provides for a wide range of social benefits to persons with disabilities, including improved access to health care, education, vocational training, transportation, and sports and leisure activities. It includes provisions regarding the construction or alteration of buildings to permit access for persons with disabilities. It requires schools to enroll children with disabilities. In July the Ministry of Social Affairs conducted a campaign to provide medical care, temporary housing, family reintegration assistance, and social service provider referrals for homeless persons with mental disabilities.

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

The law does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. A provision related to public indecency in the penal code, however, may be applied to prosecute same-sex sexual conduct by charging individuals with public indecency or acts against nature. The law prohibits all forms of discrimination without specific reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

Members of the LGBTI community reported police tolerated violence against LGBTI individuals. For example, on July 29, in the northern town of Bohicon, a group of 15 men attacked and severely beat a transgender woman at a bar. Upon seeking assistance at the police station, police required the victim to stay the night, photographed her injuries and genitalia with their mobile phones, and accused the victim of deceiving the men by identifying as a woman. The victim was asked if she had stolen anything or done anything to provoke the beating. The victim did not file a formal complaint, and as of December police had not conducted an investigation of the assault.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Police generally ignored vigilante attacks. Incidents of mob violence occurred, in part due to the perceived failure of local courts to punish criminals adequately. Such cases generally involved mobs killing or severely injuring suspected criminals, particularly thieves caught stealing. For example, on July 28, vigilantes caught a burglar breaking into a shop in the southwestern village of Kinkinhoue. Media reported that the vigilantes burned the victim to death. Police did not conduct a formal investigation of the incident.

Despite government efforts to implement policies to regulate transhumance (the practice of moving livestock seasonally from one grazing area to another), periodic violence between farmers and Fulani herders continued. While several commune-level officials blamed armed Fulani herders from Nigeria for provoking violence by allowing their cattle to eat farmers’ crops, both herders and farmers engaged in violence. There were numerous reported instances of violence similar to the following examples. On January 21, in Ouinhi in the southwest of the country, herders killed two farmers; on May 1, in Woroko in the central part of the country, six persons died and several more were injured in clashes between farmers and herders; on June 3, in the northern town of Malanville bordering Niger, nine individuals died in clashes between farmers and herders; and on August 5, a farmer in the northern town of Bembereke stoned to death a Fulani child age 10 for trespassing.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers, except certain civil servants and public employees, to form and join independent unions with some restrictions. Unions must register with the Ministry of Interior, a three-month process, or risk a fine. The law does not establish clear grounds on which registration of a trade union may be denied or approved, and official registration may be denied without the union having recourse to a court. The law provides that a trade union federation must be made up of at least five enterprise-level trade unions in the same sector or branch of activity. Additionally, the law requires that a trade union confederation must be composed of at least three trade union federations of different sectors or branches of activities and that only trade union confederations may have affiliation at a national or international level.

The law provides for the rights of workers to bargain collectively. By law collective bargaining agreements are negotiated within a joint committee including representatives of one or several unions and or representatives of one or several employers’ associations. A labor inspector, a secretary, and one or two rapporteurs preside over the committee. The minister of labor has the authority to determine which trade unions may be represented in the negotiation at the enterprise level. The minister has the power to extend the scope of coverage of a collective agreement. The law imposes compulsory conciliation and binding arbitration in the event of disputes during collective bargaining in all sectors, “nonessential service” sectors included. The National Permanent Commission for Consultation and Collective Bargaining, and the Social Sector-based Dialogue Committee were active in each ministry to foster dialogue between the government and unions. Two government decrees of 2017 established the National Social Dialogue Council and appointed its members to replace the National Permanent Commission for Consultation and Collective Bargaining. On September 30, the council held its fourth extraordinary session.

The law restricts the maximum duration of a strike to 10 days per year for all employees, except workers who are barred from striking. By law health-sector staff and military, police, customs, and water, forest and game and wildlife officers are barred from striking. Minimum service is required for workers who carry out essential responsibilities such as judges, prison and justice system personnel, and staff of the sectors of energy, water, maritime and air transport, financial administration, and telecommunication.

Authorities may declare strikes illegal for reasons such as threatening social peace and order and may requisition striking workers to maintain minimum services. The government may prohibit any strike on the grounds it threatens the economy or the national interest. Laws prohibit employer retaliation against strikers, except that a company may withhold part of a worker’s pay following an illegal strike.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Employers may not take union membership or activity into account in hiring, work distribution, professional or vocational training, or dismissal. In addition to certain civil servants and public employees, domestic workers, agricultural workers, migrant workers, and those in export processing zones are excluded from relevant legal protections.

The government generally respected the right to form and join independent unions and the right to collective bargaining. The government did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the informal sector and with regard to the provisions on antiunion discrimination and reinstatement. There were reports that employers threatened individuals with dismissal for union activity. No violations related to collective bargaining rights were reported. Penalties were commensurate with similar crimes.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, with certain exceptions. The law allows for imprisonment with compulsory labor. By law authorities may exact work not of a purely military character from military conscripts. Laws regulating various acts or activities relating to the exercise of freedom of expression allow imposition of prison sentences involving obligation to perform social rehabilitation work. Penalties for conviction of forced labor were generally commensurate with similar crimes.

The government did not consistently enforce the law, particularly in the large informal sector. Forced labor occurred, including domestic servitude and bonded labor by children. Forced labor was mainly found in the agricultural (e.g., cotton and palm oil), artisanal mining, quarrying, fishing, commercial, and construction sectors. Many traffickers were relatives or acquaintances of their victims, exploiting the traditional system of vidomegon whereby a child, usually a daughter, is sent to live as a servant with a wealthier family, despite NGO and government efforts to raise awareness of the risks associated with this practice.

In 2018 the government adopted penal code revisions that criminalized adult trafficking and provided for 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment for conviction. The law was not effectively implemented due to lack of agent training on the antitrafficking provisions.

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 List of Hazardous Occupations sets the minimum age for employment in hazardous work at age 18. The list identifies 21 trades prohibited for children and defines 74 related hazardous activities. Specific trades noted on the list include mining and quarrying, domestic service, and agriculture.

The labor code prohibits the employment or apprenticeship of children younger than age 14 in any enterprise; children between ages 12 and 14, however, may perform domestic work and temporary or light seasonal work if it does not interfere with their compulsory schooling. Children 14 and older may be employed as an apprentice in a trade if the apprentice has a formal contract with the tradesperson overseeing the apprenticeship. While apprenticeships are common, contracts are rare. The law bans night work for workers younger than age 18 unless the government in consultation with the National Labor Council grants a special dispensation. Workers younger than 18 are entitled to a minimum 12-hour uninterrupted break including the nighttime period.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. The Labor Office, under the Ministry of Labor and Civil Service, enforced the labor code only in the formal sector. The total number of inspections conducted during the year was unavailable. Penalties for those convicted of violating laws in the formal sector were commensurate with similar crimes.

Despite the government’s limited capacity to enforce child labor laws, the government took steps to educate parents on the labor code and prevent compulsory labor by children, including through media campaigns, regional workshops, and public pronouncements on child labor problems. These initiatives were part of the Labor Office’s traditional sensitization program. The government also worked with a network of NGOs and journalists to educate the population regarding child labor and child trafficking. The Ministries of Justice and Labor supported capacity building for officials and agencies responsible for enforcing child labor laws.

To help support their families, children of both sexes, including those as young as age seven, worked on family farms, in small businesses, on construction sites in urban areas, in public markets as street vendors, and as domestic servants under the practice of vidomegon. Many rural parents sent their children to cities to live with relatives or family friends to perform domestic chores in return for receiving an education.

Host families did not always honor their part of the vidomegon arrangement, and abuse and forced labor of child domestic servants was a problem. Children often faced long hours of work, inadequate food, and sexual exploitation, factors indicative of forced labor and exploitation of children in domestic servitude. Sometimes the child’s parents and the urban family that raised the child divided the income generated by the child’s activities. Up to 95 percent of children in vidomegon were young girls. Several local NGOs led public education and awareness campaigns to decrease the practice.

Most children working as apprentices were younger than the legal age of 14 for apprenticeship, including children working in construction, car and motorbike repair, hairdressing, and dressmaking. Children worked as laborers with adults in quarries, including crushing granite, in many areas. Children were at times forced to hawk goods and beg, and street children engaged in prostitution (see section 6). Children younger than age 14 worked in either the formal or informal sectors in the following activities: agriculture, hunting and fishing, industry, construction and public works, trade and vending, food and beverages, transportation, and other services, including employment as household staff.

Primary education is compulsory for all children between ages six and 11. Children ages 12 to 13 were particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor, as they may have completed primary school but were younger than the minimum legal working age of 14.

Some parents indentured their children to “agents” recruiting farm hands or domestic workers, often on the understanding that the children’s wages would be sent to the parents. In some cases these agents took the children to neighboring countries to work, including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Ghana.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at   https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and labor code prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, and disability. The laws, however, do not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV or other communicable disease status. In general the government effectively enforced these laws and regulations in the formal sector. Women, however, experienced extensive discrimination because of legal restrictions on working in certain occupations (see section 6) and societal attitudes. Women’s wages consistently lagged those of men. According to the International Labor Organization Global Wage Report, in 2017 women on average earned 45 percent less per hour than men. Employment discrimination occurred in the private and public sectors. The prohibitions on discrimination did not apply to the large informal sector.

The labor code includes provisions to protect the employment rights of workers with disabilities, but many experienced discrimination in hiring and access to the worksite.

The Office of Labor is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Migrant workers in the formal sector enjoyed the same legal protections, wages, and working conditions as citizens in the formal sector.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government set minimum wage scales for several occupations in the formal sector that were slightly higher than the poverty level. According to the UN Development Program, 60 percent of the population–predominantly in the informal sector–lives on an income of $1.90 a day or less, a poverty-level income that is less than the minimum wage.

The labor code sets workweek hours at 40 to 60 hours, depending on the type of work, and provides for paid holidays and at least one 24-hour rest period per week. Domestic and agricultural workers frequently worked 70 hours or more per week, above the maximum of 12 hours per day or 60 hours per week provided for by the labor code. The labor code also mandates premium pay for overtime and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime.

The law establishes appropriate occupational safety and health standards (OSH). The government has the authority to require employers to remedy dangerous work conditions but did not effectively do so. Provisions of the law related to acceptable conditions of work apply to all formal-sector workers. Penalties for violating the labor code were commensurate with those for similar violations.

The Ministry of Labor and Civil Service and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Microcredit were responsible for enforcement of the minimum wage, workweek, and OSH standards. The ministries did not effectively enforce these standards, especially in the large informal sector. Significant parts of the workforce and foreign migrant workers working in the informal sector did not benefit from minimum wage scales. Authorities generally enforced legal limits on workweeks in the formal sector but did not effectively monitor or control foreign or migrant workers’ work conditions. Government efforts were impeded by the insufficient number of labor inspectors and lack of resources to implement inspections. Random inspections were conducted in some sectors, but no information was available on the number of violations identified or convictions of persons tried for violations. The law does not provide workers with the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

Many workers supplemented their wages by subsistence farming or informal sector trade. Most workers in the formal sector earned more than the minimum wage; many domestic and other laborers in the informal sector earned less. Violations of OSH standards mostly occurred in informal-sector trades, including hairdressing, dressmaking, baking, mechanics, and carpentry, where workers faced biological, chemical, physical, and psychological risks. Children involved in these trades as apprentices worked long hours and were more vulnerable to hazardous working conditions. In some mechanical and carpentry shops, children worked near dangerous tools and equipment, and some adults and children lacked adequate protective gear. According to various sources, informal workers accounted for more than 90 percent of workers in the country. Informal workers faced numerous challenges and vulnerabilities, including long working hours and no social security coverage. They often endured substandard working conditions and were exposed to occupational risks. No data on workplace fatalities and accidents were available.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

Bhutan is a democratic constitutional monarchy with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as head of state and Prime Minister Lotay Tshering as chief executive. In 2018 the country held its third general elections; approximately 71 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. International election observers reported the elections were generally free and fair.

The Royal Bhutan Army is responsible for defending against external threats, but also has responsibility for some internal security functions, including counterinsurgency operations, protection of forests, and security for prominent persons. The Royal Bhutan Police is responsible for all other internal security matters. The Royal Bhutan Police reports to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs while the king is the supreme commander in chief of the Royal Bhutan Army. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed no known abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: political prisoners; criminal libel laws; restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association; restrictions on domestic and international freedom of movement; and trafficking in persons.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Royal Bhutan Army has the authority to investigate and prosecute killings by members of the security forces. The Royal Bhutan Police have the authority to conduct a further investigation and turn the case over to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for prosecution.

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 prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were no separate prisons designated for women and children. The country’s Open-Air Prison (OAP) system reduced overcrowding and assisted inmates to prepare for reintegration into society. Prisoners who have served 75 percent of their sentence and exhibited good conduct are eligible for transfer to an OAP, according to UN figures. As of July, 683 inmates resided in 12 different OAP across the country, while 1,292 inmates had been released after serving their OAP tenure since the program’s inception, according to media reporting. One of the OAP is for women and their children, who are permitted to live there up to the age of nine years. Inmates enjoy more freedom at OAP than traditional prisons, including the ability to earn money by working in the community, have greater access to family members, move freely in the vicinity of the facility, and use mobile telephones.

Administration: Police administer the prison system. Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. There was no available information regarding recordkeeping on prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. In January 2019 an International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) mission visited the country and observed progress on detention and prison system standards in line with past ICRC recommendations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

In its preliminary findings conducted during a January 2019 visit to the country, a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted significant progress had been made on the arbitrary deprivation of liberty since prior visits in 1994 and 1996.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Under the law, police may only arrest a person with a court-issued warrant or probable cause. Police generally respected the law. Police may conduct “stop and frisk” searches only if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. Arresting authorities must issue an immediate statement of charges and engage in reasonable efforts to inform the family of the accused. The law requires authorities to bring an arrested person before a court within 24 hours, exclusive of travel time from the place of arrest. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited the country in January 2019, observing over 20 places of detention and confidentially interviewing more than 150 detained individuals. The vast majority of those interviewed confirmed that they had appeared before a judge for their first remand hearing within 24 hours of their arrival at a police station, which the UN working group noted was “a remarkable achievement.”

The law provides for prompt access to a lawyer and government provision of an attorney for indigent clients. Bail is available depending on the severity of charges and the suspect’s criminal record, flight risk, and potential threat to the public. In addition, bail can be granted after the execution of the bail bond agreement. Police can hold remanded suspects for 10 days pending investigation, which courts can extend to 49 days. In cases of “heinous” crimes, the period can then be extended to 108 days should the investigating officer show adequate grounds. The law expressly prohibits pretrial detention beyond 108 days. The law empowers the Anticorruption Commission to arrest a person having committed, or who is about to commit, a corruption-related offense. The arrested individual must make a court appearance within 24 hours. The UN working group found that while there were some dedicated pretrial detention facilities for children, there were no dedicated pretrial detention facilities for adults. Instead, police held pretrial detainees in police stations where they were the majority of detainees.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. The country’s courts generally function effectively, although Freedom House in its Freedom in the World 2020 report assessed the rulings of judges “often lacked consistency.”