Armenia

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.

Since the 2018 political transition, the media environment has been freer, as some outlets began to step away from the earlier practice of self-censorship; however, there were reports that some outlets avoided criticizing the authorities so as not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” In its final report on the December 2018 elections, the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission stated that while most interlocutors noted improvements in media freedom and an increase in plurality of opinions since April 2018, some also noted that the postrevolutionary public discourse was not conducive to criticism of the government, in particular, the then acting prime minister. Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of arrest. After the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” there were calls for legal measures to address hate speech following incidents of advocacy of violence targeting individuals’ political opinions, religious beliefs, as well as sexual and gender identity.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally 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 continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, replacing one government perspective with another in the aftermath of the political transition. Nonetheless, public television was open and accessible to the opposition as well and covered more diverse topics of public interest than before.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the new 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,” and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government.

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

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most-watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders; it controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating similar to MIS. Internet advertising, although a small segment of the advertising market, increased during the year.

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. Media NGOs advocated for the media sector to be included as a priority sector in the action plan and proposed changes to the Law on Television and Radio that fostered media 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. The stations did not receive government licenses to transmit digitally via the single state-owned multiplex following the 2016 national switch to digital broadcasting, and they continued to transmit via the unsupported analog broadcasting system. The heavy cost of starting and maintaining a private multiplex (which could ensure the continuity of those stations) resulted in three unsuccessful tenders with no applicants since the 2016 switchover. As a result, on January 31, the government decided to shut down “Shirak” Public Television, claiming that the station’s analog broadcast was unable to attract a wide audience and that the transfer of the station to a digital broadcast would require significant financial investment, which the government was unable to make. Media watchdogs criticized the decision and urged the government to change legislation to encourage the entrance of private multiplexers into the country and end the state’s monopoly on digital broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported three cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. Two reporters were attacked by employees of cafes that were being dismantled by Yerevan City Hall in a crackdown against illegal buildings. No criminal charges were filed. In the third case, the bodyguard of former NSS chief Artur Vanetsyan pushed a reporter to the ground.

On February 27, the Kotayk region trial court acquitted Kotayk police department head Arsen Arzumanyan, who had been charged with abuse of office and preventing the professional activities of journalist Tirayr Muradyan in April 2018. On June 5, in answer to an appeal of the acquittal, the Criminal Appeals Court found Arzumanyan guilty and fined him 500,000 drams ($1,000).

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts raised concerns regarding the unprecedented number of libel and defamation cases launched against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 83 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year, placing a significant financial burden on media outlets.

National Security: According to media experts there was a dramatic increase in false news stories and the spread of disinformation regarding social networks and media during the year. The government claimed that former government representatives, who reportedly owned most media–including television stations with nationwide coverage–used media outlets to manipulate public opinion against authorities.

On April 4, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the NSS to crack down on anyone using mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.” Media experts, including some who said there was a need to address fake news and hate speech, criticized the prime minister’s instructions as an attempt to silence free speech. On April 9, the NSS reported the arrest of a person who administered a Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated with the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party. The page spread fake news stories and incited violence, including against members of religious minorities. Although the NSS had investigated the Facebook account on charges of incitement of religious hatred since fall 2018, an arrest was made on this charge only after the prime minister’s April 4 instructions.

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.

In May, Facebook suspended the accounts of several prominent civil society activists for several weeks. A Facebook account called Digital Granate Civil Initiative ultimately took responsibility for blocking the activists, asserting it sought to “[clean] the internet” of civil society activists, including “foreign agents,” “corrupt politicians,” and members of the LGBTI community. Local digital media experts reinstated the blocked accounts with the help of an international digital rights group, although those behind the campaign to block the accounts remained unknown.

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

The government expressly supported academic freedom and took measures to depoliticize academia, including the appointment of new boards of trustees of public universities. Under pressure from the public and the government for corruption as well as their lack of support for democratic reforms, several rectors, openly or allegedly affiliated with the previous regime, resigned. This included Aram Simonyan, rector of Yerevan State University, the country’s oldest academic institution. Simonyan, a member of the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia, resigned following months of a very public and controversial standoff with the minister of education, science, culture, and sports.

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.

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly. Following the spring 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government generally respected this right.

According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2018 through June, freedom of assembly improved after the political changes of spring 2018, resulting in more assemblies held during the year. The report also noted that police methods had become more restrained. The most significant problems observed related to rally participants’ and organizers’ use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.

On August 19, however, police removed peaceful rally participants from a major street in downtown Yerevan and relocated them to a nearby sidewalk. They had been protesting the exploitation of a mine in Jermuk. An August 20 statement from Transparency International Anticorruption Center and other NGOs assessed the incident as the most serious violation of the right to assembly since the 2018 revolution. According to the statement, police used force and arbitrary detention to remove the protesters standing on Baghramyan Avenue from the lanes of traffic, after the protesters were denied access to the grounds around the parliament, which had previously been open to the public. The statement averred that as a result of police actions several persons required medical attention, one in a hospital. On August 20, police asserted that the physical force used was proportionate to the situation.

The government continued to seek accountability for cases of disproportionate force used against protesters by police during the largely peaceful events of April 2018. As a result of two official investigations into police conduct, two police officers were reprimanded. On August 9, however, the government suspended a criminal case that had merged multiple episodes of police violence into a single case after investigators, who had identified 55 victims, interrogated 200 persons, reviewed video recordings, and conducted forensic examinations, stated they were unable to identify the perpetrators. Several other officers charged with abuse of power for their role in using flash grenades were included in an amnesty granted in October 2018. The trial of former chief of internal police troops Levon Yeranosyan, charged with exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences, continued. The trial in another case, involving Masis mayor Davit Hambardzumyan and seven others, charged with attacking protesters in April 2018, also continued. As a result of seven lawsuits, an investigation was underway into alleged police interference with freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, medical assistance rights, nondiscrimination, and freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. The Law on Public Organizations limited 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, and the government generally respected these rights.

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 1988-1994 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have IDP-specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

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.

In the first nine months of the year, 15 foreigners were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air, a decrease from 28 in the first nine months of 2018. 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.

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.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Three years of legal residence in the country is required for naturalization of refugees who are not ethnic Armenians.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in capacity of eligibility officers. Enhanced capacity of the judiciary resulted in an increased number of overruled State Migration Service (SMS) decisions on asylum applications. Following a 2018 administrative court judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq, the applicants were required to start the asylum process again. In general the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than before 2018.

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 naturalized refugees.

While the overall 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.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. 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.

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. On November 21, the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing to 112 refugee families who fled from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to official data, as of November 1, there were 929 stateless persons in the country, an increase from 801 in October 2018. The increase was believed to be related to the rising number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. In addition authorities 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.

Recent Elections: In December 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 parliament; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE/ODIHR December 2018 preliminary and March 7 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.

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

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities 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. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in October 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the December 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 the parliament, as 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 observed. Some women candidates were a target of disparaging rhetoric because of their gender.

There are government-mandated seats in the 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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes applied 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. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence. On October 10, the government approved a decision to create a centralized database for registering domestic violence cases.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in such cases and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to some NGO representatives, women alleging they had been raped were sometimes questioned concerning previous sexual experiences and subjected to a “virginity test.” In a few cases, if the rape victim was not a virgin, police dismissed the allegation. 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 field work to address these crimes.

Following a June report published by the independent Hetq.am about a Czech woman who was sexually assaulted while in the country, independent journalist Lucy Kocharyan began posting anonymous stories of sexual violence survivors on Facebook that quickly went viral. The stories, sent to Kocharyan in private messages from real accounts, related cases of sexual harassment, rape, and molestation affecting men and women in both rural and urban settings, many of which had occurred when the victims were children. On July 6, police announced they could only look into reports that were specific and that they would need the victims to come forward to testify.

On May 9, police reported the death of Mariam Asatryan of Shahumyan village. According to the police report, Asatryan, who was pregnant at the time, was beaten to death with a rubber pipe and a wrench. The suspect detained for the killing, Hakob Ohanyan, was Asatryan’s partner; media outlets reported he had subjected Asatryan to violence for two years. She had sought assistance from the Women’s Support Center twice, initially after beatings causing a broken arm and many other injuries, and a second time after suffering two broken hands and additional injuries. She reported the crimes to police and was provided shelter. After Ohanyan reportedly intimidated her, however, she withdrew her complaints and law enforcement authorities dropped the case.

Activists and NGOs that promoted women’s rights and equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” In one case women’s rights activist and Women’s Resource Center (WRC) chairperson Lara Aharonyan became the target of an online hate campaign after giving a March 8 speech at a civil society-parliament event on gender equality. On March 11, after she and her family received threats that they would be raped and killed, Aharonyan asked police to investigate the threats. Police launched an investigation but suspended it pending a response to an international request to identify the internet protocol addresses of the anonymous users who made the threats. In a second case, the staff of the WRC Sexual Assault Crisis Center (SACC) also faced threats during the time leading up to and after the May 4 presentation of a book, My Body is Private, aimed at educating parents and children against sexual abuse. Nationalists ambushed the book presentation and threw eggs at organizers. They later terrorized SACC staff by calling their hotline and threatening to kill, rape, and burn them, causing the SACC to temporarily halt its activities. Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan–the only female cabinet member–condemned the incident, and then became a target of gender-based hate speech herself. Police refused to launch a criminal case, claiming lack of elements of a crime.

In July 2018 the 2017 Law on Prevention of Family Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Family Violence, and the Restoration of Family Cohesion went into effect. According to NGOs, the government lacked resources for the full implementation of the law. On October 1, Aravot.am online and daily published the account of a domestic violence victim who described as life-saving police actions removing her from an abusive family and credited the 2017 law as the basis for police intervention.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. 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.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

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 and employment. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government.

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.

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 112 to 100 in 2018. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country.

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 registered births occurred mainly 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. According to the Statistical Committee, in 2018 nationwide gross preschool enrollment (of children up to age five) was 30.9 percent, including 36.6 percent in urban communities and 20.6 percent in rural communities. While there was some increase in rural enrollment, many remote rural communities, especially those with populations less than 400, did not have preschools. 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. UNICEF expressed concern regarding the integration into the local community of an increasing number of refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine because of lack of proper support for addressing cultural and linguistic barriers.

A 2018 research project carried out by the NGO Bridge of Hope in collaboration with Enabling Education Network and OSF-Armenia’s Early Childhood Program identified difficulties in the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs through different educational levels as well as from home to schooling and from school to independent living. According to the researchers, “the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs to high school or to a vocational education setting is particularly challenging, especially in remote areas. Many high schools and vocational institutions reported being unable to offer options to children with disabilities and special education needs due to limited funding and a lack of specialists to advise and support the teachers and learners. This means children with disabilities and special education needs often end their education at ages 15 or 16, without having the possibility of obtaining specific skills for entering the labor market and thus living independently.”

In a March 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 of them.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, despite insufficient official data on violence against children and gaps in legislation and practice. The Council of Justice for Children under the Ministry of Justice served as a multistakeholder platform to discuss and devise a multisectoral and coordinated national action plan for the next three to five years. The law on prevention of violence within the family covered child victims of domestic violence, envisaging cooperation between police and social services in response to cases of domestic violence. While police began implementing the law in June 2018 through the application of protection measures, services available to victims and perpetrators alike were insufficient and did not cover the entire territory of the country, making the social services’ response to domestic violence ineffective.

Along with other internal reforms, in September the Investigative Committee expanded the responsibilities of its department investigating human and drug trafficking cases to cover investigating human trafficking, child sexual assault, and drug trafficking crimes. In April the Investigative Committee began receiving reports from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on potential cyber violence against minors, based on data generated from Armenian internet addresses.

On March 4, the Ombudsman’s Office published the preliminary results of monitoring visits to eight special schools and one night-care institution, noting the office had registered children that had no legal basis for being in the institutions, violence between and toward children, labor exploitation, and other violations. The government’s deinstitutionalization program was designed to address this issue. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced a call to establish 30 day-care centers throughout the country to provide support to children who have returned to their families.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly more frequent within Yezidi communities, but the government took no measures to document the scale 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 of child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

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: In 2017 the family code was amended to allow for more family-based alternatives for institutionalized children, such as diversification of foster care and improved provisions on adoption; the amendments entered into force in the middle of 2018, resulting in a quadrupling in state funding for foster care. Transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care also continued. Except for children with disabilities, the number of institutionalized children continued to decrease.

The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in residential care from 2,900 in January 2018 to 2,400 in December 2018. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while smaller numbers were provided with alternative family and community-based options. The government continued support for the development of foster care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families funded by the state–which had been stable for more than 10 years–increased from 25 to 45 (as of August).

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.

On November 14, the NSS announced that 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.

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. As of early December, no anti-Semitic acts had been reported during the year, although some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media, smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not condemn such anti-Semitic comments.

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

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 deterred persons with disabilities from voting, since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections.

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 on the ground 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 revised funding formula covered teaching assistants’ salaries but not reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities. Inclusive teacher education programs were largely donor funded, did not equip teachers to permanently change their practices, and were not incorporated into state teacher education policy. As a result in a majority of cases, children with disabilities were physically present in integrated classrooms but did not have the tools to participate fully in learning.

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, due to their gender.

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

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Since the 2018 political transition, the ministry has been in the process of internal restructuring to optimize the use of its resources to address the needs of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups more effectively. While the process was not finalized as of mid-December, budget reallocations had already resulted in providing more resources for persons with disabilities. For example, on August 15, the ministry announced it was able to procure 1,253 pieces of additional equipment for persons with disabilities. During the year issues of physical accessibility became part of broader public debates, for example, the public discussion of the development of a new transportation system for the capital.

During the year the Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs and Health and the charitable NGO Bari Mama signed a memorandum of cooperation to prevent abandonment and institutionalization of children with disabilities and to provide for the right of a child to live in a family, with a view to strengthening the capacities of social service professionals (neonatologists, nurses, social workers, caregivers, etc.) and improving families’ abilities to care for children with disabilities at home. UNICEF supported the process through capacity development and awareness raising.

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, supporters of the former government in particular, 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.

Throughout November, after it became known that the government had cofunded a documentary regarding the life of transgender weightlifting champion Mel Daluzyan, the government and Daluzyan, who lived in the Netherlands, came under significant media attack. On November 13, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan condemned the hateful rhetoric against Daluzyan in an address to the National Assembly.

During the first half of the year, the human rights NGO PINK documented 24 cases of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as compared with 25 such cases reported throughout 2018. During the first half of the year, PINK also documented seven cases of violence and threats.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates used anti-LGBTI slurs as they forcefully disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan that they called feminist, satanic, and perverse (see section 6, Other Societal Violence or Discrimination).

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.

During April 5 public hearings before parliament on the UN Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights situation, Lilit Martirosyan, the chairperson of the NGO Right Side and an activist for transsexual persons, addressed hate crimes committed against transgender persons. In reaction, hearing organizer Naira Zohrabyan, a Prosperous Armenia (PA) Party member of parliament and head of the Standing Committee on Protection of Human Rights and Public Affairs, declared that the speech was out of line with the hearing agenda and asked Martirosyan to leave the hall. Zohrabyan, who later came under attack for allowing Martirosyan to “desecrate” parliament with her presence, declared that the speech was a provocation and that she considered it a great insult to parliamentarians. Other parliamentarians made similar and stronger homophobic remarks during the following days. For example, PA Party parliamentarian Vardan Ghukasyan stated such individuals should be burned, while another PA member of parliament, Gevorg Petrosyan, publicly committed to fighting “sexually deviant” persons. On social media, some users called for the physical extermination of LGBTI individuals, and there were small protests around the parliament building. After an individual posted Martirosyan’s home address on Facebook, protests around her building forced her to remain in hiding in her apartment for days. She applied for and received police protection and noted law enforcement bodies were very supportive.

The 2018 case against a transgender person on charges of hooliganism (punishable if convicted by up to seven years in prison) continued. The transgender person remained in pretrial detention for more than a year while her health deteriorated. On August 1, the trial court judge denied a motion to modify the detention. The criminal case filed against police for allegedly torturing the defendant during her arrest was dropped, citing the absence of a crime.

During the year PINK appealed a December 2018 court decision to drop the criminal case against the perpetrators of an attack by Shurnukh village residents on LGBTI activists in August 2018. In February the trial court of Syunik region granted the appeal, and on October 25, the prosecutor’s office sent the case for further investigation to the regional branch of the investigative committee.

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.

On March 25, 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.

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 August 14, the local NGO Real World, Real People reported the case of a clinic in the Shirak region that refused to register a pregnant woman who was HIV positive. According to a June 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 living with HIV/AIDS. According to Real World, Real People, women living with HIV/AIDs faced double discrimination and were more at risk of becoming the subject of physical and psychological violence in their families.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan aimed at challenging views of appropriate female behavior in public. The project was implemented with the support of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport and had received permission from municipal authorities to use a public venue. The protesters disrupted both the dress rehearsal on November 1 and the performance the following day. They called the performance feminist, satanic, and perverse, used anti-LGBTI slurs, cut off the electricity to the show’s equipment, played loud traditional music, and pushed the dancers around. Police detained one of the protesters.

Azerbaijan

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, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli (see section 1.e. and the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on June 12, the State Security Service arrested the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com websites, Polad Aslanov, on charges of treason. 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. Aslanov remained in the pretrial detention facility of the State Security Service at year’s end.

Other such examples included opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Bakhishli was arrested in May 2018 four days after giving a speech holding President Aliyev responsible for journalist Elmar Huseynov’s 2005 killing. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2018 for alleged blackmail and extortion. On June 3, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years.

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 June 25, opposition Popular Front Party member Eldaniz Agayev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after criticizing the government in social media. Authorities also attempted to impede criticism by opening disciplinary proceedings against lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with the media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted on July 12.

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. The 2019 International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index stated that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Journalists reported that, following their coverage of the October 19 police operation, they were summoned to police precincts. Not all journalists responded to the summons, but those who did noted they were intimidated and made to justify their coverage before being released.

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, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: Sometimes police used force against journalists and prevented their professional activities. According to the Index on Censorship project, at least three journalists sustained minor injuries from police during an attempted unsanctioned opposition rally in downtown Baku on October 19, and one journalist, Nurlan Gahramanli, was beaten by officers in a police car after being detained.

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

Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to effectively investigate the high-profile killings of journalists in 2015 (Rasim Aliyev), 2011 (Rafiq Tagi), and 2005 (Elmar Huseynov).

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On February 25, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes conditionally sentenced the editor in chief of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, to five and one-half years in prison with two years’ probation on charges of calls against the state, abuse of power, and forgery after republishing articles covering the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. On March 18, Criminal.az editor Anar Mammadov received the same sentence. Both journalists asserted the charges against them were false and meant to intimidate them and others from independent journalistic activity.

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

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 required 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 and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. The law imposes a fine for libel of 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880); the fine for slander is 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($590 to $1,180). Insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country and forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply.

The 2019 IREX Media Sustainability Index reported that in 2018 the number of blocked websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of 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.

Activists asserted authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs. For example, on April 21, progovernment REAL TV threatened to release intimate photographs of expatriate journalist Sevinj Osmangizi unless she stopped her online television program. Osmangizi also stated that the government intercepted her digital communications with other Azerbaijani expatriates. Activists and journalists also suspected the government was behind the hacking of social media accounts. On January 20, the Facebook page of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was hacked and all posts since 2017 were deleted. In November hackers took control of National Council member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook account for the second time since June 2018, blocking more than 30,000 of her followers. Following both hacks, Hajibeyli lost 130,000 of her 200,000 followers.

On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes charged the editor of the realliq.info website, Ikram Rahimov, with extortion of money and sentenced him to five years and six months in prison. Rahimov stated the case was punishment for his public criticism of then presidential assistant Ali Hasanov.

The government required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.

There were strong indicators 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.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report covering the period from June 2018 through May showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. As a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” The report stated that the government blocked access to additional news websites and intensified cyberattacks against activists and journalists; and prosecuted online journalists and ordinary social media users, while noting the release of some who had been incarcerated in connection with their online activities.

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.

The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. 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 fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($295 to $590) and punishment of 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. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.

Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in up to 30 days of administrative detention. For example, following an approved opposition-planned rally in support of the release of blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on January 19, authorities detained and sentenced 31 individuals to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days for participating in the planning and execution of the event. Activists asserted the authorities illegally identified thousands of rally participants through facial recognition software and private cell phone data that police then used to threaten them not to associate with the political opposition.

Following the January 19 rally, authorities denied all opposition applications for public demonstrations until September 26, when the Baku mayor’s office authorized a rally in Lokbatan, a site located on the outskirts of the city and unreachable by mass transit. The Baku mayor’s office then allowed the opposition to conduct a “picket” in front of its building on October 8 to protest the unsuitability of the Lokbatan site. Police dispersed the picket when more people than expected showed up to observe.

Opposition leaders called for an unsanctioned October 19 demonstration in the Baku city center after their application was again approved only for the remote Lokbatan site. In response authorities launched a massive police operation to prevent the demonstration, during which the internet was turned off in much of Baku and a large segment of the city center was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Media outlets showed numerous examples of police detaining individuals who were not engaged in protest activity as well as examples of police punching, kicking, and committing other abuses on individuals who were already subdued. Opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli was violently taken into custody. He later reported he was placed in a bus where he was severely beaten by police who were seeking to record a video of him apologizing for political activities, and subsequently choked and beaten unconscious while in police custody. Opposition National Council of Democratic Forces board member Tofig Yagoblu was also taken into custody and sentenced to administrative detention. His family members reported that, after being taken to a Baku police station, he was similarly brutally beaten by police officers who also sought to record him repudiating the opposition. He reportedly suffered a broken rib during his beating. In a November 7 appeal, 21 civil society representatives called on the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT to investigate these and other cases of what they described as politically motivated torture. At least 100 individuals were detained during the October 19 operation, approximately 40 of whom were sentenced to administrative detention.

Opposition leaders again applied for permission to hold a rally on November 2 and again received permission only for the Lokbatan site. After initially calling for members to again attempt to gather in the city center, they canceled the unauthorized rally after credible threats of a higher level of police violence. Earlier that week the progovernment media outlet haqqin.az published an article stating the police would show less restraint than on October 19, and the nationalist “self-sacrificer” group, headed by Fuad Muradov and reputed to have close links to security services, called opposition leaders and threatened the life of Ali Kerimli should the demonstration occur.

Police summoned more than 100 members of the opposition Musavat Party around the country to police stations and warned them not to participate in a planned unsanctioned picket scheduled for November 12 in front of the Baku Executive Authority. On November 12, police prevented the picket from taking place, including by deploying large numbers of officers blocking roads and detaining dozens of party members who attempted to assemble. The government released those who had tried to gather after several hours, with the exception of one organizer who was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.

The government also disrupted events organized by opposition groups. For example, on June 28, police interrupted a fundraising event organized to pay fines for opposition activists at the Baku office of the Musavat Party. Police took Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli into custody from the event and took him to the Binagadi Police Station, where he was warned and then released.

Police also restricted freedom of assembly for events not associated with the opposition. For example, on March 8 and October 20, Baku police roughly dispersed women who had gathered to protest violence against women.

On September 10, Baku municipal authorities announced the closure of Mehsul Stadium, the only location in recent years the government had approved for public demonstrations by the political opposition, for renovation and repurposing as a fitness park. Opposition activists and others stated the project was a pretext for further restrictions on freedom of assembly.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended 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 the ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

In 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. Under the procedures, grant registration processes for multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities that authorize it to conduct inspections of NGOs with few provisions protecting their rights and provide the potential of harsh 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. As a result, the bank accounts of the American Bar Association, IREX, and Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen and the organizations were unable to operate.

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 they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to 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, one foreign NGO had been able to register under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on applications they submitted, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues 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/religiousfreedomreport/.

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.

Foreign Travel: While authorities lifted the travel bans of several opposition figures, lawyers, and journalists during the year, travel bans on others remained. Those whose travel bans were lifted included opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, former REAL Party Assembly head Azer Gasimli, 11 freelance journalists who worked with Meydan TV, and human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Emin Aslan.

Authorities continued, however, to prevent a number of other opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu, 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 but given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.

The government reported 651,458 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). 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 stated the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.

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

Refoulement: There were no reports of refoulement, unlike in 2018, when the press reported that Turkish citizens were transferred without due process from Azerbaijan to Turkey, where they were detained by Turkish authorities who alleged they were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

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 all 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 1,120 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 IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

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

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, 291 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.

For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement within the country. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted to Azerbaijan if they left the country. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, 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 95 persons of citizenship. In October 2018 the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

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 interfering in the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Recent Elections: In February 2018 the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October to April 2018. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (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 ODIHR concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in the 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.

The OSCE/ODIHR canceled its observation of the 2015 National Assembly elections when the government refused to accept its recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The country’s main opposition parties boycotted the election.

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 stuffing, carousel voting, and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. They also observed significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: While there were 55 registered political parties, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The National Assembly has not included representatives of the country’s main opposition parties since 2010.

The government signaled no change in its unofficial policy of preventing opposition groups from registering as political parties. In April 2018 the Republican Alternative Movement held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party. The group acknowledged the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration, but stated it had no choice after the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group.

Opposition members were 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). Human rights defenders estimated that the country’s courts sentenced activists of the Popular Front Party to periods of administrative detention 100 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, at least seven opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Fuad Ahmadli, Mirfeyzulla Seyidov, Babek Hasanov, Agil Mahrramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, and Pasha Umudov.

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.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit 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, a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 16.8 percent of members of the National Assembly were women.

Women in opposition political parties often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, National Council of Democratic Forces board member Gultekin Hajibeyli stated authorities instigated a trumped-up civil suit against her and posted her contact information on websites known to facilitate prostitution after an attempted October 19 demonstration in an effort to shame her and her family members.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and 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 the 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, occasionally resulting in the murder of women by their husbands. For example, media outlets reported that on July 27, Shahriyar Aslanov killed his wife in the city of Imishli. While Aslanov was arrested, activists asserted that police intervention after earlier episodes of domestic violence would have prevented the killing. On March 8, Baku police did not allow a rally against domestic violence (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly).

The State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (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. For example, on May 23, the SCFWCA and the UN Population Fund presented a joint report on the economic implications of violence against women in the country. The government also provided limited protection to women who were victims of assault. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment. In one case the State Border Service relieved Lieutenant Farid Azizli of his assignment and placed him under investigation following his accusation against a State Border Service colonel of sexual harassment. Azizli reiterated his claim publicly, stating in a YouTube post that he stood behind his claims even after the Border Service had found no wrongdoing in an internal probe.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Although women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal and employment-based discrimination was 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 first 11 months of the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the State Statistics Committee. 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 the problem.

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 was compulsory, free, and universal until the age of 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: While there are penalties for sexual violence against children and child labor, the law does assign punishment for domestic and other violence specifically against children. To address the problem of child abuse, the SCFWCA organized multiple events. For example, it held meetings with public servants on combatting gender discrimination and child abuse in Baku, Goranboy, Ujar, and Barda.

Activists reported the Ministry of Education did not effectively address the growing problem of bullying and cyberbullying in schools. On April 3, 14-year-old Elina Hajiyeva committed suicide after being bullied by both students and teachers. According to the media, school administrators initially attempted to cover up the incident, including by not immediately calling an ambulance. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case and put the school principal under house arrest. On October 24, the Sabayil District Court sentenced the principal to two years and two weeks in prison and ordered her to pay 18,500 manat ($10,900) compensation to the mother of Elina Hajiyeva.

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 law provides that a girl may marry at the age of 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at the age of 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam. In July and August, media outlets reported on the suicide of a 17-year-old girl in Zagatala after her family forced her to marry an older man.

In April the SCFWCA organized awareness-raising events on prevention of early marriages in Sumgayit, Masalli, and Absheron.

The law establishes fines of 3,000 to 4,000 manat ($1,770 to $2,360) 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: 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, distribution, or advertisement is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

Law enforcement agencies prosecuted cases of sexual violence against children. For example, on July 26, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Prosecutor General’s Office announced the arrest of Elsavar Malikov in Baku for sexual acts against minors.

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. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

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.

The country’s Jewish community was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. In May 2018 parliament adopted the “Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” which calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. A local NGO reported there were approximately 60,000 children with disabilities in the country, of whom 6,000 to 10,000 had access to specialized 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 regular classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

No laws mandate access to public or other buildings, information, or communications for persons with disabilities, and most buildings were not accessible. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

During the year the government continued funding construction projects to make large sections of downtown Baku’s sidewalks wheelchair accessible.

Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. 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.

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

In February the ECHR began a formal inquiry 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 about 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.

On April 1 and 2, police detained at least 14 transgender sex workers and forced them to undergo medical examinations. Authorities fined some and sentenced others to 10 or 15 days of administrative detention on charges of minor hooliganism. Following international outcry, the Baku Court of Appeals released those in detention on April 5.

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 gay 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 being held against their will. Hate speech against LGBTI persons and hostile Facebook postings on personal online accounts also continued.

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 investigating crimes committed against LGBTI individuals.

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 issues affecting the LGBTI community.

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