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Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In 2017 the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters. Local elections took place in June 2019, but the main opposition party and others boycotted, accusing the government of electoral fraud. The organization’s observation mission to the local elections reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options, although voting “was conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner.” The organization identified credible allegations of vote buying as well as pressure on voters from both the ruling party and opposition parties.

The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police are primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces. The State Intelligence Service is responsible to the prime minister, gathers information, and carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were some reports of abuses by members of the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press; pervasive corruption in all branches of government and municipal institutions; and failure to enforce child labor laws.

Impunity remained a serious problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.

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

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

On December 8, State Police shot and killed a man in Tirana who was violating a COVID-19 curfew. The officer who shot him was arrested and a prosecutor is investigating the killing. There were no other reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Civilian law enforcement agencies such as the State Police investigated whether civilian security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions for civilian agencies. Military law enforcement conducted investigations of killings by the armed forces.

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were allegations that police and prison guards sometimes beat and abused suspects and prisoners, usually in police stations.

In the September 2019 report on its most recent visit in 2018 to a number of the country’s prisons and detention centers, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported receiving a significant number of allegations of mistreatment of criminal suspects by police officers. Most allegations involved use of excessive force at the time of or immediately following apprehension. Several allegations also concerned mistreatment during transport or initial questioning, apparently to extract a confession, obtain information, or as punishment. The alleged mistreatment consisted of slaps, punches, kicks, blows with a hard object, and excessively tight handcuffing.

The Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to investigations of police actions. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse during the year occurred during arrest and interrogation.

Impunity for police misconduct remained a problem, although the government made greater efforts to address it by increasing the use of camera evidence to document and prosecute police misconduct. The SIAC recorded an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions, and sanctions against officers for criminal and administrative violations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Poor physical conditions and a lack of medical care, particularly for mental health conditions, were serious problems, as was corruption. Conditions remained substandard in some police detention facilities outside of Tirana and other major urban centers.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the General Directorate of Prisons suspended family visits to reduce the spread of the virus. Authorities increased time for inmates’ telephone calls with their families and installed computers to enable communication through Skype. Lawyers could visit their clients but were required to use protective equipment and maintain physical distance. On March 23, the government granted a three-month leave to approximately 600 prisoners, allowing them to serve their sentences at home.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem in some facilities. The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) and the Office of the Ombudsman reported overcrowding in Zaharia prison in Kruje.

Prison and detention center conditions varied significantly by age and type of facility. Prisoners complained prison authorities left the lights on in their cells all day; this measure is required by law. Prison facilities in Kruja, Lushnja, Rrogozhina, Saranda, Lezha, and Tepelena were reported by the Office of the Ombudsman to have urgent infrastructure issues.

The Office of the Ombudsman and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that authorities held inmates with mental disabilities in regular prisons, where access to mental health care was inadequate. Since 2018 the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health have tried to accommodate Zaharia inmates and detainees in the prison in Lezha. The AHC and ombudsman reported the government had not taken measures to turn the planned buildings in the Lezha prison into a special medical institution. The Ministry of Justice is constructing a prison for inmates over the age of 60 that is scheduled for completion in 2021.

With the exception of regional facilities in Tirana (excluding its commissariats, which are smaller units falling under regional police directorates), Durres, Gjirokaster, Kukes, Fier, and Korca, conditions in facilities operated by the Ministry of Interior, such as police stations and temporary detention facilities, were inadequate in some respects. Some detention facilities in remote areas were unheated during the winter, and some lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks. Facilities were cramped, provided limited access to toilets, and had little or no ventilation, natural light, or beds and benches. Camera monitoring systems were nonexistent or insufficient in most police stations. The ombudsman reported that detention facilities operated by the Interior Ministry were overcrowded mainly due to increased numbers of arrests for recently added criminal offenses and a lack of coordination with, and delays, including delays in setting trials, from the Ministry of Justice.

Administration: The ombudsman reported that prison and police officials generally cooperated with investigations. The General Directorate of Prisons received 173 complaints through November, mostly regarding employment decisions or corruption in the penitentiary system, while the ombudsman received 141 complaints from detainees and inmates through August, but did not refer any cases for prosecution.

Corruption continued to be a serious problem in detention centers, particularly in connection with access to work and special release programs. In 2018 the former general director of prisons, Arben Cuko, was arrested on corruption charges. In January the court closed the case against Cuko after reducing the charges several times. In July the director of Lushnja prison, Judmir Shurdhi, and another prison staff member were arrested for the unauthorized release of a convict. As of October, their case continued to be under investigation. Through July the General Directorate of Prisons reported that it had carried out disciplinary proceedings against 422 prison staff and had fired an additional 33. Through August the directorate dismissed six prison directors, and four more were under investigation.

In July the Assembly adopted legislation to minimize communications between organized crime and gang members in prison and their outside contacts to prevent them from running criminal organizations while incarcerated. Through August seven inmates were placed under this regime.

Through August the AHC reported one suspicious death in the Jordan Misja prison in Tirana, for which an inmate with a mental disability was charged and tried. The committee alleged prosecutors and judges in the case violated criminal procedures by denying the defendant the right to a lawyer and using excessive security measures on a person with a mental disability.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed local and international human rights groups, the media, and international bodies such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture to monitor prisons and detention facilities.

Due to the pandemic, the ombudsman and other organizations monitoring the penitentiary system were forced to telework. The ombudsman did not conduct physical inspections of prisons during the year.

Improvements: The ombudsman and the AHC confirmed an overall decrease in prison overcrowding due to new infrastructure and amnesties. Nevertheless some penitentiary facilities were still overcrowded.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that, except for arrests made during the commission of a crime, police arrest a suspect on criminal grounds with a warrant issued by a judge and based on sufficient evidence. There were no reports of secret arrests. By law, police must immediately inform a prosecutor of an arrest. The prosecutor may release the suspect or petition the court within 48 hours to hold the individual further. A court must also decide within 48 hours whether to place a suspect in detention, require bail, prohibit travel, or require the defendant to report regularly to police. Prosecutors requested, and courts ordered, detention in many criminal cases, although courts sometimes denied prosecutors’ requests for detention of well connected, high-profile defendants.

By law and based on a prosecutor’s request, the court has 72 hours to review pretrial detention status of a court-ordered arrest. Police may detain rather than formally arrest a suspect for a period not exceeding 10 hours. Due to overcrowding in the prison system, detainees, including juveniles, occasionally remained in police detention centers for longer than the 10-hour legal maximum.

The ombudsman reported that police used excessive force when arresting protesters who took part in rallies, mainly in Tirana. The ombudsman received several complaints of excessive use of force and injuries from tear gas during those protests and referred one case for prosecution. Protests against the municipality of Tirana’s demolition of the National Theater on May 17 resulted in 64 arrests, charged with disobeying law enforcement and participating in illegal gatherings (violating curfew imposed to counter the spread of COVID-19).

The constitution requires authorities to inform detainees immediately of their rights and the charges against them. Law enforcement authorities did not always respect this requirement. The law provides for bail and a system is operational; police frequently release detainees without bail, on the condition that they report regularly to the police station. Courts also often ordered suspects to report to police or prosecutors on a weekly basis. While the law gives detainees the right to prompt access to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, NGOs reported interrogations often took place without the presence of a lawyer. Authorities placed many suspects under house arrest, often at their own request, because they would receive credit for time served if convicted.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Although the government generally observed these prohibitions, there were instances when police detained persons for questioning for inordinate lengths of time without formally arresting them.

Pretrial Detention: While the law requires completion of most pretrial investigations within three months, a prosecutor may extend this period. The law provides that pretrial detention should not exceed three years. Extended pretrial detention often occurred due to delayed investigations, defense mistakes, or the intentional failure of defense counsel to appear. The law authorizes judges to hold offending attorneys in contempt of court. Limited material resources, lack of space, poor court-calendar management, insufficient staff, and failure of attorneys and witnesses to appear prevented the court system from adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As of August, 47 percent of the prison and detention center population was in pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently. Court hearings were often not open to the public. Court security officers frequently refused to admit observers to hearings and routinely telephoned the presiding judge to ask whether to admit an individual seeking to attend a hearing. Some agencies disregarded court orders.

The government continued to implement an internationally monitored process to vet judges and prosecutors and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of November, 45 percent of judges and prosecutors who had undergone vetting had failed and been dismissed, 37 percent passed, and 18 percent resigned. As a result, the Constitutional Court had only four of nine judges seated for most of the year, depriving it of a quorum to decide on cases pending review. In December, parliament and the president added three more judges to the court, reaching a quorum of seven of nine judges. The Supreme Court had only three of 19 judges seated. Those judges did not constitute a quorum to decide cases but have begun to reduce the backlog of cases, which requires just three judges.

The politicization of past appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court at times threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The implementation of justice reform provisions led to a pause in normal disciplinary processes while the country establishes independent disciplinary bodies. Since its establishment in February, the High Justice Inspectorate, which conducts disciplinary investigations, approved six decisions to start disciplinary investigations against magistrates. In July the High Justice Inspectorate initiated disciplinary proceedings on human rights violations against a prosecutor and submitted its findings to the High Prosecutorial Council.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult an attorney. If they cannot afford one, an attorney is to be provided at public expense. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to an attorney was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must petition a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, courts were susceptible to corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tampering. These factors undermined the judiciary’s authority, contributed to controversial court decisions, and led to an inconsistent application of civil law. Courts have taken steps to address the issue by using audio recording equipment. Despite the statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from this during the year. The Ministry of Justice established the Free Legal Aid Directorate, law clinics at state universities, an online platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a telephone line to request free legal aid to address these issues.

Claimants who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings, especially those concerning the right to a fair trial. The Office of the Ombudsman expressed its concern about the increasing number of cases before the ECHR, the country’s low rate of compliance with judicial decisions, and the failure to execute the final rulings of courts and the ECHR.

Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government made some progress on disbursing compensation during the year.

Property Restitution

The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that some claimants struggled to obtain due process from the government for property claims. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for the Treatment of Property. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR, and many cases were pending ECHR review. The ombudsman reported that as of June, 39 cases against the state were before the ECHR, involving millions of euros in claims. The ombudsman reported that the government generally paid judgements against the state according to the timeframe set by the ECHR. The Assembly enacted legislation in April that allows owners to claim restitution or compensation for agricultural property the communist government collectivized.

The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscation of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.

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 laws prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence, but there were reports that the government failed to respect those prohibitions. The Tirana Prosecution Office referred two cases to trial after conducting investigations.

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 usually respected these rights, although defamation is a criminal offense. There were reports that the government, businesses, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. There were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption.

Business owners freely used their media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. There were credible reports of senior media representatives using media outlets to blackmail businesses by threatening unfavorable, sometimes factual and sometimes speculative, media coverage. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union (AJU) continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at many media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. According to the journalist union, the pandemic worsened these delays. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity in reporting.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 900-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial, political, and criminal interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views as well as opportunities for corruption.

Violence and Harassment: The AJU reported five cases of violence and intimidation through November against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure. In March the police detained a reporter following the asylum petition of Turkish citizen Selami Simsek (see subsection on Access to Asylum below) for several hours. In June the police detained a reporter for several hours while he was filming a demolition operation in Lezha. The police gave no reason for the detention. In October an explosion occurred at the gate of the house of News 24 TV correspondent Elidon Ndreka; no injuries were reported. The AJU condemned the incidents and called on authorities to punish perpetrators.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment. The AJU cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists. A survey of 800 media professionals published in 2019 found that 62 percent of respondents thought there was interference from individuals or politics, 60 percent thought there was interference from media owners, 39 percent thought there was self-censorship, and 31 percent thought there was corruption in the media. About 78 percent of media professionals thought there were journalists who engaged in corrupt practices to misreport stories.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines were excessive and, combined with the entry of a criminal conviction into the defendant’s record, undermined freedom of expression. The AJU expressed concern that as of August, there were more than 20 lawsuits against journalists, mainly for defamation.

In 2019 the Assembly passed legislation, the so-called antidefamation package, which amended existing media laws to address defamation. NGOs and some international organizations criticized the amendments, sparking public debate, and the president returned the law to parliament on January 11.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports 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 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.

In-country Movement: To receive government services, citizens changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many individuals could not provide documentation and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register. In September media reported on cases in which the Interior Ministry, while preparing voter lists for national elections scheduled for April 2021, had transferred the residency of some citizens without their knowledge. The ministry corrected a number of these transfers.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported some cases of border police returning migrants to Greece despite indicating an intention to seek asylum.

Authorities detained 7,404 irregular migrants who entered the country between January and August, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. Migrants who claimed asylum were housed at the Babrru open migrant facility. Many of the irregular migrants placed in Babrru were later apprehended again attempting to cross into Montenegro rather than remaining in the country to pursue asylum requests. Karrec and Babrru centers faced funding constraints, and the government closed the Babrru center temporarily to assess wear and tear to the facility and estimate needed repairs.

Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the access of arrivals to national procedures and return of persons to countries from which they arrived. The ombudsman and Caritas were also allowed to monitor the detention of migrants.

Refoulement: The January 1 expulsion of Harun Celik, a citizen of Turkey and alleged follower of Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government claimed was behind the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, raised questions about Celik’s access to asylum. Celik had been arrested in 2019 in Tirana International Airport for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. When Celik finished his prison sentence, border authorities expelled him from the country and placed him on a flight to Turkey, despite assertions that Celik had requested asylum. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, along with other UN bodies, opened an inquiry, including the question of whether or not this was a case of refoulement.

Celik’s compatriate and alleged follower of Gulen, Selami Simsek, was also arrested in 2019 for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. Simsek was released from prison on March 9 but remained in the Karrec closed-migrant facility. Media reported that Simsek was taken to the Interior Ministry at 9 p.m.–outside working hours–on March 9 after his release from prison for an interview regarding his asylum application. The ministry denied the application the same day, and the National Commission on Asylum and Refugees rejected his appeal on September 10. It was disputed whether Simsek was provided adequate notice of either decision. The Turkish government continues to press for summary return of Simsek and others alleged to be connected to Fethullah Gulen.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the social care and other services due to limited issuance of identification cards. Caritas and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.

The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law limits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or being granted refugee status. UNHCR reported that one asylum request had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.

Employment: While the law permits refugees to work, they must first obtain Albanian citizenship to receive identification cards and work permits.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, approximately 700 persons at risk of statelessness were identified under the agency’s statelessness mandate by November. The government does not have data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country. The law allows stateless persons to acquire citizenship under certain conditions, although there is no separate legislation that specifically addresses citizenship for stateless persons. UNHCR reported that new legislation on citizenship significantly reduced the risk of statelessness in the country.

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: The most recent national parliamentary elections took place in 2017. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission for the elections reported that contestants “were able to campaign freely and fundamental freedoms were respected.” The OSCE further noted the “continued politicization of election-related bodies and institutions as well as widespread allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters detracted from public trust in the electoral process.” Regarding voting itself, the OSCE mission noted “an overall orderly election day” but found that “important procedures were not fully respected in a considerable number of voting centers observed.”

Local elections took place in June 2019. The main opposition party and others boycotted the elections, alleging government collusion with organized crime to commit electoral fraud. The OSCE election observation mission reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, “voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options” and “there were credible allegations of citizens being pressured by both sides.”

Political Parties and Political Participation: Media outlets reported allegations of the use of public resources for partisan campaign purposes in the 2017 parliamentary and 2019 local elections, and there were reports of undue political influence on the media. There were also reports of limited access to voting for persons with disabilities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Following the 2017 elections, the share of Assembly members who were women increased to a record 29 percent, and following a major cabinet reshuffle the female senior government officials rose to 53 percent. The law governing the election of Assembly members requires that 30 percent of candidates be women and that they occupy 30 percent of appointed and elected positions. According to the OSCE final report on the 2017 elections, however, the largest parties did not always respect the mandated 30 percent quota in their candidate lists. The Central Election Commission fined the parties but nonetheless accepted their lists.

Members of national minorities stood as candidates in both minority and mainstream parties in the 2017 parliamentary elections and 2019 local elections. Observers noted campaigning in the Greek and Macedonian languages without incident. Nevertheless, observers reported that some minorities remained vulnerable to vote buying. One Balkan-Egyptian candidate joined the Assembly as a member when the Central Election Commission replaced members of the opposition who resigned from the body in February 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, and also prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from serving as mayors, parliamentarians, or in government or state positions, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Examples include a 2019 mayoral candidate previously convicted of drug trafficking.

The constitution requires judges and prosecutors to undergo vetting for unexplained wealth, ties to organized crime, and professional competence. The Independent Qualification Commission conducted vetting, and the Appeals Chamber reviewed contested decisions. The International Monitoring Operation, composed of international judicial experts, oversaw the process. As of November, 125 judges and prosecutors were dismissed, 103 confirmed, while 48 others had resigned rather than undergo vetting.

Several government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations.

Corruption: Between January and September, the prosecutor general’s office registered 20 new corruption cases and dismissed seven. The Department of Administration, Transparency, and Anticorruption investigated 29 cases, resulting in 115 administrative and 153 disciplinary measures.

The December 2019 establishment of the Special Prosecution Office on Corruption and Organized Crime, one of two entities constituting the Special Structure on Anticorruption and Organized Crime, resulted in 327 new criminal investigations and 65 requests sent to court as of November. While prosecutors made significant progress in pursuing low-level public corruption cases, including corrupt prosecutors and judges, prosecution of higher-level suspects remained rare due to investigators’ fear of retribution, a lack of resources, and corruption within the judiciary itself. In September the appellate court remanded the conviction of a former interior minister for retrial. In November the Special Prosecution Office filed charges against a former prosecutor general for hiding assets and seized several of those assets in December.

The High Inspectorate reported that through August, it had referred 60 new cases for prosecution, involving two Assembly members, one deputy minister, three mayors, 32 general directors of public agencies, one head of public procurement at customs, and five heads of regional customs departments. Charges included refusing to declare assets, hiding assets, or falsifying asset declarations; money laundering; tax evasion; falsification of documents; and general corruption.

Police corruption remained a problem. Through June the SIAC received 5,051 complaints via an anticorruption hotline, of which 1,819 were within the jurisdiction of the service and 3,232 were referred to other agencies. Through November the SIAC investigated 1,016 complaints. Most of the complaints alleged a failure to act, violation of standard operating procedures, abuse of office, arbitrary action, police bias, unfair fines, and passive corruption. SIAC referred to the prosecution 202 cases involving 299 officials. The Office of the Ombudsman also processed complaints against police officers, mainly concerning problems with arrests and detentions.

Police did not always enforce the law equitably. Personal associations, political or criminal connections, deficient infrastructure, lack of equipment, and inadequate supervision often influenced law enforcement. Authorities continued to address these problems by renovating police facilities, upgrading vehicles, and publicly highlighting anticorruption measures. The government has established a system of vetting security officials and, as of November, had completed vetting 32 high-level police and SIAC leaders.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interest, which monitored and verified such disclosures and made them available to the public. The law authorizes the High Inspectorate to fine officials who fail to comply with disclosure requirements or to refer them to the prosecutor.

Through August the High Inspectorate fined 10 individuals for not disclosing their assets or conflicts of interest or for violating the law on whistleblower protection. Courts generally upheld fines imposed by the High Inspectorate.

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 generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is the main independent institution for promoting and enforcing human rights. It is authorized by law to monitor and report on prisons and detention centers. The office may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights violations.

The Office of the Ombudsman was underfunded and understaffed.

The Assembly has committees on legal issues, public administration, and human rights, which review the annual report of the Office of the Ombudsman. The committee was engaged and effective in legislative matters.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime; the law also includes provisions on sexual assault. Penalties for rape and sexual assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the penalty is three to 10 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Authorities did not disaggregate data on prosecutions for spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

The law on domestic violence extends protection to victims in a relationship or civil union and provides for issuance of a protective order that automatically covers children as well. In November the Assembly amended the law to provide for ordering the abuser to leave the premises of the victim. Police operated an automated application issuance process within the police case management system, which allows for rapid issuance of protective orders and produces a record of orders issued. Through November the system was used to document the generation of 2,324 protective orders.

In April the Ministry of Health and Social Protection approved a protocol for operating shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol provides services to victims of domestic violence and trafficking while following guidance on social distancing. The ministry posted a video message reminding citizens to report any case of suspected domestic violence and provided a hotline and police number on its web page.

As of November, investigators and prosecutors had registered 81 cases of alleged sexual assault. Also through November, investigators and prosecutors registered 4,313 cases of domestic violence, six of which were murders. UNICEF reported 370 cases of domestic violence through August, with fewer cases referred in 2020 than in 2019. NGOs reported high levels of domestic violence against women. According to a 2018 survey of women between the ages of 18 and 74 that the UN Development Program released in March 2019, 52.9 percent of women surveyed reported having been subjected to violence or sexual harassment during their lifetimes.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that also accommodated victims of domestic violence. In 2018 the government began operating a crisis management center for victims of sexual assault at the Tirana University Hospital Center. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection reported that as of December, the center had treated 20 victims, 14 of whom were minors.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection from discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. There are no legal barriers to access to contraceptives, which are provided free of charge to insured women. Nevertheless, women and girls often did not use this right for a variety of reasons, including fear of stigma from health-care service providers and members of their community. Some women and girls, particularly those living in remote, rural areas, faced significant challenges in accessing essential sexual and reproductive health services. Women from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as women with disabilities, LGBTI community members, Roma, and Balkan Egyptian women, were often unaware of their rights to reproductive health services.

In 2018 the Ministry of Health and Social Protection established the Lilium Center with the support of UNDP to provide integrated services to survivors of sexual violence. The center is in a hospital setting and provides health care services, social services, and forensic examinations at a single location by professionals trained in cases of sexual violence. The center functions are based on the model adopted by the Albanian National Council for Gender Equality.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were underrepresented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. Through August the commissioner for protection from discrimination received 83 complaints of employment discrimination, 54 of which were against public entities and 29 against private entities. The complaints alleged discrimination based mainly on political affiliation, health conditions, or disability. The commissioner ruled in favor of the employee in nine cases, five of which were against public entities and four against private entities. Through August the commissioner had received 11 complaints of discrimination on the basis of gender and ruled in favor of the employee in one case. In that case, the commissioner for protection from discrimination ruled against the Trans Adriatica Spiecapag company for dismissing a female employee due to her pregnancy, status as a parent, and gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to official figures, in 2019 the ratio of boys to girls at birth was 108 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children. The law on civil status provides financial incentives for birth registration.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad, frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and members of other minorities.

Children in first through fourth grade are legally entitled to free textbooks. Because of the need to use online class delivery during the pandemic, the government offered free schoolbooks to students from the first to the seventh grade; children with special needs were eligible for free schoolbooks from the first through the twelfth grade.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law; the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography, which is punishable by imprisonment for three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that as of November, 13 children had been sexually exploited none of them involving pornography. In early June, reports emerged of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and later sexually exploited; videos of the abuse were posted online. The case has gone to trial.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Some street children begged and some of them became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open-migrant facility in Babrru.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and municipalities have not used this option frequently.

Through August the General Directorate of Prisons reported that there were 17 juveniles in the justice system, none of whom had been convicted. The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children, although the Juvenile Institute in Kavaja, the only institution in the country for juvenile offenders, was adequate for the population it served. The directorate reported that the number of minors in pretrial detention and detention facilities had decreased because of alternative sentencing.

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.

Anti-Semitism

Reports indicated that there were 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. In September Valentina Leskaj, a former government minister, joined the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement Advisory Board, becoming its first Muslim member.

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 constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law.

As of August the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received two complaints of alleged discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ruled in favor of the complainants in five cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against the local education office in Elbasan for refusing to hire a teacher because of her disability.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were in facilities that lacked accessibility or other accommodations. A 2018 study by World Vision and Save the Children reported that none of the 10 municipalities surveyed had a plan to eliminate barriers to information, communication, and mobility for persons with disabilities, or a dedicated budget to address the problem.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if the students appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received 12 complaints of discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity, ruling in favor of the complainant in two cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against Fier municipality and its water and sewage utility for discriminating against Romani households. The commissioner ordered the municipality and utility to supply running water to the families. When the municipality and utility did not respond, the commissioner imposed fines.

The government adopted legislation on official minorities in 2017 but has not passed all the regulations needed for its implementation. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The legislation provides for minority language education and dual official language use for the local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the commission started ex officio and ruled that discrimination had occurred.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with HIV or AIDS. The Association of People Living with HIV or AIDS reported that stigma and discrimination caused individuals to avoid getting tested for HIV, leading to delayed diagnosis and consequently delayed access to care and support. Persons living with HIV or AIDS faced employment discrimination, and children living with HIV faced discrimination in school.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law and related regulations and statutes provide the right for most workers to form independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law prohibits members of the military and senior government officials from joining unions and requires that a trade union have at least 20 members to be registered. The law provides the right to strike for all workers except indispensable medical and hospital personnel, persons providing air traffic control or prison services, and fire brigades. Strike action is prohibited in “special cases,” such as a natural catastrophe, a state of war, extraordinary situations, and cases where the freedom of elections is at risk. Workers not excluded by their positions exercised their right to strike.

The law provides limited protection to domestic and migrant workers. Labor unions were generally weak and politicized. Workers who engage in illegal strikes may be compelled to pay for any damages due to the strike action.

Government enforcement of the law remained largely ineffective, in part due to the extent of informal employment. Resources for conducting inspections and remedying violations were not adequate. Penalties were rarely enforced and were not commensurate to those under other laws related to the denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Arbitration procedures allowed for significant delays that limited worker protections against antiunion activity.

Civilian workers in all fields have the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law establishes procedures for the protection of workers’ rights through collective bargaining agreements. Unions representing public sector employees negotiated directly with the government. Effective collective bargaining remained difficult because employers often resisted union organizing and activities. In this environment collective bargaining agreements, once reached, were difficult to enforce.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. Lack of coordination among ministries and the sporadic implementation of standard operating procedures hampered enforcement. Penalties for violations were commensurate to those for other serious crimes but were seldom enforced. Some law enforcement organizations and the victim advocates at the prosecutors’ offices received training in a victim-centered approach to victims of human trafficking. The government continued to identify victims of forced labor and prosecuted and convicted a small number of traffickers.

The Labor Inspectorate reported no cases of forced labor in the formal sector during the year. See section 7.c. for cases involving children in forced labor in the informal sector.

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 sets the minimum age of employment at 16 but allows children at the age of 15 to be employed in “light” work that does not interfere with school. Children younger than 18 may generally only work in jobs categorized as “light.” Children may work up to two hours per day and up to 10 hours per week when school is in session, and up to six hours per day and 30 hours per week when school is not in session. Children who are 16 or 17 may work up to six hours per day and up to 30 hours per week if the labor is part of their vocational education. By law, the State Inspectorate for Labor and Social Services (SILSS), under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, is responsible for enforcing minimum age requirements through the courts, but it did not adequately enforce the law.

Labor inspectors investigated the formal labor sector, whereas most child labor occurred in the informal sector. Children engaged in gathering recyclable metals and plastic, small-scale agricultural harvesting, selling small goods in the informal sector, serving drinks and food in bars and restaurants, the clothing industry, and mining. There were reports that children worked as shop vendors, vehicle washers, textile factory workers, or shoeshine boys. There were isolated reports of children subjected to forced labor in cannabis fields in 2019. The number of children engaged in street-related activities (such as begging or selling items) increased during the summer, particularly around tourist areas.

Children were subjected to forced begging and criminal activity. Some of the children begging on the street were second- or third-generation beggars. Research suggested that begging started as early as the age of four or five. While the law prohibits the exploitation of children for begging, police generally did not enforce it, although they made greater efforts to do so during the year. In several cases, police detained parents of children found begging in the street and referred children for appropriate child services care. The State Agency on Children’s Rights continued to identify and manage cases of street children identified by mobile identification units.

In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the government’s statistical agency and the International Labor Organization estimated that 54,000 children were engaged in forced labor domestically. An estimated 43,000 children worked in farms and fishing, 4,400 in the services sector, and 2,200 in hotels and restaurants. Nearly 5 percent of children were child laborers.

SILSS did not carry out inspections for child labor unless there was a specific complaint. Most labor inspections occurred in shoe and textile factories, call centers, and retail enterprises; officials found some instances of child labor during their inspections. Penalties were rarely assessed and were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. As of July, SILSS reported 101 children under the age of 18 registered to work, 88 percent of whom were in manufacturing enterprises.

The NGO Terre des Hommes reported that the COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened child labor violations. Restriction of movement and other measures against COVID-19 produced new exploitation trends, such as door-to-door begging and afternoon and night street work.

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

Labor laws prohibit employment discrimination because of race, skin color, gender, age, physical or mental disability, political beliefs, language, nationality, religion, family, HIV/AIDS status, or social origin. The government did not enforce the law and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws related to denials of civil rights. The commissioner for protection from discrimination reported that most allegations of discrimination involved race, sexual orientation, economic status, or disability.

There are laws prohibiting women from engaging in work that requires lifting more than 20 kilograms.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the national poverty threshold. SILSS and tax authorities are responsible for enforcing the minimum wage but had an insufficient number of staff to enforce compliance.

While the law establishes a 40-hour work week, individual or collective agreements typically set the actual work week. The law provides for paid annual holidays, but only employees in the formal labor market had rights to paid holidays. Many persons in the private sector worked six days a week. The law requires rest periods and premium pay for overtime, but employers did not always observe these provisions. The government rarely enforced laws related to maximum work hours, limits on overtime, or premium pay for overtime, especially in the private sector. These laws did not apply to migrant workers or workers in the informal sector, which made up 56 percent of the economy, according to the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Overview of the Informal Economy in Albania.

SILSS is responsible for occupational health and safety standards and regulations, and while these were appropriate for the main industries, enforcement was lacking overall. Violations of wage and occupational safety standards occurred most frequently in the textile, footwear, construction, and mining industries. Resources and inspections were not adequate, and penalties were not commensurate to those of other similar crimes. Law enforcement agencies lacked the tools to enforce collection and consequently rarely charged violators. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors did have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

Workers often could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Employers did not effectively protect employees in this situation. Through October there were 137 major industrial accidents that caused death or serious injury to workers.

Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister, elected by parliament, heads the government; the president, also elected by parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During 2018 parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into general civilian and military criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. The National Security Service and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president upon the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the heads of the Special Investigative Service and Investigative Committee upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, re-established control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan near Tavush from July 12 to July 16. Following the September 27 outbreak of hostilities, the government declared martial law under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. The restrictions were lifted December 2, and only provisions for partial mobilization of troops remained in effect at year’s end. (See sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan for conflict-related abuses.)

Significant human rights issues included: torture; arbitrary detention, although with fewer reports than in 2019; harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting civil society figures and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and use of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings and civilian casualties.

The government took steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. For example, throughout the year, an investigation continued into the culpability of former high-ranking government officials surrounding events that led to the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers during postelection protests in 2008.

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.

Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns over noncombat deaths in the army and the failure of law enforcement bodies to conduct credible investigations into those deaths. During the year there were major personnel changes in the army, and some observers noted a drastic decrease of suicides in the army following the appointments as well as increased public attention to the problem.

According to civil society organizations and families of the victims, the practice of qualifying many noncombat deaths as suicides at the onset of investigations made it less likely that abuses would be uncovered and investigated. According to human rights lawyers, the biggest obstacle to investigation of military deaths was the destruction or nonpreservation of key evidence, both by the military command (in cases of internal investigations) and by the specific investigation body working on a case. In addition, human rights NGOs disagreed with the statistics on military deaths presented by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense, citing arbitrary decision making as to whether the deaths were classified as related or not related to military service. They also decried the government’s failure to provide the public with prompt and complete information on nonmilitary deaths. The NGO Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor reported a doubling in the number of reported suicides in the army in the first half of the year, as compared with 2019.

On February 2, the family and community members of military conscript Vahram Avagyan, who allegedly committed suicide on January 30, attempted to bring his body to Yerevan and blocked the Armavir-Yerevan road in protest against the investigative body’s declaration that Avagyan’s death was a suicide. Following then minister of defense Davit Tonoyan’s personal assurance that a proper investigation would be conducted and any culprits punished, the family returned to their village to hold the funeral. On the same day, the Investigative Committee reported the arrest of three of Avagyan’s fellow conscripts–Davit Movsisyan, Khachik Gasparyan, and Spartak Avetisyan–on charges of violating statutory relations leading to grave consequences.

Responding to a question during a February 12 National Assembly session, Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that noncombat military deaths were caused by the continued existence of a criminal subculture throughout society. Human rights activists asserted, however, that the criminal subculture, which they agreed was prevalent in the military, was not created by conscripts but instead created and maintained by officers and commanders. Human rights NGOs reported that improvements to material conditions, food quality, and safety at duty locations were carried out prior to the September 27 to November 10 fighting but called on authorities to take concrete measures to punish those maintaining the criminal subculture.

On February 28, then deputy minister of defense Gabriel Balayan stated that human rights defenders’ call on authorities to seek out elements of a criminal subculture among the command staff was destructive, averred that they revel at each new unfortunate event, and stated that law enforcement bodies would soon look into the organizations and their funding. On February 29, the NGO Human Rights House condemned Balayan’s statements, called upon authorities to refrain from attempts to discredit human rights defenders and threaten them with legal action, to examine if there were grounds to discipline Balayan and have him issue an apology, and for the Defense Ministry to take measures to strengthen public oversight over the armed forces.

In response to continued demands from families whose sons died in the army under noncombat conditions, on August 3, Prime Minister Pashinyan signed a decree to form a working group to look into eight outstanding criminal cases. Consisting of three independent attorneys and three experts from the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister’s Office, the group was reportedly granted full access to case materials without having to go through law enforcement structures that the families stated they do not trust. In October 2019 the government approved the Judicial and Legal Reform Strategy for 2019-2023 and action plan for its implementation that envisage the creation of a fact-finding group to examine noncombat deaths, among other human rights problems. The action plan’s deadline, however, for adopting relevant legislation and establishing the commission was not met.

During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (also see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

On December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the cutting of an Azerbaijani border guard’s throat while the guard was gagged and bound, and it assessed that the guard received a wound that led to his death. According to Amnesty, Azerbaijani media named the border guard as Ismail Irapov. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”

For example, on October 4, Human Rights Watch reported “Armenian forces” struck Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city located about 28 miles from the areas involved in active fighting at the time. Azerbaijani government officials reported one civilian was killed and 32 injured as a result of the missile strike. On October 17, another Armenian missile struck Ganja, killing 14 civilians.

On October 30, Human Rights Watch reported that on October 28, Armenian or separatist forces fired cluster munitions from a Smerch installation, striking the Azerbaijani town of Barda, located approximately 10 miles east of the front. The Armenian Ministry of Defense denied allegations that Armenian forces had conducted the attack. It later published a list of military targets it claimed were located in Barda. The Azerbaijani government reported that 26 civilians were killed on October 27 and 28 in attacks on the city, including a humanitarian aid worker from Azerbaijan’s Red Crescent Society, confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”

On December 11, Human Rights Watch documented 11 incidents in which “Armenian forces” used ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and large-caliber artillery projectiles, which Human Rights Watch reported resulted in the deaths and injuries of dozens of civilians.

Authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting. The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the conflict.

There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.

There was no progress in the investigation into the 2018 death of Armen Aghajanyan, who was found hanged in the Nubarashen National Center for Mental Health where he had been transferred from Nubarashen Penitentiary for a psychological assessment. His family believed Aghajanyan was killed to prevent his identification of penitentiary guards who beat him prior to his transfer to the hospital. One of the alleged attackers, Major Armen Hovhannisyan, was initially charged with torture and falsification of documents, but the trial court requalified his actions as exceeding official authority and released him on the basis of a 2018 amnesty. During the year the family appealed the decision to the court of appeal with no success. The investigation into the death continued.

During the year hearings continued into a high-profile case against former officials for their alleged involvement in sending the military to break up protests following the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. Charges filed in this and associated criminal cases included allegations of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in bribery, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 postelection events.

High-profile suspects in the cases included former president Robert Kocharyan, former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, former police chief Alik Sargsyan, former prosecutor general Gevorg Kostanyan, and others. In July 2019 Kocharyan was charged with overthrowing the constitutional order in connection with the violent suppression of protests in 2008. On June 19, Kocharyan, who also faced corruption charges, was released after paying two billion drams bail (approximately four million dollars). As of May 19, the case against Gegham Petrosyan, a former deputy police commander charged in June 2019 with the murder of Zakar Hovhannisyan during suppression of the protests remained under investigation.

In September family members of victims of the postelection violence in 2008 announced they would refuse to attend further court hearings, given that two years into the trial, the court had not yet started discussing the merits of the case, following countless motions and appeals, often similar, by the defense. The families accused the defense of purposely dragging out the process and blamed the Prosecutor General’s Office for turning the trial into a farce and not taking effective measures to move the case forward.

b. Disappearance

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

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Armenians and Azerbaijanis remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. According to police, as of 2019 a total of 867 Armenians were missing from the conflict in the 1990s. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting. At year’s end the government was working to clarify the number missing.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces continued to torture or otherwise abuse individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, it does not criminalize other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials for torture since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code.

According to human rights activists, impunity for past instances of law enforcement abuse continued to contribute to the persistence of the problem. Furthermore, observers contended that the failure to prosecute past cases was linked to the lack of change in the composition of law enforcement bodies since the 2018 political transition, other than at the top leadership level.

On May 22, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor published a report on torture and degrading treatment, the third of a series of reports on the human rights situation in the country under the state of emergency to combat COVID-19. In the period covered by the report (March 16 to May 16), the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor received eight complaints from citizens alleging police had subjected them to degrading treatment, torture, or physical and psychological violence. According to the report, these numbers exceeded the number of similar cases registered under normal circumstances and indicated that some police officers took advantage of their broadened authorities under the state of emergency. There were no reports of police officers being held responsible for these wrongdoings.

On September 13, weight-lifting champion Armen Ghazaryan filed a police report stating that police officers from Yerevan’s Nor Nork district had kidnapped and tortured him. According to the report, which he provided to the media, on September 6, Ghazaryan was outside an acquaintance’s home in Yerevan when he witnessed plainclothes police officers apprehending a person. When he asked the officers what they were doing, he was “kidnapped” by the officers in their personal car. According to Ghazaryan, they told him they would “break him too, fold him up,” while beating him and cursing. Ghazaryan said that he later discovered the officers had detained the other man due to a personal dispute involving one of the officers. While in the police station, Ghazaryan was beaten by a group of officers, heard sounds of beatings coming from another room, and was subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment. He said the beating made it hard for him to breathe and that he was not sure he would make it out of the station alive. He was released after three hours, after being forced to sign papers he was not permitted to read. A medical examination indicated chest and lung injuries. Ghazaryan reported that after he filed a police report, employees of the Nor Nork police department began pressuring him to recant his testimony, threatening to frame him if he did not. Ghazaryan said that he was more shocked by the level of impunity the officers believed they enjoyed than by the violence done to him. On September 17, the SIS announced that it had opened a criminal case on charges of torture and, on September 25, announced it had arrested three officers on torture charges and the department chief on charges of abuse of authority for trying to interfere with the internal investigation following Ghazaryan’s complaint. On December 15, SIS forwarded the case against the three officers, who remained under pretrial detention, to the trial court on charges of torture. On November 30, authorities dropped the charges against the chief of the department, citing his repentance.

There were reports of abuse in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. Criminal justice bodies continued to rely on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient. According to human rights lawyers, the videotaping in police stations was not effective in providing safeguards against abuse, given that the same police stations had control over the servers storing the recordings and were able to manipulate them.

There was no progress in the investigation of the April 2019 death of Edgar Tsatinyan, who died in a hospital after having been transferred from Yerevan’s Nor Nork Police Department, where he had been in custody. Tsatinyan died of a drug overdose after swallowing three grams of methamphetamine, with which police reportedly intended to frame him after he refused to confess to a murder. The investigation of the torture charges launched by SIS in April 2019 remained underway; no suspects had been identified as of year’s end.

The trial of the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, on charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences during the 2018 postelection violence against protesters continued at year’s end.

There were no reports regarding the scale of military hazing in the army and whether it constituted torture. According to the NGO Peace Dialogue, the lack of legislative clarity concerning the functions and powers of military police as well as a lack of civilian oversight mechanisms, made it possible for military police to employ torture and other forms of mistreatment against both witnesses and suspects in criminal cases.

On September 9, Syunik regional trial court judge Gnel Gasparyan made an unprecedented decision, ruling in the case of Artur Hakobyan that investigators had failed to carry out a proper investigation into Hakobyan’s torture claims. The judge ruled that investigators should undertake a psychological assessment of the victims that adhered to provisions in the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol. In 2015 Hakobyan had been released from the army early due to a mental disorder. According to his family and lawyer, Hakobyan was in good mental health before joining the army but experienced deep psychological trauma as a result of torture and abuse. In January 2019 the Court of Cassation recognized there had been a violation of Hakobyan’s right to freedom from torture, but, up to the September 9 trial court decision, the case had been stalled due to continuing appeals and counterappeals.

As of year’s end, authorities had not reported any arrests linked to alleged abuses.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and predation by hierarchical criminal structures (“thieves-in-law”), and in some cases they were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level but still existed at the cell level in Nubarashen Prison.

Physical Conditions: According to the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, prison renovations underway since 2019 had not resulted in major improvements for inmates. Conditions in Nubarashen Prison, one of the country’s 12 penitentiaries, in some cases were harsh and potentially life threatening. Human rights observers and the PMG also continued to express concern regarding the physical conditions of Armavir Penitentiary, which did not have an air ventilation or cooling system, which allowed recorded cell temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit in past summers. Some efforts were made to improve ventilation during the year, but they were piecemeal. On June 18, the minister of justice announced there was a criminal case in progress to investigate why a ventilation system had not been built, despite inclusion in the original Armavir construction plan.

According to the ombudsman and the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates and the lack of a systemic approach to their prevention continued to be one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. There were no investigations into the circumstances of deaths due to illness, such as whether an illness was acquired due to incarceration or if the illness had been preventable or treatable. Nonetheless, the government reported improvements in medical treatment during the year, including more rapid access to treatment, and stated that despite COVID-19 risks, there were only five prison deaths (none due to COVID-19), in contrast to 21 deaths in 2019.

There was no progress in the government’s investigation into the January 2019 death of Mher Yeghiazaryan, the deputy chairman of the Armenian Eagles: United Armenia Party, nine days after he ended a hunger strike at Nubareshen Prison.

The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG continued to note the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to the PMG, there was a shortage of psychologists on staff and hundreds of inmates in need of care. The PMG linked the absence of psychological care to numerous instances of self-mutilation and suicide. According to research published by the PMG on April 15, the number of patients per psychologist, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, and inappropriate working conditions, as well as the ambiguous role of prison psychologists, contributed to the failure of psychological services and led to burn out among the few existing specialists. The ombudsman criticized the practice of punishing inmates who self-mutilated instead of providing them with appropriate medical and psychological care.

The government reiterated its zero-tolerance policy towards corruption in prisons and expressed its determination to root out the organized hierarchical criminal structure dominating prison life, in which select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy controlled the inmate population and prison life. Serious gaps in prison staffing both led to and exacerbated the situation, as prison officials relied on the watchers to keep order.

According to some reports, the government’s efforts to combat the criminal hierarchy at times led to the violation of prisoners’ human rights. On August 24, the president of the NGO Journalists for Human Rights, Zhanna Alexanyan, reported that masked men had abused three inmates located in a cell at the Nubarashen Penitentiary. In later reports, the wife of one of those beaten said that approximately 10 to 12 masked persons used their hands, feet, batons, and a Taser to abuse the three inmates.

The Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated on August 24 that unplanned searches were occasionally carried out in the penitentiaries to find prohibited items and that penitentiaries had the right to use proportionate physical force in cases of noncompliance or obstruction of official legal demands. In response the Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG visited inmates and reported violations of their rights, including numerous bodily injuries, which were initially recorded as resulting from falling from a bed. In a special report to the Ministry of Justice, the PMG noted this was one of the worst cases of inmate abuse it had witnessed in several years. The PMG also reported what it believed was a crime to the Prosecutor General’s Office. On September 4, the PMG received information that SIS had open a criminal case into an incident of exceeding official authority with violence.

On August 31, SIS reported the arrest of former Nubarashen Penitentiary chief Samvel Mkrtchyan for his role in arranging and covering up the February attack on inmate Vahagn Abgaryan. Mkrtchyan was released on September 2 after a trial court refused to satisfy the SIS motion for pretrial detention. Mkrtchyan was charged with fraud and abuse of power for the February 24 beating of Abgaryan (reportedly a member of the criminal hierarchical system) by other inmates. To hide the circumstances of the attack, which according to earlier official reports was instigated by orders from “criminal authorities” from abroad, Mkrtchyan instructed employees to report that Abgaryan had slipped exiting the bathroom. Other penitentiary employees were also arrested in the case.

According to observers, political will at the highest level to eradicate corruption in the penitentiaries had not yet been translated into institutional change, despite the punishment of individual staff for corruption. Experts assessed that corruption was likely to continue as long as the criminal subculture continued to exist.

Since September 2019 the Penitentiary Medicine Center, a state noncommercial organization reporting to the Ministry of Justice, provided medical care in penitentiaries. Nevertheless, health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care. There was also a shortage of specialized medication despite a threefold increase in the budget for medication in prisons since 2018. In some cases inmates had to rely on family members to bring them specific medications or medications that were more effective than ones provided by the penitentiaries.

Most prisons continued to lack accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals continued to experience the worst prison conditions. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned abusive treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual men or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten prison rules,” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. Food preparation and cutlery for these prisoners was kept separate, they had a separate laundry machine, and even a separate solitary confinement cell.

On April 3, an advisor to the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that the prosecution would apply to the courts to change the detention measures of 20 defendants who were in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications.

Administration: Authorities did not conduct prompt investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.

Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visits. Visits during the year were also limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the ICRC to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers.

There were limits, however, to independent monitoring by domestic groups. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose cases the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision should not apply to the PMG. Furthermore, on November 19, the PMG criticized the Ministry of Justice for the March 20 adoption of a new decree regulating PMG activities, which contradicted prior agreements. According to a PMG statement, the decree added further restrictions to their activities, such as a new requirement to obtain permission from the prison administration before visits during nonworking hours.

During the 2019-20 academic year, the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs (CLERP) provided secondary education to 11 students at Abovyan and Armavir Prisons. After COVID-19 pandemic restrictions led authorities to stop providing in-person education, CLERP was retasked with providing online secondary education to inmates younger than 19.

The government made some progress in tackling corruption during the year and improved food provision in all penitentiaries. In January, to address corruption as well as staff shortages in prisons, the government increased the salaries of penitentiary officers by 30 percent. On January 22, the National Assembly adopted amendments to criminalize criminal subculture, also known as “thieves-in-law,” a set of hierarchical criminal groups. Under the new law, “creating or leading a criminal subculture group” is punishable by five to 10 years in prison and confiscation of assets. “Membership” or “participation” in a group is punishable by four to eight years of imprisonment and possible confiscation of property. The definition of what constitutes a group is broad, allowing members to be arrested, even if they have not committed a crime.

During the year the prison food pilot program that was initially launched at two penitentiaries was expanded to cover all 12 penitentiaries in the country. According to the PMG, the quality of food provided to prisoners improved, with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners prepared daily on the premises of the penitentiaries by specialized chefs. To ensure variety, the contracted company offered a new menu every week, while maintaining the dietary quality, caloric value, and other criteria approved by prison wardens.

Observers reported significant improvements during the year in the early release and release on parole of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment: 13 prisoners with life sentences were moved from high-security isolation wards to lower security wards (from closed to semiclosed type); eight were moved from semiclosed to semiopen facilities; and two were released on parole based on their good behavior while in prison.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were reports of arbitrary arrest during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, to legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option. According to human rights lawyers, following the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” courts were initially less likely to apply pretrial detention, opting for other preventive measures such as bail and signed undertakings not to leave the country.

Since 2019, however, observers noted courts’ increasing tendency to fall back into the previous practice of applying pretrial detention, with suspects bearing the burden of proof to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation. Trial courts were more likely to deny bail and apply pretrial detention in ordinary criminal cases, while more frequently rejecting prosecution requests for pretrial detention in high-profile corruption cases involving former government officials, causing some observers to question the judges’ impartiality. Experts also noted that in high-profile cases, the prosecution often failed to present compelling cases for detention to the courts.

Defendants were entitled to representation by an attorney from the moment of arrest, and the law provides for a public defender if the accused is indigent. According to human rights observers, few detainees were aware of their right to legal representation. Observers indicated police at times avoided granting individuals their due process rights by summoning and holding, rather than formally arresting, them under the pretext that they were material witnesses rather than suspects. Police were thereby able to question individuals without giving them the benefit of a defense attorney. This practice was particularly evident in the regions.

Armenian and Azerbaijani officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (also see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of remaining detainees.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were several reports of arbitrary arrest during the year. For example, on August 6, media outlets reported the detention and subsequent release of Helsinki Association for Human Rights chair Nina Karapetyants after she conducted a solo picket against the development of a gold mine, even though the state of emergency provisions did not prohibit solo actions. On the same day, police detained and later released a number of other human rights defenders and environmental activists, including the Helsinki Association’s lawyer, Ara Gharagyozyan, and Coalition to Stop Violence against Women coordinator Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, for demonstrating against the mine. According to police, those detained failed to obey legal demands made by police. In its annual report, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia noted an increase in arrests at public assemblies in the July 2019-June 2020 period and criticized the authorities’ decision to permit gatherings of up to five persons for cultural, entertainment, holiday, or commemorative events under COVID-19 emergency rules while not permitting groups of five for public protest.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Some observers saw investigators’ use of excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.

Although the law requires prosecutors to present a well reasoned justification every two months for extending pretrial custody, judges routinely extended detention on unclear grounds. Authorities generally complied with the six-month limit in ordinary cases and a 12-month limit for serious crimes as the total time in pretrial detention. Once prosecutors forward their cases to court for trial, the law does not provide time limits on further detention but indicates only that a trial must be of “reasonable length.” Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Prosecutors tended to blame trial delays on defense lawyers and their requests for more time to prepare a defense. Severely overburdened judicial dockets at all court levels also contributed to lengthy trials.

On January 21, the Ombudsman’s Office released a special report on the lack of mechanisms to ensure court system accountability for compliance with time standards or to obtain redress if a trial has not met the reasonable timeframe requirement. According to the report, 2019 data from the Supreme Judicial Council indicated 155 criminal and 1,628 civil cases in Yerevan alone had continued for more than two years, some for more than 10 years. A total of 1,123 such cases were handled by just seven judges.

On June 1, media outlets reported Armen Ghazaryan was acquitted by the court of appeals after spending six years and three months in detention on charges of robbery, kidnapping, and battery. After six years in pretrial detention, trial court judge Gagik Petrosyan had convicted him and sentenced him to 6.5 years in prison.

Although on March 24 the Supreme Judicial Council ruled that measures such as the use of online communications tools must be adopted to ensure that trials continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, trial delays continued. According to the joint monitoring report of the NGOs Helsinki Association for Human Rights and Human Rights Power, a number of courts faced significant delays, apparently due to a lack of technical preparedness; the sessions that were delayed included those devoted to the discussion of urgent matters such as detention measures. The law does not allow for telecommunication measures in criminal cases, and according to observers, delays in such cases were mostly due to the failure of the judges and the prosecutors to appear in court.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to legal experts, suspects had no practical opportunities to appeal the legality of their arrests. In cases where the courts ruled on a pretrial detention, another court was unlikely to challenge its ruling.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Popular trust in the impartiality of judges continued to plummet, while civil society organizations highlighted that the justice sector retained many officials who served the previous authorities and issued rulings consistently favorable to them. Corruption of judges remained a concern. During the year NGOs continued to report on judges who had acquired significant amounts of property and assets that were disproportionate to their salaries, and they noted that the absence of vetting of all standing judges based on objective criteria–particularly of those in the Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court–undermined the integrity of the judiciary.

According to human rights lawyers and other observers, after the 2018 political transition, and on numerous occasions during the year, courts released from detention or refused to issue detention orders for former officials standing trial for major corruption, embezzlement, and other charges. These lawyers noted former president Robert Kocharyan was released on bail in June and that the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, was released with a promise not to leave the country when they charged him with exceeding official authority. By contrast, less famous individuals have been held for lengthy periods in pretrial detention.

On April 20, a group of civil society organizations criticized the mechanisms to check the integrity of judicial candidates that were adopted by the National Assembly on March 25. According to the statement, the extremely limited scope of the integrity review was fundamentally disappointing, as it will be conducted only for candidates for Constitutional Court judgeships, prosecutors, or investigators, but not for serving judges, prosecutors, or investigators. The government responded that the mechanisms would enable a gradual transition.

Following widespread concerns about the impartiality of Constitutional Court judges appointed under the former regime, the National Assembly in June approved constitutional amendments requiring all Constitutional Court judges who had served 12 years or more to retire, while those who had not yet met the 12-year tenure limit would continue to serve on the court. Under the amendments, court chair Hrayr Tovmasyan–who was widely viewed as beholden to political interests–was forced to step down although he continued to serve as a judge on the court, not yet having reached the 12-year limit. Parliament adopted the constitutional amendments the day before receiving Venice Commission recommendations. The amendments were mostly in compliance with Venice Commission recommendations but lacked a transitional period for the dismissal of judges. On September 15, the National Assembly approved three new Constitutional Court members, despite civil society concerns, especially regarding Yervand Khundkaryan and the Corruption Prevention Commission’s reported negative advisory opinion on him.

According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed and faced a long backlog.

Authorities enforced court orders.

NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns regarding the courts’ reliance on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right.

The law provides for presumption of innocence, but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities informed defendants in detail of the charges against them, and the law requires the provision of free language interpretation when necessary. The law requires that most trials be public but permits exceptions, including in the interest of “morals,” national security, and the “protection of the private lives of the participants.” Defendants have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and the law requires the government to provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside Yerevan.

According to human rights lawyers, in an illustrative example of a flawed trial, on September 23, Forrights.am reported that Tigran Badalyan, who had been in pretrial detention in Armavir Penitentiary for approximately a year, nailed his feet to the ground on the 29th day of a hunger strike he had undertaken to protest the charges against him. According to another media report, Badalyan allegedly found and sold five aluminum sheets in his village. He was later arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum and selling it for 15,000 drams ($30) and stealing 10,000 drams ($20) in cash from a neighbor. According to Badalyan’s lawyer, there was no evidence against Badalyan, no witnesses, and even the owner of the stolen cash and aluminum did not believe Badalyan was the culprit. According to the lawyer, police suspected him due to a prior conviction (unrelated to theft), for which he served a conditional sentence. On September 25, trial court judge Tatul Janibekyan found Badalyan guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison.

The law provides that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system. Human rights organizations reported there were insufficient provisions for prosecutorial impartiality and accountability and no objective criteria for the nomination and selection of candidates for general prosecutor.

Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it. In an example of a trial that even the victim’s family deemed unjust to the accused, criminal proceedings–originally opened in 2013–against Karen Kungurtsev for the alleged killing of Davit Hovakimyan, continued during the year. A 2018 Court of Cassation order returned the case to trial court and released Kungurtsev on bail. Kungurtsev was originally acquitted in 2015, but in 2017 the criminal court of appeal reversed the acquittal and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of a National Security Service (NSS) official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to investigate Kungurtsev. Since the resumption of the trial in 2018, two key witnesses in the case apologized to Kungurtsev and the victim’s father for providing false testimony six years earlier under pressure from law enforcement officers and gave potentially exonerating testimony in support of Kungurtsev.

The prosecutor in charge of the current trial insisted on hearing all the witnesses in the case, which led to further delays as most of them were outside the country. According to Kungurtsev’s lawyer, the two prosecutors in charge of the initial (preliminary) examination of the case failed to manage the investigation and trial correctly but were subsequently promoted to high positions within the prosecutorial system. He assessed the prosecutors were personally interested in pushing the case forward to avoid facing responsibility for their actions.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Although citizens had access to courts to file lawsuits seeking damages for alleged human rights violations, the courts were widely perceived as corrupt. Citizens also had the option of challenging in Constitutional Court the constitutionality of laws and legal acts that violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. According to lawyers, lower courts did not adhere to precedents set by the Court of Cassation, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.

Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation but did not meaningfully review cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts often did not follow the applicable ECHR precedent.

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

The constitution prohibits unauthorized searches and provides for the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications. Law enforcement organizations did not always abide by these prohibitions.

Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, observers claimed that certain judges authorized wiretaps and other surveillance requests from the NSS and police without the compelling evidence required by law. By contrast there were no reports that courts violated legal procedures when responding to such authorization requests from the SIS, the Investigative Committee, and the State Revenue Committee.

On March 31, the National Assembly amended the law on the Legal Regime of State of Emergencies permitting the use of cell-phone data to track COVID-19 cases and requiring telecommunications companies to provide authorities with telephone records. Authorities may use the data to identify, isolate, require self-isolation, or monitor anyone infected with COVID-19 or those who have been in close contact with infected persons. Health-care providers are obliged to report data to authorities on “people tested, infected, persons having disease symptoms, persons treated in hospitals, or persons who had contacts with the patient.”

The amendments raised societal and international concerns about privacy as well as the security of collected data and questions about the identity of the software developers. According to a September 23 report on Civilnet.am, data tracking was suspended with the end of the state of emergency on September 11 and parliamentarians were notified to be present at the destruction of the digital data collected, scheduled by law to take place within two weeks after the end of the state of emergency.

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; while the government generally respected this right, it restricted it in the COVID-19-related state of emergency and war-related declaration of martial law.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. On April 15, the National Assembly amended the criminal code to criminalize public calls for violence. Penalties for violations include a fine of 50,000 or 100,000 drams ($100 to $200), detention for up to two months, or imprisonment for up to one month. The law is stricter for officials, who may be deprived of the right to hold office. Sexual and gender identity is not among the protected grounds enumerated in the law.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: During the first month of the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed restrictions on media, setting administrative fines for posting or publishing information on the pandemic that did not reflect reports from official government sources. The government justified the measure as needed to prevent panic and the potential spread of misinformation during the state of emergency. As a result, police officers conducted a spate of visits to the editorial offices of various media outlets, forcing them to remove certain articles under threat of fines.

Media representatives, along with local and international media watchdogs, criticized the move. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media stated: “Publishing only information provided by the authorities is a very restrictive measure which would limit freedom of the media and access to information disproportionately.” Similar views were expressed by Reporters without Borders, which stated, “control of information does not help in the fight against the epidemic but rather spreads gossip and fear.” On April 13, the government lifted all COVID-related restrictions on media.

Following the outbreak of fighting beginning September 27, the government declared martial law. Martial law restrictions included a requirement that local media outlets and broadcasters provide only official government information regarding military activity. Subsequent amendments adopted to the decree on martial law in October banned the publication of reports criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict, refuting actions of state and local government bodies and officials taken in the context of martial law and state security, and questioning or deprecating the effectiveness of those actions “in any way.”

Media outlets in general lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television, which underwent leadership change during the year, continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint. On several occasions independent media experts expressed concern about cases of bias on public television, claiming such bias was especially obvious during critical political debates and coverage of developments. Nonetheless, public television was largely balanced and open and accessible to opposition voices and continued to cover more diverse topics of public interest than prior to the 2018 revolution.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” anonymous Telegram channels, and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government. There was a particular spike in misinformation on COVID-19-related topics, which led to stronger fact-checking efforts by a number of journals and other local organizations.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived only through international donations and support, with limited revenues from advertising and subscription fees.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. The July 17 Law on Audiovisual media that replaced the Law on Television and Radio did not foster ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. According to local media watchdogs, the July 17 Law on Audiovisual media did not provide a realistic path for the creation of private multiplexes, did not solve the issue of digital broadcasting for regional television stations, and did not reform outdated television licensing procedures.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported two cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. In one case, on June 16, journalists were injured in a scuffle near the NSS building. News.am news correspondent Liana Sargsyan, Tert.am journalist Ani Ghorgyan, Yerkir.am correspondent Tatik Kostandyan, Kentron TV journalist Arthur Hakobyan, and MegaNews.am website editor Margarita Davtyan said that they incurred injuries while covering a protest by supporters of Prosperous Armenia Party head and National Assembly member Gagik Tsarukyan in front of the NSS building. Local media organizations condemned the violence against media representatives performing their professional duties and demanded that police conduct an investigation into the incident. Since the events were taking place during the state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19, media organizations urged outlets to refrain from exposing their staff to crowds while covering mass gatherings and to provide clear security instructions if this was not possible.

There were cases of current or former officials impeding the work of journalists or attempting to do so. For example, on August 8, former chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan obstructed the work of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Armenian Service crew working on a report about government plans to dismantle some private houses illegally constructed near Lake Sevan. Gasparyan, who was already facing charges for abuse of office, fraud, and embezzlement, drove his vehicle towards the two reporters and reportedly came close to hitting them as they filmed near the lakeside area where his house was located. Gasparyan then threatened the reporters, saying “I’ll shoot you” and “I’ll slaughter you.” Using epithets, the former police chief demanded that the reporters not show his house in their report. Police opened a criminal case into the incident on charges of obstructing journalistic activity.

On December 1, police reportedly interfered with the work of journalists and attempted to detain Yerkir Media TV cameraman Hayk Sukiasyan during a protest against the government’s agreement to a Russia-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

There also were reports of intimidation of journalists by law enforcement bodies. For example, on July 3, police visited ArmNews and Channel 5 television stations, which were affiliated with the former government, purportedly with the aim of initiating administrative proceedings against them because their personnel were not wearing masks on air. Media watchdogs condemned the actions as abuse of power, exhorted law enforcement officials to refrain from interfering with media activities, advocated loosening pandemic-related restrictions on media outlets, and called on outlets not to violate state of emergency regulations, given their role in protecting the health of both the public and their employees.

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts noted a decrease in the number of libel and defamation cases against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 55 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year.

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, and the government expressly supported academic freedom.

Observers criticized some government officials for nepotism in connection with appointments to public educational institutions. One prominent case involved the appointment of Diana Galoyan as rector of the State University of Economics. After allegations arose that parts of her doctoral thesis were plagiarized, the Higher Qualifying Committee (the government body responsible for reviewing doctoral qualifications) overturned the 2015 decision granting her a doctorate. The previous acting rector resigned over a similar issue. The Higher Qualifying Committee chairman, Smbat Gogyan, asserted that the deputy minister of education acted as Galoyan’s patron. Gogyan submitted his resignation over the case in May, but it was not accepted. On August 17, the Ministry of Education revoked the annulment of Galoyan’s doctoral thesis and degree, thereby removing the obstacle to her appointment as rector.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government generally respected these rights but restricted assembly under the COVID-19-related state of emergency and conflict-related imposition of martial law.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Freedom of assembly was restricted during the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. The curbs remained in force until August 12, when the government lifted most restrictions on freedom of assembly, permitting demonstrations, marches, and rallies so long as participants wore masks and observed social distancing requirements.

Freedom of assembly also was restricted under martial law, which was imposed on September 27 after the outbreak of fighting with Azerbaijan. Martial law restrictions included a ban on rallies. Although the restrictions were officially lifted on December 2, on December 21, Goris mayor Arush Arushanyan was arrested on charges of organizing an illegal rally, according to his lawyer. Arushanyan had called on local citizens to block roads to the Syunik region to prevent a visit by the prime minister, as a result of which the official visit was curtailed. The following day Yerevan’s trial court ruled the arrest unlawful, and Arushanyan was released.

From November 11 through the end of the year, the opposition held rallies and other protest actions throughout Yerevan demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Prior to the lifting of the ban on assemblies on December 2, police occasionally detained opposition leaders and rally participants for violating martial law provisions. While some claimed the detentions were politically motivated, human rights NGOs largely dismissed the claims.

According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2019 through June, protection of freedom of assembly decreased compared with its monitoring report covering July 2018 to June 2019. According to the report, police actions were inconsistent in the strictness of their application of the ban on meetings and varied depending on who protest organizers were and the issue they raised. Separately, the report also noted that organizers and participants of certain rallies continued the use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.

According to civil society organizations, there was no progress in establishing accountability for police use of disproportionate force against protesters during the largely peaceful protests of 2018.

Freedom of Association

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. The law limits the legal standing of NGOs to act on behalf of their beneficiaries in court to environmental issues. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.

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; the government generally respected these rights but restricted them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-country movement: Through April 23, internal travel was restricted, with interregional travel banned and travel within cities permitted only for a limited number of reasons. Internal movement was subsequently not restricted.

Foreign Travel: On February 24, the government closed the country’s border with Iran to individual travelers due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Armenia and Georgia jointly closed their border on March 14. Only citizens and a few restricted categories of foreigners were permitted to enter the country by air until the restriction was lifted on August 12. Land borders, however, remained closed through the end of the year. The entry restrictions and land border closure affected asylum seekers and refugees.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

As of December 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. According to the government, the fall fighting displaced approximately 100,000 individuals, although some reportedly returned.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.

During the year, seven foreigners seeking asylum were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border by land or air. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. During the COVID-19 state of emergency, an electronic asylum system was introduced. While processing cases of individuals in detention was suspended, processing of other cases continued. Remote interpretation (partially funded by UNHCR) was made available when needed, and consideration of most asylum claims was reported to be fair. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities, and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. The law was generally enforced to the extent resources allow. Refugees who are not ethnic Armenians may apply for facilitated naturalization, which requires passing a constitutional knowledge test. Such citizenship, however, was rarely granted.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, there were at least two cases in which individuals who sought asylum were turned away at the border crossing with Iran. As of year’s end, 12 asylum seekers were detained, including four from Iran and two from Azerbaijan.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in training and capacity of eligibility determination officers, with no sustainable quality assurance mechanism and a lack of professional development of staff. Judicial practices continued to improve but were inconsistent; judges who received training on refugee and asylum law issued better quality decisions than those without such training. Asylum-related cases continued to be assigned to judges lacking in-depth knowledge of relevant law, in the absence of a system to assign specific cases to specialized judges. Judicial review remained a lengthy process as judges remained overloaded with cases. Outcomes depended upon individual judges, and there was a lack of consistency in decisions across judges. The courts generally drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than in prior years.

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited refugees who became naturalized citizens.

While the quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.

Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights, due to a lack of job openings, difficulty in accessing opportunities, and language barriers.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the close quarters in the refugee center (a housing facility where some asylum seekers were accommodated) also gave rise to fears of infection, although no COVID-19 cases were reported in the center during the year. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences created barriers to employment, education, and access to services provided for by law.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, restrictions on internal movement and the closure of in-person services at government offices hampered access to basic services for individuals whose documents expired during this time. Although the government declared that expired documents would be considered valid until the end of the state of emergency, no instructions were issued to state authorities, including those responsible for medical care, social protection, and education, to accept the expired documents. Delayed access to services continued until the State Migration Service instructed duty officers to issue refugee certificates. Although refugees and asylum seekers were instructed to apply for support programs that the government created to assist persons during the state of emergency, many were found ineligible for technical and other reasons. Obtaining COVID-19 tests was reportedly problematic, with some individuals paying for their own tests while others did not receive their results and had to be retested. A total of 16 refugees (who lived in apartments, not the reception center) had tested positive as of August 10. Access to education for many refugees became difficult after the government suspended in-person education in March. Due to a lack of devices to access online programs, UNHCR provided 166 tablet computers to facilitate distance education throughout the year. Children were able to view educational programs on television.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. As of January 1, there were 1,319 refugees who fled from Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In November 2019 the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing for up to 112 families who fled from Azerbaijan who were also granted citizenship along with the housing and thus no longer considered refugees. As of August, 106 applications had been approved and six refused. A second tranche of the program was approved in the spring for another 185 beneficiaries.

g. Stateless Persons

According to official data, as of August 10, there were 976 stateless persons, an increase from 929 in November 2019. The increase was believed to be related to the increasing number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. The whereabouts of these individuals was unknown, as many were believed likely to have entered the Russian Federation. There was no assessment to determine how many may have received another country’s citizenship. Authorities also considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of July.

The law provides for the provision of nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and laws 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 2018 the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated, but free and competitive, campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won more than 70 percent of the vote and most seats in the National Assembly; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) 2018 preliminary and March 2019 final reports noted, “Early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The final report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by the Prosperous Armenia Party, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

ODIHR observers stated contestants “were able to conduct their campaigns freely; fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression and movement were fully respected.” At the same time, they emphasized that disinformation, as well as inflammatory exchanges between some candidates, on social networks, were noted during the campaign. Among the few issues that marred the electoral process, the observers noted, “The integrity of campaign finance was undermined by a lack of regulation, accountability, and transparency.” For example, organizational expenses such as for office space, communication, transportation, and staff were not considered election-related and therefore could remain unreported, “undermining the credibility of the reporting system and the transparency of information available to election stakeholders.” Other shortcomings highlighted by OSCE observers included the narrow legal standing for submitting electoral complaints.

On June 18, the National Assembly adopted amendments to the electoral code and other relevant laws, which transitioned the system for local elections from majoritarian to proportional representation. The amendments apply to communities with more than 4,000 voters and multisettlement communities. The amended law was a result of cooperation between the government and all three parliamentary factions aimed at elevating the role of political parties at the local level and enhancing the scope for their participation and development.

Political participation was sometimes marred by mutual personal insults between members of the ruling My Step faction and some opposition parties, which at times were followed by violence. For example, on May 8, verbal altercations led to violence on the National Assembly floor when My Step member of parliament Sasun Mikaelyan hit Edmon Marukyan, chair of the opposition Bright Armenia faction, leading to a scuffle between members. The prime minister denounced the violent incident but blamed the opposition, stating it provoked the ruling faction and was serving the former administration’s interests.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political and economic life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. Women held 7 percent of ministerial positions, 9 percent of elected seats in local legislatures, and 23 percent of the elected seats in parliament. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the 2018 parliamentary elections noted all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender-quota requirement and that women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. The OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not provide for the same proportion of representation of women in parliament, as one-half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns; women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies. Female parliamentarians and other female officials often faced gender-related insults, rather than content-based criticism.

There are government-mandated seats in parliament for the country’s four largest ethnic minorities: Yezidi, Kurdish, and the Assyrian and Russian communities. Four members of parliament represented these constituencies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption. After the May 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government opened investigations that revealed systemic corruption encompassing most areas of public and private life. The government launched numerous criminal cases against alleged corruption by former high-ranking government officials and their relatives, parliamentarians, the former presidents, and in a few instances, members of the judiciary and their relatives, with cases ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. Many of those cases continued as of year’s end, and additional cases were reported regularly. The government also launched corruption-related cases against several current government officials.

Corruption: The country has a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of state assistance. There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds and involvement of government officials in questionable business activities. Combatting corruption continued to be a top priority for the government, and the government continued to take measures to eliminate corruption throughout the year. Authorities continued to adopt legal measures, such as civil forfeiture laws, integrity checks, new forms of asset declaration, and changes to the bank secrecy law, to institutionalize anticorruption measures. The government initiated criminal corruption cases in the tax and customs services, environmental and social affairs ministries, parliament’s urban development committee, and the judiciary.

On July 17, the Supreme Judicial Council upheld the motions of the Prosecutor General’s Office to detain Bankruptcy Court judges Ara Kubanyan and Gevorg Narinyan. Narinyan had been charged with multiple crimes, including illicit enrichment, money laundering, and presenting fake asset declarations, while Kubanyan had been charged with abuse of official authority. On July 21, the Supreme Judicial Council suspended the judges’ authorities while the investigation continued.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of June 30, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations estimated to have caused 129 billion drams (almost $267 million) in damages to the state as a result of embezzlement, abuse of power, illicit enrichment, and bribery. Of this amount, 25 billon drams ($52 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget and assets in the amount of 26 billion drams ($55 million) were frozen or seized. NGOs continued to raise concerns regarding insufficient transparency in this process.

During the year former officials made public announcements of their intent to return assets to the state, allegedly to avoid prosecution. The process and criteria by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements remained unclear.

In June the State Revenue Committee (SRC) announced several criminal cases had been opened against Mikayel Minasyan, former president Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law, who served as Sargsyan’s first deputy chief of staff and ambassador to the Vatican. In March he was charged with illicit enrichment, false asset disclosure, and money laundering. The SRC reported that Minasyan’s asset declarations indicated a significant unexplainable increase in his wealth. Minasyan was also charged with receiving preferential tariffs for the sale of electricity from a hydroelectric power plant in which he had an ownership interest after regulations were changed to benefit him.

In December 2019 the NSS arrested Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport Gevorg Loretsyan, a member of the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party, as part of a corruption investigation. According to the NSS, Loretsyan, who coordinated the sports department within the ministry, helped an Armenian businessperson win government contracts for sportswear and sports equipment in exchange for a bribe. Loretsyan’s case was forwarded to the court in September, and he remained under pretrial detention at year’s end while the trial was in progress.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-ranking public officials and their families to file annual asset declarations, which were partially available to the public on the internet. The Commission on the Prevention of Corruption (CPC), which replaced the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials in November 2019, conducts asset declaration analysis.

The CPC is broadly authorized to check the integrity of appointees to public positions, including candidates for the Constitutional Court, prosecutors, and investigators, but plays an advisory role. The CPC also supports development of anticorruption policy and conducts anticorruption awareness and training.

For several years a number of public officials, including judges and members of parliament and their spouses, disclosed large sums of unexplained income and assets including large personal gifts and proceeds from providing loans. After the 2018 change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in the declarations. In October 2019 the government adopted an anticorruption strategy that, among other actions, envisages the creation by 2021 of a separate special law enforcement body, the Anticorruption Committee, as well as specialized anticorruption courts.

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

Following the 2018 change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Civil society organizations considered the change in government a window of opportunity for closer collaboration. The initially high expectations, however, led to growing civil society criticism of government reforms, especially in the areas of law enforcement and the judiciary, where some observers argued that the slow speed of reforms not only allowed former regime representatives to enjoy continued impunity for past crimes, but also gave them the time to regroup and try to push back against reforms. On June 23, a group of prominent human rights and other civil society organizations released a statement urging the government to make an immediate assessment of past human rights violations and implement systemic changes to foster the administration of justice, separation of powers, judicial independence, and parliamentary oversight.

In a trend that increased dramatically in 2019 and grew rapidly throughout the year, human rights and other civil society organizations, and individual human rights advocates continued to be vilified and threatened, including via death threats. Some journalists who promoted democratic reforms also received threats. Such intimidation took several forms. In at least two cases, government officials threatened or vilified human rights protectors. On November 10, the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Society Foundation-Armenia (OSF) were ransacked; on November 13 the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor (HCAV) office was attacked. Subsequently, NGO members reported increasing threats to their persons, while online users urged attacks on personnel “and not just offices.” In December a group of young persons entered the premises of the Article 3 Club (an organization that raises awareness of and promotes human rights), live-streaming as they insulted and intimidated those present. NGO members reported little was done to protect them. The intimidation also came from online trolls, media outlets, malign news outlets, and nationalist groups, many of which were affiliated with the former government and, some local experts alleged, Russian actors. The following were especially targeted: those promoting human rights, women’s and children’s rights, and deeper law enforcement and judicial reforms, particularly OSF.

According to civil society reports, the NSS harassed members of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights NGO and launched a criminal case on the basis of material that lawyers assessed as unsubstantiated. On December 5, the anti-OSF “Veto” movement published a video vilifying multiple human rights organizations, which was broadcast the same day by ArmNewsTV (a channel belonging to the opposition).

There was no strong government support for the role of human rights defenders and civil society more broadly, but there were occasional government efforts to push back against attacks on civil society. On December 29, parliament voted to end parliamentarian Naira Zohrabyan’s chairmanship of the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee due to intolerant statements she made. On December 30, the ombudsman noted the increase in the number of “insults” directed at civil society at large and called on the government to protect them.

As a result of hate campaigns, increasing numbers of academics and other opinion makers became reluctant to voice their opinions in public, particularly online. As a result, constructive discourse around human rights and other important matters decreased. The government adopted legislation criminalizing public calls for violence. It did not, however, take any effective measures to prevent the increasing marginalization of civil society actors. Rather, on some occasions, officials’ public comments contributed to the problem.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. The office improved its outreach to regions and collaboration with regional human rights protection organizations. The office continued to report a significant increase in the number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased public expectations and trust in the institution. In December 2019 the government adopted the 2020-22 National Strategy for Human Rights Protection and related action plan and launched the e-rights.am portal as a public oversight tool.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes apply to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence and carried various sentences depending on the charge (murder, battery, light battery, rape, etc.). Law enforcement bodies did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread and was exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions on movement. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in cases of sexual and domestic violence and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center NGO, the investigation of sexual violence cases did not differ from the investigation of any other criminal case in terms of secrecy, investigator sensitivity, or number of interrogations, and survivors were obliged to testify or otherwise participate in investigations multiple times, including in face-to-face encounters with their abusers. In reports on standard forensic examinations into alleged rape, the expert reportedly addressed whether the subject was a virgin. Most domestic violence cases were considered by law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for fieldwork to address these crimes appropriately.

According to the NGO Women’s Rights Center, during the COVID-19 state of emergency, cases of domestic violence increased; experts blamed the rise in part on social isolation. The persisting social stigma against seeking support, along with the inaccessibility of some support services during the pandemic, further worsened the situation. The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women registered an increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and noted that the ban on public transportation during the state of emergency made it very difficult for some women to reach police precincts or support centers. In one case, a woman escaped from her husband, who had abused her for 25 years, without any money and approached a police officer on the street asking for help. He referred her to a police station without offering any assistance in reaching it. She only managed to reach a shelter after persuading a taxi driver to help her. According to the coalition, the incident demonstrated the need for more sensitivity training and referral mechanisms throughout the police force, especially for those patrolling the streets.

During the year a number of domestic violence cases captured widespread attention, leading to calls for stronger legislation against domestic violence. On March 5, media outlets reported the death of a woman at the hands of her partner in Gyumri. The perpetrator had also beaten the woman’s 13-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized with numerous injuries and underwent a long recovery. Visiting the daughter in the hospital, Prime Minister Pashinyan commented, “many of us feel sorry for this girl and her murdered mother, but let’s finally admit that this girl and her mother are also victims of the notion that violence in general and violence against women in particular can be justified.”

Activists and NGOs that promoted gender equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” On July 7, a former police official, who was registered as a domestic violence offender, verbally assaulted a lawyer for the Women’s Support Center and other employees after a civil case hearing. According to the NGO, there were no legal measures in place to protect the center’s employees or to bring the offender to criminal responsibility.

The narrow definitions in the law combatting family violence prevented abuse survivors who were not married or in common law relationships with their partners from receiving protections and support under the law. During the year the government continued to support domestic violence victims’ support centers throughout the country.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. There are no criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment experienced in the workplace.

Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace and the political arena was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

Reproductive Rights: The law gives couples and individuals the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They generally had the information to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Due to the patriarchal nature of Armenian society, however, the husband and his parents often sought to control decisions on the number, spacing, timing, and sex of a couple’s children (see section 6, Gender-biased Sex Selection). Skilled attendance during childbirth was more accessible in large towns and other population centers where birthing facilities were located. There were no government programs to provide 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: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation, employment, and pay. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government. The law does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on sex.

Socioeconomic factors, women’s household responsibilities, as well as a lack of opportunities for women to gain leadership skills played a role in limiting women’s political participation, as did their lack of access to the informal, male-dominated communication networks that form the foundation of the country’s politics. Women also lacked the necessary sponsorships and funds to build a political career. Even when elected, the visibility of female politicians was limited in the public domain. Women politicians and officials experienced severe hate speech targeting their gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Despite legislative changes banning such practices and related public-awareness campaigns, data on newborns continued to indicate a skewed sex ratio. According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the boy to girl ratio at birth was 110 to 100 in 2019, a slight improvement from the 2018 ratio of 112 to 100. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country. According to a household survey conducted from February to March by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, for the first time, more than one-half of those questioned (55 percent) said they did not have a gender preference for a child if a family had one child, and 34 percent reported they would prefer a boy. These figures represented a significant change since the question was last asked in 2010, when 54 percent of respondents reported preferring a boy, while 35 percent said it “did not matter.”

Children

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

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities and children with disabilities lacked access to early learning programs despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. Slightly more than half of children between the ages of three and five benefited from preschool education, with far fewer in rural areas. Inclusive preschool education was limited to a few preschools located in the capital.

Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. Only a few schools throughout the country offered Yezidi, Assyrian, Kurdish, or Greek language classes at the primary and secondary level. These classes–not part of the formal academic curriculum–were not regulated. Yezidi parents, in particular, continued to complain that the classes did not adhere to any standards and were largely ineffective.

According to a December 2019 NGO report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, most Yezidi children grew up speaking their native tongue and had little or no command of Armenian upon entering schools. The absence of preschool educational services in most Yezidi villages created problems for Yezidi children, who struggled in school and fell behind their Armenian-speaking classmates.

The COVID-19 global pandemic reduced access to education and exacerbated existing inequalities. Surveys indicated that more than 10 percent of the school-aged student population was likely left out of the educational process due to a lack of equipment, internet access, and tech-savvy teachers. Public criticism was directed at the government for providing insufficient online instruction or virtual learning alternatives and failure to include all students equally in the educational process, particularly students with disabilities. The government tried to make up for the gaps by offering training for teachers, finding resources for technical equipment, and offering additional instruction during the summer, but these efforts failed to close the learning gaps.

Two of every three children attended schools in earthquake-prone areas where school buildings did not comply with earthquake-resistant standards. To address the problem, the government introduced a new program for safer schools in 2019 and allocated funding for constructing 22 new small-size schools in rural or remote areas incorporating safety standards.

In a March 2019 report on monitoring the water and sanitation situation in 121 schools and 80 preschools throughout the country, the Ombudsman’s Office raised concerns regarding poor sanitary conditions in many of the buildings and lack of accessible restrooms in most.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, although violence against children continued to be reported and gaps in both legislation and practice remained. In late August media outlets reported the hospitalization of seven children from one household, two of whom were gravely beaten while the others were poisoned by family members. One of the children, a six-year-old boy, died in the hospital from his injuries.

According to observers, psychological and physical violence were widely used to discipline both boys and girls, and there was a lack of state supported positive parenting programs. Indirect data showed that peer-to-peer violence was quite common in schools, with no mechanisms in place to address it. Gender inequality and stereotyping also contributed to violence against both girls and boys, and created barriers to access to justice for victims. Complex regulations on referrals and reporting within the child protection system, together with an unclear division of duties and responsibilities within the system, resulted in ineffective responses to violence against children. Despite the 2017 law on prevention of family violence, secondary legislation to ensure its implementation was still not in place.

According to observers, two-thirds of the sexual crimes in the country were committed against minors. According to official statistics, during the first six months of the year, the Investigative Committee examined 206 crimes against children, almost a quarter of which involved sexual violence. According to observers, however, the real picture of sexual violence was even worse, since the strong stigma around such violence led to nonreporting by victims and their families.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly widespread within Yezidi communities, and girls consequently left school. The government did not take measures to document the scale of the problem or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for conviction of violations. Conviction for child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. On June 18, the government established a referral mechanism for child victims of trafficking and exploitation.

According to NGOs, although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in legislation, training, awareness raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: The closure and transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care continued, with the government allocating resources for family support and prevention services. The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in institutional care from 2,400 in 2018 to 1,300 as of January. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while a smaller number of children were provided with alternative family and community-based options.

Despite the decrease in the number of institutionalized children, the number of children with disabilities in residential and educational institutions remained high, and children with disabilities continued to be less able to access community-based and family-type care options. Nonresidential services for children with disabilities and expansion and accessibility for children and families remained a government priority.

The government continued support for the development of foster-care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in state funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families continued to increase, from 45 in 2018 to 75 as of August.

During the year the government made efforts to promote the emergency foster-care system to address the needs of children left without parental care in emergency situations, including due to COVID-19. The government, with UNICEF support, took efforts to prevent child abandonment due to disabilities.

In December 2019 the ombudsman published an ad hoc report on the right to be heard among children and legally incapable adults who were placed in psychiatric institutions. The report noted that the consent of an individual’s legal representative was considered legally sufficient for children and incapable adults to be put into psychiatric care, including placement into a psychiatric hospital. As a result, the rights of such individuals to be heard and to give informed consent were violated. Due to legal gaps, there were frequent cases of persons who were officially kept in psychiatric hospitals “on a voluntary basis” due to the consent of their legal representatives, but who were in fact subjected to compulsory confinement. Legal regulations prevented them from obtaining a court decision for their treatment. Following the ombudsman’s application, in February the Constitutional Court found that the failure to take the opinion of children and incapable adults into consideration when deciding on their placement in psychiatric institutions was unconstitutional.

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.

In November 2019 the NSS announced it had uncovered an organized crime ring that dealt in illegal adoption, resulting in the sale of more than 30 children to foreigners. According to the press release, the suspects used blackmail, coercion, and fraud to force mothers in vulnerable social situations to carry pregnancies to term and to give up their newborns. In some cases mothers were told that the children were born with grave health problems or were stillborn. The group first transferred the children to orphanages and then falsified documents to permit adoptions by foreign families (local law prioritizes local adoption). The investigation continued at year’s end.

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. Prior to fighting with Azerbaijan in the fall, no anti-Semitic acts had been reported, although some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media, smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not condemn such anti-Semitic comments.

The fall fighting with Azerbaijan contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers, who largely attributed this trend to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. The number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Joint Tragedies Memorial were defaced with paint on October 14 and burned on October 22. (Also see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report.)

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 any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but discrimination remained a problem. The law and a special government decree require both new buildings and those that are renovated, including schools, to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Very few buildings or other facilities were accessible, even if newly constructed or renovated. Many public buildings, including schools and kindergartens, were inaccessible. This inaccessibility also prohibited persons with disabilities from voting since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections.

Through a process that included individuals with a range of disabilities as well as relevant NGOs, the government developed a new model for assessing a person’s disability status based on a comprehensive assessment of their needs, rather than a strictly medical and social examination.

During the year the government expanded state disability assistance to include services provided by daycare centers, which the Coalition for Inclusive Legal Reforms considered an important step toward deinstitutionalization and promoted independent living for persons with disabilities. During the year, following an open competition, the government signed grant agreements with 12 NGOs (an increase from three in 2019) across a wider geographic area, to provide monthly care and social-integration services to 460 persons with disabilities, compared with 190 in 2019. According to the coalition, during the year more NGOs working on disability rights were involved in various public councils, including those under municipalities and ministries, thus creating more opportunities for the NGOs to participate in public decision making.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, practices continued to be fragmented and discriminatory and did not lead to an extensive and sustainable change of the education system and social norms. Many NGOs continued to report that schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

The transition to distanced education during the COVID-19 pandemic set back the quality of education provided to children with disabilities who needed accommodation or educational support, in particular children with hearing, visual, and intellectual disabilities. Many children, suffering from a lack of appropriate technology, computer skills, or due to behavioral or other problems, were not able to participate in school programs from March through the end of the school year. Teachers did not have sufficient training to use alternative methods, and as a result, children with disabilities were largely left out of the educational process or did not receive adequate education. In-person classes resumed in the fall.

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. During the intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan from September 27 to November 10, atrocities were reportedly committed by all sides (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

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

Antidiscrimination laws do not extend protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no hate crime laws or other criminal judicial mechanisms to aid in the prosecution of crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity negatively affected all aspects of life, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Anti-LGBTI sentiments and calls for violence escalated during periods of political activism. Many politicians and public figures, in particular supporters of the former government, used anti-LGBTI rhetoric, often positioning LGBTI persons as a “threat to national security.” Transgender persons were especially vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse and harassment.

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the legal, social, and economic inequalities faced by LGBTI individuals. The majority of such persons were employed in the service sector or relied on street-based work or charity and lost their livelihoods during the state of emergency. This affected their access to food, accommodation, and other basic necessities. Some LGBTI individuals who had previously left abusive families risked homelessness, while others were locked down with family members who did not accept them. Many LGBTI individuals also found that they were unable to avail themselves of any of the various government programs to support vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis while discrimination by health-care providers severely limited their access to health care.

Throughout the year the NGO PINK documented a total of 41 cases of direct and associated discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as compared with 37 such cases throughout 2019. These included hate crimes such as physical violence, sexual violence, repeated psychological violence, and violation of property, as well as threats toward the life and health of a person. In most cases the victims did not seek help from law enforcement bodies or the courts, deeming such efforts ineffective since law enforcement was unlikely to respond.

The NGO New Generation reported 130 cases of alleged violations of the rights of LGBTI individuals during the year. The cases occurred in families (37 percent), the conscription process and military service (20 percent), labor relations within the service sector (20 percent), law enforcement (12 percent), and health services (11 percent).

In 2018 the NGO Right Side conducted the first survey on hate crimes against transgender persons, identifying 100 cases of hate-motivated violence in a 12-month period during 2016-17. Most incidents took place in public spaces, usually at night. Victims reported they were more likely to seek support from friends or LGBTI NGOs than from a victim support group or medical professionals. Only a small number of respondents said police were supportive. According to human rights groups, transgender women faced many barriers to accessing medical counseling and treatment, from lack of awareness to outright discrimination by medical personnel. Gender reassignment was not regulated as a health service in the country. As a result, transgender persons underwent reassignment surgeries secretly by doctors invited from abroad, with no further access to relevant medical services and rehabilitation care.

Domestic violence against LGBTI persons was reported during the year. Examples included a lesbian, G.L., who sought assistance from New Generation NGO in July. After her family learned the year before of her sexual orientation, her father beat her and kept her locked up. She managed to escape and eventually ended up at her aunt’s house, but her father continued to threaten her. She appealed to police, who instructed her father to stay away from her. He continued to threaten her, leading her to escape to Yerevan. In another example, a transgender woman, G.K., reported in September that her family had subjected her to domestic violence due to her gender identity. She eventually left, living on the street until she managed to rent an apartment; however, she said the apartment owner evicted her upon learning she was transgender.

There was no progress in bringing to accountability the residents of Shurnukh village who attacked LGBTI activists in 2018. On August 4, the criminal court of appeal ruled that investigators had not carried out a proper investigation and had not taken into consideration the psychological suffering of the victims and the discriminatory nature of the crime; the court ordered that the case be reopened. As of early September, however, the prosecutor had not reopened the case, and investigators were not able to obtain psychological assessments of all of the victims (five of the nine victims had left the country).

On June 3, there was a similar attack on LGBTI friends at a country house in Yerevan’s Shengavit district. One individual, A.A., received serious head wounds and reported the incident to police. After a forensic examination and a preliminary investigation, a criminal case was initially opened on July 6 under a minor charge. After a legal appeal to requalify the case as hooliganism (a more serious charge), the case was sent back for a new investigation.

Openly gay men are exempt from military service. An exemption, however, requires a medical finding based on a psychological examination indicating an individual has a mental disorder; this information appears in the individual’s personal identification documents and is an obstacle to employment and obtaining a driver’s license. Gay men who served in the army reportedly faced physical and psychological abuse as well as blackmail by fellow soldiers and the command. In an example, when fellow soldiers discovered a gay man’s sexual orientation, they subjected him to harassment. He turned to the New Generation NGO for help on March 31, which appealed to the Defense Ministry to exempt him from service. His case continued at year’s end.

In March 2019 Epress.am published the story of A.A., detailing his account of getting an exemption from military service due to his sexual orientation. The experience included a mandatory check in a psychiatric hospital that violated his confidentiality as well as physical violence at the final round of examination, when the examination committee head, Henrik Muradyan, verbally assaulted A.A. and hit him in the face while the 15-person committee verbally abused him. A.A. received a formal diagnosis of having a psychiatric illness. Observers noted that diagnosis codes used in these cases are codes for actual psychiatric diseases–such as schizophrenia or cerebral cortex damage–that, while relieving men from mandatory military service, also impose a number of legal limitations.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. Such discrimination was especially noticeable when HIV-positive persons sought medical care.

On April 29, the NGO New Generation reported the case of a person with HIV who was denied surgical care in Izmirlyan Hospital on March 16. Although the patient’s doctor classified the case as urgent, he refused to hospitalize the patient. As it was explained to the patient, hospital management requires the isolation of persons with HIV and the lack of an unoccupied bed at the time did not allow them to provide the needed care. The individual later received treatment at a different hospital. Responding to information sent by the NGO, the Health and Labor Inspection Body inspected Izmirlyan Hospital, registered violations, and issued an order to introduce procedures to comply with legislation with 30 days. According to a 2018 UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for persons with HIV/AIDS. According to Real World, Real People, women with HIV/AIDs faced double discrimination and were more at risk of becoming the subject of physical and psychological violence in their families.

According to the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated access to health services for HIV-positive persons, since most hospitals providing multiprofile services to HIV-positive persons were repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients only. Restrictions on movement during the early months of the COVID-19 state of emergency also made it impossible for some pregnant women with HIV/AIDS to obtain care, since only one hospital in the country (in Yerevan) provided prenatal care and childbirth services to such women.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

Certain groups and individuals as well as online and broadcast media, predominantly connected to the former regime, promoted acts of discrimination targeting government officials, LGBTI individuals, members of religious minorities, individual civil society representatives, foundations, and human rights defenders. Some of these groups aimed to discredit human rights work and democratic values in general and to silence human rights defenders’ voices in particular. Civil society activists noted that antidemocratic activists appeared to target individuals one at a time with overwhelming amounts of hate speech and posted photographs online to indicate that the individual was being monitored. This caused some individuals to stop contributing to online fora. The government did not take effective measures to counter such campaigns and at times fed into the narratives promoted by the hate groups.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law protects the right of all workers to form and to join independent unions, except for noncivilian personnel of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies. The law also provides for the right to strike, with the same exceptions, and permits collective bargaining. The law mandates seven days’ notification and mandatory mediation before a strike as well as the agreement of two-thirds of the workforce obtained in a secret vote. The law stipulates that worker rights may not be restricted because of membership in a union. The list of justifiable grounds for firing a worker, enumerated in the labor code, does not include union activity.

During the year the Health and Labor Inspection Body (HLIB) began exercising its authority to conduct preplanned inspections in four areas under its mandate: sanitary-epidemiological safety, health care and services, pharmaceuticals, as well as the worker occupational safety and health and protection of the labor rights of minors sections of the labor code. The HLIB conducted 27 inspections in the mining sector. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other denials of civil rights. In December 2019 the National Assembly adopted changes to the labor code reviving the state oversight function of the HLIB over the full scope of labor legislation, to come into effect in July 2021.

In July the government approved the hiring of an additional 80 inspectors to start in April 2021. Of the total 340 staff, plans call for 84 to carry out inspections pertaining to the labor code starting in July 2021.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 29, the National Assembly amended the labor code to allow the HLIB to carry out full oversight of the labor code during the prevention or elimination of natural disasters, technological accidents, epidemics, accidents, fires and other emergencies. The amendments also provide other protections of worker rights, including regulations covering telework and related wage issues. These changes, as well as amendments to HLIB bylaws from July 3, allowed the HLIB to act upon labor law violations based on written complaints.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, the HLIB and other state inspection bodies were tasked with carrying out numerous daily inspections to ensure compliance with regulations to prevent disease transmission. All such inspections were related to the enforcement of the health and safety of the employees as mandated by the warden’s office; however, inspectors acted on labor code violations if any were uncovered during the COVID-19 visits.

Labor organizations remained weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and poor economic conditions; however, the HLIB acted to strengthen labor unions by promoting a stronger labor union inside its structure. Experts reported that the right to strike, although provided in the constitution, was difficult to realize due to mediation and voting requirements.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced and compulsory labor, although it does not define forced labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Prosecutions were not proactive and heavily relied on victim self-identification; the most recent labor-trafficking conviction was in 2014. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to identify forced labor cases at large due to the lack of an effective labor inspection mechanism. Penalties for labor-trafficking violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were seldom applied.

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. In most cases the minimum age for employment is 16, but children may work from age 14 with permission of a parent or a guardian. The law allows children younger than 14 to work in the entertainment sector. The maximum duration of the workweek is 24 hours for children who are 14 to 16 and 36 hours for children who are 16 to 18. Persons younger than 18 may not work overtime; in harmful, strenuous, or dangerous conditions; at night; or on holidays. Authorities did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were not sufficient to compel compliance. The absence of unannounced inspections impeded the enforcement of child labor laws. During the year the HLIB examined several cases of child labor and issued a fine in one case of a minor younger than 14 working in a bakery.

Children younger than age 14 worked in a variety of industries, including agriculture, construction, and begging. Children living in rural areas were more vulnerable to forced labor in the agricultural sector. In addition, while the government made an effort to reduce institutionalization of children with disabilities, those living in institutions were more vulnerable to child labor.

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 constitution and the labor code prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, skin color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion, political opinion, belonging to a national minority, property status, birth, disability, age, or other personal or social circumstances. Other laws and regulations specifically prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on gender. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and there were no effective legal mechanisms to implement applicable regulations. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred based on gender, age, presence of a disability, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status, and religion, although there were no statistics on the scale of such discrimination. Administrative penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for violations of other similar laws involving the denial of civil rights.

Women generally did not enjoy the same professional opportunities or wages as men, and employers often relegated them to more menial or lower-paying jobs. While providing for the “legal equality” of all parties in a workplace relationship, the labor code does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work. The International Monetary Fund cited the gender pay gap in the country as being strikingly large. Statistics indicate that women faced a wage gap of more than 30 percent compared to men. According to a 2019 Asian Development Bank report, the labor force participation rate was lower for women than men, and women were more likely to work in part-time positions. The report also stated that occupational stereotypes limited women’s choices, and more than 60 percent of women worked in just three sectors: agriculture, education, and health. Women were underrepresented in management positions, and only one in five small or medium-sized enterprises had a female owner.

Many employers reportedly practiced discrimination, most commonly requiring job applicants to be of a specific gender, age, and appearance. Such discrimination appeared to be widespread, but there were no reliable surveys, and authorities did not take any action to mitigate the problem. While there was little awareness of and no comprehensive reporting to indicate the scale of sexual harassment in the workplace, media reports suggested such abuse was common. Vacancy announcements specifying young and attractive women for various jobs were common. Unemployed workers, particularly women, who were older than 40 had little chance of finding jobs appropriate to their education or skills. LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women also faced discrimination in employment. Religious minorities reportedly faced discrimination in public employment.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage was above the poverty income level. The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, 20 days of mandatory paid annual leave, and compensation for overtime and nighttime work. The law prohibits compulsory overtime in excess of four hours on two consecutive days and limits it to 180 hours in a year. The government established occupational and health standards by decree.

Authorities did not effectively enforce labor standards in either the formal or informal sectors, and penalties for violations of wage, hour, and occupational safety and health standards were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes. According to lawyers, workers’ rights remained unprotected due to the absence of a viable labor inspectorate and lack of independent trade unions. Nonetheless, according to the HLIB, the fact that many of the labor-related complaints received since July were resolved by employers without waiting for HLIB’s ruling attested to some improvement in the area, as well as to HLIB’s existence serving as deterrent against violations. While administrative courts have a mandate to rule on labor-related cases within three months, few employees applied to the courts to reinstate their rights due to legal costs, the complexity of the application process, and distrust of the judiciary. It was unclear if the overloaded courts were able to meet the legally required three-month window for resolving those labor disputes that were submitted to them.

Many employees of private companies, particularly in the service and retail sectors, were unable to obtain paid leave and were required to work more than eight hours a day without additional compensation. According to representatives of some employment agencies, many employers also hired employees for an unpaid and undocumented “probationary” period of 10 to 30 days. Employers often subsequently dismissed these employees, who were then unable to claim payment for the time they worked because their initial employment was undocumented. According to a 2018 survey carried out by the local NGO Advanced Public Research Group, only 48 percent of those employed by small businesses had contracts. The survey also revealed problems involving the inability of workers to take paid annual leave and lack of compensation for overtime work.

Managers of enterprises that were the primary employers in certain poor geographic areas frequently took advantage of the absence of alternative jobs and did not provide adequate pay or address job safety and environmental concerns. A 2019 World Bank report found that approximately 13 percent of the country’s wage employees did not have a written contract and did not have access to any form of benefits related to paid leave, childcare, or sick leave. The agricultural orientation of the country’s economy tended to drive informal employment. According to official statistics, the government’s anticorruption efforts and active efforts by the tax authorities led to a notable increase in the number of officially registered employees in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the issue of informal employment. The government offered benefits to registered workers or those who had lost their work due to pandemic; unregistered or self-employed workers received much lower benefits. The government admitted there was a problem identifying informal employees and the self-employed due to the absence of a universal income declaration system and ultimately decided to provide assistance to families based on indicators, such as the presence of underage children or situations where both parents did not have formal employment before the pandemic. Some of those who lost their livelihoods, however, were not captured by any of the additional assistance programs.

On September 14, Hetq.am reported that trial court judge Tatevik Stepanyan ruled to satisfy the claim of about 100 current employees of Rusal Armenia CJSC, one of the country’s largest industrial enterprises, and to grant them 717 million drams (about $1.5 million) for unpaid overtime accrued from 2007 to 2019. The lawyer representing the employees said that they worked 12-hour days every day with only a 57-minute break during that period.

On September 15, Hetq.am published the story of electrician Vachagan Nalbandyan, who suffered grave injuries on the job after falling 26 feet from an electrical tower and being hit by a crane that subsequently fell on him. According to the report, his employer (T-Construction CJSC, which belongs to Tashir Capital group owned by Russia-based Samvel Karapetyan and family) refused to pay for the urgent surgeries Nalbandyan needed, claiming they were awaiting an expert assessment and had no responsibility for the crane, which was owned by another person.

Safety and health conditions remained substandard in numerous sectors. According to a January 17 Hetq.am report, there were 39 fatal workplace accidents from 2017 to 2019. According to the report, the greatest number of workplace accidents occurred in open-pit mines in the Syunik region, followed by accidents in the processing industry. In light of high unemployment in the country, workers generally did not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety. Authorities offered no protection to employees in these situations, and employees generally did not report violations of their rights.

Due to limitations on HLIB’s authority and a still limited number of inspectors, inspection efforts remained insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors did not have the authority to make unannounced inspections.

On June 22, the Ombudsman’s Office released a brief on the nature of labor violation complaints it received in 2019. Reported problems included employers failing to pay what they owe to terminated employees; unjustified dismissals from work; violations of disciplinary action procedures vis-a-vis employees; retaining unjustified amounts of money from the workers’ salaries; and transferring workers to other jobs without their consent. The Ombudsman’s Office also identified widespread and systemic violations such as an absence of signed contracts, forcing employers to submit resignation letters, and failure to pay for overtime work. Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor NGO, in a report released on June 24, reported similar problems based on its monitoring of the labor rights situation in 2019.

The outbreak of COVID-19 caused many businesses to close in April, with some gradually reopening beginning in early May. Health, safety, and epidemiological oversight covered both employees and patrons of Armenian businesses. Inspectors shut down numerous businesses for periods of several days for failing to comply with antiepidemic regulations.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence matters. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Tovuz from July 12 to July 16. During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, authorities restricted freedom of movement and access to information.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.

The government did not prosecute or punish the majority of officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.

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

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

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and pursue prosecutions.

Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on November 9, Talysh historian and activist Fakhraddin Abbasov reportedly died in Gobustan prison under suspicious circumstances. Prison authorities stated he committed suicide. On October 13, he reportedly announced that his life was in danger and warned family and supporters not to believe future claims he had died by suicide. Some human rights activists also noted suicide was against Abbasov’s religious views.

During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 2.a., 5, and 6, and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

In early October, two videos surfaced on social media of Azerbaijani soldiers humiliating and executing two Armenian detainees in the town of Hadrut. On October 15, the videos were assessed as genuine by independent experts from Bellingcat, the BBC, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL). Armenian authorities identified the victims as civilian residents Benik Hakobyan (age 73) and Yuriy Adamyan (age 25). Digital forensic analysis by the DFRL and Bellingcat concluded the video footage was authentic, noting it was filmed in Hadrut, Nagorno-Karabakh, and showed the captives being taken by men speaking Russian and Azerbaijani and wearing Azerbaijani uniforms. One of the captors in the video was wearing a helmet typically worn by members of the Azerbaijani special forces, according to the Atlantic Council and Bellingcat analyses. The government stated the videos were staged.

In another high-profile example, on December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the execution by decapitation of two ethnic Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani forces, one of whom wore a helmet that Amnesty reported was associated with special operations forces. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”

There were credible reports of Azerbaijani forces and Armenian or ethnic Armenian separatist forces firing weapons on residential areas and damaging civilian infrastructure with artillery, missiles, and cluster munitions. Such attacks resulted in significant civilian casualties.

Azerbaijani armed forces allegedly used heavy artillery missiles, combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and aerial bombs, as well as cluster munitions, hitting civilians and civilian facilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani government denied the accusations that the military shelled civilian structures. For example, on October 3 and December 11, Human Rights Watch criticized Azerbaijan’s armed forces for repeatedly using weapons on residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 5, Amnesty International crisis response experts corroborated the authenticity of video footage–consistent with the use of cluster munitions–from the city of Stepanakert that was published in early October and identified Israeli-made cluster munitions that appeared to have been fired by Azerbaijani armed forces. The Hazardous Area Life-support Organization (HALO) Trust, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in Nagorno-Karabakh to clear unexploded ordnance, confirmed the use of cluster munitions in operations striking civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh during intensive fighting in the fall.

On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”

The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the fighting. Armenian authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting.

There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.

b. Disappearance

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

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Azerbaijanis and Armenians remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that, as of December 1, there were 3,890 citizens registered as missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting in the 1990s. Of these, 719 were civilians. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting.

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

While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions and denied detainees access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There also were credible reports that Azerbaijani and Armenian forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody.

During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits it conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports the CPT stated that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic.

There were several credible reports of torture during the year.

For example, human right defenders reported that on April 28, Popular Front Party member Niyamaddin Ahmadov was taken from the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees and driven to an unknown location with a bag over his head, where he was beaten and physically tortured in an effort to obtain an allegedly false confession concerning illegal financing of the party. There were also reports that he was subsequently beaten in Baku Detention Center No.1, where he was moved after the government opened a criminal case against him.

Human rights defenders reported the alleged torture of Popular Front Party members Fuad Gahramanli, Seymur Ahmadov, Ayaz Maharramli, Ramid Naghiyev, and Baba Suleyman, who were arrested after a major rally the night of July 14-15 in support of the army following intensive fighting on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border (also see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). The detainees’ location remained unknown for days, and they were deprived of access to lawyers and family members. Throughout their detention, friends, relatives, and lawyers were not allowed to visit for an extended period. The independent Turan News Agency reported that Gahramanli was “severely tortured” in Baku Detention Center No.1 after his arrest. Gahramanli reportedly refused the services of his independent lawyer after being forced to do so by government authorities. He was deprived of the right to call or meet with his family for months with the exception of one short call to his brother 10 days after his detention, when he informed him that he was alive. The call followed social media allegations that Gahramanli had died after being tortured in custody.

There were developments in the 2017 government arrest of more than 100 citizens in Terter who were alleged to have committed treason by engaging in espionage for Armenia. Family members and civil society activists reported that the government had tortured the accused in an effort to coerce their confessions, as a result of which up to nine detainees reportedly died. According to the independent Turan News Agency, four of the deceased were acquitted posthumously and investigators who had fabricated the charges against them were prosecuted, convicted, and received prison sentences of up to seven years. Following a closed trial of 25 individuals, at least nine remained in prison, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. On September 14, relatives of those killed or imprisoned in the case attempted to hold a protest at the Presidential Administration. They called for the release of those incarcerated, posthumous rehabilitation of those who died after being tortured, and accountability for those responsible.

There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, activist Fuad Ismayilov reported that on March 7, he was beaten in Police Department No. 32 of Surakhani District. Relatives reported that on June 21, he was also beaten by police officers in the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees.

Media outlets reported the mistreatment of imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov. Huseynov conducted a hunger strike of approximately three weeks to protest the ban on family-provided food parcels because of quarantine rules, as well as the high prices for food in the prison market. In response prison officials barred Huseynov from bathing or communicating with family. The prison administration also placed him in solitary confinement.

On June 8, police used excessive force while conducting an early morning raid in a residential building in Baku. A day earlier, building residents had thrown garbage at police officers while they were detaining a neighbor for violating the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine regime. During the operation police also treated some detainees in a humiliating manner by not allowing them to dress properly before removing them from their homes. On June 9, Karim Suleymanli, one of those detained, stated that police had beaten him for five hours while he was in custody. On June 10, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Suleymanli’s lawyer stated Suleymanli had obtained a medical report declaring that he had been severely beaten. According to Suleymanli, all 11 detained individuals were beaten in Police Department No. 29. Courts later sentenced them to administrative detention for periods of from 10 to 30 days. On June 9, Suleymanli’s sentence was postponed, and he was released because of his health condition. On June 16, the Baku Court of Appeal replaced his previous 15-day administrative detention with a fine. Following the event the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed one police officer for publicly insulting a local resident.

Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse and delayed access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity.

There were credible allegations that authorities forcibly committed opposition Popular Front Party member Agil Humbatov to a psychiatric hospital in Baku twice after he criticized the government. Human rights NGOs reported he was institutionalized on March 31 after posting a social media message criticizing the country’s leadership on March 30. On April 1, he reportedly was released; however, on April 2, he was reinstitutionalized after posting a message complaining authorities had forcibly placed him in the psychiatric hospital due to his political views. On July 1, he was released.

There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians in their custody (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). For example, on December 2, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijani forces inhumanly treated numerous ethnic Armenian soldiers captured in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to the report, Azerbaijani forces subjected the detainees to physical abuse and humiliation in actions that were captured on videos and widely circulated on social media. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the locations and times but was confident that none of the videos was posted before October-November.

Human Rights Watch closely examined 14 such cases and spoke with the families of five detainees whose abuse was depicted. According to one family’s account, on October 2, the parents of a youth named Areg (age 19) lost contact with him. On October 8, a relative alerted the family to two videos that showed Areg lying on top of an Azerbaijani tank and then sitting on the same tank and, on his captor’s orders, shouting, “Azerbaijan” and calling the Armenian prime minister insulting names. In mid-October according to the Human Rights Watch report, three more videos with the same person appeared on social media. One showed Areg, apparently in the back seat of a vehicle wearing a flowery smock and a thick black blindfold, repeating on his captors’ orders, “long live President Aliyev” and “Karabakh is Azerbaijan” and also cursing Armenia’s leader.

On December 10, an Amnesty International report authenticated 22 of the dozens of videos circulating on social media, which included–among other abuses–the mistreatment of Armenian prisoners and other captives (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). According to Amnesty International, seven of the videos showed what it termed “violations” by “Azerbaijani forces.” According to the report, in some videos, Azerbaijani soldiers kicked and beat bound and blindfolded ethnic Armenian prisoners and forced them to make statements opposing their government.

As of year’s end, authorities had arrested four soldiers for desecrating bodies and grave sites.

According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly used artillery missiles, aerial bombs, and cluster munitions, against Stepanakert and struck civilian infrastructure. According to the Armenian government and Armenian media reports, a diverse range of nonmilitary sites was hit, including medical emergency service centers and ambulances, food stocks, crops, livestock, electricity and gas plants, and drinking-water installations and supplies, as well as schools and preschools. According to the BBC, many homes in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, were left without electricity or water. The Azerbaijani government denied these accusations.

According to various international observers, Azerbaijani armed forces on multiple occasions struck near humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC and HALO Trust, located in Stepanakert. On October 2, the Azerbaijani armed forces struck the emergency service administrative building in Stepanakert, wounding nine personnel and killing one. On October 14, three aircraft reportedly dropped bombs on the military hospital in Martakert, damaging the hospital and destroying nearby medical vehicles, all clearly marked as medical. On October 28, more than 15 strikes hit various areas of Stepanakert and Shusha. An Azerbaijani missile hit rescue personnel conducting humanitarian functions in Shusha, killing one person and seriously injuring five. Another missile, reportedly a high-precision, Long Range Attack (LORA) missile struck a Stepanakert hospital maternity ward. Unexploded missiles were later found inside the hospital. On November 2, an Azerbaijani UAV destroyed a fire truck transporting fresh water to civilians in the Askeran region.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to prison monitoring conducted by a reputable organization prior to the onset of COVID-19, prison conditions reportedly were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding; inadequate nutrition; deficient heating, ventilation, and sanitation; and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they were held while awaiting their hearings. There was no reporting or evidence that conditions improved during the year.

Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks, and held women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities. The same NGOs noted, however, that women’s prisons suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The law allows convicted juvenile offenders to be held in juvenile institutions until they reach age 20.

While the government continued to construct prison facilities, some operating Soviet-era facilities continued to fail to meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.

Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by placing them in solitary confinement. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.

Prisoners claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement officially provided food, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.

Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from taking documents into and out of detention facilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that it conducted systematic visits and investigations into complaints, but activists claimed the office regularly dismissed prisoner complaints in politically sensitive cases.

Authorities limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons. For example, family members of political activists detained after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for the first several weeks of their detention.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC and CPT.

Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between prisoners and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.

A human rights community prison-monitoring group, known as the Public Committee, was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service.

Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported that more than 2500 Azerbaijanis avoided incarceration during the year with the use of GPS-enabled electronic bracelets.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.

NGOs reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms. Several citizens reported they had been summoned to police departments for their posts on social media critical of the government’s response to COVID-19, and many were forced to delete their posts. For example, media outlets reported that Facebook-user Rahim Khoyski was called to a police department for making recommendations to the government on his social media account to freeze debts and loans, to stop collecting taxes from entrepreneurs, and to provide monetary assistance to citizens who had lost their income. Police warned him not to make such recommendations and ordered him to delete his post.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In all cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.

According to the law, detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant either placing the detainee in pretrial detention or under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. At times, however, authorities detained individuals for longer than 48 hours without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office must complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them during the year.

A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year.

The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. Human rights defenders stated that many of the political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally were denied access to effective legal representation and were forced to rely on state-appointed lawyers who did not adequately defend their clients due to fear of government reprisal.

Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access. The Collegium of Advocates, however, undertook several initiatives to expand legal representation outside the capital, including the establishment of offices in regional Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network centers to provide legal services to local citizens.

By law detained individuals have the right to contact relatives and have a confidential meeting with their lawyers immediately following detention. Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information regarding detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information regarding detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on selected individuals to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of some political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for several weeks to limit the dissemination of information and to hide traces of torture.

Azerbaijani and Armenian officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of any remaining detainees.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.

For example, police regularly detained opposition and other activists mainly on the charges of “violating the quarantine regime,” “resisting police,” or “petty hooliganism,” and subsequently took them to local courts where judges sentenced them to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days. Those charged with criminal offenses were sentenced to lengthier periods of incarceration (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Human rights defenders asserted these arrests were one method authorities used to intimidate activists and dissuade others from engaging in activism. For example, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention under such charges from mid-March to mid-May. More than 15 Popular Front Party members were sentenced to administrative detention after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months, the maximum allowed by law. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides that persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary, however, did not rule independently in such cases, and while sentences were occasionally reduced, the outcomes often appeared predetermined.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges were not functionally independent of the executive branch. While the government made a number of judicial reforms in 2019, the reforms did not foster judicial independence. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally unsupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during a trial, with outcomes frequently appearing predetermined. For example, following the July 14-15 proarmy rally, judges sentenced Popular Front Party board members Fuad Gahramanli, Mammad Ibrahim, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli from three to four months of pretrial detention, although these political activists did not take part in the rally (see section 1.c.). Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.

The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council, which appoints the judicial selection committee that administers the judicial selection process and examination and oversees long-term judicial training. The council consists of six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar.

Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in politically sensitive cases. There were also credible allegations that judges routinely accepted bribes.

In April 2019 President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree promulgating limited judicial sector reforms. The decree called for an increase in the salary of judges, an increase in the number of judicial positions (from 600 to 800), audio recordings of all court proceedings, and establishment of specialized commercial courts for entrepreneurship disputes. The decree also ordered increased funding for pro bono legal aid. Some measures called for in the decree, such as the establishment of commercial courts and a raise in judicial salaries, were implemented, while others remained pending at year’s end.

Trial Procedures

The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for most of the year, courts allowed only a small number of individuals to attend hearings, limiting public access to trials.

Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Members of opposition parties and civil society activists were consistently denied counsel of their choice for days, while government-appointed lawyers represented them, but not in their interest. For example, during the trial of opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, which continued from July 24 until September 3, the judge reportedly did not conduct an unbiased review of the case and repeatedly denied the motions of Yagublu’s lawyers. The judge denied the defendant’s requests for additional information relevant to the case and declined to consider misconduct by law enforcement authorities. For example, the judge did not satisfy a motion by Yagublu’s lawyers to allow data from telecommunications companies. Additionally, police confiscated Yagublu’s cell phone and deleted video footage he had taken during the alleged incident. The judge refused Yagublu’s lawyers’ motions to restore those videos. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings, judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or upon a defendant’s request for a change of counsel.

By law only members of the Collegium of Advocates (bar association) are able to represent citizens in any legal process, whether criminal, civil, or administrative. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the law, asserting it restricted citizens’ access to legal representation and empowered the government-dominated bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of lawyers in good standing who were willing to represent such individuals.

In February, three NGOs reported that, as a result of various punitive measures, more than 24 attorneys had been deprived of the opportunity to practice their profession since 2005. The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases remained small due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the Collegium of Advocates. Such measures included disciplinary proceedings resulting in the censure, suspension, and in some cases disbarment of human rights lawyers. In November 2019 the Collegium suspended the license and initiated disbarment proceedings against lawyer Shahla Humbatova for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated.

In some cases the Collegium of Advocates dropped politically motivated proceedings against lawyers, such as in August those against Zibeyda Sadigova and Bahruz Bayramov. In other cases, however, after dropping proceedings against a lawyer, the Collegium engaged in other punitive measures against the same lawyer. For example, after dropping administrative proceedings against Elchin Sadigov in January, the Collegium issued him a warning and, on September 25, deprived him of the right to continue working as an independent lawyer. Only independent lawyers may represent a client immediately. Those such as Sadigov, deprived of this independent status, are required first to obtain permission to represent a client through a government-approved law firm, which often took days. During this time government-appointed lawyers represented clients and could take action without the approval of or consultation with their clients.

The Collegium issued two other warnings to lawyers during the year: on June 11, to Javad Javadov for sharing information concerning the alleged mistreatment of his client, Kerim Suleymanli, by police (see section 1.c.), and on July 13, to Nemat Karimli for publicly sharing information concerning the alleged October 2019 torture of Tofig Yagublu without waiting for the results of the official investigation.

The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku. This continued to make it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal services, since local lawyers were unwilling or unable to take on such cases.

During the year the Collegium increased its membership from 1,708 to 1,791. Human rights defenders asserted the new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases due to fear they would be sanctioned by the Collegium. Some activists and candidate lawyers stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.

In some instances courts rejected the admission of legal evidence. For example, on February 21, the Baku Court of Appeal ruled that video recordings presented by National Assembly candidate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev in support of his election complaint were inadmissible because they were recorded without the permission of the precinct election commissions responsible for conducting the elections in his district. On February 26, the Supreme Court upheld this verdict.

Although the constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence, some defendants claimed that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse. Human rights monitors also reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.

Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts frequently ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.

Human rights advocates reported courts sometimes failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Defendants are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.

There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse. A provision of an April 2019 presidential decree addressed the problem but had not been implemented by year’s end.

The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

NGO estimates of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end ranged from at least 90 to 146. Political prisoners and detainees included journalists and bloggers (see section 2.a.), political and social activists (see section 3), religious activists (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report), individuals arrested in connection with the Ganja and Terter cases (see section 1.c.), and the relative of a journalist/activist in exile (see section 1.f.).

In a particularly high profile case, on March 22, a member of the Coordination Center of National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested and ordered held for three months in pretrial detention for “hooliganism” in connection with a car accident. Human rights defenders considered the arrest a staged provocation against Yagublu. On September 3, the Nizami District Court convicted Yagublu and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. On September 18, the Baku Court of Appeal released Yagublu to house arrest after he was on a hunger strike for 17 days. At year’s end Yagublu was awaiting a ruling on his appeal.

In another case, on April 16, Popular Front Party activist Niyamaddin Ahmadov was detained and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention. After serving his administrative sentence, on May 18, he was sentenced to four months’ pretrial detention, allegedly on the criminal charge of funding terrorism. Human rights defenders considered the case politically motivated. He remained under pretrial detention at year’s end.

From July 14-15, during a spontaneous rally of more than 20,000 persons supporting the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, a group entered the National Assembly and reportedly caused minor damage before being removed. Some protesters allegedly clashed with police and damaged police cars. On July 16, President Aliyev accused the Popular Front Party of instigating protesters to enter the National Assembly and stated law enforcement bodies would investigate the party.

Human rights defenders reported that authorities used these events to justify the arrest of political activists, including those who did not attend the rally. Law enforcement officials opened criminal cases against at least 16 members of the Popular Front Party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. The formal charges against the remaining individuals included damaging property, violating public order, and using force against a government official. In addition Popular Front Party activists Fuad Gahramanli and Mammad Ibrahim were accused of trying to seize power by force in an alleged attempted coup. Popular Front Party member Mahammad Imanli, along with Mammad Ibrahim’s son and ruling party member Mehdi Ibrahimov, were also accused of spreading COVID-19 during the demonstration, which included thousands of demonstrators who were not wearing masks.

On August 19, the Khatai District Court released Mehdi Ibrahimov, placing him under house arrest. On November 16, the Sabayil District Court released 21 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, placing them under house arrest. These individuals included 12 members of the Popular Front Party and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. On December 7, the remaining 15 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, including three Popular Front Party activists and a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, were released and placed under house arrest. On December 1, the Sabunchu District Court convicted and sentenced Mahammad Imanli to one year in prison.

There were developments during the year in long-standing cases of persons considered to have been incarcerated on politically motivated grounds. On April 23, the Plenum of the Supreme Court acquitted opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party chairperson Ilgar Mammadov and human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. As a result Mammadov and Jafarov no longer faced restrictions based on their criminal records, including restrictions on seeking political office. The court ruled the government must pay 234,000 manat ($138,000) in compensation to Mammadov and 57,400 manat ($33,900) to Jafarov for moral damages, and both could seek additional compensation in civil court. The government paid these compensations to Mammadov and Jafarov. In 2014 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated. In 2017 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov had been denied a fair trial. Six others considered to be former political prisoners whose acquittal was ordered by the ECHR were waiting court decisions at year’s end.

On March 17, after serving three years of his six-year prison term, authorities released investigative journalist Afghan Mukhtarli under the condition that he leave the country and relocate to Germany immediately after his release. He remained in Germany at year’s end (also see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Georgia).

Political prisoners and detainees faced varied restrictions. Former political prisoners stated prison officials limited access to reading materials and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were reports of government abuse of international law enforcement tools, such as those of Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), in attempts to detain foreign residents who were activists. There also were reports that the government targeted dissidents and journalists who lived outside of the country through kidnappings, digital harassment, and intimidation of family members who remained in the country.

In January authorities in Gdansk, Poland, detained Dashgyn Agalarli, an Azerbaijani national with refugee status in Norway, reportedly due to an Interpol notice submitted by the Azerbaijan government. He was held for three days and then released on bail. According to news reports in September, however, he remained in Poland and was unable to leave the country.

In December 2019 the State Migration Service reported that political emigrant and government critic Elvin Isayev was deported to Azerbaijan from Ukraine and arrested upon arrival. According to RFE/RL, Ukraine’s State Migration Service and Prosecutor General’s Office denied having ordered his deportation. Isayev was charged with incitement to riot and for open calls for action against the state. On September 8, the Prosecutor General’s Office alleged that seven other political emigrants residing in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland participated in these criminal acts, together with Isayev. On the basis of the Prosecutor General’s Office’s petition, the Nasimi District Court ordered the arrest of all seven emigrants. The emigrants subject to this order included Ordukhan Babirov, Tural Sadigli, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafael Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, and Suleyman Suleymanli. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it requested an international search for these individuals from Interpol. On October 30, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes convicted and sentenced Elvin Isayev to eight years in prison.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.

Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions. In some cases considered to be politically motivated, the government withheld compensation ordered by the ECHR. For example, on May 7, journalist and former political prisoner Khadija Ismayilova told media that the government owed her 44,500 euros ($53,400) in total based on decisions of the ECHR (see section 4).

Property Restitution

NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were therefore reluctant to pursue compensation claims.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.

While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom), particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. Human rights lawyers asserted that the postal service purposely lost or misplaced communications with the ECHR to inhibit proceedings against the government.

Throughout the year some websites and social media sources leaked videos of virtual meetings and recorded conversations of opposition figures. It was widely believed that government law enforcement or intelligence services were the source of the leaked videos.

In an effort to intimidate and embarrass an activist and member of the local municipal council who advocated more transparent governance, local authorities hung photographs of Vafa Nagi in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout her village (see section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups).

Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes incarcerate family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, activists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, human rights defenders considered Emin Sagiyev to have been incarcerated due to the activities of his brother-in-law, exiled journalist Turkel Azerturk.

There were reports authorities fired individuals from jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.

Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.

During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.

Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.

Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.

During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.

On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council continued to require that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.

The IREX Media Sustainability Index for 2019–the most recent year for which the index was available–reported that in 2018 the number of websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of the Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets, including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.

On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.

On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.

From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.

On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.

The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.

Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party leaders reported their members had difficulty finding and keeping teaching jobs at schools and universities.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government consistently and severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force against or detaining protesters.

Prior to the imposition of restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 in March, authorities prevented attempts by political opposition groups to organize demonstrations. For example, on February 11, police violently dispersed a protest concerning the conduct of the National Assembly elections and election results in front of the Central Election Commission. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission reported it observed riot police loading protesters onto buses in a disproportionately forceful way and that some protesters were beaten while inside the buses. On February 16, police detained and put approximately 200 protesters into cars and buses, drove them to either the distant suburbs of Baku or other regions of the country, and released them there without explanation or means of return. Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, these political groups did not attempt to organize demonstrations that would have otherwise been consistent with the right to freedom of assembly.

During a large and apparently unplanned mid-July gathering in support of the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, there were minor clashes between police and a group of protesters, causing damage to cars and property inside and outside the National Assembly. Police used violence to disperse the crowd. According to Human Rights Watch, police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.

Following a nationally televised speech in which President Aliyev accused the opposition Popular Front Party of having organized the demonstration, authorities arrested at least 16 members of the party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement on criminal charges. An additional 15 or more members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to administrative detention. Authorities made apparently politically motivated arrests in connection with the proarmy rally, although the gathering was apparently neither planned by the political parties nor in support of either the opposition or general freedom of assembly rights.

The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include substantial fines and up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission rather than merely prior notification. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations far from the city center of Baku and with limited access by public transportation. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right and severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.

Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.

The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts NGOs’ ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

Government regulations provide for a “single window” mechanism for registering grants. Under the procedures, grant registration processes involving multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

The Ministry of Justice is permitted by law to monitor NGO activities and conduct inspections of NGOs. The law offers few provisions protecting NGO rights and authorizes substantial fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. While the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal cases against the American Bar Association and IREX and ordered their bank accounts unfrozen in July, the two groups continued to face administrative difficulties, such as a remaining tax levy imposed on IREX. Problems remained for other groups. For example, the bank accounts of the Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen, and the organization was unable to operate (see section 5).

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate their support of “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and not be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, at least four foreign NGOs had been able to renew their registrations under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on their applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on matters related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

During the period of martial law following the September 27 outbreak of intensive fighting with Armenia and Armenia-supported separatists, the government imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in six cities, including Baku and Ganja, and 16 districts.

Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 652,326 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of midyear. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers continued to state the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and 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 some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,591 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many refugee children, however, were able to enroll at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 409 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.

Stateless persons generally enjoyed freedom of internal movement. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted if they left the country. The law provides stateless persons with access to the basic rights of citizens, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped one person of citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by obstructing the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In December 2019, the president dissolved the National Assembly in response to an appeal to do so by the National Assembly and announced early elections for the body to be held on February 9.

Some opposition parties boycotted the election, citing the restrictive environment, while other opposition parties and groups took part. According to the OSCE ODIHR election observation mission, the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the February 9 elections. ODIHR concluded that voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political competition and discussion. Although many candidates utilized social media to reach out to voters, use of social media generally did not compensate for the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. ODIHR observed several instances of pressure on voters, candidates, and candidates’ representatives. International and local observers reported significant procedural violations during the counting and tabulation of votes, including ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting. ODIHR concluded the flaws “raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.” Domestic nonpartisan election observers concluded the election results did not reflect the will of the people.

Similarly, in 2018 the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October 2018 to April 2018. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the ODIHR mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. The mission concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the 2016 referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting–a method of vote rigging usually involving voters casting ballots multiple times–and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. Observers reported significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The number of registered political parties increased from 55 to 63 during the year due to the registration of eight political parties, including the REAL party, the first such registrations since 2011. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party, however, continued to dominate the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. Following the February 9 National Assembly elections, the body included only one representative of the country’s main opposition parties. The National Assembly had not included any opposition representatives since 2010.

During the year a Presidential Administration official established direct communication with some of the country’s 63 political parties and groups. The official held meetings with political figures, including representatives of selected opposition parties, throughout the year. Despite the dialogue, however, restrictions on political participation continued.

Opposition members were generally more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). From mid-March to mid-May, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention mainly for violating the quarantine regime and resisting police charges. Human rights defenders estimated the country’s courts sentenced Popular Front Party activists to periods of administrative detention approximately 40 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, eight opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Babek Hasanov, Agil Maharramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, Pasha Umudov, Elchin Ismayilli, Alizamin Salayev, and Niyamaddin Ahmadov.

Prior to its registration on August 31, the REAL party was unable to rent space to hold a founding congress. In light of this difficulty, the Presidential Administration official responsible for liaising with political parties suggested that the party hold its congress online, which REAL did in August. Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and employing economic pressure on their family members.

Restrictions on local civil society organizations limited their ability to monitor elections. Such restrictions included legal provisions severely constraining NGO activities and the inability of NGOs to obtain registration, which was required for legal status. For example, two nonpartisan election-monitoring organizations (the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) and the Institute for Democratic Initiatives) remained unregistered. The EMDS Center also reported that independent election observers were subjected to physical and psychological pressure during the February 9 National Assembly elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA), a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 17.6 percent of members of the National Assembly, including the speaker of the Assembly, were women.

Female activists often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, local officials launched a gender-based harassment and intimidation campaign against Vafa Nagi, a member of the Kholgaragashli municipal council of the Neftchala District, after she publicly raised governance concerns regarding water access and the illegal sale of lands. On June 16, the local municipal council chair reportedly ordered authorities to hang photographs of Nagi dressed in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout the conservative village to shame her and her family members.

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. While the government made some progress in combating low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody. These problems persisted throughout the year. Media outlets reported the arrests for accepting bribes of the mayors of Neftchala on February 20, Bilasuvar on April 29, Imishli on May 5, and Jalilabad on December 7.

Similar to previous years, authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. For example, authorities continued punitive measures against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, including freezing of her bank accounts since 2017, banning her travel since 2016, and failing to implement three ECHR rulings in her favor (see section 1.e.). In March 2019 the Baku Court of Appeals rejected Ismayilova’s appeal of the 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court holding her accountable for 45,143 manat ($26,600) of RFE/RL’s alleged tax debt, despite RFE/RL’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit entity. In August 2019 the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Ismayilova’s reporting on elite corruption was widely considered the reason for the targeting, which also included her imprisonment from 2014 to 2016.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it completed investigation of 180 criminal cases against 281 officials and sent them to the courts during the year. While no senior officials were prosecuted, several high-ranking officials were arrested and charged. Several such cases remained under investigation at year’s end, including charges of corruption against the minister of culture and other high-ranking ministry officials, multiple ambassadors, several department heads at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several heads and deputy heads of regional executive committees (governors). Although those accused were charged with corruption, the arrests were not accompanied by systemic reforms, such as requiring all officials to comply with the asset declaration law or ending punitive measures against persons who exposed corruption. As a result observers considered the arrests to have political or economic motives that were unrelated to combating corruption.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article in April on the SerbAz company, which brought more than 700 workers from the Balkan region to Baku to build or renovate some its most prominent buildings between 2006 and 2009. The OCCRP revealed that SerbAz’s most powerful backer in the country was Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov. According to the OCCRP, there was strong evidence that the minister awarded contracts to his wife’s company, using public money to benefit his own family. SerbAz appeared to be a subsidiary of a major luxury importer, ItalDizain, a company owned jointly by Rahimov’s wife, Zulfiya Rahimova, and a man who appeared to be Rahimov’s associate. The Ministry of Youth and Sports signed contracts with SerbAz for the renovation of the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Concert Complex, the restoration of the “Palace of Happiness” marriage registration center, and the reconstruction of the Kur Olympic Training and Sports Center. While engaged in construction, workers were kept in inhuman conditions, were deprived of their passports, and reported physical abuse; several workers died.

There was widespread belief that a bribe could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between ages 18 and 35. Citizens also reported military personnel could buy assignments to easier military duties for a smaller bribe.

The government continued efforts to reduce low-level corruption and improve government services by expanding the capabilities and number of State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations service centers, which functioned as one-stop locations for government services, such as obtaining birth certificates and marriage licenses, from nine ministries.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires officials to submit reports on their financial situation and requires all candidates to submit financial statements. The process of submitting reports was complex and nontransparent, with several agencies and bodies designated as recipients, including the Anticorruption Commission, National Assembly, Ministry of Justice, and Central Election Commission, although their monitoring roles were not well understood. The public did not have access to the reports. The law permits administrative sanctions for noncompliance, but there were no reports that such sanctions were imposed.

The law prohibits the public release of the names and capital investments of business owners. Critics continued to state the purpose of the law was to curb investigative journalism into government officials’ business interests.

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

While the government provided access to certain areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, it restricted access to other areas, limiting reporting from local and international journalists, as well as international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, on August 3, former political prisoner and human rights defender Rufat Safarov was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office and warned he would face arrest after he publicized reports concerning detentions and alleged torture of political opposition activists Fuad Gahramanli and Seymur Ahmedov after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

As of December 31, human rights defender Oktay Gulaliyev remained in a coma after having been struck by a car in October 2019 while crossing a Baku intersection, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until the following day. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his announced 2019 campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. They also noted that Gulaliyev had been warned by authorities not to report on repression and torture. Other activists stated there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey. During the year Gulaliyev’s family reported delays in the government’s investigation of the case. Gulaliyev’s lawyer complained that law enforcement bodies did not provide him with the findings of the investigation. On October 30, the Nasimi District Court initiated a hearing on the case. At his family’s request, on November 7, Gulaliyev was transported to his home in Baku where he continued to receive medical treatment.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the same high level as recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev. On March 30, human rights defender and journalist Elchin Mammad was detained based on allegations of theft and illegal possession of a weapon. On October 14, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Human rights defenders viewed this verdict as politically motivated.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds. On December 17, however, the ministry registered the Baku Human Rights Club, an organization cofounded by prominent human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Javad Javadov.

Government officials and state-dominated media outlets engaged in rhetorical attacks on human rights activists and political opposition leaders (see section 3), accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country and working on behalf of foreign interests.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies, criticizing what authorities termed interference in the country’s internal affairs. In response to the adoption of a resolution on political prisoners by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on January 30, member of parliament Nagif Hamzayev commented that the country was treated unfairly and discriminated against. Although government officials and members of the National Assembly had previously criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, government officials referred to the ODIHR assessment of the 2020 parliamentary elections as “balanced.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsperson for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsperson for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsperson may refuse to accept cases of abuse that are more than one year old, anonymous, or already being handled by the judiciary. Human rights NGOs criticized the Ombudsperson’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies, but they were similarly accused of ignoring violations in politically sensitive cases.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Spousal rape is also illegal, but observers stated police did not effectively investigate such claims.

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, including in cases where husbands ultimately killed their wives.

The SCFWCA tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. On November 27, the president approved the National Action Plan to Combat Domestic Violence for 2020-23. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence. On December 1, the SCFWCA, together with the UN Population Fund, established an emergency hotline for gender-based violence. Callers could use the hotline to access free legal assistance, counseling support, and information concerning gender and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment.

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, and violence. Contraception was available, but limited supplies and lack of education and counseling limited usage. Patriarchal norms based on cultural, historical, and socioeconomic factors in some cases limited women’s reproductive rights.

No legal, social, or cultural barriers or government policies adversely affected access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. In vitro fertilization procedures were available.

The government referred survivors of sexual violence to free medical care including sexual and reproductive services.

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

Discrimination: Although women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal and employment-based discrimination remained a problem. According to the State Statistical Committee, there was discrimination against women in employment, including wide disparities in pay and higher rates of unemployment.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the SCFWCA. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of and address the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. Registration at birth was routine for births in hospitals or clinics. Some children born at home were not registered.

Education: While education is compulsory, free, and universal until age 17, large families in impoverished rural areas sometimes placed a higher priority on the education of boys and kept girls in the home to work. Social workers stated that some poor families forced their children to work or beg rather than attend school.

Child Abuse: There is criminal liability for sexual violence against children. The law also stipulates punishment for child labor and other abuse against children. The SCFWCA organized multiple events prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to address the problem of child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The problem of early marriage continued during the year. The law provides that a girl may marry at age 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam.

In July the SCFWCA organized two awareness-raising online events on prevention of early marriages.

The law establishes substantial fines or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction of recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography, its production, its distribution, or its advertisement, for which conviction is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Conviction of statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school.

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

The country’s Jewish community was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals. 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 physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life. Local experts noted that, although financial payments for persons with disabilities increased in 2019, in general the implementation of this law was not satisfactory, and persons with disabilities continued to experience problems.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. According to official statistics, there were approximately 62,951 children with disabilities in the country. A local NGO reported that 6,000 to 10,000 of them had access to segregated educational facilities, while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

Legislation mandates that access to public or other buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. Some assistance existed for them, including in education; however, this mandate was not fully implemented. Information and communication technology and most buildings were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. During the intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists from September 27 to November 10, all sides reportedly committed atrocities (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

On May 26, the ECHR rendered a judgment in the case of Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary, finding that Azerbaijan had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of discrimination). In 2004 Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov killed sleeping Armenian soldier Gurgen Markarian while both were attending NATO training in Budapest. Convicted by Hungarian authorities to life imprisonment in 2006, Safarov was pardoned and feted after his transfer to Azerbaijan in 2012. The court did not find the government of Azerbaijan responsible for Ramil Safarov’s actions but criticized Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to enforce the punishment of Safarov, effectively granting him impunity for a serious hate crime. Moreover, the court found Safarov’s pardon and other measures in his favor had been ethnically motivated, citing statements by high-ranking officials expressing their support for his actions targeting Armenian soldiers.

Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

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

A local NGO reported incidents of police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation and noted that authorities did not investigate or punish those responsible. There were also reports that men who acknowledged or were suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) during medical examinations for conscription were sometimes subjected to rectal examinations and often found unqualified for military service on the grounds that they were mentally ill. There were also reports of family-based violence against LGBTI individuals, including being kidnapped by family members and held against their will. Hate speech against LGBTI persons and hostile Facebook postings on personal online accounts also continued.

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover LGBTI individuals.

Activists reported that LGBTI individuals were regularly fired by employers if their sexual orientation or gender identity became known.

LGBTI individuals generally refused to file formal complaints of discrimination or mistreatment with law enforcement bodies due to fear of social stigma or retaliation. Activists reported police indifference to requests that they investigate crimes committed against LGBTI individuals.

Local NGOs reported that COVID-19-pandemic-related quarantine measures compounded the impact of the discrimination already faced by members of the LGBTI community. Since these individuals regularly faced discrimination in accessing employment, they were primarily employed informally and received payment on a day-to-day basis.

During the year the ECHR continued a formal inquiry begun in February 2019 into police raids on the LGBTI community in 2017. The raids entailed arrests and detentions of more than 83 men presumed to be gay or bisexual as well as transgender women. Media outlets and human rights lawyers reported that police beat detainees and subjected them to electric shocks to obtain bribes and information regarding other gay men. Detainees were released after being sentenced to up to 30 days of administrative detention, fined up to 200 manat ($118), or both. In 2018 some victims of the raids filed cases against the state in the ECHR.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Civil society representatives reported discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV and AIDS were prevalent throughout society. The government continued to fund an NGO that worked on health problems affecting the LGBTI community.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent trade unions. Uniformed military and police and managerial staff are prohibited from joining unions. While the law provides workers the right to bargain collectively, unions could not effectively negotiate wage levels and working conditions because government-appointed boards ran major state-owned firms and set wages for government employees.

The law provides most private-sector workers the right to conduct legal strikes but prohibits civil servants from striking. Categories of workers prohibited from striking include high-ranking executive and legislative officials; law enforcement officers; court employees; fire fighters; and health, electric power, water supply, telephone, railroad, and air traffic control workers.

The law prohibits discrimination against trade unions and labor activists and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also prohibits retribution against strikers, such as dismissal or replacement. Striking workers convicted of disrupting public transportation, however, may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. No strikes occurred during the year.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws involving denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. There were some additional restrictions, such as increased bureaucratic scrutiny of the right to form unions and conduct union activities.

Most unions were not independent, and the overwhelming majority remained tightly linked to the government, with the exception of some journalists’ unions. The Azerbaijan Trade Unions Confederation (ATUC) was the only trade union confederation in the country. Although ATUC registered as an independent organization, it was closely aligned with the government. ATUC reported it represented 1.2 million members in 27 sectors. Both local and international NGOs claimed that workers in most industries were largely unaware of their rights and afraid of retribution if they exercised those rights or initiated complaints. This was especially true for workers in the public sector.

Collective bargaining agreements were often treated as formalities and not enforced. Although labor law applies to all workers and enterprises, the government may negotiate bilateral agreements that effectively exempt multinational enterprises from it. For example, production-sharing agreements in the oil and gas sector supersede domestic law and often do not include provisions for employee participation in a trade union. While the law prohibits employers from impeding the collective bargaining process, employers engaged in activities that undercut the effectiveness of collective bargaining, such as subcontracting and using short-term employment agreements.

The state oil company’s 50,000 workers were required to belong to the Union of Oil and Gas Industry Workers, and authorities automatically deducted union dues from paychecks. Many of the state-owned enterprises that dominated the formal economy withheld union dues from worker pay but did not deposit the dues in union accounts. Employers officially withheld one-quarter of the dues collected for the oil workers’ union for “administrative costs” associated with running the union. Unions and their members had no means of investigating how employers spent their dues.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except in circumstances of war or in the execution of a court decision under the supervision of a government agency. Penalties for violations, including imprisonment, were commensurate with those for other analogous crimes. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law. Resources and inspections were inadequate, due in part to a moratorium on all routine and unannounced labor inspections. The government worked with the International Finance Corporation on a project to reform the state inspection system.

Broad provisions in the law provide for the imposition of compulsory labor as a punishment for expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system. In 2018 the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts noted its concern with a growing trend of using various provisions of the criminal code to prosecute journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, and others who expressed critical opinions, under questionable charges that appeared politically motivated, resulting in long periods of corrective labor or imprisonment, both involving compulsory labor.

Foreign observers made several visits to various regions of the country to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, including the Sabirabad, Saatli, Imishli, Beylagan, Agjabadi, Barda, and other districts located between Baku and the city of Ganja. No cases of forced labor were observed during the harvest.

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

In most cases the law permits children to work from age 15 with a written employment contract; children who are 14 may work in family businesses or, with parental consent, in daytime after-school jobs that pose no hazard to their health. Children younger than 16 may not work more than 24 hours per week; children 16 or 17 may not work more than 36 hours per week. The law prohibits employing children younger than 18 in difficult and hazardous conditions and identifies specific work and industries in which children are prohibited, including work with toxic substances and underground, at night, in mines, and in nightclubs, bars, casinos, or other businesses that serve alcohol.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor and setting a minimum age for employment. The government maintained a moratorium on routine and unannounced inspections, which may have prevented effective enforcement of child labor law. Resources and inspections were inadequate to enforce compliance, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. Although the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection could receive and respond to complaints, its response did not include worksite inspections. Instead, the State Labor Inspection Service within the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection investigated complaints by requesting information from the employer in question. Inspectors identified violations and imposed appropriate penalties based on the information they received.

On July 22, the president approved the National Action Plan for 2020-2024 on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The plan tasked the relevant government bodies to continue efforts to: identify victims of human trafficking and forced labor, including children; carry out special work with children engaged in begging; develop general standards of communication with child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; conduct training on the identification and protection of child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; and conduct awareness-raising work with entrepreneurs and employers in order to prevent the exploitation of child labor.

There is no legal employment of children younger than age 15 in the country, and authorities reported no instances of investigated child labor in legal sectors of the economy. There were reports of children engaging in child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, and agriculture. During visits to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, foreign observers did not note any instances of child labor. Some nongovernmental observers, however, reported instances of rural children younger than 15 sometimes working on the family farm or accompanying parents working as day laborers to agricultural fields.

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 “http://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/” www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. Legal penalties for discrimination in employment existed under various articles and laws but were patchwork in nature and not commensurate with those under other laws related to civil rights. The law excludes women from 678 occupations in 38 industries that are framed as inherently dangerous jobs. Many of these positions were higher ranked and better paid than positions that women were permitted to occupy in the same industries.

Employers generally hesitated to hire persons with disabilities, and workplace access was limited. Discrimination in employment and occupation also occurred with respect to sexual orientation. LGBTI individuals reported employers found other reasons to dismiss them, because they could not legally dismiss someone because of their sexual orientation. Women were underrepresented in high-level jobs, including top business positions. Traditional practices limited women’s access to economic opportunities in rural areas. According to the State Statistics Committee, in 2019 the average monthly salary for women was 58 percent of the average monthly salary for men. According to gender experts, gender-based harassment in the workplace was a problem.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the poverty income level (minimum living standard). Experts stated government employers complied with the minimum wage law but that it was commonly ignored in the informal economy. The law requires equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, age, or other classification, although women’s pay lagged behind that of men.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek. Workers in hazardous occupations may not work more than 36 hours per week. Information was not available on whether local companies provided the legally required premium compensation for overtime, although international companies generally did. There is no prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides equal rights to foreign and domestic workers.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on acceptable conditions of work, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

In 2017 the government extended its moratorium on scheduled and unannounced labor inspections through 2020. Although inspectors were permitted to request information from employers and relevant employees in order to investigate complaints, complaint response did not include worksite inspections. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that it investigated 8,512 complaints during the year.

Inspection of working conditions by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection’s labor inspectorate was weak and ineffective due to the moratorium. Although the law sets health and safety standards, employers are known to ignore them. Violations of acceptable conditions of work in the construction and oil and gas sectors remained problematic. A local NGO reported that oil workers were forced to work lengthy shifts at sea because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Local human rights groups, including the Oil Workers Rights Defense Organization, an NGO dedicated to protecting worker rights in the petroleum sector, maintained that employers, particularly foreign oil companies, did not always treat foreign and domestic workers equally. Domestic employees of foreign oil companies reportedly often received lower pay and worked without contracts or private health-care insurance. Some domestic employees of foreign oil companies reported violations of labor law, noting they were unable to receive overtime payments or vacations.

According to official statistics, 48 workers died on the job during the year, including three in the oil and gas sector.

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.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Israel is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Although it has no constitution, its parliament, the unicameral 120-member Knesset, has enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights. Certain fundamental laws, orders, and regulations legally depend on the existence of a “state of emergency,” which has been in effect since 1948. Under the Basic Laws, the Knesset has the power to dissolve itself and mandate elections. On March 2, Israel held its third general election within a year, which resulted in a coalition government. On December 23, following the government’s failure to pass a budget, the Knesset dissolved itself, which paved the way for new elections scheduled for March 23, 2021.

Under the authority of the prime minister, the Israeli Security Agency combats terrorism and espionage in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The national police, including the border police and the immigration police, are under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security. The Israeli Defense Forces are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities and report to the Ministry of Defense. Israeli Security Agency forces operating in the West Bank fall under the Israeli Defense Forces for operations and operational debriefing. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security services. The Israeli military and civilian justice systems have on occasion found members of the security forces to have committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including targeted killings of Israeli civilians and soldiers; arbitrary detention, often extraterritorial in Israel, of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; interference with freedom of association, including stigmatizing human rights nongovernmental organizations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; violence against asylum seekers and irregular migrants; violence or threats of violence against national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinians from the West Bank.

The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses within Israel regardless of rank or seniority.

This section of the report covers Israel within the 1949 Armistice Agreement line as well as Golan Heights and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war and where it later extended its domestic law, jurisdiction, and administration. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

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 several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Ministry of Justice’s Department for Investigations of Police Officers (DIPO) is responsible for investigating alleged unlawful actions involving police, while the Ministry of Justice’s State Attorney’s Office is responsible for investigating alleged unlawful actions involving the prosecution.

According to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), there were 190 instances of rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli territory, 90 of which fell in uninhabited areas. The IDF intercepted 93 percent of the rockets fired at populated areas. In addition the IDF reported it foiled 38 infiltration attempts from Gaza and destroyed one terror tunnel into Israel.

The Israeli Security Agency (ISA, or Shin Bet) foiled 423 significant terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the government. By comparison 563 attacks were thwarted in 2019, 581 in 2018, and 418 in 2017. Of the attacks the ISA prevented, 281 were classified as shootings, 78 as stabbings, 10 as ramming attacks, 58 as bomb attacks, and five as planned kidnapping attacks. Israeli forces engaged in conflict throughout the year with Palestinians militants in Gaza in response to rocket attacks, incendiary balloons and attempted infiltrations. Israeli forces killed 20 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including one person at the Gaza perimeter fence, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (UNOCHA) (see West Bank and Gaza section).

According to the government and media reports, terrorist attacks targeting Israelis killed one person in Israel, in Petah Tikva. The attacker was a Palestinian from the West Bank. In addition the Israeli government reported foiling numerous terrorist attacks during the year.

On June 30, Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Iyad Halak, a Palestinian resident with autism, after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to stop. Police stated they believed Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, DIPO issued a statement that the prosecution intended to indict, pending a hearing, a police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak had not posed any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the police officer had not taken proportionate alternative measures which were at his disposal.

On September 13, the NGO Adalah and PCATI submitted a request to the Supreme Court demanding the reversal of a decision of the then state attorney to close the investigation into the 2017 police killing of Yaqoub Abu al-Qian in Umm al-Hiran and criminally to indict officers responsible for the death of Abu al-Qian.

In October 2019 the Supreme Court granted a petition filed by the family of Israeli citizen Kheir al-Din Hamdan ordering Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the DIPO to indict police officer Yizhak Begin, who shot and killed Hamdan in 2014, to determine the exact charges. In 2015 the DIPO closed its investigation into Hamdan’s killing. On April 27, the Supreme Court President ordered an expanded panel of justices to review whether an indictment could be ordered against police officers who were questioned without a warning during the DIPO investigation. The review continued at year’s end.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits torture, the application of physical or psychological pain, and assault or pressure by a public official. Israeli law exempts from prosecution ISA interrogators who use what are termed “exceptional methods” in cases that are determined by the ISA to involve an imminent threat, but the government determined in 2018 that the rules, procedures, and methods of interrogation were confidential for security reasons.

Authorities continued to state the ISA held detainees in isolation only in extreme cases and when there was no alternative option, and that the ISA did not use isolation as a means of augmenting interrogation, forcing a confession, or punishment. An independent Office of the Inspector for Complaints against ISA Interrogators in the Ministry of Justice handled complaints of misconduct and abuse in interrogations. The decision to open an investigation against an ISA employee is at the discretion of the attorney general.

In criminal cases investigated by police involving crimes with a maximum imprisonment for conviction of 10 years or more, regulations require recording the interrogations; however, an extended temporary law exempts the ISA from the audio and video recording requirement for interrogations of suspects related to “security offenses.” In non-security-related cases, ISA interrogation rooms are equipped with closed-circuit cameras, and only supervisors appointed by the Ministry of Justice have access to real-time audiovisual feeds. Supervisors are required to report to the comptroller any irregularities they observe during interrogations. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI) criticized this mechanism as insufficient to prevent and identify abuses, arguing that the absence of a recording of an interrogation impedes later accountability and judicial review.

According to PCATI, the government acknowledged that it used “exceptional measures” during interrogation in some cases, but the Ministry of Justice refused to provide information regarding the number of such “necessity interrogations.” These measures, according to PCATI, included beatings, forcing an individual to hold a stress position for long periods, threats of rape and physical harm, painful pressure from shackles or restraints applied to the forearms, sleep deprivation, and threats against families of detainees.

PCATI also argued that torture is not enumerated as a specific offense under the criminal code in Israel, despite the government’s statements to the relevant UN treaty bodies it would introduce such a law. According to PCATI, there was an uptick in the use of “special measures” on security detainees in 2019, with at least 15 persons subjected to what it considered physical torture during interrogations between August and November 2019. PCATI stated the government’s system for investigating allegations of mistreatment of detainees shows persistent and systematic shortcomings. According to PCATI, the average time it takes authorities to address complaints is more than 44 months. The Ministry of Justice stated that its internal reviews led to the opening of two investigations since 2018. PCATI claims that approximately 1,300 complaints of ISA torture were submitted to the Ministry of Justice since 2001, resulting in one criminal investigation and no indictments.

Israeli security forces arrested Samer al-Arbid, a Palestinian suspect in the August 2019 killing of Rina Shnerb, who was killed near the settlement of Dolev in the West Bank. Security forces placed al-Arbid in solitary confinement, and transferred him to an interrogation center in Jerusalem. Two days later he was admitted to a hospital unconscious and with serious injuries, including the inability to breathe, kidney failure, and broken ribs. According to PCATI, the ISA used “exceptional measures” in interrogating al-Arbid, who was subsequently released from the hospital into an Israeli Prison Service (IPS) medical facility, where his interrogation continued. The Ministry of Justice’s Inspector of Interrogee Complaints opened an investigation into the incident. The investigation was underway at year’s end.

The government stated that requests from prisoners for independent medical examination at the prisoner’s expense are reviewed by an IPS medical team. According to PCATI and Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), IPS medics and doctors ignored bruises and injuries resulting from violent arrests and interrogations. In its 2016 review of the country’s compliance with the UN Convention against Torture, the UN Committee against Torture recommended (among 50 other recommendations) that the government provide for independent medical examinations for all detainees.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

The law provides prisoners and detainees the right to conditions that do not harm their health or dignity.

Physical Conditions: Local human rights organizations reported Palestinian security prisoners (those convicted or suspected of nationalistically motivated violence) often faced more restrictive conditions than prisoners characterized as criminals. Restrictive conditions included increased incidence of administrative detention, restricted family visits, ineligibility for temporary furloughs, and solitary confinement.

A 2019 report by the Public Defender’s Office on 42 prisons and detention centers warned that despite efforts by the IPS to improve prison conditions and correct deficiencies noted in previous reports, grave violations of the rights of detainees continued to occur. The report described thousands of prisoners held in unsuitable living conditions in outdated facilities, some of which were unfit for human habitation. According to the report, many of the prisoners, especially minors, were punished by solitary confinement and disproportionate use of shackling. The Public Defender’s Office found this particularly concerning in cases where prisoners suffered from mental disabilities.

As of December the government had not applied a 2015 law authorizing force-feeding of under specific conditions of prisoners on hunger strikes. The Israel Medical Association declared the law unethical and urged doctors to refuse to implement it. Regulations stipulate that medical treatment must be provided in reasonable quality and time, based on medical considerations, and within the resources and funding available for the IPS. Regulations also allow the IPS to deny medical treatment if there are budgetary concerns, according to the PHRI.

A report published by the PHRI in 2019 pointed to significant failures in the IPS medical system. The report assessed that the separate health care system for prisoners was unable to provide services equivalent to those provided to the general population through enrollment in government-sponsored health maintenance organizations (HMOs). According to the PHRI’s findings, the services do not meet the accepted HMO standards, and in half of the incidents examined, there was a risk posed to the health of the inmates due to substandard treatment or denial of treatment. PHRI recommendations included applying national HMO standards to medical care provided in IPS facilities, establishing a professional and efficient supervision mechanism to govern medical services provided by IPS, and increasing the opportunities for outside medical practitioners to provide care in prisons.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment, except as noted above. On August 25, the Knesset passed a law permitting virtual hearings with prisoners and detainees during the COVID-19 crisis. While authorities usually allowed visits from lawyers and stated that every inmate who requested to meet with an attorney was able to do so, this was not always the case. NGOs monitoring prison conditions reported that adult and juvenile Palestinian detainees were denied access to a lawyer during their initial arrest. The government granted visitation permits to family members of prisoners from the West Bank on a limited basis and restricted those entering from Gaza more severely.

Independent Monitoring: Despite COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Israel, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) maintained its visits to detention facilities (including interrogation centers) with adapted visiting modalities to monitor conditions of detention, treatment, and access to family contacts. The ICRC also monitored humanitarian consequences of COVID-19 and related measures on Palestinian detainees and their families, and continued engaging concerned authorities in this regard. The ICRC’s family visit program–through which families of Palestinian detainees may visit their relatives in Israeli custody–remained suspended for families from Gaza due to COVID-19 movement restrictions.

Improvements: In 2018 the Knesset passed a temporary law for three years granting early release of prisoners (excluding security prisoners) in order to facilitate implementation of a Supreme Court verdict requiring prisons to allocate a living space of 48 square feet to each prisoner. According to the NGO Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), each prisoner is allocated 33 square feet, and approximately 40 percent of prisoners were imprisoned in cells that amounted to less than 32 square feet per person. The court ruled that the implementation of the verdict on the ISA detention center must be implemented no later than May 2021. The government notified the court that as of May no more than 40 percent of all prisoners were imprisoned in cells smaller than the minimal space determined to be adequate by the court.

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. Authorities applied the same laws to all residents of Jerusalem, regardless of their citizenship status. NGOs and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem alleged that security forces disproportionally devoted enforcement actions to Palestinian neighborhoods, particularly Issawiya, with temporary checkpoints and raids at higher levels than in West Jerusalem. Palestinians also criticized police for devoting fewer resources on a per capita basis to regular crime and community policing in Palestinian neighborhoods. Police did not maintain a permanent presence in areas of Jerusalem outside the barrier and only entered to conduct raids, according to NGOs. Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza detained on security grounds fell under military jurisdiction, even if detained inside Israel (see West Bank and Gaza section).

The law allows the government to detain irregular migrants and asylum seekers who arrived after 2014 from countries to which government policy prohibits deportation, mainly Eritrea and Sudan, for three months “for the purpose of identification and to explore options for relocation of the individual.” The law also states authorities must provide for irregular migrants taken into detention to have a hearing within five days. After three months in detention, authorities must release the migrant on bail, except when the migrant poses a risk to the state or the public, or when there is difficulty in identity verification.

The government may detain without trial and for an indefinite period irregular migrants who were “implicated in criminal proceedings.” According to the NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), this policy enabled indefinite detention either without a trial or following the completion of time served. According to HRM, during the year the government released 20 irregular migrants, detained under the criminal procedure, due to COVID-19 regulations seeking to reduce overcrowding in prisons. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that the legality of this policy required additional review, but it had not issued any guidance by year’s end.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police must have a warrant based on sufficient evidence and issued by an authorized official to arrest a suspect. The following applies to detainees, excluding those in administrative detention. Authorities generally informed such persons promptly of charges against them; the law allows authorities to detain suspects without charge for 24 hours prior to appearing before a judge, with limited exceptions allowing for up to 48 hours; authorities generally respected these rights for persons arrested in the country; there was a functioning bail system, and detainees could appeal decisions denying bail; and authorities allowed detainees to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, including one provided by the government for the indigent, and to contact family members promptly.

Authorities detained most Palestinian prisoners within Israel. Authorities prosecuted under Israeli military law Palestinians held in Israel who were not citizens, a practice the government has applied since 1967. The government has asserted in domestic court proceedings that this practice is consistent with international obligations related to occupation. Some human rights groups, including Military Court Watch, claim that Israel’s detention of the majority of convicted Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza in prisons inside Israel is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to the circumstances of each case, such as the severity of the alleged offense, status as a minor, risk of escape, or other factors, authorities either granted or denied bail to noncitizens of Palestinian origin detained for security violations.

Authorities may prosecute persons detained on security grounds criminally or hold them as administrative detainees or illegal combatants, according to one of three legal regimes.

First, under a temporary law on criminal procedures, repeatedly renewed since 2006, the IPS may hold persons suspected of a security offense for 48 hours prior to bringing them before a judge, with limited exceptions allowing the IPS to detain a suspect for up to 96 hours prior to bringing the suspect before the senior judge of a district court. In security-related cases, authorities may hold a person for up to 35 days without an indictment (versus 30 days for nonsecurity cases). The law allows the court to extend detentions on security grounds for an initial period of up to 20 days for interrogation without an indictment (versus 15 days for nonsecurity cases). Authorities may deny security detainees access to an attorney for up to 21 days under civilian procedures.

Second, the Emergency Powers Law allows the Ministry of Defense to detain persons administratively without charge for up to six months, renewable indefinitely.

Third, the Illegal Combatant Law permits authorities to hold a detainee for 14 days before review by a district court judge, deny access to counsel for up to 21 days with the attorney general’s approval, and allow indefinite detention, subject to semiannual district court reviews and appeals to the Supreme Court.

The government stated it used separate detention only when a detainee threatened himself or others and authorities had exhausted other options–or in some cases during interrogation, to prevent disclosure of information. In such cases authorities maintained the detainee had the right to meet with International Committee of the Red Cross representatives, IPS personnel, and medical personnel, if necessary. According to the government, the IPS did not hold Palestinian detainees in separate detention punitively or to induce confessions. NGOs including Military Court Watch, the NGO HaMoked, and B’Tselem accused authorities of using isolation to punish or silence politically prominent Palestinian detainees.

The Public Defender’s Office reported in 2019 that prisoners with mental disabilities were often held in conditions that may worsen their mental health. Palestinian sources reported the IPS placed in isolation, without a full medical evaluation, Palestinian detainees with mental disabilities or who were a threat to themselves or others. According to the PHRI, isolation of Palestinian prisoners with mental disabilities was common.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were allegations that authorities arbitrarily arrested Israeli citizens and Palestinians who participated in protests. For example, on October 3, police arrested 35 protesters in demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the government. Many of the arrests, according to protest groups, were carried out in an arbitrary manner. Police stated grounds for the arrests included violation of COVID-19 emergency regulations regarding protests, which required social distancing, remaining within a one-half mile radius of one’s home, and wearing personal protective equipment (see section 2.b.).

In 2018 President Rivlin and then justice minister Ayelet Shaked invited Ethiopian-Israelis whom authorities had previously charged with minor offenses, such as insulting or obstructing a public servant, or participating in prohibited assemblies, to apply for their criminal records to be deleted if they were not imprisoned due to their offenses. According to the Ministry of Justice, since 2018, 115 requests were submitted to remove criminal records, 35 met the minimum requirements, 23 were granted, and eight were being processed at the end of the year.

Pretrial Detention: Administrative detention continued to result in lengthy pretrial detention for security detainees (see above).

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law 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. Exceptions to the right for a public trial include national security concerns, protection of the interest of a minor or an individual requiring special protection, and protection of the identity of an accuser or defendant in a sex-offense case. The law permits publishing the identity of a victim of a sex offense, provided the victim gives written consent for publication.

Defendants enjoy the rights to a presumption of innocence, to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, to a fair and public trial without undue delay, and to be present at their trial. They may consult with an attorney or, if indigent, have one provided at public expense. They have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants who cannot understand or speak the language used in court have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. They may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt and may appeal to the Supreme Court.

The prosecution is under a general obligation following an indictment to provide all evidence to the defense. The government may on security grounds withhold from defense lawyers evidence it has gathered that is not for use in its case against the accused. The Supreme Court (with regard to civilian courts) and the Court of Appeals (with regard to military courts) may scrutinize the decision to withhold such evidence. The rules of evidence in espionage cases tried in criminal court do not differ from the normal rules of evidence, and no use of secret evidence is permissible.

Children as young as age 12 may be imprisoned if convicted of serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter. The government reported no child was imprisoned under this law as of the end of the year.

The government tried Palestinian residents of the West Bank accused of security offenses in Israeli military courts.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government described security prisoners as those convicted or suspected of nationalistically motivated violence. Some human rights organizations claimed that Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel should be considered political prisoners.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

An independent and impartial judiciary adjudicates lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. Administrative remedies exist, and court orders usually were enforced. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem may file suit against the government of Israel under the same rules that govern access to judicial and administrative remedies by Israeli citizens. By law nonresident Palestinians may file suit in civil courts to obtain compensation in some cases, even when a criminal suit is unsuccessful and the actions against them are considered legal.

Property Restitution

In 2016 the state comptroller recommended the government quickly act to settle land claims, plan resettlement of Bedouin citizens in cooperation with the Bedouin community, develop infrastructure in recognized Bedouin communities, and formulate an enforcement policy regarding illegal construction. A 2017 law increased the government’s power to demolish unpermitted structures. New construction remained illegal in towns that did not have an authorized plan for development. Arab members of the Knesset and human rights organizations condemned the law for increasing enforcement and demolitions without addressing the systemic housing shortages in Arab communities that led to unpermitted construction. According to human rights organizations, approximately 50,000 Arab families lived in unpermitted houses.

Some NGOs criticized the lack of Arab representation on regional planning and zoning approval committees, and stated that planning for Arab areas was much slower than for Jewish municipalities, leading Arab citizens to build or expand their homes without legal authorization, thus risking a government-issued demolition order. Authorities issued approximately 1,770 administrative and judicial demolition orders during the year, overwhelmingly against Arab-owned structures. In cases of demolitions with no agreement from the residents to relocate, the government levied fines against residents to cover costs of demolitions.

A development plan for the Bedouin village of al-Fura’a was not completed as of the end of the year, despite government recognition of the village in 2006. As a result the village lacked basic electricity and water infrastructure, and NGOs reported house demolitions occurred regularly. The government stated that a team from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev began working on this issue in the second half of 2018, after completing a survey of 180 Bedouin residential clusters.

Regarding 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev inhabited by approximately 90,000 persons, the government stated it used a “carrot and stick” approach to attempt to compel Bedouin Israelis to move, including demolishing unpermitted structures and offering incentives to move to Bedouin towns. According to a State Comptroller report and information from NGOs, Bedouins often refused to participate because they asserted they owned the land or that the government had given them prior permission to settle in their existing locations. Bedouins also feared losing their traditional livelihoods and way of life, as well as moving onto land claimed by a rival Bedouin clan. The seven Bedouin townships in the Negev were all crowded, especially in comparison with the Jewish towns and cities in the area, and had low-quality infrastructure and inadequate access to services for health, education, welfare, public transportation, mail, and garbage disposal. According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), Bedouins accounted for 34 percent of the population of the Negev, but only 12.5 percent of the residential-zoned land was designated for the Bedouin population.

As of 2019, approximately 31 percent of the 202,620 acres of Arab Bedouin land in the south of the country that was previously under ownership dispute was no longer in dispute as a result of either settlement agreements or following legal proceedings, according to the government.

In 2018 Bedouin residents of the unrecognized village Umm al-Hiran signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura, following extended legal action and negotiations. Umm al-Hiran was to be replaced with a Jewish community called Hiran. As of September 14, Bedouin residents still resided in the unrecognized village and the government announced it would formulate a solution for Umm al Hiran residents within three months.

The NCF recorded 2,241 demolitions of Bedouin Israelis’ structures in 2019 and stated the demolition policy violated Bedouin Israelis’ right to adequate housing. The NGO Regavim praised the demolitions as combatting illegal construction by squatters. Other civil society contacts stated the demolitions ignored traditional Bedouin seminomadic lifestyles predating the modern state of Israel.

In addition to the Negev, authorities ordered demolition of private property elsewhere, including in Arab towns and villages and in East Jerusalem, stating some structures were built without permits. B’Tselem reported that authorities demolished 121 housing units in East Jerusalem, and owners had demolished 81 units to avoid additional fines by the end of the year. This represented a decrease of 28 percent and an increase of 92 percent, respectively, with the number of owner demolitions the highest since B’Tselem began recording data in 2008. Legal experts pointed to the Kaminitz Law, which reduced administrative processing times for demolitions and increased administrative fines for those failing to demolish their own buildings, as a key factor in the increased number of demolitions in East Jerusalem. There were credible claims that municipal authorities in Jerusalem placed insurmountable obstacles to prevent Palestinian residents from obtaining construction permits, including failure to incorporate community needs into zoning decisions, the requirement that Palestinian residents document land ownership despite the absence of a uniform post-1967 land registration process, the imposition of high application fees, and requirements that new housing be connected to often nonexistent municipal utilities and other physical infrastructure.

In addition, NGOs asserted that there was a continuing policy intended to limit construction to prevent the creation or maintenance of contiguous neighborhoods between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli official policy remained aimed at maintaining an ethnic balance between Jews and non-Jews in Jerusalem, according to civil society and official reports. The Israeli MFA said that the Jerusalem Municipality did not have any such policy. Israeli law no longer prevents non-Jews from purchasing housing units, although cultural, religious, and economic barriers to integrated neighborhoods remain, according to civil society representatives.

According to the government, all land ownership cases are assessed individually by an administrative committee, which is subject to judicial review.

According to Ir Amim and B’Tselem, discrimination is a factor in resolving disputes over land titles acquired before 1948. The law facilitates the resolution of claims by Jewish owners to land owned in East Jerusalem prior to 1948 but does not provide an equal opportunity for Palestinian claimants to land they owned in West Jerusalem or elsewhere in the British Mandate. Additionally, some Jewish and Palestinian landowners in Jerusalem were offered compensation by Israel for property lost prior to 1948. Civil society reports noted that many Palestinian landowners were deemed ineligible for compensation because they had to be residents of Jerusalem as of 1973. Other Palestinian landowners refused to accept compensation because they deemed it to be inadequate or in principle due to their rejection of Israeli administration. Jordanian authorities between 1948 and 1967 housed Palestinians in some property which Jewish owners reclaimed after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. Legal disputes continue regarding many of these properties involving Palestinian residents, who have some protection as tenants under Israeli law.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly on July 29 may 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 law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected those prohibitions.

The 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, which is renewed annually, prohibits Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese, including those who are Palestinian spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, from obtaining resident status unless the Ministry of the Interior makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds. The government has extended the law annually due to government reports that Palestinian family reunification allows entry to a disproportionate number of persons who are later involved in acts of terrorism. HaMoked asserted that statistics from government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests contradicted these terrorism allegations, and that denial of residency to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza for the purposes of family reunification led to cases of family separation.

According to HaMoked 2018 reports, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the law, with no legal provision that would allow them to continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Authorities did not permit Palestinians who were abroad during the 1967 war or whose residency permits the government subsequently withdrew to reside permanently in Jerusalem. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations called on the government to repeal this law and resume processing family unification applications. The law allows the entry of spouses of Israelis on a “staying permit” if the male spouse is age 35 or older and the female spouse is age 25 or older, for children up to age 14, and a special permit for children ages 14-18, but they may not receive residency and have no path to citizenship. According to the Israeli MFA, the Population & Immigration Authority received 886 family unification requests from East Jerusalem in 2020, and 616 in 2019. Of these 256 were in approved and 540 are pending from 2020, while 373 were approved and 41 pending from 2019.

On March 16, the government issued an emergency regulation based on the country’s state of emergency, allowing the Shin Bet and police to track mobile phones to identify individuals in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients and to enforce quarantine orders. The government stated the program was the most effective way to maintain public health and economic stability. Some NGOs argued the regulations violated individual rights, including the right to privacy and dignity, and expressed concern regarding the role of the Shin Bet in monitoring the civilian population. They also questioned the effectiveness of the scheme, citing a low percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases identified solely through the program and a reportedly high margin of error. On March 19, the Supreme Court issued an interim injunction that halted police tracking and subjected Shin Bet tracking to Knesset oversight. On April 26, the court ruled that the use of Shin Bet surveillance techniques must be authorized through legislation. On July 21, the Knesset passed a law allowing the government to utilize a limited version of the Shin Bet tracking program for 21 days at a time when there were more than 200 confirmed cases per day. On November 17, following an additional petition submitted by ACRI and Adalah on this issue, the Supreme Court ordered the government to explain further why Shin Bet tracking should be used in cases where COVID-19 patients are not cooperating with the epidemiological investigations, and why the government is not promoting an alternative method to Shin Bet tracking, as the law states. The petition was pending as of year’s end.

On March 27, media outlet Yedioth Ahronoth reported that under the auspices of the Shin Bet Law, the Shin Bet had been collecting data from mobile phones of all users of telecom services in Israel for 18 years, including calls, messages, and locations.

On December 13, Haaretz reported that police demanded internet providers to integrate a system that diverts data on police suspects, or on individuals visiting a specific website or IP address, to a police-controlled system. On December 14, Adalah sent an urgent letter to the attorney general and to the minister of public security, demanding they freeze police use of this system and clarify its legality, purpose, and mode of operation.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law generally 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 law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in Israel or areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the law. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits.

The law bars entry to the country of visitors who called for boycotts, and in 2018 the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry. According to September 30 media reports, the Ministry of Interior permitted former Israeli citizen Dror Feiler, who participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and was banned from the country since 2010, entry to the country only upon deposit of a 100,000 shekel ($30,600) bond.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender. In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.

Conviction of desecrating the Israeli flag carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a monetary fine.

The law prohibits individuals or organizations that initiate political or legal action abroad against IDF soldiers or the state of Israel from holding activities in schools, but the Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law as of year’s end. Both supporters and opponents of the law stated it was intended to target the NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS), a group of military veterans whose goal is to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. BTS criticized the law as a violation of freedom of political expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.

Police regulations grant broad authorities to prevent journalists’ access to violent incidents (i.e., riots, demonstrations, protests) if there exists a concern that the entry of journalists would lead to “special circumstances,” such as risking the journalist’s life, furthering violence, disrupting investigative procedures, violating privacy, or violating a closure order. Police must also consider alternatives to minimize the violation of press freedom, for instance by escorting journalists in and out of dangerous situations.

In April the Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas due to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. In June the Journalists’ Support Committee, a nonprofit journalist advocacy organization, stated security forces committed more than 50 human rights violations against Palestinian journalists working in Jerusalem in the first half of the year, including arrests and expulsions from the city. In May the then public security minister Gilad Erdan extended for six months the closure order against Palestine TV’s East Jerusalem office, according to media reports. In November 2019, Erdan first ordered the closure when police raided the office.

On June 10, Likud officials published a video using the party’s official Twitter account calling for the imprisonment of Channel 13 News journalist Raviv Drucker for his coverage of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial. Likud officials accused Drucker of extorting witnesses, broadcasting criminal leaks, and obstructing justice. On July 25, the prime minister took to Facebook to characterize Channel 12 as a propaganda tool against him and his government.

Following a March 15 COVID-19 emergency regulation allowing the Shin Bet to track civilian cell phones for contact tracing purposes, the Union of Journalists in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court to have its members excluded in order to preserve press freedom and protect journalist sources. On April 26, the Supreme Court ruled that a journalist identified as a COVID-19 patient could refuse being tracked by the Shin Bet and instead undergo a manual epidemiological investigation, whereby the journalist would not reveal their sources but commit to notifying health officials regarding their infection.

Police detained, used violence against, and confiscated equipment of journalists during demonstrations throughout the country. On June 8, police officers hit, shoved to the floor, and then detained Haaretz photojournalist Tomer Appelbaum at the end of a demonstration against the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Witnesses indicated that Appelbaum was clearly identified as a journalist; however, police stated they did not notice his press credentials until after the incident. On September 5, police detained two photojournalists, according to the Israeli NGO Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), after the journalists recorded protesters moving police barriers during a demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence. Police stated they confiscated the equipment because the cameras contained evidence of an alleged crime committed by the protesters. The photographers and the association of journalists argued the material was privileged. On November 11, a magistrate court rejected the police request to use the footage as evidence, stating that in this case, the public interest of a free, effective, and objective press surpasses the public interest in the criminal investigation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment.

News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations, and required foreign correspondents and local media to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces through a Freedom of Information Act request by +972 Magazine, in 2019 the censor acted on 1,973 articles out of 8,127 articles submitted to it, and banned 202 articles.

According to the Seventh Eye media watchdog group, police automatically requested gag orders during investigations of certain crimes and complex cases, and only on rare occasions did police request rescinding of such orders before the completion of its work in a case. This policy, according to the Seventh Eye, began in 2015, when a former deputy head of Shin Bet began serving as police commissioner. The policy was continued by his successors.

While the government retained the authority to censor publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Editors and journalists from those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.

Libel/Slander Laws: According to HRDF, individuals and right-wing NGOs used defamation lawsuits to discourage public criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For example, on July 13, the Samaria Regional Council sued head of the Zulat Institute Zehava Galon and former member of the Knesset for libel after she criticized on Twitter its granting of a certificate of honor to two settlers who in 2019 allegedly shot and killed a Palestinian attacker. According to B’Tselem, the settlers continued to shoot the Palestinian after he no longer posed a threat. In June an additional libel lawsuit against the Galon and B’Tselem NGOs and three individuals who tweeted on the incident was filed by Yehusha Sherman, who shot the attacker. The lawsuits continued at year’s end.

National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” The law authorizes restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.”

In 2017 the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on an ISA practice of summoning Israeli political activists suspected of “subversive” activity unrelated to terror or espionage for questioning under caution, indicating they might be charged with a crime. Such summoning may be carried out only after consultation with the legal advisor of the ISA. Police and the ISA must clarify that questioning is voluntary and the person summoned is not required to appear; and the ISA must clarify during questioning that the suspect’s statements may not be used in court for other proceedings.

Internet Freedom

The government monitored electronic communications for security purposes, and censored online content suspected as illegal according to domestic law. The law authorizes district court judges to restrict access to internet sites to prevent the commission of crimes. The Cyber Unit of the State Attorney’s Office further requested that content intermediary companies remove or restrict access to, on a voluntary basis, content and accounts suspected of violating domestic law. The Cyber Unit’s data showed the number of requests for content removal in 2019 increased by 37 percent from 2018. In approximately 90 percent of the 19,606 requests submitted, content intermediaries voluntarily removed content from their platforms. According to the Cyber Unit’s data, 76 percent of the requests were due to offenses related to a terror organization, and 22 percent were due to incitement offenses. A petition by ACRI and Adalah to the Supreme Court against the voluntary track program, arguing that the program violates freedom of expression and the right to due process, was pending as of the year’s end.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were few government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

In January the Rishon LeTzion municipality removed a civics teacher from his position, following complaints he had expressed “radical left-wing positions” in the classroom and on social media, although the latter was not addressed in his termination hearing. ACRI stated that such incidents could lead to self-censorship by teachers, which stands in contradiction to the mission of educators.

On August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in the bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), following a protest from nationalist Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, ACRI demanded that the attorney general instruct the minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.

Authorities continued to provide an edited version of the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum that deleted certain information on Palestinian history and culture for schools in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Authorities sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of the Israeli curriculum (see the West Bank and Gaza report for concerns regarding incitement and anti-Semitism in PA textbooks). Some Palestinians expressed concern at what they perceived as Israeli efforts to impose Israeli views on these students. Others welcomed the Israeli curriculum, and the additional resources associated with it, as better preparing students in Jerusalem to work in the Israeli workforce, compared to lower-paying employment in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank or in manual labor and low-wage sectors in Israel.

The government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office. The government renewed a closure order for these and other institutions under a 1994 law which requires the PA to obtain Israeli permission to open a representative office or hold a meeting in areas Israel recognizes as under its sovereignty. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem that the government stated had PA participation or support, incited violence against Israel, or had anti-Israel or other objectionable content. Israeli authorities stated they would also detain and ban PA-affiliated officials in Jerusalem from conducting PA-related activities. According to Haaretz, the Ministry of Public Security approved dozens of such orders during the year. PA officials publicly point to the 1993 letter sent by then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart Johan Holst as proof of an agreement to allow Palestinian institutions and activities in East Jerusalem.

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.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.

A law passed in April and the subsequent COVID-19 emergency regulations permitted the continuation of demonstrations during the COVID-19 crisis with the stipulation that participants maintain social distancing, but in several instances police placed additional limitations on the ability of individuals to assemble for peaceful protest. On September 29, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law, which led to the limiting of the right to demonstrate to within one-half mile of one’s home, in groups of 20 persons or fewer, for a period of 14 days. On October 12, following a petition against the law filed on September 30 at the Supreme Court, the government announced it would not extend the regulation limiting the ability to protest further than one-half mile from one’s home beyond October 13. The government did not cancel the amendment, allowing it to reinstate the measure. The petition was pending at year’s end.

Police issued fines for alleged violations of COVID-19 regulations during demonstrations against the prime minister. On April 14, police fined two demonstrators in Kfar Saba for illegally gathering. Protesters argued they remained seven feet apart during the protest and viewed the fines as police efforts to deter protected political activity. On July 26, media published a recording in which Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Yadid told Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana, in response to Ohana’s request for police intervention to quell political protests, that police fined 160 individuals for not wearing a mask during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence.

On November 24, the prosecution filed two indictments against antigovernment protesters. Authorities filed an indictment against Gonen Ben Yitzhak, one of the leaders of the Crime Minister protest group, on charges of illegal assembly and disrupting the activities of a police officer by lying under a water cannon to prevent it from being used against protesters during a July demonstration.

There were reports that police used excessive force in response to protests. For example, on August 22, during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence, Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta physically attacked protesters, including hitting a protester and dragging him on the ground, and hitting a photographer. Police arrested two protesters for allegedly attacking Guetta, but video footage showed Guetta’s attack was unprovoked; the detained protesters were subsequently released. On November 29, the prosecution indicted Guetta for assault. Prosecutors dismissed additional complaints against Guetta due to lack of evidence.

Police used water cannons and “skunk water” to disperse demonstrations. Video footage from a July 24 demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence showed a water cannon spraying a protester in the face, despite police regulations that forbid this action. The Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee subsequently held hearings on police tactics during demonstrations and demanded the publication of a reformed police procedure regarding the use of water cannons. A protest group petition against the use of water cannons at demonstrations was deleted on September 9, given the Knesset committee’s discussions. The police procedure published in September relaxed previous restrictions on the use of water cannons, according to Haaretz. Authorities used skunk water to disperse groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrating against military draft requirements. A 2018 petition against the use of skunk water in dense urban areas was deleted by the Supreme Court on August 19, following a change in police procedures limiting the use of the method. On December 23, an ultra-Orthodox activist petitioned for selective police use of skunk water.

In October, ACRI sent letters to the attorney general demanding the government halt police practices during demonstrations which limit the freedom of peaceful assembly, including crowd control during protest marches by restricting demonstrators to small areas, requesting protesters to show their identification cards and registering them, using private cell phones to video record demonstrations, and using undercover police officers to arrest demonstrators.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.

The law prohibits registration of an association or a party if its goals include denial of the existence of the State of Israel or of the democratic character of the state.

The law requires NGOs receiving more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments to state this fact in their official publications, applications to attend Knesset meetings, websites, public campaigns, and any communication with the public. The law allows a monetary fine for NGOs that violate these rules. The government had not taken legal action against any NGO for failing to comply with the law by the year’s end.

Local NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights problems and critical of the government, asserted the government sought to intimidate them and prevent them from receiving foreign government funding (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, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights for citizens.

The government imposed restrictions on freedom of movement in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 through emergency regulations.

In-country Movement: The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted internal movement in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons and that restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, or public order, and when there was no viable alternative.

According to the NGO Kav LaOved, Ministry of Health COVID-19 guidelines prohibited migrant caregivers from leaving their place of work, which resulted in some caregivers working without any breaks. Following a request by the NGO, since May 8, a government regulation has permitted migrant caregivers to have their weekly day of rest outside of their employers’ residence if they lived in an apartment without roommates, a requirement that these workers could not meet.

Foreign Travel: Citizens generally were free to travel abroad, provided they had no outstanding military obligations and no administrative restrictions. The government may bar citizens from leaving the country based on security considerations, unpaid debts, or unresolved divorce proceedings. Authorities do not permit any citizen to travel to any state officially at war with Israel without government permission. This restriction includes travel to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. The government limited foreign travel due to COVID-19, but it continued to allow the entry of citizens and Jewish visitors intending to study in religious schools known as yeshivas. The government kept the border with Egypt closed despite Egypt opening its crossings to foreign citizens on July 1. On September 23, a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the opening of this border was rejected.

The government requires all citizens to have a special permit to enter “Area A” in the West Bank (the area, according to the Interim Agreement, in which the PA exercises civil and security responsibility), but the government allowed Arab citizens of Israel access to Area A without permits. The government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report that as of October 28 the Israeli government had revoked 17 residency permits in Jerusalem on the grounds of regulation 11A of Israel’s Entry Regulations, regarding individuals who stayed outside of Israel for more than 7 years or have acquired Citizenship/ Permanent Residence Status outside of Israel. Some Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status; however, the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintained an “affinity to Israel” would not be revoked and that former residents who wished to return to Israel could receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.

Palestinians possessing residency permits issued by the Israeli government, but no PA or Jordanian identity documents, needed special documents to travel abroad.

Citizenship: The law allows administrative courts to approve the minister of interior’s request for revocation of citizenship of a person on grounds of “breach of trust to the State of Israel” or following a conviction for an act of terror. The law grants the minister the authority to revoke permanent residency based on similar grounds. Legal appeals by Adalah and ACRI against the revocation of citizenships of two individuals convicted for an act of terror, which also questioned the constitutionality of the law itself, were pending as of the year’s end.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with 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, except as noted below. The government did not allow UNHCR access to monitor regularly the detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Communities with large concentrations of African migrants were occasionally targets of violence. Additionally, government policies on the legality of work forced many refugees to work in “unofficial” positions, making them more susceptible to poor treatment and questionable work practices by their employers. The Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA), unlike police or the IPS, did not have an external body to which migrants could file complaints if subjected to violence, according to HRM.

On July 20, a district court acquitted IPS officer Ronen Cohen and IDF soldier Yaakov Shamba of charges of aggravated battery against Eritrean asylum seeker Haptom Zerhom in 2015. A security guard at the Beer Sheva central bus station shot Zerhom, mistaking him for a terrorist attacker following a terrorist attack moments earlier. Following the shooting, a group of onlookers beat Zerhom, who later died at the hospital. The security guard was not charged, and two additional individuals received reduced sentences following plea deals in 2018.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement.

As of September 30, there were 31,012 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom 28,175 were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to PIBA.

The government offered incentives to irregular migrants to leave the country and go to Uganda, including a paid ticket and a stipend. The government claimed the third-country government provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived at the destination did not receive residency or employment rights. From January 1 to September 30, a total of 663 irregular migrants departed the country under pressure, compared with 2,024 in 2019. NGOs claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it has rarely granted a refugee status. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), out of 64,542 asylum requests submitted to PIBA in 2011-19, 39 requests (0.06 percent) were approved, and 121 (0.2 percent) were rejected following a full examination. Another 16,777 (26 percent) were rejected either outright or were in various expedited processes. A total of 34,624 requests (54 percent) are still pending. There were 12,941 requests (20 percent) closed due to departure or lack of cooperation.

The majority of asylum seekers received a “conditional release visa” that requires frequent renewal in only two locations throughout the country. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and some access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that most government policies were geared toward deterring the arrival of future asylum seekers by pressuring those already in the country to depart, either by leaving them with limited or no access to social and medical services or by not examining their asylum requests.

Irregular migrants subject to deportation, including those claiming but unable to prove citizenship of countries included in Israel’s nonrefoulement policy, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. At the end of 2018, there were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention.

According to HIAS, as of June 6, PIBA examined only 21 asylum requests of Eritrean citizens despite a 2019 government announcement that it would reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down. PIBA recognized seven Eritreans as refugees in the first half of the year, according to UNHCR. The government continued not to examine asylum claims of Sudanese citizens from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, despite a 2018 PIBA response to the Supreme Court regarding the need to reexamine and request additional information for 1,500 such claims. On August 31, the government informed the Supreme Court that the lack of political clarity regarding Sudan did not allow for the formation of criteria to examine requests and did not allow for a ruling on individual requests of Darfuris.

On October 13, the Supreme Court ruled that 600 Sudanese who were granted special protection status in 2007 would be considered refugees.

Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human trafficking, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) Palestinians were able to obtain from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel without authorization to work or to access social services. A Supreme Court petition by NGOs demanding these rights was pending as of the year’s end. According to UNHCR, prior to the issuance of permits, COGAT requested proof of efforts to resettle in a third country. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis. Following a HIAS administrative petition, on March 1, PIBA launched a program that allowed Palestinians recognized as trafficking victims to work in Israel.

On February 9, the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognize an Ivoirian family as refugees due to its minor daughters’ fear of being subjected to female genital mutilation in Cote d’Ivoire, and placing the burden of proof regarding a residential alternative on the government.

The government did not accept initial asylum claims at airports.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: PIBA applied a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants from Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, which the Ministry of the Interior determined were “safe” countries.

Freedom of Movement: The law allows the government to detain asylum seekers from countries to which government policy prohibits deportation for a period of three months. The government may detain, without trial and for an indefinite period, irregular migrants who were “implicated in criminal proceedings” (See section 1.d.).

Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from detention after arrival in the country from residing in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak–cities that already had a high concentration of asylum seekers.

Employment: Following a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, the government removed text stipulating “this is not a work visa” from the visas of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. According to HRM, employing asylum seekers remained a felony that is not enforced due to a government commitment to the Supreme Court. According to UNHCR, asylum seekers from countries not listed under Israel’s nonrefoulement policy were restricted from working for three to six months after submitting their requests if they did not have a visa before applying. Asylum seekers are prohibited from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.

On April 23, the Supreme Court struck down a law that required employers to deduct 20 percent of an asylum seeker’s salary as an incentive to encourage their departure from the country. The court deemed the 20 percent deduction as unconstitutional, referring to it as a violation of the right to individual property of a population with little means and low salaries. The court kept in place an additional 16 percent deposit (equal to social benefits) paid solely by employers as an incentive for departure. In addition to halting the practice of salary deductions, the court ordered PIBA to return to asylum seekers the full amount deducted from their salaries within 30 days. The Supreme Court verdict came in response to a 2017 petition by NGOs. As of December, 14,473 asylum seekers received refunds totaling 210.5 million NIS ($63.1 million). 3,445 asylum seekers had not yet applied for their refund by year’s end.

As of February, according to PIBA, a gap of 710 million shekels ($217.6 million) existed between the funds deducted from asylum seekers’ salaries and the funds deposited for them by employers. According to Ministry of Labor information published by Haaretz on August 9, the ministry opened 60 investigation files against employers who deducted but did not deposit funds. Thirty employers received fines, and five criminal proceedings were launched, leading to one indictment.

According to advocacy groups, at least 70 percent of asylum seekers in Israel were left without a job due to COVID-19 and were ineligible for unemployment insurance or other social services.

The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits the amount they may take with them when they leave to minimum-wage earnings for the number of months they resided in the country, and defines taking additional money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.

Access to Basic Services: Legally recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government for the most part did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits. Asylum seekers were able to enroll in a health-insurance program only through their employers. Without insurance through employers, or when employers did not arrange a private insurance policy for them as required by law, asylum seekers had access only to emergency care. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($37) per month, but children of undocumented migrants were excluded from this program. On November 30, the Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Health to allow children of undocumented migrants to be covered by a national health-insurance policy, requested in a petition by the PHRI; however, according to the PHRI, the Ministry of Health continued to exclude these children. The government sponsored a mobile clinic and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants and treated them for COVID-19 but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay, according to the PHRI. Due to COVID-19, the sole government-funded provider of mental health services had to limit its services, which resulted in only 250 patients being served. Asylum seekers who were recognized as victims of trafficking were eligible for rehabilitation and care. The same eligibilities did not apply for victims of torture.

According to A.S.S.A.F, several municipalities illegally segregated children of asylum seekers and other children in schools and kindergartens. For example, the Petah Tikva municipality delayed registration of Eritrean children for specific kindergartens in order for its schools to fill up with other students, and thus for the municipality to place all Eritrean children together, separate from Israeli children. A July 7 administrative petition against the municipality by the organization, Haifa University, and ACRI resulted in placing 140 Eritrean children in integrated kindergartens. On November 19, the petitioners reached an agreement with the municipality and the Education Ministry according to which future registration of children would be done in an integrated manner, and registration conditions would be equal for all children.

Durable Solutions: There is no procedure for recognized refugees to naturalize. According to the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic, only under exceptional humanitarian circumstances may a recognized refugee receive permanent residency.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees, or who may not qualify as refugees, primarily Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants as described above.

g. Stateless Persons

Despite being eligible for Israeli citizenship since 1981, an estimated 23,000 Druze living in territory captured from Syria in 1967 largely refused to accept it, and their status as Syrian citizens was unclear. They held Israeli identification cards, which listed their nationality as “undefined.”

Following cases of Bedouins having their citizenship revoked when arriving to receive services at the Ministry of Interior, on August 11, a PIBA official stated in a Knesset Internal Affairs Committee meeting that many of the 2,624 Bedouins whose citizenship had been erroneously revoked by the Ministry of Interior were unable to participate in national elections. According to the PIBA official, out of 500 Bedouins erroneously registered as Israelis since they were children of permanent residents, 362 were naturalized, 134 did not complete the process, and six were not naturalized for other reasons, including security.

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. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Druze of the Golan Heights who have permanent residency status may vote in municipal elections and seek some municipal offices, but that of mayor. They may not vote in general elections or serve in the Knesset.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Observers considered the March 2 parliamentary elections free and fair. More than 71 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. During the March elections, observers noted minimal irregularities that had no impact on the final outcome.

After the Ministry of Interior retroactively canceled the citizenship of 2,624 Bedouin citizens, many of them were unable to participate in the national elections until their status was resolved (see section 2. g.).

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Basic Laws prohibit the candidacy of any party or individual that denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people or the democratic character of the state or that incites racism. A political party may not be registered if its goals include support of an armed struggle, enemy state, or terror organization against Israel. Otherwise political parties operated without restriction or interference.

On January 29, the Central Election Commission (CEC) disqualified the candidacy of Joint List member of the Knesset Heba Yazbak, claiming she expressed support on social media for armed struggle. On February 9, the Supreme Court reversed the CEC decision and allowed Yazbak to run. NGOs and the Joint List of Arab parties claimed that the CEC sought to disqualify Arab candidates with the intention to delegitimize the political representation of Israel’s Arab minority.

The Northern Islamic Movement, banned in 2015, continued its practice of boycotting national elections.

The law restricts the funding of individuals and groups that engage in “election activity” during the period of a national election, which is typically three months. The law’s sponsors described it as an effort to prevent organizations and wealthy individuals from bypassing election-funding laws, but some civil society organizations expressed concern the law would stifle political participation.

The law allows dismissal of a member of the Knesset if 90 of 120 Knesset members vote for expulsion, following a request of 70 MKs, including at least 10 from the opposition. The party of an expelled member may replace the member with the next individual on its party list, and the expelled member may run in the next election. Joint List member of the Knesset Yousef Jabareen and some NGOs argued the government intended the law to target Arab legislators and that it harmed democratic principles such as electoral representation and freedom of expression.

In the period preceding the March elections, the NGO Adalah demanded that the CEC and the Ministry of Interior set up polling stations for Arab Bedouin citizens in the unrecognized villages in the Negev or provide the voters with transportation to their assigned polling stations. Authorities denied the request.

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. The law provides an additional 15 percent in campaign funding to municipal party lists composed of at least one-third women. Women and minorities participated widely in politics, although their representation in the Knesset remained low. Of the 120-member Knesset, there were 30 women members and 20 members from ethnic or religious minorities (11 Muslims, five Druze, two Ethiopian-Israelis, and two Christians). As of December the government’s 36-member cabinet included seven women, one of whom was Ethiopian-Israeli. There were no Arabs. Four members of the 15-member Supreme Court were women, and one was Arab. Of the 257 mayors and local council heads, 14 were women.

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 reports of government corruption, although impunity was not a problem.

Corruption: The government continued to investigate and prosecute top political figures. In 2019 Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu for allegedly taking a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust, related to regulation of a telecommunications company. The indictment also covered an alleged attempt to direct authorities to suppress media coverage in exchange for favorable press, and the alleged receipt of inappropriate gifts. On May 24, the prime minister’s trial in the Jerusalem District Court began. On January 26, the attorney general decided to indict member of the Knesset David Bitan for taking a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust in nine cases between 2011 and 2017.

Former minister Haim Katz was indicted for separate offenses of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri and Deputy Minister of Housing and Construction Yakov Litzman are both, separately, under investigation for various alleged offenses.

The law prohibits police from offering a recommendation whether to indict a public official when transferring an investigation to prosecutors. The attorney general or state prosecutor may ask police for a recommendation, however. Detectives or prosecutors convicted of leaking a police recommendation or an investigation summary may be sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment. The law does not apply to investigations in process at the time of the law’s passage.

The NGO Lawyers for Good Governance, which combats corruption in Israel’s 85 Arab municipalities, reported that it received 934 corruption-related complaints in 2019 through its hotline, up 20 percent from 2018. The NGO stated that during 2019 it prevented 48 senior staff appointments on the basis of nepotism or hiring without a public announcement.

Financial Disclosure: Senior officials are subject to comprehensive financial disclosure laws, and the Civil Service Commission verifies their disclosures. According to the NGO Shakuf, 12 ministers and deputy ministers, including the prime minister, did not submit their financial disclosure reports. Authorities do not make information in these disclosures public without the consent of the person who submitted the disclosure. There is no specific criminal sanction for noncompliance.

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

A variety of Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally responsive to their views, and parliamentarians routinely invited NGOs critical of the government to participate in Knesset hearings on proposed legislation. The government stated it made concerted efforts to include civil society in the legislative process, in developing public policy, and in a variety of projects within government ministries, but it did not cooperate with human rights organizations that it deemed “politically affiliated.” Human rights NGOs have standing to petition the Supreme Court directly regarding governmental policies and may appeal individual cases to the Supreme Court.

Domestic NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights issues, continued to view the law requiring disclosure of support from foreign entities on formal publications as an attempt to stigmatize, delegitimize, and silence them. Supporters of the legislation described it as a transparency measure to reveal foreign government influence. Critics noted the law targeted only foreign government funding, without requiring organizations to report funding from private foreign sources.

The law mandates additional scrutiny of requests for National Service volunteers from NGOs that receive more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments. Following a change to the law in 2017, NGOs such as Kav LaOved, which had been able to employ national service volunteers for years, were no longer permitted to do so.

The staffs of domestic NGOs, particularly those calling for an end to the country’s military presence in and occupation of the West Bank and NGOs working for the rights of asylum seekers, stated they received death threats from nongovernmental sources. These threats spiked when government officials spoke out against the NGOs’ activities or criticized them as enemies or traitors for opposing government policy.

On October 12, the Supreme Court rejected Israeli organization Ad Kan’s petition to open a criminal investigation against NGO BTS for suspected espionage based on BTS’s collections of testimonies from IDF soldiers. The Supreme Court’s ruling came after the IDF and the prosecution found there was no need for an investigation, and after the attorney general rejected Ad Kan’s appeal on the matter. According to BTS, Ad Kan’s activities–including an attempt to infiltrate and mislead BTS in 2015–were attempts to delegitimize and silence BTS.

On March 25, Amnesty International submitted a petition to a district court demanding removal of a travel ban against its West Bank campaigner Laith Abu Zeyad imposed in October 2019 for undisclosed “security reasons.” According to Amnesty International, the travel ban is a punitive measure against the organization’s human rights work. Abu Zeyad’s permit to enter Israel has not been renewed since May 2019.

In March, Minister of Justice Amir Ohana barred the coordinator of the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s National Anti-Racism Unit, Kobi Aweke Zena, from participating in an ACRI conference. The minister argued that ACRI is political, controversial, and finances the legal fees to defend alleged terrorists in court. The minister took this action despite several attorney general letters since 2017 attesting to the legitimacy of ACRI as an established civil society organization. On August 9, the attorney general’s office affirmed in response to an ACRI letter the importance in maintaining dialogue between civil society and state authorities, including through public servant participation in NGO-sponsored conferences and events.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government generally cooperated with the United Nations and other international bodies. The country withdrew from UNESCO in 2018. The government continued its policy of nonengagement with the UN Human Rights Council’s “special rapporteur on the situation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” On February 12, the government suspended relations with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), following publication of a United Nations Human Rights Council database of companies and “business activities related to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” OHCHR staff told news outlet the Middle East Eye that since June the government had not extended OHCHR staff visas due to the suspension of relations and that, as of October 15, nine of the 12 OHCHR foreign staff had left the country. Seventeen human rights and civil society organizations in Israel sent a letter on October 20 to the minister of foreign affairs demanding that the ministry reverse its measures against OHCHR and resume issuing visas.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state comptroller served as ombudsman for human rights problems. The ombudsman investigated complaints against statutory bodies subject to audit by the state comptroller, including government ministries, local authorities, government enterprises and institutions, government corporations, and their employees. The ombudsman is entitled to use any relevant means of inquiry and has the authority to order any person or body to assist in the inquiry.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a felony for which conviction is punishable by 16 years’ imprisonment. Conviction of rape under aggravated circumstances or rape committed against a relative is punishable by 20 years’ imprisonment. Killing a spouse following abuse is chargeable as murder under aggravated circumstances, with a sentence if convicted of life imprisonment. Authorities generally enforced the law.

In 2019 the number of requests for assistance related to rape to the Association for Rape Crisis Centers was 13 percent higher than in 2018. Authorities opened 1,386 investigations of suspected rape in 2019, compared with 1,480 in 2018. Authorities closed 92 percent of rape cases in 2019 without filing an indictment, mainly due to lack of evidence.

On September 2, police filed indictments against 11 men, including eight minors, for their involvement in the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat. The indictments included rape under aggravated circumstances, aiding and abetting a rape, indecent assault, and failure to prevent a felony. The trial continued at year’s end.

During the year 16 women and girls were killed by their male partners or by other family members. According to police data provided to the Movement for Freedom of Information, 77 percent of domestic assault cases from 2016-19 did not lead to an indictment, and 30,756 cases out of 39,867 cases closed without an indictment.

According to Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services data, the number of reports of domestic violence almost tripled from March-October, compared with the same period in 2019. During the country’s first lockdown due to COVID-19, calls to police regarding violence against women increased by 19 percent from March-May compared with the same period in 2019, according to police data obtained by the Movement for Freedom of Information.

The Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services operated 14 shelters for survivors of domestic abuse, including two for the Arab community, two mixed Jewish-Arab shelters, two for the ultra-Orthodox community, and eight for non-ultra-Orthodox-Jewish communities. On May 3, the ministry opened an additional shelter to accommodate women under mandatory quarantine. The ministry also operated a hotline for reporting abuse, and on April 30, it opened a text-message-based hotline to help women access assistance while quarantined with an abusive partner. During the COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Department represented women seeking restraining and safety orders, and defended them in domestic violence cases.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal. Penalties for sexual harassment depend on the severity of the act and whether the harassment involved blackmail. The law provides that victims may follow the progress on their cases through a computerized system and information call center. In 2019 prosecutors filed 104 indictments for sexual harassment, down from 168 in 2018. According to a Civil Service Commission report, in 2019 there were 214 sexual harassment complaints submitted to its Department of Discipline, compared with 194 complaints in 2018 and 168 in 2017. During 2019 the commission submitted 15 lawsuits to its disciplinary tribunal, compared with 12 in 2018.

On February 10, a magistrate court sentenced former Jerusalem district police chief Niso Shaham to 10 months’ imprisonment, eight months’ probation, a fine, and a compensation payment for sexually harassing female officers under his command. On July 14, a district court rejected Shaham’s appeal to overturn the magistrate court’s decision. Shaham appealed to the Supreme Court, and the appeal continued at year’s end.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of the birth of their children. Generally all individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. According to NGOs, Arab Israeli women, particularly from the Bedouin population; female asylum seekers; and Palestinian women from East Jerusalem had limited access to health-care services. Traditional practices in Orthodox Jewish communities often led women to seek approval from a rabbi to use contraception.

The country maintained a pronatalist policy regarding reproductive care, subsidizing fertility treatments until the age of 45 but for the most part not subsidizing contraceptives, with the exception of women younger than age of 20 and women in the IDF.

The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. On February 9, the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognize an Ivoirian family as refugees due to its minor daughters’ fear of being subjected to female genital mutilation in Cote d’Ivoire.

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

Discrimination: The law provides generally for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, including under family, religious, personal status, and national laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing business property. The government generally enforced the law effectively, but a wage gap between women and men persisted. Women and men are treated differently in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze religious courts responsible for adjudication of family law, including marriage and divorce. For example, although women served as judges in nonreligious courts, they are barred from serving as judges in rabbinical courts.

The law allows a Jewish woman or man to initiate divorce proceedings, and both the husband and wife must give consent to make the divorce final. Sometimes a husband makes divorce contingent on his wife conceding to demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. Jewish women in this situation could not remarry and any children born to them from another man would be deemed illegitimate by the Rabbinate without a writ of divorce. Rabbinical courts sometimes punished a husband who refused to give his wife a divorce, while also stating they lacked the authority under Jewish religious law to grant the divorce without his consent.

A Muslim man may divorce his wife without her consent and without petitioning the court. A Muslim woman may petition for and receive a divorce through the sharia courts without her husband’s consent under certain conditions. A marriage contract may provide for other circumstances in which she may obtain a divorce without his consent. Through ecclesiastical courts, Christians may seek official separations or divorces, depending on their denomination. Druze divorces are performed by an oral declaration of the husband or the wife and then registered through the Druze religious courts.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The Beit Shemesh municipality received several extensions from the Supreme Court, which ordered it to remove such signs in 2018.

Women’s rights organizations reported a continuing trend of gender segregation and women’s exclusion, including in public spaces and events, in the IDF and in academia. In academia segregation in classes originally meant to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox population expanded to entrances, labs, libraries, and hallways, based on the Council of Higher Education inspections, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request. Petitions to the Supreme Court regarding segregation in the academia were under review at year’s end. Incidents of segregation were also reported in government and local authorities’ events and courses. For example, the Ministry of Transportation prevented women from registering for some men-only defensive driving courses. In June the Ministry of Transportation committed to halt this practice, following a 2018 lawsuit by the Israel Women’s Network.

Children

Birth Registration: Regardless of whether they are born inside or outside of the country, children derive citizenship at birth if at least one parent is a citizen, provided the child resides with the parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Births should be registered within 10 days of delivery. Births are registered in the country only if the parents are citizens or permanent residents. Any child born in an Israeli hospital receives an official document from the hospital that affirms the birth.

On July 26, the Supreme Court rejected a petition of a same-sex couple who demanded to make the process of registering parenthood for lesbian couples equal to that of heterosexual couples. The Israel LGBTI Task Force criticized the ruling and stated that the government chose to continue wrongful discrimination, which led to what the Task Force called “bureaucratic torture.” A petition by 34 lesbian mothers against the Ministry of Interior’s refusal to list nonbiological mothers on birth certificates, despite court-issued parenting orders, was pending at year’s end. For children of nonresident parents, including those who lack legal status in the country, the Ministry of the Interior issues a confirmation of birth document, which is not a birth certificate. The Supreme Court confirmed in a 2018 ruling that the ministry does not have the authority to issue birth certificates for nonresidents under existing law.

The government registers the births of Palestinians born in Jerusalem, although some Palestinians who have experienced the process reported that administrative delays may last for years. The St. Yves Society estimated that more than 10,000 children in East Jerusalem remained undocumented.

According to the NGO Elem, the number of homeless youth increased by 50 percent in the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak compared with the same period in 2019.

Education: Primary and secondary education is free and universal through age 17 and compulsory through grade 12.

The government did not enforce compulsory education in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Bedouin children, particularly girls, continued to have the highest illiteracy rate in the country, and more than 5,000 kindergarten-age children were not enrolled in school, according to the NCF. The government did not grant construction permits in unrecognized villages, including for schools.

Following the nationwide closure of schools in March due to COVID-19, NGOs stated that approximately 50,000 Bedouin students were left without access to distance learning for lack of access to computers and tablets, as well as their schools lacking access to funding and infrastructure to implement Ministry of Health hygiene and social distancing regulations.

There were reportedly insufficient classrooms to accommodate schoolchildren in Jerusalem. Based on population data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the NGO Ir Amim estimated in previous years a shortage of 2,500 classrooms for Palestinian children who are residents in East Jerusalem, and 18,600 Palestinian children in Jerusalem were not enrolled in any school.

The government operated separate public schools for Jewish children, in which classes were conducted in Hebrew, and for Arab children, with classes conducted in Arabic. For Jewish children separate public schools were available for religious and secular families. Individual families could choose a public school system for their children to attend regardless of ethnicity or religious observance.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the Christian school system budget and restricted the schools’ ability to charge parents tuition, according to church officials. The government offered to fund Christian schools fully if they become part of the public (state) school system, but the churches continued to reject this option, citing concerns that they would lose control over admissions, hiring, and use of church property.

Jewish schoolgirls continued to be denied admission to ultra-Orthodox schools based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East) despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls, according to the NGO Noar Kahalacha.

There is no Arabic-language school for a population of approximately 3,000 Arab students in Nof Hagalil (formerly Nazareth Ilit), a town where 26 percent of residents are Arab. As a result most Arab students there attended schools in Nazareth and nearby villages. An NGO petition seeking the establishment of an Arabic-language school remained pending at year’s end.

Child Abuse: The law requires mandatory reporting of any suspicion of child abuse. It also requires social service employees, medical and education professionals, and other officials to report indications that minors were victims of, engaged in, or coerced into prostitution, sexual offenses, abandonment, neglect, assault, abuse, or human trafficking. The Ministry of Education operated a special unit for sexuality and for prevention of abuse of children and youth that assisted the education system in prevention and appropriate intervention in cases of suspected abuse of minors. In 2019 the Knesset approved a law extending the statute of limitations on serious crimes against children from 10 to 15 years.

In its annual report, the National Council for the Child (NCC) recorded a 40 percent increase in the number of children at risk of suicide who have been treated by educational psychologists. The report also showed double the number of reports of suspected violence against children (from 609 in 2019 to 1,225). There was a drop from 302 reports in 2019 to 240 reports to school psychologists of children in isolation on suspicion of neglect. The NCC highlighted difficulties with studies, anxiety, and emotional distress among schoolchildren; nearly one-third of Israeli school children did not participate regularly in online learning, or did not have access to online learning. The reported noted that more than one-half of Arab students and approximately 35 percent of students in Jewish schools did not have access to a computer for distance learning.

According to local government officials and human rights organizations, Gaza fence protests, air-raid sirens, and rocket attacks led to psychological distress among children living near Gaza, including nightmares and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, with some exceptions for minors due to pregnancy and for couples older than age 16 if the court permitted it due to unique circumstances. Some Palestinian girls were coerced by their families into marrying older men who were Arab citizens of Israel, according to government and NGO sources. On September 17, the Supreme Court ordered police to reexamine a request of a Bedouin woman–a victim of two early and forced marriages who killed her second husband–to be recognized as a trafficking victim. The court ruled that while forced marriages do not constitute a trafficking offense in and of themselves, there is a possibility that such marriages would constitute trafficking if their purpose was to allow for sexual exploitation or forced labor, or if they placed an individual at risk of becoming a victim of these offenses.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation of a minor and sets a penalty for conviction of seven to 20 years in prison. The law prohibits the possession of child pornography (by downloading) and accessing such material (by streaming). Authorities enforced the law. The Ministry of Public Security operated a hotline to receive complaints of activities that seek to harm children online, such as bullying, dissemination of hurtful materials, extortion, sexual abuse, and pressure to commit suicide.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Consensual sexual relations with a minor between ages 14 and 16 constitute statutory rape for which conviction is punishable by five years’ imprisonment.

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 report 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

Jews constituted close to 75 percent of the population, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The government often treated crimes targeting Jews as nationalistic crimes relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than as resulting from anti-Semitism.

The government has laws and mechanisms in place regarding claims for the return of or restitution for Holocaust-era assets. Relevant laws refer to assets imported during World War II whose owners did not survive the war. Unclaimed assets were held in trust and not transferred to legal inheritors, who in most cases were not aware that their late relatives had property in Israel.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law protects the rights of persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other government services. The government generally enforced these laws. The law states that by the end of 2019, all public services must be provided from buildings or spaces accessible to persons with disabilities, excluding local authority buildings built before 2019, which should be made accessible by November 2021. The law allows for a one-year extension to the deadline. The Government Housing Administration predicted in November that by the end of the year 62 percent of public buildings would be accessible for individuals with disabilities. The Ministry of Justice published a memo in November, however, that proposed postponing the deadline to the end of 2021, with provision for another one-year extension. The law requires that at least 5 percent of employees of every government agency with more than 100 workers be persons with disabilities. In 2019, according to a report by the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 60 percent of government agencies met this requirement. Government ministries had not developed regulations regarding the accessibility of health services, roads, sidewalks, and intercity buses by the end of the year.

According to the Civil Society Forum for the Advancement of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Israel, Arab persons with disabilities suffer from a higher percentage of inaccessible public buildings and spaces, due to lack of funding. They also lack access to information in Arabic from the government regarding their rights.

On May 30, a border police officer in Jerusalem chased and then shot and killed Iyad Halak, a Palestinian man with autism, after he had failed to heed calls to stop (see section 1.a.).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Arab Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Ethiopian citizens faced persistent institutional and societal discrimination.

There were multiple instances of security services or other citizens racially profiling Arab citizens. Some Arab civil society leaders described the government’s attitude toward the Arab minority as ambivalent; others cited examples in which Israeli political leaders incited racism against the Arab community or portrayed it as an enemy.

In 2018 the Knesset passed a basic law referred to as the Nation State Law. The law changes Arabic from an official language, which it had been since Israel adopted prevailing British Mandate law in 1948, to a language with a “special status.” The law also recognizes only the Jewish people as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” within Israel, which Arab organizations and leaders feared would lead to increased discrimination in housing and legal decisions pertaining to land. Druze leaders criticized the law for relegating a minority in the country to second-class-citizen status. Opponents also criticized the law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of non-Jewish minorities.

Supporters of the law stated it was necessary to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law to balance the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which protected individual rights. Supporters noted the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. Supporters argued that the Human Dignity and Liberty law continues to safeguard individual civil rights. Political leaders conceded that the criticisms of the Druze community must be addressed. Multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law remained pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end.

On October 1, the PHRI published a report based on Central Bureau of Statistics data and surveys indicating significant health gaps between Jewish and Arab populations. The Arab population was found to be lagging behind in life expectancy, infant mortality, morbidity, self-assessed health, diabetes, obesity, smoking rates and more. The report’s findings point to gaps, sometimes significant, in the quality of health-care services provided to the country’s Arab residents compared to Jewish residents. These gaps emerged particularly with respect to primary care in the community and to a much lesser degree in terms of specialist care. In March further gaps emerged with respect to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On June 4, several Jewish Israelis attacked Muhammad Nasasrah, allegedly after they heard him speak Arabic. Joint List Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi criticized police for failing to investigate the incident. On October 22, police arrested three suspects, and on November 5, the prosecution filed an indictment against the three suspects for “assault under aggravated circumstances.”

Throughout the year there were “price tag” attacks, which refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. The government classifies any association using the phrase “price tag” as an illegal association and a price tag attack as a security (as opposed to criminal) offense. The most common offenses, according to police, were attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, harm to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. On February 11, for example, 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav saying “Jews wake up” and “stop intermarrying.” On January 24, unknown perpetrators set fire to a mosque in the Sharafat neighborhood of Jerusalem in a suspected hate crime, according to media reports. Graffiti sprayed on the side of the mosque indicated the suspected arson was related to an unpermitted West Bank outpost, portions of which the Israeli Border Police demolished on January 15.

On May 18, a district court convicted Amiram Ben Uliel on three murder charges, two attempted murder charges, arson, and conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism, for his role in an arson attack in Duma in 2015 that killed a Palestinian couple and their infant. On September 14, the court sentenced Ben Uliel to three life sentences plus 20 years and ordered him to pay a fine. Ben Uliel appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court, which was pending at year’s end. On September 16, as part of a plea bargain, the Supreme Court convicted and sentenced a minor who involved in arson and additional hate crimes to three and a half years in prison.

The government employed an “appropriate representation” policy for non-Jewish minorities in the civil service. The percentage of Arab employees in the public sector was 12.2 percent (61.5 percent of whom were entry-level employees), according to the Civil Service Commission. The percentage of Arab employees in the 62 government-owned companies was approximately 2.5 percent; however, during the year Arab citizens held 12 percent of director positions in government-owned companies, up from 1 percent in 2000, and Arab workers held 11 percent of government positions, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to the nonpartisan NGO Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality (Sikkuy).

Separate school systems within the public and semipublic domains produced a large variance in education quality. Arab, Druze, and ultra-Orthodox students passed the matriculation exam at lower rates than their non-ultra-Orthodox-Jewish counterparts. The government continued operating educational and scholarship programs to benefit Arab students. Between the academic year of 2009-10 and 2020, the percentage of Arab students enrolled increased significantly: in the undergraduate programs from 13 percent to 19 percent, in master’s degree programs from 7 percent to 15 percent, and in doctoral programs from 5 percent to 7 percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Approximately 93 percent of land is in the public domain. This includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) grants the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that the Lands Administration Executive Council must have representation of an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews; however, there were no members from these groups on the executive council at year’s end.

The Bedouin segment of the Arab population continued to be the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. More than one-half of the estimated 260,000 Bedouin citizens in the Negev lived in seven government-planned towns. In nine of 11 recognized villages, all residences remained unconnected to the electricity grid or to the water infrastructure system, according to the NCF. Nearly all public buildings in the recognized Bedouin villages were connected to the electricity grid and water infrastructure, as were residences that had received a building permit, but most residences did not have a building permit, according to the government. Each recognized village had at least one elementary school, and eight recognized villages had high schools.

Approximately 90,000 Bedouins lived in 35 unrecognized tent or shack villages without access to any government services (see section 1.e. for issues of demolition and restitution for Bedouin property).

The government generally prohibited Druze citizens and residents from visiting Syria. The government has prevented family visitations to Syria for noncitizen Druze since 1982.

An estimated population of 155,300 Ethiopian Jews experienced persistent societal discrimination, although officials and citizens quickly and publicly criticized discriminatory acts against them.

On February 4, the DIPO submitted an indictment charging an off-duty police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Selomon Teka in June 2019 with negligence. His trial continued at year’s end.

On February 12, the Supreme Court ordered police to explain why the court should not cancel a procedure allowing police to demand identification without reasonable suspicion, which leads to racial profiling and the targeting of Ethiopian-Israelis and other minority populations. The case continued at year’s end.

The IDF Ombudsman’s annual report for 2019 highlighted cases of racism towards Ethiopian soldiers from their commanders.

The Anti-Racism Coordinating Government Unit worked to combat institutional racism by receiving complaints and referring them to the relevant government authorities, and by raising public awareness. For example, following a complaint, the Legal Aid Department in the Ministry of Justice submitted a lawsuit to a magistrate court against an owner of a bed-and-breakfast who refused to host Ethiopians because of their race. The lawsuit demanded 131,800 shekels ($40,300) in compensation. The magistrate court had yet to issue a ruling by the year’s end.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in goods, services, and employment. The government generally enforced the law, although some discrimination in employment and housing persisted against LGBTQI+ persons in general and against transgender persons in particular. On April 20, a magistrate court ordered a company that refused to print materials with LGBTQI+ content for the Israel LGBTI Task Force to compensate the organization.

The trial against two individuals on charges of attempted murder of their 16-year-old brother, whom they stabbed outside an LGBTQI+ youth shelter in 2019, allegedly on the basis of his sexual orientation, was pending at year’s end. Some violent incidents against LGBTQI+ individuals during the year led to arrests and police investigations. For example, on August 12, police indicted two minors for assault and causing injury under aggravated circumstances to LGBTQI+ minors in Jaffa on August 1.

On February 4, then minister of education Rafi Peretz announced he would grant an Israel Prize for Torah literature to Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, the former rabbi of Ramat Gan, who made public statements against LGBTQI+ persons, including a 2014 call not to rent apartments to lesbian couples. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Israel LGBTI Taskforce against the granting of the prize to Ariel, stating the case did not justify the court’s intervention. Ariel refused to retract his statements.

LGBTQI+ activists were able to hold public events and demonstrations but were restricted by COVID-19 emergency regulations limiting such participation (see section 2.b.).

IPS regulations prohibit holding transgender prisoners in solitary confinement. According to ACRI, one transgender woman was held in a separation wing used as a punitive measure for women removed from regular wings, for more than one year. In September she was transferred to a regular wing, following legal work by ACRI.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Discrimination against persons with HIV is illegal and, according to the Israel AIDS Task Force, institutional discrimination was rare. The AIDS task force received some complaints during the year regarding discrimination in the provision of alternative health care and cosmetic services. According to a poll conducted by the task force in November, social stigma remained a problem.

Following a two-year pilot program to accept blood donations from gay and bisexual men, the Ministry of Health stores blood donations from a gay or bisexual man until the man donates blood again four months later. If both donations pass routine screening tests, including for absence of HIV, both are be accepted.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Individuals and militant or terrorist groups attacked civilians in Israel, including two stabbing attacks characterized by authorities as terror attacks (see section 1.a.), in addition to rockets shot into Israel by Gaza-based terrorist groups. (For issues relating to violence or discrimination against asylum seekers, see section 2.d.)

Arab communities in Israel continued to experience high levels of crime and violence, especially due to organized crime and high numbers of illegal weapons, according to government data and NGOs. Causes included a low level of policing; limited access to capital; easy access to illegal weapons; and socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, and the breakdown of traditional family and authority structures, according to the Abraham Fund Initiatives and other NGOs. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on crime and violence exacerbated the situation, and surveys have shown Arab citizens trust police less than do Jewish citizens. Government actions to address the issues included: opening nine police stations in Arab towns since 2016, increasing enforcement to prevent violence, improving communication with Arab citizens through Arabic-language media and social media, enhancing trust with the community, enhancing community policing, and examining legal issues such as weapons control and raising the threshold for punishments.

Israeli authorities investigated reported attacks against Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, primarily in Jerusalem, by members of organizations that made anti-Christian and anti-Muslim statements and objected to social relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

The Israeli government and settler organizations in Jerusalem made efforts to increase property ownership by Jewish Israelis. Civil society organizations and representatives of the PA stated the efforts sought to emphasize Jewish history in Palestinian neighborhoods. UNOCHA and NGOs, such as Bimkom and Ir Amim, alleged that the goal of Jerusalem municipal and Israeli national policies was to decrease the number of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Official Israeli government policy aimed to maintain a 60 percent majority of Jews in Jerusalem. Jewish landowners and their descendants, or land trusts representing the families, were entitled to reclaim property they had abandoned in East Jerusalem during fighting prior to 1949, but Palestinians who abandoned property in Israel in the same period had no reciprocal right to stake their legal claim to the property (see section 1.e.). In some cases private Jewish organizations acquired legal ownership of reclaimed Jewish property in East Jerusalem, including in the Old City, and through protracted judicial action sought to evict Palestinian families living there. Authorities designated approximately 30 percent of East Jerusalem for Israeli neighborhoods/settlements. Palestinians were able in some cases to rent or purchase Israeli-owned property–including private property on government-owned land–but faced significant barriers to both. NGOs stated that after accounting for Israeli neighborhoods/settlements, government property, and declared national parks, only 13 percent of all land in East Jerusalem was available for construction by Palestinians or others.

Although the law provides that all residents of Jerusalem are fully and equally eligible for public services provided by the municipality and other authorities, the Jerusalem municipality and other authorities failed to provide sufficient social services, education, infrastructure, and emergency planning for Palestinian neighborhoods, especially in the areas between the barrier and the municipal boundary. Approximately 117,000 Palestinians lived in that area, of whom approximately 61,000 were registered as Jerusalem residents, according to government data. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, 78 percent of East Jerusalem’s Arab residents and 86 percent of Arab children in East Jerusalem lived in poverty in 2017.

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, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. After a union declares a labor dispute, there is a 15-day “cooling period” in which the Histadrut, the country’s largest federation of trade unions, negotiates with the employer to resolve the dispute. On the 16th day, employees are permitted to strike. Workers essential to state security, such as members of the military, police, prison service, Mossad, and the ISA, are not permitted to strike. The law prohibits strikes because of political issues and allows the government to declare a state of emergency to block a strike that the government deemed could threaten the economy or trade with foreign states. According to the Histadrut, this law has never been applied.

In May, Palestinian workers in Israel stopped paying an automatic fee to Israeli workers’ organizations, after years in which they had paid trade union fees without representation or treatment, according to the NGO Kav LaOved.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court has discretionary authority to order the reinstatement of a worker fired for union activity.

The government enforced applicable laws effectively, and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, some employers actively discouraged union participation, delayed or refused to engage in collective bargaining, or harassed workers attempting to form a union. Approval by a minimum of one-third of the employees in a workplace is needed to qualify a trade union to represent all workers in that workplace.

According to Kav LaOved, a growing number of workers in teaching, social work, security, cleaning, and caregiving are employed as contract workers, which infringes on their right to associate, as it reduces their bargaining power and their right to equality.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes forced or compulsory labor and prescribes penalties that are commensurate with those of other serious crimes, but the government did not effectively enforce laws protecting foreign workers and some citizens.

Migrant and Palestinian workers in agriculture and construction and women migrant domestic workers were among the most vulnerable to conditions of forced labor, including bonded labor, domestic servitude, and slavery. NGOs reported some vulnerable workers experienced indicators of forced labor, including the unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on freedom of movement, limited ability to change employers, nonpayment of wages, exceedingly long working hours, threats, sexual assault, and physical intimidation, partly as a result of lack of adequate government oversight and monitoring.

For example, employees of the Turkish construction company Yilmazlar continued to pay a bond to the company before starting to work, received pay slips only intermittently, worked 12 to 24-hour days, lived in overcrowded conditions, and worked without proper safety measures. When trying to escape, workers were chased and beaten by individuals associated with the company, according to NGOs. A lawsuit filed by employees of Yilmazlar, alleging they suffered from abusive employment that amounts to human trafficking had yet to be adjudicated by year’s end. Four of the five workers who have already given testimony in the case had to depart the country during the year after losing their legal status due to unemployment.

On August 20, a total of 15 Thai agricultural workers employed in the south told Kav LaOved that their work conditions included extremely long work hours, lack of sleep, work in extreme heat, poor living conditions, fines for working “too slow,” no protection while working with toxins, late salary payments, and a salary below minimum wage. Kav LaOved asked authorities to investigate the matter, but no action was taken for one month, after which the NGO submitted a Supreme Court petition. On September 30, authorities recognized the workers as trafficking victims and moved them to a shelter.

Gray-market manpower agencies engaged in labor trafficking by exploiting visa waiver agreements between Israel and former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. The traffickers illegally recruited laborers to work in construction, caregiving, and prostitution, charged them exorbitant recruitment fees, and sometimes sold them fake documentation.

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, provides for a minimum age of employment, includes limitations on working hours, and specifies occupational safety and health restrictions for children. Children age 14 and older may be employed during official school holidays in nonhazardous light work that does not harm their health. Children ages 15 and 16 who have completed education through grade nine may be employed as apprentices. Those who completed their mandatory education early or who were unable to attend an educational institution regularly may work with a government permit. Regulations restrict working hours for youths between ages 16 and 18 in all sectors. The law prohibits children younger than age 18 from working at construction sites and from working overtime.

The government generally enforced the law and conducted year-round inspections to identify cases of underage employment, with special emphasis on summer and school vacation periods. Penalties for child labor violations were not always commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes. During the year authorities imposed a number of sanctions against employers for child labor infractions, including administrative warnings and fines.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment. The Employers of Women law and work safety regulations, however, restrict women from working in jobs deemed hazardous to their health, including through exposure to certain chemicals. The Equal Pay Law provides for equal pay for equal work of male and female employees. The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities (see section 6). The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of citizenship and HIV or AIDS status.

The government generally enforced applicable law effectively, and penalties were commensurate to those for laws related to civil rights, but civil society organizations reported that discrimination in the employment or pay of women, Ethiopian-Israelis, and Arab citizens persisted. The law charges the Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities with the implementation and civil enforcement of the Equal Employment Opportunities Law. According to the commission’s annual report, in 2019 it received 780 complaints, compared to 748 in 2018.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2018 the average monthly salary of men was 12,500 shekels ($3,800) and 8,540 shekels for women ($2,600). A part of the pay gap reportedly resulted from a differential between the number of hours men and women worked each week on average.

The gender gap in unemployment during the COVID-19 crisis increased significantly throughout the year, from 1 percent in the beginning of the year to 37 percent as of the year’s end. Experts anticipated increased gender inequality in the job market following the COVID-19 crisis due in part to the disparity in unemployment figures of women and men.

According to government and NGO data, migrant workers, irregular African migrants, and Palestinians (both documented and undocumented) were ineligible to receive benefits such as paid leave and legal recourse in cases involving workplace injury.

On April 6, the government issued COVID-19 emergency regulations allowing employers to place pregnant women, women on maternity leave, and women undergoing fertility treatments on leave-without-pay status. Employers were allowed to take this measure despite a law stipulating that such an action may only take place upon receiving a permit from the Ministry of Labor, which may be contested through a legal process. On April 17, the government retracted the regulation following petitions from NGOs. On April 20, NGOs cancelled the petitions.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage for all sectors of the economy. The minimum wage was above the poverty income level for individuals but below the poverty level for couples and families. Authorities investigated employers, imposed administrative sanctions, and filed indictments for violations of the Minimum Wage Law during the year.

The law allows a maximum 43-hour workweek at regular pay and provides for paid annual holidays. Premium pay for overtime is set at 125 percent for the first two hours and 150 percent for any hour thereafter up to a limit of 15 hours of overtime per week. The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws. According to the National Insurance, the level of noncompliance with the hourly minimum wage law stood at 11 percent of the labor market in 2018. Data from the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services showed that enforcement actions were taken against 156 employers during 2019. Penalties were not always commensurate with those for similar crimes. According to Kav LaOved, 700,000 individuals were employed on an hourly basis, which reduced their social rights and benefits because most lacked an employment contract containing specific protections.

The Labor Inspection Service, along with union representatives and construction site safety officers, enforced labor, health, and safety standards in the workplace. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all sectors, and penalties for violations were seldom applied. Labor inspectors have the right to make unannounced visits, but the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance, particularly in the construction and agriculture industries, and scaffolding regulations were inadequate to protect workers from falls. No law protects the employment of workers who report on situations that endanger health or safety or remove themselves from such situations. Seventy percent of the labor inspectors were not working in April due to COVID-19 restrictions, according to Haaretz. Employers rather than inspectors were responsible for identifying unsafe situations.

On December 6, the government implemented a 2016 government resolution to issue work permits directly to Palestinian construction workers instead of to Israeli employers to avoid trade in permits and attendant high brokerage fees. This implementation followed a September petition submitted to the Supreme Court by ACRI and Kav LaOved. The government continued to issue work permits to Israeli employers rather than to Palestinian workers in other sectors. According to Kav LaOved, prior to this change approximately 100,000 migrant workers and Palestinian workers lacked mobility in the labor market because their work permits were tied to their employers. The work permits linked the employee to a specific employer, creating a dependence that some employers and employment agencies exploited by charging employees monthly commissions and fees. According to the Bank of Israel’s 2019 report, 30 percent of Palestinian workers in the country and the settlements paid brokerage fees for their permits in monthly payments of approximately 2,000 shekels ($610), or 20 percent of their salary. In many cases the employer of record hired out employees to other workplaces. More than one-half the documented Palestinian workers did not receive written contracts or pay slips, according to the International Labor Organization.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Ministry of Defense issued an order allowing Palestinians working in essential sectors to continue their work only if they remained in Israel for an extended period of time without returning to the West Bank. The order placed responsibility on employers with regards to employees’ accommodation, but NGOs reported that many Palestinians lived in poor and dangerous conditions. Following a petition by NGOs to the Supreme Court, the government issued emergency regulations on May 5, and the Knesset passed a temporary law on August 5, which defined and regulated employers’ responsibilities towards employers, including regarding housing and health insurance.

The country has bilateral work agreements (BWAs) with Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and China to employ migrants in the construction sector and with Thailand and Sri Lanka for the agricultural sector. BWAs provided foreign workers with information regarding their labor rights as well as a translated copy of their labor contract prior to arrival in the country. The government continued to help fund a hotline for migrant workers to report violations, and the government’s enforcement bodies claimed all complaints were investigated. The absence of BWAs for foreign caregivers and additional migrant workers not covered by BWAs led to continuing widespread abuses and exploitative working conditions, including excessive recruitment fees, false employment contracts, and lack of legal protections related to housing, nonpayment of wages, physical and sexual violence, and harassment.

Some employers in the agriculture sector circumvented the BWAs by recruiting “volunteers” from developing countries to earn money and learn Israeli agriculture methods. Volunteers worked eight to 10 hours per day at a salary equal to half the minimum wage and without social benefits. The individuals received volunteer visas, which did not permit them to work. Other firms employed foreign students registered for work-study programs that consisted of long hours of manual labor and pay below the minimum wage. Some employers recruited low-skilled foreign workers under the guise of being “experts” in their field. PIBA adopted guidelines for classifying foreign workers as experts. Under these guidelines, the government considers an expert to be highly skilled in a field that does not require higher education or advanced degrees. Additionally, experts may not perform low-skilled jobs, come from a country with a lower GDP than Israel, come from a country listed on the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report as Tier 3 or Tier 2 watch list, or come from a country without a BWA.

A police unit was responsible for investigating workplace accidents that resulted in death or severe injuries, mainly at construction sites; however, according to media reports, the police unit carried out less than 10 investigations since its launch in 2019. On January 26, following an investigation conducted by the police unit, prosecutors indicted two junior workers, but no management workers, in causing a death “by negligence” of a Chinese worker. During the year, 65 workers died in work accidents, and another 423 workers were injured, according to Kav LaOved.

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West Bank and Gaza

Morocco

Executive Summary

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary national legislative system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with Head of Government (prime minister) Saadeddine El Othmani. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. International and domestic observers judged the 2016 parliamentary elections credible and relatively free from irregularities.

The security apparatus includes several police and paramilitary organizations with overlapping authority. The National Police Force manages internal law enforcement in cities and reports to the Ministry of Interior. The Auxiliary Forces also report to the Ministry of Interior and support gendarmes and police. The Royal Gendarmerie, which reports to the Administration of National Defense, is responsible for law enforcement in rural regions and on national highways. The judicial police (investigative) branches of both the Royal Gendarmerie and the National Police report to the royal prosecutor and have the power to arrest individuals. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

The Kingdom of Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the territory that it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that seeks the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan and POLISARIO forces fought intermittently from 1975, when Spain relinquished colonial authority over the territory, until a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission. After resignation of Personal Envoy of the Secretary General Horst Kohler in May 2019, the UN Security Council returned to one-year renewals of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. As of December, the UN secretary-general had not yet appointed a new personal envoy and the mission mandate was extended for another year.

Significant human rights issues included: torture by some members of the security forces, although the government condemned the practice and made efforts to investigate and address any reports; allegations that there were political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression, including criminalization of libel and certain content that criticized Islam, the monarchy, and the government’s position regarding territorial integrity; substantial interference with freedom of assembly and association; corruption; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex conduct.

There were few examples of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by officials, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, which contributed to 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 no reports that 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 during the year.

According to the annual report from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, from May 2018 to May 2019, the country had 153 outstanding cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992, seven fewer than at the beginning of the reporting period. The National Council on Human Rights (CNDH), a publicly funded national human rights institution, reported that as of July, six cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992 remain unresolved. The CNDH continued to cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on unresolved cases of disappearance.

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

The constitution and the law prohibit such practices, and the government denied it authorizes the use of torture. To combat degrading treatment and punishment in prisons, on March 19, parliament passed a law to fund doctors for training in forensics to identify signs of torture and abuse. As of August 11, the Prison Administration (DGAPR) reported that the Fes Court of Appeals received two cases of torture in 2019. In both cases prisoners alleged they were beaten and insulted in al-Hoceima. The government launched an investigation that concluded both allegations were unfounded. In April the CNDH issued a report confirming security officials had subjected an inmate at the Souk Larbaa Prison in Kenitra Province to torture and degrading treatment. The DGAPR initiated an investigation into the claims that continued at year’s end. During the year there were 20 complaints of torture or degrading treatment filed with the Prosecutor General’s Office. The office closed 15 cases, and one remained under investigation at year’s end.

From January to June, the National Police Force’s (Direction Generale de la Surete Nationale–DGSN) internal mechanism for investigation of torture and degrading treatment investigated four cases involving six police officials. The DGSN reprimanded and imposed administrative sanctions on two officials, and transferred two cases involving the other four officers to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The Prosecutor General’s Office initiated legal proceedings in at least one of the cases.

The CNDH reported it opened investigations into 28 complaints of torture or degrading treatment between January 1 and August 31.

In the event of an accusation of torture, the law requires judges to refer a detainee to a forensic medical expert when the detainee or lawyer requests it or if judges notice suspicious physical marks on a detainee. In some cases judges have refused to order a medical assessment when a detainee made an allegation of abuse. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media documented cases of authorities’ failure to implement provisions of the antitorture law, including failure to conduct medical examinations when detainees alleged torture.

Reports of torture have declined over the last several years, although Moroccan government institutions and NGOs continued to receive reports about the mistreatment of individuals in official custody. Reports of mistreatment occurred most frequently in pretrial detention. There were also accusations that security officials subjected Western Sahara proindependence protesters to degrading treatment during or following demonstrations or protests calling for the release of alleged political prisoners.

In March the CNDH released a report on 20 allegations by Hirak protesters that they were tortured during detention; the report determined that these allegations, highlighted in a February 19 report by Amnesty International, were unfounded.

In January the spouse of Abdelqader Belliraj, who was serving a life sentence on terrorism-related charges, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Belliraj has been deprived of contact with other inmates since 2016 and was kept in confinement 23 hours a day. HRW called these measures inhumane. According to media reports, the DGAPR disputed the validity of the allegations, stating Belliraj received an hour break each day that allowed for interactions with other inmates and was allowed family visits. Belliraj claimed he was convicted based on confessions obtained under police torture.

According to media, the Marrakech branch of the auxiliary forces suspended two officers after they appeared in a video violently arresting a suspect on May 6.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were no allegations submitted from January to August of sexual exploitation and abuse by Moroccan peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. Morocco and the United Nations were jointly investigating three allegations in 2019 of sexual exploitation and abuse by Moroccan peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions; one case alleged transactional sex with an adult, and two cases alleged rape of a child. As of September, all three investigations remained underway. In one of the alleged rape cases, identification of the alleged perpetrator was pending.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions improved during the year but in some cases did not meet international standards.

Physical Conditions: The Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP), an NGO focused on the rights of prisoners, continued to report that some prisons were overcrowded and failed to meet local and international standards. In newer prisons, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held separately, but in older prisons the two groups remained together.

According to government sources and NGOs, prison overcrowding was also due in large part to an underutilized system of bail or provisional release, a severe backlog in cases, and lack of judicial discretion to reduce the length of prison sentences for specific crimes. Government sources stated that administrative requirements also prevented prison authorities from transferring individuals in pretrial detention or the appeals phase to facilities outside the jurisdiction where their trials were to take place.

According to a DGAPR report in May, the prison population dropped by 7 percent as a result of royal pardons and the Prosecutor General’s Office conducting virtual trials. Overcrowded prisons emerged as a key concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 27, approximately 150 human rights associations and activists signed a petition calling for the DGAPR to release “prisoners of conscience,” such as prisoners arrested during the 2016-17 Rif protests, female prisoners with children, and low-risk offenders, as well as those vulnerable to COVID-19 (detainees older than age 60 or ill). The so-called Rif prisoners were arrested for their involvement in a series of protests in the northern Rif region in 2016 and 2017. Found guilty of damaging public property, injuring law enforcement members, and threatening the stability of the state, approximately four were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in 2018. On April 5, King Mohammed VI pardoned 5,654 detainees and gave orders to take necessary measures to strengthen the protection of detainees in prisons against COVID-19. In July a royal pardon of an additional 6,032 inmates and 105 others on bail included individuals who were vulnerable to the virus.

The law provides for the separation of minor prisoners from adult prisoners. In all prisons, officials classify youth offenders into two categories, both of which are separated from other prisoners: minors under 18 and youthful offenders 18 to 20 years old. According to authorities, minors are not held with prisoners older than 20 years. The DGAPR had three dedicated juvenile “centers for reform and education” but maintained separate, dedicated youth detention areas for minors in all prisons. The government reported that, in cases where a juvenile court judge ruled that detention was necessary, minors younger than 14 were detained separately from minors 15 to 18 years old. In cases where a minor is ordered to be detained, a judge must follow up on a monthly basis.

The DGAPR reported there was no discrimination in access to health services or facilities based on gender for female prisoners, who make up just over 2 percent of the prison population. Some officials reported that female inmates often had a harder time accessing gender-specific health specialists such as OB/GYNs, than a general physician. Local NGOs asserted that prison facilities did not provide adequate access to health care and did not accommodate the needs of prisoners with disabilities. The DGAPR reported that a nurse and a psychologist examined each prisoner on arrival and that prisoners received care upon request. The DGAPR reported conducting extensive COVID-19 tests and medical consultations in prisons.

The DGAPR provided fresh food to inmates at no cost, certified by the Ministry of Health as meeting the nutritional needs of the average adult male. According to the DGAPR, the penitentiary system accommodated the special dietary needs of prisoners suffering from illnesses and of prisoners with religious dietary restrictions.

NGOs frequently cited cases where prisoners protested the conditions of their detention with hunger strikes. According to Amnesty International, prisoners launched hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including poor hygiene and sanitation, inadequate health care, overcrowding, and detention far from their families, as well as limited visiting rights and access to education. Prisoners Nabil Ahamjik and Nasser Zefzafi went on a hunger strike on February 22 over allegations of abuse and mistreatment in prison. They demanded better prison conditions, adequate medical care, and visitation rights. Both ended their hunger strike on March 17. According to the OMP, however, most hunger strikes were in protest of judiciary processes and sentences rather than detention conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR regularly addressed requests for transfer based on family proximity, and the DGAPR sometimes granted such requests. At other times, the DGAPR informed the detainee that the requested transfer was not possible, often because of overcrowding at the requested location.

Some human rights activists asserted that the prison administration reserved harsher treatment for Islamists who challenged the king’s religious authority and for those accused of “questioning the territorial integrity of the country.” The DGAPR denied that any prisoners received differential treatment and asserted that all prisoners received equal treatment in accordance with the law.

Families of detainees from Western Sahara charged that they faced unusually harsh prison conditions. The DGAPR contested this claim and asserted that prisoners in Western Sahara and Sahrawi prisoners in the rest of Morocco received the same treatment as all other prisoners under its authority.

According to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center, as of May 15, journalist and Sahrawi activist Mohamed al-Bambary was detained with 45 other prisoners in a cell that was 25 feet by 18.5 feet. The journalists and activists were detained because of their involvement in a movement questioning the territorial integrity of Morocco.

Administration: While authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners, there were reports that authorities denied visiting privileges in some instances. The DGAPR assigned each prisoner to a risk classification level, which determined visiting privileges. According to its prisoner classification guide, the DGAPR placed restrictions on the level of visits, recreation, and types of educational programming for higher-risk prisoners. At all classifications, prisoners may receive visits, although the length, frequency, and number of visitors may vary. Most prisons assigned each prisoner a designated “visit day” to manage the number of visits to the prison. The DGAPR authorizes religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic, DGAPR suspended family and lawyer visits but increased phone time privileges for inmates.

The CNDH and the DGAPR investigated allegations of inhumane conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR effectively served the function of an ombudsman, and a system of “letterboxes” operated in prisons to facilitate prisoners’ right to submit complaints regarding their imprisonment. Detainees could submit complaints without censorship to the DGAPR Delegate General’s Office for processing, as well as to the CNDH.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some NGOs with a human rights mandate to conduct unaccompanied monitoring visits. Government policy also permitted academics, as well as NGOs that provided social, educational, or religious services to prisoners, to enter prison facilities. According to prison officials, academics and various NGOs conducted 79 visits through June. The OMP conducted 53 monitoring visits through June. The CNDH conducted two monitoring visits during the year.

Between January 1 and August 31, the CNDH’s three commissions in the south carried out nine visits to prisons including two visits in Laayoune-Sakia and Smara to focus on the prevention of COVID-19 in prisons. The CNDH observed the DGAPR took a number of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including the establishment of a digital platform to provide remote psychological support to prison staff and detainees, limiting the number of family visits and raising awareness through an information campaign among detainees. The Laayoune branch of the CNDH conducted monitoring visits and found the local prison in Dakhla remained overcrowded and insufficiently equipped to provide appropriate living conditions to the detainees. The objectives of the visits were to prevent practices likely to lead directly or indirectly to any form of torture and mistreatment, to verify whether the preventive measures recommended by the public authorities against COVID-19 are in place in compliance with international standards and to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities responsible.

Improvements: To alleviate overcrowding and improve overall conditions, the DGAPR reported there were six prisons currently under construction and prison extensions. The DGAPR opened a new prison in Berkane.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention. Observers indicated that police did not always respect these provisions or consistently observe due process, particularly during or in the wake of protests. According to local NGOs and associations, police sometimes arrested persons without warrants or while wearing civilian clothing. Individuals have the right to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and request compensation by submitting a complaint to the court. The UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September noted the OHCHR received reports of human rights violations perpetrated by government officials against Sahrawis, including arbitrary detention.

In Western Sahara, human rights organizations continued to track alleged abusers who remained in leadership positions or who had been transferred to other positions. International and local human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements. Government officials generally did not provide information on the outcome of complaints. The CNDH and DGAPR provided human rights training for prison officials and members of the security forces in Western Sahara.

On March 12, HRW published a report of police violence against two Western Sahara activists, Walid el-Batal and Yahdhih el-Ghazal in Smara, in June 2019. According to HRW’s report, Moroccan security forces attempted to prohibit the men from attending an event for activist Salah Labsir who was serving a four-year prison sentence on charges for premeditated violence against police and the destruction of public goods. A video of the incident showed a dozen individuals in civilian clothing forcibly dragging two men from their truck and assaulting them with batons. Two Moroccan police vehicles were in the background of the scene, and the batons matched the style of police-issued equipment while one man wore a police helmet, leading HRW to determine the perpetrators were plainclothes police officers. Ghazal informed HRW that “they beat and tortured us there, and then they took us to the police station. They beat us there. And we passed out–I passed out; when I woke up I found myself in the hospital.” Court documents showed that el-Batal and el-Ghazal were taken to a hospital after their arrest. Moroccan authorities claimed the men were brought to the hospital because of injuries they sustained in colliding with police barriers and resisting arrest. The OHCHR requested an investigation into el-Batal’s case, raising concerns over human rights abuses. The public prosecutor opened an investigation, which resulted in the indictment of five police officers for police brutality. The investigation continued at year’s end.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law police may arrest an individual after a general prosecutor issues an oral or written warrant. The law permits authorities to deny defendants’ access to counsel or family members during the initial 96 hours of detention under terrorism-related laws or during the initial 24 hours of detention for all other charges, with an optional extension of 12 hours with the approval of the Prosecutor’s Office. Authorities did not consistently respect these provisions. Reports of abuse generally referred to these initial detention periods, when police interrogated detainees. The government continued to require new police officers to receive security and human rights training facilitated in partnership with civil society.

In ordinary criminal cases, the law requires police to notify a detainee’s next of kin of an arrest immediately after the above-mentioned period of incommunicado detention, unless arresting authorities applied for and received an extension from a magistrate. Police did not consistently abide by this provision. Authorities sometimes delayed notifying the family or did not inform lawyers promptly of the date of arrest, and the families and lawyers were not able to monitor compliance with detention limits and treatment of the detainee.

The law states, “in the case of a flagrant offense, the Judicial Police Officer has the right to keep the suspect in detention for 48 hours. If strong and corroborated evidence is raised against this person, [the officer] can keep them in custody for a maximum of three days with the written authorization of the prosecutor.” For common crimes, authorities can extend this 48-hour period twice, for up to six days in detention. Under terrorism-related laws, a prosecutor may renew the initial detention by written authorization for a total detention time of 12 days. According to the Antiterrorism Act, a suspect does not have a right to a lawyer during this time except for a half-hour monitored visit at the midpoint of the 12-day period. Observers widely perceived the law on counterterrorism as consistent with international standards.

At the conclusion of the initial detention period in police custody, a detainee must be presented to a prosecutor, who may issue provisional charges and order additional investigation by an investigatory judge in preparation for trial. The investigative judge has four months, plus a possible one-month extension, to interview the individual and determine what charges, if any, to file for trial. An individual may be detained in investigatory detention or at liberty during this phase. At the end of five months (if an extension is granted), the investigative judge must either file charges, decline to file charges and drop the case, or release the individual pending an additional investigation and a determination of whether to file. Authorities generally followed these timelines.

NGO sources stated that some judges were reticent to use alternative sentences permitted under the law, such as provisional release. The law does not require written authorization for release from detention. In some instances judges released defendants on their own recognizance. A bail system exists; the deposit may be in the form of property or a sum of money paid to the court as surety to ensure the defendant’s return to future court proceedings. The amount of the deposit is subject to the discretion of the judge, who decides depending on the offense. Bail may be requested at any time before the judgment. According to the law, defendants have the right to attorneys; if a defendant cannot afford private counsel, authorities must provide a court-appointed attorney when the criminal penalty exceeds five years in prison. Authorities did not always provide effective and timely counsel.

Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces often detained groups of individuals, took them to a police station, questioned them for several hours, and released them without charge.

Under the penal code, any public official who orders an arbitrary detention may be punished by demotion and, if it is done for private interest, by imprisonment for 10 years to life. An official who neglects to refer a claimed or observed arbitrary or illegal detention to his superiors may be punished by demotion. During the year no security officials were investigated for arbitrary arrest associated with enforcement of the shelter-in-place protocol due to COVID-19 restrictions. There was no information available as to whether these provisions were applied during the year.

Pretrial Detention: Although the government claimed that authorities generally brought accused persons to trial within two months, prosecutors may request as many as five additional two-month extensions of pretrial detention. Pretrial detentions can last as long as one year. Government officials attributed delays to the large backlog of cases in the justice system. The government stated that a variety of factors contributed to this backlog, including a lack of resources devoted to the justice system, both human and infrastructure; the lack of plea bargaining as an option for prosecutors, lengthening the amount of time to process cases on average; the rare use of mediation and other out-of-court settlement mechanisms allowed by law; and the absence of legal authority for alternative sentencing. The government reported that, as of May, approximately 6.5 percent of detainees were in pretrial detention awaiting their first trial. In some cases detainees received a sentence shorter than the time they spent in pretrial detention, particularly for misdemeanors.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and, as in previous years, NGOs asserted that corruption and extrajudicial influence weakened judicial independence. The Supreme Judicial Council, mandated by the constitution, manages the courts and day-to-day judicial affairs in place of the Ministry of Justice. The president of the Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeals) chairs the 20-member body. Additional members include the president of the First Chamber of the Court of Cassation; the prosecutor general (equivalent of the attorney general); the mediator (national ombudsman); the president of the CNDH; 10 members elected by the country’s judges; and five members appointed by the king. While the government’s stated aim in creating the council was to improve judicial independence, its effect on judicial independence was not clear since its inception as an independent entity in late 2017. According to media reports and human rights activists, outcomes of trials in which the government had a strong interest, such as those touching on Islam as it related to political life and national security, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and Western Sahara, sometimes appeared predetermined.

On November 4, the Court of Cassation reviewed the appeals to the 2017 verdict against 23 Sahrawi individuals arrested during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp. The sentences issued ranged from time served to life imprisonment. The individuals had been previously convicted in a military trial in 2013. A 2015 revision of the Code on Military Justice eliminated military trials for civilians, and in 2016 the Court of Cassation ruled on appeal that the group should receive a new civilian trial. Two were given reduced sentences (from 25 years to 4.5 years and 6.5 years) and were released, joining two others whose 2013 sentences of time served were confirmed by the civilian court. Two other individuals also received reduced sentences (from 30 years to 25 years and from 25 years to 20 years). On November 9, HRW noted concerns that an earlier verdict was reached based on information obtained under torture.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with the right of appeal, but this did not always occur. The law presumes that defendants are innocent. Defendants are informed promptly of potential charges after the initial arrest and investigation period. Defendants are then informed of final charges at the conclusion of the full investigatory period, which may last several months. Trials are conducted in Arabic, and foreigners have the right to request interpretation if they do not speak Arabic.

Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult in a timely manner with an attorney. Defendants have the right to refuse to participate in their trial, and a judge may decide to continue the proceedings in the defendant’s absence while providing a detailed summary to the defendant. Authorities often denied lawyers timely access to their clients and, in some cases, lawyers met their clients only at the first hearing before the judge. Authorities are required to provide attorneys in cases where the potential sentence is greater than five years, if the defendant is unable to afford one. Publicly provided defense attorneys were often poorly paid and neither properly trained in matters pertaining to juveniles nor provided to defendants in a timely fashion. The appointment process for public defenders was lengthy, often resulting in a defendant arriving to trial before a court-appointed attorney was designated. In these cases the judge may ask any attorney present to represent the defendant. This practice often resulted in inadequate representation. Many NGOs provided attorneys for vulnerable individuals (minors, refugees, victims of domestic violence), who frequently did not have the means to pay. Such resources were limited and specific to larger cities.

The law permits defense attorneys to question witnesses. Despite the provisions of the law, some judges reportedly denied defense requests to question witnesses or to present mitigating witnesses or evidence.

The law forbids judges from admitting confessions made under duress without additional corroborating evidence, government officials stated. NGOs reported that the judicial system often relied on confessions for the prosecution of criminal cases, and authorities pressured investigators to obtain a confession from suspects in order for prosecution to proceed. HRW and local NGOs charged that judges, at their discretion, sometimes decided cases based on forced confessions. According to the government, in order to move away from a confession-based judicial system, cases based solely on confessions and without any other substantiating evidence are not accepted by the courts.

According to the DGSN, during the year the forensics unit in partnership with international technical experts trained 85 judges and public prosecutors on forensics evidence for prosecutions. Since 2016 the National Police have had evidence preservation centers throughout the country to secure evidence collected at crime scenes and to ensure compliance with chain of custody procedures. According to the Ministry of Justice, legal clerks manage the evidence preservation centers and coordinate the court’s and the defense’s access to evidence.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The law does not define or recognize the concept of a political prisoner. The government did not consider any of its prisoners to be political prisoners and stated it had charged or convicted all individuals in prison under criminal law. Criminal law covers nonviolent advocacy and dissent, such as insulting police in songs or “defaming Morocco’s sacred values” by denouncing the king and regime during a public demonstration. NGOs, including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), Amnesty International, and Sahrawi organizations, asserted the government imprisoned persons for political activities or beliefs under the cover of criminal charges.

The HRW annual report highlighted, “authorities continued to selectively target, prosecute, jail and harass critics, and enforce various repressive laws, notably pertaining to individual liberties.”

In December 2019 police in Rabat arrested Ben Boudouh, also known as Moul al-Hanout (grocery store owner), for “offending public officials” and “incitement to hatred.” Boudouh posted a live video on his Facebook page criticizing the king for allowing corruption. On January 7, the court of first instance of Khemisset, sentenced Ben Boudouh to three years in prison for “insulting constitutional institutions and public officials.” Ben Boudouh was in Tiflet Prison at year’s end. Amnesty International claimed the charges against Ben Boudouh were politically motivated.

Security forces arrested Soulaimane Raissouni, journalist and editor in chief of newspaper Akhbar al-Yaoum, in Casablanca on May 22 on an allegation he sexually assaulted a young man. On May 25, an investigating judge charged him with “violent and indecent assault and forced detention” and ordered his detention in Oukacha Prison. The arrest of Soulaimane generated criticism from civil society groups and activists, who asserted the arrests were politically motivated.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Human rights and proindependence groups considered a number of imprisoned Sahrawis to be political prisoners. This number included the 19 Gdeim Izik prisoners who remained in prison as well as members of Sahrawi rights or proindependence organizations.

Although individuals have access to civil courts for lawsuits relating to human rights violations and have filed lawsuits, such lawsuits were frequently unsuccessful due to the courts’ lack of independence in politically sensitive cases or lack of impartiality stemming from extrajudicial influence and corruption. The Supreme Judicial Council is tasked with ensuring ethical behavior by judicial personnel (see section 4). There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for alleged wrongs. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders in a timely manner.

The Institution of the Mediator (national ombudsman) helped to resolve civil matters that did not clear the threshold to merit involvement of the judiciary, including cases involving civil society registration issues. Although it faced backlogs, it gradually expanded the scope of its activities and subjected complaints to in-depth investigation. The mediator retransmitted to the CNDH for resolution cases specifically related to allegations of human rights abuses by authorities. The CNDH continued to be a conduit through which citizens expressed complaints regarding human rights abuses.

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

While the constitution states an individual’s home is inviolable and that a search may take place only with a search warrant, authorities at times entered homes without judicial authorization, employed informers, and monitored, without legal process, personal movement and private communications–including email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private.

On June 22, Amnesty International published a report claiming authorities had used NSO spyware to target journalist Omar Radi’s phone from January 2019 to January 2020. Starting on June 26, the judicial police, gendarmerie, and prosecutors summoned Radi for 12 interrogation sessions of six to nine hours each regarding multiple accusations, including allegedly providing “espionage services” to foreign governments, firms, and organizations. On July 29, police arrested Radi on charges of “indecent assault with violence; rape; the receipt of foreign funds for the purpose of undermining state’s domestic security; and initiation of contacts with agents of foreign countries to harm the diplomatic situation of the country.” According to HRW, the rape and indecent assault charges against Radi were based on a complaint filed July 23 by one of Radi’s colleagues. His trial commenced on December 24.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, although they criminalize and restrict some freedom of expression in the press and social media–specifically criticism of Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time, despite the freedom of expression provided for in the press code. The press code applies only to journalists accredited by the department of communication, under Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, for speech or publications in the line of work; private speech by accredited journalists remains punishable under the penal code. According to the Freedom House 2020 Freedom in the World report, the press enjoyed a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, but authorities used an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists. International and domestic human rights groups criticized criminal prosecutions of journalists and publishers as well as libel suits, claiming that the government principally used these laws to restrict independent human rights groups, the press, and social media.

According to the UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September, the OHCHR remained concerned by reports alleging excessive surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists in Western Sahara. The report added that the OHCHR continued to receive reports of harassment and arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders covering human rights violations. Amnesty International stated Sahrawi human rights activists remained subject to intimidation, questioning, arrest, and intense surveillance that occasionally amounted to harassment.

Freedom of Speech: The law criminalizes criticism of Islam, of the legitimacy of the monarchy, of state institutions, of officials such as those in the military, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. Amnesty International and HRW highlighted dozens of cases in which freedom of expression was restricted. During the year the government displayed intolerance for individuals critical of the monarch, local authorities and Islam. According to the government, 359 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).

On January 16, the Laayoune Court of Appeals sustained a court of first instance conviction for Hamza Sbai but reduced the prison sentence from 36 months to eight months. Sbai was convicted under the penal code for his rap video posted on YouTube, titled We Understand. According to the Ministry of Interior, he was sentenced by the court in December 2019 to three years of prison and a fine for “insulting constitutional institutions.” Sbai was transferred from a prison in Laayoune to Bouizakarne in January and was released on August 28.

On March 23, parliament passed a law declaring a health emergency and setting a penalty of a three-month prison sentence for anyone disobeying “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” those decisions. As of May, 91, a total of 623 individuals were briefly detained or fined for breaking the new state of emergency law, of whom 558 remained in detention.

On March 28, the secretary general of the Presidency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that police had arrested 56 individuals for publishing false information regarding COVID-19.

On May 5, local representatives of the Ministry of Interior in Tiflet reportedly assaulted two journalists while they were covering the COVID-19 lockdown’s impact on local market activity during Ramadan on behalf of a national Amazigh television station. Media reports indicated the officials verbally assaulted a female journalist before slapping her and pushing her to the ground, while her accompanying cameraman sustained a hand injury as he tried to prevent the authorities from confiscating his camera. On May 7, Reporters without Borders condemned the “unacceptable” assault and stated, “The coronavirus crisis must not be used as an excuse to harass journalists who are just trying to do their job.” On May 8, the ministry announced to the French Press Agency that it opened an internal investigation of the claims. The Ministry of Interior denied the claims of police intervention and allegations of assault against the journalist and cameraman.

In August, 400 artists and intellectuals wrote a manifesto denouncing police repression and defamation campaigns, exacerbated by the pandemic situation, citing “several cases of political imprisonment and harassment, including the arrest of journalists Omar Radi (see section 1.f.) and Hajar Raissouni (who was convicted of engaging in premarital sex and attempting to get an abortion before receiving a royal pardon in 2019), as well as repression against social movements.” When some decided to withdraw their signatures from the petition, other activists claimed they had been subjected to intimidation.

On April 27, authorities arrested Omar Naji, vice president of the AMDH Nador branch, and charged him with defamation and spreading false information after he posted on Facebook that local authorities were confiscating goods sold by local merchants in the informal economy. Naji was released on bail pending trial on June 2. The AMDH called Naji’s arrest an attack on freedom of expression, although Naji was found not guilty.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a variety of views within the restrictions of the law. The press code limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. As of September 6, two journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with two in all of 2019.

Two publishing directors of news websites were brought before the crown prosecutor in Mohammedia for allegedly publishing “fake news” on COVID-19. Five other individuals were arrested for sharing the same news via their Facebook accounts.

In March international NGOs drew attention to the government’s suspension of print newspapers during the outbreak of COVID-19 to reduce contact and the spread of the virus.

In March, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mi Naima, a YouTuber with a large following, posted a video in which she claimed that COVID-19 did not exist. She was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for “sharing fake news.”

On March 17, journalist Omar Radi was sentenced to a four-month suspended prison sentence and fine over a tweet in 2019 in which he criticized the judge who handed down prison sentences against activists of the Hirak movement (see section 1.f.).

On March 27, Kawtar Zaki and Abdelilah Sakhir, both of the online outlet Eljarida 24, received six-month suspended prison sentences and fines for publishing information from a parliamentary committee on corruption by elected officials. Hakim Benchamach, speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, filed the complaint that led to the case, according to Freedom House.

Actor Rafiq Boubker was prosecuted in May for blasphemy, insulting Islam, insulting a corporate body, and violating the state of emergency. In a video leaked on social media, an apparently intoxicated Boubker called an imam derogatory names and called on Moroccans to “pray with vodka”–leading to charges of “insulting the Islamic religion and undermining the sanctity of worship.” Boubker was arrested on the basis of complaints to the crown prosecutor. On July 14, the Ain Sebaa Court of First Instance in Casablanca was set to take place on November 10 but postponed for a later date.

Journalists continued to denounce the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the press code. Some members of the press claimed that journalists from outlets close to the government and palace received their credentials sooner than journalists from independent outlets. They claimed journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in an ambiguous legal status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.

The government also enforced strict procedures governing journalists’ meetings with NGO representatives and political activists. Foreign journalists needed, but did not always receive, approval from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports before meeting with political activists.

The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, has been repeatedly postponed since 2015; the individuals had not been sentenced at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Justice, Mansouri, Monjib, and Almiraat were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of the country. The seven individuals were charged for posing a threat to the internal security of the country, fraud, managing an association exercising unauthorized acts, and accepting unauthorized foreign funds. On December 29, Maati Monjib was arrested on charges of embezzlement. He had been under a new investigation since October 7 on accusations of money laundering against him. His trial was scheduled to begin in January 2021.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation, including attempts to discredit them through harmful rumors about their personal lives. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists, often putting them on trial for matters seemingly unrelated to journalism or political activities.

According to media reports, authorities rejected one international journalist’s accreditation request during the year because he lacked a valid permit. The government stated that foreign media representatives who comply with local laws are allowed to perform their duties without interference and that allegations that authorities expelled foreign journalists were unsubstantiated.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship and government restrictions on sensitive topics remained serious hurdles to the development of a free, independent, and investigative press. Publications and broadcast media require government accreditation, and the government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications that breach public order or criticize Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions on territorial integrity. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure through written and verbal warnings and by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor and host opposition news sites on servers outside the country to avoid being shut down by the authorities. According to Freedom House, personal attacks and derogatory comments received by activists and opinion makers online, often in response to their criticism of government policies, also contributed to self-censorship.

Libel/Slander Laws: The press code includes provisions that permit the government to impose financial penalties on accredited journalists and publishers who violate restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. A court may impose a prison sentence if an accredited journalist is unable or unwilling to pay the fine.

Individuals not registered as journalists may be charged for defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as can accredited journalists for their private actions.

Between November 2019 and January, NGOs reported 10 individuals were arrested for “offending public officials and institutions.”

National Security: The antiterrorism law provides for the arrest of individuals, including journalists, and filtering websites deemed to “disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence.” The law assigns legal liability to the author and anyone who in any way helps the author to disseminate information deemed as a justification for acts of terrorism, which would include site owners and internet service providers. While the law was designed to combat terrorism, authorities retain the discretion to define terms such as “national security” and “public order,” under the penal code for which the government can seek fines of up to 200,000 s ($21,000) for publishing content online seen as disruptive to public order, with the maximum fine of 500,000 s ($52,000) if the content offends the military. Online speech offenses related to the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara, as well as threats to national security can carry prison sentences of two to six years.

Internet Freedom

The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press on the internet. The press code stipulates that online journalism is equivalent to print journalism. Laws on combatting terrorism permit the government to filter websites. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the government did not block or filter any political, social, or religious websites during the year. Nonetheless, security officials pressured activists to delete sensitive content. The same report indicated there has been an influx of progovernment online outlets that published false and defamatory news about dissidents. The report also noted there have been cases in which bloggers were arrested or imprisoned for content the government deemed politically sensitive. Social media and communication services, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, were available in the country, as were international blog-hosting services. Freedom House claimed, however, that unfair disbursement of advertising money, strict self-censorship, and continuing trials of journalists have prevented the emergence of a vibrant online media environment. According to the government, funds for advertisements derive from the private sector, not from the public sector. The government also repeatedly reminded online journalists to obey the law. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online, particularly related to protests in the northern Rif region.

According to Freedom House, numerous accounts were created on Twitter and Facebook with the apparent purpose of harassing, intimidating, and threatening activists who criticize authorities. Activists believed these progovernment commentators were also equipped with direct or indirect access to surveillance tools, since they often obtained private information about other users.

Many contributors working for online news outlets and many online news outlets themselves were unaccredited and therefore not covered under the press code for their publications. They remained subject to provisions of the antiterrorism law and the penal code that permit the government to jail and impose financial penalties on anyone who violates restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults.

On April 27, a draft bill seeking to limit social media commentary promoting boycotts and businesses was leaked. After the draft language sparked rapid and broad condemnation by civil society, the minister of justice on May 3 withdrew the bill from consideration and initiated consultations on the proposed legislation with the CNDH and civil society. On May 12, during a video conference on human rights, CNDH president Amina Bouayach said she considered the bill significantly “outdated” and “unsuitable for Morocco,” reiterating that the CNDH had a clear stance on free speech online and viewed social media as “an incubator of freedoms.”

According to various NGOs, the government frequently hacked Sahrawi citizen journalists’ and bloggers’ social media accounts.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law permits the government to criminalize presentations or debate questioning the legitimacy of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, state institutions, and the status of Western Sahara. The law restricts cultural events and academic activities, although the government generally provided more latitude to political and religious activism confined to university campuses. The Ministry of Interior approves appointments of university rectors.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for the right of peaceful assembly. The government generally allowed authorized and unauthorized peaceful demonstrations to occur. Under the law groups of more than three persons require authorization from the Ministry of Interior to protest publicly. Some NGOs complained that the government used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. Security forces intervened on occasion to disband both authorized and unauthorized protests when officials deemed the demonstration a threat to public security. Amnesty International reported continued arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, particularly of individuals supporting independence for Western Sahara.

Several proindependence organizations and some human rights NGOs in Western Sahara stated that in recent years the submission of applications for permits to hold demonstrations declined because police rarely granted them. In most cases the organizers proceeded with planned demonstrations in the absence of authorization, and there was no discernible difference in security forces’ reaction to authorized or unauthorized protests. Violent confrontations between security forces and protesters were less common than in previous years, according to several local NGOs, although violent dispersals occurred on occasion. Security force practices were similar to those in internationally recognized Morocco; however, in Western Sahara there was often a higher ratio of members of security forces to protesters.

On March 23, the government implemented a royal decree concerning the state of health emergency, making a violation of public authority confinement measures punishable with one to three months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 1,240 s ($130), or both; the decree also makes the use of social media or broadcast networks to spread misinformation about COVID-19 or incite criminal activity punishable with up to one year in prison. The UN high commissioner for human rights noted that security forces “used excessive force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews.” According to a report by Amnesty International published in June, a total of 91,623 individuals were prosecuted from March to May for breaking the state of emergency. At least 588 persons remained in detention for breaking the state of emergency, according to the May 22 official statement of the public prosecutor’s office.

Some NGOs complained that authorities did not apply the approval process for holding a demonstration consistently and used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. HRW’s World Report 2020 highlighted interference with associations that expressed views critical of the monarch and events organized by the AMDH. Police allowed many protests demanding political reform and protesting government actions, but often forcibly dispersed peaceful protests, arrested protesters and protest leaders, or prevented demonstrations from occurring. According to the government, approximately 4,400 protests took place from January to July. While most protests proceeded peacefully, on several occasions violence erupted between protesters and police.

Security forces were generally present both in and out of uniform at protests, particularly if the protest was expected to address a sensitive issue. In general, officers were under orders to observe and not intervene, unless the demonstration became unruly, threatening to bystanders, or overflowed into public highways. In those cases, under standard operating procedures, officers were required to give the crowd three warnings that force would be used if they did not disperse. Security forces would then attempt to force protesters to leave the area, using riot shields to push standing protesters into a designated area or carrying seated protesters to the designated area.

Security force tactics did not differ significantly whether the protest was authorized or unauthorized, although the decision on whether to intervene sometimes depended on whether the protest was authorized. According to the government, if officers intervened in a protest, a police judiciary officer not involved in the intervention and under the supervision of the attorney general must produce a statement documenting the circumstances of the case, the number of victims, and the material damage due to the operation. The police judiciary officer must address the statement to the Attorney General’s Office with a copy to the governor of the territorial jurisdiction where the incident transpired. The government organized training on human rights-based methods to manage crowds throughout the year.

In February the CNDH released a report about security force actions to disperse the 2017 Hirak protests and largely upheld police action on the basis that the protests had gradually escalated towards violence. NGOs and the CNDH continued to monitor the Rif Hirak prisoners sentenced by the Casablanca Court of Appeal in April 2019.

On January 28, two participants from a “Philosophy in the Street” event promoting freedom of expression were arrested and later released in Rabat. Event organizers stated this was the first time members from the group had been arrested as part of a public meeting. On July 22, one of the activists was tried for public intoxication and fined 500 s ($50).

The CNDH’s Laayoune and Dakhla regional commissions monitored 24 demonstrations from January to July. Security forces dispersed several demonstrations by force, with clashes resulting in injuries on both sides.

In July, CNDH’s Laayoune Commission was approached by an association of migrants about a clash between law enforcement officials and a group of 78 sub-Saharan migrants in an irregular situation, who were held in a reception center and tried to leave it without authorization. The commission visited the scene of the clashes and monitored the exchange of violence between police and this group of immigrants who stormed the outer door of the accommodation center in a bid to break the health state of emergency, which led the police officer present to shoot two rubber bullets in the air as a warning; a third rubber bullet hit a migrant. The situation was contained, while a police officer and four migrants were admitted to hospital with minor bruises. The judicial police of Laayoune opened a preliminary investigation.

Freedom of Association

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of association, although the government sometimes restricted this freedom. The government prohibited or failed to recognize some political opposition groups by deeming them unqualified for NGO status. While the government does not restrict the source of funding for NGOs operating in the country, NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources are required to report the amount and its origins to the government within 30 days from the date of receipt. The government denied official recognition to NGOs it considered to be advocating against Islam as the state religion or questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy or the country’s territorial integrity. Authorities obstructed the registration of a number of associations perceived to be critical of the authorities by refusing to accept their registration applications or to deliver receipts confirming the filing of applications (see section 5).

Amnesty International reported that Moroccan authorities routinely rejected the registration applications of Sahrawi human rights groups.

The Ministry of Interior required NGOs to register before being recognized as legal entities, but there was no comprehensive national registry publicly available. A prospective organization must submit its objectives, bylaws, address, and photocopies of members’ identification cards to local officials of the ministry. The local officials of the ministry issue a receipt to the organization that signifies formal approval. Organizations without receipts are not formally registered. According to the law, however, any association not denied registration that did not receive a receipt within 60 days of submitting the required documentation has the right to engage in activities. These same organizations reported extended delays in receiving correspondence from the ministry on the receipt issue.

Unregistered organizations could not access government funds or legally accept contributions. On February 13, a group of human rights organizations gathered to denounce the ministry’s refusal to issue receipts of registration to certain organizations that cover human rights. The organizations stated local officials’ refusal to issue receipts is a violation of article five of Law 75, which governs the right of association. One of the organizations, the Moroccan Federation of Human Rights, reported the ministry has refused to issue it a registration receipt for the last five years.

On February 29, media reported the authorities prevented an NGO from conducting training on “national and international mechanisms to protect human rights activists” in Meknes. Media reported the hotel had received notice from authorities to cancel the activity. According to the government, the local authorities did not cancel the event, rather, the hotel refused to host the event after the organizers were unable to provide the necessary meeting permits.

The National Federation of Amazigh Associations, an organization supporting the inclusion of the Amazigh (Berber) population in public life, reported that, as of October, nine Amazigh organizations denied registration in 2017 continued to be denied registration during the year, including the federation itself (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

The Justice and Charity Organization, a Sunni Islamist movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated, although authorities continued to monitor its activities.

In October 2019 local authorities refused to accept the application of a religious freedom organization based in Casablanca, which attempted to register as an association.

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, although it limited movement to areas experiencing widespread unrest. The government denied entry to individuals it believed threatened the stability of the country. The government continued to make travel documents available to Sahrawis to travel and encouraged the return of Sahrawi refugees from Algeria and elsewhere if they acknowledged the government’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Refugees wishing to return are required to obtain the appropriate travel or identity documents at a Moroccan consulate abroad, often in Mauritania. There were a few reported cases, however, of authorities preventing Sahrawis from traveling.

On January 2, the Moroccan authorities prevented representatives of Sahrawi NGOs from celebrating activist Aminatou Haidar’s reception of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award. Authorities denied activists access to the venue and forced all those present to leave the headquarters of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Violations of Human Rights Committed by the State of Morocco in El-Ayoun.

In-country Movement: There were several reports of government authorities denying local and international organizations and press access to the Rif and Eastern regions. The government, however, maintained that no international organizations or press were denied access to the Rif region.

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, and other persons of concern. The government also provided funding to humanitarian organizations to provide social services to migrants, including refugees.

The government has historically deferred to UNHCR as the sole agency in the country entitled to perform refugee status determinations and verify asylum cases. UNHCR referred cases that meet the criteria for refugee recognition to the government’s interministerial Commission in Charge of Hearings for Asylum Seekers within the Bureau of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were particularly vulnerable to abuse. Authorities continued cooperation with Spanish and EU authorities to thwart trafficking networks and arrest smugglers. A decrease in Europe-bound human smuggling and human trafficking coincided with increased border controls implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNDH regional branches reported receiving several complaints regarding the rights of migrants. There were reports of government authorities arresting or detaining migrants, particularly around the Spanish enclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta, and forcibly relocating them to other parts of the country to deter attempts to cross illegally into Spanish territory. Several NGOs reported the week of February 14 that authorities were forcibly removing groups of migrants from proximity to the coast and Spanish enclave cities to the southern region. One NGO alleged that security services moved approximately 10,000 sub-Saharan migrants from the north to the south of the country and deported another 3,000 migrants from Guinea-Conakry, Mali, or Cameroon to their home countries. The government maintained the return of third-country nationals to their country of origin was coordinated with diplomatic legations who endorsed these departures and issued the appropriate papers (see section 2.f, Durable Solutions).

On February 10, the international NGO Alarm Phone reported to the press that Morocco allegedly deported a Yemeni migrant to Algeria in mid-September 2019.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status. The government recognizes asylum status for refugees designated according to the UNHCR statute. The government continued to grant status to UNHCR-recognized refugees and temporary status to registered Syrians. There were 1,363 refugees registered in the country and six asylum seekers.

Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees and migrants were generally able to work and access health care and education services, including publicly funded professional and vocational training. Requests on behalf of women and children receive automatic approval, with immediate access to education and health care. Asylum seekers were, however, sometimes unable to access the national health care system and continued to have little access to the judicial system until recognized as refugees.

Durable Solutions: The government facilitated voluntary returns in cooperation with UNHCR and, when necessary, the resettlement of recognized refugees to third countries. Since 2004 the government and the International Organization for Migration have cofunded the voluntary return of migrants to their countries of origin. According to the government, it assisted with the voluntary return to the country of origin of an average of 2,000 migrants between January 2019 and March 2020.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Syrians and Yemenis benefited from “exceptional regularization” outside the more permanent migrant regularization program.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The country is a constitutional monarchy under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with the head of government (prime minister). According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government.

The law provides for, and citizens participated in, free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage for parliament’s Chamber of Representatives and municipal and regional councils. Regional and professional bodies indirectly elected members of parliament’s less powerful Chamber of Counselors.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2016 the country held direct elections for the Chamber of Representatives (the more powerful lower house of parliament). The major political parties and domestic observers considered the elections free, fair, and transparent. International observers considered the elections credible, noting voters were able to choose freely and the process was free of systemic irregularities. As stipulated by the constitution, the king tasked the Party of Justice and Development, which won the most seats in the newly elected chamber, to form a governing coalition and nominate new ministers.

Political Parties and Political Participation: A political party may not legally challenge Islam as the state religion, the institution of the monarchy, or the country’s territorial integrity. The law prohibits basing a party on a religious, ethnic, or regional identity.

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. Voters elected a record number of women in the 2016 elections, although very few subsequently won leadership positions as ministers or parliamentary committee presidents.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were reports of government corruption in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches during the year.

Corruption: Observers generally considered corruption a persistent problem, with insufficient governmental checks and balances to reduce its occurrence. There were reports of petty government corruption.

The National Authority for Probity, Prevention, and Fighting Corruption (INPPLC) is responsible for combating corruption. In addition to the INPPLC, the Ministry of Justice and the High Audit Institution (government accountability court) had jurisdiction over corruption issues, and the latter has authority to conduct investigations.

The Ministry of Justice ran a hotline for the public to report instances of corruption. As of August the government reported there were 9,550 calls to the hotline alleging corruption that resulted in 39 cases in court during the year. The government also reported 90 percent of the calls were inquiries about corruption cases in trial, rather than new reports of alleged corruption. The Prosecutor General’s Office reported it registered 950 calls to its anticorruption hotline from private citizens during the year; the office stated there were convictions against the officials involved in 16 cases.

In January a “money for diplomas” scandal came to light in Tetouan at a public Abdelmalik Essaadi University. The university president declared the report an isolated incident and launched an internal investigation. The prosecutor for the case suggested that hundreds of diplomas were issued fraudulently.

On February 5, a court in Marrakesh sentenced Khalid Ouaya to 10 years in prison and one million s for receiving kickbacks from land deals. He was serving his prison sentence and awaiting trial by the court of appeals. On March 5, media reported a collusion scheme among judges, prosecutors, clerks, and bailiffs of the Casablanca Court of First Instance, legal representatives of public and private creditors, and service providers that filed thousands of suits against citizens without their knowledge. The Prosecutor General’s Office reportedly opened an investigation into the case that continued at year’s end.

The government claimed to investigate corruption and other instances of police malfeasance through an internal mechanism. Nevertheless, international and domestic human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements.

The judicial police investigated allegations, including those against security forces, and advised the court of their findings. Cases at times languished in the investigatory or trial phases. The government reported 45 cases in September where there was sufficient evidence pointing to police officers engaging in corruption, extortion, collusion with drug traffickers, or misappropriation of seized objects, and 16 police officers received disciplinary sanctions in connection to the cases.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires judges, ministers, and members of parliament to submit financial disclosure statements to the High Audit Institution, which is responsible for monitoring and verifying disclosure compliance. According to allegations from government transparency groups, however, many officials did not file disclosures. There are no effective criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases; however, the government’s responsiveness to, cooperation with, and restrictions on domestic and international human rights organizations varied, depending on its evaluation of the political orientation of the organization and the sensitivity of the issues.

The government did not approve AMDH appeals during the year to register multiple regional branches. The organization regularly faced difficulties renewing the registration of its offices.

During the year activists and NGOs reported continuing restrictions on their activities in the country (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). According to the government, registered organizations are authorized to meet within their established headquarters, but any meetings outside that space, including privately owned establishments, were considered to be in public spaces and require authorization from the Ministry of Interior. Organizations stated that government officials told them their events were canceled for failing to follow required procedures for public meetings, although the organizations claimed to have submitted the necessary paperwork or believed the law did not require it.

Some unrecognized NGOs that did not cooperate officially with the government still shared information informally with both the government and government-affiliated organizations.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated with the United Nations and permitted requested visits.

Nonetheless, in September the UN secretary-general urged the state and other parties to address outstanding human rights problems and enhance cooperation with the OHCHR. The report noted that the human rights situation in Western Sahara has been adversely affected by COVID-19, especially with regard to economic and social rights.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The CNDH is a national human rights institution established by the constitution that operates independently from the elected government. It is publicly funded and operates in conformity with the Principles of Paris, according to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. The council filled the role of a national human rights monitoring mechanism for preventing torture. The CNDH oversees the National Human Rights Training Institute, which collaborated with international organizations to provide training to civil society, media, law enforcement, medical personnel, educators, and legal practitioners.

Via its regional offices in Dakhla and Laayoune, the CNDH continued a range of activities, including monitoring demonstrations, visiting prisons and medical centers, and organizing capacity-building activities for various stakeholders. It also maintained contact with unregistered NGOs. The CNDH also occasionally investigated cases raised by unregistered NGOs, especially those that drew internet or international media attention.

The Institution of the Mediator acted as a general ombudsman. It considered allegations of governmental injustices and has the power to carry out inquiries and investigations, propose disciplinary action, and refer cases to the public prosecutor.

The mission of the Interministerial Delegation for Human Rights (DIDH), which reports to the minister of state in charge of human rights, is to promote the protection of human rights across all ministries, serve as a government interlocutor with domestic and international NGOs, and interact with relevant UN bodies regarding international human rights obligations. The DIDH coordinates government responses to UN bodies on adherence to treaty obligations and serves as the principal advisory body to the king and government on human rights. The DIDH oversaw the launch during the year of the National Plan of Action on Democracy and Human Rights (PANDDH), approved by parliament in 2017 and the king in 2019. The PANDDH includes more than 400 measures to improve democracy, governance, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights as well as reforms to institutional and legal frameworks.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law punishes individuals convicted of rape with prison terms of five to 10 years; when the conviction involves a minor, the prison sentence ranges from 10 to 20 years. Spousal rape is not a crime. Numerous articles of the penal code pertaining to rape perpetuate unequal treatment for women and provide insufficient protection. A 2018 law provides a stronger legal framework to protect women from violence, sexual harassment, and abuse. Under the law a sexual assault conviction may result in a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine. For insults and defamation based on gender, an individual may be fined up to 60,000 s for insults and up to 120,000 s for defamation ($6,300 to $12,600). General insult and defamation charges remain in the penal code. A March reform of the law requires the DGSN, Prosecutor General’s Office, Supreme Judicial Court, and Ministries of Health, Youth, and Women to have specialized units that coordinate with one another on cases involving violence against women. The Judicial Police reported gender-based violence response units opened in 132 police precincts across the country as of late 2019. These specialized units intake and process cases of gender-based violence and provide psychological support and other services to victims. In 440 precincts where gender-based violence response units have not been established, a regular police officer is designated to process the cases.

The National Union for Women in Morocco (UNFM) launched an online platform in January to provide support for victims of domestic abuse. The platform gave victims access to legal counsel, a network to find employment, and a social support network. The UNFM also offered temporary housing and vocational training for victims of domestic violence.

Later in the year, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a spike in domestic abuse as a result of isolation measures. The government and NGOs expanded programming and outreach that provided shelter, assistance, and guidance for survivors of domestic abuse. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the government adopted protective measures, such as shelters, for victims of domestic violence in the first half of the year. On May 28, the government adopted a bill to create a national registry for social support programs for women and children. Several NGOs adapted services provided to victims of domestic violence, providing hotlines, shelter, resources, guidance, and legal support.

There were reports, however, that these shelters were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Courts maintained “victims of abuse cells” that brought together prosecutors, lawyers, judges, women’s NGO representatives, and hospital personnel to review domestic and child abuse cases to provide for the best interests of women or children.

According to local NGOs, survivors did not report the vast majority of sexual assaults to police due to social pressure and the concern that society would most likely hold the victims responsible. Some sexual assault victims also reported police officers at times turned them away from filing a police report or coerced them to pay a bribe to file the report by threatening to charge them with consensual sex outside of marriage, a crime punishable with up to one year in prison. Police selectively investigated cases; among the minority brought to trial, successful prosecutions remained rare.

The law does not specifically define domestic violence against women and minors, but the general prohibitions of the criminal code address such violence. Legally, high-level misdemeanors occur when a victim’s injuries result in 20 days of disability leave from work. Low-level misdemeanors occur when a victim’s disability lasts for less than 20 days. According to NGOs, the courts rarely prosecuted perpetrators of low-level misdemeanors. Police were slow to act in domestic violence cases, and the government generally did not enforce the law and sometimes returned women against their will to abusive homes. Police generally treated domestic violence as a social rather than a criminal matter. Physical abuse was legal grounds for divorce, although few women reported such abuse to authorities.

On January 21, media reported that 20 suspects kidnapped “Oumaima”, a 17-year-old girl, in the Moulay Rachid district (in Casablanca) and then gang raped and abused her for 25 days before she convinced a friend of the perpetrators to assist in her escape. According to the victim’s mother, during confinement, the perpetrators forced the girl to ingest toxic substances to try to kill her. The girl was hospitalized after her escape. According to an NGO, three of the 20 suspects were arrested, and two of the three were later released on bail.

In February the Court of Appeal in Rabat sentenced the perpetrator of the summer 2019 rape and murder of Hanane al-Iraki to death; the principal defendant was convicted of premeditated murder on February 10. Six accomplices in the crime were sentenced to five years in prison. The conviction closed a case that surfaced in July 2019 when footage of the crime was published on the internet.

Sexual Harassment: Before the law on violence against women was passed in 2018, sexual harassment was only a crime if it was committed by a supervisor in the workplace. Under the 2018 law, sexual harassment is a crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine up to 10,000 s ($1,000) if the offense takes place in a public space or by insinuations through texts, audio recording, or pictures. In cases where the harasser is a coworker, supervisor, or security official, the sentence is doubled. Prison sentences and fines are also doubled in cases where a spouse, former spouse, fiance, or a family member perpetrates the harassment act, physical violence, or abuse or mistreatment or breaks a restraining order or if the crime is perpetrated against a minor. In the past authorities did not effectively enforce laws against sexual harassment. Civil society leaders stated they did not observe efforts by the government to enforce the 2018 law or provide training on the new law for judicial or law enforcement officials.

Reproductive Rights: Individuals and couples have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Authorities generally did not discriminate against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, including for sexually transmitted infections. Contraception was legal, and most forms were widely available. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the country has invested in increasing the availability of voluntary family-planning services, expanding and improving maternal health care, and providing for access to obstetric care by eliminating fees.

The contraceptive pill was available over the counter, without a prescription. Skilled health attendance at delivery and postpartum care were available for women who could afford it, with approximately 75 percent of overall births attended by skilled health personnel.

While a 2018 law strengthened penalties for violence against women (see section 6, Women) and required certain government agencies to establish units to provide psychological support and other services to victims of gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch assessed at the time of the law’s passage that it did not sufficiently define the government’s role in providing services to victims. The government responded that it provides services to victims of sexual assault via the UN Population Fund.

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

Discrimination: While the constitution provides women equal rights with men in civil, political, economic, cultural, and environmental affairs, laws favor men in property and inheritance. Numerous problems related to discrimination against women remained, both with inadequate enforcement of equal rights provided for by the laws and constitution and in the reduced rights provided to women in inheritance.

According to the law, women are entitled to a share of inherited property, but a woman’s share of inheritance is less than that of a man. Women are generally entitled to receive half the inheritance a man would receive in the same circumstances. A sole male heir would receive the entire estate, while a sole female heir would receive half the estate with the rest going to other relatives.

In 2019 the government revised the structure and administration of communal lands, allowing female heirs to inherit, and be titled as owners of, those lands.

The family code places the family under the joint responsibility of both spouses, makes divorce available by mutual consent, and places legal limits on polygamy. Implementation of family law reforms remained a problem. The judiciary lacked willingness to enforce them, as many judges did not agree with their provisions. Corruption among working-level court clerks and lack of knowledge about its provisions among lawyers were also obstacles to enforcing the law.

The law requires equal pay for equal work, although in practice this did not occur.

Children

Birth Registration: The law permits both parents to pass nationality to their children. The law establishes that all children have civil status regardless of their family status. There were, nonetheless, cases in which authorities denied identification papers to children because they were born to unmarried parents, particularly in rural areas or in the cases of poorly educated mothers unaware of their legal rights.

Child Abuse: NGOs, human rights groups, media outlets, and UNICEF claimed child abuse was widespread. According to the government, in 2019 a total of 6,399 individuals were investigated for criminal offenses associated with 5,699 reported cases of child abuse. Prosecutions for child abuse were extremely rare. Some children rights NGOs expressed concerns over the lack of legislation to prosecute cases involving incest.

On January 28, the Taroudant Court of First Instance sentenced Boujemaa Bodhim, a teacher, to a six-month prison sentence, a four-month suspended sentence, and a fine for beating an eight-year-old student.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18, but parents, with the informed consent of the minor, may secure a waiver from a judge for underage marriage. According to a statement released by the Prosecutor General’s Office in July, the judiciary in 2019 approved 2,334 requests. Under the framework of the PANDDH, the CNDH maintained a national awareness-raising campaign against the marriage of minors.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 18. The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Penalties for sexual exploitation of children under the criminal code range from two years’ to life imprisonment and fines from 9,550 s ($1,000) to 344,000 s ($36,100).

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 .

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 constitution recognizes the Jewish community as part of the country’s population and guarantees each individual the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” Community leaders estimated the size of the Jewish population at 3,500. Overall there appeared to be little overt anti-Semitism, and Jews generally lived in safety.

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, education, and access to health care. The law also provides for regulations and building codes that provide for access for persons with disabilities. The government did not effectively enforce or implement these laws and regulations. While building codes enacted in 2003 require accessibility for all persons, the codes exempt most pre-2003 structures, and authorities rarely enforced them for new construction. Most public transportation is inaccessible to persons with disabilities, although the national rail system offers wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, and special seating areas. Government policy provides that persons with disabilities should have equal access to information and communications. Special communication devices for persons with visual or audio disabilities were not widely available.

In March disability rights groups reported the government’s COVID-19 hotline was not accessible to persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Family, Solidarity, Equality, and Social Development has responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and attempted to integrate persons with disabilities into society by implementing a quota of 7 percent for persons with disabilities in vocational training in the public sector and 5 percent in the private sector. Both sectors were far from achieving the quotas. The government maintained more than 400 integrated classes for children with learning disabilities, but private charities and civil society organizations were primarily responsible for integration.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The majority of the population, including the royal family, claimed some Amazigh heritage. Many of the poorest regions in the country, particularly the rural Middle Atlas region, were predominantly Amazigh and had illiteracy rates higher than the national average. Basic governmental services in this mountainous and underdeveloped region were lacking.

On August 2, parliament approved an education bill that encourages instruction in Tifinagh and foreign languages in schools. Article 5 of the constitution identifies Arabic and Tamazight as the official languages of the state, although Arabic remained dominant. Tamazight is one of three national Amazigh dialects.

On September 3, the Council of Ministers established a commission tasked with monitoring the implementation of Tifinagh, the alphabet used in Tamazight language.

Amazigh cultural groups contended they were rapidly losing their traditions and language to Arabization. The government offered Tamazigh language classes in some schools. Although the palace-funded Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture created a university-level teacher-training program to address the shortage of qualified teachers, Amazigh NGOs contended that the number of qualified teachers of regional dialects of Amazigh languages continued to decrease. The government reported, however, that the number of teachers employed to teach the official national Amazigh language has increased. Instruction in the Amazigh language is mandatory for students at the Ministry of Interior’s School for Administrators.

In March authorities in Casablanca refused to register the birth of a girl under an Amazigh name. The incident confirmed complaints of Amazigh NGOs about administrative discrimination. Two cases were filed regarding the incidents by two separate families, and an open letter was written to the head of government. According to the government, as of March 18, the registration for the Amazigh name for one of the two girls named in the two cases fully complied with the law, while it denied claims of a second case.

Amazigh materials were available in news media and, to a much lesser extent, educational institutions. The government provided television programs in the three national Amazigh dialects of Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight. According to regulations, public media are required to dedicate 30 percent of broadcast time to Amazigh language and cultural programming. According to Amazigh organizations, however, only 5 percent of broadcast time was given to Amazigh language and culture.

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, with a maximum sentence of three years in prison for violations. According to a report by the Prosecutor General’s Office released in 2019, the state prosecuted 122 individuals in 2019 for same-sex sexual activity. Media and the public addressed questions of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity more openly than in previous years. According to some human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) victims of violence in high-profile cases from previous years continued to be harassed when recognized in public.

On May 7, two Moroccan journalists based in France posted on social media that a young gay man in Sidi Kacem (a town in the Rabat-Sale-Kenitra region), was arrested on April 10 after he attempted to press defamation charges against an individual who outed him on Facebook. The young man was held in police custody for 48 hours for violating the state of emergency confinement measures, while he claimed he had a permit to leave his residence. On October 6, Sidi Kacem preliminary court sentenced activist and playwright Abdellatif Nhaila to four months’ suspended sentence and 1,000 dirhams ($10) fine for violating the state of emergency confinement measures.

In March and April, a transgender Moroccan LGBTI activist based in Turkey started a campaign encouraging the outing of closeted homosexuals in Morocco. As a result an international warrant for his arrest was issued. The investigation remained underway. The press reported numerous cases of harassment resulting from these outings, and some victims reported receiving death threats.

The AMDH and other individual liberties groups followed suit with a letter condemning the homophobic acts and demanding that authorities arrest those responsible for defamation. As of April 20, LGBTI groups indicated at least 50 individuals were targeted as a result of Instagram live video; of whom an estimated 21 were physically abused or rendered homeless and several others committed suicide.

Antidiscrimination laws do not apply to LGBTI persons, and the penal code does not criminalize hate crimes. There was a stigma against LGBTI persons, including some reports of overt discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and health care.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons with HIV and AIDS faced discrimination and had limited treatment options. The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported that some health-care providers were reluctant to treat persons with HIV and AIDS due to fear of infection. According to UNAIDS, treatment coverage increased from 16 percent in 2010 to 48 percent in 2016, and the National Strategic Plan 2017-2021 commits the country to reduce new infections among key and vulnerable populations, eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV, reduce AIDS-related deaths, confront discrimination, and strengthen governance for an efficient response.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides workers with the rights to form and join unions, strike, and bargain collectively, with some restrictions.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and prohibits companies from dismissing workers for participating in legitimate union-organizing activities. Courts have the authority to reinstate workers dismissed arbitrarily and may enforce rulings that compel employers to pay damages and back pay. Trade unions complained that the government at times used the penal code to prosecute workers for striking and to suppress strikes.

The law prohibits certain categories of government employees, including members of the armed forces, police, and some members of the judiciary, from forming and joining unions and from conducting strikes. The law excludes migrant workers from assuming leadership positions in unions.

The government generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Employers limited the scope of collective bargaining, frequently setting wages unilaterally for most unionized and nonunionized workers. The law allows independent unions to exist but requires 35 percent of the employee base to be associated with a union to permit the union to be represented and engage in collective bargaining. Domestic NGOs reported that employers used temporary contracts to discourage employees from affiliating with or organizing unions. Unions can legally negotiate with the government on national-level labor issues. At the sectoral level, trade unions negotiated with private employers concerning minimum wage, compensation, and other concerns. Labor disputes were common and, in some cases, resulted from employers failing to implement collective bargaining agreements and withholding wages.

The law concerning strikes requires compulsory arbitration of disputes, prohibits sit-ins, and calls for a 10-day notice of a strike. The government may intervene in strikes. A strike may not occur over matters covered in a collective contract for one year after the contract commences. The government has the authority to disperse strikers in public areas not authorized for demonstrations and to prevent the unauthorized occupancy of private space. Unions may neither engage in sabotage nor prevent those individuals who were not on strike from working.

The government did not adequately enforce labor laws, particularly inspections. Inspectors reported that their role as mediators of labor conflicts significantly limited the amount of time they can spend proactively inspecting worksites, and remediating and uncovering violations. Inspectors do not have punitive power and cannot independently levy fines or other punishments. Only action by the public prosecutor that results in a judicial decree, can force an employer to take remedial actions. Penalties were considered insufficient to deter offenses. Enforcement procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Most union federations affiliated with political parties, but unions were generally free from government interference.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and prescribes penalties of a fine for the first offense and a jail term of up to three months for subsequent offenses; these penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for analogous crimes such as kidnapping.

The domestic workers law provides protections to domestic workers, including limits on working hours and a minimum wage. Penalties for violating the law start with a fine and, in cases of repeated offenses, can include one to three months’ imprisonment.

Labor inspectors did not inspect small workshops with fewer than five employees and private homes where many such violations occurred, as the law requires a warrant or permission of the owner to search a private residence. The law establishes a conciliation process for labor inspectors to handle disputes between domestic workers and their employers, but the law lacks time limits for a resolution. Labor inspectors reported their small numbers, scarce resources at their disposal, and the broad geographic dispersion of sites limited their ability to enforce the law effectively.

Reports indicated that forced labor, especially of children, occurred (see section 7.c.).

For more information 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 establishes a minimum age for employment and the government enforced the law. A law passed in 2016 that became effective in 2018 prohibits children younger than age 16 from working as domestic servants and strictly limiting the work of children younger than 18. The overwhelming majority of child laborers worked in rural areas, according to the government’s statistical agency, the High Planning Commission. Punishments for violations of the child labor laws include criminal penalties, civil fines, and withdrawal or suspension of one or more civil, national, or family rights, including denial of legal residence in the country for five to 10 years. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Integration continued to conduct child labor inspections in the formal economy across the country, but the government reported it remained concerned about child labor violations in the informal sector, including potential forced child labor crimes. The government reported that, overall, labor inspections suffered from insufficient personnel and resources to address child labor violations, including potential child trafficking crimes, throughout the country. Furthermore, there was no national focal point to submit complaints about child labor or forced child labor and no national mechanism for referring children found during inspections to appropriate social services.

The labor code does not apply to children who work in the traditional artisan or handicraft sectors for businesses with fewer than five employees or to those who work on private farms or in residences. Some children became apprentices before they were 12, particularly in small, family-run workshops in the handicraft industry and in the construction industry and mechanic shops. Children also worked in hazardous occupations as designated by law (see section 7.e.). These included fishing and, in the informal sector, in textiles, light manufacturing, and traditional handicrafts. Children’s safety, health conditions, and wages were often substandard.

The government adopted Law 51.17, which requires the government to enact compulsory education for children between the ages of four and 16 by 2025, and significantly increased the number of prosecutions related to the worst forms of child labor, from five cases in 2018 to 170 cases in 2019. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 16 in dangerous labor; however, it does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law does not specifically prohibit the use, procuring, or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs. In some cases employers subjected children to the worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children); forced domestic work; and forced labor in the production of artisan products and construction.

Children in Western Sahara engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including agriculture and forced domestic work; they also produced artisanal handicrafts. Laws related to the minimum age for work and the use of children for illicit activities do not meet international standards and government programs that target child labor did not fully address the problem.

The Moroccan government continued to invest in education in Western Sahara through the Tayssir cash assistance program and continued to provide child protection services through the second phase of the National Initiative for Human Development Support Project. Residents of Western Sahara received more assistance per capita from this program than persons living in internationally recognized Morocco.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor code prohibits discrimination against persons in employment and occupation based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, or disability, including physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disability. The law does not address age or pregnancy.

Discrimination occurred in all categories prohibited by law, Women are prohibited from working in occupations that present a risk of excessive danger, exceeds their capacity or is likely to undermine their morality, such as jobs in quarries and underground in mines, or engaging in work that exposes them to the risk of falling or slipping as well as work in a constant squatting or leaning position, work or activities using asbestos and benzene and any other activity exposing them to dangerous chemical agents.

Migrant worker organizations reported that some migrants, particularly those from sub-Saharan African countries, experienced discrimination in hiring, wages, or conditions of employment. These workers often reported employer noncompliance with low or unpaid wages, excessive hours of work, restricted movement, dangerous and difficult work conditions. Even after obtaining a residence card, their vulnerability was reinforced by lack of access to the formal economy, pushing them to the margins of society. Most lived in crowded rooms in dilapidated neighborhoods, while others slept on the streets, in cemeteries, and forests.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage was above the poverty line. The law provides for a 44- to 48-hour maximum workweek with no more than 10 hours work in a single day, premium pay for overtime, paid public and annual holidays, and minimum conditions for health and safety, including limitations on night work for women and minors. The law prohibits excessive overtime. An April 2019 tripartite agreement between the government, employers, and unions stipulated a 10 percent minimum wage increase per month phased into two 5 percent increases. The first occurred in 2019, and the second was planned for July. In a July 27 press release, the General Confederation of Enterprises of Morocco called on companies “in difficulty” to postpone the wage increase to preserve jobs and avoid layoffs and suggested only companies in sectors not affected by the COVID-19 crisis should implement the second 5 percent wage increase.

Occupational health and safety standards, reviewed and enforced by the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Integration, are rudimentary, except for a prohibition on the employment of women and children in certain dangerous occupations. The law prohibits persons younger than age 18 from hazardous work in 33 areas, including working in mines, handling dangerous materials, transporting explosives, and operating heavy machinery.

Many employers did not observe the legal provisions regulating conditions of work. The government did not effectively enforce basic provisions of the labor code, such as payment of the minimum wage and other basic benefits under the National Social Security Fund. The country’s labor inspectors reported that although they attempted to monitor working conditions and investigate accidents, they lacked adequate resources, preventing effective enforcement of labor laws.

There were no major workplace accidents during the year. There were, however, numerous media reports of accidents, sometimes fatal, on construction sites that lacked inadequate safety standards or safety equipment. In the formal sector, workers can remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in such situations.

West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza

Israel

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Palestinian Authority basic law provides for an elected president and legislative council. There have been no national elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006. President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office despite the expiration of his four-year term in 2009. The Palestinian Legislative Council has not functioned since 2007, and in 2018 the Palestinian Authority dissolved the Constitutional Court. In September 2019 and again in September, President Abbas called for the Palestinian Authority to organize elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council within six months, but elections had not taken place as of the end of the year. The Palestinian Authority head of government is Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. President Abbas is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and general commander of the Fatah movement.

Six Palestinian Authority security forces agencies operate in parts of the West Bank. Several are under Palestinian Authority Ministry of Interior operational control and follow the prime minister’s guidance. The Palestinian Civil Police have primary responsibility for civil and community policing. The National Security Force conducts gendarmerie-style security operations in circumstances that exceed the capabilities of the civil police. The Military Intelligence Agency handles intelligence and criminal matters involving Palestinian Authority security forces personnel, including accusations of abuse and corruption. The General Intelligence Service is responsible for external intelligence gathering and operations. The Preventive Security Organization is responsible for internal intelligence gathering and investigations related to internal security cases, including political dissent. The Presidential Guard protects facilities and provides dignitary protection. Palestinian Authority civilian authorities maintained effective control of security forces. Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces reportedly committed abuses.

In Gaza the designated terrorist organization Hamas exercised authority. The security apparatus of Hamas in Gaza largely mirrored that in the West Bank. Internal security included civil police, guards and protection security, an internal intelligence-gathering and investigative entity (similar to the Preventive Security Organization in the West Bank), and civil defense. National security included the national security forces, military justice, military police, medical services, and the prison authority. Hamas maintained a large military wing in Gaza, named the Izz ad-din al-Qassam Brigades. In some instances Hamas utilized the Hamas movement’s military wing to crack down on internal dissent. Hamas security forces reportedly committed numerous abuses.

The government of Israel maintained a West Bank security presence through the Israel Defense Force, the Israeli Security Agency, the Israel National Police, and the Border Guard. Israel maintained effective civilian control of its security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli military and civilian justice systems have on occasion found members of Israeli security forces to have committed abuses.

Oslo Accords-era agreements divide the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Area A. The Palestinian Authority has formal responsibility for security in Area A, but Israeli security forces frequently conducted security operations there. The Palestinian Authority and Israel maintain joint security control of Area B in the West Bank. Israel retains full security control of Area C and has designated most Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas. In May the Palestinian Authority suspended security coordination with Israel to protest Israel’s potential extension of sovereignty into areas of the West Bank. As of November the Palestinian Authority had resumed most security coordination with Israel.

Significant human rights issues included:

1) With respect to the Palestinian Authority: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, torture, and arbitrary detention by authorities; holding political prisoners and detainees; significant 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, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on political participation, as the Palestinian Authority has not held a national election since 2006; acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism in school textbooks; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and reports of forced child labor.

2) With respect to Hamas: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, systematic torture, and arbitrary detention by Hamas officials; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation, as there has been no national election since 2006; acts of corruption; reports of a lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism in school textbooks; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.

3) With respect to Israeli authorities in the West Bank: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings due to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force; reports of torture; reports of arbitrary detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including the requirement of exit permits.

4) With respect to Palestinian civilians: two reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, and violence and threats of violence against Israeli citizens.

5) With respect to Israeli civilians: reports of violence and threats of violence motivated by extremist nationalist sentiment.

In May the Palestinian Authority suspended coordination with Israel and resumed it in November, which dampened impetus for the Palestinian Authority to take steps to address impunity or reduce abuses. There were criticisms that senior officials made comments glorifying violence in some cases and inappropriately influenced investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank took steps to address impunity or reduce abuses, but there were criticisms they did not adequately pursue investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. There were no legal or independent institutions capable of holding Hamas in Gaza accountable, and impunity was widespread. Also in Gaza there are several militant groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with access to heavy weaponry that do not always adhere to Hamas authority.

This section of the report covers the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war. In 2017 the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

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

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

Palestinian civilians killed one Israeli civilian and one Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldier in attacks in the West Bank, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media reports. On December 20, Muhammad Marwah Kabha killed Israeli citizen Esther Horgan near Tal Maneshe, according to multiple media reports. Kabha confessed to scouting the area in advance and killing Horgan, according to media reports. Kabha was in Israeli custody pending trial at the end of the year. On May 12, Palestinian Nizmi Abu Bakar threw a brick off his roof striking IDF soldier Amit Ben Yigal in the head and killing him while the IDF was conducting operations in Area A, according to media reports. In June, Israel indicted Bakar for intentionally causing death. In November, Bakar pleaded not guilty and the defense stated they would work to annul the confession he gave during his interrogation, according to the Israeli government. The case continued at year’s end. In 2019 an improvised explosive device planted outside the West Bank settlement of Dolev detonated and killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb and injured her father and brother, according to media reports and NGOs. In September 2019 Israeli security forces (ISF) arrested three men in connection with the attack allegedly affiliated with the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The case continued at year’s end. In 2018, 17-year-old Palestinian Khalil Jabarin fatally stabbed Ari Fuld at a West Bank shopping mall. In July an Israeli military court in the West Bank sentenced Jabarin to life in prison. The Israeli Security Agency (ISA, or Shin Bet) foiled 423 significant terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the government. The Palestinian Authority (PA) continued to make payments to Palestinians connected to terrorism, including persons convicted of terrorism in Israeli courts serving prison sentences, former prisoners, and the families of those who died committing terrorist attacks. Israel considers these payments to incentivize, encourage, and reward terrorism, with higher monthly payments for lengthier prison sentences tied to more severe crimes.

Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians in the West Bank and one Palestinian in Gaza, some of whom were attempting or allegedly attempting to attack Israelis, according to Israeli NGO B’Tselem. B’Tselem claimed that in at least 11 of those cases the individuals killed did not pose a lethal threat to ISF or civilians at the time they were killed. For example, on February 6, an IDF soldier shot and killed PA police officer Tareq Badwan while Badwan stood outside a police station in Jenin. The PA released security camera video from the police station that showed several uniformed officers standing near the door of the station when one officer suddenly drops to the floor. The Israeli military acknowledged one of its members shot Badwan, according to media reports, and stated it was investigating the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end.

On June 30, Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Iyad Halak, a Palestinian resident with autism, after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to stop. Police stated Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, the Department for Investigation of Police Officers stated that the prosecution intended to indict the police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak did not pose any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the police officer did not take proportionate alternatives that were at his disposal.

On July 9, an IDF soldier shot and killed Ibrahim Abu Ya’qub as he walked with a friend in the village of Kifl Hares, according to a B’Tselem field investigation. The soldiers were in pursuit of two minors who had allegedly thrown a Molotov cocktail at an outpost. They fired several shots at the minors, injuring one, and hit Abu Ya’qub in the back. He died shortly after in a hospital in Salfit. The IDF stated it was investigating the incident and the investigation continued at year’s end.

In March 2019 an IDF soldier shot 17-year-old volunteer medic Sajed Mizher when Israeli forces were involved in clashes with Palestinians in the Deheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem, according to media reports. Mizher later died from his wounds. At the time of his death, Mizher was wearing a reflective vest and paramedic’s service uniform while assisting a Palestinian who had been shot in the leg, according to media reports. A criminal investigation into the incident was completed and was under review by the Military Advocate General (MAG), according to Israeli authorities. In 2018 IDF soldiers shot and killed Muhammad Hossam Habali in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. The IDF claimed it was reacting to a group of rock-throwing Palestinians, but security camera videos compiled by B’Tselem showed Habali walking away from the soldiers when he was killed. At the end of the year, an Israeli military investigation into Habali’s death continued.

Human rights groups alleged the government of Israel used excessive force resulting in the deaths of several Palestinians, including minors, in the West Bank. For example, on December 4, an Israeli soldier shot and killed 15-year-old Palestinian Ali Abu Aliya near Kafr Malik in the central West Bank, according to several human rights groups and media reports. Aliya was reportedly standing approximately 160 yards from a protest in which other residents were throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. According to B’Tselem, Aliya did not take part in the protest and did not present a threat when he was shot. The Israeli Military Police stated it was investigating the incident.

On May 13, an IDF sniper shot and killed 17-year-old Zeid Qaysiyah as he stood with some relatives on the roof of the building where he lived in the al-Fawar refugee camp south of Hebron, according to media reports and B’Tselem. The IDF investigated the incident and submitted its findings to the MAG for examination.

In 2019 Israeli border police shot and killed 15-year-old Abdullah Ghaith as he was approaching a known crossable section of the barrier. The Israeli police stated they were investigating the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end. In 2019 Israeli forces shot and killed Omar Haitham al-Badawi in Hebron, according to the PA Ministry of Health and the IDF. The military police began an investigation after an initial IDF probe found al-Badawi did not present a threat and live ammunition should not have been used.

In 2019 Palestinians in Gaza suspended the “March of Return,” a series of weekly protests along the fence between Gaza and Israel that began in 2018. The protests, which drew thousands of individuals each week, included armed terrorists, militants who launched incendiary devices into Israel, and unarmed protesters. The Israeli government stated that an investigation into the 2018 killing of volunteer medic Razan al-Najjar north of Khuza’ah in Gaza during a Friday protest near the security fence with Israel had been completed and that the findings were under review by the MAG at year’s end.

The Israeli military killed 234 persons during the protests in 2018 and 2019, according to media reports and rights groups, and has launched investigations into 17 of those deaths, most of which continued at year’s end. In June an Israeli soldier who killed a man at the Gaza border fence in 2018 pled guilty to negligence and reckless endangerment and received a suspended sentence and demoted, according to media reports. Several Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups criticized the verdict and lenient sentencing as indicative of the Israeli military’s lack of accountability regarding Palestinian deaths. In January the United Nations noted a “lack of progress and transparency” regarding MAG investigations.

In November, the NGO Yesh Din released a report on the MAG’s Fact Finding Assessment (FFA) Mechanism that was implemented to i